Looking for a Life Preserver

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

Let’s not talk about sex
Though the clergy sex abuse scandal garners its own chapter in this nearly 400-page tome, the crisis Peter Steinfels describes is not limited to priest pedophiles, hush money, or locked legal file drawers.

According to Steinfels, a larger, more encompassing Church crisis stems from a lack of energetic leadership by bishops and priests, and as a result the institutional Church in the United States teeters on the verge of irrelevance.

“Not that Catholics will suddenly flee from the Church,” writes Steinfels, “?but their faith will be come an increasingly marginal or superficial part of their identity, bearing less and less on the important choices of their lives?about work and career?and how they raise their children.”

The dearth of strong Church leaders threatens a credible Catholic voice in both public forums and the private lives of Catholics. It has damaged?and will continue to damage?the Church’s hallmarks: its worship and its education. At Sunday worship, preaching and music are most often mediocre at best. With regard to education, teachers and administrators struggle to pass on the faith in the face of decreased numbers in Catholic schools.

This is the sound of Catholic irrelevance
Looking ahead to 2025, will the Church wield but a nominal influence on the moral life of the nation? Will it bear less and less on the day-to-day life choices of its members, serving up nothing but spiritual milquetoast, pious niceties?

While Steinfels does not go so far as to offer a resounding “yes” to any of these questions, he sounds an alarm bell loud and clear. “American Catholicism is in trouble,” he writes in the introduction.

The next 20 years are a crucial, sink-or-swim period in the church’s history. A younger, post-Vatican II leadership is gradually taking the reins from those formed by the energy and excitement of Vatican II. A rapidly diminishing clergy and religious order population gives rise to a rapidly expanding lay leadership in hospitals, parishes, and universities.

The historian and journalist’s eye
Steinfels uses the lens of history to view the current state of Church affairs. He does not pretend to be a theologian or spiritual guru, but draws on his vast experience as a journalist and historian. A Columbia Ph.D. in history, nine years as a senior religion editor for the New York Times, and an editorship at Commonweal magazine provide an impressive knowledge base and perspective. This guy knows his stuff.

A People Adrift is chock full of interesting, current statistics, and anecdotal evidence to support Steinfels’ warnings of the Church’s failure to lend a credible voice and shape to a rapidly changing world. Chapter 4 is a fascinating (if dense) analysis of the struggle to define Catholic identity in universities, hospitals, and social service agencies.

Especially convincing is Steinfels’ recounting of recent conversations with hospital officials, university faculty, and high-level social service executives, who struggle to define the mission of their organizations amid shifting leadership.

What is Catholic about Catholic health care? Do Catholic physicians and social workers heal their patients differently? What is Catholic about Catholic higher education? Are 50% or more of the faculty Catholic? Do calculus professors begin their classes with the sign of the cross? What is Catholic about Catholic social service agencies? Do they advise immigrants with the whole history of American Catholic immigration in mind? Place refugees with expectations set by Catholic social teaching?

These are only “tip of the iceberg” questions for Catholic institutions. None of these questions, writes Steinfels, can be answered without creative and reflective leadership?lay, ordained, and religious.

So why should I care about this book?
You may not agree with Steinfels’ proposed solutions for the Church’s ailing worship, leadership, and education. His proposals include parishioner-led evaluations of priests’ leadership, a call for bishops to trust theologians more, and a measured examination of whether it is wise to reserve ordination to the priesthood to celibate men only.

Whatever your thoughts on Steinfels’ conclusions, this volume serves as an invaluable comprehensive history of the past 40 years in the Catholic Church, with all of its landmark events and colorful characters. (Think Roe v. Wade, Mario Cuomo, Cardinal Bernardin, and Cardinal Law .)

Unfortunately, scandal and the threat of public irrelevance pervade that transitional time. Yet it’s not too late, says Peter Steinfels.

But we-the people adrift-have to do something soon.