Skip to comments.How the Vatican views the American Catholic Church
Posted on 10/23/2004 5:55:43 PM PDT by sinkspur
I'm in the United States this week, where among other things I spoke twice in the Boston area, once for the Voice of the Faithful in Winchester and again at Boston College as part of their "Church in the 21st Century" project. I jokingly suggested that Boston groups should have me in whenever the Red Sox play the Yankees, since my talks coincided with two dramatic extra-inning victories in the American League Championship Series.
Here's a tip for anyone invited to speak in Boston: Begin by acknowledging the legitimacy of popular anger and disillusionment with church authorities. At Boston College, where I had been asked to talk about "Rome's View of the American Church," I neglected to follow my own advice, and I heard about it from some in the audience.
Boston was the epicenter of the sexual abuse crisis, and it has been rocked anew by one of the largest parish closings in American Catholic history. The frustration Catholics there feel is a fact, however one explains it. My experience, for what it's worth, is that any attempt to explain the complexities facing church officials without conceding the good reasons people have for feeling riled up courts misunderstanding.
Having said that, I tried to lay out some of what Rome sees when it looks at the United States and American Catholicism. I don't pretend that I was able to offer anything other than a few random impressions, but I do think reflection on these points might suggest some fruitful possibilities for dialogue.
* * *
I laid out five premises.
First, and this will be a familiar point to regular "Word from Rome" readers, there is no such thing as "the Vatican" in the sense in which journalists and activists often use the term, i.e., an organism with a unified intellect and will and therefore a single view on every subject. Instead, the Vatican is a complex bureaucracy in which different officials hold different ideas. Of course, officials in the Holy See are unified by their commitment to the content of the Catechism and by their participation in the ministry of the Successor of Peter, but that leaves ample room for differing styles, personalities and outlooks.
Second, it's worth recalling that American Catholics are six percent of the global Catholic population. There are 65 million Catholics in the United States, out of a global total of 1.1 billion Catholics. Necessarily, this means that American issues are not always, or even normally, what Vatican officials think about when they get out of bed in the morning or go to bed at night. The truth is that Vatican officials spend much less time thinking about Americans than Americans often suspect.
Third, despite the Catholic church's image as rigidly hierarchical and ultra-centralized, it actually is one of the most decentralized institutions on earth. A staff of some 2,700 people in the Roman Curia oversees the affairs of some 1.1 billion Catholics worldwide. Management guru Peter Drucker once calculated that if the same ratio were to be applied to the U.S. government, exactly 500 people would be on the federal payroll. The point is that even if Rome wanted to follow American affairs closely, it would lack the infrastructure to do so.
Fourth, there is a cultural gap between Main Street USA and the world of the Holy See that often skews perceptions. The example I gave in Boston concerned time. America, as I have said before, is a microwave culture. We want things done immediately, and any failure to spring into action is usually construed as delay. The Vatican, on the other hand, is a crockpot culture. Food takes a long time to simmer, but the belief is that it tastes better at the end. Taking one's time is usually understood not as fecklessness, but as leaving room for mature reflection. The point is that trying to understand Rome's perceptions of America without appreciating the impact of the cultural gap leads to misimpressions.
Finally, I believe in what a friend of mine in Rome calls the "hermeneutics of charity," meaning that in trying to understand what someone else is saying, it's usually not helpful to begin by imputing ill will. It's more productive, and usually more accurate, to assume that the other party has good reasons for the convictions they hold, and seek to grasp what those reasons might be.
With that background, I tried to lay out some schematic and incomplete impressions of Roman attitudes towards America.
* * *
To begin with, some positive impressions.
First, there is tremendous respect in the Holy See for the technical competence and the can-do spirit of Americans. It was an American, now Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia, who as a monsignor in the Secretariat of State brought that office into the computer age. It was also an American, Cardinal Edmund Szoka of Detroit, who was brought over to Rome to straighten out the Vatican's budget. More broadly, Romans are often struck by the remarkable ecclesiastical infrastructure that the American church has built over the years -- a network of schools, hospitals, and social service agencies that is the envy of the Catholic world.
