A Catholicism fit for journalists?

A Catholicism fit for journalists? August 2, 2010

Editor’s note: This past week, tmatt took a vacation to a site with no telephone or wifi. Imagine that. Such places still exist. Thus, there was no weekly column for Scripps Howard. However, here is a recent post from GetReligion.org that would be of interest to regular readers of this website.


Two weeks ago, the Sunday Boston Globe magazine ran an essay — not a news story, I admit — that I have been thinking about ever since. It was called “What I Believe” and it was written by Charles Pierce, a staff writer at the publication.

This long essay covers a lot of territory and it’s possible to criticize it — either positive criticism or negative criticism — in several different ways. Most of all, it is a stunningly American look at the earthquakes that have rocked the Catholic Church in the decades after Vatican II and Woodstock.

The key is that Pierce believes that the Catholic hierarchy’s claims to unique religious authority are gone. Period. Thus, consider these two important passages in the piece, as he explains that the Catholic Church in which he worships is his alone. He has a personal church and, he states clearly, he does not need a personal Savior:

In the church of my youth, with the priests reciting incomprehensible Latin, their backs to the people, walled off by an altar rail and two millenniums’ worth of imperial design, the purple always came out at Advent and at Lent. It was the color of penance, we were told. And so it is, and penitence begins within, in one mind and one soul and in what the nuns used to call an informed conscience. That’s where my Catholicism is now. It is a penitential faith. That’s where you can look for it. It is possible, I have come to realize, that I’ve grown up to become an anti-Catholic Catholic.

And then the passage that is being quoted most often:

The Vatican can beg. It can plead. But it can no longer demand.

Which brings me to the most fundamental rule of my Catholicism — nobody gets to tell me that I’m not a Catholic.

Those of my fellow Catholics who remain loyal to the institutional structure of the Church don’t get to do so. People who talk glibly of “cafeteria Catholicism” don’t get to do so. People who seek to coin Catholic doctrine into political advantage — be they left or right — don’t get to do so. No priest gets to do so, and no bishop, either, and that especially means the bishop of Rome himself. No pope can tell me I’m not a Catholic.

Now, it is possible to see this article only through the lens of Catholic faith, practice and doctrine. If you want to see critiques of that kind, they are easy to find. You can start by clicking here and heading over to the conservative site CatholicCulture.org, where you can find this quick and easy linkage between Pierce’s faith and, surprise, his employer:

… (For) decades the Globe has operated on the assumption that the only good Catholic is a bad Catholic. At the opening of his article, Pierce cheerfully identifies himself as an “anti-Catholic Catholic.” Thus he qualifies perfectly as the man who will tell Globe readers what they should believe. …

Nobody can tell Charles Pierce that he’s not a Catholic. Nor can anyone tell him what the Catholic Church teaches. The Church teaches what Pierce wants it to teach. And he believes it all.

Or you can read a blunt post on this topic by Rod Dreher, who, it must be noted, made the difficult and painful choice to leave the Catholic Church in a crisis of conscience. If one does not believe all the claims of the Catholic Church, Dreher would say, one should have the integrity not take its vows and not to receive its Sacraments.

One should, in other words, make a serious, informed decision and then hit the exit door. Thus, Dreher writes:

Hey Charles — you’re not a Catholic! Man up and admit it. You are a Catholic by birth and cultural identification, but you have ceased to believe as Catholicism teaches. Why do you lack the courage to be what you are: a non-Catholic Christian? … A Catholicism in which you have no obligation at all to believe what the Church authoritatively teaches, or to act as it prescribes, is not Catholicism at all. At all. It’s one thing to say that you struggle to accept this teaching of the church intellectually, or have trouble living that teaching out. Everyone does, even the saints. But it’s entirely another thing to say you don’t have to try, and that that’s okay, because you are your own pope. If you don’t believe this stuff, but like to come by the church for the music, or the camaraderie, okay, fine — that’s between you and your priest, and God. But to reject the Church’s authority entirely, as Pierce does, but to still call yourself a Catholic in good standing, is either hypocrisy, or insanity — the insanity of the solipsist.

In other words, Pierce is a congregationalist in a one-man congregation, which is a very American thing to be.

There are plenty of Baptists like that and, obviously, scores of Unitarians. This was the stance of a devout Episcopalian I once interviewed — head of the vestry at the church right behind the U.S. Supreme Court — who was also an atheist. He took his confirmation vows with his intellectual fingers crossed and, Sunday after Sunday, said the creed while redefining the words inside his head. People do things like that and, in his parish, that was what being an Episcopalian was all about.

But the Globe essay would not have stuck in my head like a bad disco tune (and I would not be writing this post) if I didn’t think there was a religion-news angle to this, something linked to what GetReligion is all about.

You see, elsewhere in his essay, Piece writes about some of the details of the current crisis in Catholic sanctuaries in this land and elsewhere and then he says:

Church attendance in the United States is down.

A survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, released in April 2009, found that one in 10 US adults has left the Catholic Church after having been raised Catholic — with Catholicism having had the largest net loss in members of all the major religious groups in the United States. About half of those who departed and now identify themselves as “unaffiliated” left the church because of its views on abortion, homosexuality, and birth control. (In 2009, the American Religious Identification Survey by Hartford’s Trinity College found that, between 1990 and 2008, the percentage of people in Massachusetts who identified themselves as Catholic dropped to 39 percent from 54 percent.) The sexual-abuse scandal, then, erupted within a church that already was struggling with serious demographic pressures.

The implication is that if the Catholic Church would only modernize on these kinds of social issues, these people would not leave and, thus, the church would enter a new era growth and prosperity. New, progressive Christians and young people would flock into the pews.

Right. Right. I hear the voices of the traditional Catholics out there who have a quick response to that argument: “Yeah, just like the Episcopal Church is growing (surf in this file) and all of the other liberal Protestant churches.”

Many traditional Catholics are just as sure that their pews would be full, once again, if only the Pierces of this world would pack up and leave. They note the vitality and growth of a few conservative Catholic orders and the number of men seeking the priesthood in zip codes served by more traditional seminaries and bishops.

But, you see, that’s only half the story, too. Neither side of that debate seems to want to talk about all of the facts. There are ghosts and skeletons in Catholic closets on the left and the right. This era of sweeping changes — think birthrates, the rise of the Sunbelt, suburbanization, immigration and a host of other factual changes — is more complex than that.

At the same time, however, I worry that many journalists think that Pierce’s view is accurate in terms of history, that many journalists truly believe that Catholics — to name one example — truly do not need to go to confession and struggle to live out the teachings of their faith in order to remain practicing Catholics in the sacramental meaning of that word. In other words, the Catholic Church gets to define the borders of the Catholic Church (ditto for the Unitarians, Baptists, Episcopalians and others).

Thus, it would help if the Globe ran another piece by another Catholic in the newsroom — the same placement, the same length — entitled, “What My Church Teaches and Why I Believe It.”

Surely there are Catholics in that newsroom who would welcome the chance to write that essay?

Surely the Globe newsroom is diverse enough for that to happen? Or was Pierce actually speaking for his newspaper, as well as for himself?

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