At a recent meeting of the National Center for the Laity in Chicago, Archbishop Francis George presided at a Saturday-evening liturgy. It was a prayerful and impressive Mass at Old Saint Patrick’s on West Adams Street. The newly renovated church glowed with its refurbished Celtic borders and symbols—a bit like being inside the Book of Kells. Toward the end of his homily, Archbishop George (whose elevation to cardinal was announced on the following day, January 18) said that liberal Catholicism was exhausted, that conservative Catholicism was sectarian, and that, in any case, there was only one Catholicism.

Well, he said something like that, but darn, I didn’t have my tape recorder! I didn’t even have pen and paper with me. Some journalist, she. But I did have a chance afterward to ask Archbishop George what he meant, and he started to tell me. Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough time; our conversation ended amicably but unsatisfyingly. Subsequently, at my request, he sent a copy of his notes, averring that although “I don’t relish getting into a national debate at this time, ... I have to take responsibility for what I said.”

This is the quote he sent from his homily:

“We are at a turning point in the life of the church in this country. Liberal Catholicism is an exhausted project. Essentially a critique, even a necessary critique at one point in our history, it is now parasitical on a substance that no longer exists. It has shown itself unable to pass on the faith in its integrity and inadequate, therefore, in fostering the joyful self-surrender called for in Christian marriage, in consecrated life, in ordained priesthood. It no longer gives us life.

“The answer, however, it not to be found in a type of conservative Catholicism obsessed with particular practices and so sectarian in its outlook that it cannot serve as a sign of unity of all peoples in Christ.

“The answer is simply Catholicism, in all its fullness and depth, a faith able to distinguish itself from any culture and yet able to engage and transform them all, a faith joyful in all the gifts Christ wants to give us and open to the whole world he died to save. The Catholic faith shapes a church with a lot of room for differences in pastoral approach, for discussion and debate, for initiatives as various as the peoples whom God loves. But, more profoundly, the faith shapes a church which knows her Lord and knows her own identity, a church able to distinguish between what fits into the tradition that unites her to Christ and what is a false start or a distorting thesis, a church united here and now because she is always one with the church throughout the ages and with the saints in heaven.”

Whether or not Cardinal George is inclined to continue the conversation, those three paragraphs warrant the attention of those who sense that the Catholic church in the United States is, indeed, at a turning point. If that is the case, is “simply Catholicism” the trajectory toward which the church is turning? Is liberal Catholicism an exhausted project in toto? If not, what is exhausted and what remains vital? If one “type” of conservative Catholicism cannot be a sign of unity, is another type implied? If so, how should it be defined? And turning to Cardinal George’s last paragraph: One hears faint echoes of De Lubac’s The Splendor of the Church. But in looking at the church in which we actually live, I cannot help but also think of De Lubac’s likening the church to “a ship of unruly passengers who always seem to be on the brink of wrecking it.” Presumably Cardinal George would not disagree.

However, is the answer to this state of affairs singular—“simply Catholicism”? Or is Catholicism multifaceted, liberal and conservative being but two of many responses to living in this church in this culture at this time in history? Here are some other adjectives often found before Catholicism: charismatic, devotional, intellectual, Hispanic, Irish, Chicago, Boston, lukewarm, intense, traditionalist, and so on. Please note: these are not separate, plural entities, not Catholicisms; they are expressions of the same faith. They are expressions integral to the experience and the practice of real members of the actual church living and working in the contexts of different cultures, here and now. Even the most cursory study points to equivalent phenomena from the earliest days of the church. Agreed, all such expressions can only be partial, always needing to be tested by the whole church and corrected, if necessary, by tradition, by Scripture, by episcopal and papal scrutiny and judgment. It is, in fact, hard to imagine a catholic church without some degree of diversity and pluriformity.

What then does Cardinal George mean by “simply Catholicism”? Does he mean an eternal, a conceptual and reified Catholicism, sailing above the incarnational, the embeddedness of Catholicism in time and place? Does he identify this Catholicism largely with the magisterium and with the teaching authority of pope and bishops? With a specific approach to worship, to education, to spirituality, to social action? Is it congruent with the centralization of church authority in the Vatican curia? Is there anything else?

Perhaps those questions are a place to continue the conversation.

I don’t want to end without a comment on Cardinal George’s brief characterization of “liberal Catholicism.” It was a “necessary critique,” as he says—offering an unusual if not unprecedented episcopal concession in saying so. But it was and is more than that. In particular, through proposing a new understanding about the meaning of human freedom, liberalism has challenged Catholicism to reexamine certain of its hermetically contained ideas about the person, about conscience, about the relation of the person to the state, and about relations between church and state. That is not simply an achievement of the past; it is now part of the way Catholicism understands itself. In short, liberalism has taught Catholicism that belief cannot be compelled and that pluralism has its place, even in the church.

How will “simply Catholicism” accommodate what the church has learned from liberalism?


Related: Commonweal's 1999 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
An Exhausted Project? by John T. McGreevy
We're All Liberals Now by E. J . Dionne Jr.

Margaret O’Brien Steinfels is a former editor of Commonweal. 

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