Catholic World News News Feature
An American Catholic Peace Proposal December 27, 2001
For years talk of a semi-independent "American Church" has circulated in the United States, with orthodox Catholics fearing that possibility and liberals using the term to suggest an ecclesial entity which is distinguishable from the Roman Catholic Church but not completely separate. Most American Catholics are disturbed by the divisions within the Church, divisions which are sharp and often bitter. For example, Bishop Donald Wuerl of Pittsburgh, in a recent pastoral letter, warns that these divisions verge on the scandalous, constituting a major obstacle to effective evangelization. The crucial question is therefore how peace can be restored to the Church. Moderating one's tone is an obvious suggestion, since heated rhetoric serves only to inflame others and to make reconciliation more difficult. Distinguishing what is important from what is trivial is another; Catholics ought not to fight over questions about which there can be legitimate differences of opinion. The late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago left, as a kind of legacy to the Church in America, a project he called Common Ground, which is an organized program of bringing together Catholics of diverse views to talk about their differences. EXCLUDING EXTREMISTS Writing recently in the Jesuit magazine America, the Jesuit theologian Thomas P. Rausch addresses "Divisions, Dialogue, and the Catholicity of the Church" in a bid to find such common ground, based on the recognition that neither side in the debates is without fault and that the faith is wide and inclusive enough to encompass both sides. Thus he proposes that "extremists" on both sides should either modify their positions or, if they fail to so, be shunted to the margins of ecclesial life. Rausch's principal thesis is that Catholicism by its nature is an inclusive religion, a "big tent" which allows "diverse expressions of truth." Hence the continuing quarrels are both unnecessary and un-Catholic. But for people concerned with witnessing to Catholic truth, Rausch's "irenic" call for reconciliation can be read as a strong public hint that bishops should establish liberal Catholicism as the reigning orthodoxy of the United States, and a suggestion that peace should be achieved mainly at the expense of the defenders of beleaguered orthodoxy. The warning signals began flashing as soon as Rausch used the term "big tent." Perhaps he did not realize that to Americans familiar with the country's political dialogue--and the use of that same term "big tent" to justify the acceptance of legalized abortion among Republican politicians--the expression carries a great deal of negative freight. Oddly, in the age of ecumenism, Rausch's reading of Catholicism is "triumphalistic" in an almost Tridentine way. Protestantism, he alleges, tends towards rigid and uniform doctrinal positions, whereas Catholicism has always been a religion which accommodates diversity. This reading of Catholic history is a recent development among liberals, who once considered it mandatory to recall the Inquisition and other examples of how the Church of earlier centuries was oppressive and radically in need of modernizing. Now liberals have discovered the "tradition" of a tolerant Church, of which orthodox Catholics today are in violation. (In an equally odd reversal, orthodox Catholics now find themselves in agreement with secular scholars, and even with some avowed anti-Catholics, in recognizing that the Church throughout its history has never hesitated to take action against dissent.) WHO IS A MODERATE? Rausch correctly identifies the issue of unity within diversity--truth expressed in a variety of legitimate ways--as perhaps the most basic question facing the contemporary Church. However, he offers no guidance as to how we might achieve that goal, and he takes no note of the conservative argument that valid theological positions cannot be mutually contradictory. (To take the most pressing contemporary example, one cannot reconcile the belief that women should be ordained with the belief that this is impossible.) His essay is ostensibly even-handed. There are abuses on both sides of the spectrum, Rausch concedes, and both sides should admit this fact as a preliminary step toward ecclesial peace. However, this apparent moderation proves to be a sleight-of-hand of the same kind which has made conservative Catholics distrust the Common Ground project--which, not surprisingly, Rausch cites as a model. So for instance the Jesuit describes the "unease" he felt when he was asked by a group of women religious to use a Mass text which employed the terms "Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier" in place of "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit." He wonders if this tampering with the sacred words undermines authentic belief. But apparently his misgivings were not sufficient to cause him to refuse the request--a fact which illustrates the bias of his "balanced" position. Excesses on the left may be regrettable or dubious, but they can be tolerated in ways "excesses" on the right cannot be. The only left-wing Catholic "excommunicated" by Rausch is the theologian Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza, because she has rejected practically all traditional understandings of Jesus and makes him into a mere prophet of the goddess Sophia. Clearly, Rausch admits, this is going too far. But in this very act of excommunication he demonstrates how big his tent really is. Fiorenza, he points out, has criticized even the theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether for being still too much attached to the Jesus of the New Testament. Rausch rightly sees that, if Fiorenza finds Ruether too conservative, Fiorenza must be