In 1981, as the AIDS crisis was beginning its decimation of high-risk populations in America’s cities, the sexual revolution and women’s movement were manifesting themselves in exploding divorce rates and the Church was witnessing a steady erosion of vocations to the priesthood and religious life, Norbertine Father Alfred McBride recognized and put into words the increasing absence of a basic human virtue in American society — fidelity. That year, he published the book “Staying Faithful” as a call to reclaim what had been lost.
Now, 30 years later, with the fidelity crisis worsening rather than improving, Father McBride has substantially revised the book for today’s audience in the hopes of helping Catholics understand the critical importance of, as the book title says, “Staying Faithful Today: To God, Ourselves, One Another” (St. Anthony Messenger Press, $13.99). Each chapter concludes with a scriptural meditation and questions for group discussion and personal application, with the goal of rebuilding — brick by brick, person by person — the notion of fidelity.
Recently, Our Sunday Visitor spoke with Father McBride about his book and why it resonates so strongly in today’s culture. Answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Our Sunday Visitor: We think of fidelity and, for many of us, our first thought is that it means we shouldn’t commit adultery. But there’s much more to fidelity, isn’t there?
Father Alfred McBride: Yes, fidelity is a much broader virtue than not committing adultery. Fidelity is keeping your promises to God, family, country, self, friends and Church. Fidelity requires courage to make and keep your promises — the kind of courage that provides you with the imagination to find unique ways to be faithful. Fidelity is what our presidents need when they take the oath of office on Inauguration Day. It is what new candidates to the Supreme Court need when they vow to uphold the U.S. Constitution.
Fidelity is what is expected of anyone who signs a contract. It is the common coinage for a society that is built on trust and character. Parishioners expect their priests to be believers in Christ, to be working on their spiritual growth, to be real human beings and give evidence that they are men of prayer. That is evidence of fidelity. Of course, it applies to the people as well as the priest. Fidelity is a wholehearted pursuit of holiness with the help of the Holy Spirit.
OSV: An earlier version of your book was published in 1981, but you have seen the need to revisit it and produce a book that is radically different. How have you seen our concept of fidelity in American society change since “Staying Faithful” was first released?
Father McBride: The fidelity crisis in 1981 was serious, but it had not yet reached the tipping point that we now see. Since then, the Church has experienced the sex abuse scandal. In our culture, people’s respect for authority has weakened considerably. Too many have adopted a reckless disregard for the sanctity of marriage and have become addicted to the latest fads, including, but not limited to, alcohol and drugs. I believe the crisis of fidelity has reached dangerous levels within the Church and more so in the culture. I am convinced the point I made in the first edition of “Staying Faithful” is painfully more relevant than ever. New York Times columnist David Brooks has offered a basic reason for this problem in a piece called “The Broken Society.” He attributes our dilemma, first, to a cultural revolution that displaced traditional manners and mores, and second, to a legal revolution that emphasized individual rights instead of responsibilities.
OSV: From the revelations of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s son born out of wedlock and the end of his marriage to the charges of sexual assault by the married French politician Dominique Strauss-Kahn, news headlines have been dominated recently by disturbing stories of infidelity. Does it surprise you that we are still surprised by these stories?
Father McBride: I recall seeing [former New York] Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s wife standing beside him at the press conference while reporters hammered him with questions about paying $5,000 for an hour with a prostitute. His wife stood there, her head bowed in shame, while he seemed to be clueless. I wonder if these high-profile infidelities may awaken their wives to unite for a call to arms for fundamental change in attitudes. Not only are the wives and children humiliated, but the vulnerable cleaning ladies, housemaids and, yes, the ladies of the night are brutalized by the collateral damage caused by men who believe money and power entitle them to treat women as trash. Sad as these scandals are, they may bring about a change in attitudes. Fidelity may begin to look appealing. It is ironic that a culture that brands women as seducers now faces a Strauss-Kahn, who was admired in France as “the great seducer.” Still, I must say we have a long way to go to change these attitudes that dismiss the question of fidelity.
OSV: Speaking of news headlines, the clergy sex abuse scandal, nearly a decade after Boston, is still omnipresent in the media. You don’t run from this issue in your book, but rather address it head-on. Has the notion of fidelity been lost on our priests? And as a follow-up, might it be argued that some bishops did not practice fidelity to their flock in their handling of such cases?
Father McBride: It’s now clear to me that it may take a whole generation to pass before the aftermath of the priest sex abuse scandal has worked itself out. I said recently to someone that most of the priests of this generation and their flocks will die before this might happen. I won’t go to the stake over that comment, but something like that may occur. No, I don’t believe the notion of fidelity to celibacy is lost on our priests. More than 94 percent of our priests have remained faithful. Just as important, the formation of our seminarians has dramatically improved, as I found while being a professor at Blessed John XXIII Seminary in Boston. Certainly there were some bishops who failed to be faithful to their flocks by not aggressively cleaning house in these cases. On the other hand, the turnaround by the bishops in the Dallas Charter took courage and produced the confidence we have today, despite the need to refine its application to priests falsely accused.
OSV: How do we recapture, as individuals and as a society, this lost sense of fidelity? Is it possible?
Father McBride: I like the leadership coming from Pope Benedict XVI. He is stressing the prayerful reading of Scripture. He urges listening to God as we read his Word. Secondly, he emphasizes the new evangelization. In the spirit of Blessed John Paul II, he advises patience, not hurling ourselves into mass movements, but steady, one-by-one conversion of Church members from which the fruit will be the patient conversion of unbelievers.
I also am encouraged by the Manhattan Declaration: A Call to Christian Conscience. Led by Archbishop Timothy Dolan and other major religious leaders, it stresses three issues: The sanctity of human life, the dignity of marriage as a union of husband and wife and the freedom of conscience and religion. These are the rock-hard principles for justice and the common good.
The declaration puts it well: “We are compelled by our Christian faith to speak and act in defense of these principles.” The more this message sinks into our homilies, religion classes, spiritual direction and Christian lifestyles, the more the dream of fidelity will become a reality.
Our situation is somewhat similar to what the early Church faced in the pagan cultures of Greece and Rome. They resisted the temptation to give in to the culture and abandon Christ and the Church. They accepted the Way of the Cross as standard behavior. They embraced an interpretation of love that required sacrifice. They adopted a fierce commitment to community that was fed by the Eucharist. They did not abort their children. They pledged fidelity to their spouses. They were not perfect but knew what holiness demanded and eventually overcame the Roman Empire without ever firing an arrow. I believe that we can do it again. And we should!
Dennis Poust writes from New York.