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Confession of a Catholic Worker:
Our Current Moment of Christian Witness

by larry s. chapp
ignatius, 224 pages, $17.95

Sooner or later, every generation begins to look backward. Instead of blaming present woes on present-day opponents, writers past middle age take the longer view of their lives. Not too long ago, such retrospectives in the Catholic world were dominated by those who had watched the Church change from a relatively stable institution prior to the Second Vatican Council to one desperately seeking a relevance that the secular world had no intention of bestowing. Often these retrospectives evinced a strange mixture of nostalgia and resentment: Sister Mary Whoever was cruel to me and made me hate my body, but somehow, she and her horrible ideas also made me into the endlessly interesting ex-Catholic I am. The wheel of time keeps turning, however, and now those who grew up in the ruins of the Council’s experiment in “creative destruction” are reflecting on how they found a way to shore up those ruins with a form of intentional Christianity.

Had they been written ten years ago, such memoirs would derive an upbeat feel from the resurgence of Catholicism under St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI and document a “Catholic Moment” in which evangelical Catholicism got its groove back. Such reveries, however, are denied those who are witness to the extensive fallout from Catholicism’s clergy sex abuse crisis. Revelations of the double-barreled scandal of predatory priests and episcopal cover-ups have by now stripped the institutional Church in the United States of whatever public credibility it had gained in the last decades of the twentieth century. Even the glory days of St. John Paul II are marred, and nostalgia cannot restore their gleam. There are also, of course, the turmoil and bitter feelings churned up by Pope Francis’s pontificate. So, what kind of memoir befits our troubled times? Larry Chapp has provided a model.

Chapp prefers the term “confession” to memoir: He has written a “cri de coeur rooted in my own biography as one who came of age in the immediate aftermath of the Second Vatican Council.” The story begins with his experience as a typical suburban Catholic youth of the late 1960s. “This was the infamous beige Catholicism of [the] bourgeois—spiritual rice cakes that challenged nothing, said nothing, and stood for nothing beyond the culturally obvious.” One is surprised to learn, however, that Chapp received a decent catechetical formation amidst the felt banners, painted butterflies, and beanbag chairs. This formation would pay dividends later, as adolescent ennui gave way to teenage fervor. “I decided to commit my entire life to the living out of a counterscript to the script given to me by my suburban American cul-de-sac culture of spiritual indifference.” In 1978, Chapp entered a conservative seminary, eager to procure the intellectual weaponry for battling Catholic liberals.

This grand plan soon foundered, as it became apparent to Chapp that the neoscholasticism of his teachers could not account for modern philosophy’s insights into human subjectivity and history. Moreover, he learned the hard lesson that the loudest champions of Catholic orthodoxy—“pinched-up fiddleback fussbudgets”—are not always the best Christians. It was at this juncture that a wise priest introduced our hero to the literature of the ressourcement movement in Catholic theology, a theological project that sought to renew the Church by returning to ancient and medieval sources. The encounter would be life-changing: It eventually drew Chapp to Fordham for doctoral work in the theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar, and then to a position teaching theology. Landing a job normally serves as the denouement of this kind of story, as the young professor hunkers down in his specialty, writing journal articles and technical monographs. But not Chapp. Inspired by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, he gave up his tweed-jacket enterprise at the not-so-tender age of fifty-four to establish a Catholic Worker farm. It is from this perch that Chapp continues his theological work as a fiery and insightful commentator on the state of the Francine Church.

What gathers the fragments that make up this book into a meaningful whole is the impact of Balthasar’s The Moment of Christian Witness. Chapp emphasizes Balthasar’s claim that the gospel confronts its hearers with an Ernstfall, a moment of existential crisis that imposes a choice for or against Christ. In itself, this is not a novel claim. Rudolf Bultmann had made the same point. But the notion of personal crisis—the imperative of decision—becomes theological dynamite when joined with Balthasar’s distinctive interpretation of modernity. Unlike many of his peers, Balthasar refused to view modernity as simply a collection of ideas about nature or history, which theology must either contend with or accommodate. No, modernity is much more dangerous. It is a counter-gospel, the systematic nullification of “the human thirst for transcendence as anything truly real in any meaningful public sense.”

