The Swallows of Capistrano


I am grateful for Joseph Bottum’s “When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano: Catholic Culture in America” (October 2006). Trying to get a handle on the state of the Catholic Church in the United States is a monstrous task, and Bottum’s article is a thoughtful and frank contribution.

The analysis was incomplete, however. Bottum looks at the situation primarily via the headlines and the stories that make the news”which contain the political language and stance he blames for the breakdown. Much of what he describes eventually did have an impact on the life of the average Catholic, but there are two other points I think deserve mention.

First, the widespread impression and fallout from the post“Vatican II era that almost everything about being Catholic was up for grabs: Think of a typical Catholic Mass in 1962. Then think of a typical Mass in 1970. The transformation, in less than a decade, is staggering. The most concrete symbol of this feeling is something seemingly minor but actually not: the abandonment of the Friday abstinence. Something that Catholics had been taught was deeply expressive of both individual and corporate Catholic identity was simply dropped. It doesn’t matter that, in truth, a Friday penitential act of some sort is still called for by the United States bishops. Hardly anyone knew it then, and hardly anyone knows it now. The impression left was that almost everything was adjustable and, in the end, arbitrary”an impression that doesn’t build trust but the suspicion that authority does what it wants, when it wants.

Second, in the four decades since the council, many Catholics’ trust in their bishops has diminished simply because of what they experience in their Catholic parishes, schools, and other institutions. In short: At that middle level, leaders”pastors, liturgists, educators”basically do what they want, without heed to directives from Rome or deeper Church tradition. If you look at, say, the programs for conventions of professional lay ministry groups, the disassociation is startling. In studying these programs, you might conclude that there is indeed a new Catholic culture being constructed in America”except the branches now are Reiki, personality tests, Native American spirituality, Buddhist concepts, evangelical church-building techniques, self-help language, and what middle-aged people think is youth culture (although usually”tragically, lamely”it’s not).

The gurus are aging psychologist clergy and vaguely spiritual religious sisters, while our brilliant, pastoral Pope Benedict, who has written extensively on liturgy, catechesis, and discipleship, doesn’t even merit a single workshop. The whole gestalt is about applying the latest trends to Catholicism: constantly remaking it, constantly trying to find the new thing that will be just the thing”not in the spirit of Vatican II but in the spirit of Making Stuff Up. Endlessly.

Amy Welborn Dubruiel
Fort Wayne, Indiana

Joseph Bottum’s essay is the best record of late-twentieth-century Catholicism I’ve ever read. I paused at one point, however: the story of that elderly priest who remembers Catholics being indifferent to anti-contraception homilies. I’ve been going to daily and Sunday Mass for seventy-one years and I never heard one of those homilies. Saying that Catholics were indifferent to homilies attacking contraception might make that elderly priest and a host of other clergy feel better about themselves by thinking the laity were the problem. The reality is that the clergy are the cause of that breakdown in morality and the ensuing massive numbers of murderous abortions.

John Dunkle
Reading, Pennsylvania

I may be dismissed by the students quoted by Joseph Bottum as “screwed up,” but I am still able to straighten out a few inaccuracies:

• Bishop Brown never urged Catholics to approve same-sex civil unions. He did send a notice to priests saying that an article by Fr. Gerald Coleman, S.S., a noted moral theologian, reflected his thinking. The point of Fr. Coleman’s article was “to affirm two principles: it is possible to support Prop. 22 [a proposition on the ballot that defined marriage as the bond between a man and a woman] and at the same time not condemn homosexual persons.”

• Our presbyterate does represent a cultural diversity. Nearly half of us are Anglo (with a fair number of Irish descent). The Vietnamese come next with nearly 30 percent. Latinos account for about 20 percent. We also have a number of Filipino, Korean, and Chinese priests.

• Loretta Sanchez did not receive Holy Communion from Bishop Brown and has never campaigned from local Catholic pulpits.

• Our diocesan historian says that Holy Family Church was chosen as the location of the cathedral because Bishop Johnson did not want our diocese to be known as the Diocese of Santa Ana but as the Diocese of Orange. As the county seat, Santa Ana would have typically gotten the nod. St. Columban was not considered, despite its ample size.

• Holy Family seats about 850, not 400.

• Saint Columban has fewer than 4,000 parishioners, not 6,000.

• Diocesan officials never issued a memo insisting that teen-chastity programs are suitable only for “homeschoolers and fundamentalists.”

• Father Tran is not the pastor of St. Mary’s by the Sea; he is the administrator. His predecessor was not there “for years” but for one year. Rather, Bottum may have been referring to Fr. Dan Johnson, who was pastor from 1978 to 2005.

• Father Tran did not eliminate the Sunday morning Latin Mass; there is a Mass in Latin at noon (celebrated using the Novus Ordo) to this day. A weekly Latin Mass (celebrated using the Missale Romanum, editio typica 1962) is celebrated Sunday mornings at Mission San Juan Capistrano in the historic Serra Chapel.

