Catholic Matters

Confusion, Controversy, and the Splendor of Truth


By Richard John Neuhaus

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In Catholic Matters, Father Neuhaus addresses the many controversies that have marked recent decades of American Catholicism. Looking beyond these troubles to “the splendor of truth” that constitutes the Church, he proposes a forward-thinking way of being Catholic in America. Drawing on his personal encounters with the late John Paul II and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, Neuhaus describes their hope for a springtime of world evangelization, Christian unity, and Catholic renewal. Catholic Matters reveals a vibrant Church, strengthened and unified by hardship and on the cusp of a great revival in spiritual vitality and an even greater contribution to our common life.


Praise for Catholic Matters

“A new book from Fr. Richard John Neuhaus is always cause for celebration, and Catholic Matters: Confusion, Controversy, and the Splendor of Truth doesn’t disappoint. He is not just a fine theologian but a thoroughly engaging writer, with an eye for the charming anecdote . . . To read Neuhaus is both to meet old friends and to be continually surprised.”

The National Review

“Neuhaus’s new book . . . gives us a detailed and up-to-date account of the kind of Catholicism . . . which he aims to inject into the heart of American public life.”

The New Republic

“This finely written book offers a refreshing analysis of an emerging Catholic identity in the United States. It does not skirt the contemporary scandals that embroil bishops and local congregations but adroitly transforms these thorny issues with liberating words of truth. With the mind of a theologian and the heart of a pastor, Neuhaus authors a clear commentary on American Catholic self-understanding in the early 21st century. . . . [Catholic Matters] is realistic, courageous, and hopeful as it describes a new generation of faithful Catholics reawakened by clerics like Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI.”

Library Journal

“Richard John Neuhaus is the most underrated writer in America. . . . Neuhaus writes with the kind of graceful prose that one associates with Hemingway or the essays of Aldous Huxley or Lionel Trilling. Yes, the man is first and foremost—according to him anyway—a priest. But as his terrific new book, Catholic Matters, shows, Neuhaus knows how to put pen to paper. Whether Catholic or not, it’s the kind of book one reads in one gulp, buoyed by tight, graceful sentences that one thought became extinct with the death of Orwell or Chesterton.”

The American Spectator

“There is a lot of meat in this relatively brief book, but Neuhaus’s careful service of it makes it as palatable as it is rich.”


“Readers acquainted with Neuhaus’s previous books and his work with the magazine First Things will be most interested in this latest tome on the state of the Catholic Church . . . Neuhaus devotees and others interested in the issues he raises will find here a thoughtful exposition of Catholicism’s present moment.”

Publishers Weekly

“This is the story of how one priest discovered the way of grace and glory that is being Catholic. Writing with eloquence, deep intelligence and wit, Father Neuhaus guides us past all the confusion and controversy and lets the splendor of truth shine through. If you’re a serious Catholic, if you want to be a serious Catholic, if you want to know what it means to be a serious Catholic, read this book.”

—Peggy Noonan, author of John Paul the Great

Catholic Matters

Also by Richard John Neuhaus

Appointment in Rome: The Church in America Awakening

America Against Itself: Moral Vision and the Public Order

Doing Well and Doing Good: The Challenge
to the Christian Capitalist

The Naked Public Square

Dispensations: The Future of South Africa
as South Africans See It

The Catholic Moment: The Paradox of the
Church in the Postmodern World

Freedom for Ministry

Christian Faith and Public Policy: Thinking and
Acting in the Courage of Uncertainty

Time Toward Home: The American Experiment as Revelation

Death on a Friday Afternoon: Meditations on the
Last Words of Jesus from the Cross

As I Lay Dying: Meditations Upon Returning

Catholic Matters

Confusion, Controversy, and the Splendor of Truth

Richard John Neuhaus

Avery Cardinal Dulles
   friend and mentor

The Church We Mean When We Say “Church”

