Catholics in Crisis:
An American Parish Fights for Its Soul
Jim Naughton
Addison-Wesley, 1996
273 pages, $22

A review by Stephen Skousgaard
(a financial advisor living in Northern Virginia and formerly a Holy Trinity parishioner),
published in the April 1997 issue of
CRISIS magazine.


Like the author Jim Naughton, I too played a minor role in the story he chronicles. When he interviewed me, we traded stories, ideas, and drinks over the course of a long evening. I admire his decency, his earnestness, and he tells a ripping good story. That said, he misses the deeper meaning of the crisis he explores. 

Naughton focuses on a single parish in what was once a relatively poor Catholic neighborhood in Washington, D.C., but is now a magnet for wealthy suburbanites. His central thesis in short: The turmoil in this parish -- the result of a change of pastors and the agitation of a small band of activists seeking the ordination of women -- mirrors the turmoil, indeed the crisis, of Catholicism in America writ large. Ironically, his thesis is true, only not in the way he thinks. Unintentionally, Naughton casts light on three themes that are inextricably part of the real crisis of Catholicism: the growth of secular thinking which gives a liberal spin to most events; the true failure of Church leadership; and the refusal to measure history in terms of sacred categories. The crisis of Catholicism in America is that of a Church, both lay and religious, that has abandoned the Magisterium, waving the flag of Vatican II without attending to its explicit teaching, while looking at her experience through a secular and not a sacred lens.

Naughton offers, despite himself, a useful portrayal of the crisis of American Catholic leadership -- the failure of clergy and theologians to teach the true meaning of Vatican II.

By borrowing concepts and categories from popular politics, speaking about Church matters in terms of "progressives" and "conservatives," Naughton is led into a sharp bias that prevents him from reaching the true source of the problem. Among the inaccuracies and omissions illustrating this bias are the following:  

1) My own letter about a "substituted" penitential prayer was to the pastor, not to the liturgy director as Naughton states. Neither does my letter accuse the latter of "abuse of power" and "breach of faith." These inaccuracies reinforce, however, the subplot of a "conservative" attack on liturgical reform. Instead, the letter asks who or what authority may alter the prayers of the Mass, gives reasons for considering the substitution in question unwise, and requests pastoral counseling in order to better understand the substitution. Although far from hostile, my request for counsel still remains unanswered.

2) The concern of another parishioner, Carroll Carter's objection to priests wearing tennis shoes on the altar, is trivialized because no mention is made of his thoughtful argument that liturgy is an outward expression of inner faith and that its form is indicative of its content. Quite simply, liturgical ceremony is supposed to be remarkable for its outward acts of reverence. 

3) Naughton portrays accurately the commitment by "progressives" to social justice, but ignores the charitable commitments of "conservatives." A more careful journalist would not have missed certain facts, such as the adoption by one "conservative" of numerous foster children, adding to her already large family; or of another suffering a broken back in rural Mexico while taking a youth group to work among the poor. As characterized by Naughton, these "conservatives" are one-dimensional, concerned only with allegiance to Rome, while his "progressives" are fully drawn actors.

Naughton offers, despite himself, a useful portrayal of the crisis of American Catholic leadership -- the failure of clergy and theologians to teach the true meaning of Vatican II. He describes the pastor's oath of fealty as "unreasonable and demeaning" because it requires "religious submission of will and intellect" to the teachings of the pontiff and the "authentic Magisterium." Yet Lumen Gentium requires this religious submission of will and intellect from all Catholics. For a community priding itself on being a "Vatican II parish" to find this oath unreasonable and demeaning betrays a serious gap in its awareness of the council's teaching. 

We parishioners who both love and pray for our former pastor are saddened by Naughton's disclosure of a homosexual relationship during his pastorate, as well as his sub rosa agenda, captured by his intention to take CCD and liturgy directors to a forbidden Dignity Mass. In retrospect, these events have borne out Father Paul Mankowski, S.J.'s observation that when a parish has had a pastor who has not lived his vows faithfully, the parish must in effect be recatechized. Sadly, Father Mankowski's superiors have silenced him while a parish that illustrates his point continues on its wayward course. 

The steady movement away from a prayerful community that welcomed into the Church those who had fallen away from its teaching (including me), toward a place where the wayward are made comfortable by preachers who avoid hard teachings, to finally a forum for rejecting the Church's "racist, sexist, homophobic" teaching, is a movement that empties the faith of its defining content. 

The real story here is a failure of nerve on the part of the hierarchy, and not, as Naughton's progressives imagine, its failure to subscribe to a politically correct, secular agenda.