• Rod Stephens resigned his priestly ministry in 2004, as reported. The mission did not pay his liturgical consulting firm anything, much less $30

0 an hour.

• As to the most controversial of Bottum’s claims, that the swallows have abandoned Mission San Juan Capistrano, I will let the mission’s pastor explain: “The swallows do return ‘to the valley’ around March 19th [the feast of Saint Joseph] but they seek areas where there is plenty of mud. Since we are about conservation, mud around the mission isn’t a very good thing”water seeping into historic buildings, etc., is very bad. By cleaning up the place we have been put in a somewhat Catch-22 situation of encouraging the swallows to seek areas in town where there is more mud.”

Given all this, I leave it to the thoughtful readers of First Things to determine whether they can trust Bottum’s observation that the “whole diocese has a fossilized, fly-in-the-amber feeling to it.”

Fr. Mike Heher
Vicar General and Moderator of the Curia
Diocese of Orange
Orange, California

Joseph Bottum’s article is a wonderful piece on the many struggles we have faced in the last century of Catholicism in America. Of special interest to me was the conclusion that we may be rebuilding a new culture, especially by the younger generation. As someone who works with the young people who are helping form this culture, I would like to affirm that with a resounding yes. I witness the fruit of their labors firsthand. Our ministry is helping shape the Catholic culture that I see growing from an authentic Catholic identity. The younger generation needed to shake the dust from earlier generations quickly if it was going to be the generation that implements John Paul the Great’s vision of the new millennium. They are doing so with zeal.

Like many others, I am saddened to see the state of many of our Catholic colleges and universities. I am hopeful that they can turn things around and once again have a great influence in forming our young Catholics. But with somewhere between 85 and 90 percent of young Catholics attending non-Catholic colleges, we cannot rely on the old methods. We need vibrant, dynamic, and orthodox campus ministries at public institutions of higher education in order to continue the growth of this emerging Catholic culture.

Marcel LeJeune
College Station, Texas

The built-in limitation of a synecdoche is that it generalizes. The Mission San Juan Capistrano and the Diocese of Orange to which it belongs function in just this fashion for Bottum. It would be convenient if the imagery of swallows flitting through the mission”eccentric, as he says, but still beautiful and lively”typified Orange, and if, in turn, the diocese could stand in as a symbol of the North American church in the aftermath of Vatican II. But it is not true.

Bottum states that Fr. Martin Tran, upon arrival as administrator at St. Mary’s in 2005, “immediately launched into reform, beginning with the elimination of the Sunday morning Latin Mass his predecessor had said for years.” Tran actually was instructed by the ordinary, Bishop Tod Brown, not to celebrate that Mass. The predecessor pastor had enjoyed, specific to himself, an indult to say the Latin Mass.

Further, it is inaccurate to contend that Tran is “determined to change his mildly traditionalist parish into a fully liberal one.” I’ve had a chance to work closely with Tran over the past several months and can attest to his mainstream theology and ecclesiology. It would be much fairer to contend that he is attempting, in obedience to his bishop, to bring his parish into the norm of diocesan liturgical practices with which St. Mary’s had unfortunately been out of step for too many years.

Stephen M. Byars
Huntington Beach, California

It is regrettable that Joseph Bottum chose to drag the name of Cardinal Law into his ambiguous mention of the rumor about Paul Shanley. When Shanley made his speech in 1979 at NAMBLA, Cardinal Law couldn’t have done anything about it, because he was bishop of Springfield“Cape Girardeau, Missouri. He did not become archbishop of Boston until 1984. It was Cardinal Medeiros who “did nothing” about Shanley’s speech.

But there is a widespread image of Cardinal Law as the one responsible for the child-abuse problem, which Bottum has apparently accepted. A table was published in news reports on July 24, 2003, when a grand jury found that the cardinal had not committed a crime. That table showed that for the fourteen years prior to Cardinal Law’s installation, there had been an average of about twenty-seven incidents of Catholic-clergy sexual abuse of minors per year in the archdiocese. For the years 1984 through 1992, under Cardinal Law, that number dropped to an average of about ten per year. For 1993 through 2000, the number was about four per year. And for Cardinal Law’s last two years in Boston, the number was zero.

John E. Whipple
Marblehead, Massachusetts

As a Catholic recently returned to the Church after nearly four decades away, I missed most of the turmoil chronicled in Joseph Bottum’s masterful essay “When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano.” Although I admired John Paul II from afar, I was indifferent to things Catholic, if I heard of them at all. Now, as I survey the wreckage, I can’t help but wonder: If I had stayed, if I had worked and prayed and done my part, might things have been better? The further thought occurs that this sentiment seals my return; it is a singularly Catholic expression of guilt.

