Appointment in Rome: The Church in America Awakening

by Father Richard John Neuhaus

(Crossroad Publishing Co., 1999, 170 pages, $24.95)

If the Holy Father is submitting himself to this, who am I to complain?” writes Father Richard John Neuhaus, editor in chief of First Things, about the 1997 Synod of Bishops for America. Honored by his “appointment in Rome” as one of only four non-bishops chosen as full-voting members of the synod, he was under-whelmed by the synod's procedural structures and wrote this book to “redeem the time” and to sort out his thinking about the “curious experience” that is a synod of bishops. Although frustrated by the tedium, Father Neuhaus remained keenly aware of the company he was keeping, exhorting the often apprehensive synod fathers to think boldly about a new “Catholic moment” for America — “America” here understood to extend from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego.

Father Neuhaus begins by giving us a report of how the synod actually works, or doesn't, as the case may be. Likening the synod's “re-workings of reworkings” to a cow that chews and re-chews its cud, Father Neuhaus does not hide his impatience with the interminable speeches, lack of creative exchange, and “schoolboy regimen,” including attendance cards — which even the cardinals had to complete. Yet he concludes that the proceedings must be seen in the light of the Holy Spirit's work in history: “This synod was, in short, pretty much what one might expect had the original apostles, multiplied many times over, been sent to western shores and then, many years later, called back to Rome to consult with Peter.”

Procedure aside, Father Neuhaus' substantive disappointment is with the lack of enthusiasm among these successors of the apostles for “the Catholic moment” — a time of expectation about preaching the gospel on the threshold of the year 2000.

“Tensions within the Church and tensions with the surrounding culture reveal strikingly different dispositions, ranging from timorousness to belligerence, with numerous variations on both,” he writes. The disposition that Father Neuhaus finds most lacking is confidence. His book is subtitled The Church in America Awakening. The synod fathers speak more about the Church in America embattled.

Father Neuhaus sees this possible “awakening” as a variation of the Holy Father's conviction that a “new springtime of evangelization” is at hand. He thought so a decade ago when, still a Lutheran, he wrote The Catholic Moment. That book argued — an argument that he has since amplified in several other books and in First Things — that the Catholic Church provides the most compelling vision of man and society in the face of the crises of faith, truth, and freedom that mark our time. The prolific and eloquent Father Neuhaus has won a wide following in the United States and the favor of the Holy Father. But the synod fathers remain to be convinced.

“Humbling,” is how Father Neuhaus describes the “evident lack of influence” the ideas of The Catholic Moment have had among the synod fathers. The majority from Latin America were preoccupied with the challenges of grinding poverty, the lack of priests, the large numbers of practicing Catholics living in irregular marital situations, and the growth of the “sects,” meaning evangelical Protestants. He sympathizes, but wonders whether there was altogether too much complaining going on. Father Neuhaus, a preternatural optimist, was surrounded by prelates who spend a good part of each day receiving bad news about the Church. To be fair, he confesses that “they bear burdens I don't bear.”

The heart of this book is the suggestion that how Catholics treat other Christians reveals how Catholics understand what it means to be Catholic.

Taking up the question of relations with evangelical Protestants, he asked in his synod speech for an “elimination of all reference to ‘sects’ when referring to our brothers and sisters in Christ.” Acknowledging that evangelicals often do not see Catholics as brethren at all, Father Neuhaus insists that Catholics must not reciprocate misunderstanding for misunderstanding. He follows John Courtney Murray in observing that pluralism is “written in the script of history” and he argues that the “rich ecclesiology” of Lumen Gentium provides the proper context for dealing with religious pluralism.

“The Church is not intimidated by pluralism, for pluralism is the inevitable consequence of freedom, and the Church is the world's premier champion of freedom,” he writes. “And that is why the most important question addressed by the synod is the encounter with other Christians. For Latin Americans it is a matter of positioning the Church for an encounter that is relatively new. For North Americans, it is a matter of re-examining the ways in which a very old encounter has confused or compromised what it means to be a Catholic Christian.”

The originality of his approach lies in the link between freedom, especially religious liberty, and ecumenism. The ecumenical question then ceases to be a matter only of theological agreement or ecclesial jurisdiction and becomes a part of the Church's understanding of its mission in the modern world. While not saying so explicitly, the heart of this book is Father Neuhaus' suggestion that how Catholics treat other Christians reveals how Catholics understand what it means to be Catholic. To fail at ecumenism is therefore to fail to understand what it means to be Catholic — a bold claim, boldly stated.

Father Neuhaus knows that his experience of ecumenical engagement, marked by such heady initiatives as Evangelicals and Catholics Together, is rather different from a South American bishop who must deal with Protestant “missionaries” who seek to “convert” Catholics to Christianity. Yet he argues that the Church is at her best when she patiently, persuasively, and prayerfully expounds her faith, not against anyone, least of all fellow Christians, but with trust that, in the words of Lumen Gentium, all “elements of truth … possess an inner dynamism toward Catholic unity.”

Father Neuhaus' position, or perhaps more accurately, disposition, is open to attack from all sides, perhaps most from those who wish to emphasize conversion more than conversation in relations with other Christians. He may be wrong in his reading of the signs of the times, but his argument must be engaged because it reads those signs from the right vantage point, namely, the Church's fundamental teaching about who she is. The attraction of his proposal is that it is rooted in Catholic orthodoxy, illustrating yet again that orthodoxy can be ever so much more radical than its alternatives.

Ecumenism is an extraordinarily delicate matter, and Father Neuhaus' ecumenical proposal is as nuanced as it is bold. Leaving the deliberations of the synod quite far behind, Father Neuhaus here holds aloft the standard of a new Catholic moment, this time embracing the whole American hemisphere. It remains to be seen who will follow. The world of preternaturally optimistic Catholics is not yet so very large. But Father Neuhaus is not one to fret. He believes that the Holy Father, Vatican II, and the script of history are with him.

Rayond de Souza is a seminarian of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario.