Firm Belief, Deep Questions

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Sunday, October 5, 2008


Prominent Americans Talk About Change in the Church and the Quest for Meaning

By Kerry Kennedy

Crown. 247 pp. $24.95

In Finnegans Wake, James Joyce refers (cryptically, of course) to Catholicism as "Here Comes Everybody," but since the 1960s it's been more like, "Where'd They Go?" Kerry Kennedy's collection of 37 interviews, Being Catholic Now, is one answer: They're still here, more or less. And it is often less rather than more, as Kennedy includes the likes of bestselling author Frank McCourt and religion-razing Bill Maher, who ruefully, or gleefully, would qualify as ex-Catholics or even anti-Catholics, if only Holy Mother Church could let them go, or vice-versa. "Maybe I was damaged by it for a long time -- we all were," McCourt says of Catholicism, "but I can make use of it and that's the gift."

Balancing such diffidence are other Catholics, from the pious to the powerful, who raise objections even as they pledge fealty to the church. This critical stance, especially from lay people, is a hallmark of Catholicism since the Second Vatican Council. Bill O'Reilly donates "a lot of money" to the church but blasts bishops who "screwed it up." Former pizza magnate and Catholic traditionalist Tom Monaghan loves the church but regrets sending his kids to parochial schools "because they tend to undermine the faith." Celebrities offer more heft than expected (though some ordinary souls, especially sexual abuse survivor Dan McNevin, provide the real ballast), with actors Susan Sarandon and Martin Sheen leading the pack. Dan Aykroyd is nearly off the Catholic reservation (and never mind that he is Canadian), but without his Catholic boyhood "The Blues Brothers" movie wouldn't exist.

The unifying theme of all the interviews is a once-formidable Catholic culture that left a mark as indelible as any sacrament, pushing Catholics to contend with a church that has betrayed or consoled them, or both. The contributors who firmly believe and deeply question give the book its poignancy, with the most affecting essay coming from Kennedy herself; she is one of Robert and Ethel Kennedy's 11 children and a prayerful believer who struggles with the faith but refuses to abandon ship. (Andrew Sullivan, Peggy Noonan, Donna Brazile and E.J. Dionne Jr. also have noteworthy entries.)

In the 4th century, Saint Ambrose spoke of the church as a "casta meretrix," a chaste prostitute, for her indiscriminate welcome. A few decades ago, the Catholic convert Dorothy Day added, "She's a whore, but she's my mother." The challenge today is that the Catholic culture that gave birth to Ambrose, Day and the folks in Kennedy's book is threadbare to the point that it's hard to imagine rounding up a similar cast for a sequel. Catholics today are more likely to see the church as a sainted virgin or duplicitous harlot rather than to contend with the paradoxes that are inherent in any major religion and vital to the creative tension at the heart of any culture worthy of the name. ยท

-- David Gibson is the author of "The Rule of Benedict" and "The Coming Catholic Church."

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