Fracturing Catholics: Big Idea Books, Daniel Rodgers, and the Fragmenting Catholic Church

Heaven Help Us pic 1

Rooney (Kevin Dillon): [Standing in line for confession] Hey, Williams, you got your list?

Williams (Stephen Geoffreys): Oh, yeah.

Rooney: Let’s have a look.

[Reading Williams’ list]

Rooney: Jesus! You got here you jerked off 168 times? And it’s been one month since your last confession? That’s an average of…

Williams: 5.6 times a day.

Rooney: Oh, my God, you can’t tell him that. He’ll cut your balls off.

– From the 1985 movie Heaven Help Us

For anyone who did time in Catholic school, speeches on the peril of wayward adolescent sexuality probably echo in the subconscious even as some of us move rapidly toward our late thirties.  “There is a beast living in each and everyone of you,” Father Abrizi (Wallace Shawn) tells his youthful Brooklyn charges just prior to a local mixer between local Catholic schools St. Basil and Our Lady of the Virgin Martyr in the 1985 comedy Heaven Help Us. “A filthy beast name lust! Lust is the Beast within you!”  Abrizi continues his admonishment warning the students that winged, sharp-toothed creatures from hell would one day rip their lust filled souls apart for indiscretions like those discussed by Kevin Dillon’s Rooney and Stephen Geoffrey’s Williams.  In his review of the film, Roger Ebert reminisced about the kind of sexual cautions his own Catholic instructors threw his way: “I remember a priest once warning my class, ‘Never touch yourselves, boys’ – without telling us where.”

While Heaven Help Us depicted the lives of a handful of Brooklyn kids attending Catholic school in 1966, its release in 1985 points to Catholicism’s expanding place in the public sphere of a nation built on Protestantism. As Daniel T. Rodgers points out in his new work Age of Fracture, the 1980s witnessed the blossoming of the Church’s political voice, a voice that had been muted for much of the twentieth century.  Bishop protests in 1983 over nuclear armament, the 1986 statement Economic Justice for All, and the Catholic Church’s central role in the Pro-Life movement, demonstrated a new cultural impulse, “the signs of a minority religious culture finding a new assertive voice,” notes Rodgers.[1]

For the past two weeks, ToM has been publishing responses to Rodgers work.  Joel Suarez and Alex Cummings provide valuable overviews, with the latter wondering how exactly we parse out causation from Rodger’s examples. Andrew Edwards points out one of the book’s fundamental contributions: a veritable catalogue of “elite failure,” a point the aforementioned Suarez might concede, but with the caveat that throughout Fracture, intellectual debates and transformations at the heart of fragmentation rub up against the political asphalt of the period.  Mark Sholdice highlights the surprising transnational aspects of Rodger’s work, notably the connection between Canadian cultural policy debates and America’s adoption and deployment of multiculturalism.  Finally, Brian Ingrassia asserts that while undeniably valuable, Fracture’s basic premise might be better described not as disassemblage, but breakdown and reassembly. “I would borrow Rodgers’s own terminology to say that the 1970s-1990s might better be understood as an age of disaggregation and reaggregation,” suggests the Middle Tennessee State professor.

As one might surmise, all this insightful commentary leaves little meat on the proverbial bone.   Yet, Rodger’s discussion of Catholicism and its move toward the public square in the last quarter of the 20th century in some ways demonstrates Suarez’s point about the book’s theoretical underpinnings colliding with real life. As a “big idea” book, Rodgers impressively synthesizes a vast array of seminal late twentieth century scholarship. His ability to place these diverse social, economic, and political movements in dialogue speaks to his formidable talents. However, “big idea” books are about sweeping conclusions and demand both depth and brevity.  Rodgers bravely and successfully summarizes and connects works by Foucault, Geertz, Rawls, and dozens of others. Still, one doesn’t witness what this means for average people.  Though as an invaluable “catalogue of elite failure,” Fracture tells us much, much less about how average people absorbed these ideas. By no means does this undermine the book’s worth; intellectual histories, more often than not, focus on elites, but when coupled with a careful curatorial attention to pop culture and current events, connecting Rodger’s abstractions with everyday life can brightly illuminate subjects and individuals.  In this regard, the Catholic Church provides a fine example.

