Is America all too much with us?

 Some of the Church’s leading scholars respond to Michael Baxter's
charge that Catholics are too cozy with the culture

 By William Bole

 Last week, initiating a special Our Sunday Visitor symposium, Holy Cross Father Michael Baxter made his case for a less worldly Catholicism, one that stands apart from a surrounding individualist, "me-first" culture in the United States.

Father Baxter is currently a subject of controversy over his appointment to the theology department of Notre Dame University. The dispute has highlighted what some view as a generational tension between theologians molded by the Second Vatican Council’s opening to the modern world and a younger set of theologians — such as the 41-year-old Father Baxter — who call for the reweaving of a more tightly knit Catholic identity.

Our Sunday Visitor asked nine Catholic theologians and commentators for their perspectives on points argued by Father Baxter. In the following interviews, the symposium continues.

David O’Brien gets a feeling of déjà vu when he hears Father Baxter proclaim that Catholics have adapted too easily to the ways of the world, in particular the United States.

In the mid-1960s, O’Brien was an up-and-coming Catholic historian who criticized the icons of American Catholic scholarship — namely Msgr. John Tracy Ellis, the late eminent Church historian.

"I said he was an uncritical Americanist," said O’Brien, a professor at Holy Cross College in Worcester, Mass.

Roughly 30 years later, O’Brien sat through a lecture in which Father Baxter, the up-and-coming theologian, sharply criticized Catholic historians — namely O’Brien.

"He said we were Americanists, and that we’ve lost our critical edge," O’Brien said with a chuckle. "I thought to myself, ‘I’ve heard this before.’ He was making us feel old. We used to feel we were the young turks, and now we realize we’re the old guard," he said of his generation of Catholic scholars who came of age before and during Vatican II.

O’Brien thinks better of America than he did in the 1960s, when his first published article challenged the "Americanists" such as Msgr. Ellis — who later became O’Brien’s close friend and mentor.

He used to think, as Father Baxter does, that the American Catholic "success" story was really a failure, because of the materialism and individualism that came with the climb of Catholics up the socio-economic ladder.

"I’ve changed my mind on that," O’Brien said. "I don’t want to rest content with an American Catholic story or narrative that said the struggles of my parents and grandparents were a big mistake, or that they were pursuing false gods, because I suspect, in most cases, what they were pursuing was not simply an economic or materialistic advancement. . . .

"They were seeking stability for their families and security and, indeed, personal dignity. So I have a lot of suspicion of the countercultural strategy. I don’t want to tell Catholics: ‘You have to renounce all that your mothers and fathers and grandparents achieved and come out from or retreat from a world that has swallowed you up.’ "

At the same time, O’Brien acknowledges the "profound ambiguity" of the path that has taken Catholics — including baby boomers such as Father Baxter — into the middle and upper-middle classes.

"The product of that journey isn’t just consumerism. It’s the ambiguity of choice — the sense that we can choose not only to be Catholic but what it means to be Catholic, the sense that we have to decide this for ourselves. That is the outcome, for better or worse, of our historic journey."

William Portier can see the generational debate from both sides, as a Catholic educated partly in the pre-Vatican II Church and partly in the post-conciliar age. And he has a third vantage point, as the father of two twenty-something children and an 18-year-old college freshman who have taken a deep interest in all things Catholic, including the papacy.

"The people who were my teachers grew up in a very solid and well-defined Catholic culture. I think Catholicism is the kind of thing that needs to have a culture, because it’s incarnational," said Portier, chairman of the theology department at Mount St. Mary’s College in Emmitsburg, Md.

That strong Catholic culture is mostly a memory for those of Father Baxter’s age and younger who have experienced "the brunt of religious voluntarism," as Portier phrases it. "If they want to be Catholics, they have to decide to be Catholics, very much in the manner of American voluntarism."

"I’m sort of in the middle," said Portier, who is 51 and began college at the beginning of Vatican II. "I came along just as the Catholic subculture was going away.¼ I don’t think people like my children and my students have experienced anything so well-defined. So they want to know whether there really is anything here. What is Catholicism?

Lots of them [in the new generation] just don’t care. But the ones who are interested want to know what it is that they should care about, that they should take seriously. And so there’s this whole thing called Catholic culture that they don’t know anything about.

