A Catholic Debate of Real Consequence

Far too many Catholics are caught up in “right” and “left”. There are more interesting—and important—matters to argue about.

Recently, I was at a St. Vincent de Paul store shopping for used books, which I do every so often. I found 4 or 5 books of moderate interest, including Malachi Martin’s book on the Jesuits, which I bought mostly for bibliophile kicks. When I placed my books on the checkout counter, a man checking out next to me looked over and blurted out, with apparent surprise, “Why are you buying a book about the Jesuits?”

Always looking for an opening to engage in serious discussions about matters Catholic, I said, “I’m thinking about becoming a Jesuit.”

Meanwhile, my 6-year-old son (named after the founder of the Dominican order), stood patiently, oblivious to the deep conversation emerging in front of him. “Really?” asked the man, who appeared to be about fifty years old, “I used to be a Jesuit. I was with them for many years.” He appeared to be dead serious, unlike myself. I smiled and replied, “No. But I do work for a Jesuit.”

That caught his attention. “Who?”

“Fr. Joseph Fessio,” I said. “I work for Ignatius Press.” His demeanor changed ever so slightly, from curious to cautious. “Oh,” he said, “you’re on that side.” He then turned to the cashier helping him and said, jokingly, “You do know that the entire world is run by Jesuits, right?”

“Actually,” I piped up, again, helpfully, “I have it on good account that the world is run by Franciscans, who only use the Jesuits and the U.N. as fronts. But I’m curious: what sides are you referring to?” Alas, the (allegedly) former Jesuit was heading out the door.

I’m fairly certain that if he had given me answer about “sides” it would have been along the lines of “conservatives vs. liberals” or something similar.

Patrick J. Deenen of The American Conservative sums this up well at the start of a piece, “A Catholic Showdown Worth Watching,” posted today on the TAC site:

For most casual observers, whether Catholic or not, the main battle lines within American Catholicism today seem self-evident. The cleavage overlaps perfectly the divide between the political parties, leading to the frequently-used labels “liberal” and “conservative” Catholics. We have Nancy Pelosi and Andrew Cuomo representing the Left, and Rick Santorum and Sam Brownback aligned with the Right. Mainstream opinion has classified Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI as honorary Republicans, and Pope Francis as a Democrat (hence, why he is appearing on the covers ofTime andRolling Stone magazines).

This division does indeed capture real battle lines, but more than anything, the divide is merely an extension of our politics, and—while manned by real actors—does not capture where the real action is to be found today in American Catholic circles.

Deenen goes on to outline a debate that has been of great interest to me for as long as I’ve been Catholic, a largely friendly but serious disagreement between those who generally have a very positive view of the American experiment and those who think the foundations of the United States were deeply flawed and essentially contrary to Catholic belief and social doctrine. The former group includes writers such as George Weigel, Michael Novak, the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, and others associated with First Things, founded about twenty years ago by Fr. Neuhaus. The latter group includes philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, theologian David L. Schindler, historian Glenn Olsen (who is not mentioned by Deenen), and many of those associated with Communio, which was founded over forty years ago by Fr. Joseph Ratzinger, Fr. Hans Urs von Balthasar, and others.

Deenan, who is aligned with the latter group, highlights some recent salvos in this debate, and provides links to some of the recent missives by various parties. His piece is a helpful introduction to this discussion (for those who aren’t aware of it) and gives a good sense of why it is so important. In short, the debate is only partially about the past; its real focus is on what can be done by Catholics in the here-and-now of modern America to plant roots, expound basic principles, uphold social doctrine, and build a culture built on truth, goodness, and beauty.

Personally, I admire and have benefited immensely from the writings of all those listed above, and have been reading both First Things and Communio since the 1990s. I have many friends on both sides of the debate, and I have moved this way and that—in small, never seismic, shifts—over time. However, I have come in recent years to lean toward the latter, more “radical” group—with an emphasis on “lean.” I was fortunate to have an exceptional class on Catholic Social Thought in the University of Dallas MTS program (I graduated in 2000), taught by Dr. Mark Lowery, the notes for which can be found on Dr. Lowery’s personal site. Dr. Lowery’s faculty page contains the following statement about his approach to

 My approach tries to avoid two erroneous ways of considering the Christian tradition in relation to secularity.  First, it is wrongheaded to “deconstruct” the traditional doctrines of Christianity in order to make them compatible with the canons of secular orthodoxy.  Such deconstruction infuses Christian doctrines with radically new meanings that are fundamentally incompatible with the originals.  In such a method, the doctrines no longer are genuine truth claims, but rather become mere approximations relative to a variety of other approximations.  The alleged goal of such relativizing – under the guise of “neutrality – is greater tolerance and openness, but the end result is all too often a tyrannical imposition of a pure relativism that isn’t really neutral at all.

Second, it is equally wrongheaded, though quite understandable, to take a fundamentally defensive stance against secularity.  Unconcerned about meeting its questions and objetions, one disappears into a kind of fundamentalist and paleomorphic ghetto in a vain attempt to retain the purity of one’s beliefs.  Often such a reaction takes a fideistic tone, unconcerned about the inner intelligibility of the truths being protected.  Tragically, the heteronomous element of such an approach is precisely what caused many moderns to recoil from Christianity in the first place.

Pope John Paul II, in his encyclical letter Veritatis Splendor, notes that authentic Catholic theology rejects both the autonomous position of modernity (embraced by some Catholics themselves) and the heteronomous position of many reactionary religious groups (including some withing Catholicism itself).  Authentic freedom is neither autonomous (“I can do what I want as long as I don’t hurt anyone else”) nor Heteronomous (“I’ll submit to these extrinsically imposed truths”) but rather is described as a “participatory theonomy” by which the truth is built for man’s nature and man’s nature partakes in that truth.  Put simply, the truth is friendly to our being.

Frankly, many of the debates within Catholic circles either bore me, puzzle me, or depress me. But the debate mentioned above is, I think, both fascinating and important, touching as it does on all sorts of interrelated matters: theology, philosophy, history, social doctrine, politics, and much more. In the words of Deenen:

If one paid attention only to canned accounts of things Catholic in the mainstream media, you would think that there’s something called “conservative” Catholicism that spends all of its time fretting about liberal “Catholicism.” That debate, such as it is, is merely our well-rutted political division with a Latin accent; the real intellectual action that will likely influence the future of Catholicism in America is being fought in trenches largely out of sight of much of the American public, even those who are well-informed. As this debate develops—and, I believe, bursts into public view, and begins to engage the Catholic remnant—major implications for the relationship of Catholics to America, and America to Catholics, hang in the balance.

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About Carl E. Olson 1217 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.