JULY 28, 2003
Steinfels's Catholicism: Crisis and Hope
Martin E. Marty
If I were to choose one book to pass to those who look for a fair-minded analysis of Catholicism in the United States today, it would be Peter Steinfels's new one: A People Adrift; The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America. I am going to devote two columns to it; first, because it is deserving and second, I am heading for a family-reunion and want to work ahead a bit.
Deserving it is, indeed. Steinfels for a decade was the New York Times senior religion correspondent, has taught at Georgetown and Notre Dame, and, with his wife Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, was awarded the Laetare Medal at Notre Dame. Since anyone who does not know him or of him will ask -- in these days of polarized Catholicism -- he mentions casually that he is numbered among the liberals. But the Catholic Left takes as much criticism from him as the Catholic Right. He is not a man of extremes and would do anything not to contribute to the civil wars within his church. If one adjective comes to mind to characterize the author I would say "fair-minded." He'd lose credentials if he were issuing a screed of the sort we read so often. This is a book full of pain, a love letter to the church, not the subject of Oedipal rage but of balanced analysis.
Still, Steinfels cannot avoid the word "crisis," which he sees to be profound and shows how and why this is so. He cannot avoid the topic of clerical abuse, but he would have written a book similar to this one had that abuse not become a front page and prime time matter two years ago. He'd like to move on to other dimensions of the crisis.
Nor does he see a single villain. Bishops, priests, heads of religious orders distanced from the scandal, get shown up for their unawareness, their indifference, their incompetence; at the same time, he has his heroes (e.g., the late Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago) and holds them up for examination. His report on how Cardinal Bernard Law and Co. sabotaged Bernardin's Common Ground Initiative, which was well stocked with conservatives, is revealing.
At times, Steinfels verges on being nostalgic, but does not allow himself to romanticize the pre-Vatican II church; he celebrates what Vatican II intended and that which conservative reactors and radical exploiters blunted. The book is full of statistics, most of which point to decline. Some are startling. None leaped out at me more than: "In 1965 approximately 65 percent of Catholics attended Mass every Sunday. In 2002, the rate was approximately 34 percent." The good news for Steinfels, a true Catholic and thus champion of the Mass: the numbers of those who received communion in 1965 was only 50 percent or less; now he thinks it is 90 percent. The priest shortage receives its due; he seems to care more about that than do Rome and hierarchs who are in denial.
Hope? "During a critical passage, when the bishops and the clergy appear either weak or paralyzed, the involvement or indifference of [a particular] kind of lay leadership could make a critical difference." Steinfels hopes it will be given a chance, but sometimes the book reads like a treatise based on wan hopes.