The University of Notre Dame’s Center for the Study of Religion and Society hosted a conference on polarization in the Roman Catholic Church in the United States. Those who want to see the plenary session round table may go here.
I haven’t watched this yet, but again the message that mainstream Roman Catholic institutions communicate are very different from the ones that folks like Bryan and the Jasons put forward. For instance, the folks at Notre Dame recognize diversity in the church. Bryan and the Jasons only see unity as the “real” condition of their communion. What is troubling is that Bryan and the Jasons never mention to their audience that events like Notre Dame’s exist, or that the communion to which they call people is not exactly what Called to Communion portrays. (Note that Called to Communion has the reforms of Vatican 2 on its list of topics but no links to those subjects. Hmmm.)
Will the Catholic Church in the United States enter the new millennium as a church of promise, augmented by the faith of rising generations and able to be a leavening force in our culture? Or will it become a church on the defensive, torn by dissension and weakened in its core structures? The outcome, we believe, depends on whether American Catholicism can confront an array of challenges with honesty and imagination and whether the church can reverse the polarization that inhibits discussion and cripples leadership. American Catholics must reconstitute the conditions for addressing our differences constructively – a common ground centered on faith in Jesus, marked by accountability to the living Catholic tradition, and ruled by a renewed spirit of civility, dialogue, generosity, and broad and serious consultation.
It is widely admitted that the Catholic Church in the United States has entered a time of peril. Many of its leaders, both clerical and lay, feel under siege and increasingly polarized. Many of its faithful, particularly its young people, feel disenfranchised, confused about their beliefs, and increasingly adrift. Many of its institutions feel uncertain of their identity and increasingly fearful about their future.
Those are hard words to pronounce to a church that, despite many obstacles, continues to grow in numbers, continues to welcome and assist the poor and the stranger, and continues to foster extraordinary examples of Christian faith and witness to the Gospel. The landscape of American Catholicism is dotted with vital communities of worship and service, with new initiatives, and with older, deeply rooted endeavors that are kept alive by the hard labor and daily sacrifices of millions of Catholics. In the face of powerful centrifugal forces, many Catholic leaders have worked to build consensus and cooperation.
We hesitate to say anything that might discourage them or add to the fingerpointing and demoralization that, in too many cases, already burden these exemplary efforts. But this discordant and disheartened atmosphere is itself one of the realities which cannot be ignored. For three decades the church has been divided by different responses to the Second Vatican Council and to the tumultuous years that followed it. By no means were these tensions always unfruitful; in many cases they were virtually unavoidable.
But even as conditions have changed, party lines have hardened. A mood of suspicion and acrimony hangs over many of those most active in the church’s life; at moments it even seems to have infiltrated the ranks of the bishops. One consequence is that many of us are refusing to acknowledge disquieting realities, perhaps fearing that they may reflect poorly on our past efforts or arm our critics within the church. Candid discussion is inhibited. Across the whole spectrum of views within the church, proposals are subject to ideological litmus tests. Ideas, journals, and leaders are pressed to align themselves with preexisting camps, and are viewed warily when they depart from those expectations.
There is nothing wrong in itself with the prospect that different visions should contend within American Catholicism. That has long been part of the church’s experience in this nation, and indeed differences of opinion are essential to the process of attaining the truth. But the way that struggle is currently proceeding, the entire church may lose. It is now three decades after Vatican II. Social and cultural circumstances have changed.
The church possesses a wealth of post-conciliar experience to assess and translate into lessons for the future. There is undiminished hunger for authentic faith, spiritual experience, and moral guidance, but many of the traditional supports for distinct religious identities–or for the institutions that convey them–have disappeared.
Meanwhile, positions of leadership in the ministries of the church are passing to those with little exposure, for better or worse, to the sharply defined institutional Catholicism of earlier decades. Still younger Catholics, many with absolutely no experience of that pre-conciliar Catholicism, come to the church with new questions and few of the old answers.
The church’s capacity to respond to these changed conditions may be stymied if constructive debate is supplanted by bickering, disparagement, and stalemate. Rather than forging a consensus that can harness and direct the church’s energies, contending viewpoints are in danger of canceling one another out. Bishops risk being perceived as members of different camps rather than as pastors of the whole church.
Unless we examine our situation with fresh eyes, open minds and changed hearts, within a few decades a vital Catholic legacy may be squandered, to the loss of both the church and the nation.
Not much there about motives of credibility, papal audacity, Thomas Aquinas, or John Henry Newman.
So which is it? Is it Called to Communion or Called to be Catholic? You can only chalk up such questions to Protestant perversity for so long before you finally admit a problem. Or you change your theme to Called to Denial.