An Exhausted Project?

Not if history is any judge

Place yourself, if you can, at that most revealing late twentieth-century event—one sure to interest late twenty-first-century historians—a Catholic marriage preparation weekend. You and your fiancée are one of twenty-five couples attending a series of sessions directed by the parish priest, a female pastoral associate, and several couples from the diocese.

You know that it is a Catholic event because at first the microphone does not work. You also come to realize, at the coffee break after the first session, that half of the participants have never spoken to a priest or nun. Most have not attended Catholic schools and many have dreaded this weekend from the moment they agreed to attend. Several of the couples are living together. Almost all have friends raised Catholic but who decided that a Catholic wedding wasn’t worth the bother.

And yet the weekend is a success. The priest and the pastoral associate offer thoughtful reflections on the theology of marriage. A hush descends over the room as married couples discuss various challenges: conflicts over money, children, jobs, in-laws. You notice that the questions from the engaged couples become painfully earnest, suggesting a deep desire to build successful marriages in a culture where the barriers to this accomplishment seem formidable. Words like commitment and permanence fly across the room, absent the ironic scare quotes.  

A discordant note, however, is struck by a couple specifically invited to present information on natural family planning. The questions from the engaged couples turn from earnest to incredulous, and the women, in particular, wonder out loud whether natural family planning will prevent them from finding fulfilling work outside the home, or doom them to a permanent role as a sexual policewoman in the marital household. They ask why only Catholics seem to find artificial birth control troubling, and why women have no role in the formulation of Catholic teaching on such an intimate matter.

I offer this composite anecdote, culled from my own experience and accounts given to me by friends, simply to flesh out the issues in today’s discussion. The terms liberalism and liberal Catholicism are abstract, and definitions are as diverse as today’s commentators. But the general issues presented by today’s session are clear: First, how to sustain and nurture a Catholicism rightly in opposition to aspects of contemporary culture—a Catholicism, for example, that understands marriage as something more than contract. And second, what role can or should that loose body of critics and criticism we call Catholic liberalism play in this process? Or, more directly, can we understand questions about birth control as something more than a craven acquiescence to secular culture?

Both Cardinal George and Peter Steinfels have rightly identified a central task of the current moment, to transmit and elucidate what Cardinal George calls "simply Catholicism," and what Peter Steinfels refers to as "defining marks" for Catholic people and institutions. At the same time, neither speaker wants what Steinfels terms "barred gates and armed ramparts" and what George identifies as a church so "obsessed with particular practices and so sectarian in its outlook that it cannot serve as a sign of unity of all peoples in Christ."

It’s striking that both speakers turn to history to defend their position, and I would shame my craft if I failed to do the same. The first observation I would make is to highlight the individualistic character of American liberalism. Cardinal George rightly sees Catholic hostility to the broad idea of liberalism as stemming from the French Revolution. In France and much of Europe an embattled Catholicism successfully revived itself from the chaos and persecution of the 1790s, but not without fierce struggles over the formal relationship between church and state.

But the American situation was different. Catholic leaders in the United States were incomparably more enthusiastic about the American Revolution than its French successor, and Catholic leaders routinely endorsed the ordered liberty of the American Constitution.

What drew the fiercest American Catholic attacks in the mid-nineteenth century was not the Enlightenment (I use the term advisedly) liberalism of James Madison. Instead it was reform-oriented liberalism springing primarily from the left wing of American Protestantism. These reformers—ranging from William Lloyd Garrison to Theodore Parker and Harriet Beecher Stowe—promoted utopian communities, urged temperance regulations, and favored the liberalization of American divorce laws.

At the heart of these reforms in the nineteenth century was a novel and in some ways distinctly American emphasis on individual autonomy. In part for this reason, many mid-nineteenth-century reformers, including Parker, Stowe, and Garrison, possessed a powerful streak of anti-Catholicism, again something not characteristic of George Washington and James Madison. The great liberal, Theodore Parker, snarled in 1854, "The Catholic worshiper is not to think but to believe and obey; the priest not to reason and consider, but to proclaim and command. The Catholic voter is not to inquire and examine, but to deposit his ballot as the ecclesiastical authority directs...."

Nonetheless, these same often anti-Catholic reformers also spearheaded the extraordinary nineteenth-century campaign against slavery, propelled by the same belief in human autonomy that fueled their other crusades. The campaign against slavery began with British evangelicals in the early part of the 1800s and swept across Latin America and then the United States. Catholic intellectuals and bishops almost never defended slavery, but they did not, by and large, participate in the movement for its abolition. Instead they emphasized that all humans endured suffering, and that the goal of overthrowing the slave system should not outweigh a fear of social disorder. And Catholics tended to lump the abolition of slavery with what they rightly understood as a broader anti-authoritarianism in liberal Protestantism.

This general Catholic resistance to abolition furthered tensions between liberals and Catholics. Again, Theodore Parker: "The Catholic clergy and people are on the side of slavery. It is an institution thoroughly congenial to them. Consider the first principles of their church. I am told there’s not in all America a single Catholic newspaper hostile to slavery...."

Parker was not quite correct. A few American Catholics favored abolition, especially after the beginning of the Civil War, and so did a small number of European Catholics. But these Catholics typically came from the liberal wing of American and European Catholicism, and we can understand their support for the abolition of slavery as only one component of a broader struggle for freedom for and within the church. The most single famous speech by a nineteenth-century Catholic liberal remains the 1863 plea of Charles Montalembert for the separation of church and state. Pius IX, as Peter Steinfels pointed out, responded with the 1864 Syllabus of Errors. At exactly the same time, Montalembert complained of an authoritarian Vatican squelching honest debate, and regretted that so few American Catholics had placed themselves on the side of freedom in the abolition debate.

