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The Divine Right

Don't Question Authority: The Gathering Force of Catholic Conservatism



"The American church is defiant. It thumbs its nose at Rome, allowing someone like [Father Charles] Curran to infect his students with rebellion for 20 years . . . letting altar girls serve all over the Chicago archdiocese . . . rejecting the official position on birth control. As far as I can see, the American church is schismatic!" --Kathleen Sullivan, cofounder of the National Catholic Coalition.

"I would ask those who follow the Chinese menu philosophy of picking and choosing what doctrines they want to follow to leave! Especially when they create scandal, cause all kinds of dissent and are combative. The masses are slipping away and the church is losing credibility" --Thomas Roeser, president of the City Club of Chicago.

"First, they watered down the faith, threw out the words that people understood, and introduced this idea of me and my rights and my freedoms. Now it's getting worse. The tone of some Catholic priests and sisters is anti-Catholic. If we have a God and we know what his plan is, we can't mess with it; we can't change it. This confusion has to stop!" --William Fairman, chairman of the Chicago chapter of Catholics United for the Faith.

These three people are among a substantial number in the Chicago area who regard themselves as "authentic" Catholics, defenders of their church as it ought to be against the reformers and modernists responsible for U.S. Catholicism's leftward drift. They travel under many banners: Catholics for Responsible Action, the Cardinal Mindszenty Foundation, Catholics United for the Faith (CUF), Opus Dei, the Committee for Orthodoxy in Religious Education. They may appear to some to be fighting a hopeless, rearguard action, but they certainly do not so regard themselves. They are convinced (and not without considerable reason) that their views are shared by top church officials in Rome, including the pope himself. Authenticists, as they sometimes refer to themselves, tend to be hostile toward opposition, fiercely argumentative, and unshakable in their persuasions. Many are well informed. They are a force to be reckoned with.

Once upon a time, the Roman Catholic Church differed from other branches of Christianity in its emphasis on unity and central authority: one faith, one creed, one organizational form. While Protestants and others plodded through the wilderness on uncertain paths to dubious final destinations, Catholics traveled the high road to salvation: a paved, limited-access superhighway with clearly marked road signs.

When Pope John XXIII initiated the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s, he wanted only to "open the window a little, to let some fresh breezes blow through the church." But the council became for the Roman Catholic Church what the American Revolution was for world politics. It overturned the traditions of centuries, introducing new styles of language, liturgy, and leadership. As a result, the differences between Protestant and Catholic became blurred. The highway signs aren't so clear anymore. To a large extent, American Catholics have become democratized and even (one hesitates to say it) Protestantized!

But like the contras in Nicaragua, "authentic" Catholics do not stand idly by, allowing leftist reformers to run amok. A few parishes have become virtual battlegrounds--as parishioners on the right challenge the decision-making prerogatives of a parish council or hotly debate the orthodoxy of a school religion text. Some examples of authenticist forays in the Chicago area:

The Committee for Orthodoxy in Religious Education (CORE), operating mostly in the south suburbs, has for several years picketed and leafleted at Chicago-area churches in attempts to block the sex education talks to teens by Father John Horan and Maureen Shields of the Catholic Youth Organization. CORE's objection is that in their presentation the two openly discuss and actually use the F-word and other denigrating terms for sexual activities and organs. Horan claims he's only trying to show that teens cheapen themselves by thoughtlessly using degrading expressions and that "you won't be any good at love as long as you're enslaved by language." CORE complained to Cardinal Bernardin, and when he didn't muzzle Horan and Shields, they sent an edited, somewhat distorted transcript of the Horan-Shields talk to Rome and finally got some satisfaction. Cardinal Edouard Gagnon, president of the Vatican's Council for the Family, wrote in reply, praising CORE's vigilance and condemning the Horan-Shields approach as in grave "conflict with the reverent principle of life."