radical indeed. But he thereby implies that Ruether herself is within the acceptable bounds of orthodox Catholicism, although she is in fact only somewhat less radical than Fiorenza. The left boundary of the big tent apparently extends to the farthest margins of the field, failing to encompass only the most extreme people. Excommunicating Fiorenza also causes no problem on the left because she and other extreme feminists care little about ecclesial reality in any case. They do not seek ordination into what they consider a hopelessly unjust religious system, and indeed reject the very idea of priesthood. Neither do they bother trying to "improve" liturgical texts. Thus in excommunicating them Rausch establishes a position of moderation for himself without excluding anyone who might be a working ally. But the journalists Donna Steichen and Anne Carey have shown that positions like Fiorenza's are in fact not uncommon among women religious and other active Catholic dissidents, many of whom who are employed by the Church in responsible positions. Rausch seems willing to exclude those individuals who are too conspicuously aggressive in their views, while spreading a protective cover over those who hold many of the same opinions less ostentatiously. (The phraseology which he reluctantly used to name the Trinity in the nuns' liturgy seems an expression of such views.) PROGRAMMED FAILURE Rausch also acknowledges failings on the left in the well-known phenomenon of "religious illiteracy" of young Catholics, which is a problem that he has encountered in his own students. Liberal theologians, he acknowledges, cannot escape some responsibility for this condition. But such an admission falls far short of an adequate recognition of the problem: a pervasive doctrinal ignorance which does not only affect the young. This is not something which merely "happened," nor is it solely the result of the prevailing cultural winds. As far back as l960 professional religious educators were making the decision quite deliberately to exclude doctrine from their programs, and this exclusion was soon felt everywhere in the Church, as part of a coordinated, conscious attempt to alter the way in which Catholics understood their faith. Religious educators did not mistakenly think that newer methods would achieve the same results as the old; they regarded doctrinal orthodoxy as actually a distortion of the Gospel. Hence religious illiteracy is the intended result of an ecclesial revolution which has occurred with the active or passive support even of many bishops. If the results are now recognized as regrettable, this recognition necessitates a fundamental critique of the liberal ideas which have prevailed over a period of almost forty years. Here as elsewhere "moderates" like Rausch fail to understand that the strong emotions which they decry in conservatives are often generated by the intensely frustrating experiences engendered by problems such as planned religious illiteracy; the repeated bald claims that all is well; and the assurances that those who created the problem, and for so long denied its existence, can now be relied on to solve it. Nor have most liberals ceased to deny or downplay the existence of the problem. A candid statement about religious education issued last year by Archbishop Daniel M. Buechlein of Indianapolis, indicating that many popular religious texts were deficient and/or misleading on questions of doctrine, was all but ignored. This was not the kind of "leadership" which liberals want from the American bishops. CASES IN CONTRAST Rausch offers, as a model of how to accommodate disagreement in the Church, a conflict between Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles and a local Catholic Worker group which opposed the building of a new cathedral in the city. Although the Workers were strong in their criticism, the cardinal met with them respectfully, celebrated Mass in their house, and praised them for their devotion to the poor--even going so far as to encourage them to continue in their "prophetic" role. But Rausch does not take notice of Cardinal Mahony's stance in a different situation: his reaction to Mother Angelica of the EWTN television network for alleging that there are theological inadequacies in his pastoral letter on the liturgy, a document which has troubled more people than Mother Angelica. In her case the cardinal has demanded that she apologize unreservedly, denied that she has the right to make such theological judgments, and threatened ecclesiastical sanctions. In any other context this would seem to be a textbook case of the disciplinary methods used by the "pre-conciliar" Church--the methods which liberals claim to abhor. In response to Cardinal Mahony's original complaint, Mother Angelica did apologize on television for saying that Catholics did not owe their obedience to the cardinal, and she then offered a considerably more nuanced critique of his pastoral letter. Thus she quickly disposed of the claim that she had encouraged disrespect the cardinal's authority, and shifted her critique to the theological substance of his letter. But the cardinal continued his offensive against her; he seems to regard all criticism as inherently illegitimate. The difference in Cardinal Mahony's treatment of these two cases is also a textbook example of the experience of conservative Catholics over the past thirty years, during which American bishops have often been strenuous in trying to "reach out" to dissident groups on the left (especially feminists), even as they seem almost to take personal satisfaction in rebuffing conservative initiatives, welcoming the opportunity to assert their authority in the face of what they see as lay insubordination. THE DOUBLE STANDARD Thus criticism of a pastoral letter by an American cardinal is now