"One thing about Catholic culture that I think is a flashpoint is the Pope. In the history of American Catholicism, the Pope is one of the distinguishing characteristics about being a Catholic. If you belong to this Church in Protestant America, then one of the things that is religiously distinctive about you is that you’re the people who have the Pope. You’re the ‘papists,’ in older language."

"Generations experience the Pope differently," Portier said. "I think that for younger people, it’s intuitively clear at a very deep, symbolic level that this figure is very important to Catholicism. This particular Pope that we have now is a very formidable figure. So to hear a whole cohort of theologians take him lightly, or treat him as a kind of old, ethnic uncle that you’re not quite comfortable having around all the time, is counterintuitive to younger people.

"I’m talking about my students and my children. My daughter is a Yale Phi Beta Kappa. When she was in college, she went out and bought ‘Crossing the Threshold of Hope’ [the Pope’s 1995 best-selling book] with no prompting from us, because she just wanted to find out what he had to say, because in some deep, symbolic way, he’s Catholicism."

"I do think there is something going on there," said Sandra Yocum Mize, professor of religious studies at the University of Dayton in Ohio, speaking of the latest generation of Catholics. "We need to be more attentive to the questions of the generation that is just beyond my generation."

Mize, like Father Baxter, is a baby boomer; she can still remember the Latin Mass from her first few years in elementary school. The generation beyond hers is the twentysomething Generation X.

"I don’t know if I’d call it a generation gap. I’m not sure I want to put it that way. Yet, there does seem to be some dissonance, at least between the Catholics who are 25 and younger and Catholics who are in their late 30s and older," said Mize, who specializes in the history of American Catholicism.

"There are some who are still rebelling against the Church, but there are also some who are fascinated by the Church. . . . I have late had experiences in which students seem particularly fascinated by various devotional and liturgical practices, including processions, novenas and other intercessory prayers to saints.

"Some have expressed interest in the Catholic Action activities based upon the method: see, judge, act. [They’re seeking] a faith more integrated with their service activities," she said.

"I hang out with all these priests and bishops who talk about how it used to be, and often in a nostalgic way. But what I see is enormous vitality," said Father Richard John Neuhaus, who came into full communion with the Church later in life, after serving as a Lutheran minister.

He echoes Father Baxter’s observation that many in the younger generation are in search of a deeper Catholic identity.

"The young people really want a Catholicism that invites them to moral grandeur, to radically throw away their lives for something greater than themselves," Father Neuhaus said, pointing as an example to couples who have found joy in natural family planning. "Are they a minority? I expect they are. But then, really serious, committed Christians have always been a minority."

Father Neuhaus is author of "The Catholic Moment," a 1987 book that holds that the time has come for Catholics to play a decisive role in the shaping of American culture and values.

In last week’s interview, Father Baxter said the Catholic moment has really been going on since the 1920s, and that it has proved disastrous for Catholics — who usually wind up adapting to the secular, materialistic, violent ways of the nation rather than transforming it, as they set out to do.

Father Neuhaus objects: "The Catholic moment is emphatically not something that began with the ‘success’ of immigrant Catholicism. All of that should be honored, of course. At the same time, their whole effort was to demonstrate that they were American Catholics. I make the point that today the great challenge is to demonstrate that we’re Catholic Americans — namely, that it’s the adjective that carries the weight. The way that one is American gets significantly shaped by the fact that we are Catholic. I think that’s the challenge of the Catholic moment.

"Catholics have long since — going back to the last years of the last century — demonstrated that we ‘belong’ here," he said. "That’s passed. That’s not the Catholic moment. That was proving that Catholics could fit into the American way of life. Now we have to transform the American way of life."

Still, Father Neuhaus agreed with part of the sentiment behind Father Baxter’s critique: that Catholics must rebuild their own cultural house and become a true community of disciples.

"I think we have to look again at the notion of Christendom. . . . Whatever hopeful is going to happen — whether we call it the Catholic moment or something else — whatever hopes we have depend upon a rejuvenation of an intense, deep, thick sense of Catholic community and commitment, and calls for radical vocation. Without that, nothing interesting is going to happen."

Jesuit Father John Coleman, noting that Father Baxter’s argument has been made before, even before Vatican II, said: "I don’t think we should overdo the inter-generational thing. There may be some truth to it, but I think it’s too facile."

