The Failure of Liberal Catholicism

An examination of its claims – the second of a two-part series.

For decades conservatives have been marginalized in groups like the Catholic Theological Society of America (CTSA), which do not even pretend to be hospitable to “all points of view.” People have been denied tenure, lost their jobs, were never hired in the first place, or were otherwise penalized for upholding Church teaching, not only in academia but even in official Church agencies.

As documented in Michael Rose’s book Goodbye Good Men, for years orthodox young men were denied entry into certain seminaries, despite the urgent need for priests. A common ploy was to ask the candidate his views on the ordination of women and, if he said he accepted the official teaching, to reject him as “insensitive to women.” Conservative members of religious orders have suffered severe marginalization over almost five decades.

Church bureaucrats are situated midway between the hierarchy and the laity, and after the Council they began to claim a kind of authority over both. While bishops are constantly told that they must humbly seek to learn from their people, bureaucrats often reject or ignore criticism of their work, because they are qualified professionals. Conservative lay people learned very quickly that it did no good to raise questions about the education of their children or dubious liturgical practices, because even many conservative bishops automatically supported the “experts.”

After decades conservative Catholics have at last received a sympathetic hearing from some bishops, but liberals have an almost reflexive reaction against hierarchical authority, with every issue immediately defined as the “interference” by that hierarchy in the life of the Church.

Dolores Leckey, who for years used her position as executive director of the US bishops’ Secretariat for Family, Laity, Women, and Youth to promote feminism, in effect now denies that there even is such a thing as legitimate episcopal authority—bishops act only because they are “afraid” and “insecure,” not because of their religious convictions.

Manifestations of traditional Catholicism elicit emotional reactions from liberals all out of proportion to their cause. The priest-theologian Richard McBrien denounces the revival of Eucharistic adoration as a “step backwards,” and to Rick Marren, an editor of the National Catholic Reporter, Eucharistic and Marian devotions constitute a “betrayal” of Vatican II. The Benedictine liturgist Anscar Chupungco laments, “The church is now experiencing the cold chill of winter….”

But no one is forced to participate in Eucharistic devotions—McBrien is offended merely because some people choose to do so. One woman told the NCR that she finds the acceptance of former Anglicans into the Church “worrisome,” because “They’re kneeling for Communion, the priest facing the altar…we are regressing from the Vatican II model of going with the spirit of the law to the letter of the law. There used to be more heart.”

A former NCR editor expressed fear that the Anglican converts would be “anti-gay bigots,” and the Jesuit Thomas Reese, who has become the secular media’s favored commentator on Catholic matters, feared that the converts will “further discourage reform.”

The acrimonious attacks on the new translation of the  Mass have much less to do with the quality of language than with the power of the liturgical establishment, which for almost the first time in 45 years is being questioned by the pope and the bishops. Liturgists are indignant that they were not entrusted with the task of making new translations.

The Benedictine Anthony Ruff complains of a “pattern of top-down impositions by a central authority that does not consider itself accountable to the larger church,” but it is the liturgical establishment itself that has behaved that way for almost 50 years. Chupungco admonishes sternly that “we are not free to propound views” that deviate from what liturgists decreed four decades ago.

At the 2010 meeting of the Catholic Theological Society of America, two lay theologians—Catherine Clifford and Richard Gaillardetz—warned that in the past, tradition “has been cooped to convey values of ideology and dominant self-interest.” But liberal Catholicism is now itself an ideology, and the rationalization of self-interest is nowhere more obvious than among organized professionals.

Clifford and Gaillardetz complained that theologians labor under “episcopal suspicion” and asserted that theologians “exhibit loyalty to the magisterium only insofar as the magisterium exhibits its own proper service to God’s word,” a formula that allows theologians the final judgment as to what constitutes God’s word.

Part of the liberal conceit is the claim that Vatican officials are ignorant and do not understand the theologies they judge, a claim that by implication applied even to Pope Benedict when he was head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, even though he is one of the great theologians of the age.

