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'A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America' By Peter Steinfels

Scholar examines crisis of Catholicism and possible solutions

Sunday, September 21, 2003

By Ruth Hammond

The troubles besetting the American Catholic Church go far deeper than the sexual abuse scandal that's been in the news lately.

Although Peter Steinfels discusses that expose in his book, he directs much of his attention to other issues.

"A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America"

By Peter Steinfels

Simon & Schuster ($26)


The leading Catholic indicators, as Steinfels calls them -- church attendance rates, ratios of priests to people, knowledge of the faith, financial contributions -- are weak.

"Absent an energetic response by Catholic leadership, a soft slide into a kind of nominal Catholicism is quite foreseeable," he warns, raising the specter of churches that remain mostly empty except on Christmas and Easter.

Steinfels, who is the Beliefs columnist for The New York Times, focuses on the practical dimensions of the faith, arguing that Catholicism cannot succeed as a church if it fails as an institution. The figures he cites invite varying interpretations.

The number of Catholics in the United States has grown from 46.6 million in 1965 to 65.3 million in 2002, representing 23 percent of the population. But they attend church less regularly, with only a third attending Mass every Sunday compared to nearly two-thirds in 1965.

The number of children attending Catholic elementary schools has dropped by more than half at the same time the number enrolled in Catholic universities and colleges has almost doubled.

Vocations have declined precipitously. On the other hand, thousands of deacons and laypeople now do pastoral work, whereas next to none did earlier.

The latest revelations about sexual abuse by priests only accelerated a decline in Catholics' participation and devotion.

Averting disaster requires a systematic approach, according to Steinfels. Like a good business manager, he examines every division and subsidiary of the Catholic enterprise, from hospitals to religious education programs, and proposes remedies.

Even issues that provoke highly emotional responses, such as the church's stand on contraception, affect the structure of the institution. The laity largely rejects the teaching in the 1968 encyclical "Humanae Vitae" that every act of marital intercourse be open to the conception of new life. Some priests, bishops and theologians also oppose the papal teaching or are ambivalent.

The consequences of stifling dissent on this marginal issue, Steinfels writes, have been a smaller pool of priests considered qualified to become bishops; less authority for bishops' conferences; and restraints on theologians who might otherwise be developing approaches to sexual morality that would fill a void for Catholics.

Nowhere does Steinfels display more enthusiasm than in his advocacy that Catholic colleges and universities develop a stronger Catholic identity. Many schools had minimized their religious affiliation in order to compete with their secular counterparts.

Steinfels is not suggesting that baptismal certificates or Mass attendance records be the litmus test for hiring. Instead, he advocates that emphasis be placed on how a job candidate's research or teaching methods relate to the institution's Catholic mission.

For instance, does a cell biologist have an interest in how her research intersects with theology or a teaching style sensitive to her students' potential for service?

Steinfels' criticism of Sunday worship is also heartfelt, and he goes so far as to accuse some clergy of "liturgical malpractice." Catholic priests report spending an average of three hours preparing their homilies, compared to 11 by Protestant ministers.

Steinfels quotes from a liturgical musician's polemic, "Why Catholics Can't Sing," as he deprecates congregations' resistance to full-throated song, which he blames partly on hard-to-sing tunes. The silence or lip-syncing that greets hymns is dispiriting, he says.

Parishes should recognize the opportunity presented by weddings and funerals, which bring back those who have drifted away. "A thoughtful, eloquent liturgy can revive the spark of faith; a sloppy, mechanical liturgy reminds people why they exited in the first place," he writes.

To set the foundation for his arguments, Steinfels reviews the history of the Catholic Church, with special emphasis on debates that have taken place since the Second Vatican Council ended in 1965.

Some interesting anecdotes leaven his narrative. He tells of a security guard who investigated complaints of noise emanating from a hotel room at 3 a.m. during a 1961 meeting of the Catholic Theological Society. The guard broke up a loud argument over whether it's possible to commit a venial sin in purgatory.

But sometimes Steinfels' prose is as dull as a Sunday Mass where the homily sounds thrown together and no one is singing.

More glimpses as to why Catholics should feel a passion for their faith, in spite of doctrinal disagreements with church leaders, would have helped readers traverse long pages of policy analysis. The loss of passion, more than poorly chosen hymns, may explain why Catholics aren't singing.

"The Star-Spangled Banner" is also difficult to master, but in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, few Americans who were publicly called upon to sing it sat silent.

Steinfels' writing is clear and well-researched, and he offers a thoughtful analysis, but he might have served his subject better if he had stirred up more excitement about realizing his vision.

Ruth Hammond is a writer and editor in Pittsburgh.

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