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May 14, 2011
It is on display in Kerry Kennedy’s compilation of essays by current and former Catholics.

What does it mean to be Catholic in early 21st century America? In order to answer this question, Kerry Kennedy—the daughter of the late Robert F. Kennedy—has compiled in this volume 37 essays authored by a variety of public figures and ordinary people who are or were practicing Catholics.

Included among the contributors are Anna Quindlen, Andrew Sullivan, E.J. Dionne, Jr., Nancy Pelosi, James Carroll, Bill Maher, Bill O’Reilly, Tom Monaghan, Peggy Noonan, Robert Drinan, Douglas Brinkley, Dan Aykroyd, Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, and Martin Sheen. As one would suspect, the range of opinion, not to mention the style and depth of writing, differ widely. Nevertheless, even if you find yourself disagreeing with some of them (as I did on more than one occasion), all the writers have undoubtedly made a sincere eff ort to present how they believe the Catholic Church has shaped their lives and how they would like to shape the Catholic Church.

I must confess, however, that many of these essays are painful to read, for they reveal how little Catholics have been taught about their own theology and their own Church. For example, some of the authors—such as Quindlen, Sullivan, and Carroll—correctly claim that the Church has changed over time. They are, of course, making this observation in order to ground their own call for change on matt ers having to do with the Church’s views on homosexuality, women’s ordination, artificial birth control, and priestly celibacy. But you get the impression from these writers that the Church’s positions are merely the result of an authoritarian regime seeking to exercise power, that there are in fact no real reasons for these views. So all the Pope has to do, these writers seem to be suggesting, is assemble the Church’s most clever theologians and come up with a rationale for these acceptable changes that will bring the Church up to speed and allow all the dissidents to feel welcome again.

Fortunately, the Church is not like the US Supreme Court: it can’t just make things up and pretend its opinion is really supported by its “founding documents.” The Catholic Magisterium (including the papacy) is significantly constrained from doctrinal innovation by both Scripture and a particular understanding of dogmatic and moral theology, forged by centuries of debate and reflection, and, in many cases, fixed by ecumenical councils. Thus, in comparison to Rick Warren or the archbishop of Canterbury, the Catholic Church has far less liberty to tinker with its catechism so that it may reflect the spirit of the age. As Cardinal John Henry Newman has argued persuasively in his An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, changes in theology are like the growth and development of an organism. They are not at all like the capricious pronouncements of an unaccountable civil magistrate.

As if to provide a definitive example of the lack of serious intellectual curiosity about the Church’s moral theology, Kennedy offers in her book’s introduction this description of the essays that follow: “What comes across in these stories is that the Church is, by definition, full of contradictions—Jesus has come but is still coming; Jesus is divine but still human; Jesus died but rose from the dead; Jesus saved the world but the world needs to be saved; the Church is the bride of Christ but also the mystical body of Christ. The Church has always embraced conflict and contradiction” (xvi). The adolescent bravado from which this superficial observation springs does not speak well for the catechesis and pastoral instruction that formed the Catholic who penned it.

But this is not surprising. Kennedy, like so many of us, is from that generation of early post-conciliar American Catholics that were offered, among other “innovations,” liturgical dance and the clown mass so as to make the faith “relevant” to young people. But, as should have been expected, just as a river cannot rise above its source, the Church of Cirque du Soleil could not ascend higher than Bozo theology.

This book begins with a small introduction followed by a large preface, both authored by Kennedy. In the latter, she reflects on her growing up Catholic in the Kennedy family, and the numerous events that marked turning points in both her faith and in her country. Her personal recollections of rosaries, Masses, devotions to the saints, and first Holy Communions brought back memories of my own Catholic youth, and thus Kennedy’s reflections carry with them a certain personal warmth that will resonate with many of her Catholic readers.

But that warmth ends abruptly when she comments on abortion, birth control, the licitness of homosexual acts, divorce, etc. On these issues, we are told either that these are complex matters over which there is a robust theological debate within the Church or that the Church “appears out of touch with reality” (xxxi). On the other hand, on moral positions to which she is committed but about which the Church has in fact permitted a wide range of legitimate opinion within certain moral parameters—e.g., economic justice, illegal immigration, nuclear disarmament, war—she is certain that the political left’s answers are, or ought to be, the Church’s answers.

Kennedy brings up for special criticism, as do many of the other contributors, the American Church’s failure to address the priestly abuse scandal. She refers to it as a “pedophile scandal” (xxx), as do others in the book. That, however, is not completely accurate. Virtually all of the minors involved were post-pubescent, and thus virtually all of the priests’ actions, though morally wicked and condemnable, were not cases of pedophilia.

Kennedy rightfully singles out for condemnation Cardinal Bernard Law, the former archbishop of Boston, for his reassignment of predator priests to unsuspecting parishes and the cardinal’s lack of transparency in cooperating with the victims and their families as well as law enforcement. But, ironically, she diminishes the power of her righteous anger by sharing with the reader personal affronts she claims to have suffered at the hands of the cardinal. Here is one of them: “When my sister and her fiancé attempted to have their wedding by the sea of Cape Cod, the characteristically authoritarian Law put a halt to the plans, calling outdoor weddings forbidden and instead choosing his man-made building over God’s creation as the appropriate place to celebrate the union” (xxix). Oh, the humanity.