Some theologians now claim to be a “second magisterium” whose teaching authority is equal to, even superior to, that of the hierarchy, a claim that ignores the fact that throughout the history of the Church it has always been the hierarchy—usually gathered in councils—who have rendered final judgment about doctrine.

Clifford and Gaillardetz defined the role of the theologian as that of preserving “the priority of the lived faith of the Church over its doctrinal formulations,” implying that the two are incompatible. But, having excluded both hierarchical authority and “popular opinion,” the two theologians seemed by default to leave the professionals as the people uniquely qualified to determine what is or is not “lived faith.” (McBrien denounces the lived faith expressed in Eucharistic adoration.)

But, as always, the revolution devours its own children. Sister Margaret Brennan, a leader of the post-conciliar “renewal” of religious life, now wonders if there is “a need for so-called experts. Are we not all theologians in some sense?”

Some nuns have characterized the Vatican inquiry into religious life as “violent” and their resistance designed to “break the cycle of violence.” Sister Theresa Kane, who publicly insulted John Paul II on his first visit to the United States, now declares that “the male hierarchy is impotent, incapable of equality, of co-responsibility in adult behavior.”

Opposition to the investigation of religious communities makes a claim unique in the history of the Church—that women religious are answerable to no one except themselves. (Gaillardetz provides the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, or LCWR, with theological guidance.)

The feminist nun Joan Chittister contrasts women religious “who themselves go steadfastly on serving the poor, working for justice, and attempting to make peace among peoples of every faith and culture, and while the church universal continues to deal with the effects of sexual scandals everywhere, embezzlements everywhere….” But it is impossible to know how widespread sexual misconduct and embezzlement may be among women religious (a few cases have come to light), since they have declared that they are accountable to no one.

Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, a Capuchin, points out that, despite their talk of “openness,” many religious communities seem to lack any spirit of self-criticism, as they cling to failed experiments. In the beginning leaders of “renewal” predicted that the changes would attract greater numbers. When the opposite turned out to be the case, the same leaders—gratuitously insulting their older members—announced that they were attracting fewer but better recruits. Now they seem unconcerned that in a decade many of their communities will practically be extinct. Cardinal Franc Rodé, the retired prefect of the Sacred Congregation of Religious, has pointed out that, while the LCWR represents 80 percent of the female communities in the United States, those communities belonging to the alternative Council of Major Superiors of Religious are attracting 80 percent of the female vocations.

Although hierarchy is intrinsic to classical religious life, the LCWR abandoned the concept of “superiors” as authoritarian and instead favored “leadership” as democratic. But this is misleading—one motive for the Vatican investigation is precisely complaints from sisters who found that changes were imposed from above and that those who disagreed were marginalized.

The inquiry is denounced as a “witch hunt” and an “inquisition,” but at the same time nuns boast that their lives have been fundamentally transformed, to the point where some are even militantly pro-abortion. (A four-page advertisement in the NCR greeted American sisters in the words of the Angel Gabriel to Mary, “Hail, full of grace” and proclaimed “the host of angelic spirits who stand in solidarity with you.” The ad was sponsored by, among others, the pro-abortion group Catholics for Choice.)

As with other things, despite talk of diversity and pluralism, liberals do not regard traditional religious life as authentic. Thus one NCR reader “knows” that young women who enter traditional orders “have swallowed the myth of their own inferiority,” and Ken Briggs, a former New York Times reporter, declares the LCWR to be “the last organizational remnant of the Second Vatican Council.” For Briggs the very existence of an alternative group of female religious constitutes “subversion” of the LCWR, which has the right to speak for all religious, including those who do not agree with its positions. He warns that the claim that traditional communities are attracting the most vocations is not a simple fact but merely another Vatican ploy to undermine the LCWR.

Here again history is an obstacle to liberal self-understanding. Liberals recall the heroic services that women religious have rendered in schools, hospitals, and orphanages and imply, absurdly, that sisters are now being investigated because of those good works rather than precisely because to a great extent they have abandoned them. Lay people of all stripes recognize that it is possible to spend years in Catholic schools, and to be a patient in Catholic health institutions, without ever seeing a nun.