defined as showing an un-Catholic spirit of disrespect, even at the same time as some American bishops speak with increasing bluntness about their disagreements with Rome. Auxiliary Bishop P. Francis Murphy of Baltimore, for example, has made a career of speaking quite publicly--and often quite harshly--about what he regards as the errors of various Vatican documents, most recently one concerning the role of the laity in the administration of the sacraments. But such attacks are treated by liberals not only as tolerable but as necessary. The health of the Church, it is argued in these cases, requires candid criticism. Once again conservative Catholics find that they regularly encounter a double standard. They are urged to support the concept of a completely "open" Church which values individual freedom; then are condemned as divisive when they disagree with reigning liberal orthodoxies. While Rausch and other liberals admit in principle that conservatives may have legitimate concerns, in practice every specific expression of such concerns is dismissed, in the same way that orthodox young men are rejected for the priesthood on the grounds that their beliefs show a "rigid" personality which might be unsuited for pastoral work. From its outset, Cardinal Bernardin's Common Ground project excluded almost all prominent conservatives, in much the same way that now Rausch surveys the field of Catholic opinion and dismisses almost all conservative people and groups as fatally flawed in some way. "Dialogue" remains a merely abstract possibility; liberals may enter into it at some (unspecified) future time when some (as yet unknown) "responsible" conservatives appear on the scene. As in American secular politics, "moderates" in the Church employ a double standard. The anger and frustrations of feminists or homosexuals are taken as a sign of their authenticity and of the fact that they have been mistreated by the Church. But similar emotions, when displayed among conservatives, are taken as evidence that dialogue with such people would be impossible. A similar double standard allowed the current situation to develop. Opinion polls now show that a substantial majority of Catholics are more or less liberal on religious questions, and this fact is constantly cited to warn Church leaders that they dare not go against the sense of the faithful. But in l965, when probably a large majority of Catholics were bewildered or apprehensive about change, the authority of the pope and the Second Vatican Council were constantly invoked to justify change. So too the imperative of "prophecy" was constantly invoked to justify positions which few Catholics would willingly have supported. Now, however, liberals in effect propose a system of majority rule on matters even of doctrine and morals. But as with theological ignorance, the present liberalism of the Catholic populace was not something which merely "happened. " It was systematically encouraged for thirty years by the religious professionals who have controlled the ecclesiastical machinery. WHO IS A DISSIDENT? Rausch's essay, which is a seminal liberal position paper for the present moment in church history, is more than merely a personal opinion. It can be taken as a public offer to the American bishops of a treaty which, if adopted, would "solve" the continuing tension within the Church. By the terms of this proposed agreement liberals would acknowledge that the most extreme figures on the left have finally placed themselves beyond the pale and cannot be defended, and that certain mistakes were made during the process of "renewal." However there is no suggestion that the recognitions of these mistakes now calls for any fundamental changes of direction or policy. What then would be required of conservatives by this peace settlement? As noted, so sweeping is Rausch's survey of conservatives whose positions are fatally flawed that scarcely any person or any organized movement is left standing. All are defined as obstacles to peace. In Rausch's proposed settlement the only "conservatives" who would be granted legitimacy would be those whom liberals define as "responsible." Rausch praises, as an accurate map of the conservative Catholic sub-culture, the book The Smoke of Satan, by the sociologist Michael Cuneo--a work which deliberately collapses all distinctions within the "conservative" ranks and seems designed for no other purpose than to imply that all the movements under discussion are eccentric to the point of being tinged with madness. There is another important element in Rausch's proposed settlement which cannot be stated forthrightly but is clearly indicated in his essay: the notion that conservatives are a threat to the peace of American Catholicism because of their adherence to papal teaching, and a peaceful American Church will be one in which papal authority is quietly ignored even by the bishops. The subtitle of Cuneo's book is Profiles of Right-Wing Dissent in Contemporary American Catholicism. That use of the word "dissent" is a striking example of current liberal strategy. For decades after the Second Vatican Council the word was used to describe Catholics who rejected official Church teaching and asserted a right to do so. It was a term which dissenters were often proud to claim for themselves. Cuneo's usage reverses the meaning, so that those who uphold official doctrine are themselves somehow dissenters. His book brings together both those who accept all Church teachings and those who reject the Second Vatican Council and are in actual schism. What they have in common, however--that from which they "dissent"--is the prevailing liberal hegemony in American Catholicism. Thus a dissenter is now not someone at odds with magisterial teaching but someone at odds with the spirit of the "American Church." ARBITERS OF