ON THE MORNING PRESIDENT BUSH nominated Samuel Alito to become the fifth Catholic on the Supreme Court, I was sitting on an airplane next to a joke-teller, one of those people whose idea of travel is the chance to pass along to strangers all the latest gags. "So," he began, patting his jovial belly, "have you heard this one? A doctor, a lawyer, and a priest are on a ship when it hits a rock and begins to sink. 'What about the women and children?' the doctor worries as the three pile into the only lifeboat. 'Screw the women and children,' the lawyer replies. 'Do you think we have time?' asks the priest."
This may be the best time in American history to be a Catholic, and it may also be the worst: a moment of triumph after 200 years of outsiderness, and an occasion of mockery and shame. It is an era in which a surprisingly large portion of the nation's serious moral analysis seems to derive from Catholic sources. But it is also a day in which Monsignor Eugene Clark--an influential activist and Fulton J. Sheen's successor as rector of New York's St. Patrick's Cathedral--can be named an adulterer in a divorce petition and photographed checking into a hotel with his hot-panted secretary, to the weeks-long titillation of New York's tabloids: "Beauty and the Priest," ran the headline in the Daily News. Catholicism is the most visible public philosophy in America, and the Catholic Church is a national joke.
That's not necessarily a contradiction. Indeed, there might even be a connection between the rising rhetorical influence of Catholicism and the declining political influence of the Church. Since its founding, the United States has always had a source of moral vocabulary and feeling that stands at least a little apart from the marketplace and the polling booth--from both the economics of capitalism and the politics of democracy that otherwise dominate the nation. For much of American history, that source was the moral sense shared by the various Protestant denominations, and it influenced everything from the Revolution to the civil-rights movement.
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