The "Catholic Action Line," a recorded daily phone message operated by belligerent authenticist Richard Freeman, stirred up a minor hornet's nest last fall by reporting that Cardinal Bernardin, along with "several other dissident bishops," would soon break from unity with Rome and announce the formation of the "Catholic Church of America" with himself as its head for a six-year term.

Catholics for Responsible Action (CRA), whose membership is largely in the north and northwest suburbs, has an ongoing vendetta against Catholic feminist Tesse Donnelly and her group called Limina, whose dramatic celebration Her Holiness: Mother, Maiden and Crone has been presented at Chicago-area Catholic schools and institutions. CRA's major objection (included in letters of denunciation and threats to sponsoring institutions) is that the program fosters witchcraft, since "crone" is defined in some dictionaries as "wise old woman" and in others as "witch."

Bernardin and other Chicago church officials are regularly deluged with letters and calls of complaint claiming priests are disputing the magisterium (the church's official teaching) in the confessional and in counseling sessions (usually about contraception) or are deviating from the rules in celebrating the Mass and administering the sacraments. Said one chancery official, who asked to remain anonymous, "The tone of much of this criticism is so mean spirited it's almost incredible."

Much of this might be dismissed as crackpot hysteria if it were not so effective. Father Horan admits the number of requests from parishes for sex education talks has dropped off by about a third from a past high of 120 a year. "It's not that pastors or religious educators agree with the right wing," he said. "They're very supportive of us. But they get nervous and scared. They don't want a demonstration outside their church or phone calls, so they just don't schedule us." For similar reasons, said Tesse Donnelly, her group has been shunned lately by Catholic institutions, even though earlier performances got rave reviews and invitations from ecumenical organizations are on the increase. Another Catholic feminist, Mary Aileen Schmiel, said she has been warned on occasion by Catholic hosts not to be too forthright in her musical presentations lest conservative Catholics raise a hue and cry. Edwina Gately, a lay missionary who works with prostitutes in Chicago, was recently "disinvited" from delivering homilies at two parishes after the pastors received conservative complaints. And theologian Rosemary Ruether, who teaches at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, said the right wing has made concerted attempts to bar her from addressing Catholic groups.

If there is any single characteristic that distinguishes the authenticist movement, it is seriousness of purpose. Reality, both material and spiritual, is seen in stark, black-and-white terms. Though narrowly focused, the vision is clear and quite rational. In fact, authenticists can appropriately be criticized for being too rational--for not leaving enough room in human relationships for uncertainty, difference of opinion, or ambiguity.

In this they reflect one of the Christian church's oldest tenets: a passion for unity. Jesus said his followers should be "one." Saint Paul insisted the many little primitive communities he founded formed but "one body in Christ." As early as the second century, the focus of unity in each of these communities was the local bishop, the leader whose authority stemmed from his being recognized as a successor of one of the original 12 apostles.

As Christianity spread through the Mediterranean world and beyond, it was buffeted by the various cultures it encountered. Jewish, Greek, and Roman converts understood the world in different ways, and so the role of the bishop in pulling his diverse flock together became all the more crucial. It was intolerable that the church should break up into fragments or operate in different ways in different places.

Before the year 200, for example, the bishop of Rome was threatening to excommunicate a group of Eastern Christian communities because they celebrated Easter on a different date. Terrible conflicts arose over which Greek word best expressed how Jesus could be both God and man at the same time. There was a prevailing fear that if everyone couldn't agree the whole Christian message would go down the drain.

By the fourth century, the bishop of Rome was generally recognized as the "bishop of bishops," the successor of Saint Peter and the preeminent settler of disputes. He began to operate at times as a kind of chairman of the board, at other times as a sovereign whose decrees were not debatable.

The union of church and state, which began in the fourth century when Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, helped maintain an imperfect and often troubled uniformity in Europe for more than a thousand years. The deadliest sins threatened the oneness of Christendom: they were schism (a refusal to recognize church authority) and heresy (the denial of a doctrine held by the universal church). Both merited punishment by the state as well as the church.