According to Rodgers, abortion sparked the new, more vigorous cultural presence that came to define the Church in the late twentieth century. As suggested by Heaven Help Us, sexuality has long provided leaders – both lay and clergy – in the Catholic Church with an evil worth combating.  That abortion would serve as the initial means to enter into the burgeoning “culture wars” – the term that came to serve as lazy shorthand for the kind of social, economic, and political fracture of the century’s last twenty five years – should be unsurprising. Despite historic antipathy toward one another, evangelical Protestants and Catholics forged an anti-abortion alliance in the 1980s and 1990s that repeatedly challenged the provisions of Roe v. Wade and abortion access


The story of late twentieth century American Catholicism occupies a small, but significant place in Rodgers’s new work.  Abortion may have been the driving force, but more progressive constituencies within the Church mobilized to raise public awareness about the broader concerns. For example, Chicago’s Cardinal Joseph Bernardin talked about a “’seamless garment of life’” that included protections for the unborn but also the poor.  Bernardin’s “seamless garment” also laid out a “comprehensive program of human rights and social justice” that more progressive Catholics could embrace.[2]

While conservative sexuality may have been the dominant theme, other issues drew the attention of Catholic leaders and parishioners.  In 1986, in their pastoral letter on economic inequality, Economic Justice for All, Catholic bishops broke with their evangelical allies in questioning the centrality of markets and advocated for the indigent. “’The poor have the single most urgent economic claim on the conscience of the nation,’” the bishops wrote.[3]   Two years earlier, an internal feminist opposition within the Church arose to challenge the constant anti-abortion drumbeat.  A full page add in the New York Times, signed by over 100 Catholic women, many of them nuns, dissented from leadership’s position on abortion.[4] Clearly, even the Catholic Church, argues Rodgers, struggled to unite its flock under one message as competing factions – conservative, progressive and moderate – vied for influence. “There is no coherent ‘Catholic vote’ that coalesces around distinct issues and cuts across ethnic lines,” the Economist argued in 2012.  Catholic doctrine supports causes on the left and right so fealty to a political party depended more on other factors than religious belief, though as documented by Rodgers, more religious Catholics have increasingly joined forces with other equally devout Christians on issues like resisting provisions of Obamacare that required Catholic institutions to offer health plans that included birth control coverage.  American Catholics, the newspaper argued, were “more polarized and diverse” than ever before.

2009 -08-04-consumer-confidence-better

Politically and culturally, Catholicism has become more visible, in part due to the community’s value as a voting bloc. Nearly 70 million strong, one in every four voters is Catholic, a ratio that has stayed roughly the same for decades, but population shifts in recent years, to the Sunbelt from the urban Northeast and Midwest have altered politics. Remember Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign? During her run, Clinton’s campaign sometimes described her as the “tough nun” you had in school, a tactic directed at white working class voters uncomfortable with the cooler, more reserved Barack Obama.  In a notable SNL Weekend Update skit, Tina Fey satirized critics who argued Clinton was too much of a “bitch” to be President. “Bitches get stuff done,” asserted Fey. “That’s why Catholic schools use nuns to teach and not priests.  Those nuns are mean, old clams and they sleep on cots and they’re allowed to hit you.”  Sure, Fey admitted, at the end of the school year “you hated these bitches, but you knew the capital of Vermont.”

The 2008 Meryl Streep/Philip Seymour  Hoffman film Doubt, based on the award winning play, serves as another example, but one that also demonstrates the problematic nature of “big idea” books to fully address the lives of average Americans. Were you to depend exclusively on Rodgers for information about late 20th century Catholicism, an individual might walk away thinking the Church an institution of internal debate and occasional controversy, but moral fortitude and force. In Doubt, Sister Aloysius Beauvier  believes popular new priest, Father Brendan Flynn (Hoffman), to be guilty of child molestation.  While the movie never proves Sister Beauvier’s suspicions, nor does it dismiss them; instead, the movie suggests ambiguity.  In the end, even Beauvier is left to confess she has “doubt.”


Though taking place in the 1960s, Doubt refracted the trauma of the Church’s woeful record of child abuse that in America has crippled the institution over the past decade and a half.  While officials denounced abortion, declared protection of the poor, and opposed nuclear proliferation, its leadership knowingly tolerated child abuse. Tragic, pathetic, sad, and damning all at once, the Church’s sexual scandals undermined any moral authority it might have hoped to retain or assert.  Rather than an institution coming into its own, the Catholic Church now spends as much time ducking lawsuits and comedic barbs about pedophilia as it does administering its many social welfare programs.  After all, next to the government, the Catholic Church provides more care and aid to the poor and indigent than any other institution in the nation. The fact that jokes about too familiar priests serve as the Church’s most recognizable feature in modern America provides a melancholic tinge to Rodgers’s observations regarding Catholicism.