My larger point is this: At its best, as in the slavery debate, liberal Catholicism helped the wider church identify what Charles Taylor refers to as "extensions of a gospel ethic" with weak Catholic roots. Catholic abolitionists, attacked at the time by moral theologians and bishops, helped the church recognize and assimilate one of liberalism’s great achievements. And inevitably questions about freedom in the larger society evolved into discussions of freedom within the church.

Of course the reverse—Catholicism offering wisdom to American liberalism—was true then and is perhaps even more true today. In the early twentieth century, the Catholic emphasis on marriage and the family highlighted by Cardinal George prevented Catholic intellectuals from endorsing the eugenics movement, a cause then dear to liberals throughout the North Atlantic. Today a wide range of Catholic and non-Catholic thinkers draw upon notions of subsidiarity as they contemplate the role of local institutions in American society. And the defense of human life made by bishops and Catholic scholars has become the most compelling alternative to the pieties of the New York Times.

Our two main speakers, however, disagree on liberal Catholicism’s current ability to assist the wider church. For Cardinal George, liberal Catholicism is an "exhausted project," once "necessary," but "problematic" in the context of the last thirty years. In particular, liberal Catholicism’s "excessive preoccupation with the church’s visible government" makes it less relevant to challenges posed by a public culture ordered around false notions of autonomy and human fulfillment. Peter Steinfels draws a different moral, urging Catholic leaders not to ignore the ability of the liberal Catholic tradition to discern an authentically Christian message, even if that message is temporarily lodged outside Catholicism.

My own view on this particular question is closer to that of Peter Steinfels. After all, no one in 1790 could have predicted that slavery would seem a moral outrage to almost all thoughtful people in 1870. Similarly, no one in 1920 could have predicted the vastly more complicated role of American women in contemporary society. These complications include the decline in fertility and increased women’s education throughout the world; the desire of women for more fulfilling work, especially when fewer years are spent raising children; and the emergence of women as leaders in almost every realm of our society.

We’re still living through that particular shift, but it’s painfully clear that Catholic leaders have not articulated a broadly persuasive vision of women’s roles within and without the church. Again, caution is important. Just as Catholics were correct to reject the radical anti-authoritarianism of some antislavery advocates in the nineteenth century, Catholics have not and should not have accepted all that goes under the name of women’s rights in the late twentieth-century United States. And Cardinal George is absolutely correct to note that Catholic structures need not mimic the forms of democratic government. But denunciations of feminism miss the humane impulse toward an enhanced dignity for women that marks the last thirty years. And the current effort to silence discussion on women’s authority within the church, in my judgment, is the least effective response to a society in flux.

That said, Catholic liberals need to confront Cardinal George’s most telling, even painful, observation. That is, does liberal Catholicism result in a church with "nothing original to contribute to the world’s self-understanding"? Or, more bluntly, can Catholic liberals, Commonweal subscribers, reproduce themselves? The marriage preparation weekend I described at the beginning of my remarks certainly highlights an ongoing, agonizing tension about Catholic teaching on birth control. But the weekend can also have a startlingly positive effect because it is the first time that couples under forty have heard anything of intellectual seriousness about Catholicism, anything more serious, that is, than the balloons that decorated their childhood CCD books. The paucity of our Catholic theological vocabulary also becomes evident in conversation with, say, the campus minister, who preaches openness and participation, but worries in private that student faith will not survive the cocoon of the dormitory; or in the observations of the Catholic conservative who thrives on ahistorical defenses of each papal action and, when those defenses fail, on accusations of heresy.

This task of Catholic formation requires much from conservatives and liberals alike. We might encourage sustained attention to church history and theology in educational settings, less sentimental preaching, and the reading of magazines like Commonweal. And the problem of inadequate theological formation is, of course, tightly linked to the polarization of Catholic debate on a variety of issues, the inability to use tradition creatively to resolve Catholic versions of the culture wars. It’s a broader question, actually, of how to sustain religious traditions in a mobile, less familial society. If you don’t believe me, talk to Latinos concerned about Catholicism’s fate in a modernizing San Salvador or Los Angeles. Or pick up almost any Jewish periodical and read about a rush to sectarianism by a small group for whom tradition becomes lock step, and a much larger group afflicted by theological amnesia. Or ask mainline Protestants about the relationship of theological liberalism and denominational health.

Historians are poor prognosticators. So I would decline to forecast liberal Catholicism’s future. The last professional historian to run for president, George McGovern, saw relatively few predictions come to fruition. But it is difficult to imagine a Catholic renaissance in terms of devotion and intellectual life comparable to that of the nineteenth century unless both problems—the inadequacy of the Catholic response to societal change and the weakness of Catholic formation—are addressed. Deeper engagement must proceed apace with respect for the best expressions of contemporary culture, a discernment of gold from dross. If liberal Catholicism can assist in this vital task, and I think it is our best hope, then all Catholics, not just liberals, should wish for its continued good health.

 


More from the Commonweal forum "The Crisis of Liberal Catholicism":
Introduction by Margaret O'Brien Steinfels
How Liberalism Fails the Church, by Cardinal Francis George
Reinventing Liberal Catholicism, by Peter Steinfels
Liberalism Doesn't Exist, by John T. Noonan
We're All Liberals Now, by E. J. Dionne Jr.

Published in the 1999-11-19 issue: 

John T. McGreevy is the I.A. O'Shaughnessy Dean of the College of Arts and Letters and Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame.

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