With regard to the issues raised by Mark and Margaret, I think the latter’s raising of the “what” question is important. If we’re wondering “where” something is, we need to know “what” we are looking for. As Margaret suggests, “Commonweal Catholic” or “liberal Catholic” can describe a number of different schools of thought.
Historically, there was a liberal Catholic tradition of thought that attempted to reconcile Catholicism with liberal democracy. That project has been overwhelmingly successful. In that sense, Pope John Paul II was a liberal Catholic. We tend to take the success of this movement almost for granted today, but a look back at papal statements of the 19th and early 20th centuries shows how significant the development of doctrine has been in this area.
Secondly, one might see a liberal Catholic tradition within academic theology. This could encompass historical criticism in biblical studies and efforts to reconcile Catholic theology with certain trends in modern philosophy, particularly the “turn to the subject.” This movement has been largely successful among academic theologians, although the doctrinal authorities in the Church have tended to view these developments more critically. The success of this project is also being challenged within the academy itself by post-liberal and post-modern approaches.
Finally, I would say that there is a liberal Catholicism that was inspired both by the Second Vatican Council (or at least a certain reading of it) and by the social movements of the 1960s and 70s, particularly feminism. Of all the liberal Catholic projects, this is the one that remains the most contested within the Church.
Now liberal Catholics of this third school often look back to the first for inspiration. In the same way that the Church had to come to terms with the political liberalism of the 18th and 19th centuries—so the argument goes—it is suggested that it must eventually come to terms with the social liberalism of the 20th and 21st centuries.
I think this thesis is subject to challenge on a few points. The first is that Christian denominations that have taken this form of liberalism most to heart are also those that seem to be experiencing a serious crisis of confidence, as evidenced by declining membership, intra-denominational splits over issues like homosexuality, and—in some cases—increasing discomfort with core Christian beliefs about Jesus Christ and the Trinity. I find it difficult in the face of this evidence to argue that the embrace of this kind of liberalism is a strategy for Christian renewal. It may be justifiable on other grounds, but this is probably not one of them.
Secondly, a specifically liberal vision of Catholicism no longer seems to motivate large numbers of Catholics to consider vocations to the priesthood or religious life. The reasons for this are complex, and have at least something to do with Vatican II’s efforts to re-valorize the lay state as a path to holiness. But the fact that “liberal Catholicism” does not seem to inspire many of those called to states of life the Church has always highly valued should, I think, cause its advocates some concern.
Finally, I think the sociological conditions are radically different than those that obtained when liberal Catholicism (of the first type) was in the ascendancy. The leading figures of liberal Catholicism were people deeply and permanently rooted in the Catholic tradition who were, nevertheless, also deeply at home in cultures shaped by the Enlightenment. This tension—a tension that many felt had to be resolved—was felt both by academic theologians like John Courtney Murray and the blue-collar Catholics who insisted they were as American as their Protestant “betters.” I think this widely shared sense of a need for reconciliation between Catholicism and modernity gave the liberal Catholic project an enormous amount of intellectual energy and popular appeal that it seems to lack today.
It’s not that the tension between Catholicism and contemporary culture doesn’t still exist. But the emerging generation of Catholics has weaker roots in the Church and is generally comfortable “following their conscience” when confronted with difficult doctrines. Most American Catholics can generally find a parish where they won’t be confronted with the teachings they find objectionable. When such “local” accommodation is possible, the pressure to demand more global change is reduced.
This could change, of course, if large numbers of the newly ordained insist on preaching sermons on contraception every Sunday. But my guess is that if “local” accommodation becomes impossible, Catholics unhappy with this state of affairs will simply leave the Church (few believe that this would put their salvation at risk). What they are certainly much less likely than Catholics of the past to do is to invest in journals like Commonweal. When the costs of “exit” are reduced, the need for “voice” is diminished.
I wish I could be more hopeful. If I didn’t have some sympathy for elements of the liberal Catholic project, I wouldn’t be a Commonweal subscriber and contributor and I wouldn’t be posting here. But since I’m professionally a management consultant, telling people they are living on a “burning platform” is more or less what I do for a living.