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Salt of earth was in the audience


An early October, I betook myself to Chicago’s Loyola University to a Commonweal Forum, titled “The Crisis of Liberal Catholicism” and sponsored by the Commonweal Foundation and Loyola University.

This year Commonweal magazine celebrates its 75th anniversary. According to the Forum program, it was founded by lay people in 1924 in an effort to bridge “the gap between Catholicism’s 19th-century animus against the modern world and the American Catholic experience.” Although described by the Chicago Tribune as “liberal,” in recent years Commonweal, along with the Jesuit weekly America, has drifted toward the center. At the forum itself, the speakers’ jibes were aimed at the notoriously “liberal” and “pessimistic” publication, the National Catholic Reporter, a view that defines the crisis under discussion more than much of what the panelists had to say.

NCR’s Special Report Writer, Robert McClory, has already provided a detailed report on the forum. My observations are akin to those of the color commentator on an NFL game.

Although attendees had to drop $15 to hear about the crisis in liberal Catholicism, the Rubloff Auditorium was packed. An overflow crowd had to watch it on TV in an adjoining room -- all this in spite of the fact that it was no sound byte. With one potty break, it lasted three-and-a-half hours. There were enough leftover words to feed several forums. Minnesota’s Cro-Magnon governor, Jesse Ventura, would have been baffled by those “weak-minded people” who would have reduced his one-dimensional mind to rubble with just a few adjectives.

You could have paved the floor of heaven with the baldpates of many of the attendees. The committee could have used Medicare cards as IDs. At 70 myself, I think I knew about half the crowd, many of whom were pushing 80.

I could have talked all night to this wonderful group, most of whom were probably putting their kids through college during Vatican II. These were the people who stood up at their parish forums, faculty meetings and union halls to give some inspiration to their fellow Catholics on issues such as war and peace, racism, labor issues, euthanasia, birth control, abortion (before it became the only issue), health care, Catholic higher education and other topics that were quickly adopted by the bishops so they could lead us.

I had to leave the minute it ended to grab another bus in order to attend an affair being sponsored by Catholic Theological Union, which was remembering the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin and his Common Ground Project. It was Bernardin’s last effort to bring Catholics together. But even before he died, his fellow cardinals were watering the spark. Sadly, too many of the bishops have reverted to the “animus” that Commonweal and other publications hoped to end. The bishops now seek a church that wants to make rules for parish parking lots. They proclaim schism or submission without available reconciliation. We now hear endless moaning about exhausted, perfidious, pernicious, parasitic, contaminating liberalism -- adjectives applied by 19th-century popes toward anyone functioning above the peasant level.

My friend Marty was there in the front row. Later he told me that he was happy to hear an intellectual theological discussion for a change. These days, one has to shop for them. Although Ex Corde Ecclesiae has yet to be formally invoked, universities have virtually ceased any discussion that might assault the ears of the local ordinary. If a Catholic institution of higher learning were to award an honorary degree to a Charles Curran or a Richard McBrien, it’s likely that the local ordinary would absent himself and the diocesan paper would editorialize that the institution was caked with dry rot.

The seminar provided a lot of grist for many minds. It’s likely that one will have to wait for a transcript because much of the rhetoric was as dense as a reserved sin. Given their age, a lot of the audience (including me) nodded off, especially during Cardinal Francis George’s and Peter Steinfels’ talks, which were doused in enormous sentences with a zillion subordinate clauses and were delivered at a pace generally reserved for sportscasters.

Both men were carefully prepared. If only their points were illustrated by concrete examples, their keynote speeches might not have stuck to the bottom of my mental pan. But there were times when I was swimming frantically just to stay above the wordy waters.

The commentators -- John Noonan Jr., a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals and an author; John McGreevey, an author and associate professor of history at the University of Notre Dame; and E.J. Dionne, also an author and syndicated columnist -- were able to clarify most of the keynoters’ arguments. But with the official church contending that one could not play off liberal thinking against objective truth, there wasn’t much wiggle room.

Liberal values, together with American Protestantism, have formed the Catholic church in the United States. Take marriage alone. According to Purdue sociologist, James D. Davidson, writing in the Sept. 10 issue of Commonweal, fewer and fewer Catholics are entering valid Catholic marriages, especially when one partner is a non-Catholic. (In 1970, the total number of “all-Catholic” marriages was 405,066. By 1995, it was down to 293,434. Presently, there are more interfaith marriages than “all-Catholic” marriages.)

When Commonweal was young, liberals banded together and spoke in groups. There were causes such as the Catholic Interracial Conference, peace and labor groups, and the Christian Family Movement. Today, the more radical liberal Catholics have left the church and the moderate liberals appear to be more individualistic, picking their way through the few ecclesiastical needles’ eyes that remain.

There was a rare young man sitting next to me. He informed that he was 35 and knew Commonweal through his parents. (He left at halftime.) Outside the room, hundreds of young Loyola students were passing through the lobby utterly unaware of the words being spoken. It’s a good guess that they would not be remotely aware of what was happening.

In an unpublished article, my friend John Fahey wrote that thoughtful Catholics face one another across an ideological divide. “Some are convinced that the constructive results of the Second Vatican Council have been largely achieved in the revision of canon law and in the Catechism of the Catholic Church,” he wrote, while “others are preoccupied with what they consider the unfinished work of the council.” This latter group, perceived as liberals, call for more adaptability in teaching, more attention to the needs of the local church, more responsibility and authority to the laity. Now, Fahey believes, the differences between these two interpretations have hardened. We seem to be reverting from Vatican II-inspired “people of God” to “church militant.”

John Fahey believes that this dichotomy will resolve itself in the course of time, but that the time will be measured not in decades and lifetimes, but in centuries and epochs.

Sadly, the present crop of bishops, most of whom never attended Vatican II, tends to view the council as a great disruption. They cling to their thrones, trying to keep their balance, while Peter’s rock begins to slide underneath them. While the church continues to lose members through death, divorce, doubt and disenchantment, it continues to appoint ordinaries who prefer canon law to common ground. (Presently, 89 percent of bishops have been appointed by John Paul II.)

John Fahey, who holds a doctorate in theology and has given a lifetime of service to the church, believes that absolute individualism can be corrosive for the church. He calls for self-organization on the part of decentralized individuals but rejects the notion that the church can be rescued by an infusion of priests and religious. He seeks a “radius of trust” at every level in the church but particularly involving the laity.

Fahey cites Francis Fukuyama, writing in The Atlantic Monthly last May, to the effect that “true orthodoxy” is part of the problem, not of the solution. Fukuyama reminds us that human beings crave order in their lives because they need community to be more fully human. The logical resulting need is people who trust their pastors and pastors who trust their bishops. The thin threads that bond these groups are the medium of religious authority in a free, informed society.

Now sadly, according to Fahey, the same forces that demanded freedom for the human spirit and challenged the autocratic control of political leaders in John Paul II’s Eastern Europe are at work in the Catholic church, and the pope’s centrist administration is trying desperately to repudiate them.

Tim Unsworth writes from Chicago where he feels great in spite of the chemo regimen.

National Catholic Reporter, October 29, 1999