Thirty years ago, observers confidently predicted that liberalization of the Catholic Church was bound to happen, and some even predicted the church would soon be ordaining women and changing its sexual ethic. Now, two contributors to Commonweal, the flagship magazine of liberal Catholicism, debate whether the liberal project to reform the church has a future.

J. Peter Nixon writes for Commonweal, U.S. Catholic and America, and is a student at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley. He works professionally as a management consultant and lives in Northern California.

Grant Gallicho is an associate editor of Commonweal.

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J. Peter Nixon  J. Peter Nixon J. Peter Nixon
Grant Gallicho Grant Gallicho Grant Gallicho

From: J. Peter Nixon
To: Grant Gallicho
Date: July 19, 2006

Dear Grant:

You and I have been asked by Beliefnet to debate the future of "liberal Catholicism." At first glance, we are an odd matchup.You and I are both associated--you as an editor, me as a writer--with Commonweal magazine, the lay-edited biweekly that has been the voice of liberal Catholicism for more than 75 years. Readers expecting forensic fireworks may be disappointed!

The debate isn't a new one. Cardinal Francis George of Chicago and Peter Steinfels, New York Times religion columnist and former editor of Commonweal, discussed this topic in Commonweal in 1999. George famously opined that liberal Catholicism was an "exhausted project." Steinfels responded that the Church needed the "self-criticism, open inquiry, and spirit of dialogue that liberal Catholicism has provided."

One of the problems with this debate is that there isn't just one kind of liberal Catholicism. Liberal Catholicism was once described the effort to reconcile Catholicism with liberal democracy. This project was overwhelmingly successful. In this sense, Pope John Paul II was the strongest proponent of liberal Catholicism of any pope in history.

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.

Secondly, the data I have seen suggest that recently ordained priests and those studying for the priesthood are less likely to be sympathetic to liberal Catholicism. Since these are the ranks from which future bishops will be drawn, it suggests that the institutional voice of liberal Catholicism is likely to weaken in the years ahead.

Finally, liberal Catholicism is an outgrowth of the Church's engagement with modern European and North American culture. But in an increasingly globalized Church, European and North American concerns will be less central to intra-Church debates than they were in the past.

Peter Steinfels may be right that some of the virtues associated with liberal Catholicism are necessary for a healthy Church. But just as the patristic, scholastic, and baroque periods of Catholicism eventually came to an end, the evidence suggests that the era of liberal Catholicism is also coming to a close. The question is: What will replace it?