Modern nuns claim the achievements of their forebears but cannot admire those forebears unequivocally, because the great works of the past were achieved by women who lived in ways now condemned as crabbed and narrow, from which post-conciliar nuns have supposedly liberated themselves.

But the approved attitude towards pre-conciliar nuns has been revised in an effort to resolve the contradiction. For a time liberal opinion endorsed the stereotype of the play Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All—nuns made cruel and psychologically disturbed by their own distorted formations. But that view was later abandoned in order to make the contrary claim—far-seeing religious women were chiefly responsible for everything good in American Catholicism, held back only by a reactionary hierarchy.

Why discontented liberals remain in a Church that continuously frustrates them is not easy to understand; it is not because of a belief in the Church’s divine character. They sometimes cite the Eucharist as their reason for staying, but logically their principles require them to believe that Protestant eucharists are equally valid.

Being a Catholic is reduced to the lowest common denominator, as by an NCR reader who explains it thus—“Relationships that I simply could not continue in a practical way with the hundreds of people over all of these years,” an explanation that could apply equally to professional organizations, alumni clubs, or groups of hobbyists. Another reader attends a “progressive” parish, “not because I need Catholicism to grow spiritually, but because this inclusive community nourishes me in ways I have not found elsewhere.”

A feminist declares that “women don’t need the Vatican. We don’t need the bishops. That is the real threat.” But in fact they do, because their identity is forged in obsessive rebellion against Church authority.

The repeated charge that those within the hierarchy are power-hungry is to a great extent an expression of the liberals’ own obsession with power, which is a major reason why they remain in the Church. A woman recounted in the NCR that she had not attended church for a long time, until another feminist “helped me see the power in greeting people before Mass.”

Most feminists could not offer a coherent theology of the priesthood, but they nevertheless demand to be ordained. One female “bishop” says that while “the Catholic Church is toxic to women…it is vitally important to my credibility that I be recognized as Roman Catholic. I ordain women to the priesthood of the Roman Catholic Church. Yes, I am excommunicated, but I remain specifically and intentionally in the church.”

An “expert” on the laity, the former Jesuit Paul Lakeland, charges that the Church “infantilizes” people (“it’s a rub-your-nose-in-term and that’s why I used it”), by which he seems to mean not that their religious and moral lives are childish but that they have failed to “take ownership of the universal church.” Power alone matters, and Lakeland feels justified in demeaning those who do not grasp that fact.

In an open letter, the Australian priest Eric Hodgens complains that outstanding men like himself were kept from the offices they deserved, while promotion went to those who “sold their souls for advancement.”

Liberal Catholicism is replaying the history of the Reformation of the 16th century, beginning with calls for legitimate reform and ending in innumerable divisions. But whereas Luther and Calvin repudiated those who moved too far too fast, the concepts of heresy and schism are meaningless in the incoherent liberal Catholic ecclesiology, where each person’s judgment is held to be sacred, where people are Catholics simply because they claim to be.

The NCR itself now supports formal schism, routinely referring to “women priests,” even though the Church has pronounced such ordinations invalid. Jamie Manson, a regular columnist for the NCR, urges women to participate in “lay-led eucharists” or to seek ordination from schismatic sources, while the feminist theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether prefers a system in which the entire community “ordains” a woman to the priesthood, without a bishop.

Kane says, “I’m not out of communion. The institution got out of communion with me,” and she finds the liturgy “a source of anguish, sadness, even emptiness,” rejoicing that some communities have moved to devising their own feminist liturgies—“Maybe it is the beginning of a new church.” (The “mainstream” LCWR has honored Kane, its former president, with its Outstanding Leadership Award.)

To the extent that liberals have the semblance of an ecclesiology, it is based on the Council’s “spirit,” which certain people possess but others (including most popes) are so impoverished as not to discern. Human experience has become the sole criterion of truth, but some experiences are more equal than others—liberals in effect claim that “the Spirit” speaks to them but not to those with whom they disagree.

