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Christopher Shannon

Recovering Catholic

A squandered heritage regained.

Long before the current clergy sex abuse scandal, a significant portion of American Catholics had already come to identify themselves as survivors. Viewed rhetorically, the response to this all-too-real current crisis follows the script of an earlier abuse scandal of somewhat more questionable veracity: Catholic education. American Catholics who came of age in the 1960s like to identify themselves, for better or for worse, as the people who were beaten by nuns. As comedy or tragedy, this story has been American Catholics' chief contribution to late 20th-century American popular culture, as witnessed by the broad appeal of stage productions such as Do Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up?, St. Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You, Nunsense, and Late Night Catechism.

In God and Man at Georgetown Prep, Mark Gauvreau Judge writes as a survivor not of abuse, but of neglect. Coming of age in the 1970s, Judge missed out on the gory/glory days of tough-guy priests and ruler-wielding nuns. Drawing on the theological spirit, if not the anglophile cultural posturing, of the conservative Catholic William F. Buckley's classic God and Man at Yale, Judge exposes and indicts the functional atheism that has shaped Catholic educational institutions in the decades following the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). Judge's book is an unabashed plea for Catholics to recover the world they have lost and reclaim the birthright they have sold for the material comforts and cultural respectability of mainstream, middle-class American life.

As an approximate generational contemporary of Judge, I can attest that he knows the world of which he writes. Growing up in the Washington-Baltimore area, the son of a successful journalist who wrote for National Geographic magazine, Judge found himself in an Élite Catholic educational milieu that fully embraced the liberal interpretation of Vatican II. Judge's account of his education gives me new appreciation for provincialism: reform came a bit later to upstate New York, so I was spared the worse excesses of vanguard Catholic liberalism. Judge began his Catholic education at Our Lady of Mercy grammar school, run by the Sisters of Mercy in Potomac, Maryland; he continued on at Georgetown Preparatory School, the Jesuit prep school founded by John Carroll, first bishop of Baltimore, in the 1780s.

From 1850 to 1950, Catholic schools stood as the single most important marker of Catholic separatism in America. But by the 1970s, Catholic education had become a pale imitation of an already bland liberal humanitarianism. In one example, Judge cites We Follow Jesus, a third-grade religion book used at Mercy in the 1970s, which retells the Gospel story of Martha and Mary with Jesus simply saying "Now, Martha, do not worry too much about dinner; just do the best you can."

If the Sisters of Mercy watered down the faith, Georgetown Prep directly undermined it. After centuries on the front lines of the Church's war with modernity, the Jesuits had finally gone native. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the French Jesuit censured by Rome for his efforts to synthesize Catholic theology and Darwinian evolution, became an intellectual hero. Teilhard's displacement of the cross for a progressive vision of humanity evolving toward an "Omega Point" in history fit all too neatly with New Age spirituality. At Georgetown Prep in the 1970s, Eastern mysticism trumped Catholic theology and situational ethics replaced traditional Catholic moral teaching, particularly in matters of sex.

Alas, Judge found more of the same at the non-Jesuit Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., an institution founded to promote a national presence for Catholic intellectual life in America but now in open revolt against the teachings of the Church. Judge attended Catholic U. in the 1980s, at the height of the controversy surrounding Father Charles Curran, the moral theologian who lost his position for supporting the right of Catholics to express faithful dissent from the Church's teachings on sexual ethics, particularly the ban on artificial birth control reaffirmed in the 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae. Curran lost his battle but clearly won the war of popular opinion, with most students and faculty rallying to his side in the name of academic freedom.

Judge looks back on these developments with a heavy heart, but he concedes that the near apostasy of his Catholic educational institutions caused him little distress at the time. Like many young American males of his generation, he was less concerned with theology than with sex, drugs, and rock n' roll. His drug of choice was alcohol, which he was able to control for some time through the alcoholic/workaholic discipline of an upwardly mobile East Coast professional. After graduating from Catholic U., Judge began a successful career in journalism, writing on popular culture, politics, and religion for mainstream outlets such as The Washington Post and left-of-center weeklies such as The Progressive and In These Times.

