If Ross Douthat thinks conservative Roman Catholics are having trouble with the current magisterium, he should remember how liberal Roman Catholics felt a little more than a decade ago in the last years of John Paul II’s papacy:
Thirty years after Vatican II, liberal Catholicism is once again passing through a cycle of official hostility and internal disarray. In a time of crisis-mongering, it is easy to exaggerate the situation. In many sectors of American Catholicism, liberal Catholicism is the dominant outlook—in the academy, in many seminaries and diocesan agencies, among religious educators and liturgists, and, on many questions, in the Catholic population generally. Are these liberal Catholic church workers, people in the trenches, as they like to say of themselves, much affected by some of the tensions and conflicts I am going to describe? Do their moods sink and their energies flag with every week’s alarms sounded in the National Catholic Reporter? Reliable observers tell me no. Mostly they get on about their work and hope for the best.
Nonetheless, liberal Catholics have good reason to feel on the defensive and threatened from both within the church and without. Rome considers us suspect, and has been pursuing a slow but steady policy of discrediting, marginalizing, and replacing us, and now and again, where the cost appears sustainable, rooting us out. The same goal is being similarly pursued by a number of influential, well-funded movements and publications that identify themselves as “orthodox” Catholics, presumably in distinction to the rest of us who are heretics. The most obvious and fundamental working difference between these groups and liberal Catholics turns on the possibility that the pope, despite the guidance of the Holy Spirit, might be subject to tragic error. Liberal Catholics believe that this possibility, which all Catholics recognize as historical fact, did not conveniently disappear at some point in the distant past, like 1950, but was probably the case in the 1968 issuance of Humanae vitae and cannot be ruled out in the refusal of ordination to women.
But if liberal Catholics increasingly feel that they are not wanted in the church, they are hardly more welcome in the ranks of secular liberalism. American political liberalism has shifted its passion from issues of economic deprivation and concentration of power to issues of gender, sexuality, and personal choice. This shift has opened a serious philosophical chasm between liberal Catholicism and a secular liberalism that would demand an illusory stance of state neutrality, maybe even social or cultural neutrality, on all fundamental questions of lifestyle and therefore a relegation of religious claims to private life and, as Stephen Carter has argued, ultimately to trivialization.
Liberal Roman Catholicism, by the way, was not necessarily about liberal theology but about adjusting ecclesiology to the modern world of liberal politics:
Liberal Catholicism began with a concern for freedom, not of the individual, not of the dissenting conscience, not of an aspiring class, but of the Catholic church. Its pioneers were not revolutionaries but restorationists, who dreamed of restoring the church’s cultural power. Initially they rebelled not against the church’s use of the throne but against the throne’s intervention in the affairs of the church. Then they rebelled against the alliance of throne and altar because they saw the possibility of reconquering society for Catholic Christianity doomed as long as the church remained chained to bankrupt regimes. Only at the end of this process did they conclude that the freedom necessary for the church to prevail implied the general freedom of all.
What I wonder is why a bright guy like Peter Steinfels only sees two options — Roman Catholicism or secular liberalism. Is he so parochial — he worked for the New York Times mind you — to identify Protestantism with secular liberalism? Sure a liberal Roman Catholic has gotten over the idea that liberal Roman Catholicism is the church that Jesus founded.