Viewpoint: Which is the Real Catholic Church?

by M. Francis Mannion 

Earlier this year, Paul Kennedy, a professor of history at Yale University, wrote an essay in the New York Times titled “Which Catholic Church?” in which he expressed frustration about the issues non-Catholics constantly ask him about. Their obsessive interests are in the questions: [With the new Pope] Will the Church split even more into conservative and liberal camps? Will there ever be female priests, then bishops? What about the declining attendance of European congregations? What will the new Pope’s attitude be to divorce, abortion, the Jews, secularism in Italy? What about financial laxity at the Vatican?

This, Kennedy says, represents “one view of the Catholic Church, the church of hierarchy, tradition, formalism, its bursts of reform soon restrained by a return to conservatism. It is the church so familiar to the minds of secularists, pagans and anti-Catholics everywhere. It is the church of the 19th century popes. It is the church of infallibility, incense, candles, and of Latin Masses. Pushing it further, it is the church of financial corruption and sexual abuse. It is the church of stereotypes.”

Kennedy proposes a different way of thinking about the church: “On Wednesday last week, I went, as I usually do, to work in the lunchtime soup kitchen of the St. Thomas More Catholic chaplaincy at Yale University in downtown New Haven, Connecticut, founded almost 30 years ago to meet the needs of the poor and hungry.” The helpers at the soup kitchen are “the Yale students who also work in the downtown evening soup kitchen, or in the men’s overflow night shelter. A number of them “are going off to Guatemala [during the university break] to help rebuild a village still hurting from the civil wars.” “This,” he says, represents “not a dead or decaying church. It is vibrant and pulsing. . . . It is our Catholic Church. Nobody is leaving it. What happens in Rome is well, distant.”

He continues: “The litmus test [of Christian faith] is whether you help the unknown, the desperate-looking person at the soup kitchen, the beggar on the street.” Quoting the Yale Catholic chaplain, “all else is footnotes.”  “What matters is your reaching out to help. That’s the sole question you will be asked when you reach the Pearly Gates.”

Kennedy goes on to ask: “Does this mean that Catholics do not need a worldwide church structure? Not at all. We need the parish, the parish priest, the parish church. . . . We need the Church Physical, . . .  just as we need the Church Social.” But, “no one launching an attack upon the papal elections, Vatican finances, sexism and the rest should think they are attacking Catholicism per se. From my perspective, our Catholic Church is vibrant, helpful, intellectual, and working in so many ways to fulfill the message to love God and to love the neighbor, and reach out to, to one’s unknown neighbor. Everything else is, well, footnotes.”

In my view, Kennedy is fundamentally correct. While the liturgy is, as Vatican II put it, “the source and summit” of Catholic life, love of the poor neighbor is the fundamental social calling of all who call themselves “Catholic.”

We need the hierarchical Church and its many Spirit-led sacramental and organizational structures. The doctrine and moral traditions of the Church are essential. But at the primary level we  need the Church of service to the poor. This is Kennedy’s fundamental point —and the constant message of Pope Francis—one with which I couldn’t agree more.

Msgr. Mannion is pastor emeritus of St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Salt Lake City. By permission of The Intermountain Catholic.


  1. Kennedy is further explaining Jacques Maritain’s distinction between the Person of the Church –the Body of Christ– (which is “holy, immaculate, without blemish, stain, wrinkle or anything of that sort”) and the personnel of the Church (who are not necessarily any of those).
    The personnel of the Church are capable of doing great harm to how the Person of the Church is perceived. Hence, we are ecclesia semper reformanda.

  2. Why can’t it be a Church of the “both/and”? Why must it be either a Church for the Poor or a Church of Tradition and traditions.
    I am reminded here of the beautiful and important paragraph 8 of Lumen Gentium.

    And is it really true that after care for the poor “everything is just footnotes?” With all respect, I am willing to accept this as rhetorical flourish within the context of a homily, but accepting the DIvinity of Christ or the Nicene Creed are hardly unimportant matters relative to Church membership.

    All the same, Kennedy is absolutely correct that love of the poor must be a defining feature of the Church. It is an imperative given to her by the Master himself.