Second, there is awareness that parish life in the United States is remarkably dynamic. In Europe and other parts of the world, parishes are often sacramental filling stations -- people come for the Eucharist, baptisms, marriages and funerals, but little else. The American model of the parish as a ministerial beehive, with youth ministries, Bible study groups, RCIA programs, Marriage Encounter, and so on, is striking in comparison. Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles tells the story of a meeting with John Paul II on one of his ad limina visits, when Mahony asked the pope why he favored the new movements. John Paul responded that in Europe, parishes too often don't evangelize effectively, especially with the young, while the movements do. The pope went on to say that he believed the United States was among a handful of countries where the vision of the Second Vatican Council for parish life was fully realized.
Third, there is appreciation in Rome for the underlying religiosity of American culture. In Europe these days, it is problematic even to mention the name of God in public discourse. While Americans fret over whether John Kerry is Catholic enough, Europeans are at the same time blackballing Italian politician Rocco Buttiglione as a candidate for the European Commission because he's too Catholic. Buttiglione has said that he supports the church on abortion, gay marriage and the role of women within families, which has been enough for a number of European governments to oppose him. All this has provoked Italian journalist Vittorio Messori to remark that today there are three classes of people one can oppress with impunity: hunters, smokers and Catholics. The high level of religious belief and practice in the United States, plus the very public use of religious vocabulary, stands out against that backdrop.
Fourth, there is a lively sense of the generosity and good-heartedness of Americans. Vatican officials routinely point out that whatever one makes of American foreign policy, it should not be forgotten that whenever there is a war, famine or natural disaster, it is typically the Americans who rush in with aid. American Catholics are also generous on the home front. In 2002, for example, Catholic schools in America educated 2.7 million children, many from low-income families; Catholic Charities assisted 10 million people; and Catholic hospitals provided $2.8 billion worth of uncompensated care for poor and low income Americans. Finally, American Catholics are also generous with Rome. The Vatican's annual operating budget is $260 million, of which Americans contribute perhaps 25 percent (The United States and Germany are always the largest donor nations, but Americans make voluntary contributions while the Germans rely largely on the church tax).
Fifth, there is a growing appreciation in the Holy See for the special challenges facing the American church, created by the press, the legal system, the size and diversity of the country, and its unique cultural tradition. One focal point for this appreciation has been the sex abuse crisis. Examples of how the Vatican has responded differently include the rejection and then approval of the American sex abuse norms in record time in 2002, the decision to convene a unique scientific panel on pedophilia in April 2003, and the assignment of Sean O'Malley to Boston after just a year in Palm Beach. All were departures from business as usual.
* * *
Now for some negative impressions.
First, the Holy See is a European institution, which means that general European prejudices about the United States find echoes in the Vatican. Many would regard Americans, for example, as often arrogant, insisting on doing things their way. Many would see the United States as reckless, a kind of "cowboy culture," shooting first and asking questions later. Many also believe that to explain anything about the United States, the key is to "follow the money," whether it's the invasion of Iraq or the sexual abuse crisis.
Second, some in the Holy See, including some of the deepest thinkers, believe there is something profoundly un-Catholic about American culture that too often finds it way into the church. It's not just that the editorial writers at The New York Times and elsewhere don't like the church's stands on abortion or gay marriage, but that at a much deeper level, American culture has been shaped by forces hostile to Catholic anthropology and social ethics: for example, radical individualism, pragmatism, and capitalism. Observers in the Vatican, though certainly not just there, sometimes wonder if American Catholics fully appreciate the tension that sometimes exists between those two affiliations.
Third, there is a sense in the Vatican, again one that reflects broader European attitudes, that Americans sometimes have a messianic self-understanding, and a dualistic way of dividing the world into "us and them" that reflects the country's Calvinist heritage. This impulse can give rise, among other phenomena, to a kind of puritanical hysteria about sin that is foreign to the Mediterranean instinct of tolerance for human weakness. During the sex abuse crisis, many Vatican officials thought they detected this hysteria at work in the demand that every priest who even once had committed an act of abuse, no matter how distant in the past, be removed from ministry.
