The following is a response to Professor Rahe’s post, "American Catholicism's Pact with the Devil."
The whole topic of the church's mission in a mostly secular and mass media world is worth a slew of articles and books, but that's for some other time. Let me focus on a couple ideas that spring up from the Professor's acute criticism.
My argument: The American Catholic Church, especially in a country with “separation of church and state” can’t (and shouldn’t) operate the same way as it does in Latin America or medieval France. We can’t go to the pulpit and re-direct or influence the ship of state. That’s not our role.
The Roman Catholic Church has played an important role in public life, but in each country, the role differs. In Soviet Russia, the church adopted a different role than it did in Renaissance Italy. The Catholic role differs by country and culture, and although its mission never changes, its method does.
In America, in the mid-nineteenth century, the American bishops gathered to plan out the American mission. They soon decided that the best way to serve their parishioners, who were overwhelmingly immigrants, was to guide the immigrants into the mainstream. The way they chose to do it was through schools and institutions. And let’s face it – by and large, the strategy worked! Catholics are as American as anyone else. Unfortunately, those same Catholics are now as prosperous as other Americans, don’t feel the sting of discrimination, and have forgotten how much they owe to the church for the prosperity they now enjoy.
All of that was happening under the shifts of culture and politics, where Catholics were becoming part of the mainstream. For one thing, before World War II, American Catholics learned about their church from the church itself, because that was the only news source available. But these days, most Catholics learn about church issues through the non-Catholic media. That changes how you do things.
And the church was, and still is, an urban-oriented institution. The church’s home is the city. For most of Western civilization, you only had two antipodes: city and rural. But in the aftermath of World War II, the formerly poor Catholics all moved out into the affluent suburbs. To be blunt, the American Church isn’t well-structured for an affluent suburban population.
You should know, if you already didn’t, that the American hierarchy is well aware of these changes, and when they have their national conferences, the need for a new American mission is a frequent topic. The Church is now saying, "We once had a mission to mainstream the immigrants. We succeeded. Now what?" And now, whatever the plan is, we have to carry it out in a very different environment in a very different world. The vast majority of American Catholics aren’t sheep to be led blindly. We’re college-educated, media-trained, and most Americans form their moral perspective with little involvement from the church … just like every other American.
Consider artificial contraception. Why doesn’t the church just demand that everyone stop using it? They did. The church did exactly as Professor Rahe suggested, and what happened? They were laughed at and scorned.
Consider Roe v. Wade. Professor Rahe claims that if the American hierarchy really wanted to oppose abortion, they’d have had it overturned long ago. But that’s a fantasy. I can’t see how anyone can argue, with a straight face, that the American bishops haven’t strongly opposed abortion. The problem is that the issue of abortion isn’t controlled by a branch of government that is required to respond to opposing viewpoints. The issue is in the hands of the Supreme Court, and so long as it stays there (it shouldn’t be there, but that’s for another thread), there’s simply a limit on what anyone can do about it.
This current fracas over the contraception mandate is different from the previous political skirmishes precisely because the issue isn’t really a Catholic-only debate. The Catholics may be at the front of this battle, but we’re hardly alone. This issue is an American issue, and that’s why the bishops are getting prominent play and attention … because in this case, they’re not speaking for Catholics alone, but for everyone who cherishes religious liberty.
The fact that the American Catholic hierarchy doesn't operate with the same influence as it does in other countries, or with the revered authority that it is presumed to have, is not a sign that American Catholics have moral defects and political cowardice. There's no question that the hierarchy squandered a huge percentage of their moral capital when they didn't stop (and sometimes abetted) the pedophiles in the church. But to weave that into a composite condemnation that accuses the hierarchy of moral corruption is simply wrong and grossly unfair.
If the Professor's post suggests that once the church "embraced" the entitlement state, they sold their souls to the devil, and the pedophile scandal was just one symptom of a deeper cause, that's simply an accusation that doesn't stand up to scrutiny. That connects assumptions that are themselves flawed (e.g., that because a woman who wasn't even Catholic but hung out with Catholics joined FDR's cabinet and designed Social Security, somehow represents Catholicism's embrace of liberalism), and the conclusion is invalid (that Frances Perkins proves Catholicism's pact with the devil). That's a leap to a conclusion that not even Carl Lewis would attempt.
Look, I hate the pedophilia scandal, and I strongly oppose liberalism. But when it comes to the clergy of the church, many of whom I know and respect, those two aren't connected. Again, I think it's a terrible disservice to those vast majority of the clergy, men and women, who aren't nearly as political as the whackos who get face time on TV. Most of them pay attention to politics, but focus their day-to-day attention on the people in front of them - and shouldn't be swept together with the liberal whackos.