“Then unbelieving Priests reform’d the nation,
And taught more pleasant methods of salvation.”
—Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism
On April 22, 1950, I published in the London Tablet an article entitled “The American Catholics Revisited,” which provoked an avalanche of letters to the editor, wildly protesting against my observations. Nearly all of them came from “God’s Own Country.” My report did not exactly resound with the ring of a success story; praising and critical passages alternated. Among the weaknesses in the American branch of the Church, I mentioned clericalism, a social imbalance that still creates all sorts of resentments mixed with inferiority complexes, anti-intellectualist undertones, and a morbid worship of “democracy.” I also expressed the fear that in a real crisis (a totalitarian dictatorship, for instance) the Church might crack. Lack of space prevented me from mentioning other quite important soft spots. Still, at that time, the Catholic Church in America was, together with that of the Netherlands, an “Exhibit A” of the Church Universal.
Needless to say, the present crisis of the Catholic Church in the United States is intimately related to the crisis in the Church everywhere (yes, everywhere!) but, not so surprisingly, it has a character similar to the earthquake which took place in the Dutch Church—and for analogous reasons. Let us bear in mind that in the 1950’s 40 percent of the Dutch professed the Catholic faith; that 45 percent of all Dutch children went to Catholic schools; that there existed 21 Catholic dailies, several Catholic radio stations, and a towering university—in other words, an enormous “Establishment.” No government could be formed without the Catholic Party (the largest in the country!). There were Catholic Trade Unions, entire closed Catholic neighborhoods, more Dutch priests in the missions than in the Illustration by the author homeland, gigantic convents, five collections at every Mass, but hardly any Dutch Catholic authors, artists, or world renowned intellectuals. In the South, the Catholics filled all social layers, but in the rest of the Netherlands (as in Holland proper) the Catholics were a new, socially rising element. The department stores in the big cities, more often than not, were in Catholic hands, though a Dutchman once challenged me: “Could you ever imagine a Catholic shipowner?” (This might have changed today.) The Netherlands was the only country where, as an adult, I had the amusing experience of being shouted at by a priest. The crisis which hit the Dutch Catholic Church came as an aftermath of Vatican II. Exactly the same happened in the United States.
Here a word must be said about that Council. It was the highly conservative John XXIII, a staunch advocate of Latin and a devotee of the Rosary, who, after beginning his pontificate as a reactionary, found and took up the plans of Pius XII for an Ecumenic Council. The saintly Papa Giovanni, who prided himself on not being a theologian (“Aren’t we both lucky?” he said to an Anglican bishop admitting the same “imperfection”), then organized the Council. And he who reads the decrees of Vatican II will find them very moderate, not in the least revolutionary, sometimes even uninspiring. They did not herald a radical change. If, for instance, one takes article 54 of the Decree on the Holy Liturgy, one will find that it entitles the bishops to permit for cogent reasons the use of the vernacular but commands them to see to it that Latin remains the language of the Church. When I asked an American bishop, who prided himself on being a “Latinist,” whether Latin flourishes in his diocese, he answered melancholically: “No. I cannot swim against the stream.” Well, has he not been made a bishop to do just that? Episcopi Angliae semper pavidi is an old adage, but, I hasten to add: Nan solum Angliae.
The “trouble with Vatican II” did not come from the decrees but from theologians, from the periti, who accompanied and advised bishops, yet had no voice in the Council. Theologians are intellectuals, and intellectuals, as a rule, desperately want to be original. However, sheer originality has specific limits in a Church which is the guardian of God’s Revealed Word. Disappointed by the failure of the Council to accept their frequently harebrained notions, these disillusioned periti banded together with theologians who had not been invited, and jointly with the enthusiastic aid of the mass media they created a paramagisterium and thus caused (in the words of Eric de Saventhen) a real peritonitis in the Church. Asked where they found in the Decrees this or that rash assertion, they answered, as a rule, that they could not cite it verbatim, but that it “expressed the spirit of Vatican II.” (The same trick has often been played with the “spirit of the Bible.”)
