A Protestant Look At American Catholicism

by John C. Bennett, Stanley Lowell and William Clancy

John C. Bennett was Dean of Union Theological Seminary in New York City, where he taught Christian ethics. Dr. Bennett has written Christians and the State (Scribner). One of the founders of Christianity and Crisis he served as co chairman of the Editorial Board.

C. Stanley Lowell was in 1960 Associate Director of Protestants and Other Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. He also edits their monthly publication Church and State.

William Clancy was a former editor of the noted Catholic weekly The Comonweal, and of Worldview, a journal of religion and international affairs. A consultant to the Fund for the Republic’s study of Religion in a Democratic Society, Mr. Clancy also serves as Education Director of the Church Peace Union, an interfaith organization with headquarters in New York City.

This article appeared in Christianity and Crisis in 1958. Copyright by Christianity and Crisis. Used by permission. This text was prepared by John R. Bushell.


A debate between three ethicists about the state of Catholicism in America.

The attitudes of Americans toward church-state relations depend in considerable measure on their attitude toward Roman Catholicism. The chief concern that lies back of the convictions of non-Catholics is the concern for religious liberty, and the chief threat to religious liberty is seen in the tremendous growth of Roman Catholicism as a cultural and political power in the United States.

There are two deep problems connected with Catholicism that must be emphasized at the outset of any discussion. One is the dogmatic intolerance that is itself a part of the Roman Catholic faith. This dogmatic intolerance need not lead to civil intolerance, but there is a tendency for it to do so just as was the case when it characterized the major Protestant bodies. This dogmatic intolerance becomes all the more difficult for non-Catholics when it is associated not only with distinctly religious dogma, but also with elements of natural law that are not accepted as divinely sanctioned moral demands by most non-Catholics. This is true of birth control, of some matters of medical ethics. It is true even of gambling under limited conditions, though this has to do not with a moral demand but with a moral permission! One symptom of the dogmatic intolerance that is most objectionable to non-Catholics is the strict Catholic regulation concerning the religion of the children of mixed marriages.

The other basic problem is the real tension between an authoritarian, centralized hierarchical church and the spirit of an open, pluralistic, democratic society. There is abundant evidence that Catholics in this country do sincerely believe in democracy and practice this belief, but I do not see how they themselves can deny that their polity poses a problem for democracy that is not posed by churches which make their decisions in regard to public policy by processes of open discussion in which both clergy and laymen share. The polity of the Episcopal Church does give bishops meeting separately a veto over many things, but it also gives the laity voting separately in the dioceses a veto over the choice of bishops. I mention this as an example of one of the more hierarchical forms of polity outside the Roman Catholic Church.

The Roman polity is itself a matter of faith and therefore religious liberty includes the liberty to preserve that type of polity. And if it is said that the papacy creates a problem of peculiar difficulty because it is from the point of view of the nation a "foreign power," the answer that Protestants should be able to accept is that the Church as Church is supranational and the religious liberty of all Christians includes their right to have relationships, suitable to their polity, with the universal Church.

American Protestants are troubled over far more than these abstract problems created by the Catholic faith and ecclesiastical structure. They resent much that is done by the Catholic Church in America and they fear greatly what may yet be done. The books by Paul Blanshard, especially his American Freedom and Catholic Power (Beacon Press, 1949), marshal many facts that both Catholics and Protestants should take seriously. It is unfortunate that Mr. Blanshard has presented his material in such a way as to confuse criticism of many particular applications of Catholic teaching with what seems to be an attack on the freedom of a church to have its own authoritarian structure as a matter of faith. Also, he writes not from a Protestant but from a secularist point of view, and thus sees no inherent problem in the relation of religion to public education. He is quite satisfied with the complete separation of school and religion. There is a tendency to exaggerate the monolithic character of world-wide Catholicism under papal direction, and Mr. Blanshard's projection upon the future of the indefinite threat of Catholic power to American democracy does not, it seems to me, do justice to the four considerations I will emphasize later. The book is the work of a very energetic and well-informed prosecutor and should be used as such.