Bill Daugherty
San Antonio, Texas

Joseph Bottum’s extremely well-written essay gets an A for style and an F for substance. Using one of his favorite words to describe the Church in America today, I’d say it’s a little nutty to suggest that the tiny bands of marchers in the pro-life movement signal a new spring for American Catholicism. As noble as those dozens of marchers are, their numbers are dwarfed by millions of Catholics disgusted by the crimes of our priests and the cover-ups of our bishops, and the tens of millions who are simply indifferent to the top-down Church that John Paul II bequeathed to a bottom-up kind of world. The hearts of these millions can be rekindled only when our bishops find a way to give us ownership and citizenship”a voice and a vote”in what is, after all, our Church.

I thank Bottum for his kind words about my 2002 memoir, Clerical Error , but what he calls a “can’t be bettered description of a generation” was hardly that. It was simply a memoir of my life as a reporter, mainly in and around Vatican II. Since then, I haven’t gone on “to publish volume after volume demanding ever-more-unlikely reforms.” I’ve done one more book, A Church in Search of Itself , that points out ways Americans can be more Catholic and less Roman, and nothing in it suggests it was written in “rage against the Church.” I’ve received hundreds of emails from folks (including a good many priests) who thank me for showing them there’s hope for a future, accountable Church in America. And I’m writing a novel that imagines how that future might happen.

Robert Blair Kaiser
Phoenix, Arizona

What was most disappointing in Joseph Bottum’s multifaceted article was that all the examples and commentary avoided the only foundation for an authentic culture: the source of worship. Rather, it tiptoed past the subject of the divine on the way to the laundry list of outrages. Jesus Christ was mentioned only once”and that was as a bit player in the suspect imagination of Veronica Lueken. Even the gospel message was glossed over. To juxtapose the idiosyncrasies of faithless priests with the misguided firebrands of the Church’s crumbling nostalgic ledges and whine, “This is Catholic life in America? This is Catholic culture?” is baffling. There is one name by which all are saved, and embracing that name is acknowledging our need for redemption. All the apostolates to the poor, works of arts, and inspired liturgies stem first from a personal encounter with God.

Genevieve S. Kineke
East Greenwich, Rhode Island

Joseph Bottum’s very interesting reflection on 1970s Catholic culture in America certainly caught the flavor of those times. I would like to mention one saving grace of that era: the widely experienced outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the Catholic charismatic renewal. “Jesus is Lord” was the banner of belief that sheltered many Catholics, including my husband and me, during those turbulent times. We were sustained by weekly prayer meetings and nourished at regional conferences. New Covenant magazine and books from Servant publications in Ann Arbor were like oxygen. Men such as Ralph Martin and priests such as Fr. Mike Scanlan spread truth and orthodoxy. We were always exhorted to remain faithful to the Church, yet to bea leaven within it.

Susan Majewski
Mexico City, Mexico

Joseph Bottum did not read a cover story in 1976 on “The Year of the Evangelical” in Time magazine. But as the author of that story I can tell him where he”and nearly every evangelical in the United States”did read it: in Newsweek .

Kenneth L. Woodward
Newsweek
New York, New York

I read with interest Joseph Bottum’s brief account of Veronica Lueken in his overview of Catholic culture in America. As one whose Catholicism is deeply indebted to the time I spent with Baysiders, praying the rosary and learning from the people who hearkened to the Bayside vigils in Flushing Meadow Park, I always wonder at how dismissive people can be of Mrs. Lueken. When I first learned of her, I thought that Jesus and Mary”the Jesus and Mary I knew from the gospels”might really be talking to this woman. So I read the messages, became intrigued, began attending the vigils and studying the messages, and before long I found myself practicing and cherishing largely forsaken Catholic practices, such as stopping in Catholic churches on occasion and taking time to say the Stations of the Cross, wearing sacramentals such as the brown scapular, going to confession, and, most especially, receiving the Eucharist as if it were truly the body and blood of the most courageous, virtuous, generous, humble, wise, and loving king. And these things I still do. What is real and true and eternal in Catholic culture in the United States was alive in the messages of Veronica Lueken.

Jan Peter Dembinski
Woodstock, Vermont

Joseph Bottum should know that Catholic homeschoolers, in addition to the groups he mentions, are helping send those swallows back to Capistrano. Catholic homeschoolers pray for and encourage vocations to the priesthood and the religious life. Most of us attend weekday Mass often. We hold faith and family life dear. We parents work hard at this because we believe these children are the future of the Church and the future of our country.

Mary Murphy
Green, Ohio

As a thirty-year resident of Orange County and former parishioner of St. Columban’s in Garden Grove, I found Joseph Bottum’s article interesting, perhaps more for what it omits than what it includes. Bottum laments that the swallows no longer return to Capistrano and sees that as a metaphor for American Catholics and the Church. The swallows do, indeed, return every March to southern Orange County, but they bypass the old Capistrano mission for what they see as the more hospitable environs of the Mission Viejo Mall and other broad expanses to build their little mud nests. So, too, the humans in Orange County: They drive past the Catholic churches of southern Orange County just a few miles to the thriving megachurches: Saddleback Church (home of Rick Warren and his purpose-driven life), up the freeway a few miles to Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa, or to the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove.

