Liberals dying or hiding?

The proposition that liberal Catholicism is dying has been offered from time to time, for decades now, often in a way that reminds one of the schoolyard scuffler more interested in the fight than in any point being made.

The extended period over which such assertion has been made, of course, argues against its validity. But one of the most recent forays, by Charlotte Allen, a professional provocateur of sorts in religion-writing circles, is worthy of some consideration not only because of the buzz her Jan. 15 piece has been making around and about the ether, but also because the rather frayed and confused arguments she posits could do with some trimming and straightening.

Allen uses the recent death of theologian Mary Daly, a radical feminist, to launch her assessment that “the flame of Catholic dissent” is dying out. One has to accept a premise that can only be inferred from the piece, that no distinction exists among theologians -- from Daly to Fr. Charles Curran, to Fr. Hans Küng, to Sr. Sandra Schneiders, to the late Fr. Edward Schillebeeckx. Her broad brush is applied to anyone who might have drawn some notice from the Vatican about his or her theology. It doesn’t take much investigation of Catholic intellectual tradition to discover that some of the sainted giants of the past were, in their own time (Thomas Aquinas among them), on the outs with church authority only to be later rehabilitated.

So one period’s dissenters could easily be another period’s great minds. There’s little discussion of substance in her observations.

One further note is necessary. She claims that Schillebeeckx was condemned in 1986 “for holding that there was no biblical support for the ordaining of Catholic priests.” That is simply incorrect. He was never condemned, and her explanation is a mere caricature of his position. But this was, after all, an op-ed piece in The Wall Street Journal, and we know the difficulty of handling complexity in a small space.

Still, however badly the point is made, there is some truth to her claim that the liberal thinkers, the giants who fashioned the documents of the Second Vatican Council and those who soon took over the mantle of that unusual four-year gathering of the world’s bishops, have left no giants behind. What’s happened?

(In all fairness, she notes, too, that conservative Catholicism is no better off, and she concedes that some of its brightest lights aren’t even theologians. That concession quickly leads one to a question of why the church in any of its manifestations in the developed world would be bleeding not only intellectual life, but enthusiasm and members as well. But that’s a discussion for another day.)

It is beyond dispute that the limits of human biology and the relentless march of time will eventually take from the stage all the theological luminaries, conservative and liberal, of the past half century or so. So it’s easy to assert that as they disappear so does the liberal or dissenting project. Those descriptions, by the way, are terribly inadequate, but for lack of better words or for the space to be more precise, and for the sake of argument, they’ll have to do.

We presume from the names she mentions that Allen is referring to a period of Catholicism that would include the modern liturgical reformers and the theological experts from around the world who produced the documents of Vatican II, opening up ministry in a much greater way to laypeople, including women, and deepening the church’s commitment to social justice issues. If the project is now fading, it certainly leaves behind quite a legacy.

It is not overstating the case to say that without such reforms throughout the ecclesial body many places today would not have a functioning church. Without the tens of thousands of lay ministers, for instance, most dioceses would be unable to function or to teach the next generation of Catholics; there would be no music at Mass and no servers and readers. Ministries of outreach to the poor and homeless, to those in prisons, would go wanting. Chaplaincies of every sort would remain unfilled.

No matter how far some would like to push reform of the reforms, the truth is that sooner than later need meets the theology that has already been fashioned. The church goes on, in large measure, because of the reforms initiated by such the figures mentioned in Allen’s piece.

Yet, the question remains: Where are their successors in the academy? Has the project gone sour? Has it run its course?


However, before embracing that conclusion, one would have to factor in the 25 years of John Paul II’s papacy and the toll it took on theologians. One need only talk to a sampling of theology departments to know that in many places theologians are lying low. Our seminaries will certainly be playing it safe for the foreseeable future. Moral theology of the sort that might raise substantial questions or handle difficult sexual or other life issues is being left to those who regurgitate the party line. There may be nothing at all wrong with the party line, but it’s not going to face much challenge these days from Catholic theologians. More adventuresome and sophisticated theologians are out there, but they’re not going to raise their heads too far above the barricades. Not in an age when an invitation to a sitting president can bring out the sound-bite armies. Our best thinkers have seen what happens to careers when the accepted formulae -- be it in moral theology or Christology or ecumenism -- are challenged.

The chill that has been placed on speculation and thinking of the sort that raises discomfiting questions is probably the greatest cause for the lack of theological enterprise in this era. John Paul, for all of his greatness, dragged the church through a kind of repeat of the anti-modernist campaigns of more than a century ago. And we know that that campaign immeasurably set back Catholic intellectual pursuit.

Meanwhile, if consistent surveys are correct, the young may not be attached to the liberal project and the institution as we of another generation might have been. They might also be casting about for a sense of home and put off by the lack of tolerance of questions and the lack of place for women within the institution, as well as by the scandalous conduct of the hierarchy. But we also know that they are deeply attracted to some of Catholicism’s best traditions of spirituality and to its richly developed social justice teachings.

Catholic culture has changed irrevocably over the course of the past 50 years. The parochial structure we knew as the iconic Catholic presence in U.S. culture is fading and morphing into something else. No one knows exactly what shape it will take. We are the inheritors of both the “liberal” initiatives embodied in Vatican II and the storms of reaction against them.

The theological giants who fashioned those initiatives are certainly aging, but it would be unwise to jump too quickly to conclusions about the fate of what they leave behind.

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