The general thesis of this article is that, while many of these resentments and fears are justified, it is a mistake to project them in indefinitely extended form upon the future and to allow all of our thinking about' Catholicism and most of our thinking about church-state relations to be controlled by them in that extended form. After outlining the grounds for some justified resentments and fears in this article, I will deal with other facts about Catholic life that should play a larger part than they do in Protestant attitudes toward Catholicism.

The Catholic Church is not a majority church in the country at large and, since immigration has been greatly limited, its rate of growth has not been quite as rapid as the rate of growth of the Protestant churches. But its strength is distributed so as to give it great majorities in some cities, and enormous political power and cultural influence in many states. It is extremely difficult for Protestants and other non-Catholics to live with Catholicism as the religion of a large local majority. It has likewise been difficult in the past for Catholics to live with Protestantism as the religion of a large local majority.

The centralized organization and the absolute claims of the Church enhance the difficulty, but Protestants must not forget that any small minority feels pressure that arouses resentments and fears under these circumstances. Part of the problem is a universal human tendency that does not depend on a particular ecclesiastical situation. However, it is the threat of a local majority that leads non-Catholics to emphasize the protections of religious liberty in the Federal Constitution. Catholics also have had occasion to appeal to these same protections, but today their chief desire is to establish a somewhat flexible interpretation of the First Amendment.

Non-Catholics have grounds for resenting the tendency of Catholics to use their power to impose Catholic ideas of natural law. They see it in the birth control legislation in Massachusetts and Connecticut; they see it in the Catholic pressure to remove welfare agencies that have birth control clinics from local community chests elsewhere; they see it in the Catholic objection to divorce laws that are much more flexible than the law of the Church; they see it in the attempts to have non-Catholic hospitals adopt the Catholic ideas of medical ethics in the field of obstetrics.

Non-Catholics have grounds for resenting and fearing the tendency of Catholics, when they have the power, to seek control of the public school system to bend it to Catholic purposes. Parochial schools could operate as safety valves for the public schools but this is often not the case. When Catholics dominate the public school boards they sometimes discriminate against non-Catholic teachers. In extreme cases that have been much publicized they have operated public schools as though they were parochial schools. Perhaps more serious in the long run is the tendency of Catholics in some places to oppose needed bond issues or appropriations for the public schools. This is not a surprising reaction to the double burden of education costs that they themselves bear, but it is very bad for education.

Non-Catholics have grounds for resenting and fearing Catholic boycotts of communications media, including the publishers of books, and boycotts of local merchants who have some connection with a policy that they oppose. Fear of Catholic boycott often operates as a reason for self-censorship. Newspapers are influenced by this fear and it is very difficult to get news published that may be unfavorable to the Catholic Church.

No one can criticize the Catholic Church or any other church for seeking to discipline the theatergoing or the reading of its own constituency. Boycotting that consists only of this self-discipline within the Church may be unfortunate in some of its effects, but it is not open to objection in principle. It is the punitive boycott directed against all that a particular agency may do that interferes with the freedom of non-Catholics.

The desire of many Catholics to have the United States send a diplomatic representative to the Vatican has become a symbol to most Protestants of the many things that they resent in the use of Catholic power. This issue is confused because it is obvious that in the world at large the representation of a nation at the Vatican is not interpreted as a sign that the nation involved shows favoritism to the Catholic Church. Otherwise there would not be representatives from many non-Christian countries, from Britain which has a state church that is not the Catholic Church, nor from France which is secularist and anti-clerical in its politics.

But it is only fair to recognize the fact that the very size of the Catholic Church in this country and the absence of any state church, the existence of which would prove that the Catholic Church is not the favored church, makes American Protestants feel that diplomatic representation at the Vatican is a great concession to one American church in contrast to others. American Protestants emphasize the fact that the Pope is the head of one American church rather than the fact that the Vatican is the center of a diplomatic service which, as a unique institution of the old world, cannot be grasped by the American logic governing church-state relations.