The two terms that helped in spreading the Great Confusion globally and locally were “The Opening to the World” and “Aggiornamento.” In Italian the latter has two entirely different meanings: to bring up to date or to defer, to adjourn. Of course, modes of action always have to be brought up to date in keeping with developments. Thus a transatlantic airliner with propellers is not up-to-date. A jetliner is. And, obviously, one has to talk to people in the language with the vocabulary of the day. Yet God’s Revelation expresses eternal verities, and their content cannot be changed. Sometimes they have to be rephrased to be better understood (without corrupting the meaning). As for “The Opening to the World,” the New Testament speaks about the kósmos or the aiôn, the latter having again a double meaning: world and time. And the Scriptures are filled with warnings against the aiôn since the Church, after all, is in, but not of the world. “Do not fall into the same scheme as the aiôn [i.e., the world and the spirit of the times],” we can read in Romans 12:2. “The World will hate you,” Christ warned his disciples (John 17: 14-16).
Now, it is quite possible and not unimaginable that the Church might become so evil, so degenerate, that the world and the spirit of the times might teach her a lesson. This could have applied in the 10th century, but surely not in the 20th, the most idiotic and savage of all. “We also read Marx and have profited from it,” a Papal delegate sent by Paul VI declared solemnly in Cuba, of all places. But one wonders what it was that His Excellency learned from Marx: Anti-Jewish racism? Bad economics? Class hatred? Misogyny? Utter contempt for the working class? “Opening to the World”—not a bad idea, but should the teachings, the insights, the experiences, the customs of the World (we know, after all, who its Prince is!) go into the Church—and not the other way around? The answer given by an important, though not large, sector of the Catholic Church in America to this question is the wrong one. And that this could happen in our age could, in a way, have been foreseen a third of a century ago.
First, there was, as in the Netherlands, the danger that the letter might kill the spirit. Unlike the Church in Europe, the Church in America defined its laws of conduct rigorously and insisted that they be severely kept. All too often these bylaws were stressed rather than the natural virtues. I vividly remember a sermon in which a priest seriously debated whether dislodging and swallowing a tiny piece of meat while brushing one’s teeth on Friday morning constituted a violation of the Friday abstinence. And could one then have the temerity to receive Holy Communion? In my younger years I used to work until 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning, and before retiring, in order to sleep well, I drank a glass of water. The following day, if it was a Sunday, I went to Holy Communion. I told this to an American monsignor who nearly fainted: midnight was the limit and only a few minutes could perhaps be added for the exact astronomical time. If, however, I lived in Indiana on the borders of Illinois, I could rush over to Illinois (on GST), eat quickly a two-inch Porterhouse steak before 1:00 A.M. (EST), and receive Holy Communion with a good conscience in Indiana. This Talmudic decision reminded me of pious Jews who, on a Sabbath, could only travel “On Water” and therefore sat on a bottle of water during a train journey. This I saw in the good old days in Poland. The exhortation of Jesus that the Sabbath is made for man and not man for the Sabbath had no significance for them. Certain American Catholics fit in a similar category.
The pre-Conciliar American Church did not strike me as particularly spiritual. When I once asked the priestly librarian of a Catholic college for The Dark Night of St. John of the Cross, he seemed a bit lost. “Of the Gross?” “Yes, the friend and confessor of Saint Teresa of Avila, the great mystic.” “Certainly not! Mysticism? We don’t go in for that! Here we educate healthy American boys!” (Therefore, let us not be surprised that the “Exhibit A” had not yet produced a canonized native-born American Saint.)
And yet, under this crust of literalism, often mixed with real magic superstition, there burned an unholy, desperate longing to be accepted by the big, wide, progressive, waspish, intellectual, “liberal,” enlightened world. There was, no doubt, a sociological aspect to this nostalgia, but it certainly does not explain the entire story of the crisis. The “sociological” element has European roots and also has to do with the immigration, the late arrival of Catholics in the United States—if we except Maryland and the Southwest. The settlement of the Pilgrim Fathers was dramatic and had a heroic flavor. When the Irish came during the potato famine, they arrived, as eyewitnesses told us, in rags, covered with sores, tortured by vermin, swinging the shillelagh. The only fully literate among them were the priests. Their rise was difficult and steeply uphill, and their Church was highly clerical.