Amy Starke
Portland, Oregon

I was grateful to read Joseph Bottum’s essay “When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano.” As someone who has grown up in the aftermath of Vatican II and its various implementations, I know what he’s getting at when he writes, “A chosen tradition is never quite the same as an inherited one,” and when he asks, “If Catholicism is something elected rather than received, can Catholics achieve what earlier cultures did?”

On Good Friday, my wife and I gather our children, spray perfume on a strip of white gauze, wrap it around a little plastic corpus, tuck the body into a papier-mâché tomb, and roll a stone in front of the entrance. We turn off the lights, hand a candle to each child, and process around the house singing, “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.” On Easter morning, the stone is rolled away, and a picture of the risen Christ stands atop the empty tomb.

That’s something, and I’m grateful to my wife for thinking it up. But it’s a long, long way from old-fashioned Tenebrae, which was the product of a community. And while I will never forget the time I visited the tradition-rich Easter Vigil Mass at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., there was definitely the feeling of coming into a strange, new country, my cradle Catholicism notwithstanding. Since Vatican II, we are supposed to be living in the hour of the laity, but there are times when I, as a lay Catholic, feel left adrift, asked to make it up as I go along. I’m not saying that I wouldn’t kick against tradition, only that it would be nice to have a tradition to kick against. Cultures don’t easily form around ideas, or principles, or even the sacraments. “I just go to church for confession, to pray, and to take Communion,” said one youngster Bottum quotes. “At least the priests can do that.” True enough, but it’s hard to imagine a culture arising from such an attitude.

I was all set to mount my soapbox and argue with Bottum, to accuse him of working the extremes and losing sight of the middle, of documenting the excesses (however accurately) of right and left to make it look like a genuine standoff. He writes, for instance: “To follow the Rod Stephens story is to suffer a kind of motion-sickness, your sympathies batted back and forth until you have no sympathy left for anyone.” I sympathize with Bottum”the Rod Stephens saga is an ugly story, all right”but my sympathies weren’t batted back and forth. When I read that his family “snitched on him,” it made me wonder what brought them to that action. When I read that the family hired a private detective, my immediate thought was, “Of course they did. They went to Fr. Rod privately, and he dismissed them. They knew that if they tried to deal with authorities, they would be similarly dismissed unless they had hard proof. If Fr. Rod was telling the truth about the bishop knowing, wouldn’t hard evidence be the only way to get a response?” It wasn’t a standoff of mutual extremism. One side was flouting the Church’s teaching and his own vows. The other side was, plausibly, seeking to address a serious scandal”this wasn’t about liturgical irregularities.

But I had to grant that Bottum had done his homework. I had to grant the point of the back and forth”both sides do seem to think the other is winning. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized I wanted to be on Bottum’s team. Yep, evil and sin persist. Yep, there are really horrible elements in the Church. And God bless those who keep an eye on the dark side. But love is what ought to move men, and, while there is great worth in loving what the Church might be, I think for now I can do with a little loving what the Church is”however thin the cultural stew.

Matthew Lickona
La Mesa, California

Joseph Bottum replies:


I expected some response to my long essay on Catholic culture, but the tidal wave came as a surprise. I’m particularly grateful for the many thoughtful replies”and particularly embarrassed that Ken Woodward had to point out his 1976 article on “The Year of the Evangelical” appeared in Newsweek , not Time .

But let’s start with Orange County, where the “Spirit of Making Stuff Up” (to borrow a phrase from Amy Welborn Dubruiel’s letter) seems to have found a home. Fr. Mike Heher, Stephen M. Byars, and Amy Starke are only a few of the many southern Californians who wrote to defend or excoriate their diocese, but their letters may stand for all the others.

There’s something sadly dated”so 1970s, so “fly in amber””about the fact that, even in a formal letter to the editor, the vicar general of a good-sized American diocese feels compelled to sign himself “Mike.” I did not quote approvingly the students who dismissed his generation as “screwed up,” but the Diocese of Orange seems determined to prove them right. Just in the few weeks since my Capistrano essay appeared, we have been forced to see the Halloween Mass at Corpus Christi parish in Aliso Viejo, which featured musicians decked out as devils and people in demon costumes distributing the Eucharist. I stopped watching the widely available video of the Mass at the point when the pastor introduced the Lord’s Prayer with the words, “As goblins and ghouls, we raise one voice: Our Father . . . ,” and so I missed the part where, reportedly, he arrayed himself as the purple dinosaur Barney to conclude the ceremony.