Though I do not believe that this issue is as important as most Protestant leaders have made it, I have come to see that the meaning of representation at the Vatican to American non-Catholics in view of the actual religious situation in this country is natural, and the fact that this meaning exists here is more important than the fact that it does not exist in Britain or in Japan, for there are objective reasons for the difference. Because of them I believe that diplomatic representation of the American government at the Vatican will inevitably be interpreted as unfair to non-Catholics in this country.

Having summarized the grounds for Protestant fears and resentments in the face of the growth of Catholic power, I would now like to call attention to four characteristics of Catholicism that are often neglected in American Protestant discussions of this subject.

The first of these characteristics is Roman Catholicism's great variations from culture to culture and from country to country. The vision of many Protestants of a monolithic Catholic Church, built somewhat on the lines of the Stalinist empire, that is controlled from the Vatican is very wide of the mark. Historically it has proved itself capable of adjustment to the greatest variety of cultural conditions instead of being one kind of religious ethos exported from Rome.

The difference between French Catholicism and Spanish Catholicism almost belongs to the study of comparative religion. Catholicism in western Europe is utterly different from Catholicism in Latin America. In Germany, France, Holland, Belgium, Switzerland, and England we see what Catholicism can be when it is religiously and culturally mature and when it has learned to live with strong Protestant and secularist competition. There is remarkable intellectual ferment in the Catholic Church in those countries. Catholic thinkers take considerable theological freedom and they are especially free in their thinking about political issues. There is a long standing effort to overcome the political and economic conservatism that has been the great handicap of the Church in reaching the working classes.

There is very much more discussion between Protestant and Catholic thinkers on a theological level in Europe than there is in this country. One interesting phenomenon is the fresh study of Luther and the Reformation by Catholic scholars that has shattered the old Catholic stereotypes. American Catholicism differs from western European Catholicism in that it has no rich cultural background. It has a strong feeling of cultural inferiority to American Protestantism as well as to European Catholicism. Intellectual ferment is exactly what it lacks. The reasons for this are obvious as American Catholicism represents the tides of immigration that brought to this country millions of Europeans who had had few opportunities in their own countries.

Protestants as they view the development of Catholicism have good reason to assume that as it becomes more mature culturally and theologically it will have more flexibility of mind and that there will be greater tolerance and breadth in dealing with non-Catholics and with the public issues that concern Protestants most.

I should add here that Catholicism needs not only the kind of maturing that takes time in a new country, but it needs to have two other things. One is the strong competition from non-Catholic sources - Protestant, Jewish, secularist. It has had one or more of these types of competition in every one of the western European countries that I named. The worst thing that can happen to Catholicism is for it to have the religious monopoly to which it feels entitled because of its exclusive claims! Protestants, therefore, have a responsibility to confront Catholicism with a positive Protestant theology, and that is happening today in many countries because of the recent theological revival in Protestantism.

The other element that is very important in the environment for the development of Catholicism along the lines that I have suggested is the presence of a liberal, democratic political tradition. This has greatly modified Catholic political attitudes and it is most fortunate that, under the stimulus of democracy, Catholics can find the antecedents of democracy in their own tradition, especially in the great Jesuit political philosophers, such as Francisco Suarez, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. They also discover antecedents of democracy in Thomas Aquinas.

This combination of continuous encounter with non-Catholics on a basis of political mutuality and the influence of liberal democratic ideas enables Catholics to avoid the civil intolerance that causes most anxiety among Protestants.

A second characteristic of Roman Catholicism is suggested by the fact that much of the Catholic aggressiveness that is most offensive to Protestants is sociologically conditioned. It is a result of the sheer energy that it has taken for Catholics to improve their position in a new country and in an alien culture, and it also reflects some social resentment for past disabilities on the part of people who have won social power.

We forget today the long and bitter history of nativist anti-Catholicism, but the memories of it do not die so easily among Catholics themselves.

Today changes are coming so rapidly and the economic, social, and cultural opportunities for Americans of many ethnic backgrounds are so much alike that we can expect to see the particular sociological reasons for Catholic aggressiveness become less important.