Clericalism characterizes all decapitated societies in which the clergy has to assume the role of both the First and the Second Estate—not only in Ireland, but also in Slovenia and Slovakia. (Needless to say, clericalism never existed in Spain, Italy, Belgium, Poland, or Bavaria.) This also explains why the Catholic Church of America unavoidably had an Irish, not an Italian or Polish, leadership. (With great efforts the Germans managed to take second place in the hierarchy.) This also accounts for the fact that the Catholic Church in America had an aristophobic character, politically to the left of center: there was the resentment of the Irish farmer, the Irish worker against the Anglo-Irish “Protestant” upper crust who had exploited and repressed him. No wonder that the Catholics (the Irish and, later. South and East European immigrants forming the working class) voted “Democratic” and why pure democracy—an alien, un-American, French importation, feared and loathed by the Founding Fathers—was methodically extolled in Catholic education. This political doctrine, sooner or later, was bound to have its effect on the outlook of the Catholic Church in America.
Alexandre Vinet, the Reformed Swiss theologian, warned us ages ago that in a synthesis of Christianity and democracy, the latter would finally devour the former. Little was it realized that, psychologically, there yawned an abyss between the patriarchal Catholic outlook and the “democratism” dominating the lower American scene. The louder American “Protestants” voiced their suspicion that all Catholics must be royalists at heart and that the Catholic Church was really a monarchy, the more frantically many American Catholics emphasized their boundless veneration for democracy—partly in order to prove their so frequently doubted loyalty to America.
As we can see, American Catholics—qua Americans—often had chips on their shoulders. They were considered immoral, and thus they asserted their Jansenistic puritanism; they were called illiterate, and thus they established many more schools than any other religious community; they were suspected to be unassimilable aliens, and thus they protested their patriotism; they had arrived as penniless paupers, and thus they climbed as a group economically higher than any other group (if sociological data gathered by the University of Chicago is correct). American Catholics were overly keen to prove to all and sundry that they were “not different from the rest”: hence also their enthusiasm in dropping a language as outlandish as Latin in their ritual, their delight at no longer being called “fisheaters,” their joy in shedding countless characteristics which in one way or another distinguished them from the rest of their fellow citizens. Universities formerly well-known as “Catholic” have made great strides in that direction. It might be argued that such schools removed crucifixes from classrooms in order to get Federal aid, but this is not the only explanation. (I know of a Catholic institute of higher learning where a brilliant, internationally famous scholar received no appointment because an administrator considered him to be “too Catholic”) The alacrity—shown by nuns in shedding their religious garb, the issuing of religious textbooks which carefully avoid the supranatural, the eagerness in transforming their Church into some sort of organization for mere social services, to make her appear like an unprincipled association of harmless do-gooders, all point in that direction.
True, there was a crisis everywhere after Vatican II, but in the Netherlands and, even more so, in the United States it assumed a specific character. The symptoms had always been there: a lot, in addition, was sheer reaction. A national flag next to the altar? (I would not tolerate this in our local church, but today certain American bishops seem to be ready to offer their country to the Soviets on a platter.) Lacking in America was the characteristic anticlericalism of the Catholic World, but it always lurked well-hidden in the background. A young priest in Austria, obviously, would not dare to call a gray-haired lady by her first name. I have heard American mothers calling their own priestly son “Father,” a form of address reserved with us for members of religious orders only. In Poland, it is “Mr. Priest.”
Pastors with the humility of St. Jean Vianney, the Curé d’Ars, did not abound in America. The lay editor of the diocesan weekly would kowtow before the old monsignor who really ran the show: the lay professor in Catholic colleges would tremble before his clerical superior. Now, in a way, this has come to an end, and in a way it has not. In the old days the people, by and large, were near to their priests, the grumbling of certain intellectuals (good and bad ones) notwithstanding. Now there is, interestingly enough, a gap between them. The crisis descended from the top, yet the people were more steadfast than their clerical leaders. Many of them no longer are respected. Some of the bishops have become bombinantes in vacuo.
