Where They Took a Wrong Turn and Where There's Hope
ROME, 4 NOV. 2002 (ZENIT).
Mary Ann Glendon gave an address today at the Regina Apostolorum
Pontifical Athenaeum on the role and renewal of the Catholic laity.
Glendon, a Harvard law professor, was John Paul II's representative at
the 1995 World Conference on Woman, held in Beijing. The text below was
adapted for ZENIT.
* * *
Ecclesia in America:
Reform, Renewal and the Role of the Laity in a Time of Turbulence
By Mary Ann Glendon
I'm grateful for the opportunity to share with you some reflections on
the current state of the Church in the United States from the
perspective of a layperson who also happens to be a lawyer.
As I am sure you recognize, I have taken the title of this talk, from
the apostolic exhortation issued after the 1997 Synod for America. I had
the privilege of attending that synod, and I can tell you that, although
the discussion ranged over a vast number of topics, no one anticipated
the turmoil that would rock the Church in the United States in 2002. Nor
did anyone foresee the sudden rise of so many lay movements intent on
restructuring (to use their word) the internal life of the Church.
More than once over the past several months I have found myself wishing
that more lay people had read "Ecclesia in America" for
truly it is a document with a powerful message for the laity. Basically,
Pope John Paul II tells us that if the Church is to evangelize the
culture, the laity are the ones who are going to have to take the lead.
The laity are the ones with primary responsibility to bring Christ to
the various sectors of family, social, professional, cultural and
political life because we are the ones who are present in those
sectors. The Holy Father says, "America needs lay Christians able
to assume positions of leadership in society. It is urgent to train men
and women who, in keeping with their vocations, can influence public
life and direct it to the common good."
That's quite a challenge. In a sense, the time has never been better for
Catholics in the United States to take up that challenge. There are
nearly 64 million of us almost a fifth of the U.S. population. And
Catholics have arrived they have gained enormous influence in
social, professional, cultural and political life. One would think that
ought to be enough leaven to raise the social loaf!
But the fact is that the message to the laity in " Ecclesia
in America" like many similar messages over the
years seems to have had difficulty getting through. So, with the
recent upsurge in lay activity, this seems like a good time to ponder
what has happened to the way North American Catholics understand the lay
As I was puzzling over that problem, I was reminded of an unusual novel
from another part of the American Hemisphere. Mario Vargas Llosa's book,
"The Storyteller," is about the fate of a nomadic tribe of
rainforest-dwellers who are confronted with modernity. The tribe is
known to outsiders as the Machiguengas, but they call themselves the
people-who-walk. The stories and traditions of the people-who-walk have
been handed down for centuries by "habladors"
storytellers. These stories helped the tribe to maintain its identity
to keep on walking, no matter what through many changes and
But as the rainforest gave way to agriculture and industry, the
Machiguengas were forced into towns and cities. What kept them bound
together in their scattered state were their traveling storytellers
who went from town to town keeping the Machiguengas in touch with each
other and their ancestors. But now anthropologists say that the
storytellers have died out, and their stories survive only as charming
folk tales. The narrator, however, suspects otherwise, and the drama of
the novel comes from his effort to find out whether it is really true
that a mysterious red-haired stranger has become the "hablador"
of the Machiguengas so that they will not lose their stories and their
sense of who they are.
Now I want to make two suggestions about the relevance of that story to
the Church in the United States. First, I ask you to consider that about
50 years ago, American Catholics and their storytellers entered a
situation that was every bit as much of a diaspora as that of the
Machiguengas after their habitat was destroyed.
Secondly, I'd like to suggest that the problem of how a dispersed people
remembers who it is and what constitutes it as a people lies at the
heart of the challenges confronting the ecclesia in America. (Ecclesia,
as you know, means, at its root, a people called together.) We Catholics
are constituted as a people by the story of the world's salvation, and
part of that story is that we are called to witness and to keep on
witnessing no matter what, in and out of season.