Then within one generation, in the 16th century, it all fell apart: the tenuous political unity of Europe and the tight religious unity of Christianity. At first the Catholic bishops tried to stomp out the brushfires of Protestantism, but when the blaze reached the proportions of a conflagration, the church retreated into a kind of angry, self-imposed isolation. If unity could not be maintained universally, at least it would be guaranteed within the fireproof walls of the church. After the Reformation, the Catholic Church emphasized its "exclusive" hold on the "totality" of the truths revealed by God, its "sole possession" of the means necessary for salvation, its demand that all persons of good will "submit" to its authority. By breaking the bonds of unity, Protestants had lost just about everything that counted; for 400 years their status in Roman Catholicism was not much above that of Muslims.

Then came Pope John's open window and the subsequent opening of the church to the world. The rigid insistence on unity, conformity, and submission was replaced by tolerance and the acknowledgment (though often not explicitly stated) that much of what seemed absolute and changeless was far more the result of historical circumstance than of divine decree.

Now hold it right there! say "authentic" Catholics. Maybe in the past the church went too far in castigating Protestants and other nonbelievers. But unity, compliance with authority, and adherence to correct doctrine belong to the essence of the church. Look at the record--those things come right down through the centuries from Jesus Christ himself. We can't play fast and loose with foundation stones or the whole building is going to come down. And that is exactly what we see in all this emphasis on freedom and dialogue and individual rights the church is losing its soul!

Take Kathleen Sullivan, a 54-year-old wife, mother, and activist from Glenview. An outspoken woman of formidable organizational skills, Sullivan has been labeled at various times the Carry Nation of American Catholicism and the Phyllis Schlafly of northern Illinois. In 1980 she and a contingent of like-minded Chicago-area residents (including retired Army general John Lawlor of Winnetka) formed Catholics for Responsible Action to counteract what they viewed as the "disintegration" of the church. Then three years ago she was the prime organizer of the National Catholic Coalition, an umbrella group that includes segments of the Catholic right from all over the country, such as Women for Faith and Family (Saint Louis), the Catholic Center (Washington, D.C.), and the Saint Joseph Foundation (San Antonio, Texas).

Sullivan said she came upon her conservative convictions naturally. She was raised Catholic in the West Indies, where her father represented an American asphalt company. Never completing high school, she married early and raised six children--now aged 32 to 21. Two are medical doctors and one is a nuclear engineer. Four of her sons are career Army men, and a daughter is married to General Lawlor's son.

"I had met my husband [Jerome, now retired] only about six times before we got married," she said. "We were from different worlds--he from Philadelphia, I from Trinidad. Yet in our 35 years together, we've never had an argument or fight. Yes, we've had disagreements, but we've always worked them out. I attribute this to the fact that we were both Catholics. We believed the same things and thought the same way, even if we came from different parts of the world. We were part of the one church."

Sullivan said, "It's so different today. Not only does church teaching change from country to country, it changes from one parish to another next door!" The legacy of unity that provided her marriage with such stability has been shattered.

Sullivan got into activism through dissatisfaction with Catholic education. In 1970 one of her sons at Loyola Academy in Wilmette came home with a book on the rights of those under 21, something his class was studying. Sullivan was appalled. The book provided information on how to avoid the draft, she said, and it gave "detailed legal explanations of perverted acts including bestiality." She confronted the teacher and one thing led to another. She discovered that condoms had been displayed in class, she said, and when she complained, school officials "told me I was the first parent to question this." Sullivan rallied other parents, and they quickly concluded that religious education had become a "mishmash," the only consistent message being "you are free to do exactly what you want to do."

Fortunately, she said, all her children were "good students and athletes." They survived their Catholic educations--with the help of regular family discussions and readings at home--and are today hardy, conservative Catholics in their own right.

