Monday, April 20, 2009

The Catholic Embrace of Americanism

. . . and other thoughts by James Carroll

In the following excerpt from an essay published in yesterday’s Boston Globe, Catholic author James Carroll (pictured at right) explores the “contest between dogmatism and experience” that we continue to see being played out in the Church, particularly the American Catholic Church.


Who would have thought that a Catholic priest preaching on the Boston Common 60 years ago could set in motion a momentous change that still defines the great argument that Catholics, and other believers, are having with themselves? The priest’s name was Father Leonard Feeney, and the topic of his sermons was “No Salvation Outside the Church.” That was a long-held dogma, dating at least to the 1302 papal bull Unam Sanctam (“One Holy”): Only those in full communion with the pope in Rome are assured of God’s grace; everyone else will burn in the eternal lake of fire. Feeney’s diatribes were aimed especially at Jews. Unluckily for him, one of the people who worked in nearby Back Bay, and could regularly hear his preaching during lunch-time strolls, was a fellow named Dick Pearlstein, who, with his brother, ran a stylish men’s clothing shop. Named for its founder, their father, Louis, the store is still there (and still stylish).

It so happened that Dick Pearlstein’s wife, Dolly, was the sister of the Catholic archbishop of Boston, Richard Cushing. Cushing loved Dolly, and he loved his brother-in-law. How the archbishop must have winced to hear of the anti-Semitic slurs that were a staple of Feeney’s preaching. That Cushing took in what they meant to his sister’s husband is suggested by the fact that he ordered Feeney to stop his preaching, no matter how consistent it was with established doctrine. The priest refused, and refused again. Cushing excommunicated Feeney. A confident Feeney appealed to Rome. Then, to the astonishment of the whole Catholic world, the Vatican upheld the excommunication. Feeney was out.

It was 1953. I was 10 years old, living in Alexandria, Va. The nuns of St. Mary’s school were abuzz with the news, and the monsignor was flustered. I went to my mother. “A priest was excommunicated for preaching ‘No Salvation Outside the Church?’” I asked. “But I thought that was what we believed.”

“It was,” my mother answered calmly.

“What do we believe now?”

“We believe, ‘Live and let live.’” My mother, like countless other American Catholics, had clearly been prepared for this shift by the experience of intimacy with her own versions of the Pearlsteins. In the New World, unlike the Old, rubbing elbows with those who believe differently was the norm. When one religious absolute bumps into another, each one becomes less absolute. And, as the Vatican’s ruling suggested, this peculiarly American phenomenon had begun to have its effect everywhere.

The Feeney story points to the larger question that defines the seismic shift that knocked Catholicism, along with contemporary religion itself, from the blocks of a long-held dogmatism. Archbishop Cushing had had a personal experience that weighed more than the doctrine he was sworn to uphold. The experience, one assumes, went something like this: If I love Dick Pearlstein as I do, then God must love Dick, too. No eternal lake of fire for Dick. An ethical insight – how Feeney’s preaching was a grotesque offense against charity – led to a theological change. A decade later, Cushing brought his ecumenical impulse to completion at the Second Vatican Council as one of the leading figures to make the case for the 1965 declaration Dignitatis Humanae (“On the Dignity of the Human Person”), which formally overturned “No Salvation Outside the Church” in favor of the idea that every person ‘can attain salvation” who acts according to the “dictates of conscience.”

It would be oversimple to say that a personal experience like Cushing’s should trump dogma in every case, since norms, laws, and established ideas aim to enshrine wisdom and moral principle. Conscience is the primary realm of ethical choice, but doctrines are measures against which conscience must be tested. Still, the modern affirmation of the individual – of conscience, of experience – has posed a direct challenge to the authority of doctrine. How do I know I exist? Not because the church, or even God, tells me, but because “I think, therefore I am.” This Enlightenment impulse took flight in America, where “these truths” were held to be “self-evident.” Such emphasis on the individual, together with corollaries like inbred rights, religious pluralism, and separation of church and state, led the Catholic Church to lump such ideas together and label them as heresy; the heresy, indeed, of “Americanism,” which the Vatican condemned in 1899. By then, however, in its war against the modern spirit, church teachings had become calcified, and doctrine had become doctrinaire. What Cushing did, acting out of the American experience, was to help the church leave that defensiveness behind. It is not too much to say that Dignitatis Humanae was the Catholic embrace of Americanism.

