In Lumen Gentium, one of the key documents of Vatican II, we are told that “They are fully incorporated into the society of the Church who, possessing the spirit of Christ, accept her entire system.” It is therefore somewhat disquieting to find that, while accepting “her entire system,” and presumably being fully incorporated into the universal Church, one can nevertheless be relegated to a subculture within the Canadian Church.
But this is how sociologist Michael Cuneo regards what he calls Revivalist Catholics. They are the ones who maintain that religious truth transcends history and culture, who uphold doctrinal and moral absolutes, who defend hierarchy and insist that theology is subordinate to the magisterium, and who repudiate accommodation to the value system of secularism, pluralism in religious education, and unfettered experimentation in the liturgy. More specifically, they pointedly reject contraception and are uncompromising in their opposition to abortion.
Sociologically speaking, Cuneo claims to have discovered them. In his book Catholics Against the Church: Anti-Abortion Protest in Toronto, 1969-1085, he describes the subculture they form as a vital, perhaps revolutionary, force in Canadian Catholicism, which has not yet received the attention it deserves from scholars of religion.
This is not only disquieting but disorienting. One cannot help but feel somewhat off balance when contemplating a group that from an historical and global perspective is in the mainstream of Catholicism, but from a contemporary and national perspective is on the fringes. The problem, perhaps, is that the usual sociological categories cannot be applied without modification to the society that is the Catholic Church.
According to her own self-understanding, as re-stated in Vatican II, the Church is the defender and interpreter of a truth she did not herself discover. She is not a secular society like Canada, which can re-write its constitution and continue as the same country. If she were able to change her received mandate and structure, she would change into something else. She might still be a church, but she would not still be the Catholic Church.
So it is difficult to see how a group that accepts her at her word can be labeled a subculture. No matter how small and marginalized the group may become in other particular contexts, it is part of the mainstream culture in the context of the universal Church.
Perhaps Cuneo ought not to have introduced the concept of a Canadian Church. There really is no such thing. The Catholic Church is not, and was never meant to be, a kind of federation of national churches. The national Episcopal conferences, as such, have no mandate to teach and govern. It is the bishops, each in his own diocese, who are the authentic teachers of Christian doctrine and rule the universal Church in union with the pope.
Union with the pope, of course, is crucial according to Catholic self-understanding. As long as full communion is maintained, one shares the Catholic world view and is immersed in Catholic culture. This is so whether one is a St. Jerome marginalized in a fourth-century apostate England, or a member of a so-called Revivalist minority struggling to defend the faith in a 20th-century secular Canada.
There may well be one or more subcultures of Catholics against the Church in Canada today, but the Revivalists are not among them. The Revivalists, rather, are Catholics for the Church. Cuneo misses the mark when he locates them in a tradition that includes such heretical groups as Donatists and Jansenists.
He discovered the Revivalist subculture while studying the specifically Catholic aspects of the Canadian pro-life movement. He considers “Revivalist” the best of several alternative labels, and to avoid confusion I have retained it in this review. I do so, however, without conceding the extremist connotations with which he has invested the term.
Revivalists are the most militant of three types of pro-life activists uncovered in his research. In the late 1970s, Cuneo says, they took control of the pro-life initiative through the newly organized Campaign Life, and changed it from “a movement of political reform to one of religious crusade.” To Revivalists, the abortion issue signifies “a spiritual conflict between a transcendent value system and a godless utilitarianism masquerading as compassionate humanism.” What is at stake is “the survival of Canadian Catholicism as an authentic vessel of transcendence and eternal salvation.”
Civil rights activists and family heritage activists complete Cuneo’s pro-life trilogy. The former contend that the case for the unborn should be made “by appealing exclusively to scientific evidence and to basic principles of civil rights.” The latter agree with the Revivalists that abortion has implications beyond the destruction of the unborn, and they “link anti-abortion protest to a larger battle against the total breakdown of family, community, religion, and traditional morality …” However, their “religious style is less intense,” and “their anti-abortionism less dramatic…”
It is important to distinguish between Revivalists as individual Catholics and as members of Campaign Life. As Catholics, they support the unborn for religious reasons. (God created them in His image). As members of Campaign Life, they support them for secular reasons. (The common good requires that all be considered equal before the law.) Cuneo recognizes that pro-life activity can be both religious and secular. But he fails to point out that one can be religiously motivated to engage in it for secular reasons. Consequently, readers might confuse the religious goals of certain members with the secular objectives of the organization. This distinction is crucial in a pluralist society because it legitimizes political activity by religious adherents in areas where the interests of Church and State converge. Christ has been called the Prince of Peace, but no one on that account says Christians who campaign for nuclear disarmament are trying to impose their religious views on others. Everyone recognizes that peace is also a secular issue.
My direct experience with Campaign Life has been confined largely to Saskatchewan, where I was an executive member during the key years Cuneo chronicles. Our predominantly Catholic membership undoubtedly included some Revivalists, but we ran it as a non-religious organization. As we became aware that not all Catholics shared our dedication to legal protection of the unborn, some of us may have intensified our revivalist commitment, but we did not transform our part of the pro-life movement into a religious crusade.
