Sunday, June 15, 2008

Time Magazine: Is Liberal Catholicism Dead?


He may not have been thinking about it at the time, but Pope Benedict, in the course of his recent U.S. visit may have dealt a knockout blow to the liberal American Catholicism that has challenged Rome since the early 1960s. He did so by speaking frankly and forcefully of his "deep shame" during his meeting with victims of the Church's sex-abuse scandal. By demonstrating that he "gets" this most visceral of issues, the pontiff may have successfully mollified a good many alienated believers — and in the process, neutralized the last great rallying point for what was once a feisty and optimistic style of progressivism.

The liberal rebellion in American Catholicism has dogged Benedict and his predecessors since the Second Vatican Council of 1962-65. "Vatican II," which overhauled much of Catholic teaching and ritual, had a revolutionary impact on the Church as a whole. It enabled people to hear the Mass in their own languages; embraced the principle of religious freedom; rejected anti-Semitism; and permitted Catholic scholars to grapple with modernity.

But Vatican II meant even more to a generation of devout but restless young people in the U.S. Rather than a course correction, Terrence Tilley, now head of the Fordham University's theology department, wrote recently, his generation perceived "an interruption of history, a divine typhoon that left only the keel and structure of the church unchanged." They discerned in the Council a call to greater church democracy, and an assertion of individual conscience that could stand up to the authority of even the Pope. So, they battled the Vatican's birth-control ban, its rejection of female priests and insistence on celibacy, and its authoritarianism.

Rome pushed back, and the ensuing struggle defined a movement, whose icons included peace activist Fr. Daniel Berrigan, feminist Sister Joan Chittister, and sociologist/author Fr. Andrew Greeley. Its perspectives were covered in The National Catholic Reporter, Commonweal and America. Martin Sheen held down Hollywood, and the movement even boasted its own cheesy singing act: the St. Louis Jesuits. The reformers' premier membership organization was Call to Action, but their influence was felt at the highest reaches of the American Church, as sympathetic American bishops passed left-leaning statements on nuclear weapons and economic justice. Remarks Tilley, "For a couple of generations, progressivism was an [important] way to be Catholic."

Then he adds, "But I think the end of an era is here."

To some extent, liberal Catholicism has been a victim of its own success. Its positions on sex and gender issues have become commonplace in the American Church, diminishing the distinctiveness of the progressives. More importantly, they failed to transform the main body of the Church: John Paul II, a charismatic conservative, enjoyed the third-longest papacy in church history, and refused to budge on the left's demands; instead, he eventually swept away liberal bishops. The heads at Call to Action grayed, and by the late 1990s, Vatican II progressivism began to look like a self-limited Boomer moment.

Then, the movement received a monstrous reprieve. The priest sex abuse scandal implicated not only the predators, but the superiors who shielded them. John Paul remained mostly silent. A new reform group, Voice of the Faithful, arose; the old anger returned, crystallizing around the battle-cry "They just don't get it."

Benedict's visit, however, changed the dynamic. And that's a problem for progressives. Says Fr. Thomas Reese, a senior fellow at Georgetown University's Woodstock Theological Center whom Benedict famously removed from his previous job as editor of America, "Reform movements need an enemy to organize against. As most bishops have gotten their acts together on sex abuse, they have looked less like the enemy and more like part of the solution. Enthusiasm for reform declined. With the Pope's forthright response, it will decline even more."

Not everyone agrees. Says Voice of the Faithful spokesman John Moynihan, "That's funny; I just came from a meeting of COR [Catholic Organizations for Reform], and there were a lot of people very buoyed up. We can now say to people, 'We have made a difference, and if you stick with us we are going to make a further difference'." Adds Peter Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal, now a director of Fordham's Religion and Culture Center, "I think there is continuity in terms of the issues and the questions about whether Church structures can be altered." He notes that a social justice group, Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, formed just three years ago.

But the familiar progressives-versus-Vatican paradigm seems almost certain to be undone by a looming demographic tsunami. Almost everyone agrees that the "millennial generation," born in 1980 or later, while sharing liberal views on many issues, has no desire to mount the barricades. Notes Reese, "Younger Catholics don't argue with the bishops; they simply do what they want or shop for another church." And Hispanic Catholics, who may be the U.S. majority by 2020, don't see this as their battle. "I'm sure they're happy that the celebration of the Eucharist is in the vernacular," says Tilley, "but they don't have significant issues connected to Vatican II."

