The Battle for the American Church (Revisited), by Msgr George A. Kelly

The Battle for the American Church (Revisited), by Msgr George A. Kelly

Michael Gilchrist

The Battle For The American Church (Revisited)
by Msgr George A. Kelly

"The Vatican's 'stick' then, as now, seems to be made of balsa wood"

In the introduction to his original The Battle for the American Church as published by Doubleday and Company in 1979, Msgr George A. Kelly wrote: "A guerrilla-type warfare is going on inside the Church and its outcome is clearly doubtful ... The issues at stake are the correctness of Catholic doctrine and the survival of the Catholic Church as a significant influence in the life of her own communicants."

As an experienced parish priest and university professor (St John's University, New York), Msgr Kelly was well-equipped to diagnose the state of the Catholic Church in the United States at the start of John Paul II's pontificate. Many at that time believed in the possibility of some kind of Pope-led "restoration" of orthodoxy.

Nub of the problem

Sixteen years later, in an update of his earlier book, Msgr Kelly writes: "Today ... as the pontificate of John Paul II begins to wind down, the time may be apposite to ask: who did win the battle? Or is it still going on?" (p.8).

Msgr Kelly's answers to these questions are far from reassuring: "The 'Battle' continues to be lost as much in 1994 as in 1978" (p.36); and "... conditions may be worse in 1994 than they were in 1979. And this will continue to be so, as long as important pastors think they can mediate issues that are non-negotiable, or if they think war can be won without bloodshed, even without some of their own. Whole countries gave up their Catholic identity when that kind of thinking prevailed" (p.107). According to Kelly, the nub of the problem, and therefore the focus of much of his book, is a breakdown in "governance" at all levels of the Church.

The Battle for the American Church (Revisited) provides an overview of what was written at much greater length in the earlier book together with an update of developments since 1978. Msgr Kelly's style, as always, is very clear, balanced, perceptive and forthright, as the following lines well illustrate:

  • "Good governance" is "a greater need than good teachers in the episcopacy" (p.13).
  • "The Church's social mission and her humanist aspirations or successes are irrelevant if her dogmatic claims are dubious or untrue" (p.17).
  • "The Church cannot permit too much social distance to exist between what she says and how she lives" (p.31).
  • "The innovators took early charge of the Church's thinking processes" (p.54).
  • "Evangelisation becomes only a pious wish whenever the Church's trumpet sounds not only uncertain but cacophonous" (p.93).
  • "The present war, like all wars, is about turf. Who has the last word on any land spot that wishes to claim Catholic identity" (p.108).

In diagnosing "governance" as the key to the problems of the Church, Kelly outlines the post-Vatican II emergence of the U.S. National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB) and its 'fall-out' over the past 30 years. The NCCB's liberal direction was put in place by a small group of bishops, notably Archbishop John Deardon (Pittsburgh 1948-1959), known earlier as "Iron John," who had become radicalised by the Council. Deardon took a young Fr Joseph Bernadin under his wing and groomed him for future leadership while forging the on-going character of the NCCB during his five years of influential leadership (1966-71).

Complementing Deardon's role was that of the Belgian-born apostolic delegate to the U.S., Archbishop Jean Jadot (1973-1980), who filled the NCCB ranks with 'liberals' guided by the thinking of Raymond Brown, Richard McBrien, Richard McCormick and the like. A separatist outlook and suspicion of Roman claims emerged as predominant tendencies.


Following John Paul II's accession, Archbishop Jadot's successor, Archbishop Pio Laghi, says Kelly, had "sailing orders" which "presumed that bishops and the new body of bishops in particular, were part of the Church's burgeoning institutional problem" (p.41).

Yet the period since 1980, as James Hitchcock confirms (see p.2 "Guest Editorial"), has seen 'liberals' continuing to call the shots, while so-called John Paul II bishops hesitate to 'make waves.' The spate of pastorals on worldly concerns, liturgical experiments, 'consultations' and appointments of 'dissenters' to key positions continues largely unabated with episcopal zeal more focussed - or so it seems - on countering outspoken conservatives than in upholding or recovering orthodoxy.

Nor is Vatican ineptitude overlooked. For example, as the author points out, Rome had been advised well in advance not to appoint Bishop Hunthausen to Seattle on the strength of "his dubious administration of the diocese of Helena" (p.93). Yet Hunthausen in due course became Archbishop of Seattle and with predictable results, leading to the later "debacle" of a failed Vatican intervention attempt. As Kelly remarks, while the Holy See "has recognised these episcopal problems from the very beginning, has spoken loudly and often about them ... its stick then, as now, seems to be made of balsa wood" (p.93).

Exemplifying inept Church "governance" in the U.S. is the parlous spiritual state of Catholic higher education with few of the over 200 Catholic universities and colleges deserving of the label "Catholic." This has followed the 1967 so-called "Land O'Lakes" declaration of independence from ecclesiastical control by U.S. Catholic university presidents.

In a belated move the Holy See issued Ex Corde Ecclesiae in 1990 calling for ecclesial recognition of institutions wishing to call themselves Catholic, the licensing of professors teaching "ecclesiastical studies" and the oversight of universities and colleges by the hierarchy.

The U.S. Bishops duly issued a set of watered-down "ordinances" to give local effect to Ex Corde Ecclesiae but in late 1993 leading members of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities made it clear that these weak ordinances were "unacceptable" and that further "dialogue" was called for (p.119).

Slippery road

Msgr Kelly observes: "Almost thirty years after Land O'Lakes, discussions on given campuses about their Catholicity is either a charade or a sincere effort to reclaim a valuable patrimony long since wasted away. The theology department is bad, the school of religious studies is worse, the president shamelessly hires the most notorious dissenters or virulent feminists around, outspoken defenders of the magisterium are denied promotion or otherwise harassed or isolated, cohabitation may take place in dormitories, homosexual clubs may find a home, and so forth ... How far the Catholic college has gone down the slippery road varies with the situation" (pp.121-123).

For those not yet attuned to the Church's condition, Battle for the American Church (Revisited) will make painful reading. It may be equally so for those who had long hoped for some "restoration" under Pope John Paul II but who now learn that little, if anything, has changed for the better, despite the rhetoric and the undiminished stream of Papal and Vatican documents.

Msgr Kelly concludes: "The Church has a great deal to say these days about evils in the world but is not attending effectively to the evils going on within herself' (p. 142). But there are no 'painless' solutions: "prudence," "dialogue," "consensus," "listening sessions," and "consultations" have had their chances ad nauseam. Now is the time for Church authorities to 'get serious'.

Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.