Robert P. ImbelliSeptember 15, 2003
A People Adriftby By Peter SteinfelsSimon & Schuster. 392p $26

Cardinal Walter Kasper never tires of reminding his hearers that “crisis” entails both “peril” and “possibility.” It may lead to shipwreck, but also to new shores. The outcome of a situation of crisis, like that which faces the Catholic Church in the United States today, will depend on the discernment, courage and faithful perseverance of its members: lay people, priests and bishops alike. But the indispensable starting point for discernment must be willingness to see the reality. Any genuine response presumes careful attention to the data and the ability to raise the relevant questions. Precooked data or prepackaged responses only reinforce the partisan warfare that has plagued American Catholicism for all too many years.

The great merit of these books, the wonderful service their authors provide the church in the United States, is their resolute and unbiased marshaling of data, joined with their refusal to caricature legitimate concerns or dismiss, with facile labels, differing viewpoints. Neither fears to admit that there is much we still do not know about issues of sexual abuse of minors, whether in church or society, about financial costs to dioceses and about the extent and the causes of episcopal failure.

But though the sexual abuse scandal may have precipitated the current crisis, the scope of both books is much wider. For the sense of drift in American Catholicism antedated the recent revelations in Boston and elsewhere. In many ways, the Second Vatican Council, that epochal event now 40 years in the past, decisively altered Roman Catholicism’s self-understanding. In particular, the dignity and responsibility of the laity in the church received unprecedented affirmation. And the consequences are still being argued over and painfully worked out. Both A People Adrift and The Coming Catholic Church grapple with the legacy of the council, and both are aware that its reception was immensely complicated by the cultural upheavals of the late 1960’s and 70’s.

Steinfels and Gibson are, then, latter-day Virgils guiding the perplexed through a dark wood. Both are primarily journalists, who possess a keen eye for facts and concrete details and write crisp, uncluttered prose. Unlike many of their colleagues in journalism, however, both are well tutored about the church and its distinctive tradition. In addition, both have a rare ability to discern patterns among the data and to weigh proposals discriminately. All in all, theirs is journalism of a high order. Remarkably, these are also guides whose competence is wed to commitment: they are passionate for the church and its future flourishing.

Each, to be sure, brings distinctive sensitivities and perspectives that enrich and distinguish their books. Peter Steinfels emerges from the vibrant local church that was Chicago in the 1950’s. Son of “Commonweal Catholics” and editor of the student newspaper at Loyola University in Chicago, he was almost predestined to become himself editor of Commonweal and religion columnist for The New York Times. The evocation of the funeral of Chicago’s Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, with which his book opens, is memorable for its vivid sense of place as well as its poignancy.

David Gibson converted to Catholicism at age 30, after several years’ employment with Vatican Radio. He ruefully confesses: “Whether my conversion came because I was working at the Vatican or despite it, I am still working out.” Gibson’s book is more leisurely, at times meandering in style. He offers digressions into the history of the church and its institutions that provide helpful perspective, but can also distract. The book is replete with provocative quotations from a variety of sources: they tantalize by their suggestiveness but are too often left undeveloped.

Tellingly, Steinfels begins his book with a chapter entitled “The Battle for Common Ground.” In it he describes the project launched by Cardinal Bernardin in 1996 to address the increasing polarization in the Catholic Church in the United States and to promote dialogue among diverse views. The founding document of this Catholic Common Ground Initiative bore the prescient title, “Called to Be Catholic: Church in a Time of Peril.” This was six years before the annus horribiis of 2002.

In one of the supreme ironies of recent Catholic history, Bernardin’s initiative was severely attacked by an influential group of American cardinals, led by none other than Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston. They feared Bernardin’s undertaking could compromise core Catholic teaching and, though unwittingly, support the relativism that infects American culture. One can see Steinfels, as he recalls these happenings, shaking his head in disbelief at the spectacle of senior church leaders “tensed to think the worst, ready to perceive a doctrinally cautious appeal for dialogue as a subversive act.”

In many respects, Steinfels’s book explores in some depth topics identified by “Called to Be Catholic” as among the most pressing. Thus, after a nuanced examination of the “Scandal,” he treats major neuralgic concerns, such as the church’s role in society, Catholic institutions and Catholic identity, passing on the faith, and sexuality and the role of women in the church. Each treatment is deeply informed, fair-minded and willing to take a stand and make pertinent suggestions. I would, for example, urge boards of trustees of Catholic colleges and universities to dedicate a meeting to discuss at length the chapter on “Catholic Institutions and Catholic Identity.”

Woven through all Steinfels’s discussion is a twofold conviction. First, the “narratives”—reactionary, conservative, liberal, radical—that have been in place since Vatican II and have polarized debate have themselves become exhausted. “It is time to cease forcing the data into simplified, partisan accounts, time to relax and expand the framing narratives to accommodate almost four decades of further experience.”