During those never-to-be-forgotten days of April 2005, I kept a “Rome Diary.” The significance of what happened there and then weaves in and out of all the reflections that follow. I flew into Rome’s Fiumicino Airport two days after the death of John Paul the Great, accompanied by an ABC network filmmaker who was making a documentary and had been following me about for several days. She had arranged for a car and dropped me off at the Hotel Michelangelo, adjacent to St. Peter’s, where I would be staying for a little more than two weeks. Later that day I wrote the first installment of the Rome Diary:

Thousands upon thousands, an endless flow of humanity down the long nave of St. Peter’s. They have come to see him for the last time. For all the crowds, the place is strangely quiet. A Roman friend with connections got me into the space reserved for dignitaries. There, on the catafalque only a few feet away, was what remained. Kneeling at the prie-dieu, I had only a few minutes, certainly no more than ten, to think what I wanted to think and pray what I wanted to pray in this moment I had so long anticipated and so irrationally hoped would never come. Odd thoughts came to mind. His back was straight again, after all those years of being so pitiably hunched and trembling from the Parkinson’s disease. He seemed much smaller. Perhaps not much could have been done by those who had prepared the body. He was emaciated, beaten, and bruised. The purple spots on the hands revealed the efforts, toward the very end, to find one more vein for the intravenous feeding tube. Lying there before the altar, under Bernini’s massive bal-dachino, his head was tilted just slightly toward the right. Looking north, I thought—toward Poland.

He has fought the good fight, he has kept the faith. Well done, good and faithful servant. These and other passages came unbidden. Through my tears, I tried to see again the years of his vitality, his charm, his challenge, his triumphs; the historic moments when I admired him from a distance; and the personal encounters when I was surprised by the gift of an older brother who was the Holy Father.

I envisioned him again on October 22, 1978, in his first homily as pope, admonishing and encouraging humanity to be not afraid. I saw him in Central Park, hand on cheek in a Jack Benny gesture, mischievously complimenting the crowd’s appreciation of his singing a Polish Christmas song. “And you don’t even know Polish,” he said. I mentioned this when I had dinner with him months later and had to explain who Jack Benny was. In such conversations we discussed Nietzsche and Schopenhauer and the ideas that had shaped and misshaped the century, and whether the end of history was at hand. (He thought not.)

Kneeling there, I smiled through my tears. Then the time came to leave. Cardinals, bishops, heads of state, and others were waiting their turn. And all the thoughts I wanted to think and all the prayers I wanted to pray were distilled in a half-sobbed, half-whispered, “Thank you, Holy Father.”

Walking out of the basilica into the sunlight, a shaken friend said, “That wasn’t him, he isn’t there.” No, I said, he is there. These are the remains, what is left behind of a life such as we are not likely to see again, awaiting with all of us the resurrection of the dead, the final vindication of the hope that his life, and his death, so powerfully proclaimed.

I will return to the Rome Diary in due course. But now we step back to see that very Catholic moment in Rome within the context of the Church in America, a context marked by confusion, controversy, and the splendor of truth. It is also a context in which being Catholic is more and more viewed as a choice, perhaps a personal preference, and not as something that really matters, and maybe matters ultimately.

Americans are notorious church-hoppers. Methodist, Lutheran, Episcopalian, Baptist, Presbyterian—it doesn’t seem to make much difference to millions of American Christians. Some would say there is nothing “notorious” about that at all. Don’t we pride ourselves on being a free-market society in which consumer choice is king? Why shouldn’t there be a free market also in religion—or, as it is said today, in “spiritual preferences”? Church-hopping is simply church-shopping in search of a “spirituality that meets my needs.” There was a time not long ago when denominational identity was much more than a matter of individual preference: “I come from a long line of Presbyterians,” one heard it said. (Or Lutherans, or Episcopalians, or Baptists, or whatever.) Back then, it was not unusual for people to tell you why their church was right and others were wrong about issues such as infant baptism, or the Real Presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper, or about God’s predestination of the saved and the damned.

