Catholics are in the vanguard of the battle for America's heart, believes Andre Gushurst-Moore
'A house divided against itself cannot stand. St. Mark 3:25, quoted by Abraham Lincoln, 16th June, 1858.
Winter is long in New England, snow on the ground continuously since midNovember, and most of it fallen this month. Our woodstove becomes not so much an appliance as a companion, helping to make inhuman temperatures bearable.
It is difficult to believe that in summer things will be up into the nineties, and grass will have reappeared long before. The cold, however, is alleviated by blue skies and bright days of blinding whiteness, and we feel less sun-starved than in the long months of leaden skies in temperate, rainy England. All this is both attractive to and challenging of the moderate temper in your English correspondent.
Of course, America is proverbially a land of extremes. It is urban and rural, secular and religious, liberal and conservative, and these oppositions inhere stubbornly in the ongoing debate over the nature of America, which puzzles native and foreigner alike. Is America, for example, a project of Puritan Christianity, or of Enlightenment rationalism, or something else entirely that emerged from the ruins of its Civil War under the banner of Freedom? If America, like Oxford, is not so much a place as a state of mind, one could be forgiven
for thinking it schizophrenic.
The extremes to which this great nation veers within the confines of its vast continent seem to have polarized, and would like to take leave of each other entirely. As an acquaintance of mine, a country priest in Michigan, put it recently: "It's completely ideological. On the one hand, there's the east and west coast secularist, urban outlook. On the other, there's the religious outlook, rooted in the wisdom of the land."
Waxing apocalyptic, he added: "There are going to be some tough times ahead.'"Intimations of cataclysmic struggle sit easily in the consciousness of Americans; the inheritance of millennialist Puritanism, the War for Independence, and their almost inconceivably bloody Civil War, has formed an historical memory of conflict, much of it with each other.
How does Catholicism fit into the nature of America, however elusive that is of a definition pleasing everybody? The answer seems to be very well indeed. As one of the many journals here of cultural and religious renewal, Crisis, put it: "...America is a Catholic project — which is not to say the American project is antithetical to other religions, but that it is integrally consistent with the relation of Catholic spirituality to politics." Similarly, a nineteenth-century observer, the French aristocrat, Alexis de Tocquevillc, saw affinities between the Church and the United States: "[Catholicism] listens to no compromise with mortal man, but, reducing all the human race to the same standards, it confounds all distinctions of society at the foot of the same altar, even as they are confounded in the sight of God.Just so America.
Undoubtedly, the Church is at the heart of America today, and shares and reflects the problems of the secular society, as the recent school violence illustrates.
Two days after the killings in a San Diego high school, a 13-year-old was shot, though not fatally, by a classmate, in the cafeteria of a Catholic school in rural Pennsylvania. This happened only a couple
of hours after a priest had spoken to thc assembled students about the importance of preventing a repetition of the events in San Diego two days before. Although this was the first time in recent memory that such an incident has happened in a Catholic school, it suggests that the purlieus of the Church may no longer he safe from the evils of the world, a thought troubling to a parent of young children.
Moreover, in the Church as in the wider society, Americans are deeply divided into liberals and conservatives. Liberals outside the Church, especially those who dominate the media, recognize the power of some conservative Catholics, and rub their hands in glee at their embar
rassments, such as those of a parish close to the centre of power. The church of St. Catherine of Sienna, some twenty miles from downtown Washington, is spiritual home to some 4,000 members, including many from outside the parish boundary, who are drawn to the vibrant, traditional liturgy and orthodox preaching. Its members include conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, Republican Senator Rick Santorum, and FBI Director Louis Freeh. It also included, until very recently, FBI Special Agent Robert P. Hanssen, arrested for spying.
Catholics are not only at the heart of America, but in the vanguard of the battle for America's heart. This is increasingly a struggle for order, tradition, custom, and particularly for public probity and limited government, against an amoral and chaotic selfishness, typified for many by the Clinton Administration. The campus radicals of the Sixties have been used to being in the scats of power, and have dominated education, politics and the media for some time.
The ecclesiastical radicals, similarly, have been used to calling the tune, since taking advantage of the conciliar movement, and ushering in all sorts of liturgical and doctrinal liberties, undreamt of by the Council Fathers. I do not believe, for instance, that the reverend Fathers envisaged the work of two Michigan priests: one who wore a pony-tail and a leather jacket and organized mass blessings of motorcycles, and another who replaced the crucifix and images in his church with more romanticlooking pictures of the resurrected Jesus, and who liked to cross-dress at parish fancy dress parties.
Much lamented by some middleaged clergy, who are sometimes amazingly favourable to the secularizing agenda of the anti-religious liberals like the Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, is the increasing trend among the younger clergy (younger, of course, than those two mentioned above) to welcome things like clerical and liturgical disci
pline. The younger generation actually like Latin and the special things of Catholicism that make it indispensable, and make life worth living what G.K.Chesterton called "The Romance of Orthodoxy". In contrast, it is rather sad speaking to those who harbour Sixties' nostalgia. All those love-fests, folk masses and flower children; all the emoting, protesting, and cant of liberation, appears now to be a disappointing hallucination.
The gathering strength of the Church here lives in the real and authentic light of the Catholic tradition, rather than in the borrowed weeds of hedonistic secular liberalism, which is finally seen to he the god that failed. There are innumerable, thriving pockets here of orthodoxy and classical learning. Small, independent, liberal arts colleges, like Thomas More College in New Hampshire, are devoted to Newman's idea of a truly liberal education, and partly compensate for the secularization of the great Catholic universities, like Notre Dame, Georgetown and Loyola.
The attempt in those places to accommodate the secular society, the misbegotten aim of Sixties' radical Catholics, has resulted merely in the disappearance of learning and the advance of political correctness.
In rural Michigan, the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal keeps alive the work of the father of American conservatism, and a convert to the Faith, his household functioning quite like the Platonic Academy that Erasmus saw in that of St. Thomas More. Perhaps more so than any post-war figure on either side of the Atlantic, Russell Kirk (1918-1994) laid the basis for a revival of tracktional, cultural conservatism, in the classical and Christian inheritance. It was his rediscovery of "the permanent things" that made his conversion to Catholicism a natural extension of his philosophy. He embodied, par excellence, the American gift for enquiring into the roots of things, and retelling to the older peoples of the West the things those people seem to have forgotten.
This may prove, in the retrospect of some hundreds of years hence, to have been the particular vocation and mission of the Church in America in our time.
As the larger lights of learning, culture and civilization continue to go out all over the West, so newly lit candles of traditional mould multiply and divide, and more so in America than in Europe. The paradox is that the spiritual bases for social unity should be so strong in the House Divided, where philosophical differences are so strongly marked.
But as the snow begins to melt in warming Maine, my intimations are of spring rather than of winter.