Father Thomas Reese, S.J., former editor of the Jesuit biweekly America, has made a curious confession: He’s happy again. Or so he told the Washington Post’s Sally Quinn, who reported Father Reese’s good cheer in her September 27 “On Faith” column. Father Reese is happy, and Sally Quinn is happy for Father Reese, because, as Tom told Sally, “I haven’t been this hopeful about the Church in decades. . . . It’s fun to be Catholic again.”
I’m happy that Father Reese, an old acquaintance and occasional sparring partner, is happy. And I’m glad that Father Reese is having fun again. I just wonder what the heck he’s been looking at in the Catholic Church in the United States, such that he’s spent “decades” being unhappy.
In the decades of Father Reese’s unhappiness, millions of adult men and women have been baptized as adults or entered into full communion with the Catholic Church, freely professing “all that the Holy Catholic Church believes, teaches, and professes to be revealed by God.” As Father Reese told Sally Quinn, “we need to take the best thinking of our generations and explain Christianity to our generation.” That seems to have been going on, in no small measure; yet Father Reese seems to have missed it.
In the decades of Father Reese’s unhappiness, new forms of evangelically robust campus ministry have developed across the United States. Aggie Catholics at Texas A&M produce priestly and religious vocations and great Catholic marriages by the bushel. Ragin’ Cajun Catholics at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and Cornhusker Catholics at the University of Nebraska run vibrant Bible-study and Theology of the Body programs that draw hundreds of their fellow students into serious reflection on the Word, and on what the Word asks of us today. Young missionaries sponsored by FOCUS (the Fellowship of Catholic University Students) devote their immediate post-collegiate lives to peer evangelization, and do so on campuses from USC to the Naval Academy and Harvard, and at dozens of institutions of higher education in between. Surely a source of happiness, that; surely a reason to be “hopeful about the Church.” But not, it seems, in the Catholic world as seen by the previously disgruntled Father Reese.
In the decades of Father Reese’s unhappiness, Catholic-studies programs have blossomed on Catholic campuses across the country, led by the trend-setting program at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn.; those programs have brought a new depth of serious Catholic intellectual life to the humanities, the arts, professional training, and even the sciences at the schools where they have flourished (which do not, alas, include Father Reese’s most recent base, Georgetown). In those same decades, the Academy of Catholic Theology has been formed to challenge the terminal trendiness and political correctness of the Catholic Theological Society of America, and to respond to the growing number of younger Catholic scholars who have found in the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI rich veins of intellectual material to mine, debate, and refine — unlike, it would seem, the unhappy Father Reese.
In the decades of Father Reese’s unhappiness, the Catholic Church in the United States has produced the most compelling televisual instrument of the New Evangelization available in the world: Father Robert Barron’s Catholicism series, which appeared on many PBS affiliates and is now a staple of parish and campus adult-education programs. But that remarkable accomplishment, it seems, did not help lift Father Reese out of the slough of ecclesiastical despond.
During the decades of Father Reese’s unhappiness, the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia Congregation in Nashville built a new novitiate to house aspirants to their growing community of religious sisters; the Pontifical North American College, the U.S. Church’s seminary in Rome, was reformed and is now full-up, with more students than at any time since the mid 1960s; Mt. St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md., has been full; Mundelein Seminary in Chicago is now growing, thanks to the leadership of the aforementioned Father Barron, and is pioneering new models of training in evangelization and apologetics; the Conference of Major Superiors of Women Religious has been formed to help support the work of the orders of religious sisters that are actually attracting young women (which are not the “Nuns on the Bus” orders). This produces “decades” of unhappiness?