According to Balthasar, modernity’s attack is directed not at the credibility of Christian faith, but rather at the cultural conditions under which life-altering decisions of any sort make sense. When the possibility of transcendence is reinterpreted in purely immanent terms (historical, psychological, sociological), the cultural conditions are established in which no idea has the power to elicit the kind of existential crisis for which faith, a commitment of heart and soul, is the resolution. One turns to “critical understanding” or therapy to manage one’s life, rather than seeking the truth that invites our obedience. Under these rules, Christianity need not be eradicated, only reduced to one lifestyle choice among others: different strokes for different folks. And as the transcendent horizon is removed, freedom itself loses its meaning, because no single choice is worth dying or even living for. It is this conception of the modern challenge confronting Christianity that captured Chapp’s heart and mind and accounts, I believe, for Balthasar’s continuing hold on the best theological minds of our generation.

Although Chapp insists that Christianity must resist the pull of modern culture, he scorns the escapist project of reconstructing the preconciliar Church among the true believers. He summarizes this project: “If we can just reassert the syllabus of errors via the path of ecclesial discipline, create more bishops who will take their pastoral cues from the nineteenth century, and retool our evangelization with more Hellfire cowbell, [then] all will be well in Churchville.” The book is full of similarly fiery passages, which will draw a smile from sympathetic readers. Chapp’s wit ought not, however, obscure the seriousness of his point: Conservative fantasy is no less an avoidance of the crisis that midwifes faith than is liberal capitulation. The contemporary believer’s Ernstfall must take place in the modern world, the very world that denies its possibility. To the extent that traditionalism tempts its devotees to direct their energies to intra-ecclesial disputes, it has acceded to modernity’s central demand that religion remain a private affair with no public claim on the real.

Informed by the ideals of the Catholic Worker movement, Chapp suggests that radical holiness in the world is the most authentically Catholic option. Catholics must “drink deeply from the same well of modernity” as their unbelieving neighbors, without succumbing to its toxins. Dorothy Day sought holiness in serving the urban poor and in political agitation for social justice. Peter Maurin favored building “a Christian, communal society rooted in simplicity, love, prayer, and the works of mercy . . . small islands of countercultural community within the shell of the existing order.” Others, Chapp allows, may choose less dramatic paths. Nevertheless, we must live with resolve. Given the powers arrayed against the Church, cleaving to Christ might well require a prophetic witness that entails the loss of reputation or career. As this resistance is carried out, it must be done out of love for the world—not out of resentment, team spirit, or self-regard. Christians are called not to leave the world to its own devices but to participate in its salvation by conforming themselves to Christ crucified.

Chapp gives readers much to reflect upon and enjoy. He has a talent for giving voice to the frustration Catholics feel as they watch their beloved Church slide into confusion and a struggle for institutional survival, just at that moment when its divine message is so obviously needed. The increasing ugliness of Western culture without Christ ought to be a kairos for the Catholic form of life. Modernity has little to offer our young other than a pursuit of one’s “best life” through the piling up of good times, and we can already see the ways in which metaphysical boredom gives way to deadly despair. Yet even with no real competition, our divided and exhausted Church seems unable to answer the call of this historical moment.

Chapp does more than provide a needed outlet for the discouraged and upset. He warns his readers against translating ecclesial matters into the idiom of worldly politics. One sees the wisdom of this warning especially in his subtle appraisal of Vatican II. Contrary to those who hold the Council responsible for our current woes, Chapp argues that a return to its authentic teaching is essential for the Church’s renewal. Blaming the Council both confuses historical sequence with causation and falsely romanticizes preconciliar Catholicism. The problems that manifested themselves after the Council were already present before. Like a silent cancer whose destruction is veiled by a seemingly healthy facade, a great deal of unbelief and compromise already operated in the preconciliar Church. How else can one explain the soufflé-like collapse after 1965? Chapp allows that “the Council may have acted as an accelerant,” and he compares St. John XXIII to a high-stakes gambler betting that an ancient and worldwide institution could withstand the shock therapy of a thorough and much needed Christocentric overhaul.

Chapp is aware, of course, that ongoing questions over how best to understand the Council make “returning” to it no simple proposition. He rejects both the liberal notion of rupture and the conservative’s claims of nothing-to-see-here continuity, opting for a “hermeneutic of reform.” Reform, however, comes with discontinuities, or as Chapp puts it, “change . . . involves small ruptures with aspects of the tradition for the sake of a deeper continuity with the broader tradition.” In other words, the Council required the faithful to change their minds on matters of real significance in Catholic life and culture. Here Chapp’s proposal is helped by the recent work of Thomas Guarino, who has charted the ways in which Vatican II recalibrated and perhaps reversed certain non-dogmatically defined teachings of the ordinary magisterium, such as the source of episcopal authority, the wideness of God’s mercy for salvation, and the necessary relation of human dignity and religious freedom.