That time is passing, if it has not already passed. Talk about right and wrong or true and false is out. Talk about what “meets my needs” is in. With the admittedly partial, although still notable, exception of people who are becoming Catholic. Switch from Presbyterian to Methodist, or start attending the evangelical “megachurch” in the neighboring exurb, and you will raise few eyebrows. People who move from one denomination to another, or from the denominational to the “nondenominational” (which is one of the biggest denominations), are exercising preferences that are, so to speak, all in the religious family. Announce that you’re taking instruction to become a Catholic, however, and it is likely to prompt sharp questions. Not necessarily hostile questions, mind you, but questions of intense curiosity. Why would you want to join “them”? Catholics in America have always been the religious and, to a significant extent, cultural “other.” In our exploring of why this should be, it may be helpful to take a short side road to get a better view of the religious and cultural landscape in which, to so many Americans, Catholics still seem so very, well, so very different. As we shall see, the side road leads back to our title subject soon enough.

Researchers who study denominational “adhesion power” say that the mainline Protestant churches are hemorrhaging members for many reasons. The mainline churches—for instance, United Methodist, Presbyterian (USA), United Church of Christ, Disciples of Christ, Episcopal, and now the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA)—are today often called the oldline churches. Less kindly, they are called the “sideline churches.” They once constituted the Protestant Establishment that, up to the 1950s, seemed to dominate American religion and culture so securely. Their precipitous decline in numbers and influence is often attributed to the sharp left turn their leaderships took on moral and political issues back in the 1960s. That is no doubt part of the story. Another part is the challenge posed by the resurgence of evangelical Protestants in recent decades.

Evangelicalism has a long and fascinating history. Put briefly, in the nineteenth century almost all Protestants in the United States called themselves evangelicals. Then, beginning in the 1910s and culminating in the 1920s, there was the great battle between “modernists” and “fundamentalists.” Those who came to be called fundamentalists were reacting to what they perceived to be the growing theological liberalism in the oldline churches. Against the liberals, they insisted on five “fundamentals” of Christian faith: the God-inspired inerrancy of the Bible; the virgin birth and deity of Christ; the doctrine that he died on the cross in our place (substitutionary atonement); the bodily resurrection of Jesus; and his second coming to judge the living and the dead. Such beliefs were hardly novel in Christian thought. Although formulated in different ways, they were held by Christians going back to the apostolic era of the first and early second centuries. The influence of eighteenth century Enlightenment thought, however, had by the early twentieth century led many theologians and church leaders to conclude that such beliefs were not compatible with the “modern mind” and had to be abandoned or substantively modified.

Today, people think of fundamentalism as a Southern and rustic affair (when, that is, the term is not being misleadingly applied to Muslim terrorists and others who are “dangerously fervent” about religion). In fact, fundamentalism began with a series of monographs called “The Fundamentals” written between 1910 and 1915 by distinguished scholars at major universities in Germany, Scotland, and England. Their concern was the erosion of Christian doctrine by certain forms of “biblical criticism.” Sir Robert Anderson, author of Christ and Criticism and a Knight Commander of the Bath (KCB) does not fit the popular idea of a fundamentalist. Nonetheless, in the 1920s, H. L. Mencken and others derided fundamentalists as “yokels,” “rustic ignoramuses,” and “anthropoid rabble,” among other choice epithets, and that is the stereotype that stuck. Thus the battle between “modernists” and “fundamentalists.” The fundamentalists fought fiercely for the control of the oldline churches, and they lost.