“Catholic opposition to abortion was inextricable from Catholic intellectual understanding of the purposes and nature of women’s reproductive capabilities,” writes Rodgers.[5] Conservative ideas about gender deeply influenced the Catholic pro-life movement, but such ideas rippled throughout the institution.  Sister Beauvier, whether correct in her assertions or not, represented the very division persisting between the clergy.  Though critical to the operation of Church infrastructure, nuns remained junior partners even as priestly sex scandals dominated headlines. In 2012, the Vatican sharply reprimanded the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, “an umbrella organization of women’s religious communities” representing 80 percent of Catholic Sisters in the U.S., for doctrinal impurity and challenging bishops who, the Vatican maintained were “the church’s authentic teachers of faith and morals.”  According to a Vatican report, the group had become a reservoir of radical feminism.  Too much emphasis on poverty and economic justice and not enough attention to abortion, declared the report, not to mention heretical advocacy for same sex marriage. Considering the role of bishops in facilitating sexual abuse, the Vatican’s assertions surely rubbed more than a few Catholics the wrong way.  Then again, when Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of the Catholic social justice lobby Network, spoke to the New York Times regarding the reprimand, she embodied the internal fracture noted by Rodgers but also Catholicism’s continued presence in the public sphere. “I would imagine that it was our health care letter that made them mad,” Campbell told the paper. “We haven’t violated any teaching, we have just been raising questions and interpreting politics.” Ironically, despite the Vatican’s objections and its general problems with gender, nuns represent the institution’s best opportunity to gain the moral high ground.

Having attended parochial Catholic school from 1982 to 1994 (and yes my family went to mass every Sunday without fail), I can say that it never felt like the Church was marching into the sunlight, but nor was it same religious minority that perhaps it had been earlier in the century.  James Coleman and Andrew Greely argued that Catholic schools did an equal and sometimes better job of educating students than their public counterparts.  Non-Catholics punctuated my own 12 years of Catholic education. Apparently, parents in Chicago’s south suburbs feared popery less than local public high schools. When our parish priest spoke about prejudice against Catholics, it seemed far-fetched.


Other Catholic schools educated students that did not share religious affiliations. In Chicago, and elsewhere, inner city adolescents often Black and Latino, attended schools like the fictional St. Basil in Heaven Help Us.  Unlike Protestants, Catholic churches did not abandon neighborhoods but instead absorbed populations now residing in once white ethnic communities. Father Janovich (Christopher Carley) tending to Detroit’s local Hmong population in Clint Eastwood’s 2008 Gran Torino might serve as one recent celluloid example. With all this said schools I attended may have some level of ethnic, religious, and to some extent racial diversity, but racism and anti-Semitism were hardly uncommon.

In Age of Fracture, Daniel T. Rodgers glides rather effortlessly over the intellectual underpinnings of late twentieth century America.  Much like viewing a city from the seat of an airplane, the view from above provides a clear insight into patterns and networks that everyday people traverse.  Unfortunately, such perspectives reduce us to the smallest of creatures, blips on a larger screen, difficult to discern and even harder to comprehend. Rodger’s work reminds us, perhaps unwittingly, that we need to swoop in closer to understand the intricacies of these networks and patterns, and what they mean for the rest of us hacking it out from day to day.

Previously on LOST:

1. Joel Suarez, Debating Dan Rodgers’s Age of Fracture

2. Alex Sayf Cummings, Why Fracture? The Problem of Causation in Rodgers’s Book

3. Andrew David Edwards, When Genius Fractured

4. Mark Sholdice, Some Fractured Thoughts

5. Brian Ingrassia, After the Fracture: An Age of Disaggregation and Reaggregation

6. Ryan Reft, Fracturing Catholics: Big Idea Books, Daniel Rodgers, and the Fragmenting Catholic Church

7. Jude Webre, Thin Is In: Rethinking 40 Years of Intellectual History in the Age of Fracture

[1] Daniel T. Rodgers, The Age of Fracture, Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2011, pg. 166-167.

[2] Ibid, pg. 169.

[3] Ibid, pg. 205.

[4] Ibid, pg. 172.

[5] Ibid, pg. 169.