By Diogenes (articles ) | May 05, 2008
In a Time magazine article titled "Is Liberal Catholicism Dead?," David van Biema proposes that the American era of progressivist Catholicism is coming to a close. He reasons that liberal Catholics rejected unpopular teachings in favor of the values of the ambient culture, and, in so doing, "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." Hard to argue with that. More provocatively, van Biema maintains that outrage generated by the sex abuse crisis acted as defibrillation paddles on moribund liberal Catholicism, jolting the movement back to life for a few shaky years. Pope Benedict's U.S. visit, he claims, pulled the plug on the outrage, whence the artificially delayed death will follow.
I wish van Biema were right. Yet he fails to consider that well-placed ideologues can control institutions long after they lose their capacity to vivify them (think of the Brezhnev Politburo) and that the ideologues base reward and punishment on one's willingness to enthuse about the success of their own endeavors. Once forged, that loop is hard to break.
Sometimes in malls and parking lots we come upon those demented women pushing strollers containing dolls instead of babies, which they pathetically invite us to admire. The American Church has its own Tenders of the Flame who croon to and cosset that lifeless dummy which is Liberal Catholicism. Most Catholics are prepared to dismiss or ignore the importunities. When the Tender of the Flame is a bishop, or a seminary rector, or the chair of a theology department, however, and the Catholic is question is seeking a good that only the apparatchik can dispense, the supplicant may be inclined to humor his superior by playing along with the fantasy. For this reason the 1960s project will remain part of our lives in spite of its lifelessness.
Leftism is a program for social change. But the engine that makes it go is a conviction -- a dogma, in fact -- that the desired changes are going to happen. To be a democrat (or a monarchist) means that, win or lose, democracy (or monarchy) is good. But to be a Leftist entails the further belief that Leftism will triumph. A heroic embrace of Leftism as a noble but lost cause would be a contradiction in terms. This means that Leftism is axiomatically incapable of admitting that its wishes will not be fulfilled, and that means that real-world evidence to the contrary is simply rejected out of hand. Now what is misnamed "liberal" Catholicism was an inflammation of Leftist sentimentalisms fascinated with secular progress in science and social emancipation, which declared as inevitable that the Church would change in a predictable direction, making her own a democratic apparatus of doctrine-making, relaxing sexual restraints, and abandoning her claim to be a privileged transmitter of certain and unchangeable truths.
Didn't happen. A Catholic would say it couldn't happen, on the dogmatic grounds that the church which changed in that direction had by definition ceased to be the Catholic Church. That's to say, the conflict opposes a dogmatic certainty of change against a dogmatic conviction that defined doctrine is unchangeable. This explains why Catholics regard liberals with suspicion and despair, and why conservative Catholics save their harshest words not for progressives but for self-styled moderates who say of some proposed apostasy, "The Church isn't ready to go there yet." The "yet" gives the game away.
And the madwomen with the strollers are still among us. They have seen the future and they know that it teethes, and they'll have no back-talk from you, either. Hence the disproportionate energy spent in the wrangles over symbols of progress that are relatively peripheral in themselves. The vehemence with which the music of Michael Joncas or Marty Haugen is defended against its detractors is bewildering to younger Catholics. "Look, you had it your own way for forty years," they tell the aging libs, "why are you so upset about letting us have a turn?" But of course it's not a question of "win a few, lose a few"; the future of the future is at stake. If Dan Schutte's star is no longer secure in the firmament, what about the inevitability of women's ordination or Church-approved contraception?
Van Biema concludes his essay in a vatic strain:
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 (over-hyped) 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 [Peter] Steinfels. As [Terrence] 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 hope they remember the Council." Fair enough. If they not only remember it but read it, they'll discover a curious fact: that the documents of the Second Vatican Council have footnotes in which they anchor themselves on authority, and that those authorities are entirely -- one hundred percent -- "pre-Vatican II" in origin. In other words, the only reason to take the Second Vatican Council seriously is that the preceding councils (definitions, sacred texts ...) are worth taking seriously. If they can grasp that point, it won't matter what music they listen to.
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Posted by: -
May. 08, 2008 7:53 AM ET USA
A small problem: the footnotes were added to the documents of Vatican II by the monsignors of the Curia: they were not in the documents approved by the Bishops and their peritti. Hence, one can conclude that the footnote insertions were NOT approved by the Council.
Posted by: -
May. 07, 2008 9:00 AM ET USA
I'm afraid you're mistaken, Cornelius. Liberalism is the representation within the Church of the principles of modern science without, and modern science has a definite purpose and goal. This is ultimately why Catholic liberalism is incoherent and always shifting: in allying with modernism they must implicitly deny an active, governing God; yet since they are in the Church, they must also affirm Him somehow. That's a tight dance to do and their insanity and slipperiness is the result.
Posted by: -
May. 06, 2008 10:56 AM ET USA
Excellent article. I'm put in mind of a definition of liberalism (excepting classical liberalism, of course) that seems to encompass it all -- theological liberalism, political liberalism, etc. "Liberalism is the triumph of emotionalism over reason." This goes a long way toward explaining the dancing Masses, the call for women's ordination, and other ills ad nauseum. A new generation wants to reclaims the radical -- and REASONABLE -- truths of the True Faith. Deo gratias!
Posted by: -
May. 05, 2008 6:12 PM ET USA
This article reads like a setup for the article which will appear in one or two years: that Liberal Catholicism is raised from the "dead", and triumphs with some "new" issues which is really just a rehash of the same old "wisdom" of the worldlings. Puts me in mind of Rev 13:3 (worth a read) "One of its heads seemed to have a mortal would, but its mortal wound was healed, and the whole earth followed the beast with wonder." Who better, one may ask, to make the beast "seem" dead than the media?
Posted by: -
May. 05, 2008 5:51 PM ET USA
Amen. Just look at the Diocese of Camden and the "consolidation" of its 126 parishes into 66 to create "vibrant and dynamic parishes that have cars parked outside every day like the evangelical churches."
Posted by: -
May. 05, 2008 5:09 PM ET USA
"[W]ell-placed ideologues can control institutions long after they lose their capacity to vivify them." Agreed. For two easy examples look at the recent fights over the NRSV Canadian Lectionary and the Revised Byzantine Catholic Divine Liturgy (Pittsburgh, 2007). Both essentially reject "Liturgiam Authenticam" [etc.] and place a politically correct style of speech above accurate Catholic theology. It will be years until a new generation of orthodox bishops can begin an authentic renewal.
Posted by: -
May. 05, 2008 2:21 PM ET USA
Fair enough analysis, but it misses this point: Liberalism is about process, not content. The content of the Liberal agenda is always shifting, but the dreary process of thinking and acting Liberal, i.e., self-affirmation, self-celebration, eschewal of all external constraint in the form of authority or law, civil ecclesial, or divine, goes on and on and on . . . the veritable Eveready bunny. It is the Liberal process that is the Undead.