E.J. Dionne has some interesting answers in the Washington Post today, and draws insight from Fr. Timothy Radcliffe:
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….
…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.