Catholics in Crisis:
An American Parish Fights for Its Soul
A book by
Jim Naughton (formerly a reporter at The Washington Post and The New York Times,
now a senior editor at The Chronicle of Higher Education. He lives in Washington, D.C.)
Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Inc., 1996.

[From the dust jacket]

Polls illustrating the gulf between the Roman Catholic Church and its American flock appear with numbing frequency. But behind the statistics are millions of people struggling to reconcile their lives with their faith. Catholics in Crisis is a vivid portrayal of this struggle, told through the narrative frame of a single, albeit highly influential, parish.

Holy Trinity in Washington, D.C., one of the most prominent and popular churches in the nation, has long enjoyed a reputation as a place where post-Vatican II Catholicism is at its most vital. It is also a community in which American dissent from Vatican teaching is clearly articulated. But when a lone parishioner stands up through a Sunday Mass to protest the exclusion of women from the priesthood, he ignites a fire-storm of controversy that exposes deep rifts and threatens to tear the community apart.

The Standing, as it came to be called, is but one of the stories that Jim Naughton skillfully weaves together as he examines the issues that can divide parents and children, husbands and wives, priests and the laity, Rome and America. The rich cast of characters includes: the pastor of Holy Trinity -- deeply spiritual, charismatic, and about to leave the church; the female director of liturgy, caught between liberal and conservative factions; a parishioner and parent, who is appalled at the CCD program that he feels substitutes liberal platitudes for Catholic truth; a young priest who is struggling with his vow of celibacy; a powerful bishop, who believes that Holy Trinity goes out of its way to flout Church rubrics, and is determined to bring it to heel; and a handful of others who play out the realities of divorce, remarriage, abortion, and premarital sex against the background of the church's teachings.

At a time when the nation as a whole is struggling with what it means to live a "moral life" Catholics in Crisis carries lessons for us all.

A book review by Michael Seán Winters
(a graduate student of theology at The Catholic University, Washington, D.C.)

(Reprinted, with permission, from the February 1, 1997, issue of America,
which is published weekly by America Press, Inc., 106 West 56th Street,New York, N.Y. 10019. Subscription: $38 per annum.)

At Sunday School, in 1993, Christin McGovern and the other sophomores of Holy Trinity parish in Washington, D.C., were studying the sacraments. When the teacher got to holy orders, young Christin said she wasn't interested in learning about a sacrament she couldn't receive. Her father Ray, decided his daughter was right and a few week later began standing throughout Mass to protest the exclusion of women from holy orders. The "Standing," as it became known, and how the parish grappled with it are the subjects of James Naughton's book Catholics in Crisis: An American Parish Fights for Its Soul. (Addison-Wesley. 273p $24).

The pastor at the time was publicly sympathetic with the view that women should be ordained but troubled that the protests were disrupting the parish. A man known for his conciliatory approach and consensus-style of leadership, he was also struggling with his own homosexuality. (He has since left the Jesuits.) As the Standing grew to include more members of the parish, others became more vocal in objecting that Sunday Mass was not the place for a political protest.

The search for a new pastor at Holy Trinity raised the stakes for all involved. Run by the Jesuits, Holy Trinity's innovative styles of liturgy and preaching were suspect in the eyes of more traditional clerics and the vibrancy of the parish and its well-attended liturgies were seen as the result of catering to "cafeteria Catholics," who wanted to pick and choose among church teachings. The parishioners and the pastor feared that the local archbishop, Cardinal James Hickey, would use the Standing as a pretext to foist a more conservative pastor on the parish or even to remove the Jesuits from its spiritual governance. Cardinal Hickey is here portrayed as a "letter of the law" whose presence personifies all that the author and the left-leaning parishioners dislike about the church.

The pastor established a Working Group on Sexism, which sponsored a series of meetings and lectures to try to analyze the issues at stake. These had the primary effect of further polarizing the parish, the splits running over into the parish's other areas of concern, such as its support for a poor parish in El Salvador. Still, the pastor saw no alternative and thought the "theologically sophisticated" parishioners at Holy Trinity deserved no less than a full airing of the issues. Appeals to the authority of the Cardinal or the Pope would not defuse the crisis, nor was the pastor inclined to such appeals, given his own disaffection from church leaders on a variety of issues.

The account concludes with Cardinal Hickey's coming to install the new pastor, Lawrence J. Madden, S.J., a compromise choice between the Cardinal and the Jesuits. Ray McGovern stands throughout the Cardinal's homily but the Cardinal takes no notice. At a reception afterward, McGovern and Hickey discuss the matter briefly, but there is no unseemly screaming nor any meeting of the minds. The pastor leaves for California to pursue his sexual identity, and Holy Trinity parish continues to have McGovern standing at its 9:15 Mass.