And so, unless Benedict contradicts in Rome what he said in New York, the Church may have reached a tipping point. This is not to say that the (overhyped) young Catholic Right will swing into lay dominance. Nor will liberal single-issue groups simply evaporate. But if they cohere again, it will be around different defining issues. "It's a new ball game," admits Steinfels. As Tilley wrote recently in Commonweal regarding his fellow theologians, "A new generation has neither the baggage nor the ballast of mine. Theirs is the future. Let's hope they remember the Council as the most important event in twentieth-century Catholicism."

Let's see. Time


Anonymous said...

Tilley, Steinfels, Reese, et al., would have the Most Holy Roman Catholic Church be tomorrow everything that the Episcopal Church is today.

--William Anonymous

Margaret said...

This article just seems off to me. First of all, as much as the media have wanted to put the child sex abuse scandal on the shoulders of the orthodox church, the scandal cut across the liberal/ conservative divide showing that it was a human problem not some kind of political problem. The way it was dealt with also was unconnected to liberalism and conservativism. It was simply (and wrongly) classic bureaucratic CYA. Bishops of many stripes were guilty of this.

Secondly,immigrants are *not* on the side of liberal catholics. It's not just that "it's not their thing"--the traditional church is what they seek and many are from countries where the local Catholic church is far more orthodox than your generic parish in the USA. Welcoming the immigrant isn't just about having a Spanish Mass. It's about making the church more universal and less particular to US touchy feely culture.

Lastly, I want to complain about how they picked on the Saint Louis Jesuits. When I was growing up, I *liked* the SLJ hymns. They actually sounded like pros and the songs they wrote weren't hard to sing or laughably awful like a lot of the stuff put out after vatican II. It wasn't twangy folk music, and it was based on scripture that puts them way ahead of a lot the dreck in my book.

Unknown said...

I think you make some valid points, Margaret.

But it is difficult to summarize something like this. There are many kinds of "good Catholics."

But I do sense that there does seem to be an interest in the older liturgies in some areas of the country. That doesn't necessarily mean the Latin Mass.

Speaking for myself, I just want my Mass to be celebrated reverently and correctly.

The Latin Mass doesn't seem to have drawn much interest in our archdiocese. But many of the younger priests are not at all interested in making up their own words for the celebration of the Mass.

They do run into great resistance, however, from many Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion when they attempt to have the Eucharist treated as reverently as it must be.

The EMHC's don't seem to want to change the practices that they "made up" to those required in the General Instructions of the Roman Missal (GIRM).

Fr. Andrew said...

Ray, did you read fr. Z's post on this back in May?

And to Margaret, as a young priest I may not be running off to training in the Extraordinary form of the Latin Rite, but I too desire to bring an inviting dignity and solemnity to my celebration of the Mass. Some hymns or Mass parts written in the past 40 years make such a goal difficult to attain. But that is an aesthetical question for another day.

Unknown said...


I just read it now and it didn't seem familiar. And Father Z is on my A list. In fact I met him for the first time at the St. Paul Corpus Christi procession a couple of weeks ago.

I love the way he parses (I can't think of the blogger word) other blogs and statements.

I don't know where he finds the time to read all he must have in his inbox. I'm a pretty fast (maybe too fast and sloppy some times) reader. He must be incredibly fast. And his high-lighting makes getting the sense out of a document much easier.

But many of his posts I don't read. No time.

Margaret said...

Good church music can be reverential, it's a matter of the arrangement and the way it is performed.

Don't get me wrong, I consider myself a neo-traditionalist. I like the use of latin and think that a more reverential and dignified Mass is best. I also find the Latin Mass spiritually uplifting--from time to time but not as a regular thing. I was born in the 60s and suffered through a lot of awful guitar masses before people with talent and thoughtfulness applied themselves to the work.

Cathy_of_Alex said...

They neglect to consider that the liberal segment had little to no children (thanks to their embrace of "choice" and contraception) to pass their unique blend of distortion and lies on to.

They killed themselves. Now they are in panic mode. They desperately need the kids created in petri dishes, homosexual adoptions and the overseas adoptions to make up for the kids they never had.

Unknown said...

Excellent point, Cathy.

Virtually all the progressive organizations, except the homosexual ones, are composed of people in their fifties and older.

And the smart ones know that they lost the fight.

And the ones who were damaged, if not destroyed, by the clerical sexual abuse scandal refuse to admit that it was homosexuals priests and church employees who violated them or their relatives.

81% of the abuse cases involved men abusing boys who had passed the age of puberty.

Most of the others involved men preying on adults, men and women, and men with pornography.