If there is a general statement to be made about Catholicism in America, it is that it has been thought premodern and has rather seen itself as such. This has been no small burden in a culture that has defined itself in terms of modernity. Novus Ordo Seclorum, as saith the Great Seal.

For the longest while the burden grew. There were Catholics in sufficient supply in Colonial and Revolutionary America, but in the main they were English or English-speaking, and not infrequently gentry. A Catholic became Chief Justice in 1836 with no especial notice. The Senate in 1832-33 even had a Catholic chaplain. Neither distinction has been attained since, and for reasons plain enough writ large. The very next decade saw the beginnings of a great migration that brought to the United States wave on wave of Catholic ethnic groups from societies that were certainly premodern and governed (apart from Ireland, where reality however was not that different) by regimes that were assertively anti-modern. This at minimum meant antidemocratic, and as such regimes invariably had the support of the Church of Rome, the essential loyalty of the newcomers was suspect.

It was something of an event in 1846 that Catholic Irish went off to fight in the Mexican war and did not on the first opportunity desert to Santa Anna under orders from Pius IX. (One hundred and sixteen years later, John F. Kennedy meeting with the Greater Houston Ministerial Association carried off essentially the same pleasant surprise.)

But in 1844 the American Republican Party, as the nativists called themselves, elected a mayor in New York after Catholics protesting the use of the King James version of the Bible in the new public schools demanded public funds for their own parochial schools. (Kennedy in Houston proclaimed any such proposal to be "unconstitutional," a thought which would have occurred even to that nativist mayor! Alas, the time came when Catholics shared the prejudices against them.)

A friendly word needs to be said for the nativists, not of the churchburning kind, but rather the plain Protestant citizens intent upon establishing a perduring American republic. Who were these newcomers, and what did they portend? Franklin had been no less concerned about German-speaking Lutherans in Quaker Pennsylvania. Now the question was nationwide. It was a fair question.

To which in time an answer came. The democratic culture proved far more powerful than any European inheritance. The newcomers settled in cities and wholly absorbed the democratic tradition. In time they came to lead it, often in opposition to a rural and small-town America that grew narrow and provincial, a role reversal not without its irony.

The Rev. Andrew M. Greeley has established to the satisfaction of anyone who believes in data that by the middle of the 20th century American Catholics were (and had been) consistently more liberal in politics than the population as a whole. Even so, the assumption otherwise persisted, giving rise to a small but instructive episode in the White House in John F. Kennedy's first year. James Reston had taken to deploring the retrograde politics of the big-city boses, observing of the Northeastern seaboard, "There is probably more bad government [there] than in any other urban complex in America, most of it identified with the Democratic party." The president, fearless of the Presbyterian vote, summoned another Scot to reply, Galbraith being back from India at the time. His letter to The New York Times is worth recalling:

The careless reader could easily slip over the qualifying word "urban" and assume that these cities are politically the most backward communities in the United States. And since they are not especially beautiful, he could easily imagine, as indeed Reston may imagine, that the squalor of the urban scenery is in some subtle sense matched with the fresh purity of the countryside and the purity of country politics.

But I wonder how far Mr. Reston would wish to pursue his point. He knows, I am sure, that the reforming instinct that transformed the State of New York, both rural and urban, from one of the worst to perhaps the best governed in the land did not come from the pure, fresh, but exceedingly conservative, countryside of the Finger Lakes, but with Al Smith from the machine politics of the lower East Side. He knows that the Roosevelt revolution derived solid support from the Congressmen of the big-city machines, including those of New York and Jersey City and, I hasten to say, also Boston .

He would agree, because he would have no choice, that when support is now needed in Congress for education, social security, improved labor standards or medical research; and on the international front for foreign aid, support to the United Nations or even lower tariffs, a solid core of votes comes from the bit cities and the men returned by their organizations. Members of the United States Senate have, on occasion, risked a mild schizophrenia over the need to be progressive and international where their organized city support was concerned and rather more dour, conservative and on occasion, isolationist, where rural or suburban voters were in mind.