Because the organization was and is uncompromising is no reason to call it religious. Most other secular human rights organizations are uncompromising, too. Consequently, I have to disagree with Cuneo’s assertion that “the founding of Campaign Life in the late 1970s was an attempt by Revivalists to raise the pro-life movement from a political to a sacred plane…” Whether that has changed in recent years I am not in a position to judge.
His book probes the enmities that arose within the pro-life movement, and between it and such Church people as the Canadian bishops and what he calls Social Justice Catholics. He is particularly interested in the larger conflict, as he regards the pro-life movement as “the symbolic point of fracture for a widening ideological dichotomy within Canadian Catholicism.” He is aware, of course, that this is a puzzling paradox. The Church has condemned abortion throughout her history, Vatican II called it an unspeakable crime, and the new Code of Canon Law retains it as an excommunicated offence.
Nevertheless, the Revivalists contend that in Canada the institutional church has virtually “given up the fight against abortion.” They complain that the bishops have become too “timid and defensive” to withstand the dominant culture and that they “bear the ultimate blame for the collapse of Catholic battlements before the forces of secular humanism.” For their part, the bishops regard the Revivalists as “choleric and confrontational.” Since the late 1970s, Cuneo says, the pro-life movement has been informally excommunicated from the graces of the Canadian hierarchy, and the attitude of most prelates toward it has been one of studied avoidance.
In a chapter on the politics of ecumenism, he states that anti-abortionism is considered too Catholic an issue to accord with the ecumenical agenda the bishops share with the non-Catholic Canadian churches. He recognizes that the bishops are doctrinally pro-life. But he believes they do not wish to sacrifice the “ecumenical consensus” for the sake of a harder, more visible stand against abortion when they have no guarantee it will achieve the desired results.
He calls Revivalist Catholics and Social Justice, or “Progressive,” Catholics “bitterly opposed factions competing for ideological ascendancy within the Canadian Church.” Although most Progressives disapprove of abortion, they tend to regard it primarily as a matter of “personal or private morality.” It has no legitimate place, they say, as a public issue in the political arenas. They propose a theology that Revivalists feel de-emphasizes the supernatural in favor of the experiential; prefer a “democratized” accessible structure and “a greater range of doctrinal, liturgical and ethical pluralism,” and argue that the Church is called to become a vehicle of political emancipation and the conversion of unjust social structures and cultural attitudes. In the Revivalist view, many Progressives have substituted faith in political transformation for faith in a transcendent God and everlasting life.
Scholarly but flawed
Catholics Against the Church is a scholarly work which contributes to our understanding of competing conceptions of the pro-life movement and the Catholic world view. The author largely succeeds in treating a complex subject fairly and objectively. And yet, as already indicated, he fails to properly locate the Revivalist Catholics whom he regards as the most significant discovery of his research. He considers them a separatist sect, a subculture with an “impulsion toward aficionado religious commitment,” whose ritual of perfection is political protest on behalf of the unborn.
How could he think otherwise when he has not identified an objective standard against which to measure the Catholicity of the competing conceptions of church? I have identified Vatican II, in particular Lumen Gentium, as the appropriate standard. It presents what the Church has always understood herself to be, and in that light the Revivalists are mainstream Catholics. Theological and liturgical pluralism are consistent with that standard, but not doctrinal and ethical pluralism, not the “pick and choose” Catholicism that Cuneo sadly documents and Revivalists deeply resent, and certainly not a democratized ecclesial structure.
He says Revivalists made anti-abortion protest the “litmus test” or the “touchstone” of genuine faith. But surely loyalty to the magisterium is a more fundamental criterion. All Revivalists are certainly pro-life, but not all are pro-life activists. Nor are they “religious virtuosos” when they practice chastity, assist at daily Mass, confess frequently, say the rosary and attend Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. They, of course, stand out in a secular age, but Cuneo seems to think such conduct extreme, as indicated by his use of the terms “inflamed” Marian piety and “all-absorbing religiosity.”
Despite its shortcomings, there is much in the book that is helpful to the pro-life movement. Cuneo demonstrates that it is sociologically untenable to regard abortion as a matter only of personal or private morality. He refutes the charge that militant pro-life activists are single issue people and uniformly right-wing. He cites statistics which, contrary to pro-choice propaganda, show that only a minority of Canadians favor unrestricted legal abortion. He testifies from personal observation that the media image of pro-life violence at the Harbord Street abortion clinic is without substance. On the contrary, he witnessed pro-life picketers being threatened with violence and subjected to bigoted verbal abuse.
In several places, he questions the quality of Campaign Life’s commitment to the unborn. He suggests, in effect, that it has been more concerned with proclaiming the truth uncompromisingly than with saving babies. This is a serious charge and raises the question whether one ought to settle for a law that may save some when it seems politically impossible to save all. Campaign Life has responded with a resounding “no,” and its members have demonstrated their commitment to saving babies by participating in Operation Rescue and going to jail for it. God bless them.
Joe Campbell is a press officer for the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon.