Is “liberal” Catholicism dead?

Is “liberal” Catholicism dead? May 5, 2008

If that means Karl Rahner’s legacy, that’s fine by me.

But seriously, David van Biema looks into the theological and social effect of Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the U.S.

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  • Greg

    Why would you want Rahner’s legacy dead? I haven’t read him but I thought he made important contributions to Catholic theology in the 20th century?

  • Interesting article. I’m not one to wail about “biased” reporting as much as some others. TIME is a general interest news magazine, not a theological journal. By its nature, it is going to be fairly superficial.

    A deeper discussion on this same topic can be found in the symposium Commonweal magazine sponsored a number of years ago in Chicago. Cardinal George, a deeply intellectual man though rarely considered to be a liberal, entitled his address “Liberal Catholicism, An Exhausted Project.” I have to say I was heartened that many of my friends took his remarks seriously. They considered, pondered, critiqued and adjusted his thesis. I was also heartened by Cardinal George when, following the address, some conservative Catholics waved around the title of his address (though not the substance) followed by the Cardinal quickly correcting them that while liberal Catholicism has exhausted what it had to give to the church, conservative Catholicism never had anything to offer in the first place.

    There is a good case to be made that liberal Catholicism has achieved its goals of enabling people to hear the Mass in their own languages and bringing the Church to embrace the principle of religious freedom; reject anti-Semitism; and permit Catholic scholars to grapple with modernity. These are very important advances and I believe now irreversable.

    I think one of the failure of the secular press is that they do not distinguish between liberal Catholicism and radical movements (Steinfels once wrote a fine article setting the boundaries between the two). Call to Action and Commonweal are hardly soul-mates. And Father Greeley is a true sui generis(see, I can use a little Latin!).

    The democratization of church structures is a point to ponder. But even more central to the liberal Catholic vision is the democratization of sanctity. Liberal Catholics have been working on this long and hard and in the face of much opposition. Liberal in the 1920’s proposed the theology of the ‘Mystical Body of Christ’ in contrast to the conservative theology of the Church as a perfect, ordered society. They overcame strong criticism but advanced their cause in the 1940’s with the encyclical letter of Pius XII. Pope John Paul’s theology of the ‘universal call to holiness’ built on this. Movements of lay spirituality such as Foloclare, the Community of Sant’Egidio, and the many small, intentional communities being formed by young people in our urban neighborhoods are further examples. Liberal Catholics have an honorable history of involvement in social justice efforts for racial minorities, the poor and the forgotten. Increasingly liberal Catholics are returning to their roots (i.e. the Kolping Movement) and asking challenging questions about the lack of PASTORAL CARE for the poor, workers, immigrants and the socially marginalized.

    This last point may well be the top of the agenda for a new liberal Catholicism. It will have a struggle to get the attention of the secular media. It is neither sexy nor confrontational. Its opposition is by neglect rather than rhetorical battle.

  • Policraticus

    Why would you want Rahner’s legacy dead? I haven’t read him but I thought he made important contributions to Catholic theology in the 20th century?

    Tongue-in-cheek, though I will say that while I like some of Rahner (his philosophical theology is a disaster), I eschew the residual presence of “Rahnerianism” in the theology departments of many Catholic universities.

  • SB

    conservative Catholicism never had anything to offer in the first place.

    I’d bet he didn’t put it quite that way. In any event, traditional Catholicism doesn’t purport to “offer” anything to the Church, other than the message “Stay true, and don’t bend your moral teachings or liturgical practices to 20th-century American fads.”

  • Morning’s Minion

    Basic rule of thumb: somebody who purports to describe Catholicism using the twin terms “liberal” and “conservative” deserves not to be taken seriously. If these terms are misleading in the secular American context, they are meaningless in Church debates.

  • Morning’s Minion

    I’m not sure if this is what you had in mind re; Cardinal George.

    “One could say, as I have, that the Democratic Party has lost its soul. . . . One could also argue that the Republican Party never had a soul”

    To which I respond: AMEN!

  • I found the article a little disappointing myself, mainly because the people mentioned never really had any power.

  • SB

    Never had a soul? I guess that’s the disadvantage of being so ignorant of American history. FYI, for 100+ years, Democrats were the party of slavery and segregation, while the Republican party opposed those things.