Beware of journalists bearing books, at least when the topic at hand is the Roman Catholic Church. While striking the pose of journalistic objectivity, Naughton's want of understanding about critical theological and historic issues within Catholicism results in a total inability to see merit within the conservative positions held by the church, continued misunderstanding of the issues involved and an enthusiastic advocacy of the hippest views he can find.

Apart from the election of a pope or a papal visit, the press generally considers the church only when matters sexual are being discussed. This is presented here, as elsewhere, as the church's obsession with sex, when, in fact, even a limited familiarity with John Paul II's writings, or with the Vatican daily L'Osservatore Romano, would show that this Pope has spent probably about 5 percent of his time discussing "pelvic theology." Somebody is obsessed with sex, but it isn't the Catholic Church. Ethics extend beyond midriffs. "The nature of its relationship to the poor," Naughton writes, "is perhaps the most vexing ethical issue that Holy Trinity faces." He is undoubtedly correct. He also, undoubtedly, waits until page 175 to share this insight with the reader.

Despite his best efforts, the people Naughton seeks to portray sympathetically -- the enraged and frustrated women, the parish council debating how to enhance the liturgies, the priest freeing himself to explore his homosexuality -- these all end up appearing rather self-absorbed, a bit too confined by political correctness to be convincing in their anguish. They call to mind Chesterton's observation that there is no slavery so complete as being a child of one's own age.

Conversely, Cardinal Hickey, on whom no flattering light is thrown and who is presented as something of a strong-arm straw man for narrative purposes, nonetheless appears as a balanced and nuanced man, gentle in demeanor and thoughtful in speech. (This is because Cardinal Hickey, is, it turns out, a balanced and nuanced man who is gentle and thoughtful.) I have no objection to an author's creating straw men to serve his rhetorical purpose, but when the straw men are still standing at the end of the narrative, the argument is exposed in its own silliness.

Silliness is not too strong a word. Naughton's ignorance of church history stalks his own argument. He writes that the Jesuits have administered Holy Trinity parish for more than two centuries. This is not precisely accurate. Two centuries ago there were no Jesuits at Holy Trinity or anywhere else. The Society of Jesus had been suppressed by Pope Clement XIV in 1773 under pressure from the House of Bourbon. Then the political pressure on the church came from Catholic monarchies; today, the political pressure comes from democratically minded reformers. Naughton may prefer today's political pressure to yesterday's, but to the church, political pressure is political pressure.

Naughton is equally ill equipped to frame theological disputes. When Father Madden was installed as pastor, both the Cardinal and the parishioners were anxious to hear what he would say. Madden proclaims from the pulpit that "preaching the Word" would be his most important task. Naughton's comments are worth quoting at length:

It was a sentiment to which no one in the church would have objected yet it defined their divisions. For the Cardinal, the Word was a series of laws and customs based on a definitive revelation and codified by Church-sanctioned experts down through the ages. But for the people of Holy Trinity, the Word was the scriptural example of Jesus Christ, who said little about the issues that obsessed the hierarchy, but much about the extravagant love and forgiveness of their God, the necessity of opening oneself to the Holy Spirit, and the imperative of finding God in one's neighbors.... Which Word he proposed to preach at Holy Trinity he did not say.

This is stunning. The distinction here drawn is utterly false: the Cardinal, with all Catholics, believes that one of the things we know from the "scriptural example of Jesus" is that he founded a church, endowing it with the power and the obligation to carry on his example through the ages. Trying to separate tradition from Scripture is a Protestant, not a Catholic, enterprise. It is also, today, not a tenable enterprise. When Luther pronounced his teachings as based on sola scriptura, he made a protological mistake; to say that Scripture supersedes the tradition of the church is to ignore the historical fact that it was the church that canonized Scripture. Luther can be forgiven because the 16th century had little in the way of historical consciousness. Naughton's foolishness has no such excuse.

But what truly alarms in this passage is the view it ascribes to the parishioners of Holy Trinity, people who were just a few pages earlier described as theologically sophisticated. Yes, Jesus preached extravagant love and forgiveness of God, but he did this by calling sinners to repentance. And the sin that Jesus railed against more than any other is the sin of pride. The contemporary predilection to ask, "What would Jesus do?", which is implicit in Naughton's contrast, is nothing if not prideful. Naughton seems not to recognize the pride of his church-challenging heroes when they dismiss 2,000 years of Christian tradition because it does not comport with their wishes.

At times, the account is unintentionally comical. The claim to theological sophistication on the part of the Holy Trinity parishioners appears to rest on the fact that Ray McGovern and several others have certificates in theology from Georgetown University. Now what does this mean? I once attended a three-day wine seminar in Monterey, Calif., and have a certificate to show for my palate-enhancing endeavor. When this sophistication is set alongside the claim to be radically imitating Jesus of Nazareth, who, not unfamously, noted that we must become like little children to enter the Kingdom of God, well, let's just say this book could have used a little editorial sophistication.

