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Being Right: Conservative Catholics in America
Edited by Mary Jo and R. Scott Appleby
Indiana University Press, 416 pages, $18.95

Can it be true, as the historian James Hitchcock darkly suggests, that the conservative Catholic William F. Buckley “has sometimes been regarded as a less than fully committed ally on issues involving sexuality”? Is sexual correctness on the right really this unforgiving? And you thought it was hard for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.

This collection of essays covers the ideological terrain from neoconservative George Weigel, who celebrates the modern church’s eagerness to engage the world and other religious traditions, to neoscholastics orphaned by the Second Vatican Council’s embrace of other theologies, to the most embittered, even loopy, “traditionalists” who think the Council’s aggiornamento a betrayal and an apostasy.

Editors Mary Jo Weaver and R. Scott Appleby and their collaborators immerse us in a roiling sea of contested assertion and testimony. Many conservatives, for instance, attribute an erosion of discipline in the Church to a theologian-led rejection of Humanae Vitae . These Catholics, one suspects, confuse the poor reception of a difficult and not always persuasive teaching for a lack of faith, and the laity’s eagerness for reasoned engagement with a failure of obedience. Though the teaching of the magisterium is owed an obsequium of the intellect and will, how central the ban on artificial contraception is to the truths of faith remains a subtle question not likely to be resolved by papal authority alone.

Most conservative or traditionalist Catholics are animated by the potent idea that something has gone drastically wrong with the postconciliar Church. Where once there was a fortress and a rock impervious to the depredations of the modern world, now”to change the metaphor”there is an often rudderless ship, rife with mutineers and foundering on compromise and accommodation. As Joseph Komonchak argues in an astute essay, whether one emphasizes the Council’s essential continuity with tradition or praises its departure from established practice, there is no denying its revolutionary impact. Where for at least two hundred years the Church had set itself against a world increasingly characterized by democracy, liberalism, and religious pluralism, the Council abruptly turned to face and even embrace ideas once judged anathema.

A few amusing sidelights help give the lay of the land. First, the endearingly wayward Pierre Martin Ngo-Dhin-Thuc, former Archbishop of Hue in Vietnam. According to essayist William Dinges, Thuc’s dismay over reform culminated in his consecration of three so-called traditionalist bishops in 1975. Rome promptly excommunicated him. The Vatican and Thuc reconciled shortly thereafter, but the promiscuous laying on of hands soon proved too great a temptation, and in 1979 Thuc illicitly ordained two Mexican priests. In the meantime, the Thuc bishops were busy multiplying themselves, ordaining fugitive priests and even bishops. Apostolic succession and the doctrine of ex opere operato are two of Catholicism’s most charming transcendental guarantees, but they can bring canonical and metaphysical headaches.

Then there was the haughty and schismatic Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, the late French prelate who judged the Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom a capitulation to the principles of the French Revolution. Vatican II’s acceptance of religious liberty “gives error rights,” Lefebvre complained with some justification. “The Modernists have achieved what they wanted.” As a consequence, the “adulterous union” of the Church and the “Revolution” produced “bastard” sacraments and priests. Lefebvrists and other traditionalists hold in contempt ecumenism and episcopal collegiality, and especially abhor the abandonment of the Latin Mass.

A robust Marian revival is also part of the conservative insurgency, and the popularity of Marian conferences, usually featuring apocalyptic exhortation from a handful of adepts, is chronicled by Sandra L. Zimdars-Swartz. On the academic front, coeditor Weaver conducts a Cook’s tour of the handful of Catholic colleges recently founded by conservatives who think that more venerable institutions such as Notre Dame and Georgetown have lost any distinctive Catholic identity or mission.

Being Right is a descriptive exercise. Weaver and Appleby eventually hope to complete a map of the entire contemporary American Church. For this volume, the editors invited a number of conservative Catholics to explain their own goals. James A. Sullivan, Vice President of Catholics United for the Faith (known by the admonitory acronym CUF), explains the enthusiasm for policing liturgies and dissent. Helen Hull Hitchcock’s history of Women for Faith and Family (WFF), an organization dedicated to resisting feminism and affirming the “natural and essential distinction between the sexes,” is especially interesting in light of the Vatican’s recent determinations against the ordination of women. WFF was formed in 1984 in an effort to convince the American bishops, who were then futilely struggling to write a pastoral letter on women, that the Church’s traditional sexual anthropology is just fine, thank you. Altar girls, an innovation much bemoaned by WFF but recently approved by John Paul II, would appear to leave these loyalists between a rock and the hard place of evolving liturgical practice.