To explain what I mean about the diaspora situation and to provide a
historical context for my discussion of the events of 2002 I'm going
to take a few minutes to remind you of how things were for most of our
ancestors before Catholics became so comfortable in the United States as
they are today.
We often hear that the United States was founded by people seeking
religious freedom. But that's not quite true. The dissenting Protestant
settlers were interested in religious freedom for themselves, but they
viciously persecuted those who disagreed with them.
Indeed, when the Reverend Cotton Mather wrote out for posterity the
reasons why the Pilgrims founded the New England colony, the first one
he listed was this: to carry the Gospel into those parts of the world,
and to raise a bulwark against the kingdom of Antichrist, which the
Jesuits labor to rear up in all parts of the world.
From the very beginning, the first Catholic settlers found themselves
strangers in a strange land. At the time of the Founding, several states
even had established Protestant churches (the First Amendment was
originally thought only to ban the establishment of a national church).
Congregationalism, for example, was the official religion of
Massachusetts until 1833. Now when Catholic immigrants began arriving in
great numbers, that Puritan anti-Catholicism fused with nativism and
erupted into violence. In 1834, an angry mob in Boston burned an
Ursuline convent to the ground while police and firemen stood by and
The national best seller in 1836 was a book purporting to be the
true-life confessions of an ex-nun it contained sensational
revelations of sexual misconduct by Catholic nuns and priests. This
book, "The Awful Disclosures of the Hotel Dieu Nunnery by Maria
Monk," was a complete fabrication, but it sold 300,000 copies and
helped to inflame anti-Catholic passions. The following year, 1837,
arsonists destroyed most of Boston's Irish quarter, and similar
atrocities were repeated across the country.
But the immigrants kept pouring in from Ireland, Italy, Germany,
Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe. And by the turn of the
century, the Roman Catholic Church was the country's largest and fastest
growing religious group, with 12 million adherents.
Faced with exclusion and discrimination, those immigrant Catholics
adopted a strategy of building a kind of parallel universe. They built
their own separate set of primary and high schools, hospitals and
colleges. They formed countless fraternal, social, charitable and
professional organizations Catholic lawyers, Catholic doctors,
Catholic labor guilds. In historian Charles Morris' words, they
constructed a virtual state-within-a-state so that many Catholics could
live almost their entire lives within a thick cocoon of Catholic
And they became masters of politics at the state and local levels.
But when the Catholic governor of New York, Al Smith, ran for president
in 1928, virulent anti-Catholicism broke out again. His resounding
defeat reinforced the Catholic sense of separateness. Interestingly,
however, that period when Catholics were most separate was the
time when they were most active and effective as Catholics in
the spheres they inhabited.
It was Catholic trade unionists who were instrumental in curbing
Communist influence in the labor movement, and it was Catholics who made
the Democratic Party in the urban North into the party of the
neighborhood, the family and working people.
Those years the 1930s, '40s and '50s were also a time when the
people-called-together were blessed with an abundance of storytellers.
In parochial schools, in their neighborhoods and parishes, and around
their kitchen tables, Catholics were constantly reminded of who they
were, where they came from, and what their mission was in the world.
But as St. Paul told the Corinthians, the world as we know it is always
passing away. And as Catholics climbed up the economic and social
ladder, they left the old neighborhoods for the suburbs. Parents began
sending their children to public schools and to non-Catholic colleges.
Geographic and social mobility shrank Catholic communities of memory and
mutual aid as relentlessly as agriculture and industry pushed back the
rainforest of the Machiguengas. By the 1960s, the nation-within-a-nation
had dissolved, and the people-called-together were embarked on what
Morris describes in his history as "the dangerous project of
severing the connection between their Catholic religion and the
separatist culture that had always been the source of its dynamism, its
appeal and its power."
That transition was symbolized by the election to the presidency of a
highly assimilated Catholic, John F. Kennedy, who swore he would not let
his faith affect his public service, and who outdid many Protestants in
the vigor of his denunciation of public aid to parochial schools. The
lesson of the 1960 election to ambitious sons and daughters of
immigrants was that all doors could be open to them so long as they were
not too Catholic.
