A Recovery Plan For the Catholic Church

by Charles J. Reid, Jr. Professor of Law, University of St. Thomas 29.04.2017

Gabriel Moran has spent a lifetime laboring on Catholic themes. He was a member of the Christian Brothers until the age of fifty, when he left that religious order to marry. Even after this shift in vocations, Moran remained committed to Catholic concerns in his position as a professor of education at New York University. He has thus brought a wealth of experience and learning to his most recent book, “Missed Opportunities: Rethinking the Catholic Tradition.”

The work begins by frankly acknowledging the crisis the Catholic Church encounters in the early years of the twenty-first century. When we speak of crisis, however, we should always do so with some perspective. The Church is old enough to count as crises the decline and fall of the Roman Empire in the West, the Great Schism, the Protestant Reformation, and the French Revolution. Each of these events, while a crisis, was also simultaneously an important turning point: the Church reframed its institutions, modified its organization, and, yes, even adapted its ideals and doctrines, to accommodate shifting realities.

Moran’s book rests on the premise that the Catholic Church is faced with another such turning point, especially in the English-speaking countries and in Western Europe. In the United States, the number of Catholics, at least on paper, seems to be holding steady. But probe very deeply, and you begin to wonder whether those numbers have a Potemkin-quality to them. The number of baptisms are down across the United States, as are confirmations. The number of Catholic marriages has declined precipitously. Amazingly enough, even Catholic burials have fallen. And some of the steepest declines have occurred in so-called “conservative” dioceses and archdioceses, which like to imagine themselves as the vanguard of some “new evangelization.”

Moran would very much like to revitalize the Church. Writing from a generally progressive persuasion, he begins by proposing that the very idea of “tradition” needs re-imagining. In contemporary Catholic thought, the term has grown “stunted” (p. 2), being seen as a mere “piling up of human practices” (p. 3), to which unquestioned loyalty is assumed.

Tradition is a term, Moran contends, that must be redefined and reinvigorated. Tradition has a richness to it, and a diversity that is overlooked not only by its opponents, but even more by its chief defenders. It is an ongoing, centuries-long conversation with the world about the great, perennial moral and political questions. Moran gives the example of the Catholic Church and war. The tradition is far more complex than most people realize. He acknowledges the early Church’s opposition to war and military service; he takes account of the emergence of just-war thinking in the middle ages. But he also appreciates that there is another side to this story. Thus he takes steady note of the pacifist tradition that evolved alongside the concept of the just war. There was Meister Eckhart in the fourteenth century; there was Desiderius Erasmus in the first years of the sixteenth century; in the twentieth century, one encounters Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton. St. John XXIII’s prophetic encyclical, Pacem in Terris, fits within this alternative narrative (pp. 136-151).

Moran, in other words, does not “load the dice.” He has not picked a winner in a long, long process of debate, discernment, and disagreement. He makes clear that some of the most important developments on the subject of war and violence were not the result of the formal teachings of popes and bishops, but were, rather, the product of activist Catholics, moved to respond to the horror of armed conflict in their own times and places. And he emphasizes that there is not one right answer to the moral problem of war, but rather a tradition that points in two directions at once. It is up to us to choose.

We might also look at Moran’s treatment of contraception. He wishes to bring to bear on this question his expansive understanding of tradition, and what he takes to be the sensus fidelium, the sound opinion of the Catholic people. The Church’s present institutional position on contraception is said to be grounded on natural law. So Moran begins with the idea of nature. First, he argues that there is no such thing as “natural birth” (p. 47). Human beings have taken many steps over the years to ensure that the process of birth is safer for both mother and child. The use of contraception might be seen as one more development in this continuum.

Along these lines, Moran notes that Pope Pius XII in 1958 authorized the use for the treatment of hormonal disorders the use of medication that had the effect of preventing pregnancy. Moran would like to utilize these arguments to reopen the debate on contraception.

This a compellingly important proposal. If surveys are to be believed, it is the case that a majority, probably a large majority, of Catholic families of child-bearing years use contraceptives for at least a portion of their marriages. It is also true that many other Catholics have left the Church over the question of birth control. The institutional Church, Moran pleads, must recognize what the Church in the pews already knows: that most Catholics have concluded, as a matter of conscience, that contraception and Catholic marriage are compatible.

This observation leads to Moran’s most general, but perhaps also his most important point: the institutional Church must rethink what it means by “teaching.” In recent decades, especially in America and in other Western countries, Catholic teaching has come to be equated with Catholic doctrine. Catholics, it is said, to be Catholics in good standing, must know and observe a number of propositions about their faith, as they relate to belief and to behavior.

For Moran, who has spent a lifetime in the education profession, this definition of teaching represents a narrow and misleading way to conceive of what is really a multi-dimensional phenomenon. Teaching embraces many human endeavors. If institutional Church leaders reflected on it, they would realize that there are many ways the Church — understood not as bishops and priests alone but as the entire body of believers — teach. Catholics teach when they tell stories, when they seek or grant forgiveness, when they look after the needs of the vulnerable, when they mourn their dead, welcome the new generation, or when they talk to one another in the marketplace of ideas. Catholic leaders, who have come to see teaching as nothing more than formal declarations of doctrine, must remind themselves that all Catholics teach, and that their lessons might prove valuable. Moran does not wish to overturn hierarchies, but he sees great advantages in a hierarchy that actively listens, watches, and learns, as well as preaches.

Moran has written a timely and important work. It is the fruit of decades of involvement in Catholic matters, and can really be described as a set of recommendations offered not in anger or in frustration, but out of a deep love for the Catholic Church. And for sure, the Catholic Church is an important world-wide institution, a voice of conscience and morality. But its well-being is threatened by a narrow, bunker mentality. Moran would bring Catholics out of the bunkers, and back into the daylight to engage the world with vigor, enthusiasm, and originality. We should pay attention to this work.

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