Paul Blanshard recognizes that there is some truth in this consideration. After describing the role of the Irish in American Catholicism, he says:

This Irish dominance explains many of the characteristics of American Catholicism. The Irish hierarchy which rules the American Church is a "becoming" class. It represents the Irish people struggling up in a hostile environment, using the Roman system of authoritative power to compensate for an inner sense of insecurity which still seems to survive from the days when Irish Catholics were a despised immigrant minority. Boston is aggressively Catholic largely because it is aggressively Irish, and it is aggressively Irish because its people have not quite overcome their sense of being strangers in a hostile land.

One of the most convincing pieces of evidence in favor of this judgment concerning the social dynamics of American Catholicism is found in Kenneth Underwood's study in depth of Protestant-Catholic relations in one city that has had a large Catholic majority for some decades. Professor Underwood reports on the attitudes of both laymen and clergy from various parishes in Holyoke, Massachusetts. He finds that it is the parishes made up of recent immigrants who have not been much assimilated into American life, where the most intolerant attitudes are found. It is those parishes where the rigid ideas of the priests are most readily accepted by laymen. He says:

The upper income, well educated Catholic lay-men are much less receptive to clerical guidance as to the practical social implications of moral and religious laws of the church than are the lower income, more poorly educated Catholics. The former tend also to be much more appreciative of the role of the Protestant churches in supplementing or correcting Catholic action.

A third fact about Catholicism that needs to he understood by Protestants is that the Catholic Church is divided from top to bottom, in this country and abroad, on matters of principle in regard to religious liberty. There is a traditional main-line position that favors the confessional Catholic state as the ideal type of relationship between church and state. This view would limit the rights of religious minorities in a nation that has a very large Catholic majority. These limitations would have to do with public propagation of the non-Catholic faith rather than with freedom of worship or freedom of teaching inside the Protestant Church. Under such circumstances there would be a union of state and church and the state as state would profess the Catholic faith.

This position is sometimes called the "thesis" and the adjustments of the Church to religiously pluralistic nations, including the acceptance by American Catholics of the American constitutional separation of church and state, involve a second-best position called the "hypothesis." Father John A. Ryan, a noted Catholic liberal on all economic issues, is responsible for a famous statement on this subject. He states the traditional thesis and then tries to soften it for Americans by saying:

While all of this is very true in logic and in theory the event of its practical realization in any state or country is so remote in time and in probability that no practical man will let it disturb his equanimity or affect his attitude toward those who differ from him in religious faith.

So long as Protestants, especially those who live in cities that already have large Catholic majorities, realize that there are authoritative statements of the so-called Catholic thesis of the confessional state as representing the ideal possibility, they will not be greatly comforted by Father Ryan's assurances. It is simply not enough for a church that operates in the light of very clear dogmatic principles to make concessions on the issue of religious liberty for non-Catholics on a pragmatic basis alone if its dogmatic principles still point to a confessional Catholic state in which, as the ideal, the religious liberties of minorities are severely restricted.

It is important to realize that a very able and earnest attempt is being made by Catholic scholars in this country, with much support from Catholics in western Europe, to change the principles as well as the practice of the Church in this matter. This attempt is associated chiefly with the work of Father John Courtney Murray, but it is gaining a good deal of support elsewhere too. A careful statement of his position is found chiefly in his many articles in the Jesuit quarterly Theological Studies. (See especially March, 1953; June, 1953; December, 1953; March, 1954. Also, "Governmental Repression of Heresy" reprinted from the Proceedings of the Catholic Theological Society of America.)

Here I shall attempt to summarize his main conclusions, but it should be recognized that these are abstracted from very complicated historical expositions and come in large part from Father Murray's analysis of the encyclicals of Pope Leo XIII in order to show what is permanent and what is historically conditioned in those encyclicals. With apologies to Father Murray for oversimplification of the kind that is alien to his own mind, I shall attempt to give the substance of his position in the following propositions:

The idea of a confessional Catholic state belong to an earlier period in European history and it has become an irrelevancy under contemporary conditions.

Anglo-Saxon democracy is fundamentally different from the democracy of the French Revolution which Was totalitarian in tendency. The state in this country is, by its very nature, limited, and in principle the Church does not need to defend itself against such a state as it did with the nineteenth century revolutionary states that formed the immediate background of Leo's political thinking.