  • SB

    Unless, of course, you think that opposition to slavery is a sign of lacking a soul . . . . 🙂

  • I eschew the residual presence of “Rahnerianism” in the theology departments of many Catholic universities.

    I think there is a caricature of what “Rahnerianism” is which differs a bit from what Rahner actually was about… especially the mature Rahner (Foundations of Christian Faith for example).

  • SB

    Sorry, I didn’t realize that was Cardinal George’s statement. What an ignorant cheap shot.

  • Policraticus

    I guess that’s the disadvantage of being so ignorant of American history. FYI, for 100+ years, Democrats were the party of slavery and segregation, while the Republican party opposed those things.

    Ah, the classic “they’re worse than us, so that means we’re good.” Please. Also, I’m not sure you are one to chide others on their knowledge of American history. Sheesh.

    I think there is a caricature of what “Rahnerianism” is which differs a bit from what Rahner actually was about… especially the mature Rahner (Foundations of Christian Faith for example).

    Yes, Rahner was not a “Rahnerian.” In my experience in academia, Rahner has been a staple of virtually every major theology program in the U.S., though this is beginning to fade as a new generation of theologians replaces the old. Hans Urs von Balthasar in his wonderful little book The Moment of Christian Witness reminds us that there are “many Karl Ranhers” and that much of Rahner has been irresponsibly transmitted by his disciples, engendering many Rahnerianisms that in many respects hardly represent the master himself.

    Parenthetically, I think Rahner’s Foundations is a very good (not great) work in theology (then-Joseph Ratzinger wrote a favorable review of it when first dropped from the presses). However, his Spirit in the World is philosophical confusion–an attempt to insert and then extract a neo-Scholastic epistemology from St. Thomas and morph it into an answer to the Kantian problematic, all while exhbiting a very superficial understanding of Heidegger’s existential thought. Yikes!

  • The Time piece is bizarre. I agree with the things Reese and Tilley say about the “new generation” of Catholics. I think they describe my own thinking actually.

    But…

    The piece relies on the “liberal-conservative” language that will perhaps fly with readers of Time, but which conscientious Catholics must reject.

    It equates “liberal” and “progressive” without explanation.

    It lists Dan Berrigan as one of these “liberals.” Really? Being an anti-abortion pacifist makes one a “liberal?”

    The St. Louis Jesuits are invoked, mindlessly, as the “soundtrack” for Catholic liberalism. Please, how trite. Sounds like something from the Cafeteria is Closed.

    The sex abuse crisis is called the “great rallying point” of progressive Catholicism. That seems like a big mis-judgment to me. And I’m not sure how Benedict’s public recognition of the issue deals a “knockout blow” to “liberal Catholicism.”

  • jh

    “One could say, as I have, that the Democratic Party has lost its soul. . . . One could also argue that the Republican Party never had a soul”

    I have to admit that was a unfortunate remark by Cardinal George. I would hope it was one of those things he wished he could take back. We often forget these parties are made up of real flesh and blood people that are indeed the soul of the various parties

  • Poli – Are you familiar w/ Karen Kilby? She has a book called Karl Rahner: Theology and Philosophy that addresses that issue of the relationship between his philosophy and his theology.

  • SB

    Ah, the classic “they’re worse than us, so that means we’re good.” Please. Also, I’m not sure you are one to chide others on their knowledge of American history. Sheesh.

    Poli — why do you adopt this sneering attitude of “I’m not sure you know much about X”? That kind of sneer only works if you’re pointing out an actual inaccuracy in the other person’s statement, not when you’re showing an inability to recognize the nature of an argument.

    In that regard, I was responding to the ignorant slur that Republicans “NEVER” had a soul. To my mind, that kind of blanket statement would be made only by someone who either supported slavery or who was ignorant of the history of political opposition to slavery. Thus, my post. But I certainly wasn’t arguing that “Democrats are worse than us, therefore we’re good.” That’s a silly caricature.

  • jh and SB – Cardinal George’s comments are not surprising and are hardly shocking to those of us who have come to believe that party affiliation is not for the Catholic, and that George’s views have always transcended partisan politics. There is nothing “unfortunate” about it. Praise God we have some bishops who think this way.