Her organizations, she said, have little money and no "inside lines" to the Vatican beyond the ability to spot heresy and moral decadence. However, the National Catholic Coalition's sharply pointed criticisms and charges do manage to get prominent press coverage--an example is their recent letter attacking a statement of the administrative board of the U.S. Catholic bishops concerning AIDS. The statement said government-supported education concerning condom use might be acceptable in the case of gays who are determined (contrary to church moral teaching) to continue homosexual activity. Several bishops, including Cardinal John O'Connor of New York City, took offense at this, and the coalition quickly jumped on his bandwagon, sending a scathing condemnation of the bishops' action to the apostolic delegate in Washington, D.C. (the pope's representative in this country).

The bishops' statement is a "secular, not a spiritual document," said Sullivan, because it "never shows concern for the state of the souls of those who have contracted AIDS." She also called it "a railroad job" since national bishops' groups "should not usurp the teaching authority" of the pope or of individual bishops.

Evil is evil, in Sullivan's (and the coalition's) view, and anything smacking of compromise is unacceptable. Similarly, there is really only one authoritative teacher, the pope. National groupings of bishops represent a threat to his supreme jurisdiction.

This kind of reasoning is also why "authentic" Catholics are so disturbed about the pastoral letters written by the U.S. bishops on the nuclear arms race and the economy: the arms race letter did not portray the Soviet Union in sufficiently dark colors and even declared that pacifism is an acceptable Christian approach when confronted by an aggressor. The letter on the economy is a "phony," said Sullivan, a socialist-tinged meddling of the bishops in areas where they have no competence, an excuse for ignoring the more pressing "signs of the times": the decrease in respect for authority, the diminishing number of sisters and priests, growing sexual promiscuity and tolerance for moral evil.

It is on the subject of abortion that many of these concerns coalesce. Indeed, abortion is a perfect litmus test for conservatives--the ultimate black-and-white issue. All rationalization aside, the six-day-old embryo in a woman's womb is not substantially different from the six-month-old fetus or the six-week-old baby. It is one naturally developing creature--one person. And the rallying cry of prochoicers that a woman should have control over her own body drives pro-lifers up the wall in frustration. That's just their point: it isn't her body. It's someone else's, and destroying it is seen as murder.

Sullivan does not understand why Catholic Church officials are not more aggressive in opposing legal abortions. Cardinal Bernardin may be head of the U.S. bishops' pro-life committee, she noted, but there is a "void of action" by him and his colleagues. "Last year," she said, "the archdiocese spent $40,000 on its pro-life office and $250,000 to attack the street gang problem. Yet only nine people were killed by gangs and at least 45,000 through abortions!"

To be fair, it should be noted that the antigang money was a one-time only grant, while pro-life programs, including a home for unwed pregnant women, are sponsored annually by dozens of archdiocesan organizations. Bernardin speaks often and unequivocally in opposition to abortion, and he advocates the reversal of the 1973 Supreme Court ruling legalizing abortion. But he always places his opposition in the broader context of a "consistent ethic of life." In his view, pro-life activity means working for nuclear disarmament, an end to capital punishment, and improved housing, health care, and education as well as for the curbing of abortion. In other words, he ties all life-related issues together in a kind of "seamless garment."

Authenticists try to poke holes in that garment, accusing bishops and priests of moral cowardice for refusing to face abortion head-on the way they confronted racial segregation during the civil rights movement in the 1960s. They would love to see clergy out picketing the clinics, even going to jail with activists like Chicago super pro-lifer Joseph Scheidler.

"There's no comparison between abortion and those other matters," argued Sullivan. "Think about it. No one has died from a nuclear blast in the U.S., while we've killed 20 million babies so far."

Like many of her associates, Sullivan sees feminism as another moral aberration eating away at the fabric of church and state. Not only has the movement "forced" mothers out of their homes into nine-to-five jobs, she complained, it has "wiped out volunteerism" by women, taking them away from valuable civic activity. In the church, she said, "the feminists are out to control the power structure--they want power, they want to be priests!" Yet, she explained, it should be obvious that since Christ was a man, only men can be priests: "If women could become priests, Jesus's mother would have been one!"

