Recently on his NCR blog, Richard McBrien posted a response to the “Fordham Conversation Project,” a meeting of young Catholic theologians that was hosted at Fordham in August and was reported on this blog by Robert Imbelli. McBrien quotes the group’s self-description as follows:
“We are young Catholic theologians at colleges, universities or seminaries, who desire to shape our careers in ways that reduce polarization in the American Catholic church. Each of us came of age at some distance from the ideological debates of Vatican II and the immediate postconciliar era, and we believe that our Catholic generation has new opportunities to heal divisions in the body of Christ. We proceed with profound humility toward the previous generation’s tilling of common ground, even as we hope to plant new seeds of faith and charity in our church. As Christians committed to the unity of the Holy Spirit, we approach our task with intellectual solidarity toward one another.”
He then goes on to question whether describing the debates of Vatican II as “ideological” is either accurate or helpful:
What does the Fordham group mean by the “ideological” character of the debates at Vatican II? Did those debates represent differences in theological and pastoral emphases, or were they reflective of radically different understandings of the nature, mission, and structural operations of the Church?
McBrien goes on to argue that the real theological work of Vatican II was covered over and compromised by changes in ecclesiastical leadership, which sought to undermine and even reverse some of the progressive strides made by the council. I’m in no position to argue for or against McBrien’s account of the postconciliar era, though it does seem to be a position agreed upon by many Catholic commentators whether conservative or progressive. More interesting, I think, is the Liberal pathos shared by conservatives and progressives to try to characterize proper debate over foundational principles as “ideological” in the name of seeking the Golden Calf of compromise.
Progressives tend to like compromise because it gives the impression that we’re having a properly civilized, rational discussion, and conservatives like it (at least the smart ones do) because they know that it almost always leads to a tacit support for, or at least a leaving in place of, the status quo. It seems to me that McBrien is completely right to press the issue with the Fordham group over whether they think the postconciliar debates were really simply ”ideological,” which is to say that they were driven by interests other than theological, or whether they may indeed have been about important theological issues, such as the relative roles of laity and clergy in Church governance, the importance of ecumenical dialogue, the performance of the liturgy and sacraments, the relation between the Church and the modern world, etc. To say that such issues are simply ideological and to consign them to that most despicable battlefield known as the ”culture wars” seems to simply avoid the fact that there was and still is actually real theological work to be done and rational debate to be had. The very phrase “culture war” implies that the positions that have been and are being staked out are neither informed by rational thought (they’re just cultural worldviews pulled from the air) nor conducive to conversational engagement (which is why they can only be aggressive assertions).
This ideology of compromise, which pretends to have overcome the debates of the past by demoting them to a status that is less then rational, also informs political “common ground” initiatives. Talking about “open hearts, open minds and fair minded words,” is a good piece of platitudinous, political rhetoric that is useful when speaking to a crowd who you hope will have a heart and mind open enough to vote for you again, but it’s hardly a rallying cry for a serious debate over the truly incommensurable positions that divide some pro-lifers, who think that a fetus should be granted full, equal (and in some cases supervenient), legal recognition as a person, and those who don’t. It seems silly to pretend like there is not a proper, rationally supportable choice between these two positions, which is why I sympathize with those pro-choice individuals who would say, “Why are we even talking? We’re right and we’re winning.”
Similarly, the question of whether or not the Constitution provides for the clear separation of church and state seems to be a debatable interpretive proposition. Like the documents of Vatican II, the Constitution doesn’t interpret itself. So, when someone offers an interpretation, the proper response is not to laugh at the obvious ideology and ignorance behind their proposal, but to argue for a counter-interpretation. If the original proposition was indeed ideological, it might fold when faced with actual arguments, and if it is not, then maybe we’ll have an actual debate. But, of course, we’ll never get there as long as we’re more concerned with fine tuning the rules of the game than we are with actually playing it.