I think that there must have been something wrong about the education of American priests. Once the director of a seminary, looking over a group of his students, said to me sadly: “All mechanics with Roman collars.” Scholasticism alone dominated the scene, the leading theological periodicals were called New Scholasticism, The Thomist, The Modern Schoolman. Roman precepts were meticulously obeyed, but there was always an undercurrent of resentment against the “Italian” capital. The narrowness was often unbelievable and a weekly like Commonweal once had a truly important part to play. (“Officially” it was not Catholic and thus could boast of having no “moderator.”) There was the Legion of Decency which could have had a constructive influence but came to the most incredible decisions and coaxed the faithful into obedience to their often ludicrous judgments. The Legion banned some of the best French films, like La femme du Boulanger or Regain, not because they were French (and hence obviously immoral), but because they featured “illicit love.”
Among the American bishops there were only few of real eminence; they were rarely scholars or saints but primarily administrators. A brilliant man like Bishop Wright of Pittsburgh (later Roman Cardinal and head of all secular priests), a genuine conservative, was a rare exception. Cardinal Spellman was perhaps neither a saint nor a scholar but an excellent organizer and, at least, a man of principles and a patriot. But the average? I once asked an urbane bishop in the Middle West what would be the chances for a man of Boston Brahmin stock, an exceptionally gifted, pious Catholic convert and priest, to join the ranks of the hierarchy in the United States. The answer, given with a sardonic grin and in all candor, was: “None whatsoever.” Still, the bishops of the U.S. show sometimes unexpected courage which is truly needed for talking about things of which they know so little, as, for instance, politics and economics. If you listen to some of them you get the impression that they think economically in the terms of a prison cell in which there are four inmates and one is a huge bully who deprives the rest of half of their daily rations. He gets stronger and stronger, the others weaker and weaker. I grant that this, indeed, forms a “social problem.” In that fatal cell, however, there are only four walls, four stomachs and a lavatory, and this situation offers no analogy whatsoever to a free economy in a free society, where the surplus values of “capitalists” and managers by no means “go down the drain.” Yet practical economics and economic theories have for a long time been the Achilles’ heel of the entire Orbis Catholicus. Hence the weird texts of episcopal pronouncements in matters where fools rush in and angels fear to tread. (Has not the servant who did nothing about his talent been reprimanded for not having it invested with the bankers, TOIS TRAPEZITATS?)
In the United States, priests were not educated at the great universities, as they are in the heart of Europe, but in seminaries whose horizon did not materially transcend a one-sided theology and a certain amount of philosophy. There was no art education, as testified to, for example, by the National Shrine in Washington, DC, a monstrous hodgepodge of practically all styles, as well as by countless other church interiors. Nor was there a tmc grasp of church history. As for psychology, sociology, or economics, instruction was only too often extremely naive, leaving these poor young men almost defenseless in the face of the onslaught of such primitive ideologies as Marxism Leninism. But even the theological education became increasingly defective; the knowledge of Hebrew diminished rapidly, and Greek, at present, seems to follow. What we now see is a growing incapability to read the Scriptures in the original: even the original text of the Lord’s Prayer poses two grave problems unknown to those ignorant of Greek. And knowledge of the theologies of the other Christian faiths? It is, as a rule, nonexistent. The results are ecumenic endeavors which merely increase the confusion in Christendom’s American sector.
Thus, when the crisis following Vatican II developed on a global scale (as it really did), the Netherlands and the United States suffered most. There were the theologians who lacked the ability to be original within a narrow frame, within the limits of orthodox. One should be less afraid of those who remained still essentially Christian. Among them were those who with very little accuracy are sometimes called “Protestant,” a label usually applied by those who are totally ignorant of the thought of the Reformers and who blame them for the relativist-individualistic vagaries of the First Enlightenment. The real menace, however, are those intellectual misfits who question the essentials of Christianity and shake the faith of many of the simple faithful. To them arc directed the words of Matthew 18:6: “He who brings to fall one of those simple people who believe in me should have a millstone tied around his neck and be thrown into the sea where it is deepest.” (This passage, indeed, has nothing to do with “scandalized children.”) Of course, some of those heresiarchs are imported from Europe, men who have been expressly forbidden to teach theology hut who, amazingly enough, are formally invited to spread their rank disbelief even in “Catholic” colleges and universities. These pitiful places of learning have to display to the Big Wide World how free, how independent, how emancipated, how “advanced,” how open-minded, and how “impartial” they are! Wouldn’t they love to see Christ’s church as a mixture of the New York Ethical Society, the Red Cross, ADA, an association for social research and the RSPCA?