Fourth, some in the Vatican believe that American Catholicism sometimes suffers from a weak ecclesiology that reflects the country's Congregationalist tradition. As Cardinal Francis George of Chicago has put it, "American Catholics are denominationally Catholic but culturally Protestant." Among other things, this means that American Catholics often identify much more strongly with their local parish or national church than they do with the universal church, a kind of reduction of Catholicism to the local church that many in Rome find troubling.
Finally, there is a fear that America's youthfulness, and the dizzying pace of change in the culture, produce a certain lack of historical memory. To take one concrete example, some American Catholics have suggested that in response to the sexual abuse crisis, church structures should be reformed to compel bishops to share authority with the laity. Vatican officials, and again not just them, point out that over the course of church history, crises have tended to flare up precisely when the bishop's authority has been weakened. Hostile states have long seen undercutting bishops and distancing them from Rome as the key to subverting the Catholic church; this was the strategy of Soviet satellite states, as it is of the Chinese government today. Hence they are wary of reform proposals in response to specific crises that may not reflect broader historical cautions.
* * *
Finally, I ended with a few reflections on what to do with all this. Given that some Vatican officials think in these terms, what should that suggest to American Catholics?
First, it indicates that communication is always translation. Americans cannot make statements that carry a certain meaning in their culture and assume they will be understood on a one-to-one basis in Rome. Communication across cultures is always a difficult business, and it is no different in this case. The same point, with equal force, applies when Rome is attempting to communicate to Americans.
Second, all this suggests that dialogue between Rome and America has never been more important. One current example: Many American Catholics have concluded in the wake of the sexual abuse crisis that a reform of the episcopal office is needed in the direction of more shared responsibility, collegiality, and lay empowerment. They believe that one root of the crisis was the tendency of bishops to make decisions in isolation, cut off from all but a small circle of advisors. Finanical payoffs, decisions to transfer troubled priests, and so on too often happened in secret, the antidote to which would be greater transparency and consultation. In the Vatican, meanwhile the reading is often exactly the opposite, that what happened in the United States was a failure of episcopal nerve. Bishops were too likely to be influenced by therapists, lawyers and spin doctors, rather than having the courage to do what was in the pastoral best interests of their people. The solution is a different kind of bishop, stronger and bolder, less afraid to make tough decisions. Hence while many Americans are pushing for one model of episcopal leadership, several recent appointments in the United States seem to cut in a different direction. If we can't find a way to name this phenomenon, and to talk about it constructively, the risk is greater conflict and division - and surely all parties can concede that this is troubling.
Finally, I think all this suggests the need for patience. The Catholic church, both in the United States and around the world, faces a cluster of complex challenges about which people of deep faith and good will may reach different conclusions. That complexity, coupled with the difficulties of communication across the cultural gap, mean that easy or swift solutions are improbable. Finding a way forward is a long-term project, and Catholics will increasingly need to draw comfort and sustenance from their common faith that ultimately the Spirit will not desert the church.
...The pope went on to say that he believed the United States was among a handful of countries where the vision of the Second Vatican Council for parish life was fully realized...
I don't understand. Those of us who grew up pre-V2 are told we had a "ghetto Church," that we spent all of our time in the parish and didn't engage the "world." So it can't be that there weren't enough activities going on in the parishes all those years (or centuries). What exactly is happening now that is so invigorating? Is it all those women having meetings and all the inane "ministries" that keep forming? Is it the busybody parish councils?
It's all so sad.
Not where I live.
What country do you live in?
Which one? ;-)
Excellent article. I think Mr. Allen is spot on all the way through it. Thanks for posting it.
Allen's good; in fact, he's the best reporter on all things Vatican, which is why he's the "go-to" guy when everybody else wants to know what's going on in Rome.
"The pope went on to say that he believed the United States was among a handful of countries where the vision of the Second Vatican Council for parish life was fully realized."
I would most firmly hope that this statement is badly misquoted out of context. As to the disaster whcih has struck most US parishes over the past 40 years is reviewed, we do infact find a general pattern of destruction of traditional parish societies, public devotions, tradition, etc., ad nauseum.
