Being Catholic Now: Prominent Americans
Talk About Change in the Church
and the Quest for Meaning
By Kerry Kennedy
Crown, 247 pages, $24.95
Kerry Kennedy’s book may be called Being Catholic Now, but her opening is pure chutzpah. Given an audience with Pope Benedict a few years back, she asked him, “In view of the tragedy unfolding in Africa, for the sake of the sanctity of life, would you consider changing the Church’s position on the use of condoms?” It’s a great, inescapable moment, one of those times the powerful are called on their own hypocrisy and given the chance to rise above it. At Ms. Kennedy’s audience, His Evasiveness merely “gazed beneficently, imparting ‘God bless you’ as he passed.”
For Being Catholic Now, Ms. Kennedy interviewed a slew of prominent Catholics and ex-Catholics, in politics and letters and show business, from the right and the left. It’s easy to understand how the roster of names—Susan Sarandon, Bill O’Reilly, Donna Brazile, Bill Maher, Nancy Pelosi and others—would have a publisher seeing a chance to appeal to a wide audience. But Ms. Kennedy’s introduction is much more interesting than anything that follows; reading Being Catholic Now, I wished she’d expanded the introduction to make a book-length combination of spiritual autobiography and reportage.
Ms. Kennedy writes that Catholics find themselves torn between the “ingrained principle that members of the hierarchy … are the direct conduits between the laity and God,” and the obvious hypocrisies of the church. She’s not an angry or slashing writer. But within a few pages, she has drawn a portrait of an organization that’s morally culpable of increasing the misery and death on the already besieged African continent. And if we were talking about a big business (and who’s to say we’re not), it would clearly be seen as guilty of obstruction of justice in its handling of the child rape scandals that have rocked the church around the world.
That scandal is implicit in Ms. Kennedy’s scathing treatment of Cardinal Bernard Law, the former Boston archbishop whisked to a job in the Vatican beyond the reach of investigators just as his involvement in covering up the Boston child rape scandals were leading some to speculate that he’d be indicted. Ms. Kennedy, who is Bobby Kennedy’s daughter, recalls the archbishop as a publicity-hungry martinet barging into the spotlight after the suicide of her brother David.
LIKE MANY OF THOSE she interviewed, Ms. Kennedy seems to think it imperative for Catholics to stay in the church because she believes that the presence of such Catholics will finally compel change. But while I respect the work she’s done here—the honest attempt to grapple with the reconciliation of spiritual calling and social progressivism—I can’t help but feel that she and her interviewees are deluding themselves.
It’s simply unrealistic to believe that an antidemocratic institution can be changed by democratic sentiment. If nothing else, the election of Cardinal Ratzinger to the papacy shows a church arrogantly disdainful of its parishioner’s wishes.
It would be one thing if, as in the case of Andrew Sullivan, say, or Cokie Roberts, we were reading a variation of the old Groucho joke: people who only want to belong to a club that would never have someone like them for a member. That’s their choice. But when Sister Joan Chittister says that change in the Catholic Church “happens over long periods of time,” or James Carroll blathers that those who say the church will never change don’t know history, you wonder, can they hear themselves? Do they know how close they sound to those people who said America wasn’t ready for civil rights, the people to whom Martin Luther King Jr. addressed Why We Can’t Wait?
You don’t have to know the history of change in the Catholic Church to know the score. The fact is that this institution, which many of Ms. Kennedy’s interviewees are defending as a place that teaches the concept of social justice, is, by the deadly combination of its growing influence in Africa and its blanket prohibition against condoms, adding immeasurably to the poverty of a desperately poor continent, to the environmental crisis caused by population growth, to the burdens of a deepening global economic catastrophe and to the spread of a global pandemic.
And the people who still sit in pews hoping vainly to change the attitudes of a church that cares nothing about their dissent are, by their material and spiritual support, stirring that demon’s brew. Isn’t it time for Catholics who claim a sense of social justice to separate themselves from an institution that, while it claims to follow Christ, ensures the least of our brethren poverty and misery and death?
Charles Taylor is a writer living in Brooklyn. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.