There is no anti-clerical or anti-religious motivation behind the American constitutional provision for church-state relations and the Church need not defend herself against this doctrine as such.

The Church in America has, as a matter of fact, enjoyed greater freedom and scope for its witness and activities than it has in the Catholic states of the traditional type.

It is important to emphasize the rights of the state in its own sphere, the freedom of the Church from state control, and tl1e influence of Catholic citizens upon the state.

It is impossible to separate religious freedom from civil freedom, and there can be no democracy if the freedom of the citizen is curtailed in religious matters, for such curtailing can often take place as a means of silencing political dissent.

Error does not have the same rights as truth, but persons in error, consciences in error, do have rights that should be respected by the Church and state.

The Church should not demand that the state as the secular arm enforce the Church's own decisions in regard to heresy.

It does more harm than good to the Church for the state to use its power against non-Catholics.

I think that all of these propositions fit together into a self-consistent social philosophy. They are presented by Father Murray as a substitute for the traditional Catholic thesis concerning the confessional state. They have made considerable headway among both clergy and laity in this country. They correspond to views that are held in Europe and have support in the Vatican itself.

In December, 1953, after this point of view was strongly rebuked by Cardinal Ottaviani in Rome in an address defending the Spanish conception of a confessional Catholic state as the ideal, Pope Pius XII somewhat ambiguously made room for Murray's position in a speech to a convention of Catholic jurists. The fact that he did this in the midst of a transAtlantic controversy within the Church has encouraged American Catholics who hold this view to believe that the Pope was sympathetic to it. That is the most that can be said.

American Protestants should realize, therefore, that the Roman Church is not a vast international machine designed to overturn their liberties, if this were to become politically possible, and that they have many allies in the Catholic Church who share their belief in religious liberty on principle.

The fourth fact about the Catholic Church is that there are many points of disagreement on social policy among Catholics; there is no one Catholic line on most public issues. There is agreement on birth control as a moral issue, but even here there is no agreement as to what the state should do about it. Catholics generally do not today advocate strict laws on the subject except in the two states in which those laws are already in force. On economic issues there is a broad Catholic pattern based upon the organization of producers' groups, but this is far from obligatory and it gives rise to endless differences so far as application is concerned.

Catholics differ as to whether a war with modern weapons can be just. There is a deep difference between Catholics in various nations on forms of government. Catholic doctrine makes room for governments based upon popular sovereignty but does not prescribe this universally. Even on communism there are great differences in temper between European and much American Catholicism.

It is an understatement to say that the Catholic hierarchy did not act helpfully on the issue of McCarthyism, but that was because they were deeply divided. There is no doubt that McCarthy had a strong hold on large groups of Catholics, especially Irish Catholics, but it is also true that some of the most eloquent opposition to McCarthy came from Catholic sources, notably such journals as The Commonweal and America. American Protestants need not fear that Catholics will usually throw their great weight as a religious community in the same political direction. This will tend to be even less a danger as Catholics move further away from the status of an immigrant bloc. In general we can say that natural law does not guarantee agreement on concrete issues, but we can also say that natural law plus prudence equals flexibility.

I have outlined briefly four aspects of Catholicism of which American Protestants should take account. Though they give no assurance as to the direction that Catholicism may take in the next generation, they may release us from exaggerated fears based on past experience in this country alone. Protestants should put more rather than less emphasis upon positive elements of Protestant faith and doctrine. They should join Catholics in rejecting superficial forms of religious harmony so often urged in the interests of national unity. But they can live with their Catholic neighbors in the hope that greater mutual understanding and the sharing of moral and political purposes may become possible.



American Freedom and Catholic Power (Beacon Press, 1958), p. 38.

Protestant and Catholic (Beacon Press, 1957), p. 94.

J. Ryan and F. Boland, Catholic Principles of Politics (Macmillan, 1940), p.320. 

American Freedom and Catholic Power (Beacon Press, 1958), p. 38.