Despite this professional success, Judge eventually realized that he had lost control of his life to alcohol. Sparing us the details of his collapse and recovery, Judge simply states that he drank too much, did stupid things, and overcame his alcoholism with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous. In a similarly refreshing manner, he insists that most of the best times of his life involved alcohol in one way or another. Drinking with friends, staying up all night talking, laughing, listening to music and dancing—these are good things. Looking back on his recovery, Judge sees Alcoholics Anonymous as at least as much of a problem as alcohol itself. Rooted in the tradition of Protestant conversion narratives, the 12-step program of A.A. found one of its earliest advocates in Father Ed Dowling, a Jesuit priest who saw in it principles similar to the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola. According to Judge, in recent decades A.A. has, like Catholic schools, largely rejected its Christian roots; like other popular therapies, the secularized 12-step program has become an end in itself. To Judge's credit, he refuses to define himself in terms of his disease.

Still, God and Man at Georgetown Prep is a conversion story of sorts—but a distinctly Catholic conversion story. Judge never officially left the Church, and he presents the "reversion" to his childhood faith less as a turn from sin to salvation than from indifference to commitment. The turning point in Judge's life came not with his recovery from alcoholism but with the death of his father from cancer. Here again, Judge writes refreshingly against genre expectations. His father's death leads not to emotional trauma but to an intellectual and spiritual awakening: "My father had been dead for several months before it dawned on me that he'd been a Catholic."

Judge knew, of course, that his father had always attended Mass faithfully, but only by going through his father's book collection after his death did he realize that his father had been a serious intellectual Catholic. Judge's twenty years of Catholic education had failed to impress upon him the possibility that being Catholic had anything at all to do with the intellectual life. Catholicism was rules, doctrines, and Mass on Sunday. Exploring his father's book collection, Judge discovered the intellectually rich and challenging Catholicism of G. K. Chesterton, Jacques Maritain, Joseph Pieper, and Dietrich von Hildebrand. After reading the books that had shaped his father's mid-century Catholicism, Judge came to a new self-understanding: "I am a member of a generation of Catholics raised after Vatican II who was cheated out of a Catholic education."

Members of that generation will share in Judge's delight at the recovery of his Catholic intellectual heritage. Catholics and non-Catholics alike will find in his account a model for an intellectual life firmly rooted in the particularities of one faith tradition, yet determined to speak to the world in a common language. In particular, Joseph Pieper's writing on hope as a historical virtue and his major cultural works, Leisure: The Basis of Culture and In Tune With the World: A Theory of Festivity, provide a philosophical framework sorely lacking in contemporary historical and cultural studies. Judge sees in the intellectual world of mid-century Catholicism not lockstep conformity to particular doctrines but rather an expansive affirmation of the beauty and goodness of God's creation. Beginning in the 1960s, Judge contends, liberal American Catholics severed this affirmation from orthodoxy and thus reduced it to a kind of "humanism within the limits of the Democratic Party alone!"

This political dimension of the recent history of American Catholicism plays no small part in Judge's story. In the work of a Washington-based journalist, it is hard to see how it could not. From father to son, the Judge family seems to have followed the now familiar trajectory from New Deal Democrat to Reagan Republican. Critical of crass free-market materialism and the Wal-Martization of American life, Judge nonetheless takes as his contemporary Catholic intellectual guides the solidly neo-conservative George Weigel and Richard John Neuhaus. The war on terrorism simply carries on the work of the war against communism; the real evils of communism/terrorism seem to excuse the real evils of the alternative regimes America has supported in the name of democracy. If liberal Catholics have shamelessly used the "consistent life ethic" argument advanced by Cardinal Joseph Bernardin to make abortion and capital punishment equivalent evils, conservatives have used opposition to the greater evil of abortion as license to support a whole range of lesser political evils clearly condemned by their erstwhile hero, John Paul II. Catholicism at its best has never fit neatly into American cultural and political categories. Even as Judge points his reader to a more classical Catholicism, he may provide some Catholics with ammunition for a political battle that, in the terms presently operative, is simply not a Catholic fight.

Christopher Shannon is assistant professor of history at Christendom College. His book Conspicuous Criticism: Tradition, the Individual, and Culture in Modern American Social Thought, has just been reissued in a revised edition by the University of Scranton Press.

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