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the reckoning

By Diogenes ( articles ) | Apr 29, 2005

George Weigel argues that Ratzinger's election signifies the twilight of Catholic progressivism:

It was expected that the Catholic Church would, indeed must, take the path of accommodation: that has been the central assumption of what's typically called "progressive" Catholicism. That assumption has now been decisively and definitively refuted. The "progressive" project is over -- not because its intentions were malign, but because it posed an ultimately boring question: how little can I believe, and how little can I do, and still remain a Catholic?

I'm not as sanguine as Weigel regarding the intentions of progressivists. After all, they haven't been low-profile churchmice quietly pleading for a live-and-let-live Catholicism. Though the now-comic 1960s culture of flowers and folk music may incline us to view them as harmless sentimentalists, they were and are revolutionaries, out to replace the old order with a new one of their own devising. Think of the way they've taken over most theology departments, some seminaries, some diocesan RE offices, and occasionally entire religious congregations. Think of the way they've used the shibboleth issues (contraception, women's ordination, gay rights, inclusive language) to hire and promote ideological allies and torpedo others. Weigel is right that progressivists failed to sell their project to the majority of churchgoers, and right that religious minimalism had much to do with this failure. But most of us probably know a seminarian or grad student or lay volunteer who, in spite of his good will and because of his orthodoxy, found himself unemployed and unemployable before he knew what hit him.

For the same reasons I don't expect progressivists to shrug and gracefully fade off the scene. What's at stake is not a failed literary review, but the meaning of their entire life. In the Bolshevik revolution, the young firebrands of 1910 did not cede authority to the young firebrands of 1980; once having seized power, they couldn't relinguish it, and kept a white-knuckle grip on the Party until it was loosened by clogged arteries. So too in the post-Conciliar Catholic putsch, the angry young mustangs of 1968 became the angry middle-aged mustangs of 1988 became the angry old mustangs of today. Only in the case of gay politics have younger men risen to form a wary alliance with the Humanae vitae dissenters. I agree with Weigel that their future is as bright as one would expect for a movement infatuated with sterility.

Remember too that mainstream Catholic liberals, largely through moral weakness, have blood on their hands -- at least via political complicity, when not in gruesome fact. Once they threw in their lot with contraception in 1968, the pressure to give a green light to abortion after Roe vs. Wade in 1973 proved too great to resist. This was a flat contradiction of their professed concern for the voiceless, of course, so, being good revolutionaries, they had to change their ideology to justify retrospectively their own history of blood-letting. That's why Catholic liberals detest any and all mention of abortion: it reminds them of their betrayal of the sole element of nobility in the progressivist project.

"Weak men are apt to be cruel," said Lord Halifax, "because they stick at nothing that may repair the ill effect of their mistakes." The ad hoc acts of injustice perpetrated in seminaries and theology departments -- rejections, firings, demotions -- were for the most part tactical cruelties necessitated by the dynamics of revolution: with 40 million casualties behind you, there's no stopping, and there's no going back.

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