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?

From: Grant Gallicho 
To: J. Peter Nixon
Date: July 20, 2006

Dear Peter,

Let me begin by disagreeing vehemently with everything you’ve written. Ever.

Explosive enough? Maybe too? All right, I’ll dial it down a bit: I think you raise several important questions and make some good points, but you finally commit fundamental errors of conflation common among critics of liberal Catholicism. First, you seem to confuse the slippery term “liberal Catholicism” with the Catholic left. And second, you hint that the ordained leadership of the church is properly construed as the barometer for the whole church.

You’re quite right that liberal Catholicism emerged in the church-state debates of days gone by, though these conflicts persist in different forms today (e.g., the efforts of some bishops to deny communion to pro-choice Catholic politicans). But when you say that "today we’re often talking about a more recent strain of liberal Catholicism"—which makes it sounds like something one should be inoculated against—"one that was inspired by Vatican II" and the social movements of the 1960s, particularly feminism, you lose me.

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’ve already written too long, but before I sign off, two questions: you seem to assign “social liberalism” a causal role both in the “increasing discomfort with core Christian beliefs” among mainline Protestants and in their declining memberships. Was this your intent, and did you mean to liken this to liberal Catholicism?

From: J. Peter Nixon
To: Grant Gallicho
Date: July 21, 2006

Dear Grant:

Everything I’ve written? Even those intemperate remarks about the Bush administration on dotcommonweal a few weeks back?

I appreciate the opportunity to clarify my argument. I certainly don’t believe that liberal Catholicism can be reduced to the "viewpoints of 1960s revolutionaries," although I do believe that many Catholics who lived through Vatican II imbibed that era's generally skeptical attitude toward authority and institutions.

But let me restate my case. Whether one wants to use the term "liberal," "modernist," or some other term, the "reform party" in Catholicism had quite a run in the 20th century. That movement manifested itself in many ways: historical criticism in biblical studies, the emphasis on participation in the liturgy, the "anthropological turn" in theology, and the acceptance of liberal democracy in the political sphere.

Vatican II was partially the fruit of these movements. But even in the decades prior to the council, there was an enormous amount of intellectual energy. Journals—like Commonweal—were being founded. There were experiments in liturgical reform. Lay movements were gaining adherents. Reform fired the imagination of the broader Church before it fired the imagination of the bishops gathered in council.

But as we enter the 21st century, the intellectual energy seems to have shifted to the other side of the spectrum. Journals are still being founded. Lay movements are still gaining adherents. But in many cases these things are critical of some of the reforms of previous decades.

It would be easy to conclude this is simply a matter of those in authority imposing their will on the broader Church. But it goes deeper than that. Vatican II was animated by deep hopes for the Church ad extra and ad intra. Externally, the hope was for a new relationship between Church and State, one characterized by a common commitment to human progress. Internally, the hope was for progress toward Christian unity.

In some ways, these hopes have been frustrated. Western Europe has grown aggressively secular in recent years. With regard to ecumenism, the Church and its dialogue partners are in some ways farther apart than they were in the years after the Council. Across denominations, there has been a decline in both knowledge of the faith and its practice.

Grant, you suggested that liberal Catholicism was animated by "an openness to and engagement with" contemporary culture. But is that enough? In the face of these new "signs of the times," is that vision sufficient to call women and men to the kinds of heroic Christian commitment that have always sustained the Church and allowed it to truly transform culture in ways inspired by the Gospel?

From: Grant Gallicho
To: J. Peter Nixon
Date: July 24, 2006

Dear Peter,

So, time to pick up a chisel and hammer, then, and take them to a headstone?
Here lies Liberal Catholicism.
Early 20th Century - Early 21st Century
It had a good run.
Let's say you're right-of course I don't think you are: What happens to all that toothpaste once it's out of the tube? Do we start taking the creation accounts in Genesis literally, jettisoning the historical-critical method in biblical scholarship? Do we throw out the vernacular in the Mass? Do we swivel the priest back so he faces the front of the church?

I don't buy the ecclesial legend that the Church's "intellectual energy seems to have shifted to the other side of the spectrum." This is quite a different claim from your earlier one, which seemed to refer both to lay and ordained Catholics. I'm sure you don't mean to tie this to your point that young priests are more conservative today, and therefore the future leadership of the church will be decreasingly liberal in temperament (assuming these guys won't experience any ideological shift through the decades). Are you saying the intellectual life of the Church, too, is more conservative than liberal? If so, again, what's your evidence for this? Lay movements? Conservative movements like Opus Dei aren't the only ones out there. What about Sant'Egidio, a lay movement whose commitments make it difficult to classify as conservative or liberal?

This is not to say that conservative journals like First Things aren't a genuinely new and interesting development. Generally speaking, an institution like First Things is good for the life of the church.

Finally, my deep puzzlement over the end of your e-mail: Let me see if I read you right. Vatican II's hopes-liberal hopes-for progress toward Christian unity and a renewed relationship between church and state have been dashed by the secularism of Western Europe. Ecumenism is in bad shape, too (can't imagine then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger's Dominus Iesus, which refers to other Christian churches as "gravely deficient" and alienated many partners in ecumenical dialogue, was a big help there). Finally, you say that Christians today are much more ignorant about their faith and lazy in their practice than their forbears.