They generously award each other epithets like “profound,” “beautiful, “compassionate,” “loving,” and “holy,” anointing each other as “artists,” “prophets,” and “seers.” An NCR reader finds ominous the claim that Jesus “spoke by the prophets” (past tense), since there are many prophets alive today who are thereby excluded.

Clifford and Gaillardetz invoked the “prophetic” calling of the theologian, who is “not interested in popular opinion” and whose task “requires a deep sense of humility.” But liberal heroes like Hans Küng have long sought and received media acclaim, and liberals are fond of pointing out triumphantly that a majority of Catholics (to say nothing of the larger society) agree with the liberals’ own permissive sexual morality.

On the other hand the prophet’s mantle is bestowed very sparingly, if at all, on those who do not espouse liberal ideology. Among those who fail to gain it is Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, who is for liberals the principal elephant in the living room, since she does not fit their model of what a “post-conciliar” Catholic is supposed to be. Unsworth once ridiculed her in the pages of the NCR, calling her “Mother Jugo” after a cheap brand of European automobile and complaining that her sisters were a detriment to the progressive Chicago church.

Praise is also withheld from another “independent nun,” a woman who reached out to the world beyond the cloister and, overcoming immense obstacles, including the overt opposition of a powerful cardinal, put together the largest Catholic communications network in the world. Those credentials should make Mother Angelica a feminist heroine, but the NCR merely dismisses her “slick performance.”

In describing their gatherings liberals emphasize their sense of humor and the fact that they do not take themselves seriously—the NCR often publishes photographs of its liberal heroes laughing, presumably in contrast to the grimness of conservatives. After Unsworth’s death the NCR editor Tom Fox hailed him as a great wit, quoting such hilarities as “Indulgences out of the attic for the new millennium.” (Presumably Unsworth’s sneers at “Mother Jugo” qualify as immortal satire.)

Chittister approvingly quotes the Benedictine Rule that “we are not given to ready laughter” but explains that what St. Benedict really meant was that the Rule “brings patriarchy, with all its derisiveness, all its ridicule, to its knees.” (How this might apply to Unsworth’s “Mother Jugo” essay is not stated.)

As the authority of office is denied, the cult of personality inevitably replaces it. Chittister disparages the various papal journeys as mere manifestations of a “celebrity and mega-event world,” and she then replaces the pope for readers of the NCR:

“Just knowing there is a Joan Chittister gives comfort to many.” “Her calm spiritual center.” “Having skipped past 70 recently with no apparent sign of slowing down…” “Always calm, gracious, and present…” “…a keen awareness of suffering and the insatiable desire to confront the causes of that suffering…” “She walks freely through the Old Testament, where she finds ageless outraged friends.”

“Few writers have their own publishing house…” Hers “keeps the world apace with Chittister’s reflections on the human condition…..” “Answers to life’s questions, with essentials pared down by the author, spring from the pages.”

“Countless people want a piece of her time. Suitors sometimes have to schedule her up to three years out.” “…it was a privilege and a coup for Call to Action to successfully book her….” The NCR editor was gratified that he was able to reach her on the telephone on only the second try. She was jet-lagged from a “quick in and out” to Newfoundland, “which followed another to New York…the next day she was off to California.” (The paper published a photograph of Iraqi refugees in Damascus crowding around her in apparent gratitude for her flying visit.)

“…some would notice her, slow down and stare. Others would simply stop in their tracks, causing brief pileups. Still others would sneak a peek…sometimes doing a full body spin—just to be sure they saw who they thought they saw. For some the sight of Chittister was simply too much.”

“The audience bolted to their feet. Sustained applause followed for minutes and across the ballroom one could hear a chant growing louder, ‘Joan for pope! Joan for pope! Joan for pope!’ It’s unlikely that she heard about the election or would ever accept it. Prophets go a different way.”

