To form a more perfect union


The Editors Interview Jay P.Dolan
Give me liberty, or give me Catholicism. Should Americans have to choose? In his recent book, In Search of an American Catholicism (Oxford University Press, 2002) , historian Jay P. Dolan tells us democracy in the church wasn’t born yesterday. The democratic and hierarchical models of church have been in tension since the colonial days.p. Exploring the relationship between culture and religion, Dolan looks at the particulars of American culture’democracy, freedom of religion, separation of church and state, and amber waves of immigration — and the role these factors play in shaping the U.S. church.p. Now in his emeritus years, Dolan has been a professor of history at the University of Notre Dame since 1971. He is founder of Notre Dame’s Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism and author of the The American Catholic Experience (Doubleday). Published in 1985, it is still the standard textbook on American Catholic history.p. He’s seen the church from nearly every point of view. A former priest, now a husband and father to two grown sons, Dolan’s perspective ranges from cleric to parent, parishioner to professor. While he is deeply concerned about the toll the sex-abuse scandal will take on the church, the historian in him says the church will survive. After all, it always has in the past.p. * How does the current clergy sex-abuse scandal fit into the history of the church in America? *
There’s no question that this sex-abuse scandal has changed the landscape, changed the whole situation. After this scandal the whole question of credibility in the church, respectability of the clerical, episcopal authority in the church, looms large. A good number of the hierarchy have been tainted with this scandal, and that has shaken the faith and confidence of a lot of people. From my perspective as a historian, the church is at a nadir in terms of its public respect.p. * Is this the first time that the moral authority of the institution has been called to question at this level? *
Yes. One of the things that happened in American Catholicism in the 20th century was that the church got engaged in the public arena — in what we call a social gospel. It became concerned about the role of the church in society. We saw this in the 1930s during the Depression era with social action, social justice concerns, the founding of the Catholic Worker House, and the founding of Friendship House.p. After the Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et Spes , the pastoral constitution on the church in the modern world, pushed the church into the public square. And in this country, the result of that has been some major episcopal statements on war and peace, the economy, abortion, all kinds of social justice issues. The church took on a greater public role and gained a lot of credibility because of that. I think this recent scandal has destroyed a lot of that currency. I can’t think of anything that has had as much of an impact on the public image of the church.p. * Is there anything unique about the response to the sex-abuse scandal in the U.S.? *
What is peculiarly American is the legal aspect — the lawyers becoming involved, especially the lawyers on the side of the church — playing hardball, as lawyers do. It’s not the model you use in a pastoral situation. The amount of money we’re talking about is peculiar to the United States, too, because of the assets of the church. You probably won’t see multimillion dollar settlements in other countries.p. * One of the results of the scandal is a call for more lay involvement in the church. What is the history of lay involvement in America? * p. The idea of a more democratic nature for the church is nothing new. When the church started in this country, it was basically a lay church. In the 18th century there were very few priests, and most of them were circuit-rider priests. They’d visit periodically. For example, the bishop of Boston sent a letter to the Catholics in Maine instructing them on what to do when there is no priest: Get the prayer book, gather together for prayers, read these prayers, read the gospels. So the laypeople were on their own — do-it-yourself Catholicism.p. Later laypeople began to incorporate parishes. They established boards of trustees who bought the land, put the land in their name, built the church, and brought the priests in. Every year the parish would elect trustees, who had to be men over 21 who rented a pew in the church. The board ran the church with the priests, and they all worked together like this up until 1830 or so.p. The interesting thing is that every immigrant group that came in — whether Polish, Italian, or German — followed that same pattern of bonding together in a fraternal or insurance society. They started out praying together, then worshiping together, then going out and buying some land or having Mass said for them in the basement of another church. They wanted to have a voice in the church. And at those early stages, they did. But eventually, as the church became more organized, more bureaucratic, the clergy took over and said, “We’re going to run it our way.”p. There wasn’t so much a theology behind that, it was more a pragmatic approach. Today we’re operating out of a theology of church that says Baptism is the entrance for everybody into the church, a theology that encourages involvement in the church. And a lot of clergy agree that laypeople ought to have a greater role.p. * Are there more who would disagree? *
There are many. The major problem is there are two different understandings of church — a monarchical, clerical, authoritarian, hierarchical model; and the People of God model. Those two models of church are in conflict, they always have been, and they are going in different directions.p. But one can’t survive without the other. You can’t have an exclusively lay church? Where’s the Eucharist? Where are the sacraments? And you can’t have an exclusively clerical church?Where are the people? You’ve got to bring them together. This is the challenge we’re facing today.p. But Catholics also faced that challenge in the 19th century. John England was bishop of South Carolina from 1820 to 1842. He drew up a constitution for his church. The laypeople met every year, created an agenda for the church, elected representatives. It was a republican model of Catholicism, and it worked for 22 years.p. But it ended because the monarchical model was much more pervasive, a model of centralization in Rome. At that time the papacy was being restored after a very low point — Pius VI and VII were prisoners of Napoleon. One of them died in exile. But in the 19th century the papacy underwent a revival.p. The authoritarian model was operative through the 20th century right up until the Second Vatican Council. The Vatican II document on the church, Lumen Gentium, starts off with the People of God model, but because of the controversy at the time the writers included the monarchical model as well.p. And that’s where we are today: in tension between those two understandings of church.p. * How much of the quest for lay involvement is influenced by political democracy in America? *