During the decades of Father Reese’s unhappiness, the U.S. episcopate has been transformed in the image of John Paul II, ecclesiastical bureaucracies (diocesan and national) have begun to be trimmed, and the bishops of the United States have found the courage and the arguments to challenge the United States government’s efforts to chip away at religious freedom — a challenge in which they are likely to be vindicated by the Supreme Court, to the benefit of all Americans. The days of liberal authoritarianism are over in most American dioceses, and a critical mass of the U.S. bishops are sold on the imperative to leave the shallow waters of institutional maintenance and “put out into the deep” of the New Evangelization (as John Paul II urged in closing the Great Jubilee of 2000). These bishops are clearly on the “journey of faith” that Father Reese applauds; yet these developments, which have encouraged millions of Catholics in recent decades, seem not to have encouraged the unhappy Father Reese.
During the decades of Father Reese’s unhappiness, the liturgical silly season has (largely) ended, many congregations at Mass have begun to live out the dignity of the priestly office into which all Catholics are baptized, and a lot of trashy liturgical music has been thrown into the dumpster; moreover, no one with any sense of the majesty of the English language is pining for a return to the “See Spot run” translations with which anglophone Catholics were long abused. In other words, the reform of the reform of the liturgy, according to the mind of the Second Vatican Council, has been considerably accelerated; and although much work remains to be done, what has been accomplished in re-sacralizing Catholic worship surely is occasion for a measure of satisfaction, even happiness — in which, alas, Father Reese seems not to have shared.
During the decades of Father Reese’s unhappiness, Catholic-sponsored crisis-pregnancies centers across the country have served tens of thousands — perhaps hundreds of thousands — of women in crisis pregnancies and their children. The Catholic Church has not only talked the talk on the inalienable right to life; it has walked the walk, and it has done so in the face of often vicious cultural stereotyping of the sort one does not recall America frequently challenging (much less debunking) during the years of Father Reese’s editorship.
During the decades of Father Reese’s unhappiness, it is true, Catholicism in America has been engaged in a culture war. But the Church did not declare that war; it was declared on the Church, and, in the providence of God, that contest has led to some more good news. Because of the culture wars, new and previously unimaginable ecumenical conversations have opened up between Catholics and evangelical Protestants, and may soon open up between Catholics and Mormons. Further, the American Kulturkampf, which is really a contest for the American soul, has bred, in U.S. Catholicism, not generalized crankiness and grumpiness (although cranks and grumps we have) but a host of happy culture warriors. These include such remarkable women as Mary Ann Glendon, Helen Alvaré, and the late, great Jean Bethke Elshtain and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese — women of genuine scholarly and public accomplishment who do not seem to have experienced the Church as a den of institutionalized misogyny. Indeed, they and many others have pioneered a new intellectual and pastoral defense of the Gospel vision of human love and chastity as proposed by Catholic teaching, thus embodying Pope’s Francis’s image of the Church as a “field hospital” healing the wounds of those caught in the cross fire of the sexual revolution.
To be sure, all is not peaches and cream in the Catholic Church in the United States; I offer an extensive list of Church reforms, crucial for the New Evangelization and conceived in the spirit of John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis, in my Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church. Nor am I suggesting that the decades of Father Reese’s unhappiness have been decades of unbounded joy for the rest of us. The reform of the Church according to the mind of Vatican II, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI has been hard and sometimes quite difficult work, given entrenched interests, clericalism, pride, stupidities of various sorts, and a fair amount of that nastiness the medievals used to call odium theologicum.
But to confess oneself “ecstatic” and more “hopeful” about the Church than one has been “in decades,” all because of one papal interview, is perilously close, I suggest, to confessing that one hasn’t been paying adequate attention to a lot of what’s been afoot in the Catholic Church in the United States.
Or it may be that one has accepted as more true than not the grotesque stereotyping of Catholics and Catholicism that is one of the last acceptable prejudices in America the Tolerant (a stereotyping that one now imagines, foolishly, to be a thing of the past, it all having been caused by those two nasties, John Paul II and Benedict XVI).
Or perhaps one decided, in recent decades, not to be a happy combatant in the culture wars but rather to pursue a Chamberlainesque “dialogue” with the wooliest elements of the zeitgeist (and found oneself giving ground, time and time again).
Those options are not, of course, mutually exclusive. And I could well imagine how any one of them, or any combination of them, would lead to decades of unhappiness.
— George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.