That's how it looks with hindsight. But as one of those who voted for
JFK in 1960, I can assure you that it did not occur to most of us at the
time that we were involved in a dangerous project. We just thought it
was great that the nation had elected a Catholic president.
But the Church's leaders were thinking about the challenges that she
would face in the modern, increasingly secular, world. It was just two
years after Kennedy became president that the Second Vatican Council was
convened. The council fathers, as you know, sent strongly worded
messages to lay men and women, reminding us of our baptismal vocation to
evangelization, and that wherever we find ourselves, we must strive to
consecrate the world itself to God.
But events were already under way in the United States and other
affluent countries that made it hard for those messages to get through:
The 1960s marked the beginning of a breakdown in sexual mores and a rise
in family disruption, accompanied by a culture of dissent as many tried
to rationalize their departures from moral norms. The developed nations
were engaged in a massive social experiment, for which neither the
Church nor the societies in question were prepared.
But of course we didn't see it that way back then. So much of what was
happening was linked to genuine progress discrimination against
African-Americans and women was coming to an end, and things were
getting better for Catholics, materially speaking, in those days. We
hardly noticed that many of us Catholics were developing a kind of
schizophrenia putting our spiritual lives in one compartment and our
daily activities in the world of work in another. We hardly noticed how
many Catholics were beginning to treat their religion as an entirely
private matter, and to adopt a pick-and-choose approach to doctrine.
Sad to say, many of our "habladors" theologians, religious
educators and clergy succumbed to the same temptations. In that
context, it was not only hard for the strong demands of Vatican II to be
heard; the messages that did get through were often scrambled. In an
important sense, all the most divisive controversies of the post-conciliar
years have been about how far Catholics can go in adapting to American
culture while remaining Catholic.
Meanwhile, Protestant culture was changing too. Liberal mainstream
Protestantism was becoming more secular, but certain cultural elements
of Protestantism remained as strong or stronger than ever: radical
individualism; intolerance for dissent redirected toward dissent
from the secular dogmas that have replaced Christianity in the belief
systems of many; and of course an abiding hostility to Catholicism (now
seen less as the Antichrist, and more as the most powerful voice in
opposition to abortion, aggressive population control, and to draconian
measures against migrants and the poor).
For the upwardly mobile Catholic, assimilation into that culture thus
meant turning a blind eye to anti-Catholicism to a degree that most of
us have not yet fully recognized or admitted. Father Andrew Greeley,
with his sociologist's hat on, found in the 1970s that "Of all the
minority groups in this country, Catholics are the least conscious of
the persistent and systematic discrimination against them in the upper
reaches of the corporate and intellectual worlds."
Father Greeley was right. I regret to say that I can cite my own case in
point. In the 1970s, when I was teaching at Boston College Law School,
someone took down all the crucifixes from the walls one summer. Though
the majority of the faculty at that time was Catholic, not one of us
entered a protest. When I told my husband, who is Jewish but very
pro-Catholic, he was astonished. He said, "What's the matter with
you Catholics? There would be an uproar if anyone did something like
that at a Jewish school. Why do Catholics put up with that kind of
That was a kind of turning point for me. I began to wonder: Why do we
Catholics put up with that sort of thing? Why did we get so careless
about the faith for which our ancestors made so many sacrifices?
In many cases, the answer, no doubt, lies simply in the desire to be
accepted. But for most Catholics of the American diaspora, I believe the
problem is deeper: the people-called-together seem to be finding it
increasingly hard to say what they believe and why they believe it. They
seem to be losing their sense of who they are and what they are called
And they seem to have lost a lot of mail as well. At least, it's hard to
figure out what happened to all those letters that have been sent from
Rome to the lay faithful over the years; letters imploring us to be more
active as Catholics in society; letters insisting that lay people are
supposed to take the lead in transforming the culture. It's no wonder
that John Paul II so often refers to the laity as a sleeping giant.
