Just Good Company
A Cyberjournal of Religion and Culture
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On May 16, we asked Bill Burrows, a former member of the Society of the Divine Word and an editor of Orbis Books in Ossining, New York, whether and how he thought Catholic culture was eroding.

Here is his quick but thoughtful reply on May 17:

The Erosion of Catholic Culture

Bill Burrows

Dear Bob,

I don't have any deep insights into the matter of the erosion of Catholic culture, as symbolized by the death of the Catholic Book Club, but it is a matter of real concern.  I think people of your and my generation, are increasingly dinosaurs. At 60 I may be ten years younger a dinosaur than you, but it's my contention that people like us grew up immersed in Catholic culture and the church has lost the ability to fascinate the young today to the degree it fascinated us then.

Through a variety of means, by the time we were in our late teens or early 20s, at a fairly deep level we said "Yes" to Catholic identity. At some level, that identity was a mixitum confusitum of church practices, pious beliefs, fairly sophisticated understanding of what we were choosing, and deciding at an intentional level to embrace the Catholic thing. Commitment to Christ and becoming a Socius Christi in the Jesuit sense may have been less brought into relief than it should have been, but high school and college retreats did something like that.

Those of us that went into religious life, especially those of us who went through the Ignatian Exercises, were brought to the equivalent of Protestant Evangelicalism's decision for Christ. Admittedly it was insinuated in the whole web of Catholic culture in general and becoming part of a community like the SJ or the SVD. And in the SVD at least, the decision "for" Christ was never portrayed as a decision "against" anyone else's religion. I know it was in some communities, but not in the Society of the Divine Word, at least not in my time in the late 1950s thru the mid-1960s -- before Vatican 2 took hold.

People like us, whether in religious or lay life, became the bulwark of the church. Lay people like Phil Scharper, for instance, were formed that way. So was a Justus George Lawler and a Pat and Patty Crowley. By taking those examples, I just refer to men and women we can use as reference points. Those names are names of very different people, but in one way or another, I think the old institutions brought people into the church in a way that insured they would live their lives in vital relation to the Gospel and the person of Jesus. They would grow in faith and become more integral, and I don't just mean with greater theological sophistication. I mean the kind of faith that lodges between the belly button and the backbone over a lifetime.

It's my contention that the church is losing the ability to do that. The readership of formally Catholic journals like America and Commonweal declines as people born before 1930 pass on. Catholic book publishers publish generic books of spirituality that will not offend anyone. If you read the three wonderful articles I just finished reading in America (12 May 2003) by Bob Taft, Willard Jabusch, and Bob Daily, you're introduced to a depth of Catholic liturgical thinking and spirituality that you just do not meet much any more. Certainly you do not have thousands upon thousands of people who one way or another are passing on the tradition like those three do. Most theology is purely intellectual. Doesn't lead people to bow down in awe at mystery. The modern Catholic university's approach to theology is so dominated by academic guild practices that it is virtually useless for discipleship. And when people think of discipleship at all, they usually think of it as leading people to embrace a [left-oriented] social cause. Little understanding that the kind of gifts that lead some to contemplation are just as valid. The kind of belly-aching that goes on over issues like the non-ordination of women or married men has come to a large number of people to be more important than turning oneself over to God in Christ in the Spirit and engaging in the kind of death/surrendering that leads to Gospel freedom.

I think, to sum up, that the shallowness of what passes as spirituality and theological book publishing is partially responsible for the demise of the "Catholic" book.  But the shallowness of what takes place in the church has perhaps seduced editorial houses into thinking it's useless to try to publish the sort of thing that leads people deeper into God, Christ, and the Spirit --- not as God "up there" but within life.  The genius of American Protestant Evangelicalism has been to lead people into that process. Liberals have a great contempt for Protestant Evangelicalism, too easily assuming it is all fundamentalism. Yet I think the core of the spiritual teaching of such giants as Benedict, Francis, Dominic, and Ignatius is precisely this kind of Evangelicalism.

A close friend of mine, Alan Neely, a Southern Baptist, died this week. Alan was a living exemplar of the truth that you can be an Evangelical while also being close to Christians in other denominations, close also to Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Atheists, etc. etc. The last time I saw Alan was in October of 2002, when he was leading a group of ten such followers of other "ways" around the floor at the annual meeting of the U S Catholic Mission Association. After retirement from Princeton and in spite of bad health, he founded the Raleigh Interfaith Council.

He never wavered in believing and practicing the fact that deep personal commitment of Jesus was completely compatible with being an erudite anthropologist, an expert in Latin American religious history, and a constant visitor at synagogues, mosques, temples, and meditation centers. It was his Evangelicalism that led him to that openness, because it led him to mystery and he suspected that those who were not acquainted with mystery were the Christians who believed Muslims, Jews, or Hindus had nothing essential to say. He knew they did, and he was a good listener.

Too many of us Catholics, perhaps especially on the left, where I still put myself in spite of what I've been writing, have lost touch with the mystery of God-within-among-and-between-us. It's become a matter of causes. I once wrote somewhere that there are strands of OT literature that indicate God was withdrawing his blessing from Israel because of its unfaithfulness. The Exile in Jeremiah's theology was such a chastisement. Of course, the withdrawal was not an abandonment of the covenant. Just a bit of tough love. Christians reading that, especially Catholics, think of NT promises of Jesus to be always with the church. It couldn't happen to us. I think it may be happening. Or that it could happen.


William R Burrows
Managing Editor Orbis Books
P O Box 308 - 75 Ryder Rd
Maryknoll NY 10545-0308
Voice: 914-941-7636, ext 2387
Fax: 914-945-0670
Email: bburrows@maryknoll.org