The Church Confronts Modernity,
Catholic Intellectuals and the Progressive Era,
by Thomas E. Woods, Jr., (Kindle edition) Columbia University Press, New York, 2004.
Every once in a while, I pick up a book on a lark and I hit pay dirt. This was the case with this very readable book which focuses on the first 20 years of the 20th Century and the contrasts between the so-called “progressives” and the American Catholic intelligentsia on topics like philosophy, sociology, education theory, labor and economics. Very simply stated, I learned a lot from the book and will continue to draw on it concerning any number of matters I am trying to think through these days.
The most captivating part of the book for me was the Epilogue, which addresses the issue of American Catholicism pre and post Vatican II. It contextualizes for me as never before the issues involved in the critique of the pre-Vatican II Church in the U.S. as it stands accused of being a form of ghetto Catholicism. Two points surface for me in particular: a) the renaissance of Thomism and a strict adherence to the principles of natural law enabled the Catholic Church to respond to the devastation of World War I which totally eclipsed or bankrupt pre-war “progressive” optimism; b) Catholic institutional prosperity in the United States from 1920 until 1960 was fostered by its clear and constructive identity. The bottom line being: syncretism was (is?) the spirit of the age; it does not represent a cogent response to pluralism in society; it certainly is not a Catholic option.
In his epilogue, Thomas Woods expresses reservations about the serviceability of the documents of Vatican II for a Church like that in the U.S., immersed as it is in a pluralistic society. He makes a most convincing case from a historical point of view for the salutary effect of the anti-modernist oath on Catholic leadership in the U.S. Woods quotes authors of the period to explain the hardy institutional dynamism at work in the pre-conciliar Church in the U.S., which was anything but a simple ghetto (cf. Kindle edition, Epilogue):
“By the Church's plausibility structure is meant the series of interlocking social institutions (e.g., parishes, seminaries, educational organizations, mass media outlets, professional and voluntary associations) that, in toto, are theoretically capable of producing a Catholic environment generating and making "real" among its inhabitants authentic Catholic thought and behavior. At its very best, this "Catholic ghetto"-as it has been referred to by its Catholic detractors-does not shield away all non-Catholic influence but allows for the formation of authentic Catholic identity and character development capable of engaging in a critical dialogue with the outside world."
Believe it or not, the first thing which came to my mind was a lecture I had just heard in Dallas at the 23rd Workshop for Bishops, presented by the National Catholic Bioethics Center (February 14-16, 2011) - A Universal Moral Language: Bioethics and the Natural Law. The first talk of the day was given by Janet E. Smith, PhD., who holds the Father Michael J. McGivney Chair of Life Ethics at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, Michigan. It was entitled “Universality and Natural Law and the Irreducibility of Personalism”. She did a marvelous job all the way around and especially concerning the central role Thomism has to play in seminary education and the intellectual life of the Church. She made a plea for cultivating along side it Wotylian Personalism (think: Pope John Paul II and the Theology of the Body, etc.).
After the talk and discussion, I asked a learned bishop friend of mine whether he shared her enthusiasm for the future of “personalism” and as I had suspected, he did not and for reasons slightly different from my own. In any case, common to both Woods and Smith was a tendency to underline that on the part of Americans of both periods (Progressive Era and today) to balk at St. Thomas’ sweet yoke, not so much as burdensome but chafing a bit at the collar and less than colorful. It would seem that Americans are bent on finding ways of dealing with a minority report or what I consider an elitist cross-section of humanity – those who seek a measure of personal satisfaction in their philosophy. St. Thomas is for me more in touch with the broad base of humanity and might be less emotionally rewarding but for his pragmatism ultimately reaches farther in providing universals applicable to real human psychology.
In any case, I’m wondering what the Catholic Church today needs to do to become for its own folk and for the sake of the salvation of the world more of a “player”. The pluralistic society is a constant; where is the voice or witness to call it to task and effectively shepherd the flock at the same time? For more than half a century, thanks to what my book here describes as “plausibility structure” the Catholic Church in the U.S. was indeed a player, not abstracted from everyday reality, but offering its own and others ready to dialogue the reason for our hope. For our own Catholic people today, where are the “interlocking social institutions” which could channel energy and offer a real option for contributing to the betterment of society? Woods reflects on the stir caused in the media by Dominus Jesus (2000, Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith), a document which many outside of the Church considered a betrayal of the Church’s perceived post-conciliar stance. Could it not be said, that in failing to clearly identify ourselves (institutionally) we indeed not only risk to but do indeed deceive, failing grievously in our prophetic role for the life of the world?
While not harping for a return to the “good olde days” of terse statements and anathema sits, Woods certainly credits the papacy of Pius IX, Leo XIII, Pius X with offering the beacon needed by the Catholic Church in the U.S. to sort through a massive and not inarticulate assault on revealed truth. He and certainly I am wondering if we couldn’t use a new “plausibility structure” to weather today’s storm…