Second, to accomplish this and to meet the real ecclesial exigencies of the 21st century will require persuasive and bold leadership. It is the failure and paralysis of leadership that most disturbs Steinfels as he reviews not only the sexual abuse crisis, but also the entire Catholic scene in the United States. What he says in concluding his chapter on “The Scandal” will become a leitmotif of the entire book. “But the underlying problem was not bad leaders. It was a vacuum of leadership, and it would manifest itself in area after area, from the church’s public role to its internal reform.” Hence, the final chapter of A People Adrift, “At the Helm,” recapitulates and expands upon this fundamental persuasion.

Certainly the bishops, because of their singular role in Catholicism, have a prime responsibility for leadership and are often most culpable in failing to exercise it. But at a time of growing lay involvement and leadership at various levels in the church, the need to engage in creative and responsible leadership is incumbent upon many: from Catholic college presidents to Catholic politicians, from religious educators to parish council members. Not surprisingly, the Bernardin approach—collegial, consultative and mediating—models the style of leadership most needed.

Steinfels’s injunctions here are as pointed as they are commonsensical. On the one hand, he writes, “Laity at the parish and diocesan level must avail themselves of all the advisory councils now called for—and invent new mechanisms for informal or formal accountability.” Reciprocally, “The liturgical and catechetical establishments and the guild of academic theologians, which have generally assumed the defense of innovation while leaving the task of protecting continuity to the hierarchy, will have to broaden their own sense of responsibility for the whole Catholic tradition.” How refreshing to witness this move beyond the tired antinomies of liberal and conservative and glimpse the emergence of a new and more comprehensive framework that seeks to do justice to all legitimate concerns.

David Gibson’s book, though differently structured, draws upon similar material and offers proposals quite congruent with Steinfels’s own. Gibson organizes his book in terms of the “three estates” of the church: the laity, the priesthood and the hierarchy. Once again, the sexual abuse scandal serves as point of departure, but the issues confronting the church in the United States far transcend what has dominated the media’s appetite for the sensational. At stake is the shape of the church to come.

Gibson shows considerable nuance in his assessment of the challenge and risk that laity, priests and bishops face in common. He asks: “How can the Catholic Church, under the fierce pressures of scandal and disillusionment and activism, change without conforming to the punch-stamp religious template that is making American Christianity about as differentiated as a string of Gap franchises? How can Catholics resolve their identity crisis without compromising their identity?”

Throughout The Coming Catholic Church the author’s analysis and recommendations are governed by a commitment to patient engagement with the church’s tradition, as well as realistic appraisal of the pastoral situation to which that tradition must minister. Gibson identifies three areas of church governance that seem most amenable to creative attention and change: transparency in financial affairs, accountability for personnel policies and decisions, and participation in the selection of bishops.

Change in these matters does not require the acumen of the rocket scientist; nor is it hostile to the tradition of the church. Precedents abound, beginning with Cyprian of Carthage’s assertion that his practice was never to make a decision without consulting his priests and deacons and gaining the approbation of his people. But perhaps one need only cite John Paul II, who in Novo Millennio Ineunte makes his own the counsel of St. Benedict that the abbot consult all the members of the community, paying particular heed to the young (N.M.I., No. 45).

The strength of these two books, then, is their unapologetic focus upon the pastoral-practical, indeed the institutional dimension of church. Steinfels underscores a defining trait of Catholic ecclesiology when he writes, “Despite the tendency of people to speak, usually dismissively, of the ‘institutional church,’ there is simply no church that is not institutional.” Gibson insists that the crisis is one of “governance rather than a crisis of faith.” (I cannot but wonder, however, whether it is not both.)

These books gain added substance because the authors recognize that issues of supreme spiritual import are at stake. Again, Steinfels is more explicit. He acknowledges that the sort of imaginative and empathetic leadership required “demands, as foundation, considerable intellectual and spiritual depth.” But Gibson too draws upon his wide reading to display spiritual gems, as when he quotes Leon Bloy: “Man has places in his heart which do not yet exist, and into them enters suffering, in order that they may have existence.”

The one lack I noted, in these otherwise exemplary studies, was their relative failure to probe the Christological foundation of genuine ecclesial reform. After all, the institution, indispensable as it is, exists only to serve the common life of the body of Christ. Steinfels does sound a promising Christological note in the very epigraph to his book. The disciples, adrift and buffeted by the storm, cry in terror: “Lord, save us. We are perishing.” And Jesus arises, rebukes the winds and the sea and calms the chaos. But the Christological insight, though raised up, remains undeveloped.

Gibson closes his own book with a typically intriguing quote from Georges Bernanos’s Diary of a Country Priest. “The opposite of a Christian people is a people grown sad and old.” But he does not explore the foundation of Christian hope and the source of Christian joy in the presence of the living Jesus “who is the same, yesterday, today, and forever.”

My conviction is that in this time of peril, all of us in the church urgently need to ponder anew and spell out the implications of the striking assertion in “Called to Be Catholic”: “Jesus Christ, present in Scripture and sacrament, is central to all that we do; he must always be the measure and not what is measured.” Absent this foundation, any presumed reform will be built only on sand.

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