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George’s answer: ‘simply Catholicism’

Special Report Writer

Before an overflow crowd of some 400 at Loyola University Oct. 7, Chicago Cardinal Francis George charged liberal Catholicism with surrendering to the world’s agenda and promoting an exaltation of personal experience that constitutes “a betrayal of the Lord.”

Vatican II he characterized as “a limited accommodation to modernity” and said the teaching of the bishops constitutes the one true “reality check” for authentic doctrine.

The audience came to hear George clarify remarks he made almost two years ago at a conference of the national Center of the Laity. At that time, in the midst of a homily, he said, “Liberal Catholicism is an exhausted project parasitical on a substance that no longer exists. It shows itself unable to pass on the faith in its integrity and is inadequate for fostering the self-surrender called for in Christian marriage, consecrated life and the priesthood.” The answer, he said, is not in a conservative Catholicism “so sectarian that it cannot serve as a sign of the unity of all people in Christ.”

Rather, he said, the answer is “simply Catholicism in all its fullness and depth, a faith able to distinguish itself from any culture and yet able to transform them all.”

But his Loyola clarification at this symposium sponsored by Commonweal magazine celebrating its 75th anniversary seemed unlikely to clear the air, especially since he failed to identify the guilty and admitted his extended indictment of liberal Catholicism was probably “too general and somewhat unfair.”

George said he regrets using the phrase “parasitical on a substance” since it offended some people, but he added he regrets also the misinterpretation of some Catholics today who regard the church as a “hypocritical system.”

“I think they are profoundly wrong,” he said, “and I pray for their conversion,” though he called for continuing respectful discussion of the hot issues by the disputants.

After an analysis of 19th-century Catholic liberalism, to which he said the church is “indebted,” he waded into late 20th-century Catholic liberalism with gusto. “Instead of understanding the Second Vatican Council as a limited accommodation to modernity for the sake of evangelizing the modern world,” he declared, “the liberal project seems often to interpret the council as a mandate to change whatever in the church clashes with modern society.” This project borrows its views “from the editorial pages of The New York Times or, even worse, USA Today,” he said, so as to “provide motivation and troops for the world’s agenda as defined by the world itself.” This is a “dead end,” he said, because the church would thus have nothing unique to contribute beyond the cultural context.

In its eagerness to embrace secular culture, said George, today’s Catholic liberalism is willing to sacrifice even “gospel truths” and basic Christian foundations: “Using the sociology of knowledge and the hermeneutics of suspicion, modern liberals interpret dogmas that confront current cultural sensibilities as the creation of celibate males eager to keep a grasp on power rather than as the work of the Holy Spirit guiding the successors of the apostles. Bishops become the successors of the Sanhedrin. The church is at best the body of St. John the Baptist pointing to a Jesus not yet risen from the dead -- a role model, not a savior.”

In such a mindset, which regards personal experience and personal choice as absolutely normative, “the call for conversion is smothered by the pillow of accommodation”; the result is a “betrayal of the Lord regardless of intention.” These liberal trends, he said, lead toward a church that:

  • regards all church ministries as “only functional and therefore open to any of the baptized”;
  • is “unwilling to say all homosexual genital activities are morally wrong”;
  • makes “some allowance for abortion when necessary to assure a mother’s freedom”;
  • accepts “contraception as moral within marriage and prudent outside marriage”;
  • allows “the sacramentally married” to enter a second marriage “in complete sacramental communion.”

George’s answer to all this was “simply Catholicism” -- an attitude that accepts Christ’s gifts to his church, including the gospel, the sacraments, and especially the visible government of the church “through the successors of The Twelve.” The bishops, he explained, provide a sure “reality check” for the continuity of the apostolic faith, since they can neither change established dogmas nor create new ones “unless they want to become heretics.” If doctrine does develop, he added, the bishops serve as “the verification principle” by which the faithful know what is authentic and what is not. When “the gift of The Twelve” is ignored or undermined, he said, “the church cannot evangelize.”

Catholic liberalism fared somewhat better with other participants in the symposium, including New York Times columnist Peter Steinfels, Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr., Notre Dame historian John McGreevy and federal Judge John Noonan. Steinfels praised liberalism’s historic role in resisting papal centralization, its emphasis on freedom and its recognition that, despite the presence of the Holy Spirit, church authority is susceptible at times to serious error. Yet he and the others concurred with George that Catholic liberalism is in a state of crisis and disarray.

During a brief audience question period, writer Eugene Kennedy wondered why, during three hours of discourse, there had been so little reference to the pastoral approach of Vatican II and no mention whatsoever of Pope John XXIII and his legacy.

Reactions of the audience during a reception afterward ranged from admiration for the speakers’ erudition to bewilderment at the mass of distinctions and definitions. Said one observer, “I lost interest. When I studied biology I never liked dissecting the frog; I preferred the living frog.”

National Catholic Reporter, October 22, 1999