Still, the stereotype persisted. Greeley and others might show that Catholics as a group are consistently better educated, with higher incomes than the population as a whole. Some no doubt lag, as for example the Haitian newcomers now in New York. But others, such as Italians, surged ahead once World War II opened up the economy. Slavs, who make up a sixth of Roman Catholics (in turn a quarter of the whole population), have now acquired an unassailable status as a well-educated and economically secure group.

But for all this there is a status lag, almost, in the jargon, a status inconsistency. Catholics do not have prestige in modern things. Their universities are good, but none as yet great, and they have been at it a long while. Their intellecturals are not much acknowledged, and generally dependent on the agendas of others. In science it is said the church went wrong with Galileo and has not managed to straighten things out since. Beneath the now general good manners there lurks the spirit of the divine who, a generation ago, in response to the questions "Where are the Catholic Einsteins?" responded: "Where are the Catholic atheists?" Ideologists they were not, as a mass well enough content with the dialectical skills of the leader of Tammany Hall who in the 1950s warned a communion breakfast of the New York Police Department Holy Name Society that there was "no Mother's Day behind the Iron Curtain."

But behold a peripeteia of large consequence: John Paul II.

I have given him my heart, and the reader should know this and especially know why. He is the first Pope with a wholly 20th-century intellectual formation, and perhaps the first person in this century to come to institutional eminence having grappled with, possibly mastered, the principal philosophical question of the century, which is the question of totalitarianism.

I knew of Wojtyla in a general way as one of the group of scholar intellectuals in Northern Europe (and, praise God, Ireland, which may or may not be part of that region) whom Pope Paul had made cardinals. Then last spring Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka, who heads The World Institute for Advanced Phenomenological Research and Learning, in Boston, sent me his newest book, The Acting Person, published as Volume X of Analecta Husserliana, the Yearbook of Phenomenological Research. Clearly, something new had appeared in the East.

I will not, must not, pretend to any command of the book itself, only to an awareness of the questions it addresses and a settled conviction that these are the central questions of our time. But they are questions hardly at all addressed in American intellectual life (apart from Daniel Bell and a few others), so that increasingly it is Americans who acquire the aspect of being premodern!

First, a bit of history. Phenomenology as a formal philosophical doctrine traces itself to a Bohemian-born Jew Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) and, in a general sense, is no more than the orderly study of phenomena or appearances, a traditional task of philosophy and science. More narrowly defined, however, it is "the study of phenomena as phenomena." (International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences.) In this mode it led, for example, to the existentialism of post-World War II France, and before that to Martin Heidegger's work. It is an empirical doctrine with an affinity with William James. Thus in psychology it is described as "frankly and explicitly descriptive": cultivating an approach of "disciplined naivete," it suspends all presuppositions to observe and describe the world of phenomena as naively apprehended. It is thus post-Cartesian. John Paul II writes in the preface to his book:

". . . Since Descartes, knowledge about man and his world has been identified with the cognitive function -- as if only in cognition, and especially through knowledge of himself, could man manifest his nature and his prerogative. And yet, in reality, does man reveal himself in thinking or, rather in the actual enacting of his existence? -- in observing, interpreting, speculating, or reasoning (which are changeable, even flexible insofar as they are acts, and often futile when confronted with the facts of reality) or in the confrontation itself when he has to take an active stand upon issues requiring vital decisions and having vital consequences and repercussions? In fact, it is in reversing the post-Cartesian attitude toward man that we undertake our study: by approaching him through action.

And, in this respect, it is a singularly powerful tool with which to approach the issue of alienation.

Again a bit of history. Alienation or estrangement (or, if you are President Carter, "malaise") holds place as a central philosophical issue of the modern age. How is it to be defined? What if anything may be done with it, about it? We may begin with Hegel's Phenomenology of Mind (1807) and what George Lichtheim called his "celebrated analysis of 'the alienated spirit.' " In 1844 the young Marx -- "no longer a philosopher and not yet an economist" -- took this as his central concept of the proletariat in a capitalist world without God. Work is man's existential activity. But as things become more valued, man becomes devalued, for the product of his work is taken from him. ". . . The Worker is related to the product of his labor as to an alien object." Lichtheim explains: "Alienated labor creates a world in which the real producer cannot recognize himself. Work, man's existential activity, estranges him both from nature and from himself." A reordered economy would resolve everything.