All this is consistent with Chittister’s understanding of the Benedictine Rule. St. Benedict’s exhortation to humility requires men to “curb their delusions of grandeur” and to “be content with the lowest and most menial of treatment,” but she explains that for women this actually means being self-assertive. (She also says, with no sense of irony, that the Rule requires that “The blustering has got to stop. The criticism has got to stop.”)

Classical spirituality warns of the need for careful discernment of impulses, to distinguish those that are from God from those that are not. But in modern liberal religion the self is the ultimate authority.

Catholic liberals condemn the “consumer society,” without seeing how well their own approach to religion fits it. Reese says, of the Church’s loss of members, “If we were a retail outlet, we’d say we were blaming the customers.”

But liberals in fact do treat religion as a retail outlet. If traditional Catholicism was dogmatic and authoritarian, it did not cater to peoples’ desires. Now, however, belief is indeed treated like a cafeteria from which people pick only what they find appealing. Retreat houses operated by nuns seek to attract “customers” to “massage therapy,” mazes, and other spiritual luxuries for people who have everything.

The disciple of Christ thus becomes a customer whose patronage has to be continually won. Letters to the NCR frequently announce that the author has “finally had enough” and has left the Church or is considering doing so.

One NCR reader proclaims, “Some day I may be called to deny my church but I will never deny my God or myself,” God and the self apparently having become one. Another wonders if “the God I choose to worship in the Catholic Church is not saying to me, ‘Shame on you,’” for belonging to a church that does not approve homosexual unions.

Noting that some of his friends have left the Church, Ruff says, “My response is to stay in this church for life and do my best to serve her,” a decision he apparently regards as merely one among equally legitimate possibilities.

But there is only one valid question relevant to being a Catholic—whether the Church’s teachings are true. If they are not, no one ought to join the Church and, if they are, no one has the moral right to leave.

The liberal program now goes far beyond seeking a Catholicism suitable for the 21st century. It is so open on its left side as to be Christian only in an equivocal way.

“Spirituality” is crucial, since the word is now used even by atheists, who claim for themselves the highest reaches of “religious experience” without committing themselves to any particular beliefs.

For Jamie Manson the Eucharist is merely an occasion that makes possible more important things—for lay ministers “their deepest connection with God came in two experiences: in the moment of looking into the eyes of the communicant and in the meal that they would share with the members of the congregation afterwards.”

She reports that traditional devotions have simply given way to “yoga, meditation, chant, music, or other repetitive exercises that offer a soundness of both body and spirit.” She herself fingers a rosary, not to meditate on the divine mysteries but only “to diffuse my anxiety.” (“What really is the difference between grasping at rosaries versus Buddhist prayer beads?”) After having long forbidden “meaningless repetition” in prayer, liberals now give permission if they find it satisfying in their own lives.

Brennan relates that, influenced by feminism, Jungianism, and other things, she has discovered that “God is not any one person…but is the source and reality of all persons and things.” She has been enabled to “let go of old notions of God that were anchored in my mind but no longer spoke to my heart.”

Following the black racist Malcolm X, the priest-theologian Bryan Massingale, former president of the CTSA, finds the roots of racism in “Christianity’s symbol structure, especially its image of a white God,” something that requires the “rejection of the cultural symbol system of Western Christianity.” (Liberals who like to remind Catholics that Jesus was a Jew are among those most likely to represent him as a black man or an Indian, since he is after all primarily a humanly created symbol more than a real historical person.)

Following the worn path of liberal Protestantism, Terrence Tilley, former president of the CTSA, questions whether the classic dogmatic formulations of the early councils, especially those having to do with Jesus, are not outmoded and misleading. He urges that Jesus be understood in such a way as to affirm divine revelation in other religions besides Christianity.

The priest-theologian Peter C. Pham says that “words such as universality, uniqueness, and exclusivity, because of their historical connections with Western colonialism and imperialism, will be perceived as no longer appropriate and useful for expressing one’s faith….”

The feminist theologian Elizabeth Johnson says, “I would not be at all adverse if we simply dropped the word ‘Trinity,’” and an NCR writer recommends a book of prayers because “There is no ‘Father, Son, and Holy Ghost’ in them, no Jesus nor Virgin Mother.”