And yet, instead of telling us how he and Bishop Brown plan to correct their diocese, Fr. Mike writes to correct a handful of facts in my essay. The points he makes are either minuscule or mistaken. I accept his claim that I overstated the pews in Holy Family and St. Columban’s (though the numbers I used are reported elsewhere). Similarly, I accept his points that the diocesan clergy are ethnically diverse (which I did not deny), and that Fr. Martin Tran is not the pastor of St. Mary’s by the Sea (merely the parish administrator who acts as the pastor), and that Holy Family was chosen as the first cathedral because of its location in the town of Orange (but why, then, has a parish in Santa Ana been chosen as the site for the new cathedral Bishop Brown plans to build?).

For the rest, I can say only that I believe Fr. Mike is wrong. Perhaps he should consult the diocesan files. On February 15, 2000, Bishop Brown really did send a letter to priests in the diocese, declaring that an article by Gerald Coleman “expresses very well my own thoughts.” The article doubts that anyone can “simultaneously affirm authentic respect and sensitivity toward homosexual persons and hold that marriage is a union only between a man and a woman.” If this expresses very well the bishop’s thoughts, then we must be forgiven for thinking that he is, as I said, “a little squishy” on the issue.

Meanwhile, the memo to Bishop Brown that criticized a teen-chastity program as suitable for “homeschoolers and fundamentalists” was, according to news reports, dated September 8, 1999, and came from the diocesan offices for religious education and family life. The pro-abortion congresswoman Loretta Sanchez really did publicly receive Communion at an anniversary Mass celebrated by Bishop Brown, at Servite High School on February 17, 2004. And though Fr. Mike denies that she uses local parishes for campaigning, local Catholics point to several such events, among which her appearance at St. Boniface parish in Anaheim on March 1, 1998, stands out for the openness of its political purpose.

As for the Mission San Juan Capistrano, I never said the defrocked Rod Stephens received $30

0 an hour for his work; I said only that this was the rumor that excited local Catholics. For that matter, I can’t quite follow Fr. Mike’s point about the famous birds of Capistrano. I used the fact that the swallows have abandoned the mission as a metaphor for Catholic culture, and he says”in an Ah-ha! Gotcha! tone”that I’m wrong: The swallows do, too, return to San Juan Capistrano. They just don’t return to, um, the mission at San Juan Capistrano. Well, yes, that was rather the point of the metaphor. All the mission bells will ring, / The chapel choir will sing, / When the swallows come back to Capistrano.

In her letter about the success of evangelical megachurches in southern California, Amy Starke has caught the rhetorical usefulness of the birds, and Stephen M. Byars, too, notes the metaphor”only to reject its application to Orange. This was one of several letters defending Fr. Tran. I am glad he has such friends, and their testimony makes me think he will do good work in the years to come. But, for now, there is no way he emerges from the kneeling controversy at St. Mary’s by the Sea with much credit. When a priest has to take to his parish bulletin to denounce “rebellion, grave disobedience, and mortal sin” in the parish, it is a sign that he has let the situation get out of hand.

The front-page story about it in the Los Angeles Times was a real embarrassment”especially for a diocese already embarrassed by the pictures of Bishop Brown yanking at the blouse of a woman who had knelt before him; and the letter from the vocations director calling the Franciscan University of Steubenville “a pathetic organization of bitter people”; and the diocesan spokesman’s observation that if the diocese tried to control its homosexual clergy, “there would be so few priests left we’d have to turn it over to lay people to run it”; and the Rod Stephens saga, and . . . and . . .

None of this does Fr. Mike deny. I was bothered by what I described in my essay as the new Catholic culture’s thinness and “quick, irritated impatience” with the immediate past, but Orange County makes me understand the cause.

Meanwhile, John E. Whipple writes from Massachusetts to defend his former bishop, Bernard Law. He has misread my point (which was about accusations against the bishops, not about their truth), and it would take us too long to add the Archdiocese of Boston to the stew of the Diocese of Orange. Suffice to say that I think he is mistaken to imagine Cardinal Law escapes Boston with no stain on his reputation, but it is good to see that the man still has defenders”just as it is good to learn, in the letter from Jan Peter Dembinski, that the 1970s mystic Veronica Lueken still has defenders.

John Dunkle observes that in seventy-one years of Mass-going he has never actually heard a sermon on contraception”and that saying “Catholics were indifferent to homilies attacking contraception” serves mostly to make the “clergy feel better about themselves by thinking the laity were the problem.” I am not sure I agree, but I had not considered the notion, and it is worth thinking about.

Marcel LeJeune (on new forms of campus ministry), Mary Murphy (on homeschoolers), and the poet Bill Daugherty (on Catholics’ returning to the Church) rightly point out elements of the new Catholic culture I have not worked on enough, just as Susan Majewski forces me to reconsider my neglect of the charismatic renewal movement back in the 1970s. Genevieve S. Kineke is irritated with me for failing to focus on Jesus. Her letter is representative of several others, all of which mistake, I think, the purpose in speaking of Catholic culture: The gates of hell themselves will not prevail against Christ’s Church”this I believe, as every Catholic must. But cultures rise and cultures fall, and it is an American rising and falling that I set out to trace.

