Five years ago, following the election of Pope Benedict XVI, I wrote the column below, reflecting on how the papal election would affect Catholic liberals. When my column first appeared, a friendly reader commented:
Let’s wait 5-10 years and see who’s right, Weigel or Diogenes. If Benedict XVI proves to take his role as administrator of the Church, or primus inter pares, more seriously than did his predecessor, it is fair to assume that Weigel will win the wager. If not, Diogenes will win, but all believing Catholics will lose.
I would be happy to report that Weigel was right and your Uncle Di was wrong. But in light of the worldwide torrent of criticism directed against the Pope—much of it from Catholic quarters—I wonder.
What follows is my column from 2005, completely unaltered.
In a syndicated column that appeared in Catholic diocesan newspapers late in April, George Weigel argued that Cardinal Ratzinger’s election as Pope Benedict XVI signified the twilight of Catholic progressivism. As he put it:
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 am not as sanguine as Weigel regarding the intentions of progressivists. After all, they haven’t been lowprofile church mice quietly pleading for a live-and let-live Catholicism. While 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 have taken over most theology departments, some seminaries, some diocesan religiouseducation offices, and occasionally entire religious congregations. Think of the way they have 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.
NO TURNING BACK
For the same reasons I do not expect progressivists to shrug and gracefully fade off the scene. What is 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 relinquish 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, who 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, if 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 v. 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.