  • SB

    Praise God we have bishops who are not partisan, sure, but I’m not impressed with the intellect of someone who makes a petty cheap shot that necessarily rests on either 1) support for slavery, or 2) staggering ignorance of American history.

  • jh

    “Cardinal George’s comments are not surprising and are hardly shocking to those of us who have come to believe that party affiliation is not for the Catholic, and that George’s views have always transcended partisan politics. There is nothing “unfortunate” about it. Praise God we have some bishops who think this way.”

    Is Cardinal George saying that Catholics in the public square should not be affilated with Parties? I am also not sure how such a blanket statement as the Republican party never had a soul is much evidence of transending partisan politics. In fact it flys in the face of history

  • Blackadder

    “In that regard, I was responding to the ignorant slur that Republicans “NEVER” had a soul. To my mind, that kind of blanket statement would be made only by someone who either supported slavery or who was ignorant of the history of political opposition to slavery.”

    There is a third possibility, which is that even otherwise intelligent and well informed people can sometimes make off the cuff remarks that in retrospect sound ignorant and silly. I think that was the case here.

    Also, whatever the merits of Cardinal George’s remark, it wasn’t a call to transcend partisanship but an example of it.

  • SB

    There is a third possibility, which is that even otherwise intelligent and well informed people can sometimes make off the cuff remarks that in retrospect sound ignorant and silly. I think that was the case here.

    Fair point as to Cardinal George himself. That said, MM has praised Cardinal George’s remark in the past and has done so again, in writing In MM’s case, it isn’t just an off the cuff moment of partisan hackery.

  • There is a third possibility, which is that even otherwise intelligent and well informed people can sometimes make off the cuff remarks that in retrospect sound ignorant and silly. I think that was the case here.

    Or, maybe it’s a remark that only sounds “ignorant” and “silly” to people who still maintain a primary allegiance to the Republican party. When a Church leader who has no allegiance to political parties critiques this, especially a Church leader considered by some to be “conservative,” it hits hard.

    This also reads like an attempt to explain away the cardinal’s remark, as if he “must not have known what he was saying.”

    BA and jh – I didn’t say George was calling Catholics to transcend partisanship in that particular statement, no. I said many Catholics had come to believe that we should. And I said Cardinal George himself recognizes the problems with partisanship.

  • …in writing In MM’s case, it isn’t just an off the cuff moment of partisan hackery.

    How is it “partisan hackery” to reject both parties while recognizing that one party may be worse than the other?

  • Morning’s Minion

    SB– in case you hadn’t noticed, the good cardinal was attacking both Democrats and Republicans. It was a “pox on both their houses” statement. You are the one getting your knickers in a twist because he said bad things about your partisan group– I’m not the one with the problem here!

  • SB

    Michael I — are you aware that slavery was once an issue in American politics? Are you aware of which party mostly stood on the right side of that issue? Are you aware that one doesn’t have to have any “allegiance to the Republican party” to be against such a stupid exaggeration as to say that the anti-slavery party “NEVER” had a soul?

  • SB

    MM — yes, Cardinal George was attacking both Democrats and Republicans. But he was suggesting that Republicans were worse, because they “NEVER” had a soul. It’s not a sign of partisanship to point out that this is a stupid exaggeration (unless one thinks slavery was a good thing). You can’t answer that point.

  • SB

    Put it this way, MM: I’m against stupid exaggerations. You’re in favor of them, if they target Republicans. Nice try to suggest that I’m the “partisan” here.

  • SB

    How is it “partisan hackery” to reject both parties while recognizing that one party may be worse than the other?

    Michael I — It’s not partisan hackery to recognize that one party may be worse. It’s partisan hackery to claim that one party is worse when one’s stated reason is bogus and ignorant.

    It’s baffling that people are having such trouble grasping such an elementary point. If I say, “Republicans are bad, but Democrats are worse, because they always oppose health care and welfare programs,” it’s clear that I’ve put forth an uninformed and idiotic reason for disliking Democrats. That uninformed idiocy doesn’t go away just because I put a “pox on both houses.”

  • SB

    I don’t mean to get bent out of shape. If Poli, MM, and Michael I — putatively intelligent people — showed any sign of admitting that Cardinal George made an embarrassing overstatement, then all would be well. But it’s rather alarming to see people putting their good sense so far out of reach that they can’t admit that the Republican party had a soul when it opposed Democrats on the slavery issue.