This brings me to the events of 2002. The giant must have been sleeping
the deep sleep of an adolescent, but now that he is stirring, it's
beginning to look as though he has the faith IQ of a pre-adolescent.
Meanwhile, there are plenty of people who are only too eager to harness
the giant's strength to their own agendas.
In recent months, we have heard many voices purporting to speak for the
laity voices calling for structural reform, for lay empowerment, and
for more lay participation in the Church's internal decision-making. Dr.
Scott Appleby, for example, told the American bishops in Dallas that the
future of the Church in this country depends on your sharing authority
with the laity. We have also heard much talk about the need for a more
independent, more American, Catholic Church. Let Rome be Rome, said Dr.
Then there is Governor Frank Keating, the head of the bishops' National
Review Board, who with a remarkable lack of prudence proclaimed at his
first press conference that Martin Luther was right about the role of
the laity! And in my own city, Boston, a group calling itself Voice of
the Faithful states as its mission: to seek ways through which the
faithful can actively participate in the governance and guidance of the
Catholic Church. One leader of that group boasted to the press that his
organization, essentially composed of middle-aged Boston suburbanites,
speaks for all 64 million Catholics in the United States.
Now I need to say that it is understandable that many well-intentioned
lay persons have been drawn into these movements. Many Catholics are
deeply concerned about recent revelations of clerical sexual abuse; they
want to do something about it, and they are grasping the slogans that
are in the air.
But slogans about structural reform and power sharing did not come from
nowhere. They are the catchwords of what I call the generation of failed
theories theories about politics, economics and human sexuality that
can now be seen to have taken a terrible human toll wherever they were
put into practice. The die-hards who still cling to those ideas have
seized on the crisis of 2002 as their last opportunity to transform
American Catholicism into something more compatible with the spirit of
the age of their youth.
Though these people often invoke Vatican II, there is nary a sign, so
far as I can see, that they have a sense of the lay vocation as outlined
in the documents of Vatican II. I contrast those omissions with a speech
by the late Cardinal Basil Hume hardly a reactionary in Church
matters to the reform-minded Common Ground Initiative.
Warning that group against the danger of concentrating too much on the
life within the Church, Cardinal Hume said, "I suspect that it is a
trick of the devil to divert good people from the task of evangelization
by embroiling them in endless controversial issues to the neglect of the
Church's essential role, which is mission."
By leaving mission out of the picture, many lay spokespersons are
promoting some pretty basic misunderstandings: that the best way for the
laity to be active is in terms of ecclesial governance; that the Church
and her structures are to be equated with public agencies or private
corporations; that she and her ministers are to be regarded with
mistrust; and that she stands in need of supervision by secular
reformers. (Such attitudes are going to make it very difficult for the
Church to move forward through the present crisis without compromising
either her teachings or her constitutionally protected freedom to carry
out her mission.)
Now, one would think that before one can prescribe remedies for a
problem, one must have a clear idea of what the problem is. Here I must
part company with many of my fellow Catholics who have profusely thanked
the media for bringing a serious problem to public attention. I could
not disagree more. The fact that confusion reigns among the laity about
what is to be done is due to the fact that the only narrative available
to them as they struggled to understand what was going on was
supplied by media accounts that were false in several crucial respects,
of which I will name three:
First: For months, the media played the story as though sexual abuse of
minors by Catholic priests was breaking news, something that was
happening right now. Later, they began to dribble out the information
that nearly all the reported cases took place long ago in the 1960s,
'70s and '80s. Was it really news that a tiny minority of Catholic
priests succumbed to the general sexual bacchanalia of those years? Yet,
these old stories of clerical sexual abuse were the second most heavily
reported story of 2002, second only to the war against terrorism.
Second: falsehood. For months, the press created a climate of hysteria
by describing the story as a pedophilia crisis, when in fact only a tiny
minority of the reported cases involved pedophiles abusers of
pre-pubescent children as distinct from homosexual relations with
Third: For months, and to this day, the media has singled out the
Catholic Church as a special locus of sexual abuse of minors, whereas
all the studies indicate that the incidence of these types of misconduct
is actually lower among Catholic priests than among other groups who
have access to young children.
