Today’s Church: As Good for Liberals as it’s Gonna Get?

Today’s Church: As Good for Liberals as it’s Gonna Get? August 31, 2011

Having read the signs of the times, Antonio Celso de Queiros, bishop emeritus of Catanduva in Brazil, thinks the Church could be ready for yet another Vatican council. As he sees it, Catholics today are feeling the same mixture of “perplexity and hope” that characterized the Church in the waning days of Pius XII’s pontificate. Specifically, they’re both perplexed and hopeful regarding the Church’s ability to address the following problems:

– Christians have abandoned the practice of faith and don’t refer to it in their lives;

– the permanent growth of new Christian religious faiths; the absence or scarce number of young people in ecclesial communities;

– the need for the practical recognition of the mission of the particular churches in the inculturation of faith and in the ecclesial organization and the evangelization of large urban populations;

– the decrease in the number of applicants for priesthood and religious life in countries that had a long-standing Catholic tradition as well as in other countries, and the concomitant population increase;

– the need to redefine the ministries and their fields; the widening of the field of the ministry of permanent deaconship; the opening of ministries to priests that have abandoned ordained ministry;

– the reality of ecclesial communities that lack Eucharist because of the shortage of ordained ministers;

– the issue of a new kind of priests who are not necessarily celibate, alongside others that assume celibacy;

– feminine priesthood;

– the relativization, or the simple practical ignorance of certain rules of the teachings (Sunday mass, keeping Sunday as a day of worship, abstinence and fast…, individual and numerical confession of one’s sins as the only form of the sacrament of penance);

– the “quiet” disagreement of married couples that participate in the Church of the orientations of its teachings in relation to certain rules regarding conjugal morale, second marriages, responsible paternity, the use of condoms as a means of preventing AIDS.

That’s an exceedingly long block quote, I know, but I doubt I’d be able to do justice to Celso de Queiros’ points by any other means. And it’s justice they deserve; too easily, they could lend themselves to misconstruction or caricature. It’s bad form to impose American political nomenclature on theological orientations, but for being open to admitting women and married men to the ministerial priesthood, the bishop emeritus will inevitably be tagged with the L-word: people will call him a liberal.

I might as well ’fess up: whether or not Celso de Queiros is a liberal, I certainly am. Though I can recite the Nicene Creed with a straight face, other dogmas, doctrines and disciplines make me grind my teeth. No point in naming them here — I’m not such an intellectual powerhouse that I could survive being tried for heresy in my own combox. But reading Celso de Queiros’ laundry list makes me reflect on some unfortunate habits of thought that, I am increasingly certain, will drive him, me, and all our fellow liberals completely out of our pointy heads if we’re not careful.

We tend to think we’re the only ones here. Reading any opinion piece by Fr. Richard McBrien or Eugene Cullen Kennedy, you’d get the idea that any conservative — some might say reactionary — tendencies in the Church were imposed by the hierarchy on the unreceptive faithful. There’s some truth in this — Humanae vitae, often thought to mark the beginning of the Church’s rightward drift, drew widespread protest. Polls routinely show that large percentages of Catholics reject Church teachings on matters pertaining to faith and morals.

What’s more debatable is the corollary, that John Paul II and the bishops he appointed are chiefly responsible for the falling-away of Catholics in the West, or at any rate, in the US. True, one out of every three people who was raised in the Church ends up leaving. But as Peter Steinfels points out in Commonweal, “Those becoming unaffiliated reported having had a weaker faith in their childhood and significantly lower Mass attendance as teens. Most of the former Catholics, especially among those now unaffiliated, reported having just ‘drifted away’ rather than undergoing a sudden change of mind or heart.” If, as I suggested last week, ideology plays a small role in most adult conversions, it has just as little to do with most adult defections.

If we liberals tend to exaggerate our own moral influence, we also tend to downplay, or even willfully ignore, the strength and the contributions of the opposite camp. Celso de Queiros himself does this when he refers to “the clear preference of the Curia for the spiritualist even fundamentalist movements.” The movements he has in mind include Focolare, Neocatechumenate Way and Communion and Liberation. Though his tone is dismissive, he at least refrains from calling them cults, which is more than many liberal observers have been willing to do.

Since these groups have enjoyed great success in promoting “the inculturation of faith,” as Celso de Queiros puts it, this strikes me as not only short-sighted but downright ungracious. To be sure, none of them is to my taste, but when I reflect that CL has 100,000 people attending weekly School of Community meetings in sensual, commie-rife Italy, of all places, I have to tip my cap.

From a liberal point of view, the new movements are problematic because they mess with our schema. If we’re right when we say, “Laity good, clergy bad,” how do we explain the success of these markedly orthodox bodies led largely by laypeople? Either we point to the features that look most cult-like, or to their papal sponsorship. If the people in them aren’t zombies, they’re Uncle Toms — beneath consideration in either case.

This kind of self-blindering works in other contexts as well. When the Vatican tapped Bishop Tobin to oversee its Apostolic Visitation of American women religious, a number of National Catholic Reporter readers grumbled: the job, they said, should have gone to a woman. Well, sure, I thought. But which woman? Yes, Sr. Joan Chittester would have treated America’s professed women to a fairly stress-free time. Mother Angelica, on the other hand, might have hung them on meat hooks while cackling deliriously. What these people really meant, of course, was that they wanted to see a feminist in charge. That they felt no need to spell this out betrayed the same provinciality that made so many react to Sarah Palin as they would have a visitor from outer space.

This is why I’ve always been deeply suspicious of calls for lay empowerment. The self-appointed temple cop at my old parish wasn’t in Holy Orders or consecrated life; he was a layman, just like me. I found him so priggish that his very presence became a near occasion of sin. I switched parishes to avoid having to decorate the Blessed Sacrament chapel with his teeth. By contrast, the pastor, though appointed by the famously conservative Bishop Olmsted, turned out to be a most amiable fellow — even if his homilies about golfing with old Sigma Chi buddies tended to underwhelm me. His predecessor had told stories about mission work in El Salvador, making himself a tough act to follow, especially in liberal eyes.

It’s the same suspicion that’s keeping me off the council bandwagon (if, indeed, such a vehicle exists outside of Celso de Queiros’ imagination). I’m sure he knows the Latin American bishops well enough, but an ecumenical council is an ecumenical council. Has he reckoned on the bishops from Asia and Africa? What about the bishops from North America — the Olmsteds and Bruskewitzes and Georges? Bluntly speaking, I’m afraid our side would get smoked. The Council, acting as the Extraordinary Magisterium, could issue a decree titled: No Women or Married Priests in the Latin Rite Church — No Way, No How. Stick That in Your Thurifer and Smoke it, Buster Brown. Or however you’d say that in Latin.

For this liberal, at least, Vatican III works best as an ideal, a pipe dream, a vague but inextinguishable promise of a time when all tears will be dried. Nothing can kill that like actuality. When generations of Lindenmans prayed, “Next year in Jerusalem,” you can bet they weren’t picturing a place patrolled by soldiers, or, for that matter, filmed by Mel Gibson.

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