At one level, this should not trouble believers; the Church has never claimed that all her ordinary teachings are irreformable. Certain teachings are presented by the Church as divinely revealed and requiring the assent of faith. Other teachings, however, call for religious submission on the part of Catholics, but are in principle reformable. Thus, it is possible for a teaching to be both authoritative and reformable. Problems arise when the faithful are confused about where and when the difference applies. Though the council fathers, including Pope Paul VI, had perfectly understandable pastoral reasons to be less than forthright about the existence and nature of the conciliar reforms, their reticence created a vacuum quickly filled by exaggerations on the left and untenable denials on the right. Thus, Chapp argues, it is not the teachings of the Council that are the problem, but rather the failure of the bishops to prepare the people to receive them.

I find Chapp’s analysis convincing, even if I do not accept his idea that a Vatican III is required to sort things out. (One shudders to think what a circus such a council would be, given the turmoil unleashed by the Francis pontificate.) More promising is Chapp’s proposal of a hermeneutic of kenosis, whereby the faithful learn to live with a Church that has found it necessary to adjust elements of its ordinary teaching. Chapp is aware, of course, that progressive theologians have emphasized these changes to the detriment of the Church’s teaching mission. At the same time, he sees harm in the efforts of traditionalists to present a Church “that has never taught a single wrong thing ever.” Such triumphalism cannot withstand an honest accounting of the Council’s development of doctrine and subsequent papal teaching, for instance on the question of anti-Semitism. Indeed, Chapp does not hesitate to speak of “painful admissions of past mistakes” as a condition for greater conformity to her crucified Lord. These are very difficult waters, and here Chapp mourns the loss of theological precision with respect to ordinary and extraordinary teachings, such as was found in the neoscholastic manuals of his seminary days. Such precision will be required should Chapp build upon his insights here. In any case, he is correct that the ongoing reception of Vatican II has been hampered by the bishops’ failure to explain the nature of the changes the Council wrought and how these changes relate to the Church’s duty to preserve the deposit of faith.

Before closing, let me return to the Balthasarian notion of modernity that animates Chapp’s analysis. There is something importantly true in thinking of modernity as an active force rather than a set of ideas—more like the Borg from Star Trek than a treatise by Richard Dawkins. That said, I cannot agree with Chapp’s equation of the inability to appreciate the true nature of modernity with the failed project of liberal Catholicism. The role of liberal Catholicism is only half the story. Left out of consideration are those twentieth-century Catholic intellectuals who engaged modern critics within the traditional understanding of faith and reason, nature and grace, not out of a spirit of accommodation, but because they were convinced that the ongoing credibility of Catholic faith required addressing legitimate advances in scientific knowledge, historiography, and moral sentiment. If from our present perspective it is apparent that they underestimated the unique corrosive power of modernity, theirs was a mistake of theory, not of fidelity.

The limitations of Chapp’s approach reveal themselves in his dismissal of John Courtney Murray and his followers as puppets of American empire. There is, to be sure, much to debate about how Catholicism ought to relate to the liberal political order, but Murray was no less aware than his anti-liberal critics of the destructive formalism of a Lockean conception of freedom. Murray’s mistake, it seems, was misdiagnosing how far the disease had progressed. The state of things looked much different in 1960, when he published We Hold These Truths, than it does in 2023. Even so, it is far from clear that Murray’s proposal for engaging what is best in the American tradition is any less needed now than it was sixty years ago. What, precisely, in Catholic teaching requires one to be opposed to the determination of governmental policy through public discourse and determination, the recognition that political rights are bestowed by the Creator, or a state limited in its claimed competence and powers?

At the very least, Murray’s constructive approach seems no more susceptible to co-opting by American imperialism than Chapp’s anti-nationalism is to the secularizing and illiberal tendencies of globalization. An appropriate assessment of Murray’s legacy would proceed by respectful dialogue among different schools of thought within Catholicism rather than by righteous denunciation. Summary dismissals might serve the emotions of the writer and like-minded reader, but they do not serve the Church. Only Catholics locked together in argument over matters of first importance can do that. Though not exactly a quibble, this observation does not detract from my overall judgment: that this book offers a compelling analysis of what is wrong in post–Vatican II Catholicism and how it can be righted. Go and read Larry Chapp.

James F. Keating is associate professor of theology at Providence College.

Image by Maksim Sokolov licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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