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Crucifixion of American Catholicism

Bare Ruined Choirs by Garry Wills Doubleday. 267 pp., $7.95

By Sim Johnston

OSWALD SPENGLER ONCE SAID that a sure sign of the decline of the West would be its increasing preoccupation with religiosity rather than religion. Today, with pop monstrosities like Jesus Christ Superstar on Broadway, Jesus freaks on the cover of Life, and cheap return tickets to Zen Satori available only Saturday night, we seem to be substituting an elaborate facade of images and facile spiritualism for any real commitments to spiritual growth. Our culture seems to be providing more and more channels for what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called "cheap grace," personal fulfillment, or the illusion of it, with no trial, no pain. Garry Wills rightly castigates the Jesus freaks as resorting to Jesus as the safest kind of high: "an experience, not a demand; an escape, not a task. He was an hallucinogen approved for private use by the Food and Drug Administration." Like some of their counter-culture predecessors, these new Jesus people repeatedly tell themselves how happy they are now. As Wills notes, Jesus, who is said to have wept over cities and been "sorrowful unto death," was obviously no Jesus freak.

Bare Ruined Choirs grew out of sorrow. It is the complaint of a Catholic who loved the Church of his boyhood, but who knows well that the old Church couldn't survive. The old Church was at least beautiful, built on a beautiful liturgy and a set of symbols which only the Catholic could understand the importance of not chewing the Communion host don't chew baby Jesus"), altar boy assignments at crazy hours "when God was a morning woozily began under candles: "JMJ's (for "Jesus Mary and Joseph") at the top of Schoolwork the sign of the Cross before a foul shot. "We crew up different." says Wills, and his description of what it was like to be a young Catholic before Vatican II is deeply moving especially if one experienced some of the things Wills members.

But the old Church was also built on what Willy labels "shared ignorance" and a shared refusal by Catholics to attest on each other. The flock's doubts were minimized for the sake of the children, a priests for the sake of the floke. "We all took each others hands. "says Wills, "and sat down together in the dark."

The book is more of a prose poem than a piece of analysis. Wills seems less concerned with telling us. What Is to Be Done than he is with setting a tone of hope in the midst of chaos Bare Ruined Choirs is pessimists about things in general, about collective man and his institutions, but tentatively optimistic about man as an individual, starting from himself and then teaching out to others.

In seeking to convey this sense, Wills succeeds brilliantly. Wills's failing is a kind endemic to the journalist who think well and thinks a lot. Wills's style, like Norman Mailer's is that of the elastic bag. He can go from profound talk about the Vatican doctrine on birth control as "biological teleology passing through stoic reductionism" to a discussion of the nun who thinks that public relations slogans and graphics are this era's most important contribution to the arts. He throws together all sorts of ideas and facts, shakes them up, and up, and Voila! The problem seems so simple, his solutions so perfect.

The reason this happens has a lot to do with the fact that Wills is one of the most talented writers around, and has by far the broadest scope of knowledge of any journalist. If his slick style is misleading, it does not appear that Wills misleads intentionally. In the end, even though his thoughts seem perfect, his message is that of a deeply troubled man who knows too much to be at peace with the world, or even his own thought.

WILLIS'S ANALYSIS of fifties liberalism and its culmination in the secular theology of Harvey Cox and the pragmatic style of John F. Kennedy is right on the mark even as it is somewhat more caustic than either deserves. In The Secular City, Cox carried the theology of Reinhold Niehbur one step too far. Like Niebuhr, Cox recognized the need for "toughness" in the face of the 20th Century challenges. But unlike Niehbuhr who endorsed pragmatism with fear and trembling. Cox embraced it with enormous enthusiasm.

To say that technopolitan man is pragmatic means that he is a kind of modern ascetic. He approached problems by isolating them from irrelevant considerations by bringing to bear the knowledge of different specialists, and by getting ready to grapple with a new series of problems when these have been solved

John Kennedy, according to both Wills and Cox, was the Secular City man par excellence. He was tough and grappled with problems without any ideological preconceptions. We know now that the problem with the Secular City, anti-ideological approach was its lack of any firm moral underpinnings.

Wills is particularly cogent on the lack of fit between Kennedy's Catholicism and his politics. Kennedy supporters insisted that the fact that their man was Catholic would have no effect on how he would act as President. One can find little organic intellectual connection between his faith and his politics." Wills quotes Arthur Schlesinger as saying. But if being Catholic has no effect on what one thinks or how one acts, then of what importance is Catholicism? The answer to Wills's question can only disturb those who tried to synthesize pragmatic liberalism in the Sixties style with Catholic faith. It couldn't be done.

The problem with Wills's analysis lies in its failure to deal adequately with these New Frontier Christians who were genuinely disturbed by their failure and went Left. Cox. He notes, "had rediscovered the irrational-though typically, he tried to limit it to irrational celebration and festivity." In fact, Cox had gone further than that, endorsing the politically radical and critical form of Christianity which Wills himself supports. Similarly, Robert Kennedy went far to the Left of his brother in his 1968 campaign.

