The Catholic Culture Wars Continue—and That’s a Good Thing

Calls to end the “balkanization” of the faithful sound good, but reveal a refusal to admit why “balkanization” exists in the first place.

In a recent speech to the annual assembly of the College Theology Society, Indianapolis Archbishop Joseph Tobin warned that the increasing polarization in the Catholic Church in the US has led to a “balkanization” of the faithful into “so-called right wing and left wing, or progressive and traditionalist factions who point fingers at each other.”  Suggesting that the current division in the Church has made us defensive—and “less likely to humbly examine the distance between our ideals and the present moment,” Archbishop Tobin denounced the current trend between the warring camps in the Church to “oversimplify what are really complicated questions in the hope of discovering who to blame.”

Archbishop Tobin is correct in suggesting that there are indeed complex questions that continue to divide Catholics.  But it may be more difficult than he proposes to move beyond the current culture wars over these issues.  Contested terrain over women’s ordination, as well as abortion, same-sex marriage, and reproductive technologies—including gestational surrogacy and in vitro fertilization—divide us as Catholics.

These divisions have indeed created a kind of balkanization. But how could it be otherwise? There cannot be common ground on issues like abortion or same-sex marriage. As long as there are those within the Church who are vocal in their dissent from Catholic teaching about the institution of marriage as a sacred covenant between a man and a woman, or that all life must be protected from conception until natural death, or that women cannot be ordained to the priesthood, there are going to be culture wars within the Church. 

No institution, especially an institution like the Catholic Church, exists without conflict over contested cultural issues like these. If we truly believe that what the Church teaches is true, these culture wars will continue—and orthodox Catholics who accept the truth of these teachings must be willing to engage in the fight. 

Sociologists like James Davison Hunter and the late Philip Rieff have cautioned that we can never get “beyond” the culture wars.  Rieff’s books Triumph of the Therapeutic and Charisma remind us that “where there is culture, there is struggle.”  For Rieff “culture is war by other—normative—means.  By its very nature, the work of culture is the matter and manner of disarming competing culture—something that always threatens sacred order.”

This is not to suggest that the Church must be filled with hostility.  It does not mean that the Church is resistant to all change. The Catholic Church, like all institutions, is constantly being “re-created” in certain ways.  Some change is inevitable—it is inherent to culture as it emerges through conflict. However, this re-creation cannot be guided by the changing values of a secular culture.  The Church cannot change her infallible teachings—the teachings of the Magisterium—including those concerning the dignity of the human person, the sacredness of the family, and the institution of the all-male priesthood.  These are not just “values,” because values change in what Rieff calls the “values marketplace.”  These “non-negotiable” teachings are the definitive teachings of the Church and so they will not change. Thus, the Catholic culture wars will not end.

Attempting to disarm competing cultures

It is understandable that Archbishop Tobin would denounce what he sees as hostilities within the Church.  But what he describes as “balkanization” is actually the cultural work that needs to be done to disarm the competing cultures that threaten to destroy the teaching authority of the Church.  There are real threats to that authority that have come from within the Church herself.  And some of these threats have emerged from within religious orders.

In 2010, Pope Benedict XVI appointed Archbishop Tobin secretary of the Vatican’s Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, the dicastery that oversees religious orders.  At the time of that appointment, the Vatican had already spent the previous two years responding to the decades-long defiance of Church teachings by the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) in their calls for women’s ordination, support for abortion and contraception, and an “end to patriarchy” in the Church.  The intention of the Vatican assessment of the LCWR, conducted by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, was to assist the LCWR in implementing “an ecclesiology of communion founded on faith in Jesus Christ and the Church as the essential foundation for its important service to religious Communities and to all those in consecrated life.”

In addition to the CDF’s doctrinal assessment of the LCWR, in 2009 it was announced that the Vatican would be conducting an apostolic visitation of women’s religious communities in the United States. This visitation was overseen by the Congregation for Consecrated Life, to which Archbishop Tobin was assigned in 2010. Unfortunately, by the time Archbishop Tobin took up his new post, the LCWR had enlisted the media in its campaign against both the CDF’s doctrinal assessment and the apostolic visitation.  Archbishop Tobin apparently tried to appease the sisters.  According to the National Catholic Reporter, in December 2010, Archbishop Tobin was calling for a “strategy of reconciliation” with the sisters that some interpreted as a form of apology for even questioning the activities of the women religious: “We have to try to heal what can be healed,” he said. Archbishop Tobin appeared to minimize the problems of the past, calling for a strategy of reconciliation.

By October 2012, after only two years at the Congregation for Consecrated Life, Archbishop Tobin returned to the United States as archbishop of Indianapolis.  The New York Daily News reported  that Archbishop Tobin had “ruffled feathers at the Vatican,” while the National Catholic Reporter proclaimed, “Sisters’ Friend at the Vatican Named Head of Indianapolis.” The Reporter articled stated that Tobin had recognized “how badly” the Vatican’s interactions with American women religious had gone, adding that “he wanted to bring life from the apostolic visitation and make it a positive experience.”

