A Strategy for the Center-Left?
John Allen has posted an intriguing column on the future of the “center-left” within the Catholic Church in the United States. He notes that there are a large number of American Catholics who, while not enamored of recent positions taken by the U.S. bishops, are nevertheless committed to working “within the system” so to speak. Allen suggests that the center-left could build stronger relationships with the bishops by offering, for example, strong public support for the bishops’ position on the HHS’ definition of a “religious employer.”
As he often does, Allen had me nodding along thoughtfully until I came to his penultimate paragraph
Once upon a time, when the tone-setting camp among the bishops came out of center-left circles, it was the conservatives and the center-right that had to be intentional about building relationships. Today the shoe is on the other foot, and showing “surprising support” at least seems a possibility worth pondering.
Allen seems to be suggesting that, once-upon-a-time, conservatives were able to expand their influence among the bishops by “building relationships.” This is, to put it mildly, a curious reading of history. I think a more accurate assessment would be that conservatives expanded their influence by openly opposing “center-left” bishops where they could, going around those bishops to Rome where they could not, and doing everything they could to ensure that future bishops would be “center-right” if not simply “right.”
Consider the debate over the U.S. bishops’ two major pastoral letters of the 1980s, The Challenge of Peace (1983) and Economic Justice for All (1986). Did conservative opponents of these documents confine themselves to offering “surprising support” for certain elements while critiquing others? They did not. In addition to complaining bitterly to anyone in Rome who would listen, conservatives also organized public opposition. In response to Economic Justice for All, for example, Michael Novak and Bill Simon drafted (and convinced a number of business leaders to sign) “The Lay Letter,” which accused the bishops of having an inadequate grasp of the principles of a market economy.
The recent debate over the new English translation of the Roman Missal is another case in point. Opponents of the 1998 ICEL translation did not simply “dialogue” with the bishops who favored it. They went around them, lobbying bishops who were on the fence, encouraging opponents to write letters to both U.S. bishops and various officials in Rome. They supported the work of Vox Clara, which at the time of its formation was an explicit effort to weaken the control of the liturgy committees of the individual episcopal conferences, which were largely “center-left” in orientation and supportive of the ICEL’s work.
The long-term strategy, of course, has been to replace center-left bishops with men of a more conservative stripe, rendering “dialogue” unnecessary. At one point, this meant the replacement of center-left bishops like Terrence Cooke with center-right bishops like John O’Connor, who combined staunch pro-life advocacy with an equally staunch support of organized labor. The recent trend of appointments is toward even stronger conservatives and may reflect the influence of the American cardinals on the Congregation for Bishops: Law, Stafford, Burke, and Rigali.
My point in recounting this history is less to criticize the center-right than to correct Allen’s misreading of recent ecclesiastical history. The uncomfortable truth is that no-holds-barred theological conflict is a recurrent feature of church history. Am I suggesting, then, that “center left” Catholics should adopt the bare-knuckled tactics of their conservative counterparts rather than the dialogue favored by Allen?
I am not, for the simple reason that I can’t imagine it being effective. Nor, however, can I imagine Allen’s approach yielding any substantive benefits for the center left. The truth is that, like the South after Gettysburg, the left has been defeated and little is left but to negotiate the terms of its surrender.
In the 1980s, center-left bishops had to listen to the center-right because they had the ear of Rome. The center-left has the ear of no one. They have nothing that the bishops really need and probably nothing that the bishops want. They have no leverage.
Allen suggests that “center left” probably describes the majority of American Catholics and perhaps a super-majority of those working in Catholic institutions, such as chancery offices, Catholic Charities, etc. This is true, but it is changing. We have had a fair amount of episcopal turnover in California in the last few years, and the trend is unmistakable. Older, largely “center-left” staff are retiring or leaving and being replaced by younger, more self-consciously “orthodox” Catholics.
It’s true that the majority of rank-and-file Catholics are probably “center left” in orientation. But what of it? Younger Catholics, for the most part, are simply not attached enough to the Church as an institution to think “institutionally” about their theological commitments. Communal dialogue is something you engage in because you have a community. The majority of younger Catholics—like a majority of younger Christians—are spiritual consumers. If they are dissatisfied, they will choose “exit” rather than “voice.”
But surely, I hear some readers suggesting, the drifting away of millions of American Catholics will cause the hierarchy to sit up and take notice, in the same way that the “loss of the working class” in 19th century Europe galvanized the forces of reform within the Church of that time.
Perhaps. But that was a different time. Those bishops were living at the beginning of the collapse of European Christianity. Today’s bishops are living the aftermath of that collapse. They have no illusions that “the faith is Europe and Europe is the faith” as Hilaire Belloc once put it. They are fully prepared to see the Church in West decline in size, both relatively and absolutely. Do they truly wish for this outcome? I do not believe that they do. But they do not believe (nor do I, for the record) that any liberalization of the Church’s contested teachings will arrest that decline.
Do I mean to suggest that the center-left has no future, that it is, to use Cardinal George’s description of liberal Catholicism, “an exhausted project?” I do not believe that either. Theologically, the left is that portion of the Church that asks the question “is the Gospel being heard?” just as the right is that portion of the Church that asks the question “is the Gospel being heard?” It goes back to Paul and James and the Council of Jerusalem and the tension will be with us always.
In the short term, though (which for most of those reading this means the rest of our lives), those of a “center left” persuasion within the Church will need to take a very long view. They will need to be able to work creatively in an environment that may well become almost as hostile to them as the anti-Modernist era was to an earlier generation of reformers. It will not be work for those unwilling to suffer under ecclesiastical discipline or for those who take refuge in easy optimism. Anything put forward must be both deeply grounded in the Tradition and intellectually rigorous. Ultimately—and most importantly—the work will require a deep trust in the work of the Holy Spirit.