Sullivan laments that there are no opportunities for "authentic" Catholics and their opponents to debate the issues in public. She would like a Catholic version of television's McLaughlin Group, with informed proponents of various views sitting around the table and vigorously arguing their cases. She doesn't say so, but it seems clear she would relish the moderator's seat.

Like Kathleen Sullivan, William Fairman first became concerned about the drift of U.S. Catholicism through his children's education. In the late 1960s they were attending a Catholic grammar school in Oak Lawn and brought home books in the "Becoming a Person" religion series. The approach did not appear to Fairman to stress "solid Christian morality," fostering instead a vague, humanistic sense of values. He raised questions at a parents' meeting and was promptly put down by the chairman. So Fairman asked to talk to the parish school board, which had voted to use the series.

"It was quite an experience," he said. "I sat at a table facing this battery of board members in a kind of semicircle around me. Well, I talked about my concerns for 20 minutes or so. They were polite but in the end they told me 'the teachers know what the kids need and you don't.'"

That did not sit well with Fairman, who was aware that the church--the Vatican Council included--has always regarded parents as the primary religious educators. So he began attending local meetings of Catholics United for the Faith, a national organization originally formed by supporters of Pope Paul VI's 1968 encyclical letter Humanae Vitae condemning artificial birth control. Fairman liked CUF's respect for church authority along with its resistance to innovation. In 1974 he became chairman of CUF's Chicago chapter, which numbers only about 450 core members but can recruit large contingents of sympathizers and fellow travelers when occasion demands. He has continued as its leader since. Periodically, CUF supporters demonstrate en masse at a parish or school in the Chicago area that seems too liberal, but their principal offensive weapon is the pen. CUFers are tireless letter writers, continually informing church officials, especially in the Vatican, about deviations from orthodoxy.

Now 58, Fairman is a balding, outwardly mild-mannered man who has worked as a scientist at the Argonne National Laboratory for 30 years and still resides in Oak Lawn. He and his wife have five grown children, four of whom have completed college. Fairman was raised as a Presbyterian, later changed to Lutheranism, and then was profoundly impressed by the Catholic ex-GIs he ran into while pursuing a chemistry degree at Marquette University in the late 1940s. They were tough, battlescarred young men, but they had religious faith and a sense of direction that Fairman liked. So he attended one of the large convert classes at the university and eventually became a Catholic.

"I wanted a church that taught the whole truth," he said, "not just part of it. And I honestly came to believe the Catholic Church is the authentic teacher, that its claims have a logical basis. I really had no choice but to join."

Religion for Fairman meant saving one's soul and helping others see the truth and save theirs. "It's still so clear to me today," he said, shaking his head at the cynicism and incredulity of the modern world. "If God is smart enough to give us the means of knowing the truth, then he's got to give us a guide down through the centuries that we can respond to. You can't have contradictions."

Jesus, he said, put it very well: "I'll be with you all days until the end of time! Now, he's either with us like he said or he's a liar. You can't have it both ways."

Fairman doesn't think everyone has to see things this way. "Faith is a gift," he noted. "You can't earn it or demand it, but you can lose it after you've got it. When the light of faith goes out, people tend to act illogically."

And that, he contends, is precisely what has happened in the church today. For countless theologians, religious educators, and ordinary Catholics, the light has gone out--almost without their realizing it. (He does not include bishops in this faithless gathering because CUF tries not to criticize the church's hierarchy directly.) As a result, concern for the salvation of souls has been replaced by pseudosociology, pop psychology, and humanist theology. "Words don't mean the same thing they used to," he said. "Authority doesn't have any force, rights have become license, the dictionary is no longer the definitive book it once was."

After his youthful conversion, Fairman spent three years in a seminary studying to be a Maryknoll missionary. He left in 1953 and joined the Army, which sent him to Germany. Fairman got the chance to work in the State Department's documents office during the 1955 summit conference of the U.S., Soviet Union, Britain, and France in Geneva, Switzerland, and the subsequent conference by the same countries' foreign ministers. (He took leave to attend an Atoms for Peace conference also held in Geneva in '55.) Fairman was highly impressed by the ability of John Foster Dulles, the American secretary of state, to pick out the false premises regularly proposed by the Soviet delegation. And as a CUF leader today, he uses that same logical approach to cut through the "fog of confusion" spread by the modernists.