In a Christmas editorial, the NCR informed its readers that the doctrine of the redemption was an error propagated for centuries, until it was disproved by a few modern theologians. “You might,” the paper enthused, “be hearing the Gospel for the first time.”

Jeanette Blonigen Clancy, a former staff member of the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis, dismisses the “male” doctrine of the Trinity as “three guys in the sky.” She confesses that: “I revere Jesus as figure of antiquity to inspire right living for us. But his coming was not a once-and-for-all event changing everything for all time…. His suffering and death mythically represent all salvific suffering and death…. Their sacrifice counts no less than his…. I saw Jesus talking shop with the Buddha at Starbucks.”

But even complete openness to other religions is not enough. The feminist theologian Mary Daly said, “I urge you to Sin…. But not against those itty-bitty religions, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism…all derivatives of the big religion of patriarchy. Sin against the infrastructure itself.” (Chittister acknowledges a great debt to Daly, whom she considers a major theologian.)

The fatal flaw of post-conciliar religious life was understanding renewal as a liberation from traditional spirituality, religious cutting themselves loose from the Church in such a way as to create a spiritual vacuum that begged to be filled. Now some nuns have actually drifted into neo-paganism—goddess worship and various kinds of non-Christian spirituality—using their residual authority to propagandize for what is in effect a rival religion.

Kate Childs Graham, an NCR contributor who is affiliated with the Women’s Ordination Conference and Call to Action, cites as an authority “the writer and social activist” Starhawk, who is in fact a self-declared “witch” and goddess-worshiper.

Some Catholic environmentalists seem in fact to worship the earth itself. The NCR editor Rick Heffern says, “What now most shapes my prayer is the new scientific creation story…. The universe is a unity, an interactive, evolving community of beings and life bound inseparably together.”

Liberals see only one reason why Catholics leave the Church—the “rigidity” of its teachings—thus they cannot account for the steady departure of other elephants from other living rooms—from the emptying pews of the Episcopal Church and other mainline Protestant groups.

The Episcopal Church offers exactly what Catholic liberals desire—no pope, the election of bishops, weak episcopal authority, unlimited liturgical variety, endless doctrinal flexibility, complete acceptance of the sexual revolution. But, like the liberal orders of nuns, Episcopalianism appears to be headed towards self-extinction.

As the history of modern Protestantism and Judaism shows, the principal achievement of liberal religion is to persuade people that they do not need religion at all. Liberal Catholicism has achieved its goal of undermining many traditional beliefs and practices, but it has thereby also undermined itself—issues like women’s ordination do not interest people who belong to the Church in the same way they might belong to a health club. A decreasing number of liberals even bother to call themselves Catholics, and in a sense the “best” liberal Catholics are those who have left the Church entirely.

But by no means all those who leave the Church do so because they consider its doctrines too rigid. On the contrary, an unknown number have joined fundamentalist Protestant groups, often complaining that their liberal priests offered them only a worldly version of the Gospel.

Liberal Catholics are in full flight from what they consider the neurotic guilt inflicted on them by their religious upbringing, but this sense of oppression is mainly confined to teachings about sex.

The concept of “social sin”—racism, colonialism, unjust economic and social structures—whatever validity it might have, imposes on people a burden of guilt that they can never lift, because social sin is precisely defined as sins whose perpetrators do not fully recognize their complicity, so that they must be lashed over and over again.

Massingale asserts that white people are so deeply implicated in a racist culture that those who think they are free are complicit precisely for that reason. An NCR editor praises a book (published by Maryknoll) that denies that racism can even be addressed within the context of American culture, because “racism and genocide are constitutive of the United States….”

In the end, modern liberalism—both secular and religious—has to do with control in the name of freedom. The bitterness that now suffuses the once-optimistic liberal movement is a belated awareness that—at least in the Catholic Church—that program has failed.


This is the second installment in a two-part series. The first part may be read here

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About James Hitchcock 0 Articles
James Hitchcock is a professor of history at St. Louis University.