  3. I do not see a necessary distinction between being “high church” or traditionalist and actively caring for the poor and marginalized. When I worshiped as an Anglican, I attended an Anglo-Catholic church with a very strong social justice program. There, a “high” liturgical tradition and social justice are not just compatible but interwoven. The Catholic parish I now attend most frequently often features motets at the offertory. Even so, the pews are packed with people of every means who value a very rubrical and aesthetic worship.

    I appreciate Prof, Kennedy’s contention that liturgical conservatism and traditionalism often reflect the very stereotypes their followers would rather avoid. This is often true, especially when a desire to keep up appearances surpasses clerical honesty and accountability, as Prof. Kennedy notes. Still, the implicit counterargument that an informal “low” liturgical style is the best means of evangelization to the greatest number of people is not necessarily sound given counter-examples.

  4. Pope Francis continues to be an enigma who cannot be categorized in any other way than the most populist, orthodox and autocratic pope we’ve had in a long time. Yet his outerwear and the “low Church” visuals of his manner of celebrating the Liturgy as well as his classic concern for the poor translated into getting his own hands dirty helping them, has made the most heterodox in the Church think that he’s one of them and the ultra-traditionalists think that he’s with the heterodox too. But is he really? Is it a smoke screen? The LCWR and the Franciscans of the Immaculate as well as the Legionaries of Christ are all seeing how determined this pope is to control their vices and he takes greater care with the errant clerics of the Church in this regard.
    He knows that political conservatives in the USA are calling him a Marxist for his recent exhortation and yet he states quite accurately, “there is nothing in the Exhortation that cannot be found in the social Doctrine of the Church.”
    He’s puzzled that left leaning Catholics think that he will ordain women priests or even name them cardinals stating as recently as this week, that he flatly denies allegations that he intends to nominate women cardinals, stating: “I don’t know where any such an idea came from. Women in the Church must be valued not “clericalised”.”
    I think the most faithful of all Catholics, the silent majority who go about living their Catholic Faith and Good Works at home, work, politics and recreation appreciate this pope’s pastoral approach and willingness to promote Divine Mercy for those who still appreciate their sinfulness and need for repentance, mercy, forgiveness and reconciliation with God and His Holy Church. This Pope’s version of St. Faustina’s Divine Mercy is on steroids compared to its first protagonist Blessed, soon to be Saint Pope John Paul II. I can’t wait to see what it will be like come the Second Sunday in the Octave of Easter and the Divine Mercy devotions of that day including the Sacrament of Penance. Liturgical purist hate the common touch of devotions “dragged” into the purity of their Vatican II spirit of the Liturgy.
    All of us know that other religions and even atheists can do social work and love the poor as equally if not better than Catholics. But our motivation to care for the poor as Pope Francis exhorts us is based on the need for salvation that comes to us only through Jesus Christ and our participation in the Paschal Mystery through our personal and collective “Faith and Good Works” both of which are required for entry into heaven. If we separate our good works from the Faith of the Church or if we have Faith without good works, how can we be saved?

  5. Ho-Hummmm….*self-absorbed*

    Might consider the words of Francis:

    “I don’t like the word narcissism, it indicates an excessive love for oneself and this is not good, it can produce serious damage not only to the soul of those affected but also in relationship with others, with the society in which one lives. The real trouble is that those most affected by this — which is actually a kind of mental disorder — are people who have a lot of power.
    Often bosses are narcissists”. Many church leaders have been. “You know what I think about this? Heads of the Church have often been narcissists, flattered and thrilled by their courtiers. The court is the leprosy of the papacy.” The leprosy of the papacy, those were his exact words. But what is the court? Perhaps he is alluding to the curia? “No, there are sometimes courtiers in the curia, but the curia as a whole is another thing. It is what in an army is called the quartermaster’s office, it manages the services that serve the Holy See. But it has one defect: it is Vatican-centric. It sees and looks after the interests of the Vatican, which are still, for the most part, temporal interests. This Vatican-centric view neglects the world around us. I do not share this view and I’ll do everything I can to change it. – See more at:

    1. @Bill deHaas – comment #5:
      One reason I have a preference for echoing Venetian practice in including a robust use of lots in the mix of nomination/election/confirmation of candidates for pastor, bishop and pope, is that it helps frustrate the natural selection bias in favor of narcissists.

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