CUF, which has a national headquarters in New Rochelle, New York, claims 15,000 dues-paying members ($25 a year) in the United States, Australia, New Zealand, and several other countries. Its opposition to "unorthodox" books and catechistic materials has paid off on occasion. Three years ago CUF was credited with a major coup when the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, headed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, stripped official church approval from Christ Among Us, an immensely popular adult introduction to Catholicism. CUF had long campaigned against the book for its lack of "doctrinal precision" and its "vagueness" on moral matters, especially sexual sins. Ratzinger, a confidant of the pope, scoffed publicly at modern religion texts as "a series of reflections based largely on anthropology and resting in the final analysis on a certain sense of disunity." The abandonment of old-fashioned question-and-answer texts like the Baltimore Catechism--once almost universally used in U.S. Catholic schools--he termed "a grave mistake."

CUF enthusiasts were equally delighted two years ago when the Vatican revoked the license of theologian Charles Curran at the Catholic University of America. Curran, who opposes the papal ban on contraception, contends theologians may legitimately dissent from noninfallible teachings. Ratzinger, on the other hand, argues that no church teaching, whether infallible or not, can be "legitimately contested"--thus essentially reducing theologians to so many Charlie McCarthys for the Vatican's Edgar Bergen. Besides, high-ranking Vatican officials insist the ban on contraception is infallible--a position with which authenticist's invariably agree. "Of course it's infallible," said Fairman. "When the magisterium renders a final judgment, the truth is there and it can't be changed."

A further indication that CUF and the Vatican are on the same wavelength was the naming earlier this year of H. Lyman Stebbins, CUF's founder and chairman of its board, as a Knight of Saint Gregory, the highest honorary award a layman can receive in the Catholic Church.

Naturally, all this has a chilling effect on Catholic teachers, writers, and publishers, who are forced to assume a more cautious posture as they wonder where and when the ax will strike next. Seizing the initiative, CUF itself recently published its own "Faith and Life" elementary school series of religion texts. It stresses doctrine over experience, answers over questions, and "classical" art over modern portrayals of religious themes. Patricia Puccetti, editor, said demand for the books is growing among parents who have found most Catholic texts today "so silly they can't be taken seriously."

Meanwhile, the "Becoming a Person" series, which started Fairman on the path to CUF in the first place, is still published and still in wide use, though it has been revised--some would say toned downin an effort to placate the watchdogs.

Representing that body of Catholics who don't necessarily belong to a specific authenticist group but who sympathize fully with their gripes and goals is Thomas Roeser, 60, a large, articulate, and gregarious business executive, whose face and opinions are familiar to many Chicagoans. His pointed and often witty gibes at political leaders have made him a popular figure on television and radio talk shows, where he invariably expresses a conservative Republican outlook on everything from the Chicago Housing Authority to the contras in Nicaragua. On church matters too, Roeser leans far to the right.

"I don't believe in the American Catholic Church," he said. "I believe in the one, universal Catholic Church . . . and for that we need one, universal authority." As far as he is concerned, the authority issue was settled once and for all 2,000 years ago when Saint Peter recognized Jesus as the Son of God and Jesus, in turn, called Peter the "rock" on which he would build his church.

Every 500 years or so, said Roeser, who wears a little button with the white and yellow papal colors on the lapel of his business suit, someone tries to wrest control away from the church's divinely appointed custodian; and every time a charismatic pope comes along to staunch the rebellion. He sees John Paul II as the contemporary savior.

Roeser said he recognizes Cardinal Bernardin as his local link with the original 12 apostles, but he is frustrated because Bernardin, like most American bishops, doesn't "sound like" the preeminent bishop--the pope: there's too much talk about social justice and involvement in "worldly" affairs, too little talk about chastity and self-control and saving one's soul from hellfire.