  • Tim F.

    Parties do not have souls. Having said that SB, you should give it up. It’s no use dealing with people like MM, MI, and Policraticus. They obviously are not reading what you are typing. And Policraticus has gone silent as is his way when his condescending insults are questioned. Pride and self-importance but no humility there. He knows more than anyone else you see. Another thing that should be brought to the attention of Cardinal George is this. Would the civil rights movement have gone anywhere without Republican support? Of course pointing this out will draw the accusations of being loyal to the Republican party and not sufficiently Catholic by you know who. It’s the script of this blog unfortunately.

  • “FYI, for 100+ years, Democrats were the party of…”

    …Rum, Romanism and Rebellion, according to one GOP leader!

    cardinal george also remarked that: “The answer, however, is 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.”

  • jh

    Katernine “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion” was used one by Dr. Samuel D. Burchard in 1884 at a meeting in New York just for the record. It was hardly a endorsed theme lol

  • jh

    MIchael if the Cardinal truly believes that conservatives and Republicans have no “soul “then I suspect he needs to get out more and expand his horizons. I really can’t believe that a thinking man like him believes such things.

    I am always amazed at how Republicans are totuted as the people that put party above everything. Goodness it seems just the opposite the last few years. I spend a lot of my time trying to heard all the cats that is the Republican party so everyone doesn’t threaten to leave at a drop of the hat when they don’t get their way.

    That being said in the practical sense when ever this dicussion comes up I think we are in a time warp. Party ID and allegiance to Parties is much more fluid now thatn it has been. That can be a good or bad thing when one looks at it.

    Personally I rather see more Party ID and have parties do what they can sometimes do best. That is engage people on local organizing level. At least st that is what I work for.

    Are there problems with partiasanship when taken to excess? Sure there is.

  • SB

    Tim F — that certainly seems to be true. Just a few days ago, Gerald C. suggested that “subsidiarity” was a reason to allow women to choose abortion. I said that this was not “subsidiarity” in any sense contemplated by Catholic doctrine. Poli then sneered that I didn’t know much about subsidiarity, but (unsurprisingly) he never even tried to explain himself on that point.

  • MIchael if the Cardinal truly believes that conservatives and Republicans have no “soul “then I suspect he needs to get out more and expand his horizons. I really can’t believe that a thinking man like him believes such things.

    He is talking about the party, not individuals.

    I didn’t really understand the rest of your comment except for the last line.

  • Blackadder

    I find the inability of some of the commenters here to grasp Stuart’s point rather baffling. The Republican party was founded in the 1850s to oppose the expansion of slavery. The claim that the Republican party never had a soul, if true, would mean that it didn’t have a soul back in this period. That is an ignorant and silly thing to say. Acknowledging this doesn’t require you to think that the Republican party of today is all that great or that it is better than the Democratic party. Heck, one might very well think that the Republican party of today was pure evil, and still acknowledge that, in its early years, it was a force for justice and morality.

  • Tim F.

    Great point BA. But I still say parties don’t have souls. I think the good Cardinal knows that but was using a figure of speech to bash Republicans more than Democrats. Or maybe it was his attempt at “being fair and balanced”. I think it was a dumb comment.

  • digbydolben

    I guess that’s the disadvantage of being so ignorant of American history. FYI, for 100+ years, Democrats were the party of slavery and segregation, while the Republican party opposed those things

    The Republican Party lost its soul when it allied itself with business interests that were “developing” the South after the Civil War and which wanted a return to the status quo ante bellum in order to reverse Reconstruction and plunder the working people of the South.

    Later, there were attempts, in the Progressive era, to return Republicanism to the tradition of Lincoln (who was, himself, no saint), but they failed. If Theodore Roosevelt and his Bull Moose Party were around today, they’d be supporting Obama.

  • OK, BA and SB, the Republican party has had no soul since the 1850s. Happy now?

  • Blackadder

    Tim,

    Literally speaking political parties don’t have souls, this is true. But talk of a person or organization “losing its soul” is a common figure of speech, the meaning of which in this case is pretty clear.

  • Blackadder

    “OK, BA and SB, the Republican party has had no soul since the 1850s. Happy now?”