Robert Blair Kaiser is irritated with me, too, but in his case it is for neglecting the importance of Robert Blair Kaiser. He has misread the paragraph in which I mentioned him: I didn’t say he had published “volume after volume demanding ever-more-unlikely reforms” since the appearance of his bizarre 2002 memoir accusing Malachi Martin of seducing his wife during the Second Vatican Council; I said he had published volume after volume in the years since the council. But let it go. For those who, like the students I quoted, wish to dismiss that entire generation, the man is a gift that just keeps on giving. I love his letter’s boast about the hundreds of people who have written to thank him “for showing them there’s hope for a future, accountable Church in America.” And I, for one, am delighted to learn that he is “writing a novel that imagines how that future might happen.” I expect especially to enjoy the part where Robert Blair Kaiser is elected pope.

My friends Amy Welborn Dubruiel and Matthew Lickona provide more-serious matter to chew on. When Welborn Dubruiel points to the halting of the Friday fast as the most important of the cultural changes imposed in the name of Vatican II, I am tempted to say this is merely another example of those changes and a less significant one than the change to the vernacular liturgy. But other commentators, from Eamon Duffy to Richard John Neuhaus, have also insisted on the broken Friday fast as the key to the destruction of the old Catholic culture”and the cluelessness of those who did it. Can there be a better example than the warning, issued by American bishops at the time, that Catholics should respect the choice of what the bishops assumed would be the few who decided to forego the now voluntary fast?

And yet, I think, Welborn Dubruiel can’t have it both ways: that the examples I chose in my Capistrano essay were weak because they were from news stories about the politicized elites in American Catholic life, and that the destruction of everyday Catholic culture happened with things such as the loss of the Friday fast. In point of fact, the Friday fast was a widely reported and highly politicized news story at the time, and it was done to Catholic culture precisely by those elites. I take it, instead, as another proof of the process I described.

But she is certainly right about the conveyors of that process, the middle-level leaders”“pastors, liturgists, educators””who “basically do what they want, without heed to directives from Rome or deeper Church tradition,” not “in the spirit of Vatican II but in the spirit of Making Stuff Up.” If my daughter’s catechism teacher is free to make it all up, then why isn’t everyone else free to do the same?

Of all the letters to First Things , Matthew Lickona’s best expresses what I observed over and over again while researching “When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano”: the hunger for culture, the sense of loss, the damaged world of those in rebellion against rebellion, the strangeness created when a tradition is chosen rather then inherited”combined with intellectual seriousness and a joy in the ancient Catholic faith. Lickona is the kind of a person I had in mind when I said that in recent times a swallow or two had been reported, flashing once again past the stones and stucco at the mission of San Juan Capistrano.

The Great Barrier Rieff


Stephen Webb seemed to be a good choice for reviewing Philip Rieff’s Sacred Order/Social Order (October). Professor Webb has seriously grappled with the command structure of Christianity in his The Divine Voice . He has also shown himself to be an insightful historical and cultural critic in his spectacular book American Providence. Webb is uniquely perceptive and articulate, yet something is always missing from his books, as from a Tom Wolfe novel”brilliant exposition but always a conclusion unworthy of the work.

Webb’s review of Phillip Rieff, however, causes no such ambivalence. It is utterly inadequate from start to finish. It is not a good sign for First Things that a superb review appears online at the New Republic (see Elizabeth Lasch-Quinn); one wonders if the magazines have done some transgressive cross-dressing in honor of the formidable Dr. Rieff. My suggestion is that the editor of FT or someone older than the very promising but apparently too busy Webb write an article that seriously engages the author of the Triumph of the Therapeutic. Let me point out three of Webb’s inadequacies and four broad avenues opened by Rieff but left as roads not taken by his reviewer.

“Third culture is everything that infuriates the Freudian scholar,” says Webb. No, third culture is well defined and is the deliberate attempt to live as if God does not exist. This is not the pagan world of first culture, which recognizes the spiritual but cannot understand it. The deliberately transgressive third culture, which is the dominant culture in the mega-states of Europe and America, is historically unprecedented. Let’s put it less hyperbolically for Webb: The twentieth century has been a disappointing hundred years for a human race that has already heard the Divine Word.

Fate, Faith, and Fiction are the motifs of the three world types. This has nothing to do with the three worlds of economic order that apparently popped into Webb’s mind as he rushed through the “difficult reading” of this book. It is not true, as Webb claims, that Rieff is in any way “beholden to a fundamentally Freudian framework.” Rieff understands Freud quite well and has rejected him quite definitively. Rieff accuses Freud of killing the Jews before Hitler did. If Webb had read The Jewish Century by Yuri Slezkine, he would have known the horrible story of the wide-scale flight from God by Russian Jews and the murderous embrace of the communist apostasy. If Rieff is found “ranting,” then so was Elijah. If this is “the ranting one hears in the faculty office down the hall after hours,” then Webb should spend more time with his colleagues listening to the Word. Finally, Webb’s hope that future volumes will show that “Rieff found cultural identity and personal peace” displays exactly the therapeutic mindset that Rieff exposed in his earlier work. This condescending prayer evoked a most unpleasant image of a surly teenager finger-painting over the Mona Lisa . And there I was thinking I was reading in First Things about the relation of the public square to the sacred order.