I think you can see why I thought it relevant to recall "The Awful
Disclosures of Maria Monk." The worst offender by far has been the
Boston Globe which ran 250 stories in 100 days many on its front
page creating a climate of hysteria the likes of which has not been
seen in Boston since the Ursuline convent was burnt down.
I often hear it said that the Globe will receive a Pulitzer Prize for
its reporting on this matter. All I can say is that if fairness and
accuracy have anything to do with it, awarding the Pulitzer Prize to the
Boston Globe would be like giving the Nobel Peace Prize to Osama bin
But here is the question: If the crisis of 2002 is not about rampant,
ongoing sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests, what is it about?
For nearly everyone admits that the Ecclesia in America is in some sort
Some say it is a crisis of leadership they point the finger at
bishops who settled these old cases, signed confidentiality agreements,
and sometimes reassigned abusive priests who had been pronounced cured
of their disorders. In these matters, if some bishops relied too heavily
on advice from psychologists and lawyers many years ago, the media today
has relied too uncritically on the contingent-fee lawyers whose main aim
is to extract money from what are perceived to be the deep pockets of
Father Richard Neuhaus' diagnosis of the current problem is closer to
the mark, I believe, when he says that the crisis of 2002 is threefold:
fidelity, fidelity and fidelity. But, perhaps because I'm a teacher, it
seems to me that the problem is not so much fidelity as it is formation,
formation and formation (formation of our theologians, formation of our
religious educators, and thus formation of parents).
Far too many theologians in the United States have emerged from
nondenominational divinity schools with prestigious degrees, but little
grounding in their own tradition. Far too many of our religious
education materials have been authored by, and infused with the
disappointments of, former priests and sisters. And that has left far
too many of us parents poorly equipped to contend with powerful
competitors for the souls of our children the aggressively secular
government schools and an entertainment industry that delights in
debasing everything Catholic.
Can anything good come out of this confusion and turmoil? Even though
I'm from Boston, I believe so. I was heartened to read in the Boston
Globe recently that some members of Voice of the Faithful are forming
study groups to read Church documents. Instead of just invoking the
spirit of Vatican II, they are actually going to read the texts of
Now let's suppose, just suppose, that the members of these lay study
groups will take to heart what they read that they will be moved to
embrace the callings that are theirs in baptism: What an awakening that
would be for the sleeping giant! As the Holy Father likes to tell young
people: "If you are what you should be that is, if you live
Christianity without compromise you will set the world ablaze!"
But as a teacher, I still can't help worrying. How can we live our faith
without compromise, if we don't know our faith? And how many of us lay
people have spent even as much time deepening our knowledge of the faith
as we have on learning to use computers? I confess I can't help wishing
when I read that we are supposed to "put out into the deep,"
that the Holy Father had added a note to the effect that: "Be not
afraid" doesn't mean "Be not prepared."
It seems to me, in other words, that the call to put out into the deep
brings us right back to the problem of formation. When Our Lord told the
apostles to put out into the deep, he didn't expect them to set out in
In a society like ours, if religious education does not come up to the
general level of secular education, our boats are going to start
sinking. We are going to run into trouble defending our beliefs even
to ourselves. We are going to feel helpless when we come up against the
secularism and relativism that are so pervasive in our culture.
It is ironic, given our long and distinguished intellectual tradition,
that so many Catholics feel unable to respond even to the most
simplistic forms of secular fundamentalism. Isn't it supposed to be one
of the glories of our faith that we can give reasons for the moral
positions we hold reasons that are accessible to all men and women
of good will, of other faiths or of no faith? St. Thomas Aquinas thought
so. He wrote: "Instruct those who are listening so that they will
be brought to an understanding of the truth envisaged. ... [R]ely on
arguments which ... make people know how what is said is true;
otherwise, if the Master decides a question simply by using sheer
authorities, the hearer will ... acquire no knowledge or understanding
and will go away empty."