Marx' "Paris Manuscripts," as they are know, were not published until 1932 and became influential only after 1945. But it would appear that "the young Marx" rescued his later work from the manifest fact that it no longer had much to offer as economics. Marxism is seen instead to explain the existential problems of man, which romantics had attributed to romanticization and the great pessimists such as Weber and Durkheim and Freud to the rather more serious proposition that there seemed to be no God.

Wojtyla, on the theological faculty of the University of Krakow, undertook to see if the methodology of the phenomenologist Max Scheler (1874-1928) could be used as a starting point for rebuilding a Christian ethic that would reconnect man to his experience. (Scheler, of mixed Jewish-Protestant parentage, became, for a time, a Catholic). Wojtyla's thesis (1953) concluded this could not be done as the ethical precepts of Scripture and tradition represented presuppositions based on revelation. Nothing daunted, as philosophers may or may not say, he went on to do so himself and to the satisfaction, at all events, of his school of thought.

George Huntston Williams, Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard University and the only person who, prior to event, predicted and published his reasons for thinking that Wojtyla would be elected pope, puts it this way:

Yet Wojtyla judged the phenomenological approach the most useful modern philosophical option for the Christian theologian and ethicist. Phenomenology is capable of legitimating the experienced data of revelation, as well as of intuition and of mystical transport, as inner events, dependent upon their free acceptance by the believer. That is, such data can be legitimated as plausible objects of not only theological but also -- and most important -- ethical definition, thus opening the way to further construction. Wojtyla is interested in the sovereign intentional consciousness of each individual in the essential relationship of individuals. This interest also characterizes his personal behavior in conversing with others. In this view conversation is the point of intersection of the vertical line of genetic development, the horizontal line of intentional or organic relatedness to another or others (e.g., friendship, marriage, ethnicity), and the transverse line of transcendent grace and its corporate counterpart, the community of rebirth, the Church.

