In a May 3 Time magazine article entitled “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 US 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 the lifeless dummy that 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 in 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. Aheroic 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 doctrinemaking, 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 that changed in that direction would have by definition ceased to be the Catholic Church. That is to say, the conflict opposes a dogmatic certainty of change against a dogmatic certainty 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 40 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 20th-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—100 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.