Democracy has definitely influenced the church in America. The model of trusteeism came out of the democratic enthusiasm, the whole concept of equal rights, and constitution-making. That’s part of our culture. We threw away the king and the monarch, you know. Now, we’re not talking about democracy on the creed: “Did Jesus rise from the dead? All in favor say ‘aye;’ all opposed say ‘no.’ The no’s have it. Jesus did not rise from the dead.” We’re talking about the way the church is run. We saw what happened in a closed church? the scandal. That’s the result of a monarchical church.p. * How did John XXIII change the world? *
Pope John XXIII, even before he called the Second Vatican Council, made a huge change in the atmosphere of Catholicism.p. I was in Rome and stood out in St. Peter’s Square the night he was elected. Most people didn’t know who he was. The insiders knew he was a contender, but the man or woman in the street had no idea.p. I stood in St. Peter’s Square asking the guy next to me, “Who is he?” And he said that he was the patriarch of Venice, a little, short chubby guy.p. I always think of Pope John in his limousine, just a black car, sitting in the back seat, dressed in his papal robe, waving to the people as he drove through the city of Rome. That was unheard of at the time. Pius XII never left the Vatican. So for Pope John to get in the car, go through the Vatican City gates and into Rome to visit hospitals and prisons - that was like going to the moon.p. John XXIII was a revolutionary. He opened doors in so many ways. He took off the papal tiara and put it in a museum. He walked down the aisle, saying hello to people. He broke through tradition like a hot knife through butter. Jay P. Dolan p. * What role has immigration played in all this? *
Throughout American history, these two models of church have come and gone in waves, one being more prominent, then the other. Whenever a new wave of immigrants came, the pendulum swung toward a democratic model. But then as the community became established, it went back the other way.p. I think theologically we’re now moving away from the monarchical model of church.p. * How will Latino immigration affect the church? *
The Latino model of church is not very cleric-centered. It centers around feasts, festivities, pilgrimages, and the home. It’s domestic, as opposed to clerical. What we’re finding, though, is that as the Latino church gets built up, there is again more organization, structure, bureaucracy, and clericalism. But the people also seem to be involved.p. * Is it possible that Roman Cathol-icism might split the way Judaism has, into reform, conservative, and orthodox branches? *
What you’re talking about is a schism, and I don’t think that’s going to happen. One thing that amazes me is that churches are still crowded. People are going to church. Attendance is down to be sure, but people are going. People want to practice their religion, so they weave their way through this conflict.p. In some ways there is schism already, but it hasn’t been institutionalized. In my parish during the consecration, about two thirds of the church stands, one third kneels. And that’s symbolic of where we’re at in the church today.p. But in that same parish we worship together, we try to live a good life. We try to help the poor, feed the hungry, have a prison ministry. We do all the corporal works of mercy, and we’re very engaged and very involved.p. People will find an oasis. Every city has parishes that are alive, vibrant, and not worrying about what the people downtown at the chancery think.p. Why do I go to church on Sunday? I go to church because I want to pray. I want to celebrate the Eucharist. But I also go to church to remind me that I belong to a community, a community that cares about other people. I don’t get that inspiration from late-night news or the Chicago Tribune. I get that inspiration from my church, from my religion.p. * What can Catholics today gain by understanding the changes in our past? * Some people like to say the church does not or should not change. But it has had major shifts in theology and practice throughout its history. The modernist crisis in the early 1900s was a major upset in the history of the church. We had the emergence of new theology, new science.p. Scholars were doing historical biblical research and finding that Moses didn’t write the first five books of the Bible, calling into question the authentic authorship of the gospels, the history of Jesus. The church reacted strongly against that, said it could not be taught.p. It was a siege mentality of secrecy and protection. They didn’t want that scholarship out there. In a certain sense, the church entered the intellectual dark ages. It closed its mind to modern thought.p. Today, we know that Moses didn’t write those first five books. We know a lot more about the historical Jesus, and we’ve gradually begun to accept the scholarship.p. * Do you think we’re still in a modernist crisis on issues like sexuality and women’s roles? * Certainly women’s ordination is a good example of that. In everything I’ve read, there’s no solid theological rationale why women cannot be ordained as priests. Church rules against birth control would be another example. Because of such rules the church has lost a great deal of credibility in regard to its teaching on sexual ethics.p. The underlying issue is to what extent the church should be influenced by the wider culture, even the positive elements. You hear a lot about how the culture is bad, we’re going to rally against it. There are aspects of American culture that are bad and ugly, there’s no question about that. But there are also aspects of American culture that are good, that we should embrace. And to say that the villain is the culture is missing the point. The villain is individualism, the villain is materialism, the villain is consumerism, gun culture, violence, war.p. The church should embrace the positive aspects of culture and stand against the negative. This is not a religion floating somewhere up in the stratosphere, removed from all things earthly. It is rooted in culture, rooted in history, rooted in a place — in the South Side of Chicago, the West Side of New York City, or Los Angeles, or wherever.p. * Do you think the church is in denial that it is part of the culture? *