That fifties Catholic liberalism was mistaken is obvious. But there were those who saw its flaws then-Left critics like C. Wright Mills, and to a lesser extent, Adiai Stevenson and Gene MaCarthy (who noted that he was both more Catholic and more liberal than Kennedy),-though such people were hard to find. Similarly, the Right also saw how mistaken the liberals were, although often for the wrong reasons. What is important, however, is that many of Kennedy's advocates have learned from their failures, while conservatives (one thinks of Richard Nixon) chose to pick up Kennedy's torch long after its fire had stopped burning. We can learn from mistakes, and even though this is Wills's premise (perhaps even the whole raison d'etre of his book), it is a premise he prefers not to state where fifties Liberals are concerned.

WILLS DOES NOT CONFINE his criticism to politics, though this is where some of his most perceptive criticism lies. He is equally critical of the liberal's activities within the Church. What bothered the American liberal was that the Church was too American. "It was not Rome he disliked in his Churches: it was Peoria." Thus, the liberal sought to get back to the Monastery, to a more aesthetic Mass. He wanted to show his non-Catholic liberal friends that he was like them not only in his politics, but also in his tastes. He wanted to prove that it was neither gauche nor unenlightened to be a Catholic. The change to the vernacular Mass was a natural: it would prove that the Mass was not a bunch of mane babbling, but a "meaningful" theological experience, made all the more so because people could now know what was being said.

Wills's picture is something of a parody, unfair to many of the reformers, but it appears sadly applicable in many cases. Moreover, the English Mass does not appear to have done what its advocates hoped. Many Catholic rank-and-file were angered by the New Mass and stopped going to Church at all. Whatever the merits of the New Liturgy, it arose less from the needs of the Catholic faithful than it did from the desires of the Catholic progressives, who formed a small elite within the Church. Over the long run, the English Mass may have desirable effects. But as to its short term effects, the liberals, as in so many other areas, miscalculated.

If liberals raise Wills's ire, conservatives, particularly in the Vatican, do not fare much better. One is left with a picture of the Vatican disturbingly similar to that of the Calvinists in early 19th century America.

The Calvinist strategy for discrediting any new idea by submitting it to tortuous intellectual exercises which easily lost sight of its initial premises has increasingly characterized the Vatican's response to modern issues. Pope Paul's disastrous encyclical condemning "artificial" contraception, the Humanae Vitae, which did for his reign what the Vietnam war did for Lyndon Johnson's, is a marvel of obfuscation. Wills spends a long chapter unwinding its ponderous coils of theological reasoning and concludes that the whole elaborate structure rests on an empty shell. The subject of contraception is, by the Pope's own account, a matter of "natural law"--not a revealed mystery, not part of a special deposit of truths entrusted to the church; but a teaching "in accord with all men's natural reason." Accordingly, the Pope appointed a special commission which brought together reputable Catholics in the fields of science, gynecology, philosophy, as well as bishops and theologians to help decide the church's position on contraception.

The commission recommended a lenient stance on contraception, but the Pope, in a startling twist of logic, rejected the report because it went against what the church had previously maintained. Why did he set up a commission in the first place if it could not come up with any new findings? The Pope seemed to be subscribing to the "Galileo syndrome which demands that any error made by church authority must be sustained by a thousand subsequent and reinforcing errors, each more egregious as reality becomes ever harder to oppose.

IT IS THE WESTERN CATHOLIC CHURCH which Wills discusses, and it is that Church to which most American Catholics beong. The Western Church, built on the memories of the Roman Empire and with the permission of Constantine has always been more "this worldly" than its Eastern counterpart, built on the far less legalistic traditions of Greece. The orientation of the Western Church to the here-and-now, with its legal prescriptions as to what Catholics must do to be saved, has had its value. In many cases, it left American cardinals and bishops and priests free to deal with the powers that be on behalf of their immigrant flock. It led many clerics to direct involvement with labor unless and also resulted in a Catholic school system which allowed immigration to be socialized into the American Way with some of their traditions and pride intact.

But all this has not been without cost. Through the centuries, the church has often been so oriented to the here-and-now that it has accepted, even blessed, existing social arrangements-to the point of aligning itself against the majority of its faithful. It has been so involved with legalistic arguments over damnation that it has forgotten the mystery of salvation-the dominant theme of the Gospel. The Vatican, rather than God, has become the focus of discussions among Catholics.

"It is time to join the underground ," says Wills in the last line of the book. He suggests that Catholics go underground not only in relation to the Vatican or to the early "dominations and powers," but also in relation to ourselves. He wants us to forget all this complicated machinery of Church politics, coffee-house theologians, and all the things which play such a critical role in his analysis. It is only by "going underground" that we can achieve genuine spiritual experience which will in turn lead to a critical and prophetic attitude toward the evils of this world. For Wills, the Berrigan model of the Church is the best.

It's not much of a program as far as shoring up the Church as an institution is concerned. Still, unless the Church begins again to adopt a more critical attitude toward current arrangements and attempts to recapture its interest in the Ultimate, it threatens to become merely a forum in which interesting but ultimately unimportant political fights are carried on.

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