Ghetto Catholicism?

Author:Powell, James M.
Position:Correspondence - Letter to the Editor

In "World Order: What Catholics Forgot" (May), as well as in his reply to letters about a previous article, George Weigel appeals chiefly to Catholics who long for a return to the ghetto. His way of reading St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Christopher Dawson presumes that they would state their views as he does were they alive today. Such an assumption is not merely unhistorical; it does not do justice to their works.

Mr. Weigel's attachment to conservative politics is very much out of the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century brand of American capitalism and nationalism. His effort to graft Catholicism onto this creature does enormous damage to the great work of reform that began under Pope Leo XIII and has continued even under the present pope.

Moreover, Mr. Weigel's explanation of the decline of European Catholicism has its origins in outdated seminary history texts. In fact, most professional historians today have left behind the kind of polemical narrowness that was still around in the 1950s. These historians provide a much more accurate picture of the developments of the period. Most recognize that the Church was not monolithic, that its leadership was often swayed by different political groups, that the bourgeois parties that seized church property were both conservative and liberal, that persecution of religion was often irrational, and that the unwillingness of church leadership to work with the opposition was also a major source of the problems faced by the Catholic laity. I could go on and on. The point is that at many moments the position of religion in Europe could have been altered for the better. In fact, when people from these same European countries came to the U.S. they found a climate much more conducive to the free exercise of their faith and free, for the most part, from the anticlericalism that was beginning to sunder the Church in Europe.

Unfortunately, Mr. Weigel is wedded to a sectarian view of history that was never really history at all, but rather a product of Catholics trying to defend their identity in a predominantly Protestant society. Ironically, Mr. Weigel's approach would marry this type of ghetto history to an alliance with evangelical Protestants who share his political sympathies. At a time when a small minority of Catholics is leaving the Church to join evangelicalism, one would think that Mr. Weigel would awaken to the fact that Catholicism has never and will never fit into the kind of...

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