Where philosophers from St. Thomas Aquinas to Descartes had built philosophies as a structure of mind, Wojtyla and his associates worked from experience, and with an intense and surely Christian sense of choice. Man in action creates himself. Professor Williams notes of the new Pope that it was "characteristic that his very last word in the homily of installation was (TABLE) l'uomo )." (COLUMN)Professor Tymieniecks observes that his first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis (The Redeemer of Man) goes directly to the question of the nature of man. It is a moving if perhaps, as some have averred, a somewhat cluttered document. (COLUMN)Man cannot live without love. He remains a being that is incomprehensible for himself, his life is senseless, if love is not revealed to him, if he does not encounter love, if he does not experience it and make it his own, if he does not participate intimately in it. This, as has already been said, is why Christ the redeemer 'fully reveals man to himself.' If we may use the expression, this is the human dimension of the mystery of the redemption. In this dimension man finds again the greatness, dignity and value that belong to his humanity. In the mystery of the redemption man becomes newly 'expressed' and, in a way, is newly created. He is newly created! ['There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.'] The man who wishes to understand himself thoroughly -- and not just in accordance with immediate, partial, often superficial, and even illusory standards and measures of his being -- he must with his unrest, uncertainty and even his weakness and sinfulness, with his life and death, draw near to Christ. He must, so to speak, enter into him with all his own self, he must 'appropriate' and assimilate the whole of the reality of the incarnation and redemption in order to find himself. If this profound process takes place within him, he then bears fruit not only of adoration of God but also of deep wonder at himself. How precious must man be in the eyes of the Creator if he 'gained so great a redeemer' and if God 'gave his only Son' in order that man 'should not perish but have eternal life.' (COLUMN)In reality the name for that deep amazement at man's worth and dignity is the Gospel, that is to say the good news. It is also called Christianity. This amazement determines the church's mission in the world and perhaps even more so, in the modern world. (COLUMN)It is addressed, as encyclicals have been since John XXIII, not only to the faithful but to "all men of good will," and one sense its particular orientation to those who live in totalitarian societies and share to a greater or lesser extent the philosophical premises of those regimes. Luchtheim writes: Since intellectual life generally reflects the prevailing social situation, the prominence in modern literature and art of concern over the role of the alienated individual in a 'reified' world need occasion no surprise. This phenomenon dates back to the early years of the present century, when individualism first began to look problematical in western and central Europe, even though the societal organization of existence, by and large, still followed liberal-individualist lines. The impact of totalitarianism in the 1930s and 1940s upset the traditional equilibrium between the individual and society, even in countries where the totalitarian experiment failed or was not permitted to occur. Both the official culture and the unofficial criticism of this culture show the marks of this experience, whose extreme point was the massive "liquidation" of individuals and groups in the interest of a "new order" imposed upon society by the state. This experience could not be accommodated within the traditional liberal-democratic conceptions. Hence it gave rise to critical reflections upon the probable character of a planned and centralized society in which human beings might be 'alienated' en masse, not merely from their metaphysical essence but from their earthly existence, at the command of rulers raised by technology above the customary safeguards of popular control. (COLUMN)This is the point. Alienation is as much or more an experience of totalitarian as of liberal societies, and one more ideologically perilous to the former. John Paul II is a man the whole of whose adult life has been lived under totalitarianism, first that of the Nazis then that of the communists. One out of every five citizens of the Second Polish Republic died by military action or in concentration camps before he was 25. Karol Wojtyla got his first degree from an underground university. He became a priest in an atheist state, a humanist in a Marxist culture. And in this he shares not just the most modern experience of mankind -- the totalitarian state is wholly a product of this century -- but what is now statistically close to being the condition of the majority of mankind. He writes from inside the modern world. (COLUMN)It is we who live on the outside, alternately to avoid or to annihilate by anathema the reality of the present age, our own golden age behind us, the years when, to recall Lord Bruce, "America sailed a summer sea" and all the world looked to our institutions as those which would one day be theirs. (COLUMN)One wonders what he will make of us, or does, as he is no longer a stranger here. He will not like what he cannot help but see as a rampant materialism. He writes: (COLUMN)The man of today seems ever to be under threat from what he produces, that is to say from the result of the work of his hand and, even more so, the work of his intellect . . . All too soon, and often in an unforeseeable way, what this manifold activity of man yields is not only subjected to 'alienation,' in the sense that it is taken away from the person who produces it, but rather it turns against man himself, at least in part, through the indirect consequences of its effects returning on himself. It is or can be directed against him. These are more than Sierra Club sentiments. They reflect a mind that confronts Marx and Freud in great earnest. (In The Acting Person he quotes from The Ego and the Id:: "The ego develops from perceiving instincts to curbing them." Repression is the price of civilization.). He does not seem much attached to free markets, nor to put overmuch store in an invisible hand guiding the destinies of the world economy. In Redemptor Hominis he opts for "rational and honest planning" and cites the extent of poverty in the world as "So widespread . . . that it brings into question the financial, monetary, production and commercial mechanisms that, resting on various economy." That troubled term "neocolonialism" keeps cropping up. (COLUMN)This is a matter to take note of. As the blessed Michael Novak has it, no pope has ever understood capitalism. It has been and is regarded as a Protestant heresy. As a boy in the 1930s one recalls the pastoral letters written by ancient Irishmen in their sunless sees railing against "liberalism" to a puzzled laity that had not the least notion that it was the Iron Law of Wages that was being denounced and not President Roosevelt's new minimum wage legislation. It would be a triumph if John Paul sees that freedom in our arrangements, and not just the excess. And what will we make of him? One hopes something more than a charming person. He would be important were he a monk, for it is what he thinks that matters most. This is a challenge especially to American Catholicism. It is our turn to be modern, to interpret and explain. It is a nice problem, this, first to understand and then to judge, and finally to make more accessible the thoughts of a man who seeks to serve God and in doing so writes: "Again and always man." (END TABLE) CAPTION: (TABLE) Picture 1, no caption, Olivier Rebbot; Picture 2, no caption, Gianfranco Gorgoni, Press Images; Picture 3, no caption, Francois Lochon, Gamma; Picture 4, no caption, Gianfranco Gorgoni, Press Images; Picture 5, no caption, Alan Reininger, Press Images; Picture 6, no caption, Alan Reininger, Press Images; Picture 7, no caption, Alan Reininger, Press Images. (END TABLE)