There are other errors too numerous to count. A few examples will suffice. Naughton writes that in the 1980's Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen of Seattle was assigned a "co-adjudicator," but there is no such position in the church. There is a "coadjutor," but Archbishop Hunthausen did not get one in the 1980's; he was given an auxiliary bishop with special powers. The pastor of St. Ann's Church in Washington is Monsignor Awalt, not Ehwalt. Naughton explains the primary teaching of the Council of Trent as follows: "Change in its [the church's] structure or its teaching was not only undesirable, it was evil." In fact, the Council of Trent changed just about everything in the structure of Catholicism: the way priests were trained and the nature of their tenures once ordained, the job description for bishops, the sacramental life of lay people and clergy and the administration of marriage. Compared with Trent, Vatican II, the "revolutionary' council in the 1960's, was a piker.

The difficulty in writing about the church is that one cannot escape the necessity of referring to the 16th century Council of Trent in order to understand the issues that affect the lives of Catholics today. But, in order to do so intelligently, it takes more than a certificate from Georgetown University. Priests are not permitted to mount the pulpit without years of schooling. Prohibiting lay people from preaching is not some part of a patriarchal conspiracy against women; it is a protection from idiocy of the type served up in this book. Which isn't to say that some highly educated clerics are incapable of preaching truly awful sermons -- they are! It is to say that those sermons are, at least, more likely to be free from the kinds of idiocy that would lead one away from salvation.

Naughton chooses to take swipes at the legalism of the "institutional church." Of course, most institutions and all cultures adopt some kind of legal framework for organizing themselves. Still, he sees canon law as an oppressive thing, frustrating the happiness of lay Catholics. (This is an old theme. In a 1765 anti-Catholic diatribe, future-President John Adams began his first published writing with this sentence: "Since the promulgation of Christianity, the two greatest systems of tyranny...are the canon and the feudal law.") Naughton does not note that canon law has dispensation built in throughout its framework, nor that, at least in modern times, ecclesiastical law, though didactic in intent, is hardly coercive.

I confess to being baffled as to how and why the Pope and the bishops are consistently characterized, in this work and elsewhere, as oppressive. Are there guards at the airports? True, sometimes the decrees of the church collide with the ambitions of some of her members. When the theologically sophisticated Ray McGovern is given an opportunity to explain his protest to his fellow parishioners, he centers his talk around the question, "Why can't mommies be priests?" He notes that just a few years ago, mommies could not be doctors or lawyers either. There is a common sense aspect to the argument for women's ordination. But the church moves more slowly than the culture, and the arguments from women's progress within the world of work have no necessary bearing on the need to follow the scriptural example of Jesus.

I will grant that it is difficult to believe, in 1996 and in the United States, that mommies cannot be priests. (Neither I, nor I suppose Naughton, has any idea how the issue of women's ordination would play in Latin America or Africa or Asia, where the church is growing, not declining. I will bet that Pope John Paul II has examined in detail how this issue is viewed from these parts of the globe.) But it is also difficult to believe that God himself came down from heaven, was born of a woman, walked the earth and was crucified on a cross. Within any religious framework, epistemology has different referents and rules that yield a kind of knowledge different from knowledge that is commonsensical or scientific or demographic.

Religious knowledge, at least within the Catholic Church, is advanced slowly and conservatively. After all, souls are at stake here. Changing a teaching of the church is not like changing a government; such changes strike deeper. One reason for the conservatism of the church's adaptations is a political one. Given the absolute power of governance that resides in the Pope and the bishops, the culture of conservatism that dominates in the Vatican is a protection from excessive and arbitrary government. Stare decisis is a valued rule of law in a democracy; it is essential in the church. But the basic justification for conservatism is a sympathetic and pastoral one. People need time to adapt slowly to changes that touch on their deepest beliefs. The failure to ordain women is not going to keep anyone from heaven, or we would have to conclude that for 2,000 years all Christians have been sent to hell -- which is a bit drastic.

The teachings of the church can and do change. Mandatory celibacy for the clergy was instituted in the Middle Ages as a progressive reform to hinder nepotism; religious freedom was embraced when its liberal proponents saw it as a true method of government, rather than an ideological bludgeon employed to confiscate church properties; usury was once totally forbidden, but, as feudalism gave way to mercantilism, the ban was relaxed to achieve the objective of the original rule -- alleviating poverty and preventing exploitation. But these and other changes were undertaken slowly and soberly. This sometimes makes the church appear out of date. Compared with the loss of credibility inflicted upon those who are engaged to follow the trends of the times, moving slowly and soberly is a very small price to pay for the right and duty to proclaim a Gospel intended for all times.