Now, more positively, four Rieffian avenues to pursue would be (a) Abelard and the dismissal of faith/knowledge by a turn to the dialectic; (b) how a culture created by the analyst’s couch destroys social distances in drugs, pornography, and a good deal of so-called male spiritual direction in Catholic seminaries; (c) a consideration of Rieff’s description of a world of Primal Forces, Commanding Truths, and Powerful Lies, as opposed to our illusion that we are being directed by the “trinket of self-will”; and (d) an answer to Rieff’s call for real teacher-rabbis, priests, and adult authorities who act not by their own lights but as “sacred messengers.” What a great book Rieff has written. What tremendous potential Webb has. One last friendly barb: I think what really troubles Webb is his own attachment, however mild, to the great transgressive heresy of our day”the rejection of patriarchy. What Webb calls “promiscuous moralizing” is Rieff’s damning connection of the celebration of homosexuality, the sacramentalization of abortion, and the liturgical cross-dressing of female clergy as linked to the loss of an authoritative religious order. Down the hall in the faculty office, I am sure such linkage is not treated as a prophet’s message of sacred order but intemperance and insensitivity to the really nice guys and gals of the new egalitarian church order. That, I suspect, is why this clarion call of a sacred messenger has been dismissed by his reviewer as “polemical excess” and “promiscuous moralizing.”

David Pence, M.D.
Mankato, Minnesota

Stephen H. Webb replies:


If David Pence is half right about all the nice things he says about me, then I can live with how bad he thought my review was. Alas, he exaggerates both my virtues and my vices. I like hyperbole, but his letter demonstrates the danger of putting everything you don’t like about the modern world into a broad and vague category like “third culture.” The problem with a brilliant ranter like Rieff is that he is never clear about what he is defending. His interpretation of modern cultural productions as deathworks is indeed beholden to Freud, as I argued, but, even worse, it demonstrates his tendency to romanticize the very artists he wants to destroy. Third-culture America is not Weimar; that gives it too much credit. There is little to be gained by making moral relativism sound melodramatic.

A regret I do have is that I was not even harder on Rieff’s murky talk of sacred messengers. Rieff tries too hard to be a prophet rather than submit to the biblical prophets. By calling himself an “honorary Christian,” Rieff acknowledges that he is more interested in the sacredness of social order than God as the author of the sacred. Sadly, Rieff’s own book reads”to the extent that it seems to defend cultural restraints for their own sake, rather than as a grateful response to a good and life-giving God”like a deathwork. Nonetheless, I would like to recommend a book that makes many of Rieff’s points in a clearer and more constructive manner. It is David Pence’s own Religion, Sex & Politics (Llumina Press, 2004), which I read last year and thoroughly enjoyed. It is a further sign of the sorry state of our cultural decline that scholars such as Rieff-who raise the fascinating specter of the cultural elite turned against itself”are given so much attention, while books by the uncredentialed (I don’t know Pence, by the way) are virtually ignored.

Life Work Is a Life’s Work


Drafting a statement by a confluence of religious communities was a challenge (“That They May Have Life,” October). This one certainly makes its point that God’s gift of life is to be cherished. World and national events since the project began in 1992 have only increased the need for a firm understanding and convincing exegesis to resist the liberal abortion culture. However, more is needed than this statement, which, for all its proper rhetoric, avoids specifics.

One cannot discuss the abortion culture without considering feminism and its radical ideology of sex equality or even sex equity, two concepts alien to Christianity. The statement aspires to promote “a more just social order that defends the gift of life,” “a more just and humane social order,” “culture and civil order,” etc., yet avoids delineating the details of such order basic to Pauline teaching and alien to feminism. As Pope John Paul wrote, “The eternal mystery of generation, which is in God himself, the one and triune God (cf. Eph 3:14“15), is reflected in the woman’s motherhood and in the man’s fatherhood” ( Mulieris Dignitatem ).

The statement strangely rejects the need for political action: “While political and legal developments are important, they are not of paramount importance.” But I defy anyone to explain how statutes banning discrimination as to sex aren’t of supreme importance! While the statement calls for communities to consider anew the importance of life arising from “unitive and procreative sexual love within the bond of marriage,” how can we do so when men and women are forbidden to “discriminate as to sex” in Christian ways of mutual service in Christ?

