AUGUST 4, 2003
Crisis and Hope Part 2
Martin E. Marty
Last week Sightings introduced the just published A People Adrift, The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America by Peter Steinfels. Since this column is not in the book review or book promotion business, it has to regard a book as news in order to note it. And Steinfels's elaboration of crisis is news. Since our mission is to deal with "public religion" in America, it is always in place to ask how each week's subject relates to that area of concern. Here goes:
Notice of a Catholic crisis is a public matter because one-fourth of our citizenry, year-in and year-out, in times of hope or disappointment, of exiting communicants and new immigrants, tells poll-takers that their religious preference is Catholic. And even though many Americans no longer consider Catholicism to be "the THE Church," as comic Lenny Bruce liked to call it, and its members are not summonable as a bloc, as they once were perceived to be, Catholicism, divided and distraught as it may be, is still the biggest single religious force around. While its members, as Steinfels shows, pick and choose about papal and episcopal social teachings, what those teachings are draws notice.
I want to comment on an issue that ties the fate of Catholicism to "the rest" of American religion and American culture. It shares cultural shape and member attachment in ways startlingly similar to the "mainline Protestantism," which also claims 25 percent of the American citizenry. It links with the 25 percent tabbed "evangelical" on many issues, shares metropolitan life and many issues with the 8 percent that is "African-American Protestant," has long dealt in generally positive ways with the Jewish minority, and has a theology that enables it to live with some creative ease in the American sectors called "secular."
As in Sightings, we sometimes chronicle the sudden, dramatic, decline of Catholic participation in Quebec, the Netherlands, and elsewhere; I think back to seminary professors in Protestantism who, a half century ago as I remember them, told budding pastors to be happy if thriving Catholic churches were in the neighborhoods they would serve. The witness of full parking lots and signs of buzzing activity on Sunday mornings alone helped indicate that religious observance was of importance, and inspired non-Catholics to make church participation a vivid part of their lives. Catholic theological and cultural expression stimulated media interest in Christian and generally religious themes.
If the Catholic crisis that Steinfels describes continues, one asks: will American Catholic cathedrals become largely empty, haunted museums like their more artistically valuable counterparts on post-Christian Europe? Will Protestants, evangelicals, Jews, and others experience an ever-greater difficulty making their case that communal responses to the "signals of transcendence" (Peter Berger's phrase) and behavioral correlates are of weight and moment?
I have suspected that the Protestant and Jewish press have been notably restrained in commenting on the Catholic clerical abuse trauma not just to protect themselves some of their clerics are also disgraces but out of religiously motivated empathy, generosity, charity, and some regard for their own fate.