Liberal Catholics: The Wilderness Years? Print
Written by Sherry   
Thursday, 19 November 2009 19:35
A look at a couple more topics from John Allen's new book, The Future Church, before I leave. For those who haven't read it, you need to know that Allen is looking very specifically at what the 21st century may be like for the Catholic Church. Since we have almost finished the first decade of that century, he is really looking most specifically at the 40 years between now and 2050.

After reading the chapter on "Evangelical Catholicism" two times, I see why the reviewer at Commonweal was less than enthusiastic about the book. Listen to the words Allen uses to describe the future of "liberal" Catholicism:

"years in the wilderness"
"likely to decline"
"worst of times" for reformers
"find themselves out of a job"
"harbors in the storm"
"feel increasingly uncomfortable in other Catholic venues"

It says a great deal about Allen's status that he was able to write in as straight forward a fashion as he has while, famously, still working for the National Catholic Reporter, a major center of influence for progressive Catholicism.

In Allen's judgement, a 21st century Church focusing on Catholic identity is not going to be hospitable to "liberal" Catholics.

Their options as Allen sees them:

Near Certain
1) Abandon the intra-ecclesial debates and attempts to set policy which they can not win and focus their efforts on mission outside the Church, engaging social and political questions. LIberal Catholic reform movements will decline inside but there may be a burgeoning audience for their message outside the Church.

2) Work within the Church but focus on areas of Church teaching and activity where the bishops will support them: poverty, war and peace, ending the death penalty, protecting the environment.

Allen holds up the community of Sant'Egidio as a model. He writes that Sant'Egidio was founded at the height of the 60's by "progressive Catholics who didn't want to leave the Church." The community has focused on the Church's mission to the poor,anti-death penalty campaigning, peace-making and conflict resolution, ecumenical and interfaith dialogue. And they have prospered. "In the twenty first century, movements such as Sant'Egidio are the future of liberal Catholic activism."

3) Migrate. Many liberal Catholics will leave (or be forced out of) the parochial system: parishes and dioceses, schools and hospitals, and Pontifical Universities and take refuge in institutions run by older, progressive religious orders.

4) Advocates for new approaches will have to phrase their proposals in the language of the Church in order to be heard.

5) Informal "schisms" grow in the global North. Liberal Catholics regard themselves as in a form of "internal exile"

Long Shot:
6) Schism in the North: In Europe and North America. Unlikely because there is no Bishop with a strong following who seems to be willing to lead such a formal break.

As I read, I couldn't help it but think of how Europeans regarded their future in 1910 before the horrors of World War I turned the world upside down. Before Communism rose. Before the Nazis and the Holocaust and World War II and the long years of the Cold War. Could they have even imagined 21st century Islamic terrorism and 9/11? In 1910, the Ottoman Empire was regarded as the "Sick Man of Europe" and the larger Muslim world seemed prone before the western colonial powers. But that was before oceans of oil was discovered under those desert sands.

It is very difficult to project the present into the future. And yet, it isn't completely useless as long as we remind ourselves of how extremely contingent such speculation is.

I was struck by what Allen did not talk about in his book as a whole (not just with reference to the future of liberal Catholicism) : the action of God.

Please hear me: I am NOT saying and I do NOT believe that Allen does not believe that God is at work. He just does not address that here in his role as a journalist and focuses instead on observable sociological trends. That's a legitimate approach and perfectly understandable approach (he is not a theologian or spiritual director and the subject he has tackled is already extremely complicated).

But I believe that we cannot talk about the future without taking God's redeeming action into account. I believe that history is changed by the action of God through his people just as it is changed by evil and folly. So I hope to blog on that aspect of the situation later.

I also could not help but hear echoes of the language that traditional Catholics use of their experiences in the 60's and 70's during the heyday of Catholics liberalism. They too felt themselves to be in internal exile, in the wilderness, etc. How long will the pendulum continue to swing wildly?

Allen sums it up his findings in a way that is sure to tick off both liberal and traditional Catholics:

"the recent past of Catholicism belonged to the liberals, its present belongs to the evangelicals, and the future belongs to the Pentecostals.”

Next up: The American exception.