Kennedy's book on Catholicism today is shallow

"Being Catholic Now" (Crown, $24.95), by Kerry Kennedy, is the kind of book that gives me a headache.

There is so much wrong about it, so many proud manifestations of ignorance, so much smug self-absorption on the part of Kennedy and the many "prominent Americans" she interviewed that it is a chore to make it through a single chapter, much less the entire book.

It is the kind of book that had me talking out loud, and writing notes in the margins IN CAPITAL LETTERS with exclamation points.

And yet I can recommend it as a sociological treasure, a verbal collage of what went wrong with a generation, and perhaps a signpost to where we need to go in the future.

"Being Catholic Now" is a collection of personal testimonials from 37 Catholics. Almost all are white, middle-aged and middle or upper class. Most speak with conviction unencumbered by knowledge. They weigh in on all the many flaws of the Church, starting with its priests and bishops. They obsess compulsively about the Church's "obsession" with sex and recall a multitude of its sins and slights, ranging from sexual abuse to the prohibition against performing marriage ceremonies on a beach.

'Gynecological theology'

And yet, despite the idiocies and blunders, the casual cruelties and the power trips of this silly Church, somehow, well, all these remarkable people are willing to give it advice on what it can do to measure up to their expectations.

One needs only to read Kennedy's introduction, when she recounts personally asking Pope Benedict XVI to allow African Catholics to use condoms because, duh, "a word from the Church and millions of lives could be saved."

Apparently all those words from the Church about multiple sexual partners and marital chastity and that whole "gynecological theology" thing have not done the trick, but millions of Africans are simply waiting for the word from Pope Benedict to sheath themselves.

It is a statement akin in thoughtfulness to "if the Vatican would only sell its treasures, we could eradicate poverty and disease," actress Susan Sarandon's helpful suggestion.

The book is chockablock with this stuff.

Novelist Anna Quindlen coined the phrase "gynecological theology," declaring that is where "the Church is totally wrong." If she were pope (a brain-wrenching image if ever there was one), she would make everything better by allowing birth control, ordaining women and approving in vitro fertilization. Call it Gynecological Theology, Take Two.

Talking head Bill O'Reilly, who like Quindlen doesn't do "Catholic guilt," claims credit for getting Cardinal Bernard Law removed from office in Boston, criticizes homilies for being irrelevant, and points out that if everyone lived as Jesus lived, life would be peachy, but "it's the men [of the Church] who implement [the faith] that screwed it up."

Journalist Cokie Roberts rebukes the Church for not allowing Jewish godparents, blaming it on "some priest deciding to pull a power game."

Comedian Bill Maher (yes, that Bill Maher) is now an atheist, but he did go to some Sunday school classes, and is now qualified to say that he hates religion: "It's the worst thing in the world."

Politician Nancy Pelosi's statement that the Church's belief in free will "is very consistent with women having the right to choose" abortion, is a unique theological insight that is very convenient for her political choices.

Several of these celebrity Catholics now no longer believe in the afterlife. A few don't believe in God. Almost all think of themselves as spiritual, however.

Many seem stuck in the images and experiences of their youth, the most dramatic being the actor Gabriel Byrne, who recalls a nun intentionally burning her own finger in front of children to show what will happen to them in hell.

Vestigial Catholics

There is something striking about the stories, taken cumulatively. First, what many of the respondents are doing is defining a vestigial Catholicism, similar to ethnic Judaism. The book could well be titled "Being Catholic Then." Some of this is really just nostalgia for youthful memories, a kind of smells-and-bells Catholicism for people who have otherwise walked away from the majority of Church teachings. As historian Douglas Brinkley writes, "I may be a lapsed Catholic, but I have no desire to give up my Catholicism."

Sarandon doesn't really see herself as Catholic at all, but baptizes her kids "because why not give them that?" She's not married to their father, but, hey, that's one of those "read-the-fine-print kind of things," and God really doesn't mind "if you're committed to each other, if you are kind."

Threaded throughout these vestigial memories is an omnipresent anti-clericalism. The boneheaded statement, the insensitive remark, even the cruelty of an individual priest or bishop becomes an indictment of all. Always it is the layperson who sits in judgment. Kennedy paints a portrait of her mother, Ethel Kennedy, dragging her children out of Mass if the sermon went long, and rejecting priests who were not sufficiently social-justice minded to meet her lofty Hyannis Port ideals.

Related to this thoroughgoing inability to deal with the human side of Catholicism is a striking lack of personal sin. Dan Aykroyd, who "flip[s] through the Bible occasionally," remembers hijacking trucks and stealing cigarettes, hams and turkeys, but because he was "robbing from big corporations," there's no reason to feel any of the horrible Catholic guilt.

Which brings us to a final theme: Social sin -- what people do who hate the poor and mistreat the weak -- is lambasted. While almost no one attempts to defend Church teaching in moral areas, there is a huge emphasis placed on social justice. I'm sure it is just a coincidence that in the broader secular society in which these celebrities so comfortably move, it is the only acceptable good a Church can be seen as committing. It goes over well at cocktail parties, whereas talk of salvation, sin and sacrifice tend to spoil the canapés.

Thin soup

One of the most interesting essays is by Ingrid Mattson, an ex-Catholic who is now the president of the Islamic Society of North America. Younger than most of the contributors, she recalls being raised by parents who were "not particularly religious," but whose "energy was focused on social justice and activism."

In Islam she discovered prayer, learning and religious community. She likes "Islam's sense of connection through generations." She discovered, in short, a world that Catholicism itself inhabits, but which she was never fully introduced to.

An even younger Catholic, college student Allouisa May Thames, describes a priest on her campus who "avoids talking about God and Jesus, like he's stepping on eggshells trying not to offend anyone."

Kerry Kennedy and her ideological clan have a big question to answer: They claim still to be Catholic, drawing on childhood memories and then picking and choosing what fits into their current lifestyles. But what will they be passing on? Will their children be like Ingrid Mattson, deprived of substance and left searching for it elsewhere? Will they be like Allouisa May Thames, rejecting this kind of thin soup and becoming the new generation of orthodox Catholics? Or will they sleepwalk in the faith as well?

To be fair to the book, there are a few other moving testimonies, particularly Martin Sheen's honest description of his "reversion" to the faith and Peggy Noonan's articulate recovery of an adult and vital faith in her 40s.

Overall, however, I was left reflecting on what we as a faith community have done wrong, and what we can do right in the future with regard to educating our own. The solution is not about rote memorization or more hellfire and brimstone. These folks got a lot of that.

What is needed is real intellectual engagement and real conversion of heart if the faith is to live and grow into adulthood. Catholicism is about a relationship with the Christ who redeems us, not some sort of ethnic identity or familial inheritance. If such a relationship cannot be nurtured in mind, heart and soul, tomorrow's men and women will simply not see what the big deal is about being Catholic now.

Greg Erlandson is OSV president and publisher.