Our local newspaper crossword puzzle recently defined the word obey as a “passé marriage vow verb.” Saint Paul et al. are now pass! Your work is cut out for you! Retrieving our “more just and humane society” will require not abstract rhetoric on “life” but, just for starters, specific repeal of Titles VII and IX, the Glass Ceiling Act, and other political developments mandating a feminized society.

W. Edward Chynoweth
Sanger, California

In Search of the Perfect Baby


In the October edition of The Public Square, Fr. Neuhaus correctly points out that eugenics is back and in a huge way. As a Christian and an oncologist, I am passionate about “life and death” issues, as well as those of genetics, mutations, and medical ethics. Previous attempts to correct the human race have been large scale, crude, and public”for example, mass sterilizations, deliberate euthanasia of “defectives,” and promotion of propagation among the professional classes. The new eugenics is very quietly and effectively taking place behind closed doors. Public discourse over the selective abortion of early zygotes, also known as human beings, was and is minimal.

Preimplantation screening for “disease” is considered a medical breakthrough. When blind confidence in scientific progress is coupled with a family’s right to privacy, you have a prescription for disaster. Or should I say utopia, now that we should be able to create children without flaws. What could be better than that? Even gender selection, preimplantation-style, is on the table.

The question not asked by Neuhaus is this: What are the six thousand “diseases” that we can now avoid for the good of humanity? The list may be very surprising and is developing right now. Down syndrome is mentioned as one example, but as a physician I really want to know what the other 5,999 are.

The supposition is that a child with an avoidable condition is best not born. Take, for example, cystic fibrosis (CF). This inherited disease of the lungs leads to multiple infections, hospitalizations, and, often, death in middle adulthood. But because people with CF typically live into adulthood, they have the opportunity to experience God’s green earth, go to school, stand up at their best friend’s wedding, and struggle through life for decades. What if, through genetic selection, we were to deprive the world of a great CF researcher who would have been born to combat the very disease that afflicted her?

I have cared for hundreds of women with breast cancer. It is my job to guide them, their husbands, and their children through the forest of modern cancer care so as to rid them of their disease. Approximately 7 percent of these women have a genetic mutation called BRCA, which caused their cancer to form at an early age. In eighteen years of caring for these people, it never occurred to me that, maybe, these women should never have been born. Then again, maybe the world would have been a better place if these women had been snuffed out as soon as the BRCA gene was detected by preimplantation genetic haplotyping? What a terrifying thought. Is BRCA also on the list of six thousand? Should it be?

I thank Neuhaus for constantly and critically scanning the globe for items we Christians need to know about. Preimplantation genetic haplotyping is very scary stuff, and we, as a society, need to be talking about it. We need to know what is on the list of six thousand avoidables and who is making the list.

Furthermore, where do we draw the line between a disease and a trait? Down syndrome is an inherited condition. Sickle-cell hemoglobin creates a disease. What about albinism? What about disfiguring cystic acne? In my opinion, while this whole process may be legal, it is entirely wrong. It started out wrong. Its moral compass is personal choice. It is occurring quietly at a medical center near you. It will be used as a eugenics tool, and it snuck in the side door of our medical campuses. The beast has no master.

William A. Fintel, M.D.
Roanoke, Virginia

Strength in Disunity


Fr. Neuhaus’ “An Irrevocable Commitment” (The Public Square, October) provides an informative overview of the erstwhile but unlamented ecumenical movement. Meanwhile, we are informed, “the Catholic commitment to the quest for full visible unity as full communion is . . . ‘irrevocable.’“

But in the long history of Christendom, from the call of the first disciples to the Church of today, has there ever been a time of “full visible unity”? Each of the synoptics tells of the disciples’ quest for honor”“A dispute arose among them, which of them was to be regarded as greatest” (Luke 22:24)”and, in large part, Paul’s letters deal with church factionalism.

“Full visible unity””on whose terms? As for the prayer of Jesus in John 17, “that they may all be one,” New Testament exegetes speak far less of institutional unity than of our Lord’s desire that there be unity of purpose, intention, and mission.

In our pursuit of church unity, maybe we have been chasing a fantasy, a theory, more than anything else; otherwise, why the dismal results and the moribund state of the discussion? Some of us seem naturally inclined to eschew bureaucracy, not least of all hierarchical ecclesiastical bureaucracy, preferring a less-structured understanding of discipleship.

Rebels that we are, we have a proclivity to choose”a BMW over a Toyota Pirus, a Mac over a PC, Fox News over CNN; we find no compelling reason why we should all choose the same product. If, in utter seriousness, one can affirm that “Jesus is Lord,” how much organization is necessary?

Church history has provided several choices: Antioch, Alexandria, Constantinople, Rome, Wittenburg, Geneva, Canterbury, and now Rick Warren’s 25,000-member Saddleback Community Church. Maybe that’s OK. Multicultural as we are, even Rome’s capacious umbrella may not provide sufficient shelter for us all.

Duane A. Walker
Carlsbad, California

Articles by Various

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