THE NEW ORTHODOXY Americanist orthodoxy is not formal and dogmatic, because one tenet of the liberal revolution is precisely to put an end to dogma in the traditional sense. Americanist ideology is instead an orthodoxy which is never explicitly stated, but is sensed by all observant people. Heresy now is defined by the failure to catch the spirit of the times as articulated by those who claim to be in tune with it. Thus a leitmotif in Rausch's essay is the problem of homosexuality (he employs the politically correct term "gay"), and conservatives are taxed with resisting "what is seen as the moral agenda of the gay community" (note the implication that in fact there is no such agenda) and with failing to "welcome and support their gay and lesbian children." For liberal Catholics the homosexual movement is the current test of the Church's openness and the principal means through which the spirit is now being made manifest, as it was previously manifest in the anti-war movement, the women's liberation movement, and other trends. Most Catholic liberals do not overtly repudiate traditional teaching on homosexuality. Instead they change the subject, so that the only relevant moral issue is the "acceptance" which members of the Church owe to homosexuals--an acceptance which demands that homosexuality not be subjected to moral judgment and that homosexuals be systematically "affirmed." Hence the new arbiters of orthodoxy insist that the pastoral letter "Always Our Children," issued by a committee of bishops, represents American Catholic orthodoxy, and those who question it are dissenters who disturb the peace of the Church. So also Cardinal Mahony's stern demands on Mother Angelica are justified even in the "open Church" because he is in the process of validating new understandings of the liturgy, formulated by liberal theologians and liturgists, which are appropriate expressions of the American Catholic spirit. It follows, moreover, that it is impermissible to measure the prevailing beliefs of American Catholicism against official teaching as defined by popes and general councils. Such a tendency is now viewed as "fundamentalism," as Rausch predictably designates it. He also designates that tendency as "ultramontanism"--a term used last year by Archbishop Oscar Lipscomb of Mobile (Cardinal Bernardin's successor as head of the Common Ground project) to characterize the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars. While the term in and of itself could merely be an indication of loyalty to the Holy See, Archbishop Lipscomb obviously did not intend it as a compliment, and he employed it in a speech to the Catholic Theological Society of America in which he praised that group, which has a long history of supporting dissent. Even if Archbishop Lipscomb did not intend the term pejoratively, he used it in such a way as to define two parties in the Church--one oriented toward Rome, the other not. These were treated as merely two alternative ways of understanding the faith, in which the Holy See was not conceded any preeminent authority. THE LITMUS TEST For thirty years the principal test case has of course been Paul VI's encyclical Humanae Vitae (l968), concerning birth control. Rausch unhesitatingly grasps that nettle, complaining that conservatives have made the encyclical a "litmus test" of orthodoxy, and he praises the American bishops for having been enlightened enough not to emphasize the encyclical's teachings. (Coincidentally, the term "litmus test," like "big tent," is also favored by those Republican Party leaders who favor tolerance of abortion.) No one claims that Humanae Vitae deals with the most fundamental doctrines of the faith, but the birth-control issue is in fact a very effective test of orthodoxy in that almost no one who accepts that teaching is likely to dissent on anything else. Even more important, it was in order to justify dissent from that encyclical that American liberals began to develop an ecclesiology of dissent, which has by now simply become self-perpetuating. Such an ecclesiology has never been coherent--nor could it be and still remain Catholic in any meaningful sense of the word. Given the highly polarized state of the Church, it is necessary for liberals to continue to blur the principles involved, since those principles are incapable of answering certain obvious questions. For example, if dissenters are to be considered still essentially orthodox and loyal, how can one determine when it is appropriate to dissent from an official teaching and when it is not? If Catholics have a right (perhaps even a duty) to dissent from papal teaching when their consciences dictate, do they have a similar right or obligation to dissent from statements of American bishops? If Catholics ought to give respect and obedience to the teachings of their bishops, what should they do in situations where bishops disagree with one another? When conservatives find themselves at odds with a liberal bishop, should they be viewed as disobedient and divisive, or as courageous witnesses to the primacy of conscience? Ought Cardinal Mahony to appeal to Rome against Mother Angelica (as he has done), or does that manifest a lingering attitude of ultramontanism? In fact nowhere in his essay does Rausch even attempt to offer criteria by which "responsible" Catholicism can be distinguished from "extremism." He seems to imply that it is mainly a matter of tone, as though any opinion is tolerable so long as it is not expressed aggressively. Liberals usually argue a very narrow concept of magisterial authority whereby only those things solemnly proclaimed have binding force. But not only was Humanae Vitae proclaimed with full papal authority, its teachings were completely consistent with all the traditions of the Church, which never countenanced contraception.