Neuhaus Blunders on the American Scene


The First Things scribe has discovered dotCommonweal and Peter Nixon, its fine contributor. Neuhaus blogged yesterday on the Commonweal Catholic discussions:

In my new book, Catholic Matters: Conflict, Controversy, and the Splendor of Truth, I address these questions by distinguishing between “American Catholics” and “Catholic Americans,” suggesting that the adjective largely controls the noun. I argue against traditionalists who say that there are not 66 million Catholics in the U.S. but only ten or twenty million, or fewer, who qualify as being really Catholic. On the other hand, the liberal project that has been preoccupied for decades with defining “American Catholic”–with “American” regularly trumping “Catholic”–has almost no power of adherence at all. It is simply too easy to be American without the complications of having to explain why one is Catholic, too.

I have one of Neuhaus’ early books–it might have dated before his switch to Catholicism; I’m not sure. But I have to say that I’m less impressed with the man since his identification with the Right. Nonsense such as this: the liberal project that has been preoccupied for decades with defining “American Catholic”–with “American” regularly trumping “Catholic” has me completely lost.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume there might be a singular “liberal project” in American Catholicism, though I’m more likely to argue for a somewhat splintered progressive line centered on various aspects: social justice, liturgy, church governance, and perhaps catechetics (but only if you really pressed me on the catechetics).

The social gospel Catholicism that grew up with Dorothy Day (amongst others) requires a tough fit for the “American” over “Catholicism” brand Neuhaus claims to see. I suppose the USCCB was writing in the American tradition when it penned its 80’s pastorals on Peace and on Economic Justice. But it certainly wasn’t the meek Americanism some conservatives would have preferred–like back in the Eisenhower days. I don’t think the protesters at SOA would claim they are putting their citizenship and participation in the modern American culture ahead of their faith. Just the opposite, it would seem.

Let’s take a look at the progressive push in liturgy. What has been the post-conciliar motto decried by conservatives? “Full, conscious, and active participation?” Maybe that kind of egalitarianism is an American value, but wasn’t it part and parcel of the liturgical reform kcik-started by the Council? Does Sacrosanctum Concilium (among a few other documents) actually mention it several times? Or perhaps Neuhaus is willing to give the American participants in the liturgy discussions a bit more leverage than they actually had. If so, he’d be forgetting that the initial impetus for the Liturgical movement came from central Europe: Germany and France, as well as Catholic monastics from all over.

I’d suggest instead that some liberal and conservative Catholics, as they always have, identify less with their religion or their faith than others. I’d suggest there is not a homogenous approach to faith in Catholicism, and that some folks actually think more about parties than prayer, more about patriotism than patriarchs, more about their purses than the poor. What many of us liberals share with Neuhaus (and probably not a few conservatives) is that faith and the Church are somewhat high on our list of life’s priorities.

Instead of suggesting that conservative Catholics have somehow got the balance more right than liberals, Neuhaus would do better to read a bit more carefully. Maybe “dialogue” would help.

And if all else fails, tell me how many liberation theologians indulged in fine food and drink, fast cars, glamorous vacations, and other trappings of worldly success.

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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