[Father Baxter] claims the Catholic culture is not intact. And I agree. There is a lot of sociological evidence for that," said Father Coleman, a sociologist and professor at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley.

But in his view, Father Baxter and like-minded theologians are so worried about the internal Catholic culture that they forget Catholics also have a call to serve the whole society.

"There’s a Catholic kind of insistence on both/and, not either/or — both discipleship and citizenship. I know that his teacher, Stanley Hauerwas [a Protestant theologian who was Father Baxter’s mentor at Duke University], says it is an absolute mistake to assume that the churches have any responsibility for society, that they’re supposed to mold it in some way. I would object to that, at least on Catholic grounds.

"And I also think it’s sociologically naive, because Catholic culture would be less intact if, for example, the wider culture accepts euthanasia," said Father Coleman, author of the influential book, "An American Strategic Theology" [1982].

"In his encyclical, ‘The Gospel of Life,’ Pope John Paul II is speaking to both believers and secularists. He knows that the extent to which the [general] culture becomes a culture of death, that invades Catholic culture, too. Not to address the outside culture, and in language the outside culture can understand, is absolutely irresponsible."

"Take [Father Baxter’s] easy dismissal of democracy and his fallback to an older formula — that all governments are equal. I think this Pope is right to say they’re not all equal, that democracy is the preferred form," Father Coleman added. "Are we just to abandon the task of address to the wider culture? Maybe no culture is ever in fundamental harmony with the Gospel. I don’t think anyone is. But there are some that are more and some that are less, and the task of trying to make the culture more in harmony seems to be what evangelization is all about. In fact, the Church talks about the ‘evangelization of culture.’ "

Father Baxter argues that Catholicism is starkly opposed to the American way of life, and has been so since the very founding of this nation. David Carlin, however, thinks the radical individualism that Father Baxter deplores is of a more recent vintage in the United States.

"In many ways, the dominant American culture is profoundly incompatible with Catholicism, and becoming more so all the time. [But] it seems to me the greatest incompatibility has occurred in the past 30 years," said Carlin, former Democratic majority leader of the Rhode Island state senate and now a regular columnist for Commonweal magazine and Our Sunday Visitor.

During this period, Catholicism has had a run of "historical bad luck" in America, Carlin contends. "The Church opened up to the culture just when society was going through a cultural revolution, a secularization" that began roughly in the 1960s.

From Carlin’s perspective, the Church might have done better to open its windows earlier in this century, and let in the fresh air of a largely Judeo-Christian, if Protestant, culture. Be that as it may, Father Baxter believes America has never been a nurturing home for the followers of Christ, and points to such historical misdeeds as the obliteration bombing of German cities during World War II.

Carlin countered: "That was not a typical manifestation of American culture. That was an extreme situation, and in extreme situations, people do extreme things. They don’t do typical things."

As for the current cultural predicament, Carlin feels the alternative offered by theologians such as Father Baxter — resistance to large patches of American society — is not the Catholic way.

"Catholics are bound to be open to the culture. That’s the way it’s always been," said Carlin, who teaches philosophy and sociology at the Community College of Rhode Island. "You just can’t redefine the Catholic Church as a sectarian organization. We’re not the Amish or Mennonites."

David Schindler applauds and amplifies Father Baxter’s critique of liberal democracy and the consumer society.

"We have to take seriously what Evangelium Vitae [‘The Gospel of Life’] said about the risk of the inversion of democracy into totalitarianism," said Schindler, who edits the journal Communio and teaches theology at the John Paul Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Washington.

"The Pope is making a strong statement, but the point is the peculiar kind of totalitarianism we see in America — the threat of ‘procedural totalitarianism.’ It’s totalitarianism in the sense that the only value that gets publicly enshrined in America is the freedom to choose. That, paradoxically, becomes the only substantive truth, which then displaces all other truths," Schindler said.

"We see this in family life, gender and human reproductive issues. In all those areas, the discussion inevitably drifts in the direction of rights interpreted in terms of conflicting freedoms. That takes the place of a debate about what constitutes the inherent dignity and worth of a human person. . . .

"I think we also need to come to terms with the reality of suffering in our culture. It’s not only the suffering of the body — although that’s so abundant in our culture, with poverty and homelessness and so forth. But I think we need to come to terms with meaninglessness as a form of suffering. And that is not restricted to one class. There is such a deep suffering at the heart even of what you’d call bourgeois culture.

"All of this frenetic activity of our culture — drug addiction is one manifestation — reveals the confusion of genuine joy with pleasure. It’s empty freedom that causes profound suffering. What it does is evacuate the substance of life. It renders life superficial.

"Consumerism is perhaps the most basic expression of all this meaninglessness. It’s the endless choosing of one thing after another. There’s really no in-breaking of the infinite — that is, God; no infinite that breaks into the patterns of life, giving life a depth and height simultaneously, giving it meaning. Consumerism flattens life out. Our consciousness is absorbed by one thing after another; it is cluttered with things," Schindler said.

Jesuit Father Joseph Fessio believes Father Baxter is right on the mark when he said Catholics must draw clearer and straighter lines between themselves and a surrounding, hostile culture. "We’ve basically capitulated to cultural norms," he concurred.

But he said Father Baxter gives the wrong answer when asked if being a Catholic means supporting the magisterium (among other things). In last week’s interview, Father Baxter said this is no "easy matter," because it’s more important to live in harmony with Church teaching — on matters such as artificial contraception — than to simply nod in assent.

"Of course it’s an easy matter," said Father Fessio, editor of Ignatius Press in San Francisco and publisher of Catholic World Report magazine. "If you’re a Catholic, you support the authentic magisterium of the Church. To say this is not an easy matter is a typical response of people who were brought up in the post-conciliar Church."

Regarding Father Baxter’s comment about the "heroism" of Catholics who follow Church teaching on human sexuality, the Jesuit said: "I admit it takes courage. I admit it takes virtue. But let’s not over-inflate the word heroism. We’re not on the Russian front in 1941. We’re not being shelled right now in Bosnia. To say it is ‘heroic’ to live the Church’s constant teaching on marital chastity is a little bit overblown, it seems to me."

Father Fessio also takes exception with Father Baxter’s view that Catholics might have to "withdraw" from — or resist — the culture of the Pentagon, for instance, in order to truly live as disciples of Christ.

"We’ve got lots of problems in America, but believe me, the Pentagon is not a very good example. The Pentagon is probably one of the better places in this country. If he says the White House, or if he says the chancery offices, then fine. But not the Pentagon."

Patrick Jordan and Father Baxter come from the same place, so to speak — the Catholic Worker movement, which joins the faithful in service to society’s destitute at houses of hospitality nationwide.

Yet they also represent two generations of Catholics: Jordan came of age before Vatican II and lived at the Catholic Worker house in New York from 1969 to 1975; Father Baxter founded a Catholic Worker house in Phoenix just a few years ago.

Jordan knew Dorothy Day, who founded the movement and died in 1980. He sees a difference of sorts between her message then and Father Baxter’s now.

"Dorothy certainly was quite critical of the culture. But I wouldn’t ever say her spirit was dour. She loved her country. And she felt there was a lot this country had to offer," said Jordan, now managing editor of Commonweal.

"She wasn’t a flag-waving patriot. But certainly she thought of this as home. She wasn’t going to run off to some other country because she wasn’t happy with the conduct of the Vietnam War or something else."

Would Day support Father Baxter’s harsher criticism today of America and all it stands for? It’s hard to say, Jordan replied. "It’s a different time of history. He’s talking now when the U.S. is the sole superpower. And there’s no doubt about the fact that we are more materialistic than we were, say, in the 1930s. . . . The market is god."

In other words, Day might well be saying more or less what Father Baxter says, were she alive today. However, Jordan said: "I don’t think Dorothy would have the same tone. She always said that Peter Maurin [the Catholic Worker movement’s co-founder] said we should be announcers, not denouncers. And she always spoke of Pope John XXIII as saying we should build concordances. Her attitude was always to see the positive efforts people were making."

He added, nonetheless, that Father Baxter’s message needs to be heard today. "Even if he’s a burr under the saddle, that’s important. If he makes you uneasy, it’s because he’s talking about a part of the Catholic vision that we must continually find ourselves judged by."

Bole is a senior correspondent for Our Sunday Visitor

Copyright Our Sunday Visitor, 1997; from the 5-4-97 edition