Are these the signs of the times you think impede heroic Christian commitment and finally stymie liberal Catholicism? The fact is that liberal Catholicism does call women and men to profoundly deep commitment (I don't do heroism) to bring society and culture closer to the truths of the Gospel. For one example, I see it in the amazing willingness of Catholic college students to give a year of their lives or more in service of the poor, the sick. In the eagerness of their professors to bring that service into contact with the theology that supports it. In university administrators' commitment to service learning.

This does not replace worship. Right practice does not exclude right belief. Nor does it circumscribe Catholicism or the Catholic experience. It is one way among many. And it's not going anywhere any time soon.

From: J. Peter Nixon
To: Grant Gallicho
Date: July 25, 2006

Dear Grant:

Well we are coming to the end, and it seems like we've only gotten started!

By way of conclusion, let me summarize my argument: During the 20th century, a way of being Catholic that we might call "liberal Catholicism" became increasingly dominant among clergy, religious, and laity. This worldview was characterized by a positive attitude toward ways of thinking rooted in the Enlightenment, such as the right of individuals to religious liberty. It manifested itself in new ways of doing theology and engaging the secular world. Its high point came at Vatican II, where many-but not all-of the reforms it had championed were received by the council. While the council embraced, for example, a reformed liturgy and episcopal collegiality, it avoided any serious consideration of the issue of clerical celibacy.

The question is not whether liberal Catholicism will continue to be part of the diversity of Catholic experience or whether it will continue to be influential. Of course it will. As the saying goes, the Church never throws anything away. The question is whether liberal Catholicism will continue to be as powerful in the future as it has in the past. Will some of its unfinished agenda be achieved? Will it continue to define the parameters of theological debate?

I have argued that the answer to these questions is probably "no." I base this on a reading of what I concede is fragmentary evidence: the "orthodox turn" among seminarians; the crisis of mainline Protestantism and the attenuation of ecumenical hopes; heightened conflict between Church and state around issues of bioethics and sexual ethics; the growth of the Church in regions of the world where liberal Catholicism is less dominant; and the growing institutional weight of those offering alternatives to liberal Catholicism. I see other signs as well, but I don't have the space to detail them here.

All this leads me to the conclusion that the next 50 years of Catholic history will exhibit a different sensibility from the previous 50. The terms "post-liberal" or "post-modern" have been suggested by others. In the West, I think, Catholic history will be characterized by a greater emphasis on the tension between the Church and the world and the importance of fostering a distinct Catholic identity among adherents to the faith.

You've offered counter-evidence: the continued strength of the liberal Catholic worldview among the laity and theologians; the increasing number of lay vocations; new lay movements on the left side of the spectrum such as the Community of Sant'Egidio.

I concede some of your points, but you haven't persuaded me to abandon my thesis. But I'll admit that predicting the future is a risky venture and only time will tell who's right.

Let me conclude on a personal note: I bear no deep personal animus against liberal Catholicism. It's the only way of being Catholic I have ever known. The three parishes in which I have lived all eagerly embraced the reforms of Vatican II, and I have always felt at home in these places. But the world I live in is different from the one my forebears lived in. I'm asking different questions than they did and discovering different answers.

You have last word, my friend. Use it well!

From: Grant Gallicho
To: J. Peter Nixon
Date: July 26, 2006

Dear Peter,

As I finished reading your final entry, I realized we spent too much time on definitions. There was no way around that briar patch, given the size and diversity of the Catholic Church. But you raise what is the next step in the debate: naming the new questions.

Unfortunately I'm an unlikely candidate for the job. I've seen claims like yours made in several quarters. Things have changed, it's said. The questions that plagued our parents and grandparents-such as a celibate priesthood-are not our own. We're not invested in their battles, and frankly we're tired of them. I take comments like these to be sincere, but have long hoped to see them fleshed out.

I say this as a post-Vatican II Catholic raised in Chicago as a member of a parish that could be described as liberal, though not in the culture-war sense of the term. I often encounter younger Catholics who express a kind of free-floating distaste for the "old battles." I'm a member of their cohort, and I appreciate the sense of battle-weariness. But fatigue doesn't mitigate the issues at stake-whether sex-related, authority-related, devotion-related, or otherwise-and in many ways, exhausting or not, the arguments launched some four decades ago are still in play (for example, in the HIV and condoms controversy). They continue to need airing. From the perspective of Church history, they are still so very young.

Yet this need not foreclose the possibility of tackling other questions, or of reframing those inherited. I just wish I would see those articulately asked. Perhaps that's a subject for another Beliefnet exchange: What's next? New questions for the new era of Catholicism. In the next 50 years and more, we must be attentive to these queries, and so must the leadership of the Church-which requires listening and, dare I say it, engagement.

In the meantime, we must deal with the Church we have. And you're right: there is movement in several quarters, on several continents. I don't know whether the supposed conservatism of our seminarians will constitute a meaningful shift in ideology. (Many reliable observers have real concerns about the quality, quite apart from the ideological tendencies, of the young men being trained for the priesthood.) And I can't say I conceive of the Church's intellectual energy as a zero-sum game-that conservatism gains only if liberalism loses, or vice versa. A new set of questions among the faithful is inevitable, and a very good thing. It is in fact the surface on which the Church gains traction as history unfolds.

Maybe we're in for a whole lot of both/and: Catholics who are staunchly pro-life and deeply committed to serving the poor, who attend Eucharistic adoration and Taize services, who receive the pope's teachings with prayerfulness and respect and who at times disagree with his analysis. I honestly don't know. But this much is certain: liberal Catholicism will play a significant role in shaping those experiences.

We could profitably continue this debate for the rest of our natural lives. It's a testament to the richness of our tradition that this is even possible.

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