The swallows of Capistrano.

Author:Dubruiel, Amy Welborn
Position:Letter to the editor

I am grateful for Joseph Bottum's "When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano: Catholic Culture in America" (October 2006). Trying to get a handle on the state of the Catholic Church in the United States is a monstrous task, and Bottum's article is a thoughtful and frank contribution.

The analysis was incomplete, however. Bottum looks at the situation primarily via the headlines and the stories that make the news--which contain the political language and stance he blames for the breakdown. Much of what he describes eventually did have an impact on the life of the average Catholic, but there are two other points I think deserve mention.

First, the widespread impression and fallout from the post-Vatican II era that almost everything about being Catholic was up for grabs: Think of a typical Catholic Mass in 1962. Then think of a typical Mass in 1970. The transformation, in less than a decade, is staggering. The most concrete symbol of this feeling is something seemingly minor but actually not: the abandonment of the Friday abstinence. Something that Catholics had been taught was deeply expressive of both individual and corporate Catholic identity was simply dropped. It doesn't matter that, in truth, a Friday penitential act of some sort is still called for by the United States bishops. Hardly anyone knew it then, and hardly anyone knows it now. The impression left was that almost everything was adjustable and, in the end, arbitrary--an impression that doesn't build trust but the suspicion that authority does what it wants, when it wants.

Second, in the four decades since the council, many Catholics' trust in their bishops has diminished simply because of what they experience in their Catholic parishes, schools, and other institutions. In short: At that middle level, leaders--pastors, liturgists, educators--basically do what they want, without heed to directives from Rome or deeper Church tradition. If you look at, say, the programs for conventions of professional lay ministry groups, the disassociation is startling. In studying these programs, you might conclude that there is indeed a new Catholic culture being constructed in America--except the branches now are Reiki, personality tests, Native American spirituality, Buddhist concepts, evangelical church-building techniques, self-help language, and what middle-aged people think is youth culture (although usually--tragically, lamely--it's not).

The gurus are aging psychologist clergy and vaguely spiritual religious sisters, while our brilliant, pastoral Pope Benedict, who has written extensively on liturgy, catechesis, and discipleship, doesn't even merit a single workshop. The whole gestalt is about applying the latest trends to Catholicism: constantly remaking it, constantly trying to find the new thing that will be just the thing--not in the spirit of Vatican II but in the spirit of Making Stuff Up. Endlessly.

Amy Welborn Dubruiel

Fort Wayne, Indiana

Joseph Bottum's essay is the best record of late-twentieth-century Catholicism I've ever read. I paused at one point, however: the story of that elderly priest who remembers Catholics being indifferent to anti-contraception homilies. I've been going to daily and Sunday Mass for seventy-one years and I never heard one of those homilies. Saying that Catholics were indifferent to homilies attacking contraception might make that elderly priest and a host of other clergy feel better about themselves by thinking the laity were the problem. The reality is that the clergy are the cause of that breakdown in morality and the ensuing massive numbers of murderous abortions.

John Dunkle

Reading, Pennsylvania

I may be dismissed by the students quoted by Joseph Bottum as "screwed up," but I am still able to straighten out a few inaccuracies:

* Bishop Brown never urged Catholics to approve same-sex civil unions. He did send a notice to priests saying that an article by Fr. Gerald Coleman, S.S., a noted moral theologian, reflected his thinking. The point of Fr. Coleman's article was "to affirm two principles: it is possible to support Prop. 22 [a proposition on the ballot that defined marriage as the bond between a man and a woman] and at the same time not condemn homosexual persons."

* Our presbyterate does represent a cultural diversity. Nearly half of us are Anglo (with a fair number of Irish descent). The Vietnamese come next with nearly 30 percent. Latinos account for about 20 percent. We also have a number of Filipino, Korean, and Chinese priests.

* Loretta Sanchez did not receive Holy Communion from Bishop Brown and has never campaigned from local Catholic pulpits.

* Our diocesan historian says that Holy Family Church was chosen as the location of the cathedral because Bishop Johnson did not want our diocese to be known as the Diocese of Santa Ana but as the Diocese of Orange. As the county seat, Santa Ana would have typically gotten the nod. St. Columban was not considered, despite its ample size.

* Holy Family seats about 850, not 400.

* Saint Columban has fewer than 4,000 parishioners, not 6,000.

* Diocesan officials never issued a memo insisting that teen-chastity programs are suitable only for "homeschoolers and fundamentalists."

* Father Tran is not the pastor of St. Mary's by the Sea; he is the administrator. His predecessor was not there "for years" but for one years. Rather, Bottum may have been referring to Fr. Dan Johnson, who was pastor from 1978 to 2005.

* Father Tran did not eliminate the Sunday morning Latin Mass; there is a Mass in Latin at noon (celebrated using the Novus Ordo) to this day. A weekly Latin Mass (celebrated using the Missale Romanum, editio typica 1962) is celebrated Sunday mornings at Mission San Juan Capistrano in the historic Serra Chapel.

* Rod Stephens resigned his priestly ministry in 2004, as reported. The mission did not pay his liturgical consulting firm anything, much less $300 an hour.

* As to the most controversial of Bottum's claims, that the swallows have abandoned Mission San Juan Capistrano, I will let the mission's pastor explain: "The swallows do return 'to the valley' around March 19th [the feast of Saint Joseph] but they seek areas where there is plenty of mud. Since we are about conservation, mud around the mission isn't a very good thing--water seeping into historic buildings, etc., is very bad. By cleaning up the place we have been put in a somewhat Catch-22 situation of encouraging the swallows to seek areas in town where there is more mud."

Given all this, I leave it to the thoughtful readers of FIRST THINGS tO determine whether they can trust Bottum's observation that the "whole diocese has a fossilized, fly-in-the-amber feeling to it."

Fr. Mike Heher

Vicar General and Moderator of the Curia

Diocese of Orange

Orange, California

Joseph Bottum's article is a wonderful...

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