Smile, When You Say `Laity'

By McCarraher, Eugene | Commonweal, September 12, 1997 | Go to article overview

Smile, When You Say `Laity'

McCarraher, Eugene, Commonweal

The hidden triumph of the consumer ethos

We already run the church." Reacting to Charles Morris's question on women's ordination, Joan Peters of Saint Cecilia Parish in Houston could have been speaking about the American Catholic laity (see, Commonweal, "A Tale of Two Dioceses," June 6,1997). Though the reality and depth of the laity's victory may be obscured in certain ways, I want to argue in this essay that the laity have emerged triumphant in the course of a velvet revolution in U.S. Catholicism. Without the usual manifestoes and vehicles--the expropriation of the means of salvation and declarations of principles, grievances, and announcements of a new era--this lay revolution has now overcome or marginalized most pockets of resistance to its victory. Unlike other successes that have many parents, this one is an orphan. Liberals, fearful that a gray, frosty Thermidor threatens the tender plants given life by the spirit of Vatican II, do not recognize how successful their efforts have been. Conservatives, whose pandemonial scenarios reflect at least a sense that something monumental has occurred, do not see how they themselves have fostered this lay revolution, indeed, represent one of its most powerful elements. Yet unless we recognize and come to grips with this revolution, we are in danger of misunderstanding and misconceiving the challenges facing the U.S. Catholic church in the twenty-first century.

The most open and yet best-kept secret of the revolution has been the identity of its partisans. U.S. Catholics of the professional and managerial classes have been in the vanguard of the American aggiornamento and they now set the tone for much of the Catholic church in the United States. Their participation in the national culture of expertise, consumption, and therapeutic spirituality marks the triumph of a new American Catholic religious culture: a Starbucks Catholicism embodied in a Church Mellow.

This "lay" revolution has been a century in the making. The first wave of insurgency arose around the turn of this century (at the same time, not coincidentally, as the Populist and Progressive movements), as several lay congresses met to encourage among laity and clergy a greater "confidence in the intelligence and motives of laymen," in the words of Henry Brownson (1835-1913). These congresses (including Negro Catholic congresses, which augured a racial liberalism that was to be a defining feature of the lay movements) paralleled the crises of "Americanism" and "Modernism." Together, these episodes constituted both an imbroglio over the place of the laity in the American church and a harbinger of the laity's future class-character. Isaac Hecker (1819-88) wrote in The Church and the Age (1887) of his hope that Catholicism would prove "compatible with a high degree of liberty and intelligence." This, coupled with the declaration of Modernist cleric William Sullivan (1872-1935) that Modernism bore the religious fruit of "the American spirit in the political and social order," marked the clearest challenge to clerical hegemony since the lay trustee controversy at the beginning of the nineteenth century. But where lay trustees had appealed mainly to republican ideals of self-government and constitutional democracy, Americanist appeals to "intelligence," as well as Modernist praise for "disinterested scientific inquiry," pointed to the nascent culture of corporate professionalism and its ideals of expertise and service. When Bishop John Ireland (1838-1918) complained that "there is, on the part of Catholic laymen, too much dependence on priests" and enjoined Catholics to lead "wherever intelligence is at work"--"in literature, in scientific inquiry, in the management of large enterprises"--he prophesied the ascendancy of the professional-managerial bloc in American Catholicism.

While Vatican condemnations of Americanism and Modernism at the beginning of the twentieth century temporarily aborted this movement, they did not prevent the development of a clerical cohort of social-service professionals--Monsignor John A. …

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