Does Catholicism “Have Issues”?


For an institution many believe is declining and irrelevant, the Catholic Church sure gets a lot of attention. And advice. It’s remarkable how many people who have little use for Catholicism are quick to offer warnings when a new pope is about to be chosen. They may not much believe in absolutes, but they’re quite certain what the Church ought to do next – if it wants to survive.

Of course, most of them suggest becoming like themselves, as if – Christ’s hard sayings having been liberalized away – people will rush out of the house on a Sunday morning to hear the same things from the pulpit that they could get over coffee reading the Sunday paper. It’s the old modern litany: equality, inclusiveness, tolerance, not judging, compassion, social justice, respecting different points of view.

These are all good things, understood in the right way and context. But they are at most half of the story. Besides, the world already thinks it practices them far better than the old men in Rome, who persist in saying some things are not good for human life – like killing it in the womb. And who believe that restricting ourselves to the human horizon alone will inevitably lead to an inhumane humanism. We had multiple examples of that phenomenon in the last century, but don’t seem to be done with it yet.

You don’t have to look very far, for instance, to see that inclusiveness and respect for different views don’t much count when it comes to Catholicism. Even basic civility goes out the window. Some of the things that have been said about Benedict XVI since he announced his resignation last week  – from his “Nazi past” to his “crimes against humanity” in the priestly abuse cases – would be thought “offensive” directed at any other religious leader.

But in its way, it’s a tribute. The pope still matters and this pope in particular has made a special mark through his thoughtfulness, conscientiousness, and humility – all of which entered into his decision to resign. The world does not let such good deeds go unpunished. Still, one thinks of Mark Twain’s character who, tarred and feathered and ridden out of town on a rail, remarked:  “If it werent for the honor, Id just as soon have walked.”

Despite all the talk of tolerance and openness in our society, Catholic teachings people find neuralgic get simply excluded in one of two ways.  Some are stigmatized as sheer irrationality – e.g., “homophobia” is just mental illness or ingrained prejudice. We don’t yet have the “psychiatric” wards and re-education camps of the older totalitarians. But give it time. Blessed are you if the human resources department has not already scheduled you for sensitivity training to deal with your “issues.”

           Wills, above, and Dionne

The other way these “issues” get treated is to classify them as mere “policies” as if the next pope or one down the line can simply change Catholic teaching to suit whatever happens to be the dominant mood. Then everyone can go home happy – and undisturbed.   

Modern democratic societies naturally gravitate towards this attitude because who wants to be disturbed? And anyway, we now see everything through a political lens. Not that long ago, even public questions were governed by stable constitutional principles that restricted the state from involving itself in many questions. All that has been swept aside. If civil laws can change radically, why not Church law? Even Catholics rarely have a clue what’s at stake.

Indeed, Catholics have taken up the cudgel. Garry Wills – a brilliant man who was once a Jesuit seminarian and benefitted from the tutelage of William F. Buckley, Jr. – has just published a book, Why Priests?, in which he argues that there are no priests created by Jesus or operative in the New Testament. So the entire Catholic structure, from the millennia-old Apostolic Succession to the daily consecration of bread and wine at Mass, is a usurpation of spiritual power by clerics.

This view seems modern and honest, but is really fundamentalist and insincere. Wills and many like him adopt the utmost Biblical literalism when it comes to priests, but how about the Scriptural strictures on divorce or same-sex acts or the fires of Hell? Catholic and Orthodox churches examined his arguments and long ago decided that they do not correspond to their understanding of the Gospel. It’s quite easy to find churches – they’re called Protestant – where they are practiced. Anyone like Garry Wills who disputes the Catholic “thing” has a ready alternative at hand any Sunday.

Wills at least makes arguments, of a sort. But perhaps the most abject public Catholicism is the kind a figure like the Washington Post’s E. J. Dionne has been spouting in recent years. Yesterday, he called for the cardinals to elect a nun as the best example of Catholicism. Dionne, of course, is not so crazy as to think this will happen. His real aim is to attack, not to persuade.

Because he clearly does not mean the kind of nuns many of us remember fondly –those old dames who gave us our early educations. Those nuns were both strict and nurturing, a lot like your own mother – and Jesus himself. Dionne’s nuns all seem to be the indulgent kind who produce spoiled children, or who in the words of Nuns on the Bus Sister Simone Campbell come to regard liberal social activism as their very faith.

Meanwhile, in Rome, Benedict XVI is quietly serving out his last weeks as Holy Father. He no doubt anticipated the firestorm. We can expect to hear more – much more – in coming days about his “failures” and his being virtually driven from office. But he still decided that leaving was the best thing a man of his age could do for the Church and the world. Few in either location have recognized what he’s really done because most people are, unlike him, self-absorbed – with their own “issues.”


Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.