Courageous Catholicism

This past May, after four months of full immersion in the Catholic Crisis of 2002, it struck me that a book was in order: a book that described what the crisis is, what it isn’t, why it happened, and what could be done to turn the crisis into an opportunity for genuinely Catholic reform. Happily, the good people at Basic Books agreed. The result has just been published — The Courage To Be Catholic: Crisis, Reform, and the Future of the Church.

There are competitors on the market, but I’d like to think that Courage is a different kind of book. I tried to write it from the “inside” — not just the “inside” story of what happened, in the Church in the U.S. and in Rome (although the book includes a lot of information about that), but from “inside” the Church’s convictions about the unique character of the priesthood and the episcopate. Unlike other books, which propose resolving the crisis through various “Catholic Lite” schemes, The Courage To Be Catholic argues that there is no reform without form. Only deepened fidelity to the unique “form” Christ gave the Church will lead to genuine reform.

Then I take up the question of causality: how on earth did this mess happen? It didn’t happen because of celibacy. It didn’t happen because of the Church’s sexual ethic.  It didn’t happen because the Catholic Church is “authoritarian” (it isn’t). It didn’t happen because of media bias (although there has been quite enough of that). It happened because of infidelity, because of failures in discipleship and headship in the Church.

The current crisis can’t be understood unless it’s located quite precisely in the history of the past thirty-five years — and specifically in the context of a “culture of dissent” that has eroded Catholic identity and caused the gravest confusions about what priests and bishops are, and about what priests and bishops are for. The Catholic “Lite Brigade” has made today’s crisis the occasion for another assault on settled Church teaching; I argue that, while the crisis has many causes, the agitations of the Lite Brigade are one of them.

All of which means that the path to genuine reform involves the Church becoming more Catholic, not less. That has been the pattern throughout Catholic history. Genuinely Catholic reform always means going back to roots: to those truths that Christ gave the Church as a permanent constitution. Retrieving those roots — renewing our commitment to those truths — is how genuinely Catholic reform always happens. Genuinely Catholic reform doesn’t involve turning the Catholic Church into another American “denomination.” Genuine reform means rediscovering the courage to be Catholic.

The book also includes three chapters of specific suggestions: an agenda for genuinely Catholic reform in seminaries and novitiates, in the priesthood, in the selection of bishops, in the exercise of the bishop’s office, and in the Vatican. These chapters are, frankly, an attempt to get the public discussion beyond bumper-sticker slogans like “zero tolerance” and “one strike and you’re out.” I hope that my recommendations will help others formulate even more comprehensive proposals for the genuinely Catholic reform of the Church according to the teaching of the Second Vatican Council and the magisterium of Pope John Paul II.

The Courage To Be Catholic closes with a quotation from Pope Pius XI, which happened to be a favorite of Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement. Facing an onslaught from the two paganisms embodied by Stalin and Hitler, Pius XI wrote, “Let us thank God that he makes us live among the present problems. It is no longer permitted to anyone to be mediocre.” That kind of bracing, unsparing challenge, not the psychobabble of “listening sessions,” is what U.S. Catholics want and need today.

All the suffering and humiliation of these past eight months must have been for a reason; it must have some purpose in God’s scheme of things. I suggest that that purpose is the genuinely Catholic reform of the Church in the United States. “Catholic Lite” helped create the crisis. Retrieving and renewing classic Catholicism — a Catholicism with the courage to be countercultural — is the way, under God’s grace, for the Church to turn crisis into opportunity.

COMING UP: Care for Her Act: A common-sense approach to caring for women and their babies

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The pro-life community is often accused of only being pro-birth; however, a congressman from Nebraska is seeking to not only bring more visibility to the countless organizations which provide care for women experiencing crisis pregnancies through birth and beyond, but to also imitate that care at the federal level and enshrine it into law.

Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R), who serves the first congressional district in Nebraska, is expected to introduce the Care for Her Act to Congress soon, a bill that’s been in the works since last year. The overall goal of the bill is to “[commit] to care for that journey of life through a complementary set of services whereby the government makes a decided choice on behalf of the life of the unborn child and meeting the needs of the expectant mother,” Rep. Fortenberry told the Denver Catholic.

The Care For Act seeks to accomplish this through four basic provisions: A $3,600 tax credit for unborn children which would apply retroactively after the child is born, in addition to the existing tax credit for children; a comprehensive assessment and cataloguing of the programs and resources that are available to expectant mothers; providing federal grants to advance maternal housing, job training mentorships and other educational opportunities for expectant mothers; and lastly, offering financial incentives to communities that improve maternal and child health outcomes.

The Biden Administration recently indicated that they’ll be removing the Hyde Amendment in next year’s budget, which has historically been in place to prohibit pubic funds from going to abortions. The Care for Her Act would circumvent this to some degree, and it would also test whether Rep. Fortenberry’s dissenting colleagues who have in the past expressed that women should be cared for throughout their pregnancies and beyond are willing to stand by their words.

While the conversation around pregnancy and women’s health often centers around abortion, Rep. Fortenberry intentionally crafted the Care for Her Act to not be against abortion, per se, but rather for women and their babies.

“Abortion has caused such a deep wound in the soul of America,” Rep. Fortenberry said. “However, the flip side of this is not only what we are against, because it is so harmful, but what are we for? So many wonderful people throughout this country carry the burden of trying to be with women in that vulnerable moment where there is an unexpected pregnancy and show them the gift of what is possible for that child and for that woman. Let’s do that with government policy as well.”

Congressman Jeff Fortenberry (R) of Nebraska is expected to introduce the Care for Her Act to Congress soon, a bill which seeks to provide a community of care for women facing an unexpected pregnancy. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. House of Representatives)

Even The Washington Post has taken notice of the Care for Her Act. Earlier this year, Rep. Fortenberry introduced the idea to his constituents, and as to be expected, he received mixed feedback. Those who are pro-life were supportive of the idea, while those who support abortions were more apprehensive. Still others shared consternation about what the government ought to or ought not to do, expressing concern about what the Care for Her Act seeks to do.

“My response is, if we’re going to spend money, what is the most important thing? And in my mind, this is it,” Rep. Fortenberry said.

However, he was very encouraged by one response in particular, which for him really illustrates why this bill is so important and needed.

“One woman wrote me and said, ‘Jeff, I had an abortion when I was young. But if I had this complement of services and commitment of community around me, I would have made another decision,'” Rep. Fortenberry recalled. “And I said ‘yes.’ That’s why we are doing this. For her.”

So far, Rep. Fortenberry has been able to usher support from a number of women representatives on his side of the aisle. He is hopeful, though, that support could come from all sides of the political spectrum.

“Is it possible this could be bipartisan? I would certainly hope so, because it should transcend a political divide,” he explained. “We, of course, stand against abortion because it is so detrimental to women and obviously the unborn child. At the same time though, I think that others could join us who maybe don’t have the fullness of our perspective, who want to see the government actually make a choice on behalf of protecting that unborn life.”

Amidst the politically polarizing discussions about pregnancy and unborn life, the Care for Her act is a common-sense approach to caring for women and their babies. It offers women facing an unexpected pregnancy the chance to experience hope in a seemingly hopeless situation and make a life-giving decision for both herself and her child.

“I’m excited by this,” Rep. Fortenberry said. “I think it opens a whole new set of imaginative possibilities for America, a transformative ideal that again makes this moment of vulnerability when there is an unexpected pregnancy, our chance, our commitment as a community of care.”