As a matter of fact the more that statement is read - in light of the church closings, invalid/disrespectful masses, heresies preached from pulpits, it becomes even more pathetic. The NCR is not exactly noted for being in touch with Roman Catholic orthodoxy of faith or practice in any way shape of manner. Rather, it has the very sad reputation for pandering to a plethora of liberal causes and every manner of dissent - sometimes very cleverly couched in seemingly middle-of-the-road language.
The possible conclusions one could reach include: a) the NCR is mis-stating the truth & either misquoting or paraphrasing the Pope's comments grossly out of context, b) the Holy Father has lost his mind, or c)by inference Vatican II advocates the closing of parishes, sex scandals, loss of worshippers by the thousands, etc., etc.
While the humorist in me would want to check options a, b, and c (!), the realist in me leads me to believe "A" as the truth. AS noted above, the NCR is not known for its orthodoxy, support for the Pope (or the papacy in general), etc.
With reference to Europe, what Allen is writing about their parishes is a patent lie! I have relatives and friends in Europe. While the numbers of church going Catholics in Europe has declined overall, and many urban churches might indeed be devoid of parish societies (not unlike here), outside urban areas the parishes have a strong life.
In rural areas, if the roof needs repair, the men of the village do it! they do not hire the "approved diocesan contractor"! Parish life - indeed. For those who are strong in the faith, the parish is the center of their life.
As to the youth, many of them have patterned themselves after US kids - and religion is not a part of their lives. But for those of them who are religious, it is very important to them.
I notice Allen is getting lots of good press. Pat Buchanan, or someone equally surprising, as I recall, was just saying some good things about him the other day. He seems to be a real reporter. Of course some might argue that a "real reporter" is someone who spends their time getting drunk in the bar and filing copy that someone gives them as a way to "spin" the latest issues, but I'm thinking of a "real reporter" as someone who wears out some shoe leather chasing down the true story.
He can be as liberal as he wants, as long as he reports the truth. In fact, speaking of Rome correspondents for NCR, one of the most informative books I ever read was Xavier Rynne's history of Vatican II. He told you what was really going on, and I was very happy to get the liberal perspective. It was much more objective than the equivalent neo-Catholic perspective (I was totally unaware of a traditional perspective at the time).
An obvious mis-quote......either that or outright lie. I would however agree that the vision of the Second Vatican Council for parish life was fully realized, but no way did the Pope say that.
Pastors of souls should see to it that the chief hours, especially Vespers, are celebrated in common in church on Sundays and the more solemn feasts. (SC 100)
If I understand correctly, there seems to be some major inconsistencies in this article.
The Vatican it seems has a negative view of American "radical individualism" yet, criticizes calls by American Catholics for "shared responsibility" of the episcopal office. They prefer all the power be vested in a "strong" bishop. So which is? Are we too individualistic or too collegial?
Then we are told that in the opinion of the Vatican, "what happened in the United States was a failure of episcopal nerve. Bishops were too likely to be influenced by therapists, lawyers and spin doctors, rather than having the courage to do what was in the pastoral best interests of their people." yet, we are also told in the same article, "Americans sometimes have a messianic self-understanding, and a dualistic way of dividing the world into "us and them" that reflects the country's Calvinist heritage. This impulse can give rise, among other phenomena, to a kind of puritanical hysteria about sin that is foreign to the Mediterranean instinct of tolerance for human weakness."
Again which is it? Are we puritanical and accepting of human weakness or have we lead the bishops to be too accepting of it? You can't have it both ways. If we were as described how could the abuse scandals have ever happened?
No wonder so many American Catholics are confused....
There can be no mistake here. The Pope, thanks to the agenda of the enemy, has had too many words put in his mouth and this is simply another blatant example.
* A group of heretics addressed by an indifferentist. It must have been stimulating :)
* A group of heretics addressed by an indifferentist. It must have been stimulating :)
Thankfully more Catholics are realizing that the American Church is in open apostasy - thanks to the bishops bestowed upon us by the current pope and his post-conciliar predecessors...
Some people can't handle the truth. If more parishes had engaged the world, we wouldn't be exposed to the societal rotgut we find ourselves exposed to day-in-and-day-out.
Agreed. Though there are several ways to interpret the statement - and still come to the same dismal conclusion each time! I just wish more Catholics would "arise from their slumber" and realize that the have and are "being had".