There’s no contradiction in saying "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," for the two facts occasionally coexist.

So, I recently argued in the Weekly Standard , we are living in a moment in which a set of Catholic ideas and rhetorical gestures¯the Catholic way of phrasing and framing certain arguments¯plays a greater role in American public life than ever before. For both its supporters and its detractors, the moral imagination of Catholicism is a marker: to be praised and deployed, for some; to be mocked and decried, for others¯but for all, a point of reference in the ongoing debates about the law, abortion, church-state relations, and many other of the issues that roil public debate.

And yet, I suggested, we are also at a moment when the institutional Church in America has less political power than ever before. For all the raging during the 2004 presidential election about the baleful effect of the Catholic hierarchy’s preaching against abortion¯editorials in the New York Times , television talk show after television talk show¯here’s a simple measure: pro-abortion politicians won the political district of every cardinal in the United States, from Los Angeles to Boston.

One commentator complained that I had imagined a backlash against the cardinals when, in fact, the vote proved the complete indifference to them. But that is precisely what I meant: the institutional Church has a political effect these days that is almost non-existent, even for provoking a counter-effect. Like John Kerry when he boasted that he had been an altar boy, the newspaper editorialists suppose we still live in a day in which, for instance, John F. Kennedy could win 87 percent of Mass-going Catholics’ votes.

Still, the New York Times is right to be disturbed, for there is something going on in America that involves Catholicism and is profoundly antithetical to much that the Times holds dear. But to blame it on the institutional power of the Catholic Church is a dated and false analysis. That was yesterday. Today’s problem, for those who want to resist it, is the rhetorical and intellectual role of Catholicism in America.

Yesterday, my friend Russell Hittinger, the Catholic philosopher at the University of Tulsa, sent a note warning against overestimating the influence of intellectual Catholicism in the United States¯particularly in academia. Perhaps he’s right. But the question is how there can be any influence at all, for fifty years of work by sociology professors has assured us of the assimilation of Catholics, and two hundred years of polished epigrams from Enlightenment-style philosophes have informed us that religion in general, and Catholicism in particular, belong to the childhood of mankind.

The answer, I think, is this: Catholicism is the new mainline church in America. As mainline Protestantism was to the nation, so Catholicism now is . That’s not to say Catholics aren’t a sprawling mess, for they are: Catholic voters are divided nearly perfectly between the political parties, and the internal arguments are waged with an absurd venom and bile (as when the editor of a Catholic journal recently concluded a review of George Weigel’s The Cube and the Cathedral with the observation: "This is a third-rate book permeated with the odor of witchcraft"). Meanwhile, Catholic universities are in disarray, Catholic politicians are as likely to be pro-abortion as not, and Catholic art has shown little life since the 1940s and 1950s.

And yet, the nation has need of something, which¯almost by default¯Catholicism is providing. This is Toqueville’s kind of thesis, of course, about the American experience, but it feels right. The United States has always required some source of moral imagination in the public square that does not derive from either the politics of democracy or the economics of capitalism. For a long time, the mainline Protestant churches remained that source, even though they were often as sprawling and as envenomed as American Catholicism now is. And when, for a number of fascinating reasons, those mainline churches collapsed, the nation was left with Catholicism. (This is to leave for another day the role of the evangelical churches, and also the question of what happens when evangelicals and Catholics meet in the space that the mainline used to occupy.)

To decide about all this would require two movements: explaining what happened to America, and explaining what happened to Catholicism. And those two explanations may seem at times to give contradictory answers¯like "it was the best of times, it was the worst of times." Still, the role of Catholicism in America today seems to me the most interesting and pressing social and political question around.

Russell Hittinger’s question yesterday about Catholics in American colleges and universities produced a number of interesting responses. Over on the Open Book blog, Amy Welborn’s readers argued the question back and forth. Other comments can be found here and here (where a group of Marquette students defend their school’s reputation).

Meanwhile, Russ Hittinger has sent a note extending and clarifying his point. "I had no intention of suggesting that there was a golden-age of Catholic intellectuals in the United States, much less of making lists ranking or demeaning numerous colleagues and friends," he writes. "My point is that in the Weekly Standard article you overestimate the estate of Catholic thought today." For that matter, "the politically effective modes of Catholic thought on public square issues are not the same thing as what happens, fairly quietly, in the institutions of academia, where a new generation of scholars (might) learn subject-matters relevant to Catholic life. On the latter score, we cannot claim that things are going well for us. Maybe a low level of ‘okay.’ Individual examples will always prove otherwise."

Russ insists that that our rather mediocre situation is not explained solely by the "politically correct mien" of the academy. "Catholics in our country have never been better educated according to conventional norms¯way beyond what my parents would have been happy to achieve for themselves or their children. This has not yielded the cohort of intellectuals that might have been gathered just thirty years ago at a dozen different Catholic schools. It suggests to me that Catholics have had better things, at least other things, to do with their education¯in business, the arts, journalism, politics, law. But we shouldn’t pretend that the intellectual riches of our tradition are being ratcheted up and improved within academia."

As for the cause, that remains an open question. "But here is a hint¯the decline of religious life: secular priesthood and those under evangelical vows. Whoever has the intellect, imagination, and patience to think this one through will reach the vicinity of the problem. And it might prove a lot more interesting, cutting in different ways (in cause and effect) than what you first thought."

We recently posted a parody of the "Dies Irae" as it might be found in modern hymnals. Someone sent it in as an anonymous composition that was kicking around on the web. Our friends at Touchstone magazine, however, point out that it appeared in their pages and is the work of Anthony Esolen. I mean the parody, of course. Thomas of Celano’s original is probably a little older.

In addition to which :

In the February issue of F IRST T HINGS , Emily Stimpson tells the poignant story of a dying parish, Avery Cardinal Dulles critiques the pope’s critique of Vatican II, Stephen Barr explains why we need not choose between design and evolution, and Richard John Neuhaus examines the troubling responses to the Vatican’s instruction on gays and the priesthood. Those are some of the highlights. To become a subscriber to F IRST T HINGS , click here .

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