The trouble is that in the past the Church in America displayed very little sovereignty of mind-and does now much less so than ever. To be an exclusionist, to be standoffish, to go stubbornly one’s own way without establishing fruitful contacts is admittedly wrong; yet to be an assimilationist ready to surrender one’s own character and convictions is infinitely worse. The age-old pent-up desire to be “like the rest” now seems to be given full reign; at long last American Catholics can jump on the bandwagon of all popular causes and show to an astonished world that this weird, odd, exotic, “un-American” dago-religion can be eminently useful, nay, that it can serve “progress.”
Some of the new theologians have tried to remain within the boundaries set by the Gospels and have merely misinterpreted them. It has been conveniently overlooked that Our Lord was of Davidic origin, of royal blood, and thus he has become a social revolutionary, a forerunner of the Maryknollers in Guatemala and of the killer-priests of South America. We are told that early Christians were pacifists (though, as Harnack proved, Christianity was particularly strong in the Roman army), and we are informed that all men are completely equal in the eyes of God. (Making Judas Iscariot the “equal” of St. John the Baptist is an amusing idea.) And if the exegesis of poverty as a sanctified condition by the new breed of theologians is really correct, why then a “War Against Poverty”? (And what about the important distinction between poverty and misery?) I still recall an American priest thundering that the Vatican should sell all its art treasures and give the proceeds to the poor. But what would the pious (and impious) Romans say if the interior decorations of St. Peter were to be transferred to the homes of Wall Street tycoons, Japanese video-manufacturers, and Arab oil-sheiks? I had to remind the thunderingly righteous priest of Christ’s words that the poor are always going to be with us. (Significantly, it was the Pharisees who hurled their “social protest” against Mary Magdalene’s luxurious gift.)
Others in the American church have gone beyond Pagans and Heathens Scripture by declaring that Christ and His Apostles were prisoners of the spirit of their time. These innovators are, apparently, firmly convinced that they are truly timeless, whereas the very opposite is true. According to their own admission, they want to “update” the Church. They are not ready to fashion and form the world and the time (as it would be the Church’s task) and, as it is expressed in the Prayer to the Holy Spirit, “to renew the face of the Earth.” On the very contrary: they want to bring religion onto the wavelength of the present time, disregarding the words of Kierkegaard: “He who plans to be married to the spirit of the time will soon be a widower.”
Christianity did not in the least harmonize with the spirit of the first three centuries A.D., but it nonetheless won out. The whole Roman Establishment, society, and the brightest minds of that period were violently opposed to it. The loud complaint that in Christianity, women have such a “lowly” position refers to the “backwardness” of antiquity which profoundly influenced primitive Christianity. Spiritually, however, women are not in the least disadvantaged in comparison with men: they have equal chances for salvation and sainthood—which to a Christian is all that really matters. In the Catholic and in the Eastern Church, moreover, the Saint of Saints is Mary, Mother of Christ. Ecclesiastically, of course, the situation is different. Here Scriptures clearly assign different roles to the sexes.
In America’s Catholic Church, however, the question of sex roles has stirred controversy which could only have developed in a specifically American situation. North America is North European by origin, and in this cultural orbit women of all classes have suffered from a curious sort of isolation and frustration. It is not entirely impossible that the very “masculine” spirit of the Reformers, so hostile to the veneration of Saints, has something to do with it. American matriarchy certainly is a myth. Already Dr. Benjamin Rush, one of the Founding Fathers, discovered that in France women had an infinitely better social position than in either Britain or the United States. Indeed, women in America live, to a larger extent, lives very much of their own and on their own. They have penetrated into areas once reserved for men (politics, business, sports), but the advance is limited and has not really improved their status in human terms. (Of course, nobody really wants to see women as coal miners, combat soldiers, or executioners. He who loves women does not want to see them as mud-wrestlers, either.)
