Liberalism & its limits

Just as Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa are slugging their way toward new major league baseball home run records, two heavy-hitting (but, we trust, not testosterone-enhanced) sociologists have gone to bat in defense of liberalism in religion. In doing so, they have raised interesting questions for liberal Catholics whose views depart in some important ways from other forms of liberal Christianity.

In the September 11 issue of Commonweal ("The Revolutionary Event of Vatican II"), Andrew Greeley issued a summons for church authorities and Catholic conservatives to come to terms with the irreversible nature of the changes brought about by Vatican II, an event that shattered traditional authority structures and brought into existence a church where individual Catholics "decided that it was not wrong to be Catholic on their own terms." In a more surprising essay in the Christian Century ("Protestantism and the Quest for Certainty," August 26-September 2), Peter Berger, a neoconservative and a longtime critic of mainline Protestantism, came to the defense of liberal denominations that have seen their membership, intellectual credibility, and morale decline over the last three decades. "Religious institutions built on modern skepticisms will be fragile,’’ Berger wrote, "but they can show remarkable vitality.’’ Celebrating the Protestant principle of sola fide-"by faith alone"-Berger suggested that institutionally "weak" denominations may offer a truer witness to the self-emptying, "kenotic Jesus" than do the "self-assured, triumphalist institutions that merit the appellation of ’strong churches.’"

Berger’s schema, which he does not apply explicitly to Catholics, still leaves a liberal Catholic in a decidedly ambiguous position. His description of the doctrinal and existential dilemma faced by churches and believers in an age of competitive individualism and the dissolution of community-where religious affiliation is voluntary, every authority questioned, and religious pluralism drifts easily toward religious indifference-is familiar enough. But Catholics are members of one of the archetypal "strong" churches, one in which institutional authority and sacramental mediation are judged to be necessities, not luxuries, of faith. In that regard, Catholics are likely to question Berger’s critique of "triumphalist" institutions as well as his confidence that modern men and women can "live with uncertainty without succumbing to a corrosive relativism" by relying on "weak" institutions and what he calls the Protestant principle "against any absolute claim made for a relative reality.’’

Of course, at the very least, Catholics must increasingly deal with the reality of the church as a weaker institution. Catholics, too, have gone from a period when the church was thought immutable and monolithic to an embrace of uncertainty and pluralism. Yet most Catholics will still say that relying ultimately on an individual appropriation of faith is not sufficient-practically or theologically. "A revelation is not given," Cardinal Newman wrote, "if there be no authority to decide what it is that is given.’’ Similarly, Newman argued that without a robust principle of authority, doctrinal development was an incoherent idea. It is not necessary to dispute either Berger’s or Greeley’s description of modern religious practice-both are very helpful-to ask what might be the content of a Catholic faith lived under such fragmented and privatized institutional arrangements. In the long run, can a church whose sacramental life is set deeply in communal experience and creedal affirmations survive the modern denial of communal religious categories and authority?

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This would appear to be the question raised by Rochester Bishop Matthew Clark’s recent removal of Father James Callan from that city’s Corpus Christi Parish. As Dennis O’Brien reports in this issue (see, "A Parish Dismissal,’’ p. 8), Corpus Christi combined remarkable ministries to the poor and marginalized with a "prophetic" pushing of predictable doctrinal boundaries. On questions of who should receive Communion, homosexual "marriage," and the ordination of women, Corpus Christi’s identity as a faith community seems as vague as it was nondiscriminating.

Whatever one’s views about Corpus Christi’s doctrinal free-lancing, Callan’s willingness, in the words Greeley used to describe the post-Vatican II church, to "anticipate such decisions and change on one’s own authority," raises fundamental questions about how a religious community defines itself. In this regard, Bishop Clark carefully and properly noted that Callan’s removal was prompted by concerns over "the governing authority of the bishop and accountability of the community to the bishop."

In other words, the issue is not whether church teaching and practice can and sometimes should change. But how the church justifies change is crucial. Will the model for change be "one’s own authority"? Or the principles of sola fide and merely voluntary associations? Or will evolution in doctrine or practice entail, as Bishop Clark has said, the "accountability of the community to the bishop"? And will that bishop, in turn, be accountable both to his fellow bishops and to a two-thousand-year tradition?

It is not easy to imagine how traditional Catholic notions of authority can accommodate the realities of modern religious practice described by Greeley and Berger. It is equally true that all too often the exercise of authority within the church does more to undermine papal and episcopal prerogatives than to cope effectively with errors in teaching and practice. Still, it remains a sound Catholic instinct that magisterial authority is a trustworthy referee in the contest between reason and faith, the individual and the community. "Catholic Christianity is no simple exhibition of religious absolutism," Newman reminds us. "Truth is attained not in spite of but through the conflict of opposites" and "it is necessary for the very life of religion...that the warfare should be incessantly carried on.’’

If Catholics are to "change on [their] own authority" or follow Protestants in what Berger describes as "individual, sometimes idiosyncratic, do-it-yourself efforts," it seems unlikely that the distinctive content of the Catholic faith will survive. Finally, the warning conveyed by these two sociologists is that religious authority has rarely confronted greater challenges. Catholics convinced that authority cannot be dispensed with will find ways to affirm decisions like that of Bishop Clark. Living with uncertainty is our common fate, but that does not mean the church can live without judgment.

Published in the 1998-09-25 issue: 
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