Polarization, Church and Country

Kingdom & Communion

What do the Roman Catholic Church and the American political system have in common? Both are divided into factions that neither trust nor understand each other, and both confront a crisis of governance.

Divisions in the church are usually seen as mimicking those of secular politics. Conservatives or traditionalists are pitted against liberals or progressives. But Timothy Radcliffe, a Dominican friar and the former head of his order, suggests a more fruitful way to understand the Catholic split.

The conflict goes back to competing reactions to the reforms of the Second Vatican Council inaugurated in the 1960s by Pope John XXIII. The relevant camps -- Radcliffe describes them in his 2005 book, What Is the Point of Being a Christian? -- are the "Kingdom Catholics" and the "Communion Catholics."

The Kingdom Catholics, corresponding to those we usually call progressive, were "exhilarated by the council's embrace of modernity" and "see our church as primarily the People of God on pilgrimage towards the Kingdom."

"The Christ whom they cherished," he writes, "was the one who overthrew the boundaries between human beings, who touched lepers, reached out to foreigners and gathered us into the People of God." Theirs was "an outward-looking theology" that was "rooted in experience" and emphasized "liberation." The Kingdom Catholics look back to the council era as a time when "everything seemed possible."

The Communion Catholics view the same period quite differently -- as the equivalent of "ecclesiastical urban planning, tearing up our neighborhood." This group, in which Pope Benedict XVI is the leading figure, insists that the church "stand firm in the proclamation of our faith."

Radcliffe explains their skepticism of the Kingdom Catholics' attitude toward modern ideas: "If one embraces the language of modernity too uncritically, then we are likely to lose our identity and be absorbed without a trace. ... We must not let ourselves be assimilated to the world. We must not be afraid to underline what is distinctive about our faith, otherwise we will disappear."

While the Communion Catholics can fairly be seen as conservative, their views do not always conform to what most American conservatives believe. Benedict, for example, was tough on the injustices of capitalism, a view consistent with a traditionalist critique of modern materialism.

Radcliffe, who insists that the Kingdom and Communion Catholics actually need each other, would not pretend his categories cover all of the challenges facing the church. The pedophilia scandal has profoundly undermined the authority of the church's leadership in ways that cut across theologies. The self-protecting behavior of bishops does feed the desire of many Kingdom Catholics for a more open church structure and strengthens calls to end the celibate all-male priesthood. But the scandal disturbs Communion Catholics, too, and many of them, characteristically, see it stemming from the excesses of the 1960s.

Where Radcliffe is powerfully right is in seeing that both contending parties are now experiencing a kind of homelessness -- and for this lost sense of belonging, they tend to blame each other.

The Kingdom side sees the Communion side abandoning the promise of the Vatican II. The Communion Catholics see the Kingdom Catholics as too willing to undercut the specific markers of Catholic identity. In the coming conclave, the Communion Catholics have the votes. The Kingdom Catholics are hoping the Holy Spirit will spring a surprise.

While it's a mistake to draw too many parallels between the controversies inside Catholicism and the fights within U.S. politics, I'm struck by how helpful Radcliffe's emphasis on homelessness is in explaining America's current struggles.

Liberals see conservatives as trying to roll back the advances in economic justice and civil rights wrought by a century's worth of progressive policies -- programs and laws that draw their inspiration from the nation's founding declaration that all are created equal. Conservatives insist that they are the champions of our authentic selves ("the real America") and the true guardians of the creed embodied in our nation's founding documents. Each accuses the other of trying to wreck what makes our country great.

I am inclined, with Radcliffe, to believe we should celebrate rather than mourn our intellectual tensions -- between Communion and Kingdom, between liberty on the one side and community and equality on the other. But living with those tensions requires far more trust than we now seem capable of managing. What I do know is that throwing one side out of the house is not a solution to homelessness.

 

(c) 2013, Washington Post Writers Group

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Thank you for your insightful article, Mr. Dionne.  As a "Kingdom" Catholic, I find the conservative machine has and continues to damage the lives of all except the rich.  The tension that you believe has some value is keeping people hungry, out of work, dangerously stressed and without any hope.  As for the "Communion" Catholics, the medieval, esxclusionary church to which they cling is on life support.  The common and ugly thread of conservatism is racism, exemplified by the proudly dysfunctional legislature.  As an African-American, I so wish that was not the case, but the willingness to damage the country's credit rating has no rationality other than irrational hatred that a person of color is president.  Until this hate is eradicated, the country will continue its downward spiral.  This "Kingdom" Catholic Christian will continue to pray for the sake of a future for my grandchildren and everyone else's.

Dear Cecilia,

I'm not African-American, and I wish i could wrap you in a bear hug and give you what my six-year-old granddaughter calls a "big huggy-squeeze."  I assure you from my own experience that white people do not hate President Obama.  On the contrary, even among people who strongly dislike his policies, like me, there is respect and real affection for him as a person.  I'd love to shoot hoops with him.  The exclusionary Church died at the Vatican Council, although it's certainly got its supporters even today.  Let's hope the Cardinals elect a Holy Father who can clean up the scandals, in the Curia and among the priests who got so enraptured with Vatican II that they thought "Well, the New Theology tells me sin is what separates me from God, and so as long as I 'feel' myself loving God, I can have sex with that cute post-pubescent boy."  There's plenty of corruption, plenty of sin, in the Church, but her record on Capitalism and the poor and the redistribution of wealth has actually been a good one.  

All the best, Tom

Thanks for the bear hug, Tom!  Let's continue to dialogue.  In response to your comment, let me say this:  Racist behavior is taught at an early age.  It is transmitted from parent to child along with unconditional love (if one is fortunate to get that kind of love, regardless of background).  The extraordinary behavior of elected representatives toward the President, such calling him a liar during the State of the Union address, the fact that a majority of Republicans, in poll after poll, say he is not an American, and the refusal to seriously bargain with a twice-elected president, are emblematic of power-obsessed individuals who cannot believe that he has a "better" or higher position than they do.  Because they are not the king, they have rebelled, all to the detriment of all of us.  Unfortunately, I cannot accept your assurances that they "like" the president but oppose his policies.  No president has been treated with such obvious disrespect.

As for your belief that priest became enraptured with Vatican II, I know no priest who advocates permarital sex, and the Second Council had nothing whatsoever to do with changing or modifying Church teaching.  It is the culture that suggests that fallacy, not the priests.

You are correct that Catholic social teaching is quite radical.  However, few Catholics know its tenets; I suspect many would be quite saddened if they did.

Blessings and peace, Rheba

I don't care about Catholic idenitity, I care about Christian Identity!

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About the Author

E. J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist, professor of government at Georgetown University, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent (Bloomsbury Press).