Confessional Protestants complain often about the way that partisan politics has driven the wedge between evangelicals and mainliners more than doctrinal or liturgical matters. That is why two-kingdom theology has some appeal. It prevents concerns for social-well being, which are legitimate, from undermining the identity and mission of the church (“let the church be the church”). The same problem of partisan politics driving church politics seems to afflict Roman Catholicism in the United States according to this (but not this):
Surveying the Catholic Church in the U.S. today, there is no doubt that the church is polarized over doctrinal and other ecclesial issues. What is particularly dismaying about this polarization, though, is how easily it has coalesced with political partisanship. In recent elections, the Catholic vote has closely tracked with the national vote, meaning there is no identifiable “Catholic vote.” In 2011, a survey by Fordham’s Center on Religion and Culture and the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate showed that only sixteen percent of U.S. Catholics were even aware of the bishops’ Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship voting guide, and only three percent had read it. Of those who were aware of it, three quarters said that it had no influence on their vote in the 2010 elections, and a similar percentage of those who were not aware of it claimed that even if they had been, it would not have mattered. Clearly Catholic identity is not having a significant influence on politics. In fact, it seems rather that political identity has more influence on church life. We saw this with the protest of President Obama’s appearance at Notre Dame in 2009, followed by that of House Speaker John Boehner at the Catholic University of America in 2011. Earlier this year nearly 90 faculty wrote a letter of protest when Paul Ryan visited Georgetown University because of his budgetary priorities, whereas only nine could be mustered to protest the selection of Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius as the commencement speaker, despite her radical views on abortion, not to mention her role in denying funding to the U.S. bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services and in the contraceptive mandate controversy. Catholics pick and choose elements of Catholic social teaching that fit their partisan agenda, leaving the rest to “prudential judgment.”
Yet the solution to this problem is not a more forceful statement that Catholic social teaching crosses partisan boundaries, or greater efforts to implement a more complete public policy agenda. This is because the root of the problem is the focus on the state as the primary locus of Christian witness. For two generations, the U.S. Catholic Church, including its bishops and leading intellectuals, have focused the church’s social energies on transforming the state, and I believe we are seeing signs of the impending failure of this approach. Despite his exaggerations, George Weigel has described the rise and fall of what he calls the “Bernardin Machine,” his term for the progressive American church of the 1970s to 1990s whose signature accomplishments were the two pastoral letters The Challenge of Peace and Economic Justice for All, and which Weigel believes was embodied in the person of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin. This is the church of Bryan Hehir and David Hollenbach, as well as the other social ethicists Michael Baxter has criticized for adopting a form of public discourse accommodated to the state. This progressive church largely failed, unable to fundamentally transform American political life and leaving behind an under-catechized church whose institutions, such as universities and hospitals, were in many cases largely indistinguishable from their secular counterparts. The progressive church has since ceded ground to a more conservative church, one set to restore the Catholic Church’s identity, in its institutions and social role. Cardinal Francis George declared liberal Catholicism an “exhausted project,” and proposed “simply Catholicism,” which, although avowedly neither liberal nor conservative, has certainly shown a conservative face, given its ecclesial preoccupations and political leanings.
If the folks at CTC think the situation is any better for conservative Roman Catholics in the United States, they should think again:
With its focus on Catholic identity, this new conservative Catholicism might have been expected to embody a more robust form of communal witness, but this has not proven to be the case. Although the causes are probably many, one has to be that the leading intellectual advocates of conservative American Catholicism are captive to the same state-dominated logic as the progressives. Both Weigel, and, despite his philosophical brilliance, Robert George, explain the reasonableness of the natural law in terms of its public accessibility. These conservatives differ from the progressives in affirming that the natural law can lead us to definite conclusions on controverted issues, such as abortion and homosexuality, but the claims about the natural law itself remain the same. “Catholic identity” becomes identified with adherence to natural law teachings with generally conservative political implications. As Peter Steinfels notes, although Weigel contrasts the supposed cultural accommodation of the progressive church with the “intense focus” on Catholic identity of the conservative church, he mentions no major initiatives concerning Catholic institutions, catechetics, or liturgy as evidence of this shift, jumping immediately to the realm of public policy. Again, the measure of the Church’s social witness is its influence on the state. Weigel sees this new church as being ascendant, but we are already seeing the beginnings of its collapse. Bishops in the mold idealized by Weigel, such as Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston and Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua of Philadelphia, have played a major role in discrediting the moral authority of the church through the sexual abuse scandal, despite Weigel’s attempts to blame the scandal on the progressives. This past summer the bishops attempted to convince Catholics that the erosion of conscience rights represented by the contraceptive mandate is a profound threat to the Church, but have no comparable plan to combat the much graver threat that Catholics do not want to freely exercise their religion in the way taught by the bishops, or in many cases at all.
This estimate of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States should not lead to gloating. It should make all believers — Protestants, Roman Catholics, Jews (Muslims likely already know this) — understand what happens to religious convictions when employed to better, transform, or even Christianize the modern social order. What happens is that the United States Americanizes the religious order. The other lesson is that Protestants tempted to look to Rome to solve Protestantism’s many ills are only going to find the same version of what has afflicted evangelicals and mainline Protestants since John Witherspoon signed the Declaration of Independence.