Authenticists, he acknowledges, may seem preoccupied with sex and individual salvation--and with good reason. "I think the difference between the liberal and conservative mind is basically simple," he said. "Liberals tend to think man is infinitely perfectible; conservatives see him as infinitely flawed. And that is a big, big difference. . . . One shouldn't delude himself about achieving a great amount of social justice in this world. . . . We can abhor the excesses of multinational corporations or the arms race or the evils of foreign exploitation, but there are so many factors and variables involved that the individual doesn't have control over. . . . What he does have control over is his own body. I am responsible for my own self."

Roeser said he concurs with the ancient Fathers of the Church who regarded concupiscence and lust as the overriding problems of human life. He is therefore incensed when theologians like Curran back off the papal demand for self-control in marriage, when writers like Father Andrew Greeley "peddle pornography," when teachers like Father Horan "degrade sex" under the guise of teaching teens about Christian values.

Roeser finds Bernardin's seamless garment "a duplicitous attempt" to harness incompatible issues under one banner, though he admires the cardinal's suave public-relations skills. "The cardinal stretches the tether to the utmost," he said. "There's no comparison between abortion and these other issues, like capital punishment. I'd like to see the bishops get serious about pro-life, maybe even see some of them leading demonstrations, getting arrested, writing letters to their people from prison--the way Martin Luther King wrote from the Birmingham jail."

Instead, said Roeser, American Catholic leaders have developed an unhealthy "romance with the world," as they try to help their people become assimilated in society. The leaders don't lead, he said, the teachers don't teach, and the confessors are too permissive; the whole church is softened up around the edges because it's endorsing too comfortable a way of life. "We're capitulating to the world," said Roeser.

Ironically, Roeser, president of the City Club of Chicago, is something of a social activist in his own right. As assistant U.S. secretary of commerce in charge of minority enterprises in 1969, he was credited with energizing a long-ignored clause in the charter of the Small Business Administration, which has since led to the purchase by the government of more than $20 billion in goods and services from minority-owned companies.

In the 1970s, Roeser was one of the founders of Newman College in Saint Louis, a small, conservative Catholic institution that closed in 1984 when its major funder, Milwaukee millionaire Harry John, ran into his own financial problems. Three of Roeser's four children attended the college, where they got, he said, a superb education in "the core ideas of Western civilization," although they graduated "without the ability to make any money."

For several years Roeser was a "cooperator" in the Opus Dei movement, probably the "authentic" Catholic organization par excellence. Founded in Spain in the early part of the 20th century to help ordinary laypersons attain sanctity, Opus Dei (Latin for "work of God") is so secretive in its activities as to be almost spooky. Its adherents form an influential Catholic elite in many countries (the Vatican press secretary is a member), and its devotion to the official church line in doctrine and morals is extreme. Its national office is in New Rochelle, New York, not far from CUF headquarters. In Chicago, Opus Dei quietly operates several student centers, a retreat house, a cooking school, and a small high school and recruits new members, especially among educated people with conservative leanings.

Last February, when Opus Dei's international head, Monsignor Alvaro del Portillo, visited Chicago, he spoke to a packed house of 4,000--many of them college-aged young people--at the Auditorium Theatre. The size of the audience was impressive, particularly since attendance was by invitation only, and del Portillo's talk was not publicly announced anywhere--or even acknowledged the day before the event by the Auditorium Theatre management. His message was simple: Catholic parents have a duty to bring as many children into the world as possible. Couples who want only one or two children are guilty of selfishness, he said, noting that the marriage bed is a kind of "altar on which great sacrifices are offered." The audience applauded him warmly when he said Pope John Paul had personally urged him to extend a papal blessing to Opus Dei followers.

Roeser, however, said he has ceased affiliation with the organization because, despite its good intentions, it is "too secretive," and because his priest confessor, an Opus Dei member, told him to cut back on his outside activities. "I couldn't do that," said Roeser. "I'm a Catholic-action kind of guy. I think we have to go into the world and try to change it, realizing, of course, there's only so much we can do."