James Hitchcock, from the same busy household, describes his metamorphosis from a “ Commonweal Catholic” who welcomed reform to a vehement opponent of the ethos of the postconciliar Church. In an effort to resist the “unhindered path to secularization” embarked on by Catholic universities and academics, Hitchcock helped to found the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars in 1977. Like WFF, which endorses “all” Catholic teaching, the fellowship says it embraces “the entire faith of the Catholic Church.”

All and entire are favorite modifiers for many conservatives. Their appropriation of the dense, complex, and even contradictory world of Catholicism brooks little qualification. At first glance such bold declarations seem admirably capacious, but there is a tendentiousness and a questionable sense of historical tidiness at work as well. As Cardinal Newman reminds us, “We shall find ourselves unable to fix an historical point at which the growth of doctrine ceased, and the rule of faith was once for all settled.” That fact about the “living” tradition of Christian belief and doctrine should militate against any predisposition to champion the univocal exercise of authority, to see change as simple corruption, or dispute as disloyalty. As the Editor-in-Chief of First Things has put it, “The first obligation is not to think like the Pope, but to think with the Pope.”

Besides, as Appleby and other contributors (Allan Figueroa Deck, S.J., most interestingly on “premodern” Hispanic Catholicism) demonstrate, the Church has rarely been either neat or placid. Can there be any serious doubt that Catholic teaching, if ultimately faithful to the principles of tradition, changes and develops? Indeed, for Newman “one source of corruption in religion is the refusal to follow the course of doctrine as it moves on, and an obstinacy in the notions of the past.” Few more dramatic examples of doctrinal development exist than the reconciliation effected between Catholicism and democracy by Vatican II’s formal acceptance of religious freedom. Appleby’s essay, “The Triumph of Americanism: Common Ground for U.S. Catholics in the Twentieth Century,” deftly analyzes the historical ironies and strange theological bedfellows that have resulted.

In that context, the dexterity of George Weigel’s assessment of the intellectual challenges presented by the ongoing conversation between Catholicism and the American “experiment in ordered liberty” deserves special attention. Weigel knows it is imperative that Catholicism refurbish the transcendental categories now under such suspicion in the larger culture. “The issue,” he writes, “is to develop a theological grammar and vocabulary that can confront secularism and satisfy the (often latent) religious hungers of the contemporary world, without requiring our contemporaries to become medievals . . . and without dissolving Christian truth claims into expressions of a wholly subjective ‘religious experience.’ . . . Rather than holding beliefs as givens (the distinctive characteristic of traditionalism), we recognize that our beliefs are choices. Yet we insist that those beliefs, even as choices, disclose the truth of things.”

Neoconservatives sometimes cast the current Bishop of Rome as more an oracle than the first among equals, but Weigel indulges in little such overt politicking. Theologically, he gets the balance between tradition and development right. As Appleby notes, neoconservative and liberal Catholics share a telling set of assumptions about the compatibility of American freedoms and Catholicism. Weigel knows that Catholicism has always assimilated the best of what the world offered while it went about trying to transform that world. Conservatives are right to worry about the moral agnosticism that increasingly colors American experience, and right to insist that tradition and authority, highly suspect categories for Americans, are indispensable to revealed religion. What is too often slighted by many in Being Right is a historically informed appreciation of theological conflict, individual conscience, and a receptive engagement with the world.

To be sure, progressive Catholics tend to reverse these emphases, naively championing the sovereignty of individual judgment or “experience” while disparaging the apparatus of authority as little more than an impediment to the imminent arrival of the Kingdom. But as Newman wrote, religious truth, being a living thing, emerges only through a “never-dying duel,” a “warfare of ideas” in which authority and private judgment work mysteriously in tandem.

To demand the unconditional surrender of either side in this contest betrays a lack of faith in Christ’s promises to his Church. Yes, Catholicism’s ability to defend its hierarchical structure and protect its sacramental life”to insist that salvation is fundamentally a mediated reality”is sorely tested in the American context. But whatever the immediate pressure of those threats, the only way forward is the traditional way forward”for a patient authority to insist on its prerogatives while nevertheless assimilating the truth offered by those who question those prerogatives. A glimpse of a more abiding truth is something only a catholic church, and none of her partisans alone, can make manifest.

Paul Bauman is Associate Editor of Commonweal.