“Anarchic Utopianism”

The project of dissenting Catholicism stalls.

Pope Benedict XVI noted at a Wednesday audience in March that “after the Second Vatican Council some were convinced that all would be made new, that another Church was being made, that the pre-conciliar Church was finished and we would have another, totally ‘other’ [Church].”

He called this movement “an anarchic utopianism,” which his predecessors had prudently resisted: “Thanks be to God the wise helmsmen of the barque of Peter, Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II, from one side defended the novelties of the Council, and from the other, at the same time, defended the uniqueness and the continuity of the Church, which is always the same Church of sinners and always a place of grace.”

But where does this movement of anarchic utopianism stand today? It appears that the project has stalled, as even some of its architects now admit, though they do hope to jumpstart it at a more opportune moment.

In January, the Wall Street Journal ran a piece titled “As the Flame of Catholic Dissent Dies Out.” Its author, Charlotte Allen, used the occasion of the death of the dissenting feminist theologian Mary Daly to reflect on the moribund state of the movement that she typified.

“Back in the 1960s and 1970s, which might be called the golden age of Catholic dissidence, theologians who took positions challenging traditional Church teachings—ranging from the authority of the pope to bans on birth control, premarital sex, and women’s ordination— dominated Catholic intellectual life in America and Europe. They seemed to represent a tide that would overwhelm the old restrictions and their hidebound adherents,” wrote Allen.

“Now, 45 years after Vatican II concluded in 1965, most of those bright lights of dissident Catholicism—from the theologian Hans Küng of the University of Tübingen to Charles Curran, the priest dismissed from the Catholic University of America’s theology faculty in 1987 for his advocacy of contraception and acceptance of homosexual relationships— seem dimmed with advanced age, if not extinguished. They have left no coherent second generation of dissident Catholic intellectuals to follow them.”

Allen’s observations generated grumbles on the Catholic left, but not total disagreement. In a February editorial (“Liberals dying or hiding?”), the flagship publication of anarchic utopianism, the National Catholic Reporter, conceded that “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?”

To the question of its editorial— “Liberals dying or hiding?”—NCR seemed to say both. “Where are their successors in the academy? Has the project gone sour? Has it run its course? Perhaps,” said NCR, before letting drop that dissenters are biding their time.

…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.”

Here NCR admits that dissenters are nesting secretly in the Church, then blasts Pope John Paul II for having subjected her to “kind of repeat of the anti modernist campaigns of more than a century ago.”

The editorial even bumptiously acknowledges the low motive behind their hibernation: rank careerism.

“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.”

So the anarchic utopians are “adventuresome” but not terribly courageous. They prefer to snipe at Benedict through intermediaries as they wait for a more favorable ideological climate.

As Benedict marks his fifth anniversary as pope, these intermediaries are pushing the line that his pontificate is in crisis. David Gibson, a columnist for Politics Daily, writes hopefully that “if Benedict’s papacy becomes known as one that simply goes from misstep to misstep, and crisis to crisis, then that could become its defining dynamic— and one that even the best preaching would find it difficult to overcome.”

But this chatter just conceals the continuing crisis that the Catholic left most fears—its own.


If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.