Protestant and Catholic (Beacon Press, 1957), p. 94.

J. Ryan and F. Boland, Catholic Principles of Politics (Macmillan, 1940), p.320.


Salient Facts Overlooked

A Concerned Protestant Suggests Another View of Catholic Religious Liberty

By C. Stanley Lowell

It impresses me that in his "argument from difference" in regard to Catholic views on religious liberty.

John Bennett overlooks some salient facts. He fails to mention that while the "American view" of Father Murray was being advanced against the traditional Catholic view of religious liberty pressed by the Spanish hierarchy, Cardinal Ottaviani’s statement settling the issue was approved by the Pope as "unexceptionable." Nor does he mention that Cardinal Ottaviani, as Secretary of the Supreme Congregation of the Holy Office, was perhaps the Pope’s closest confidant.

Dr. Bennett does make vague mention of a speech in which the Pope, himself in vague language, seems to lend some approval to "the American view." If any such pronouncement exists, it must appear rather emaciated when contrasted with the overwhelming evidence of pronouncements on the other side.

While it is nice that Father Murray holds "libera1 views," the fact is that they have never gained any official recognition at the Vatican. Unfortunately, Father Murray speaks for no one, not even himself. Authoritative teaching of the American hierarchy in regard to religious liberty, a teaching squarely in line with the Church’s tradition, has been consistently presented by Father Francis J. Connell.

It seems curious, too, that Dr. Bennett should speak of "the influence of liberal democratic ideas [which] enables Catholics to avoid the civil intolerance that causes most anxiety among Protestants." He apparently wrote this at the very moment that New York was in an uproar over a sectarian medical code that the Roman Catholic Church had for years been imposing on public hospitals of that city.


John Bennett Reply: 

Mr. Lowell raises an important question. How influential in the Catholic Church is the view of Father Murray that was outlined in my article? I emphasized the fact that it is not the dominant view. It has the tradition of many centuries against it. The most that I can claim is that this issue of the religious liberty of non-Catholics in a nation in which there is a predominance of Catholics is being debated on all levels and in many countries, and that the traditional position is being challenged with great ability. The so-called "dynamic interpreters," to use the name given by Father Gustave Weigel to the Murray position. have strong support among Catholic scholars and laymen in this country and in several other democratic countries.

Professor Kenneth Underwood, in Protestant and Catholic, points out that in Holyoke, Mass., 40 per cent of the clergy, and these the younger clergy, are receptive to this position (pp. 352-53). One difficulty is that, without raising the ultimate question of the theory of religious liberty, Catholics in this country can agree with the practical implications of Father Murray’s position on pragmatic grounds. Members of the hierarchy do not want to be put on the spot on a matter that involves revision of basic theory. The discussion is being carried out by scholars and laymen.

The speech by Cardinal Ottaviani actually revealed a division within the Church because he was strongly attacked publicly by Catholic spokesmen in this country1 even by such a diocesan journal as The Pilot in Boston. I have learned by word of mouth about the serious divisions in the Vatican concerning this speech. but this quickly becomes gossip and it is hard ~o evaluate. Pius XII’s address to which I referred (distributed in English translation on December 15, 1953) did not go further than the traditional position allows, but the timing of it suggests that he was in fact rebuking the extreme position advanced by Cardinal Ottaviani. The address itself shows the caution and even studied ambiguity that are common in papal utterances. The most that we can expect of any Pope on such matters is an indication of permissiveness. Remember that we are dealing here with a theoretical challenge of the traditional position; but this challenge has great significance because it fits the experience of Catholics in democratic countries. Elsewhere Pius XII made a very dear place for democracy.

As far as birth control is concerned, I agree with those who fight uncompromisingly for the freedom of non-Catholics on this issue. There are important issues between Protestants and Catholic and I do not Want to obscure them. Fortunately there is some disagreement among Catholic as to how far they

should press their position on the whole community by law. There is a favorable straw in the wind in the fact that they are not attempting to have laws such as those in Massachusetts and Connecticut enacted in other states. But if this means that they are relying on administrative action, as was the case in New York City hospitals, they need to be resolutely opposed.