Yet there is no word of harsh judgment for the archbishop of Los Angeles, Cardinal Roger Mahony, whose settling of the numerous predator priest lawsuits is legendary in the amount of money the cardinal’s archdiocese was willing to dole out (nearly $700 million) in order to keep its and the cardinal’s secrets hidden from public scrutiny. Kennedy does mention Cardinal Mahony, but only as an object of high praise for how the cardinal has advanced the cause of “social justice” by welcoming illegal immigrants into his archdiocese and petitioning the government to grant them amnesty or something close to it.

She credits the cardinal with “reviving the Church’s reputation for a commitment to outcasts with meaning, and bravely taking on rage at foreigners at a highly volatile and politically sensitive moment in the political life of the country” (xxxi). Thus, for Kennedy, embracing the politics of La Raza, like charity, covers up a multitude of sins, even if those sins seem to require a type of justice that was once suggested by none other than the Prince of Peace: “It would be better for him if a millstone were hung round his neck and he were cast into the sea, than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin” (Luke 17:2).

One sort of Catholic is conspicuously missing from this compilation: converts who have embraced Catholicism for spiritual, theological, and/or intellectual reasons. For example, there are no essays by notables such as Cardinal Avery Dulles, SJ, Richard John Neuhaus, Dawn Eden, Robert Novak, Tony Blair, Anne Rice, Joe Eszterhaus, Bobby Jindal, or Sam Brownback.

And, interestingly enough, there are no essays by ex-Catholics who became Evangelical Protestants. Here I am thinking of people like theologian David Gushee (Mercer University), New Testament scholar Thomas Schriener (Southern Baptist Theological Seminary), and apologist Gregory P. Koukl. In Being Catholic Now, the only Catholic converts are those that became Catholic for marital reasons, and most of the ex-Catholics (or nominal Catholics) are embittered, angry, or theologically wayward entertainers like Maher, Susan Sarandon, Aykroyd, or Gabriel Byrne, all of whom seem to have abandoned Christianity en toto.

I approached this book with a deep personal interest, having made my own trek from Catholicism to Evangelical Protestantism and back again. I was, to say the least, disappointed. For it seems that Kennedy and the other contributors see American Catholicism as merely a cultural phenomenon, finding its most vibrant expressions in the traditional practices of the extended families that once populated America’s ethnic enclaves. Even among the more traditional Catholics in this book—with one or two exceptions—there is a sense that the Church’s spiritual authenticity is contingent upon the majesty and awe one experiences when encountering its liturgical accoutrements of personal piety. These are, of course, important aspects of Catholicism’s ecclesiastical magnificence that many Catholics and non-Catholics undoubtedly find attractive. But that cannot be the whole story.

For, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) points out in his book Truth and Tolerance, only “if the Christian faith is truth does it concern all men; if it is merely a cultural variant of the religious experience of mankind that is locked up in symbols and can never be deciphered, then it has to remain within its own culture and leave others in theirs.”

Thus, to be a Catholic now, is to be in communion with the saints—present, future, and in eternity—who are the Bride of the Christ, the Logos who “is the same yesterday, today, and for ever” (Heb. 13:8).

Francis J. Beckwith is professor of Philosophy & Church-State Studies at Baylor University, and the 2008-2009 Mary Ann Remick Senior Visiting Fellow in the Notre Dame Center for Ethics & Culture at the University of Notre Dame. His latest book is Return to Rome: Confessions of an Evangelical Catholic (Brazos Press, 2009).

Being Catholic Now: Prominent Americans Talk About Change in the Church and the Quest for Meaning, by Kerry Kennedy, Random House, 2008, 288 pages, $24.95

What does it mean to be Catholic in early 21st century America? In order to answer this question, Kerry Kennedy—the daughter of the late Robert F. Kennedy—has compiled in this volume 37 essays authored by a variety of public figures and ordinary people who are or were practicing Catholics.

Included among the contributors are Anna Quindlen, Andrew Sullivan, E.J. Dionne, Jr., Nancy Pelosi, James Carroll, Bill Maher, Bill O’Reilly, Tom Monaghan, Peggy Noonan, Robert Drinan, Douglas Brinkley, Dan Aykroyd, Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, and Martin Sheen. As one would suspect, the range of opinion, not to mention the style and depth of writing, differ widely. Nevertheless, even if you find yourself disagreeing with some of them (as I did on more than one occasion), all the writers have undoubtedly made a sincere effort to present how they believe the Catholic Church has shaped their lives and how they would like to shape the Catholic Church.

I must confess, however, that many of these essays are painful to read, for they reveal how little Catholics have been taught about their own theology and their own Church. For example, some of the authors—such as Quindlen, Sullivan, and Carroll—correctly claim that the Church has changed over time. They are, of course, making this observation in order to ground their own call for change on matters having to do with the Church’s views on homosexuality, women’s ordination, artificial birth control, and priestly celibacy. But you get the impression from these writers that the Church’s positions are merely the result of an authoritarian regime seeking to exercise power, that there are in fact no real reasons for these views. So all the Pope has to do, these writers seem to be suggesting, is assemble the Church’s most clever theologians and come up with a rationale for these acceptable changes that will bring the Church up to speed and allow all the dissidents to feel welcome again.

 
About the Author
Francis J. Beckwith 

Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy and Church-State Studies at Baylor University, where he also serves as a Resident Scholar in the Institute for Studies of Religion. A regular online contributor at The Catholic Thing, he is the author of Return to Rome: Confessions of An Evangelical Catholic (Brazos Press, 2009) and Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Choice (Cambridge University Press, 2007).
 

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