Friendships between men and women are rare, and American males tend to like, love, or desire women in particular, but rarely in general. I well remember flights between San Francisco and Los Angeles “Reserved for Gentlemen Only.” In an American world of male clubs and leagues, from the Knights of Columbus to the Free Masons, where misogyny pervaded the old universities and where the trend was away from intensive family life, women in America became singularly “unfulfilled.” The general female dissatisfaction and frustration has spilled over into the women’s orders. Here it also should be said in all candor that community life for women is even more problematic than for men.
It is not entirely accidental that the Great Catholic Crisis in America has erupted first in convents and their educational establishments. The rebellion finally combined aspects of misandry with a new political agenda, and politics is, besides the penal system, the scene of mankind’s most obvious and most painful failures. To make matters worse, the political vision now invoked is the sort of democracy revived by the French Revolution after a gap of 2,000 years. Viewed with horror by the Founding Fathers and imported to America only in the second quarter of the last century, egalitarianism’s American record includes two world wars to “make the world safe for democracy,” both of which inadvertently paved the road to abysmal tyrannies (as Plato and Aristotle clearly foretold us). Democracy rests on majority rule and equality, whereas the basic principle of Christian justice is not equality, but Ulpian’s “To Everybody His Due.”
The reader of the minutes of the Woman Church Coalition meeting in Chicago (November 11-13, 1983) has to make up his mind whether to laugh or to cry. “We are Woman Church not in exile, but in exodus,” a leader cried out. Needless to say, a number of bishops endorsed this fabulous pow-wow whose driving ideas are clearly of the left. The ladies wanted to be “in the swim,” but right is right, and left is wrong. Yet a “Woman’s Church” with a He-She God-Goddess (this ludicrous expression was actually used!) would certainly not get the support of the vast majority of women. Wars, finally, can be won only by the infantry. Without our female infantry the Church would be lost—and the vast bulk of Catholic womanhood would emphatically not tolerate but desert a Church designed by these “Catholic” feminists.
These battle-axes, however, represent merely one facet of the Church’s general problem which consists in the surrender to the aiôn, i.e., the spirit of the Time and of the World. (The English words “secular” and “temporal” express the fundamental unity and identity of both concepts.) But one also might ask whether this Augean Stable can still be effectively cleaned up by the present Pontiff who is becoming increasingly aware of the depth of this crisis—cleaned up before we see a schism. Schism is a distinct possibility. But on the basis of my experience with the Church in America, covering on and off nearly a half century, I believe that the exodus of a small minority would be more likely, just as in the days of Vatican I when the “Old Catholics” (the great, unfulfilled hope of the left) seceded from the Church Universal. An “American Church” might cause big juridical problems (Church property!), might produce a redoubtable number of apostasies in the clergy and among the remaining religious, but the main body of the laity would remain loyal to Rome. Such a schism might after all prove a real blessing. The strength of the Catholic Church lay always with the simple faithful and the great minds—not with the half-educated, doubt-ridden middle-of-the-roaders. And let us remember that the world has reacted to the “Progressivists” in our camp as was to be expected: with great publicity, but also with utter contempt. (And so have those admirable people in the Reformation Churches who staunchly stick to God’s Revealed Word . . . from the late Karl Barth down to the steadfast Fundamentalists.)
The pre-Conciliar Church in America was not sheer delight, but she was infinitely preferable to the present chaos. And we also have to admit that the Ecclesia Hibernica of the past was providential. She represented the medieval spirit, the Irish being the only Catholics who never experienced the Renaissance which gave the Orbis Catholicus its lasting profile. Without the Irish clergy the nascent Church in America would never have reached first base. A newly created “American Church,” however, would not be Catholic but local—and it would soon become dissolved in the big slime of modernity, mimicry, and mediocrity. What we have now to do is to stop, within the precincts of the Church, the braying of the Trojan Asses belonging to the theological demimonde.
Some time ago The New Yorker published a cartoon of unique depth. It shows two men in Hell. One says to the other: “My motto was ‘Go with the Flow,’ but I had no idea that the flow would end up here.” In view of the crisis in America’s Catholic Church, one can only hope for an exodus of the worshipers of the World and the Spirit of Time. But he who knows his Church history in truth will be neither too dismayed, nor surprised or downhearted. Hope, after all, is, together with Love and Faith, a “theological virtue.”