    Given that the primary focus on slavery and the rights of blacks in the Republican party continued after the 1850s, no, not really.

  • jh

    Goodness the attempts to demonize the Republican Party as having people in it that had no souls or were perhaps as advocating a “souless policy” is silly. For all this talk of getting beyond partsianship this seems counterproductive.

    In one fell swoop ten of millions of Americans that were heeding their call to be involved in the civic sphere whether it was politician or the House wife in 1930’s Vermont are presented like they are the borg.

    I saw this at Whispers in the Loggia and I think we can all agree with this from Archbishop Chaput

    “It’s not the fault of the Church.It is the job of Catholic laypeople to change the thinking of their political party and their political leaders with the tools of their Catholic faith. But it is the job of priests to give people those tools—to form Catholic laypeople to think and act as disciples of Jesus Christ, in a manner guided by the teaching of the Church. Just as Catholic laypeople should be the leaven of Jesus Christ in the public square, so we priests need to be the leaven of Jesus Christ in lives of our people.”

    http://www.firstthings.com/onthesquare/?p=1058

    Amen

  • Tim F.

    Counterproductive indeed. Some people here are so caught up in hatred of the Republican party that they pretty much model the behaivor that they claim to detest. They focus on those they paint as “putting being Republican ahead of being Catholic. ” Yet in my opinion they “put being anti-Republican ahead of being Catholic”. Being Catholic should come first for all, no?

  • SB

    Michael I — so the Republican party had no soul during the Civil War? (You know what decade that was, right?) It had no soul when it passed the constitutional amendment banning slavery after the Civil War? It had no soul when it supported a federal anti-lynching bill in 1922 (defeated thanks to a Democratic filibuster)?

    Fine, have it your way. At least you’re brave enough to go on record with such sentiments.

  • The Republican party is the party Jesus Christ himself belongs to. Happy now?

  • Policraticus

    Michael,

    I noticed the quasi-deification of the Republican Party in some of these comments.

  • Tim F.

    There is no deification of the Republican Party and no one said Jesus is a member. You two are not only childish but dishonest.

  • Where have I been “dishonest?” I’m being as honest as I possibly can be.

  • Blackadder

    Policraticus,

    Well, Michael did say that Jesus was a Republican, but I’m pretty sure he was being sarcastic.

    You’re a smart guy. Surely you can recognize the difference between saying that the Republican party hasn’t been soulless since its inception and saying that the GOP is (quasi) divine, right?

    Partisanship runs both ways. A person can be partisan if he refuses to acknowledge anything bad about a particular party, regardless of the evidence. But he can also be partisan if he refuses to acknowledge anything good about a particular party, regardless of the evidence.

  • But he can also be partisan if he refuses to acknowledge anything good about a particular party, regardless of the evidence.

    I don’t see anything good in any political parties. Sounds like Cardinal George has the same idea.

  • SB

    The Republican party is the party Jesus Christ himself belongs to. Happy now?

    No; you’re smart enough to know that the above is a ridiculous caricature.

  • SB

    I noticed the quasi-deification of the Republican Party in some of these comments.

    Absurd. Saying that it was a good thing to oppose slavery is not “quasi-deification” in any sense whatsoever.

    Here’s how this debate would look like if it concerned another topic.

    Hack commenter: “The Democratic Party is sheer evil.”

    Poli or MM: “I beg to differ; some of its positions are evil, but its positions on health care and immigration are actually pretty decent. Please don’t make such ridiculous absolutist claims.”

    Hack commenter: “Oh, what quasi-deification of the Democratic Party! My goodness, how you are getting your knickers in a twist because someone said bad things about your partisan group– I’m not the one with the problem here! Don’t be so partisan!”

  • Policraticus

    Interesting…again, I am stunned at the insistence of the presence of the “soul” (i.e., the subject of deification in Catholic theology) in the Republican Party. Confused politics and theology. But that’s just me being absurd and childish. By all means, let’s continue with revisionist and selectivist history (or we can think a bit deeper)!

  • SB

    That’s odd . . . it’s as if you’re being purposefully obtuse, just for an excuse to ridicule other people. Have you been genuinely confused about the sense in which Cardinal George was saying that the Democratic Party used to have a “soul” and the Republican Party never had one? You didn’t realize that he wasn’t talking about literal “souls”? No wonder your comments have been so off-point.