Let me give a practical example: people who are not married and living together. In my day, that was inconceivable. Do I agree with it? No. But it’s a cultural phenomenon not just among “bad” people, but among good, Catholic people from good, Catholic families.p. One way the church responds is harshly, negatively. Some parishes refuse to marry these couples in the church. And what happens? Those couples go get married in the Lutheran Church and leave the Catholic Church. I would say, let’s talk about it.p. This is especially true for young people because they are so connected to the culture. If the church is totally disconnected from that culture it will not be relevant to them. We have to deal with the cultural phenomena and work through them, or we’ll be left with a small “faithful remnant.”p. * How did 20th-century America change the church? *
World War II had as much impact on Catholicism in this country as did Vatican II because of the social forces that were unleashed as a result of the war?whether it was women in the workplace, the economic upturn, education, or the GI Bill. And after that we had the civil rights movement.p. Even without Vatican II, Catholics would have gotten involved in the civil rights movement, the war on poverty, the women’s movement, and the peace movement. How can you not get involved when your city is burning? Vatican II just gave it direction, a theological rationale, an impetus.p. * In what ways has Protestantism affected American Catholicism? *
I think the major influence of the Protestant churches was anti-Catholicism. I call Catholics the classical Moonies of American culture, outcasts. Well into the late 19th century, they were not accepted. And I think anti-Catholicism is still around today to a degree. A lot of Catholic people today don’t realize how strong it was — burning of convents, burning of churches, tarring and feathering of priests.p. The public school in those days — the 1840s through the ‘60s — was really a Protestant cultural school. The first thing you did when you got to school was say a Protestant prayer, sing a Protestant hymn, and maybe recite the Ten Commandments. Some of the Catholic parents didn’t want their kids to do that, so they would be excused or they wouldn’t say anything.p. What that did to Catholics was make them very insular. They withdrew into their own community, into their own culture, and they got strength within that culture. But also they stayed away from the public culture. That’s why we don’t see Catholics becoming engaged in American society until the 1920s.p. * Tell us about the influence of Irish immigration to America. *
There’s no question that the Irish have dominated in terms of the clergy and the leadership of the church. Why? Because the Irish got here first. The Irish priests came over early in the 19th century, followed their people over here. Just one seminary, All Hallows in Dublin, sent 1,500 priests to the United States. By the end of the 19th century, two out of three bishops in the United States were of Irish descent. And this has continued right up and into the 21st century, though it’s less obvious today than it was 100 years ago.p. Within the Irish family it was a badge of honor to have a son enter the seminary and become a priest. The Irish — unlike Latino culture, for example — encouraged their sons to become priests.p. * What parts of the Irish ethos became infused in the church? *
Irish culture was very moralistic, scrupulous, legalistic, very much hung up on sex. It was heavy into penance, ridden with guilt, focusing on sexual improprieties?think of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce. The joke is that there are Ten Commandments, but really it’s only the one or two that have to do with sex that count.p. You see the Irish influence in the penitential side of Catholicism, the severity of Catholicism, where the discipline can become an end in itself.p. There’s a great saying about the Irish Catholic: “He had a strong sense of tragedy which sustained him through periodic moments of joy.”p. * What was positive about it? *
Salvation, love, grace, strong family values. As you know, it was not unusual to have a lot of children. The Irish were very devoted to religion, to God, prayer life, spirituality. They also placed a high value on education. The Catholic school system in this country has been a remarkable achievement, and the Irish played a major role in that, along with the Germans. Those schools became the socioeconomic escalator for Catholics.p. * What pieces of our culture will continue to distinguish the American church from the church in the rest of the world? * p. I hope that Voice of the Faithful, Call To Action, and other lay organizations will be heard by the leadership of the church. We have the most talented lay Catholic population in the world, in terms of college-educated people.p. So many young people are doing work in religious organizations or work on behalf of the church, when they could be out getting their MBAs. And I think that’s hopeful.p. I hope that the leadership will recognize these contributions and be more inclusive in the way the church is run or organized, less clerical and less proprietary.p. I haven’t lost hope, even though I might be pessimistic some days.p. * Does history feed that hope? *
The church has been here for 2,000 years. It’s going to survive, it’s going to be here after we’re all gone. And I think there is hope in the future. We’ll survive this crisis, and I hope it will be a cleansing experience for all of us as we try to work through this and the lack of confidence and lack of integrity and honesty and trust.p. I have to be hopeful, or I wouldn’t be here — I wouldn’t have spent the last 40 years of my life doing this.p. p. p. This article appeared in the October 2003 (Volume 68, Number 10: Pages 12-17) issue of U.S. Catholic. It is posted here for private use only. It may not be reprinted in whole or in part in any manner without the permission of U.S. Catholic magazine. U.S. Catholic is published by the Claretians.


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