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Beliefnet is running a debate/discussion between two of our friends, Peter Nixon (former independent blogger and now part of the dotCommonweal team blog) and Grant Gallicho (associate editor of Commonweal)

Definitions take center stage at first, and I’m thinking this will absorb much of the debate. Peter starts off:

But today we’re often talking about a more recent strain of liberal Catholicism, one that was inspired by Vatican II and many of the social movements of the 1960s, particularly feminism. Liberal Catholics of this tradition often look back to the history described above for inspiration. In the same way that the Church had to come to terms with the political liberalism of the 18th and 19th centuries, it is suggested that it must eventually come to terms with the social liberalism of the 20th and 21st centuries.

I will be blunt: I do not see this happening.

First of all, the Christian denominations that have taken this form of liberalism most to heart are also those that seem to be experiencing a serious crisis of confidence, as evidenced by declining membership, intra-denominational splits over issues like homosexuality, and, in a few cases, increasing discomfort with core Christian beliefs about Jesus Christ and the Trinity. I find it difficult in the face of this evidence to argue that the embrace of this kind of liberalism is a strategy for Christian renewal.

Grant takes issue with definitions:

Not to be a pedant, but we have a definitional problem here. It’s not too helpful to toss together these discrete and sometimes disparate sources of inspiration for liberal Catholicism. For example, Vatican II gave shape to many Catholics’ growing sense that the laity had something of substance to offer the church. This is something quite different from commitments forged in the social upheaval of the 1960s.

Whittling down “liberal Catholicism” to the viewpoints of 1960s revolutionaries, however accurate the appellation, or worse, to liberalism itself, doesn’t come close to capturing the diversity of thought that belongs under the heading. As you rightly point out, “liberal Catholicism” is anything but monolithic. (Same goes for “conservative Catholicism.”)

Yet you seem to mean precisely this band of “liberalizers,” men and women bent on installing married priests, or, worse, women priests, and an “entirely new sexual ethic,” when you declare liberal Catholicism defunct. Are there some liberal Catholics who work for those causes? Certainly, although some would call them members of the Catholic left. Do these issues exhaust the scope of liberal Catholicism? Not by a long shot.

A liberal Catholicism inspired the founders of The Commonweal (as it was then known) to publish an independent journal of opinion expressive of “the Catholic note,” as the editors put it in 1924, with an approach informed by an openness to and engagement with U.S. life and culture. Eighty years later, we think they were on to something, and so do our readers.

This stance is variously reflected in the lives of regular Catholics. Perhaps you won’t find the same kind of commitment to engagement bubbling in many seminarians today—although they aren’t a monolithic group either. But there is one place you’re sure to find Catholics who live and breathe it daily: the pews.

I trust that Grant will expand on his definition, but it seems fairly vague at this point. He seems to be determined to define "liberal Catholicism" not by the usual checklist of "reforms" but by the Church reflecting lay engagement with faith and with the world.

My questions are: is this a usable definition? If one asked a self-described liberal or progressive Catholic to explain themselves, is this what most of them would say?

Secondly – so then the "conservative" Catholics are not lay Catholics engaged with the world and determined to live out their faith creatively in that world?

I’ve said this before, but I don’t think that works, considering that when we look around at what might be called the "conservative" Catholic wing of U.S. Catholicism, we find a whole lot of laity. We find them theologically engaged, employed by the Church, running apostolates and committed to living as faithful disciples in the world as it is.

So…then….next try?

(And long-time readers know how I dislike label talk when it comes to Catholicism. I don’t understand why some feel a need to set themselves apart from other Catholics, which is what label talk comes down to, on every side. "I’ll qualify myself just to make sure you understand I’m not in with the other lesser Catholics." But…it will be a discussion interesting to watch. And as we discuss it here, no knee-jerking please. )

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