A Church Divided

Dominique Greiner, editor of the French Catholic newspaper La Croix, has a column commenting on a new book by Yann Raison du Cleuziou, Qui sont les cathos aujourd’hui?  The book offers an interpretation of a study undertaken under the auspices of Confrontations: Association des intellectuels chrétiens

It begins by locating Catholics under four headings: 1) the irreconciliables (Catholic Action militants; charismatic (re)converts; traditionalists bent on reconquest); 2) people damaged by the institution (the alienated; divorced committed Christians; women with Church responsibilities); 3) artisans of reconstruction (confident heirs; people at the frontiers; neo-classical Catholics); 4) young people without complexes (thirty-somethings; liberated Catholics; adolescents who haven’t been hooked).

The analysis goes beyond the binary oppositions that often are set up, even by Catholics themselves, but the results are such that it is “legitimate to ask to what degree Catholics still identify one another as co-religionists.” He draws particular attention to the cleavage between the older and the younger generations:

He speaks of reciprocal ignorance. The thirty-year-olds know nothing of the history of their elders. The great spiritual and theological figures of the twentieth century who were so important in France are unknown to them. “For them there’s nothing between Thérèse of Lisieux and John Paul II.” Young people are just as incapable of understanding the defiance of the older people with regard to John Paul II or Benedict SVI “because they know nothing of the hopes which the Council raised and which have been disappointed.”

In return, the older people don’t understand the new generations. On liturgical matters, or priest’s dress, they have a feeling that things are going backwards. But, the author notes, they don’t examine the reason for such practices. “To choose the cassock has nothing to do with wearing it under obligation. And the liturgy in Latin, or clouds of incense, don’t have the same charm or the same meaning for those who grew up with them and for those who choose them by preference.”

The author maintains that Catholics have difficulty understanding one another because there are not many places left where they can listen to one another.

Structures where Catholics of different tendencies could engage in debate have disappeared–the Catholic Center of French Intellectuals, for example. The various Catholic journals no longer engage in polemics with each other. Every diocese has structures for inter-religious or ecumenical dialogue, but there’s nothing to stimulate dialogue among Catholics.

The challenge, Greiner concludes, is for Catholics to re-learn unity if their Church is going to be a sign of communion. All generations have to work for this.

I can’t comment on the accuracy or adequacy of the description of French Catholicism, but I’m glad to learn of an analysis that goes beyond the typical Manichean division of Catholics into White Hats and Black Hats. Among American Catholics, however, there’s no lack of polemics, as the quickest tour of the websites and blogs will discover, but many (most?) of them aren’t exactly instances of genuine dialogue. The Common Ground Initiative attempted to institutionalize dialogue among Catholics, but despite promising beginnings, it seems to have had a limited impact. And the recent discussions of relations among associations of Catholic intellectuals do not encourage great hope; in fact, they could even suggest that the will to dialogue simply doesn't and needn't exist.

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.

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