The Tablet reported that Archbishop Tobin’s removal from the Vatican Office would “rekindle the feelings of mistrust and hurt that American nuns felt toward the Vatican back in December 2008 when it opened the systematic investigation into their communities.” The British newspaper viewed Archbishop Tobin’s removal from the Vatican office as a “rebuke of efforts toward dialogue, mutual respect and trust…. Powerful forces in Rome and America were never pleased with his conciliatory approach and were worried that he would quietly can the results of their year-long investigation into the nuns without demanding conservative changes.”

In March the Vatican announced that Archbishop Tobin had been named a member of the Congregation for Consecrated Life by Pope Francis.

What is the “living tradition of belief and practice”?

Last month, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a strong statement demanding that the LCWR return to the “ecclesial center of faith in Christ Jesus the Lord.” He expressed his disappointment that the LCWR had recently given its Outstanding Leadership Award to theologian Elizabeth A. Johnson, the author of a 2011 book, Quest for the Living God, that was strongly criticized by the USCCB. Honoring Johnson “is a decision that will be seen as a rather open provocation against the Holy See and the Doctrinal Assessment,” said Cardinal Müller. “Not only that, but it further alienates the LCWR from the bishops as well.”

Back on December 5, 2011, the Board of the College Theology Society issued a formal statement denouncing the USCCB’s Committee on Doctrine for its strong critique of Johnson’s book, expressing “sadness and grave concern” that Johnson’s work had come under such critical scrutiny. Johnson, it should be noted, has devoted much of her career to denouncing as a “tool of patriarchal oppression” the traditional masculine language for God, including God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Board of the College Theology Society claimed that action by the Committee on Doctrine “represents a fundamental breach in the call for dialogue within the Church and in particular between theologians and bishops, a call that is one of the hallmarks of the documents of the Second Vatican Council.” It also called for more collaboration between theologians and the bishops about “how the living tradition of belief and practice of our Catholic faith can best speak to the most pressing issues of our time.”

While the Church indeed believes that sacred tradition is living, is also teaches that it is the Magisterium that guides how sacred tradition is presented, interpreted, and defined. As Dei Verbum, the Vatican II Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, states:

It is clear, therefore, that sacred tradition, Sacred Scripture and the teaching authority of the Church, in accord with God’s most wise design, are so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others, and that all together and each in its own way under the action of the one Holy Spirit contribute effectively to the salvation of souls. (DV 10; see Catechism of the Catholic Church, 95)

But progressive theologians, such as Johnson, and those who support them, such as the College Theology Society, believe that the non-negotiable teachings of the Church can be changed because they are part of a “living tradition” that has few bounds and little need for authority. They believe that sacred tradition that can be changed as the culture changes, jettisoning language deemed “patriarchal” or insensitive to modern concerns and trends.

Archbishop Tobin was honored by the theologians of the College Theology Society as the keynote speaker at this year’s annual meeting.  The theme for the meeting—“God has begun a great work in us: The embodiment of love in Contemporary Consecrated Life”—was designed to address Catholic religious life, in light of the continued Vatican concerns about ongoing problems within the LCWR.

The archbishop was joined as keynote speaker by Sister Sandra Schneiders, professor emerita at the Graduate Theological Union. Sister Schneiders has been a frequent critic of the Vatican, and has been especially critical of the apostolic visitation of the LCWR, concluding that Canon 586 expressly forbids the intrusion by ecclesiastical authorities into the internal affairs of religious communities.  Sister Schneiders has stated that the LCWR leaders have been targeted because they are “prophetic” and therefore pose “the most serious danger to the ‘real’ (pre-conciliar) Church which others are trying to restore.” She insists that neither the “mission” of religious communities, nor “their particular ministries [are] determined by the hierarchy.”

In her writings on religious life as a prophetic form of life, Sister Schneider reveals what is key to the culture wars in claiming that women religious do not make a promise of obedience to their ecclesiastical authorities.  Asserting that the women religious make vows to God alone, Schneiders writes: “In the concrete, this means that religious, unlike the clergy, are not agents of the institutional Church as Jesus was not an agent of institutional Judaism.”

In saying so, she indicates her belief that the “institutional Church” is hypocritical and lacking in real authority. If progressives like Sister Schneiders and the leadership of the LCWR do not believe they are accountable to the Magisterium of the Church, there is little hope of reaching Archbishop Tobin’s goal of ending the hostilities between the progressive and the orthodox wings of the Church. Yet, in some ways, the continued Catholic culture wars can actually be viewed as a positive sign; they remain an important indication that many faithful Catholics still believe that there are things worth fighting for.

[Editor’s note: The original version of this article conflated the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s doctrinal assessment of the LCWR and the apostolic visitation of women’s religious communities in the US, which was conducted by the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life. The article has been edited to clarify the distinction.]

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About Anne Hendershott 101 Articles
Anne Hendershott is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio.  She is the author of The Politics of Envy (Sophia Books, 2020)