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From the January/February, 1998 issue of Touchstone


Is <title>A Flawed Portrait of Dissent by Leon J. Podles

A Flawed Portrait of Dissent

The Smoke of Satan: Conservative and Traditionalist Dissent in Contemporary American Catholicism
by Michael W. Cuneo
New York: Oxford University Press, 1997
(214 pages; $27.50, cloth)

reviewed by Leon J. Podles

Vatican II and the changes in Roman Catholicism that followed it have not pleased all Catholics. Michael W. Cuneo, a professor of sociology and anthropology at Fordham University, gives representative sketches of what he sees are the three main types of those displeased with the current condition of the Roman Catholic Church in America. The first is the conservatives, the second the separatists-traditionalists, the third the Marianists-apocalypticists.

The conservatives—represented by James Hitchcock (an Associate Editor of this journal), Catholics United for the Faith (CUF), the Wanderer, E. Michael Jones (editor of Fidelity and Culture Wars), and the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars (of which I am a member)—dislike the doctrinal and moral laxity of Catholicism in America and desire a restoration of discipline. Such conservatives are primarily laity, and tend to see fidelity to Humanae Vitae and the rejection of contraception as signs of authentic Catholicism. This group also tends to be very active in anti-abortion activities.

The separatists-traditionalists are the American followers of Bishop Marcel Lefevre. They reject Vatican II and see recent popes as, at best, incompetent leaders and, at worst, frauds and impostors. Some (the sede vacantists) hold that the see of Peter is empty and consequently there is no pope to obey. These tend to be clericalists and wish to maintain the power and aura of the priesthood as it existed before Vatican II. They show little interest in moral questions, even abortion. They are like Protestant fundamentalists or even extreme separatists such as the Amish in that they set up communities apart from American society. They tend to be anti-Semitic and indulge in conspiracy theories that blame Freemasons (or whoever) for the troubles of the world.

The largest group is the Marianists-apocalypticists. They are devotees of private revelations, primarily those given by apparitions of Mary. They tend to expect a disaster—the chastisement by which God will punish a sinful world. Cuneo examines in detail only Veronica Lueken, (a clear fraud) of Bayside in Queens, and Father Nicholas Gruner, a promoter of the revelations at Fatima.

All three groups are marginal in contemporary America Catholicism. They are aging, and even the most orthodox and balanced among them are generally disregarded by Catholic academia and hierarchy. Liberal Catholicism is triumphant, Cuneo claims, because of the license, sexual and otherwise, it offers to a prosperous, middle-class laity.

Such is Cuneo’s thesis. How accurate is he? He is probably closest to the mark in his description of the separatists-traditionalists. About the Marianists his portrayal is not as well balanced, and most of the rest of his descriptions suffer from distortion due to omission. On the whole, however, he deserves credit for his interviews of the principals and his attendance at what must have been some very bizarre scenes.

Fortunately, the Roman Catholic Church in the United States is a much more interesting, varied, and energetic place than Cuneo presents. (A better guide is Being Right: Conservative Catholics in America, edited by Mary Jo Weaver and R. Scott Appleby, Indiana University Press, 1995.) Many Catholics feel a greater or lesser degree of dissatisfaction with the condition of Catholicism after Vatican II. The Marianists actually include millions of devotees of Medjugorje, and their numbers overlap significantly with the Catholic charismatic renewal movement, which Cuneo does not mention at all. The charismatic movement is probably the single most influential spiritual movement in contemporary Catholicism, and combines strong elements of what Cuneo identifies as conservatism and apocalypticism.

Similarly lacking is any mention of Opus Dei, which Cuneo would probably have categorized as conservative. (Opus Dei is an organization of laity and priests with its own bishop, who directs spiritual formation. It attracts young Catholic professionals who can join with varying degrees of commitment, from attendance at talks to a celibate life lived in community. Almost all members continue to work at a secular occupation.) Almost all of those affiliated with Opus Dei would agree with the conservative critique of the current state of the Church, although they put their energies into spiritual and social ministries rather than into complaining. Also missing is any mention of the conservative Legionaries of Christ, an order of Mexican origin, which is rapidly spreading and recruiting many young Catholics. Nor does he mention influential neoconservatives such as Fr. Richard John Neuhaus and Michael Novak. Although their perspectives are somewhat more politically oriented (as is evident from the pages of First Things and of Crisis, respectively), they would certainly agree with most of the conservative critique of the state of Catholicism.

Cuneo correctly observes that the dissenters he is studying in The Smoke of Satan have no influence in the academy and almost none in the ecclesiastical bureaucracy; a liberal establishment reigns in both. Cuneo’s own attitudes also show why orthodox Catholics are sometimes even driven outside the church in their frustration. Like his colleagues at other Roman Catholic colleges and universities, he minimizes the obvious changes for the worse in Catholicism in the United States, such as the massive decline in Church attendance, the widespread ignorance of elementary doctrines such as the Trinity, and the interminable pedophilia scandals. Even worse, he commends the religion that most American Catholics practice, even as he provides evidence that is not even Christian, much less Catholic.

Not only does the liberal establishment offer sexual license in such matters as contraception, premarital sex, divorce and homosexuality, it also reinterprets and empties of all historical character such doctrines as the Resurrection, immortality, and the Trinity. Cuneo quotes approvingly a 1984 article by Thomas Sheehan that appeared in the New York Review of Books. Sheehan claimed that almost no Catholic theologian accepted the historic doctrines of the faith in the way that they have traditionally been understood. That is, the faith that was shared by Augustine, John Chrysostom, Thomas Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin—mere Christianity—has been rejected by the Catholic academic establishment in America. No one responded to contradict Sheehan.

Thus a betrayal of historic Christian teaching, and not nostalgia for the 1950s, motivates dissenting Catholics today. The unwillingness of the bishops to deal firmly with flagrant violations, and the refusal of the Vatican to take more than token corrective measures drives Catholics away from the Church in a search for refuge. Some end up in the dissenting groups described by Cuneo, but a hundred times as many join evangelical and charismatic churches, which at least preserve basic Christian doctrine and maintain a moderately high standard of morality. Cuneo, and the attitudes at Fordham that he inadvertently reveals, are a main source of the weaknesses of Roman Catholicism in the United States today.

Leon J. Podles holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Virginia and has worked as a teacher and a federal investigator. He is the author of The Church Impotent: The Feminization of Christianity and the forthcoming License to Sin (both from Spence Publishing). Dr. Podles and his wife have six children and live in Naples, Florida. He is a senior editor of Touchstone.

“A Flawed Portrait of Dissent” first appeared in the January/February 1998 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.

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