Attention, Peter Steinfels: You Got It Wrong
Ever wonder what's happening with today's Catholics? Allow me to provide you a glimpse from my own backyard in Connecticut, a place where the Catholic faith is allegedly aging and dead.
It's 8 a.m. on the first Saturday of the month. In Avon, young men from throughout the Farmington Valley are gathering for Mass, followed by a talk by Father Mike. These men, mostly in their 30s, are members of Opus Dei, a group known for its faithfulness to Catholic teaching, and Father Mike has traveled from Boston specifically to minister to them.
It's the second Tuesday night of the month. In Cheshire, at the seminary of the Legionaries of Christ, members and nonmembers of Regnum Christi attend an Evening of Recollection for Men. They fill the chapel.
It's the first Friday night of the month. In Hartford, a crowd of Catholic charismatics converge on St. Peter's Church for a Mass of Healing and Hope. A glance at the Datebook page of our archdiocesan newspaper, The Catholic Transcript, reveals that a significant number of events around the state are sponsored by charismatics.
It's a Saturday morning early in the month in New Haven, or later in the month in Hartford. The Helpers of God's Precious Infants begin the day with a Mass. Afterward nearly 75 “Helpers” march, under police escort, to the local abortion clinic, where they sing and pray the rosary for several hours before returning to the church for Eucharistic adoration and fellowship.
In Granby, Catholic home-schooling parents from the surrounding area hold a conference to discuss different curriculums. In Waterbury, thirty-something Sister Mary Elizabeth welcomes the latest of a steady stream of teen-age postulants to the Sisters Minor of Mary Immaculate, an order that is barely 20 years old.
In Trumbull, the Couple to Couple League, a group devoted to the Church's teaching against contraception, holds a Natural Family Planning Barbecue.
In Torrington, on any given day columnist Bill Dunn can be found either a) arranging a speaker for his Inter-Parish Adult Religious Education Program, b) hosting his well-publicized Catholic Bible study, or c) e-mailing his weekly “Unauthorized Homily” column to his hundreds of readers.
In Enfield, popular Catholic convert Scott Hahn speaks to a packed house on one recent weekend, the guest of a group trying to start a local Catholic radio station.
In Litchfield, Hahn returns to face another packed house.
In New Hartford, the Knights of Columbus pitch a booth next to other civic groups at New Hartford Day and pass out pamphlets on the Catholic faith written by philosopher and professor Peter Kreeft.
In Bristol, another Knights of Columbus council collects 1,000 signatures from a single parish in a petition drive to stop the legislature from legalizing same-sex marriage. In Hartford, Protestants tabulating the statewide results of the aforementioned petition drive are amazed by the authenticity of the faith of the Catholics they are working side-by-side with (“Why didn't I see this before I left the Church?” a few of them ask).
In New Haven, at an ecumenical discussion group, young Protestant graduate students from Yale grill young Catholic professionals from West Hartford about their faith and are surprised to find that their Catholic friends have answers that are plausible, if not (not yet?) persuasive.
Two thriving Catholic home-schooling groups meet in the New Haven area. Smart kids participate in talent shows, special Masses, lunches, science contests and field trips. Most events include a group rosary.
The largest Catholic crowds in the area? You'll find them when a relic tour hits New Haven or when Catholic speakers like Hahn visit the state. The most creative Catholic events? Try talks on confession in bars with Theology on Tap, “Catechism baseball” games with the Conquest boys club, “K4J” extravaganzas at parishes, where cartoon characters teach kids that Peter was the first Pope.
I offer this glimpse of Connecticut's Catholics in the wake of A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America, the new book by former New York Times religion editor Peter Steinfels.
We have been called the John Paul II generation, and with good reason.
His thesis is that “American Catholicism, to put it bluntly, is in trouble.” Steinfels believes we run the risk of “a soft slide into a kind of nominal Catholicism” or even “a sudden collapse, in a single generation” unless the leaders of Catholicism adopt his “incrementalist” proposals for the future of the Church. Those proposals are: 1) to begin the slow march toward women's ordination by ordaining them deacons; 2) to “begin debate” about priestly celibacy; and 3) to stop insisting Catholics adhere to Catholic beliefs on contraception.
If he thinks there's anything new in these proposals, then he's been out to lunch for the last 35 years. It's not that Steinfels' agenda is “modest,” it's that it's old and silly and the people pushing it are precisely the ones who gave us the “crisis” they now lament. “A soft slide into nominal Catholicism” isn't “foreseeable” — it's visible in the rearview mirror.
A look at the decrepit state of mainline Protestantism, which implemented its own liberalizing reforms decades ago, ought to be all the proof one needs to reject Steinfels' prescription for the Church.
Or better yet, consider the Catholic dissenting culture. I did. I attended the Call to Action conference in Chicago nine years ago, where I spoke with people pushing support for abortion and homosexuality under the banner of a progressive Catholicism.
In Hartford, I attended retreats on the Enneagram and Centering Prayer. I visited “The Gathering Place,” the Hartford bookstore-café started by liberal Catholics and Protestants. I subscribed to The American Catholic, the newspaper started by the editor of our diocesan newspaper after the archbishop removed him.
Wherever I went it was always the same. Everyone was angry, old, spiritually dissatisfied — and culturally dead.
It was not long before I could see the contradictions in Catholic dissent and the bad fruit it produced. That's when things got interesting.
The turning point may have been the RCIA classes my then fiancée was taking during her conversion from atheism. Challenging the instructor when she taught something against the faith (the devil doesn't exist, our prayers have no effect on souls in purgatory — take your pick) only to be told by the same people who want me to challenge authority (in Rome) that I should just take their word for it is a real eye-opener.
In my Catholic dissent days I was usually the only twenty-something hanging out with people my parents' age. That provided more eye-openers. I recall in particular the mother of a friend from high school. I once defended Catholic teaching on contraception to her and she grew irate. “Well, I know that it's up to the individual conscience,” she said, “and I can reject that teaching and still be a good Catholic, so I don't need to hear that.”
When we spoke again a few weeks later, she was distraught. Her daughter, my friend, had decided to live with her boyfriend. “Where did she get the idea that would be okay?” she asked. “Doesn't she know it's against our faith?”
Yes, ma'am. Where did she get that idea?
Once you leave the old folks' home of dissenting Catholicism behind (and no, I'm not against old people, but when a movement that claims to represent the future is made up almost entirely of them, something's wrong) it's amazing how much life you can discover in the Church.
The events described in this glimpse of Connecticut Catholicism are made up almost entirely of young people faithful to the teachings of the Church.
We have been called the John Paul II generation, and with good reason. We are inspired by his courage and fidelity and sustained by a network of resources that has risen up under his leadership. You can hear it in our conversation. “Did you see Raymond ArroyO's interview on EWTN on Friday?” a friend will ask after Sunday Mass.
Come home from the post office and before you can pull First Things out of the plastic wrapper there's already a voicemail waiting: “Did you read FT's Marriage Amendment editorial? Father Neuhaus is DA MAN!” Take your 3-year-old to the playground and a home-schooling mom will ask if you're using Catholic Heritage's preschool curriculum.
I could go on.
But the point is that the real answer to the “crisis” caused by a generation that viewed the faith as a burden is a generation that views the faith as a gift. We may fly under the radar of Steinfels, but the JPII generation is out there. We are happy, growing in numbers and confident that the future of the Church belongs to those who are faithful to her teachings.
Peter J. Wolfgang of New Hartford, Conn., is a district deputy for the Knights of Columbus.