The consequences reached far beyond the churches. Today, we hear much about the “culture war” being waged in American society. That conflict has many of its roots in the modernist-fundamentalist clash of the 1920s. Stereotypes of fundamentalism were indelibly imprinted upon the American mind by the Scopes trial, often called “the monkey trial,” of 1925 in Dayton, Tennessee. The stereotypes were imprinted not so much by the trial itself but by the brilliantly caustic reporting of the trial by H. L. Mencken and by the 1955 Broadway play, later made into a popular movie, Inherit the Wind. The play has been produced thousands of times by colleges and high schools, and most Americans are familiar with the picture of the sweating, bumbling, Bible-thumping William Jennings Bryan, a former secretary of state and four-time presidential candidate, vainly trying to defend the book of Genesis against Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Opposing Bryan is the brilliantly enlightened Clarence Darrow, who makes mincemeat of Bryan’s primitive dogmatism. Not at all incidentally, Inherit the Wind was first staged against the background of “McCarthyism,” that is, Senator Joe McCarthy’s reckless campaign against Communists and their sympathizers. Thus, for half a century, fundamentalism has been inseparably associated with Mc- Carthyism and related outbursts of bigotry, intolerance, and abysmal ignorance.

As many scholars have pointed out, Inherit the Wind and similar portrayals of the modernist-fundamentalist controversy are more propaganda than history.1 But there is no doubt that the fundamentalists lost in their challenge to the leadership of the oldline churches. As the story is sometimes told, they slunk away from Dayton, Tennessee, defeated, demoralized, and resigned to perpetual isolation in the backwoods of American culture, never to be heard of again. In fact, millions of Americans, forced to choose between Bryan’s unvarnished religion and Darrow’s highly varnished agnosticism (if not atheism), had no doubt that they were on Bryan’s side. While those who controlled the commanding heights of culture were not looking, fundamentalists spent decades rebuilding their morale and institutions until, toward the end of World War II, they were confident enough to reappear in public, now calling themselves not fundamentalists but “neo-evangelicals.” In fairly short order, the “neo” was dropped and America was faced with the maddeningly diverse and rapidly growing network of churches, “parachurch” movements, and entrepreneurial spiritual empires called evangelical Protestantism or, with increasing frequency, just evangelicalism. Many of them prefer to be identified simply as “Christian.”2

Among academic students of religion, trying to answer the question of who is and who is not an evangelical is a cottage industry. All agree on at least three defining characteristics: Evangelicals have a strong view of the inspiration and authority of Scripture, a specifiable experience of being born again, and a commitment to reaching those who do not know Jesus Christ as their “personal Lord and Savior.” By these measures, about a third of Americans are evangelicals. Admittedly, the counting gets a bit tricky because many in the oldline denominations, and even many Catholics, pass that three-fold test. Nonetheless, it is fair to say that Christianity in America is divided into three roughly equal parts: evangelical, mainline/oldline, and Catholic. There are a few million Eastern Orthodox Christians, and evangelicalism itself is composed of fairly distinct parts, such as pentecostalism, holiness churches, anabaptist, and Calvinist (usually called “Reformed”), but the three-part picture of evangelical, oldline, and Catholic will serve our purposes. (I leave aside for the moment whether the 5 million Mormons in America should be counted, as they adamantly insist they should be, as part of the Christian community.)

Although some depict the oldline churches as spiraling into the sideline and, beyond the sideline, into oblivion, we should not forget that millions of Americans attend spiritually vibrant local churches that are associated with oldline denominations. To the extent that the oldline churches such as the Presbyterian or Methodist or Episcopal get into the news, it is usually because their national leaderships are ordaining homosexual bishops, or calling for divestment from Israel, or advocating reparations for African Americans, or promoting something else that seems pretty odd to most Americans. But at the local level—at First Methodist or St. Andrew’s Presbyterian around the corner—one frequently finds vibrant Christian communities blithely indifferent to the politicized excitements of national leadership. They go about their business doing what Christians do; they pray, praise, preach, study the Bible, baptize, observe the Lord’s Supper, and try to love their neighbors. The institutional decline of the mainline/oldline, which is indeed impressive in scope and rapidity, should not blind us to the vitality of Christian faith and life in innumerable local churches. Yet the truth is that the “adhesion power” of oldline denominations is withering to the point of disappearance. The Presbyterian tradition, never mind distinctively Presbyterian convictions, has not been transmitted to successor generations and seems not to matter to Presbyterians when they move into a new suburb and join a friendly Lutheran church. What is true of the Presbyterians is true of almost all oldline denominations.3

With Catholics, the situation is different. “Once a Catholic, always a Catholic” it is said, and for the most part that is true. Yes, there are a lot of lapsed Catholics, but that doesn’t get in the way of their insisting that they are Catholics. There is something in the Catholic ethos that is very accommodating of human frailties. Having Ulster Protestants in mind, G. K. Chesterton observed that a Protestant typically says he is a good Protestant whereas a Catholic typically says he is a bad Catholic. But also a good many call themselves former Catholics or ex-Catholics, and thousands of them can be found in the evangelical megachurches throughout the country. For the most part, however, whether or not they’ve attended Mass for years or believe what the Church teaches, Catholics claim they are Catholics. Lapsed Catholic is, in this view, simply another way of being Catholic. Some say that such people are nominal Catholics, but that isn’t quite right. “Nominal” has to do with names, as in “denominational,” and Catholics do not think of the Church as a denomination. The Jewish comic Lenny Bruce once observed, “The Catholic Church is the church we mean when we say ‘church.’” Certainly it is the church that Catholics mean when they say “church.” Catholic is a communal and sacramental given, not a choice. In sociological jargon, it is an ascribed and not an elected identity. You cannot get away from it; at least not easily, and maybe not at all.

Of course, I am speaking mainly about those who are called “cradle Catholics.” Converts are a different matter. Those who later in life are received into full communion with the Catholic Church often bridle at being called converts. When I was a Lutheran, evangelical Protestant friends would ask me when I was converted or born again; I answered that although I didn’t personally remember it, I knew the exact time and place: when I was two weeks old at the baptismal font of St. John’s Lutheran Church in Pembroke, Ontario. (More precisely, I’m told that I was baptized by my pastor father in the kitchen of the parsonage because my siblings had chicken pox and we were quarantined.) Better-informed Catholics well know that conversion is a life-long process of living out the grace received in baptism, yet the distinction between “converts” and “cradle Catholics” is deeply entrenched. Father (later Cardinal) Avery Dulles was one of my sponsors when I was received into full communion by the then archbishop of New York, John O’Connor. Dulles had been a nominal Presbyterian when, as a young man, he had been received some forty years earlier. “Get used to it,” he told me, “no matter how long you live, to Catholics you will always be a convert priest.” Not that I’m complaining, mind you.

A couple of years ago, Cardinal Dulles published a fine little introduction to Catholicism, The New World of Faith. A friend who is a cradle Catholic tells me he was not much taken with the book, and didn’t quite know why. Then it struck him that Dulles, as an adult convert, treats Catholicism as a discovery; but for my friend the Church is the inherited and taken-for-granted reality. The Church is not the journey ahead but the place from which one begins. Moreover, Dulles writes about Catholicism as a “magnificent artifact” to be cherished and defended, whereas for my friend being Catholic is mainly a matter of, as he puts it, “negotiating an accommodation with the larger culture.”

For Dulles, by way of contrast, that “larger culture” is the inherited and taken-for-granted reality; Catholicism is the new and challenging thing. The pastor of a neighboring parish tells me that he would not want a priest on his staff who does not read the New York Times every day. He said nothing about whether the priest should pray his office, the Liturgy of Hours, every day, or be familiar with the encyclicals and other teaching initiatives of the popes. Clearly, the pastor is in the mode of negotiating with the larger culture. It is not simply that one comment: The pattern of his conversation and life reflects a goal of rising above The Catholic Thing. The Catholic Thing is the problematic past, not the challenging future.


On Sale
Mar 9, 2007
Page Count
272 pages
Basic Books

Richard John Neuhaus

About the Author

Richard John Neuhaus, one of the foremost authorities on religion in the contemporary world and president of the Institute on Religion and Public Life, is the editor-in-chief of First Things. He was named one of the “25 Most Influential Evangelicals in America” by Time Magazine. His many books include Freedom for Ministry, Death on a Friday Afternoon, and As I Lay Dying. He is a priest of the Archdiocese of New York and lives in Manhattan.

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