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 Writer's Desk:  NCR's Web column
A member of the NCR staff offers a commentary on one or more topics in the news.  It's our way of introducing you to some of the people carrying out the NCR mission of faith and justice based journalism.

April 26, 2004
Vol. 2, No. 6




Dennis Coday Burning bush or conflagration?

Dennis Coday, NCR staff writer

People who think about -- who care about -- how the sociological entity called "the Catholic church" interacts with, influences and is influenced by contemporary American culture have had a wealth of material to peruse recently.

Two valuable reflections on these topics appeared in late 2003: A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America (Simon & Schuster), by Peter Steinfels and The Coming Catholic Church: How the Faithful Are Shaping a New American Catholicism (HarperSanFrancisco), by David Gibson.

Both books were reviewed in the pages of NCR ( Moderate manifesto for church's future and Claiming the future of American Catholicism), so I won't go into great detail here. One thing the books have in common is that they emerged as each author mused on the tumult that engulfed the church in 2002 in the wake of the scandal of clergy sexual abuse.

Gibson writes: "The Catholic church today is aflame with passions and incendiary accusations that threaten to leave nothing but the charred remains of what William James called "the glorious piled-up structure" of Catholicism. A more uplifting image, however, is the church of the Burning Bush, speaking the voice of God, promising liberation and witness from the midst of the inferno without being consumed."

Is today's church a burning bush or a conflagration? Both authors give a sort of point-counterpoint to the arguments around this question.

Another valuable resource became available early this year, American Catholics and Civic Engagement: A Distinctive Voice Vol. 1, edited by Margaret O'Brien Steinfels. This book differs from the previous ones for a number of reasons, most notably, contributions to it began before the sex abuse scandal became so dominant in the media.

The book contains the lectures and papers delivered at a series of colloquia organized by the Commonweal Foundation, which publishes Commonweal magazine, as part of a three year project (2000-2003), American Catholics in the Public Square. The project, funded by a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts and undertaken jointly by Commonweal and the Faith and Reason Institute, was designed to examine and explore Catholics' participation in the nation's civic life.

Basically, its 23 essays deal with the many aspects of how committed Catholics live public lives. Some essays are highly academic, such as "How Catholic is the Catholic Vote?" by David Leege and Paul Mueller, both of Notre Dame University. Most enjoyable are the 10 "autobiographies" of "Catholics in the Public Square," such as labor organizer John Sweeny and attorney W. Shepherdson Abell. Abell's essay is titled, "God Deals with Me through My Clients" - an idea many believing lay people can understand, I would say.

I was drawn to the essay "A Journalist's Call" by Don Wycliff, an editor with the Chicago Tribune. Though Wycliff and I would seemingly have little in common -- he a black man who grew up in the South and me a white man who grew up in the upper Midwest -- I found much to relate to in Wycliff's story of a family strong in Catholic traditions, a grounding in Catholic schools and stumbling into journalism when academics seemed too far removed from "real life." Despite our differences, I found myself nodding in agreement to Wycliff's opening line: "I can as easily imagine myself not Catholic as I can imagine myself not black. Which is to say that I cannot imagine it at all."

I guess commonness in diversity is itself a Catholic trait.

Other Today's Takes by Dennis Coday
March 22 Haiti returning to 'normal'
Feb. 19 Haiti spiraling into chaos
Feb. 18 An old story
Feb. 16 Sudan's conundrum
Thirty years in the news business, Wycliff has spent the last 17 as an editorial writer, first with the New York Times and later for the Tribune. "The stock in trade of opinion writers is ideas -- ideas that challenge, provoke, clarify," Wycliff writes. The Catholic church ought to be a powerful contender for the time and attention of columnists and editorial writers at the nations' newspapers. In my experience, however, it is not."

Why? "The reasons are complex," Wycliff writes. Looking at these complex reasons is more or less the theme of this volume. The book explores what the church has to offer -- thousands of years of tradition and history, hundreds of years of social teaching and prestigious institutions and leaders in the fields of health and education -- and how and why these offerings are accepted, rejected and ignored by the wider culture of America in the 21st century.

The book is well worth picking up and reading. If you like it, you'll be glad to know that volume two of the Catholics in the Public Square series has just been released.

This morning as I came to work, I stopped at the book editor's desk to see what was on her "just arrived" shelf. There I saw a copy of American Catholics, American Culture: Tradition and Resistance Vol. 2, edited by Margaret O'Brien Steinfels. More on that later.

Dennis Coday is an NCR staff writer and coordinates the NCR Web site. His e-mail address is

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