By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
tI was in Santa Barbara yesterday to deliver a public lecture sponsored by the Catholic Studies program at the University of California at Santa Barbara. I also spent a few hours with undergraduate and graduate students in the program, talking over everything from the future of African Catholicism to how I got involved in writing about the global Catholic Church in the first place.
tAmong those in attendance at the lecture was Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Curry of Los Angeles, whom I knew from my days back in the early 1990s writing about church affairs in L.A. In recent weeks, Curry has been been involved in a public back-and-forth with a number of American Catholic writers, prominently including Peter Steinfels, with regard to a piece Curry published in America magazine back in November.
In a nutshell, Curry argued that the last five years have been a “best of times, worst of times” period in the American church, with the agonies of the sexual abuse crisis set against what he sees as the deep resilience and optimism of American Catholics. Curry asserted that in contrast to his own pastoral experience, much of the Catholic commentary he reads “is filled with a sense of failure, negativity and pessimism.” He then suggested that at least some of these commentators have, unconsciously or not, subscribed to an “anti-Catholic paradigm.”
Understandably, Steinfels was irked, writing in a Jan. 15 letter to America that this was “the logical equivalent of the White House’s technique of smearing Democratic critics of the Iraq war by accusing them of insulting our troops in the field and aiding terrorism.” He went on to say that he has no problem granting Curry’s positive experiences in the pastoral trenches, as long as that doesn’t become an excuse for refusing to face serious challenges, such as the fact, according to Steinfels, that less than 10 percent of Catholics under 40 attend Mass on a weekly basis.
Curry told me yesterday that he did not mean to include Steinfels in the category of writers who have subscribed to an “anti-Catholic paradigm.” He also said that he will shortly be appearing on a panel with Steinfels, and looks forward to setting things right. At the same time, he stuck to his guns that a great deal of commentary on the Catholic church over the last five years has missed the positive energy that he believes percolates at the grass roots.
For whatever it’s worth, one piece of evidence that perhaps supports Curry’s case might well be the Catholic Studies program at USCB itself.
The program was launched not by administrative fiat, but in response to interest from Catholics in the local community who wanted to see the study of Catholicism fully integrated into a secular state university. They put their money where their mouth was, and generated sufficient resources to fund an endowed chair. It’s named for Franciscan Fr. Virgil Cordano, a beloved local institution, who attended both the student seminar and the lecture yesterday. Despite advanced years, Cordano remains a dynamo.
The chair is held by Professor Ann Taves, a historian of modern Christianity and American religion. She wants to imbue the program with a global vision, trying to locate American Catholicism within the context of the universal church. She’s also committed to not allowing the program to become ideologically aligned with one or another camp in the church, but keeping it truly ‘catholic,’ meaning open to all experiences and points of view.
Based on what I saw and heard yesterday, it seems to be working.
At one point during the seminar, Cordano spoke movingly about his pastoral difficulties in working with bright, theologically literate lay Catholics who are increasingly frustrated with what they see as a church that’s too out of touch, and not terribly interested in their thoughts on the subject. Many, Cordano said, seem to be on the verge of becoming inactive or seeking other options.
I replied that I too have had these conversations, and reaching out to disillusioned Catholics is indeed a major pastoral challenge. At the same time, I said, we can’t succumb to the notion that this is the only reality in the church. There are also Catholics who feel energized by what they see as a church recovering its nerve, and becoming more clear about what it represents. While some younger Catholics may be disaffected by this “politics of identity,” others are drawn to it, and they too have to be part of the pastoral mix.
Afterwards, an undergraduate student approached me and thanked me for the response. He said that listening to Cordano, it struck him that the feelings of being underappreciated that Cordano attributed to liberal young Catholics are remarkably similar to what he and his more conservative Catholic friends have felt in many parishes, schools, and Catholic social circles.
“You tell people you agree with the magisterium, and they look at you like you’re a freak,” he said. “We end up quietly passing around books like John Paul’s Theology of the Body, almost as if we’re part of some underground.”
This student said that he’s considering applying to attend the Franciscan University of Steubenville for his master’s work, but is worried that because it’s seen as a “conservative” institution, it might limit his prospects for admission to doctoral programs or future employment.
The point is not to suggest the Cordano is right and this young man wrong, or vice-versa – no doubt both are accurately describing their own experiences. The point, rather, is how the two together illustrate the complexity of the American Catholic community, and the apparent success of the Catholic Studies program at UCSB in keeping them all in conversation.
The fact that this program was conceived, funded and launched during the same period in which the sexual abuse crisis was at its peak does lend some credence to Curry’s argument, that there’s a reservoir of commitment and hope in the American church that many of us may sometimes underestimate. (It goes without saying that this insight is no excuse for complacency in facing the church's challenges.)
As a footnote, Curry will ordain a former Episcopalian as a Catholic deacon on Feb. 10, the final step before his ordination to the priesthood next year. When that happens, this former Episcopalian will join the small but growing ranks of married Catholic priests in the United States. He and his wife recently celebrated their 44th wedding anniversary. Under the terms of the “Pastoral Provision” for former Episcopalian priests who join the Catholic Church, he will remain married after his ordination.
Curry said that in Los Angeles, Catholics and Episcopalians have agreed that they will not ordain one another's clergy, to avoid any impression of "poaching." In this case, however, the former Episcopalian served many years ago in another part of the country.