- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 11, 2009


By Kerry Kennedy

Crown, $24.95, 247 pages


Here I am, then, an Episcopalian, eavesdropping as it were on the sometimes rowdy, occasionally rude, nearly always lively conversation that Kerry Kennedy has instigated among American Catholics over the topic of who they imagine themselves to be, and why.

One thing we Anglicans notice about Catholics is how much more time they spend talking about such matters than do we ourselves — a clear enough indication of how essential is the Church to their personal identity. I gather a lot of that has to do with the American church’s role in the acclimation of late-coming immigrants, but the present point lies elsewhere.

Robert F. and Ethel Kennedy’s seventh child, a human rights activist who professes fierce attachment to her, and her family’s, church, has gathered from interviews an engaging and robust collection of viewpoints on that church and its wrestlings with modernity.

I didn’t say a “representative” collection. What is the jaundiced jester Bill Maher doing here, even if he started out as a Catholic before deciding that religion is all nonsense? Susan Sarandon and Frank (“Angela’s Ashes”) McCourt bring front and center their own general disdain for the church and its notions. “Traditional” Catholics like Bill O’Reilly and Peggy Noonan find themselves greatly outnumbered (though scarcely outgunned) at the party, amid a general hubbub about peace and justice, pedophilia, iron-fisted nuns and a constant sense of hell as a neighborhood that seemingly lies just blocks away.

And yet … and yet … I generally relished the in-house chit-chat, the anguished memories, the family bickering, arguing and attempted score-settling. There’s something invigorating about a faith whose adherents spend so much time and so many intellectual resources trying to define it over against each other’s perceptions. The non-family outsider gets a little wistful sitting there meekly on the ottoman, twiddling his thumbs, while the family members get it on about Father, fish on Friday and the preferential option for the poor.

It’s kind of a fun experience: Eye-opening in some sense. That’s to say you get the notion of modern Catholicism as a once-closed corporation contending with new, modern realities, such as the need to give a persuasive account of itself to the customers. This makes for heated, or anyway provocative, contentions as the customers thrash out what they like and don’t like.

What the traditionalists such as Peggy Noonan like is the core truths -that “Jesus is real; God is real.” “[T]here’s good, there’s evil, and there’s a battle,” observes Bill O’Reilly. For Thomas Monaghan, the Domino’s Pizza founder whose ministry is the new Ave Maria University he has launched, “A serious Catholic should be concentrating on saving the soul.” Thus “a certain amount of guilt is good.”

That’s OK, I would judge, with E.J. Dionne, of the Brookings Institution, who sees guilt as feeding into a needful concern for the hard issues of the day, such as abortion, stem-cell research and “the well-being of the poor.” “If the Church makes us all think twice and three times about lots of issues,” he declares, “I think it is doing its job.”

Social justice, as defined by its pursuers, is a major theme for Ms. Kennedy’s interview subjects. Thus AFL-CIO President John Sweeney: “Catholics have a proud history of building our country and making it more just for working people.” Thus the writer Anna Quindlen: “The New Testament was … a profoundly politically liberal document….”

Catholic liberals like Ms. Quindlen lean on the imperatives of love and open-mindedness. Cokie Roberts gets from Catholicism “a solid sense of justice, hope, and love.” “All these laws,” declares the writer Andrew Sullivan, “let them all go, if you love.” That love and simple tolerance may not be synonyms is a matter that could have borne some examination on someone’s part.

A kindred problem here … from the perspective of Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, Washington, D.C.’s retired archbishop — is that before the church can do charity it has to reacquaint itself with the truth that “Charity without faith isn’t going to happen; without faith it’s just philanthropy.”

The American Catholic hierarchy (conspicuously excluding Cardinal McCarrick, whom Ms. Kennedy’s interview subjects see as a good guy) comes in for a good pasting, partly for the role of some bishops and archbishops in covering up priestly pederasty, partly for not listening intently enough to the laity, many of whose members seem to hope for women priests and an end to required celibacy for the clergy.

The church that some of Ms. Kennedy’s conversationalists - and, in truth, she herself - would will into existence would be a very American kind of Church, with a cousinly resemblance to the Democratic Party of Massachusetts. Of course that wouldn’t stop the family arguments, the nostalgia, the anxieties, the yearning for … what? Not the Episcopal Church, I can tell you. Alongside a crew given to the feats recorded here - high-minded remorse, self-flagellation and occasional sublimities of spiritual reflection - we Anglicans may be just so many well-dressed ninnies.

#8226; William Murchison’s “Mortal Follies: Episcopalians and the Crisis of Mainline Christianity” will be published by Encounter Books at the end of January.


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