Progressive Revival

In 1899, Pope Leo condemned “Americanism” as a heresy.  Americanism, a theological development
in American Roman Catholicism, was a complex of progressive ideals regarding
freedom, separation of church and state, historical criticism and scientific
inquiry that attempted to reconcile traditional Christian teachings with what
historians call, “the spirit of the age.” 

A crisis at the University of Notre Dame occasioned the
Pope’s condemnation.  In 1896, Notre
Dame professor John Zahm published a book entitled Evolution and Dogma arguing that church teaching, the Bible, and
evolution did not conflict.  Within
two years, it was placed on the Index of Forbidden Books and Zahm was forced to
recant its publication.  

According to historian George Marsden (recently retired from
Notre Dame), this controversy ended in a sort of intellectual stalemate:  “The Roman Catholic Church in America
was thus forced to retain its identity and its distinctiveness, but at the
price of accepting Roman authoritarianism and severe restraints on its
intellectual life.”  And he further
notes that, in the first decades of the twentieth century, “permissible
Catholic inquiry became increasingly restricted,” whereby Catholic
conservatives essentially rejected the “rubric of ‘progress.'”  Again, according to Marsden, Catholic
authorities “questioned whether philosophies that constantly celebrated
innovation, openness, and individual choice could in fact provide a moral basis
for a higher civilization.”

In 2008, a little more than a century later, a majority of
American Catholics threw their electoral lot with an avowedly “progressive”
political candidate–Barack Obama. 
And, one of their leading universities responded by issuing him an
invitation to speak at graduation. 
In that simple act of hospitality, history is replaying itself:  Has the ideal of  “progress” encroached too far into the
American Catholic community?  What
are the limits on creativity, inquiry, and conscience in relation to Catholic
magisterial teaching?

But it isn’t simply 1896 repeated.  The events at Notre Dame are a little like watching the
recent Star Trek movie–history is
rebooting itself.  A century ago,
the Vatican and the Pope intervened from afar to stop the Americanizing spirit;
many bishops actually promoted Americanism; and the Catholic laity seemed to
generally approve of the Americanization of their tradition. 

Now, it is the reverse: right-wing Catholic laity and local
priests have besieged the University; about 20% of the bishops have condemned
Notre Dame for inviting the President (and no doubt, more considered doing so);
and the Vatican has basically absented itself from the controversy.   The protest against progressive Catholicism is coming from (at
least some of) the pews.  Evidently, the authority structure of the Roman Catholic
Church has inverted itself in America–despite the election of a conservative Pope
(who spent his week with Muslims and Jews in the Middle East) and overwhelming
conservative American Catholic bishops. 
The laity thinks it is their job to tell the University of Notre Dame
what to do.

I don’t understand all of the spiritual and political dimensions
of this–but it does reveal how successfully grassroots conservative political
groups have communicated their message in some Catholic circles.  Many of those protesting the
President’s speech have taken rhetoric about abortion as “murder” to heart,
thereby neglecting other aspects of Catholic moral teaching–including the idea
that individual conscience is a mark of human dignity and that human beings
even have the right to exercise conscience when it causes them to err.  So, despite the Vatican’s own deep
horror of abortion, most Roman Catholic leaders have not taken to the streets
with bloodied baby dolls.  They,
instead, rest in the uneasy tensions of witnessing to a Catholic moral ideal of
no abortion in relation to the equally Catholic moral ideal of the free
exercise of conscience.

That lay Catholics are leading the charge against President
Obama at Notre Dame doesn’t seem like a positive development in American
Catholic life.  With sixty percent
supporting Obama and forty percent not supporting him, are we looking at a
Catholic Church as fractious as other American faith communities?  Maybe it only shows that despite all
European attempts to the contrary, the American church was “Americanized”–in
some unexpected ways–after all.

The whole episode reveals some ugly results of long-term
politicization in the Catholic community–and a fundamental misunderstanding of
the whole vision of Catholic moral teaching. 

Notre Dame is probably trying to make that very point by not
rescinding its invitation to President Obama–and it may be trying to correct
the very old injustice of the Zahm case. 
I’m afraid, however, the point has been lost in the shouting.

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