Those who can't abide the full-blown authority of the church ought to be "invited to leave" and form their own church--or go it alone if they wish, according to Roeser. Freedom has its limits, he insisted, and in his church they are clearly drawn.

Polls invariably indicate that most of America's 53 million Catholics are not authenticists. Shortly before Pope John Paul visited this country last fall, a national survey commissioned by Time magazine indicated that 93 percent believe "it is possible to disagree with the pope and still be a good Catholic"; 78 percent said it is permissible "to make up their own minds" on such moral issues as birth control and abortion; and 76 percent favored permitting remarriage in the church after divorce. Only 37 percent accepted the pope as infallible on moral matters; only 29 percent thought premarital sex is always sinful; and a mere 14 percent said abortion is wrong in all cases.

Yet American Catholics do not regard themselves as less religious or less faithful for all that. The poll showed that almost 55 percent attend Mass and receive communion weekly, one of the highest rates in any Western country. To a large extent, they have come to accept as basic in religious practice what most U.S. citizens regard as basic in civil life: freedom of expression, due process, the right to dissent without loss of citizenship.

Beyond that, American Catholics have been deeply affected by that different way of looking at themselves, God, and their church that Pope John XXIII's open window inaugurated. Father David Tracy, a decidedly nonauthenticist theologian who teaches at the University of Chicago, put it this way in a recent New York Times Magazine article: "People are really beginning to understand that the heart of the matter is mystery in any religion. The Law is there for the Jew to intensify that sense of mystery, not to replace it. The Church is there for the Catholic to do the same. The great religions draw closer and closer as they sense freshly the mystery in the mystery."

Religion's closest relative is not logic but art, according to Tracy. Like great art, he argues, religion reveals life's meanings by provoking an awareness of its complexities and ambiguities; you can have an orderly, clear, tightly unified religious organization only at the expense of the mystery.

That does not mean there is no place for a Catholic Church. But modern theologians like Tracy (and many ordinary Catholics) tend to see the church as having a very different role than do the authenticists--not as the divinely inspired possessor of changeless truth and the imposer of moral conformity, but as a community that keeps alive the "dangerous memories" of its founder Jesus, that comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable, including church leaders in positions of top authority.

Authenticists insist that such an approach is mushy, open-ended, and vague: it leads to a subjective state of mind in which anyone can justify anything. Given humanity's weakness and tendency to sin (as Roeser emphasized), chaos is bound to result. As proof of their claim, proponents of "authentic" Catholicism point to the "religious illiteracy" of young people and to the "sexual promiscuity" that afflicts members of their church no less than other Americans.

Jesus, they like to point out, did not set up his church as a democracy (although there's no evidence he established it as a one-man dictatorship either). They prefer to see the church as a monarchy, with the pope sitting in the royal chair and the bishops functioning as his loyal legates around the world. It's a very neat trickle-down arrangement: God talks to the pope, the pope informs the bishops, the bishops tell the priests, and the priests get the word to the people. Any other image is unacceptable.

Which side will win?

The authenticists assert history is with them. More importantly for the moment, so is the pope. He is currently screening all candidates for bishop with extra care, selecting only those who adhere without qualification to the ban on contraception, the exclusion of women from the priesthood, and other sensitive issues--men like Cardinal O'Connor of New York City and Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston. Progressives like Bernardin and Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee could become part of a vanishing species.

On the other hand, there is that great number of Catholics--plain laity, theologians, and some bishops too (if the truth were known)--who are convinced the rigid, literal, legalistic approach to religion will soften simply because the church exists in time, not eternity. The Catholic Church once taught that earning interest on money was intrinsically evil, that slavery was an acceptable practice, that those who renounce church teachings should be tortured or executed. Times changed and so did the church. And so will the church. Unfortunately, anyone old enough to read this article will probably not be around long enough to find out how it all comes out.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Loren Santow.

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