I had the pleasure of being on the campus of the Catholic University of America yesterday. I spent a couple of happy years at CUA, nearly two decades ago, studying sacramental theology, and it was good to be back. The purpose of my being there this time was to attend a conference called Where Justice and Mercy Meet: Catholic Opposition to the Death Penalty. That experience was quite good; perhaps more later on it.
My first stop upon arriving on campus had to be, of course, the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. I would visit several times a week during my graduate school days, and it was a favorite place to go to confession during that time. I didn’t have a lot of time yesterday, but made several quick stops at some favorite places inside, including the Our Lady of Mount Carmel Chapel (I love the inscription on the altar: OUR LADY IS MORE MOTHER THAN QUEEN), the Our Lady of Guadalupe Chapel, and the glorious Blessed Sacrament Chapel. Another favorite part for me has always been stops at the statues of the American greats: Kateri, Mother Cabrini, Elizabeth Ann Seton, Rose Philippine Duchesne. And as an added grace yesterday, to follow up my stop in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel, I also encountered Jesus himself in a poor person who approached me while I moved through the side aisle.
Then, before heading off to the conference, I made a stop at the Shrine Book Store. If you are not familiar with it, this is no simple gift shop chock full of chochkies (though there are those there, too). To the credit of the Shrine and its store, it also includes a selection of hundreds of good Catholic books written for the general reader, a great resource for the thousands of pilgrims who pass through there, many with not much regular access to such good reading.
It occurred to me — okay, yes, it’s vain — to see if my own Faith Meets World might be on the shelves, but I couldn’t spot it. No big deal. Then I realized that I really couldn’t spot much of anything having to do with Catholic social teaching — other than abortion — there was a good selection of books on that topic. There was a lot on catechesis, tons on saints, plenty on prayer, some on the sacraments, and on and on. Surely, I thought, there is something on Catholic social teaching.
I approached the young woman at the check-out: “Anything on Catholic social teaching?” She responded with a bit of a blank stare and turned to an older co-worker, telling her what I was looking for. The woman pondered the question thoughfully for a moment. She said, “We don’t really have a section on that, but they’d be scattered around the store.” I knew I had looked around and seen nothing. “Can you point me to something?” I asked. Another pause. “You might want to try an encyclical. Perhaps Gaudium et Spes, the Vatican II document.” Ok, so she knew, at least generally, the landscape of Catholic teaching, and her first suggestion for a document on Catholic social teaching wasn’t bad. She walked me to the shelf of church documents. The documents of Vatican II did not seem to be there, or at least she and I could not find them in a quick survey of the shelf. Pope Benedict’s Caritas in Veritate was, but she ignored that one and couldn’t find anything else that seemed relevant.
I knew it was getting time to drop it, but I had to push a step further. “Is there just one book on Catholic social teaching in the store?” I asked. She shook her head in resignation and said, “It looks like there’s not much here on that.”
I said with a gentle smile and as nonconfrontationally as I could, “Would you please convey to the manager my respectful disappointment?”
“Sure,” she nodded. “Let me ask the manager about this, just to be sure.” And she headed to the back room.
It was at this point, while I waited, looking at the shelf beside me, that I saw the store did have several copies of a book called Tea Party Catholic and several of another called Can a Catholic Be A Democrat? (I’ll give you one guess as to the answer the author provided.) Well, at least they were not lacking for Republican propaganda. Too bad a few good expositions of Catholic social teaching, against which the value of those two books could be judged, were nowhere in sight.
The woman emerged after a few moments and said, “We sometimes have the Compendium of the Social Teaching of the Church, but we don’t have those right now.”
“And no books.”
“No books. Sorry.”
I made one more comment, though probably had already said enough — but I assure you it was spoken without a bit of harshness in tone: “That’s kind of crazy. There are dozens of great ones that should be here.” She apologized again, I thanked her for her help, and I left.
It occurred to me as I walked away that our current and recent popes — about whom there were plenty of books in the store — surely would not be pleased with the wide and screaming gap in the store’s selection, and the great saints whose statues stand in the lower level of the Shrine, who did so much to live and teach the principles of Catholic social teaching — Cabrini, Seton, Duchesne … Mother Teresa is down there, too — would definitely be unhappy about it.
The National Shrine Book Store — consciously or not — has a strong ideological streak that allows it to ignore a wide swath of Catholic teaching, tradition, and ministry. That would be one thing in a little mom-and-pop Catholic bookstore. At the bookstore of what truly is the home of every Catholic in America, the American Catholic Church’s patronal church, it’s sad and entirely inappropriate.