Complex and Evolving Realities

By William Clancy

It is depressing to read the observations of C. Stanley Lowell. They give further evidence of remarkable inability even to glimpse the realities of Catholicism in the modern world. These realities, as John C. Bennett has observed, are complex and, in many areas, evolving. But, whatever may be the evidence to the contrary, Mr. Lowell insists that "the Roman Church" is simple and forever frozen in sonic medieval mold.

I am not hopeful that anything I, or any other Catholic, might say would bring him to a wider vision of Catholicism. Those who see it as authoritarianism pure and simple, a monolithic conspiracy against the "American way of life," are frozen in their mold. But for the sake of those Protestants and others who are interested I think some Catholic comment should be made.

The point I would make is general. But I must also point out several of his more outrageous inaccuracies.

Item: Mr. Lowell claims that Cardinal Ottaviani’s 1953 defense of the "traditional" Catholic church-state position was "approved" by the Pope as "unexceptionable." He further states that "if" (as Dr. Bennett wrote) the Pope once made a speech which "in vague language seems to approve ‘the American view,’" the Pope’s pronouncement, "if any such pronouncement exists must appear rather emaciated when contrasted with the overwhelming evidence of pronouncements on the other side."

These are startling observations. The late Pope himself never made any comment on Cardinal Ottaviani’s address. Someone in "the Vatican," who has never been identified, made a statement that while the Ottaviani position was "neither official nor semi-official" it was, nevertheless, "unexceptionable." And the "vague" papal pronouncement that Mr. Lowell seems to doubt was ever made was, in fact, a major -- some think historic -- allocution, delivered in 1953 to an audience of Italian jurists, in which Pope Pius XII laid down the principle that "in the interest of a higher and broader good, it is justifiable not to impede error by state laws and coercive measures." It remains true, Pius declared, that error has no rights "objectively," but "the duty to repress religious and moral deviation cannot be an ultimate norm for action. It must be subjected to higher and more general norms." Many Catholics in the West interpreted this principle, clearly stated by the Pope, as "officially" opening the way for the formulation of a new Catholic position on church-state relations.

Item: Mr. Lowell believes that "while it is nice {sic] that Father John Courtney Murray holds ‘liberal views,’ the fact is that they have never gained any official recognition at the Vatican. Unfortunately, Father Murray speaks for no one, not even himself."

Comment on this seems unnecessary in view of Pius XII’s pronouncement to the Italian jurists. One can only observe that it would be "nice" if Mr. Lowell had paid at least as much attention to the official papal address that undercut his view of Catholicism as he did to "the neither official nor semi-official" speech that supported it.

But of course he did not. And here we see the reason why most Catholics despair of any rational discussion with those who hold his views, particularly with supporters of Protestants and Other Americans United. As I observed before, they will insist that the Catholic Church is a simple, forever frozen authoritarian phenomenon, incapable of historic adaptation or self-criticism, no matter how impressive the evidence to the contrary may be. The historic ferment and developments in modern Catholic thought are dismissed (if anything is known about them) as atypical or even hypocritical. For how could it be otherwise in a Church that is "monolithic"? Period.

…But though the church has a life that is beyond history, it also moves in history and here it learns, adapts changes. I t is not the simple, mechanical "power" that some of its critics fear. The Church is living, not dead.

At the beginning of this century a great Roman pontiff, Leo XIII, wrote: "It is the special property of human institutions and laws that there is nothing in them so holy and salutary but that custom may alter it, or overthrow it, or social habits bring it to naught. So in the Church of God, in which changeableness of discipline is joined with absolute immutability of doctrine, it happens not rarely that things which were once relevant or suitable become in the course of time out of date, or useless, or even harmful."

Here was as "official" an observation as any Mr. Lowell could desire. And, in its spirit, the process of separating out those things that are essential from those that are unessential, of re-evaluating those things which, in the course of time, may have become useless or even harmful, will continue in the Catholic community during the reign of John XXIII. While it proceeds, Catholics will hope for patience and some intelligent understanding from those not of the household of their faith.