Bishop Bernard McQuaid--19th century architect
of American Catholic Isolationism. Like they say,
a picture is worth ten thousand words--not the
faithful kept behind the fence.
“You know,” declared Senator Bernard Sanders, the Vermont independent, who caucuses with Democrats, “we have a strong ally on our side in this issue — and that is the pope.”
That Mr. Sanders, who is Jewish, would invoke the pope to Mr. Reid, a Mormon, delighted Roman Catholics in the room. (“Bernie! You’re quoting my pope; this is good!” Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois recalled thinking.) Beyond interfaith banter, the comment underscored a larger truth: From 4,500 miles away at the Vatican, Pope Francis, who has captivated the world with a message of economic justice and tolerance, has become a presence in Washington’s policy debate.
The above is taken from an article that appeared in the New York Times a few weeks ago and it illustrates why this papacy is a very different papacy than its recent predecessors. We have a Pope that isn’t playing in the intramural league. This papacy is not nitpicking over internal issues like liturgical translations or nuns not being appropriately veiled. It isn’t simply that this pope doesn’t think that we should stop “obsessing” over same-sex relationships or contraception, but he has taken the Church back out onto the court for serious game with the big boys. When President Obama visits the Vatican in March it won’t be for the genteel sit-down and photo-op that it was with Pope Benedict. This Pope is saying something that Mr. Obama (and Mr. Hollande, and Mr. Putin, and Mr. Peres, and Ms. Merkel, and other world leaders) are very interested in. We’re back in the game now that we have stopped the navel-gazing and remembered our mission to announce the Kingdom of God. But this is alarming to certain factions within the Church, and the American Church in particular, who are anxious to restore the ghetto mentality that pervaded American Catholicism from the final quarter of the nineteenth-century to the Second Vatican Council when the opened windows in Rome blew a wind strong enough to knock down the isolationist walls that had been carefully constructed by generations of American clergy who were terrified of the world outside the boundaries of the Church. In the famous words of Bishop McQuaid of Rochester (1823-1909), one of the chief architects of the isolationist policy of the American Church: “If the walls are not high enough, they must be raised; if they are not strong enough, they must be strengthened…” When a pro-choice Jewish senator cites the Pope for policy support to a pro-choice Mormon senator—you know those walls aren’t standing anymore. And this means that Catholics have to deal with the reality of a very non-Catholic world out there. We can’t stay in our own enclave cheering each other on in our own in-house competitions and refusing to play ball with people who do not accept our basic premises.
Twenty years ago Cardinal Bernardin tried to stem the re-ghettoization of American Catholicism with his appeal for the Catholic Common Ground Initiative. He was crushed by his fellow Cardinals Bernard Law and James Hickey who were determined that isolationism was the best policy for American Catholicism. The complex ambiguities of Pope John Paul II’s papacy allowed the narrow vision of Hickey and Law to prevail and it led the American Church into a long cold dark night of increasing irrelevance. With Cardinal Law the “kingmaker” of American bishops we were given a hierarchy that can only be described as masturbatory in its ecclesial leadership-- Francis George, Raymond Burke, Edwin O’Brien, William Lori, Michael Sheridan, Edward Egan, John Myers, Edward Slattery, Charles Chaput, Joseph Martino, Fabian Bruskewitz, Thomas Olmstead, John McCormack, Richard Lennon, Thomas Tobin, to mention a few. It didn’t get better with the rise in Roman influence of Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke and a new generation of bishops who lack vision such as, among others, Robert Finn, Salvatore Cordileone, Thomas Paprocki, Kevin Rhoades, Frank Dewane, and David O’Connell. This is not to say that there have not been good bishops—and some very good bishops—over the last twenty-five years—but that the balance of power tipped to men who tried to re-fortify the American Church against the larger society. I have no doubt that this was done in good faith but the results have been disastrous. The Church not only retreated into a cultural isolationism—losing credibility among many of the more intellectual faithful in the process—but gained a reputation for being intellectually closed and negative in tone. As one priest often said in his homilies “everyone knows what the Church is against; no one can articulate what it is for—and that is a disastrous position from which to evangelize.”Pope Francis has changed all that but to the consternation of those who favor ecclesial isolationism. It should not be surprising that these same people favor a cultural isolationism that wants to preserve American Catholicism from the rich diversity that its membership reflects. Their idea of church buildings is the retro appeal of a 1930’s “Chicago basilica style.” Music is limited to organ accompaniment and Latin libretto. Religious art is of the pre-Raphaelite revival. Prayers are found in the Enchiridion or to be said on beads. Mariachi bands, gospel choirs, and dance have no place. The politics follow with anti-immigrant bias and an identification of Catholicism with what might be called “Spellman Capitalism” in honor of the Cardinal Archbishop of New York who vigorously supported the “military industrial complex” in its war to defend American economic hegemony. But that is not where Pope Francis is. Here he is giving his weapons to those closet Marxists who call themselves “Democrats” and overturning all that we Americans hold dear in our dream that any red-blooded American boy can claw his way to the top, earning 230 times what the slaves who toil in his industry earn. What would Jesus say?