    Well, now that you do realize it, perhaps you could reconsider the wisdom of implying that back in the era of slavery, it was the Democratic party that had a “soul,” rather than the party that was founded to oppose slavery.

  • Blackadder

    Let’s leave to one side the rather dubious proposition that having a soul makes one divine in Catholic theology. In the original quotation, Cardinal George speaks of the Democratic party as having had a soul. Does that also stun you?

  • Tim F.

    According to Cardinal George, the party that was founded in opposition to slavery, polygamy, and alcoholism never had a “soul”, but the party that switched from holding slaves and lynching blacks, to advocating killing babies just “lost theirs”. Even Cardinals can say dumb things. This time one did. This is obviously not a complete history of the two parties, but I don’t think it is revisionist. Where is the revisionist history in this thread to which Policraticus is referring? This whole thread got off track because Katherine and Morning’s Minion introduced politics to attack “conservatives” and Republicans. Of course I don’t think the post was meant to be serious anyway, as the use of the terms conservative and liberal in relation to the church are frowned upon here . I think by posting this Policraticus was just looking for arguments and discord among people. Congratulations, you have achieved your goal once again.

  • “Katherine and Morning’s Minion introduced politics to attack “conservatives” and Republicans”

    I would suggest you go back and read my original post. I don’t see how that was an introduction on politics. It seemed to me to be the most on topic post here. Now, I will admit that long after the discussion went haywire, I posted a tongue in cheek comment about “Rum Romanism and Rebellion” but come on boys.

    To refocus the discussion, let me again ask, what do we think of the movement within the Church to embrace the principle of religious freedom; reject anti-Semitism; and permit Catholic scholars to grapple with modernity. Do we think this movement still has something to offer the Church? What do we think of the movements of lay spirituality, the theology of the universal call to holiness and the adequacy of the Chruch’s pastoral care for the socially marginalized parts of society?

  • The great and saintly Rahner does not deserve ignoral dismissal. His work is still seminal, and after the theological misadventures of the Church since his death we need to get back to it and find its most prophetic aspects.

  • Michael Enright

    Katherine–

    I don’t think that the article above really approaches any of your issues. In my opinion, the topics that you mention are, for the most part, mainstream. The sense that I got from reading the article was that what “liberal” signified for the purposes of the article is something else. I’m not going to re-read the article but my guess is that by “liberal Catholic” they actually mean some agenda that would approximate “Call to Action” i.e. an agenda for women priests, opposition to Church teaching on contraception and even abortion, etc….. Most would agree that what you identify as “liberal” are posative developments. The article cited is simply not talking about the same thing that you are. I actually highly doubt that most people think of the issues you present as “liberal”. Where I grew up, they would be certainly not be liberal. Lay holiness would actually have been seen as a conservative and traditional thing.

  • Dear Michael —

    I would strongly beg to differ. There is a sad tendency to de-legitimatize an honorable and historically valuable school of thought within the Church by falsely connecting it to marginal elements. I referenced an article by Peter Steinfels on the boundaries between liberal Catholics and more radical efforts such as CTA and would recommend you review it. If you cannot find it, I may have an old copy I can photocopy and mail to you.

    You say that of the items I mention, most would view them as positive developments. I think you are correct, giving evidence that liberal Catholicism is something within the mainstream of Catholic thinking. But all of those developments were brought about only with the help of a particular school of thought within the Church that faced considerable obstacles in the way of their advancement. Sometimes we very sadly read of conservative Catholics not daring to oppose developments the previous generation of conservative Catholics stood in strong opposition to while claiming these developments were matter that just one day the Pope woke up from bed and decided to implement. I think this does violence to the history of such matters being the subject of long and adversarial debate prior to their final papal approval.

    I will add one more example. When I was a young girl, if a lay person outside of religious life had dared picked up the Breviary and started the practice of praying the Divine Office, it would have been viewed by conservative Catholics as strange and inappropriate as if he or she has put on a cassock and roman collar. But starting with a liberal vanguard (which I was a part) and slowly extending to even more of the lay faithful, now many of us get deep spiritual benefit from regularly praying the Office without any accusation that we are pretending to be clergy.