Later in his commentary, Carroll goes on to highlight “the single most important instance of experience trumping doctrine,” one that involved the Holocaust. He then discusses Pope Benedict XVI’s fear of the “dictatorship of relativism,” and notes the following:

. . . Benedict’s “relativism” is a straw man, since he is an astute enough philosopher to appreciate that every person’s experience is unique, and every point of view is therefore somehow relative. No one is in possession of the absolute, which is what makes it absolute. At a time when many pillars of meaning are shaken, broad worry about ethical chaos is appropriate, but Benedict’s actual concern is narrowly dogmatic. Not coincidentally, the pinnacle of the hierarchy of truth he defends so staunchly is occupied by himself as the Vicar of Christ. The content of this doctrine is his own status.

Carroll concludes his piece by posing the types of questions that many Catholics here in the Twin Cities were discussing at the Catholic Coalition for Church Reform’s prayer breakfast this past Saturday.

Will the dogmatically defined character of an all-male priesthood withstand the experience of otherwise liberated women? Will narrow exclusivism outlive the newly respectful pluralism that marks the contemporary world? Will the doctrine of papal infallibility survive the ever more common spectacle of a pope forced to explain himself, or even apologize? Will the last medieval structure of authority hold fast against a global move toward democratic liberalism? Will a collapsing clerical culture remain aloof from the urgent need of Catholics for a revitalized sacramental life? Will theology resist ethics? Dogma experience? The great argument goes on.

It does indeed, which, as I’ve said before, makes it a very interesting and exciting time to be Catholic.

To read Carroll’s commentary in its entirety, click here.

For more of James Carroll at the Wild Reed, see:
A Brave Hope
Thoughts on Tomorrow’s Presidential Election
James Carroll on “Pope Benedict’s Mistake”
A Christmas Reflection by James Carroll


Liam said...

Carroll, as usual, plays fast and loose with documentary citations - he should stick to vivid memoirs and leave facts unharmed. DH nowhere states or even implies the idea that every person ‘can attain salvation” who acts according to the “dictates of conscience.” The issue about conscience in DH has to do with compulsion by the state, not salvation.

Now the relationship of the stories of Dick Perlstein and Fr Feeney is true and well-known, at least among educated Boston-area Catholics familiar with the postconciliar period. There is still a Feeney-ite community in central Massachusetts, dedicated among other things to correcting anyone who casually conflates different dimensions of the Feeney saga (which, to be fair, is more nuanced than often passes for accuracy in Catholic conversation).

Liam said...

Putting aside Carroll's typically unhelpful tangents, and trying to focus on the issue of Christian* triumphalism: it was not only the Holocaust that cast a cloud over it - Gandhi did, in a different way, in a way that has gone more unnoticed.

* not merely Catholic, though Catholics being more organized, ended up confronting this question in a more systematic manner than many other Christian denominations . . .

Michael J. Bayly said...

Hi Liam,

Do you have citations for your contention that Dignitatis Humanae concerns itself not with salvation but with "compulsion by the state"?

Seems to me that if you're going to take on someone of Carroll's caliber, you need to substantiate your disparaging assertions that he "plays fast and loose" with the facts and confuses with "unhelpful tangents."

Giving that neither of you provide citations and knowing you only as "Liam," I'm leaning more towards trusting the thoughtful and articulate writings and insights of James Carroll.



Liam said...


Have you read DH lately? If you search the text about salvation, you will discover it does not discuss salvation in terms of conscience, but the discussion of conscience is about carving out an area free from state compulsion. Carroll's quotations - which imply they are from DH - are not sourceable to DH.

Michael J. Bayly said...

Just a quick note, Liam, as it's late.

You may be correct in saying that not all of Carroll's quotes are traceable to Dignitatis Humanae, but it seems to me that when discussing this particular document he's talks a lot about general concepts such as "No faith outside the Church" - concepts he puts in quotation marks.

More importantly, isn't salvation all about journeying to and being in union with God?

Well, here's what Dignitatis Humanae says:

[M]an (sic) perceives and acknowledges the imperatives of the divine law through the mediation of conscience. In all his activity a [person] is bound to follow [his/her] conscience in order that [he/she] may come to God, the end and purpose of life.Sounds to me as if there's an implicit link here between salvation and conscience.



Liam said...

Michael, not that's not the implication. The implication is about a person's duty, and freedom to be free from state compulsion. It's not actually about salvation. DH is not a soteriological document. And it wouldn't be, because salvation is not a concept in every religion or belief system - if this document were about salvation, it would only apply to people whose belief systems were about salvation. Carroll's reading of DH in this essay has the perverse effect of making it much less broad in protecting religious freedom....