St. Thomas' approach inspired Bartolomeo de las Casas, the Dominican
missionary who denounced slavery and proclaimed the full humanity of
aboriginal peoples in the 16th century, without direct reliance on
Revelation. And Princeton's Robert George does the same today, in his
philosophical defense of human life from conception to natural death.
Recently, Dr. John Haas, the president of the National Catholic
Bioethics Center, met with a scientist who had cloned a human embryo. In
the course of that meeting, the scientist said he had been raised an
evangelical Protestant, but that at a certain point, he had to make a
choice between religion and science. Dr. Haas' response was, "But
you didn't have to choose," and, like the good evangelist that he
is, he began to explain. A meeting that was supposed to last 30 minutes
went on for hours.
Pope John Paul II urges us to emulate such examples when he says in
"Novo Millennio Ineunte": "For Christian witness to be
effective, especially in ... delicate and controversial areas, it is
important that special effort be made to explain properly the reasons
for the Church's position, stressing that this is not a case of imposing
on nonbelievers a vision based on faith, but of interpreting and
defending the values rooted in the very nature of the human
The only point I wish to make here is that we urgently need to renew the
intellectual apostolate. The importance of that task has been brought
home to me very concretely in the course of serving over the past year
on the National Bioethics Council. Over the past several months in
discussions of cloning, stem-cell research and genetic engineering
I've seen not only how necessary it is for theologians and philosophers
to keep up with advances in natural science, but also how much the
natural sciences need the human sciences for natural science on its
own simply cannot generate the wisdom it needs in order to progress
without doing harm.
Now you might be wondering why, in spite of all these challenges and
problems, I remain convinced that we may be moving into a season of
authentic reform and renewal. One thing that I find helpful is to think
of evangelization as, to a great extent, a matter of shifting
probabilities. From that point of view, there are a number of
developments under way that seem to me to be shifting the probabilities
in a better direction.
One is the upsurge around the world of lay associations, formation
programs and ecclesial movements that think and feel with the Church. In
this age of great geographical mobility in what I have called the
Catholic diaspora the lay organizations supply many of the needs for
formation and fellowship that were once met by parishes. They keep the
people-called-together in touch with one another and with their
One of the joys I have experienced in serving on the Pontifical Council
for the Laity has been to become more aware of these groups and of the
variety of their charisms. What a contrast between these vibrant groups
that work in harmony with the Church and the lay organizations of 2002
that define their aims in terms of power!
Another potential source of renewal for the Church in the United States
is represented by the influx of Catholics from Central and South America
and the Caribbean. They bring with them something precious from Catholic
cultures, a more integrated way of looking at the human person and
For example, in the spring of 2002, while members of Voice of the
Faithful were debating about Church finances and governance, Boston's
Latino Catholics were holding prayer vigils to affirm the solidarity of
all the members of the mystical body of Christ men and women, rich
and poor, clergy and laity, and, yes, victims and abusers.
And perhaps the most promising sign of all is the ever-expanding
generation of unapologetically Catholic young people who have been
inspired by the heroic vision of John Paul II. Some of these young
people, please God, will be called to religious life. Others will
embrace their lay vocations with enthusiasm. Together priests, laity
and consecrated they may indeed "set the world ablaze."
Finally, one of the great blessings of having a papacy and a magisterium
is that they help to assure that the story of the people called together
will be preserved, even in the most trying times.
Now I am nearing the end of these remarks, and some of you may be
curious to know what finally happened to the dispersed Machiguengas. In
Vargas Llosa's tale, an outsider comes to live among them, a man who
loves the people-who-walk and their stories so much that he becomes
their "hablador." He travels from family to family, bringing
news from one place to the next, "reminding each member of the
tribe that the others are alive, that despite the great distances that
separate them, they still form a community, share a tradition and
beliefs, ancestors, misfortunes and joys." ZE02110423