Time to bring back triumphalism?

Bill Donohue’s new book "The Catholic Advantage" makes a persuasive case for the advantage enjoyed by Catholics in relation to health, happiness, and heaven

Is it time to revive Catholic triumphalism? On the whole, I’d say yes. At the very least, the question isn’t frivolous and deserves serious consideration. For after several decades during which Catholics have offered repeated apologies for a host of mistakes, sometimes real and sometimes imaginary, the feeling grows that a comparable effort devoted to tooting the Church’s horn is now long overdue.

But, first, a word about that word, “triumphalism.” It’s a pejorative term that tends to set people’s teeth on edge. If using it bothers you, try “self-respect” instead. Whatever name you choose to give it, Bill Donohue is a practitioner where the Catholic Church is concerned.

That’s clear from his new book, The Catholic Advantage (New York: Image). Never one to pussyfoot around, Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, lays out a documented and persuasive case for the advantage enjoyed by Catholics in relation to what he calls “the Three H’s”—health, happiness, and heaven.

It hardly needs saying that the Catholic Church has had, and still does have, plenty to apologize for. In this, it’s hardly alone. The same is true of virtually every human institution—other churches, government and the political parties, Big Business, Big Labor, the academic world, professional sports, college sports, the medical and legal professions, the military, the entertainment industry. Even—could you believe it?—journalists and journalism.

The difference with the Church is its recent willingness to admit its faults, starting with the scandal of sex abuse and coverup. It’s over fifteen years since that horrible episode exploded on public consciousness in the U.S., and Catholic spokespersons are still beating their breasts for it. No doubt they should. But after all this time, surely the point has been made, the reforms are in place, and without altogether dropping the subject, it’s time to move on.

Which brings me back to triumphalism—or self-respect—and its revival. The heart of it can be stated very simply: With all its faults and failings, the Catholic Church is pretty wonderful—and it’s time to start saying so again.

A short list of ways the Church is wonderful includes the following: its sacramental system, especially the Eucharist; its vibrant tradition of prayer and asceticism; its body of doctrine, grounded in divine revelation and faithfully transmitted by a living teaching authority called the magisterium; its liturgy (when done with dignity and reverence); its vast network of institutions and programs for relieving human suffering and meeting human needs—schools, charities, hospitals, and much else; and the huge quantity of beautiful art, music, and architecture with which the Church has enriched the world over the centuries.

In a special way, too, the Church today deserves credit for its stout-hearted defense of traditional values in regard to human life and human dignity in the face of ill-advised, politically correct pressures for change.

Bill Donohue acknowledges that his central point is “profoundly countercultural,” but Donohue, holder of a doctorate in sociology, provides the evidence to support it. As he explains, “those who greet every limitation on their freedom as an unfair burden are the most likely to break norms—the rules of society that are commonly agreed to as a condition of civility. This is as unhealthy for the individual as it is destructive to society.”

By contrast, he writes, “it is not the abandonment of constraint that liberates, it is its rational embrace.” And herein lies the Catholic advantage.

If this be triumphalism, make the most of it.


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About Russell Shaw 181 Articles
Russell Shaw was secretary for public affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference from 1969 to 1987. He is the author of 20 books, including Nothing to Hide and the highly acclaimed American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America.