Review: No More Catholic than the Popes

Peter J. Boyer has written a perceptive, balanced analysis of Catholicism in America since the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II). In “A Hard Faith: How the New Pope and His Predecessor Redefined Vatican II,” in the May 16, 2005, issue of The New Yorker, Boyer traces the confusion wrought by the so-called “spirit of Vatican II” and the recovery of the Council’s authentic teaching during the pontificate of Pope John Paul II. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Benedict XVI, plays a key role in this story as the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. This is a story with ramifications that are both religious and political.

Boyer provides an incredibly accurate narrative of the controversies which embroiled the Church, airing opinions of progressives and conservatives, the orthodox and the heterodox, reformers and counter-reformers. He may have confused his editors at The New Yorker who hyped the article in a promotional flyer attached to the newsstand issue: “The Pope’s U.S. strategy: Benedict XVI wants a more fervent, orthodox, evangelical Church 0151; even if it drives people away. Will Americans go for it?”

While not exactly untrue, the headline might lead readers to assume that Boyer’s account is yet another litany of complaints by a dissident Catholic so common in Europe and North America. Instead, Boyer’s tale describes a process of transformation and renewal, stemming from the tireless work of John Paul II which yielded the fruits of what papal biographer George Weigel has termed the “evangelical adventure of dynamic orthodoxy.”

Boyer acknowledges that “the animus directed at Ratzinger (who said he had prayed not to be elected) was also aimed, at least implicitly, at the pontificate of the man newly entombed in St. Peter’s Basilica, Pope John Paul II.” The late Pope’s towering media presence caused many observers to overlook “the radical core of his papacy.” Indeed, “his manifest, and deeply spiritual, Christocentrism” led him to proclaim “an absolute Truth, based on a fundamentally orthodox theology.” Boyer does resort to conventional liberal jargon in characterizing Ratzinger’s role in hammering out details, “punishing” dissidents, and discouraging liturgical novelty. He also characterizes the orthodoxy and anti-relativism of John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger as “fundamentalism.”

Despite these few lapses, Boyer correctly notes that Cardinal Ratzinger has faced the decline in the numbers of faithful Catholics “with an air of determined acceptance.” He quotes the new Pope’s view that “The essential thing in history begins always with small, more convinced communities.” Boyer, in turn, recognizes that there is, in fact, a “remnant” taking shape in the Church “in the growing, fervently, evangelical new movements encouraged by John Paul II, and in a resurgent orthodoxy in the seminary. This renewal, as it calls itself, is led by a rising group of churchmen who are unashamedly orthodox and who were fiercely loyal to the person, and agenda, of John Paul II.”

Boyer cites the pop historian, Thomas Cahill, for the proposition that John Paul II and his insistence on orthodoxy, in Cahill’s words, “may, in time to come, be credited with destroying his church.” According to Boyer, Ratzinger “concedes the prospect of a smaller Church, but he would likely contest the assertion that orthodoxy, or Vatican authoritarianism, is the cause.” On the contrary, the opposite may be true. Exhibit A is the waning of mainline Protestant denominations which have a distinctly liberal bent. Another case in point, cited by Boyer, is the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits, which has demonstrated “an inclination to dissent.” Once known to American Catholics of a certain age as “the Pope’s Marines,” the order is nearing a crisis. “Since Vatican II, the worldwide number of Jesuits has fallen almost by half, to fewer than twenty thousand. Last year, the Jesuits received five hundred and twelve new members, but eight hundred and thirty-two Jesuits either died or left the order,” says Boyer.

Boyer recognizes that the traditionalists’ argument that Catholic communities fair better when they adhere to orthodoxy tends to be anecdotal, but he seems to find the evidence persuasive. He believes it is clear that some “conservative” religious communities have suffered no shortages of vocations. “The hard faith preached by John Paul II, posed as a call to moral heroism, struck a startlingly responsive note with young people,” states Boyer. And he concedes that “John Paul’s pontificate undeniably shaped a generation of young Catholics that are more orthodox, and have a clearer understanding of the faith, than the generation they succeed. In the seminary, in the religious orders, and on Catholic college campuses, they are referred to as generation J.P.II.”

Take the case of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal in the South Bronx whose public face is the psychologist, prolific author, and gifted preacher, Father Benedict (that name again!) Groeschel. Boyer describes this order as “orthodoxy unplugged.” Beards, sandals, habits. Poverty, chastity, and obedience (“No bling-bling, no sweet thing, Christ is King,” in the community vernacular). Since 1987 the order grew from eight friars to more than a hundred with so many novices necessitating a search for new housing.

This resurgence in theological and religious orthodoxy challenges the modern Democratic Party. John Kerry’s failure to resolve his problems relative to the reception of Holy Communion and his support for abortion rights is prompting Democrats “to re-orient themselves on the moral-values plane,” asserts Boyer. Previously, they could count on cover from Church leaders such as the late Cardinal Joseph Bernadin of Chicago, author of the “seamless garment” concept and the so-called “consistent ethic of life” which elevated prudential matters of policy — economics, welfare, war, and peace — to the same level of concern as inherently immoral acts such as abortion or euthanasia. John Paul II in his 1995 encyclical, Evangelium Vitae (“The Gospel of Life”) challenged this construct. Moreover, in 2002 the new Pontiff, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger issued a “Doctrinal Note” in which he emphasized that “John Paul II, continuing the constant teaching of the Church, has reiterated many times that those who are directly involved in lawmaking bodies have a ‘grave and clear obligation to oppose’ any law that attacks human life. For them, as for every Catholic, it is impossible to promote such laws or to vote for them.” To the detriment of John Kerry and many other Democrats, there are now bishops willing to challenge the political culture on this and other fundamental issues.

Whether or not the Catholic Church in America expands or contracts, it is becoming more self-confident and counter-cultural. Peter J. Boyer has provided a compelling story of the Church’s journey out of the doldrums of post-Vatican II malaise even if his own views on the matter remain a bit obscure.

G. Tracy Mehan, III, was Assistant Administrator for Water in President Bush’s first term. He writes from Vienna, Virginia.

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