The Sadness of Liberal Catholicism

From Spero News:

Kerry Kennedy, a daughter of Robert and Ethel Kennedy, has written a book that has made it onto the bestseller list. It is called Being Catholic Now: Prominent Americans Talk About Change in the Church and the Quest for Meaning. It features brief reflections from thirty-seven men and women, largely though not exclusively, drawn from the left-side of the Catholic spectrum. Though it’s always difficult to generalize when dealing with such a variety of contributors, I would like to draw attention to two themes that come up with great, and I must say, disturbing regularity in this book. The first is the favoring of “the faith” or “spirituality” over the institutional church, and the second is the reduction of Catholicism to the works of social justice.

In her preface to the text, Kennedy evokes, movingly enough, her intensely Catholic childhood, which involved frequent prayers, personal devotions, Bible reading, immersion in the lives of the saints, celebrations of the liturgical seasons, and regular attendance at Mass. But then she recounts the process by which she became gradually disillusioned with pompous bishops and out of touch priests. She tells us how her mother, if offended by an insensitive or long-winded homily, would simply get up and lead her brood of children out of church. The conclusion she draws is starkly stated: “I learned from her to distinguish between my faith and the Institutional Church.” Now, I know all about priests and bishops who sometimes say stupid things, and worse, sometimes do harmful things. I agree with Kennedy and many of her collaborators in the book that the clergy sex abuse scandal, in all of its ramifications, represented the prime example of this distortion of speech and abuse of power.

But this acknowledgment should never lead one to conclude that the faith is divorceable from the hierarchical structure of the church, as though the Catholic faith could float free of the pesky interference of priests and bishops. The church is neither a philosophical debating society nor a political party, but rather a mystical body, hierarchically ordered in such a way that authentic teaching and sacraments come through the ministrations of the ordained.

What I saw in the image of Ethel Kennedy walking out of church in response to an offensive sermon was the Donatism of the left. In the fourth century, St. Augustine battled the Donatist heresy which held that only morally praiseworthy priests could legitimately administer the sacraments and preach. The great saint insisted that the power of word and sacrament does not come (thank God) from the personal worthiness of the minister but from Christ who works through them. So even today, the “faith” cannot be severed from the “institution,” even when that institution is represented, as it always is, by deeply flawed people.

The second theme that disturbed me could be found in almost every essay in the book. In reflection after reflection, we hear that Catholicism amounts to a passion for service to the poor and the marginalized. Again and again, the contributors said that what they prized the most in their Catholic formation was the inculcation of the principles of inclusivity, equality, and social justice. The Church’s social teaching comes in for a great deal of praise throughout the book.

But in the vast majority of the pieces, no mention is made of distinctively Catholic doctrines such as the Trinity, the Incarnation, redemption, original sin, creation, or grace. For the most part, it would be very difficult to distinguish the social commitments of the contributors from those of a dedicated humanist of any or no religious affiliation. The problem here is that the social teaching of the church flows necessarily from and is subordinated to the doctrinal convictions of classical Christianity.

We care for the poor precisely because we are all connected to one another through the acts of creation and redemption. More to it, we worry about the marginalized precisely because all of us are cells, molecules, and organs in a mystical body whose head is Christ risen from the dead. And our work on behalf of social justice is nourished by the eucharist which fully realizes and expresses the living dynamics of the mystical communion.

The great Catholic advocates of social justice in the twentieth century—Dorothy Day, Peter Maurin, Romano Guardini, Reynold Hillenbrand, Thomas Merton—were all deeply immersed in the doctrinal and liturgical traditions. No one would have mistaken any of them for a blandly secular humanist. My fear is that a Catholicism reduced to social justice will, in short order, perhaps a generation or two, wither away.

Being Catholic, now as at any other time, must always involve a living relationship with both the hierarchical church, made up as it is of flawed individuals, and with the doctrines and sacramental practices that flow from and refer to Christ Jesus. Without these connections, it loses its soul.

Rev. Robert Barron is a professor of theology at Mundelein University. His website is Word on Fire.


3 Responses to The Sadness of Liberal Catholicism

  1. Richard McKellar says:

    I agree with Reverend Barron about the state of many Catholics seeing the institutional church as a seperate entity from themselves and their personal “faith”. This is not exclusively Catholic problem. Evangelicals are facing the same dilema only to a worse degree than we Roman Catholics are having.

    What I am seeing is that there is a tendancy in many Catholics today is that we tend to classify and externalize “the institutional church” as something outside of ourselves which is the same thing we Americans do when engaging other “human institutions” such as our “government” and our “political party’s philosophies” and essential economic entities like “insurance companies”, “employers”, “the wealthy” or ” the banking industry”.

    We can no longer afford to classify and externalize human institutions from oursleves as individuals if we hope to transform our society into a just society.
    In a truly just society, all of these are essential elements of a much larger social fabric as a whole and to intelectually, morally, philosophically or religiously disassaociate ourselves from such human institutions through our analysis and practice of our ideology or religion we contribute to the divisions and self defeating behaviors and rhetoric.

    Social justice is a key to manifesting the true presence of God in our lives. Our faith lives must bear physical and visible fruit to win over the faithless and unbelieving world. If we depart from teaching only the theology and theory of our religion and begin to demonstrate our ideals to start serving God effectively we must bear the fruits necessary to win the world over or we will appear to be useless, saltless, tasteless and dark in our presentation of a hollow “spiritual” gospel.

    The phrases “this intitution, the church, the government, the banks, the employers, the economy, the wealthy, the insurance companies, etc. should …” must be replaced with the idea that WE SHOULD as a nation, a society, a people, a religion or a faith community pursue and practice social justice along with our faith.

    If life in this country and our bearing witness to Christ in this world is truly for the people, of the people and by the people, we must begin to act like it and see ourselves as a part of the problem and part of the solution as well. The implications of the incarnation of Jesus Christ in today’s world spiritually and sacramentally demands our attentention and service to God in creating a just society or we begin pedalling a saltless and dark gospel.

    The sayings that “the government should”, “the church should”, “the economy should”, “insurers should” do this or that to ensure we arrive at a just society while ignoring our personal ability and obligation to act responsibly to people in need we are defeating ourselves and appearing to the socially active persons as hypocritical at the very least.

    To bear an impact on the world we must practice the corporal and spiritual works of mercy in proclaiming a true rendering of social justice based on the proper view and implications as to what Christ’s incarnation compells us to do openly and publicly. Anything less than that is a hollow gospel that alienates people and ourselves from carrying out the true gospel.

    WE must overcome the temptation to compartmentalize our faith in addressing issues of social justice because to be a true reflection of Jesus Christ’s presence in our world today requires us to take up and practice socially just causes for the sake and glory of God. We need to talk less and do more and dispense of the notion that we are a seperate entity from social institutions who we believe should act more responsibly in solving our own societal problems. And most importantly, prayer must be the foundation of all social and political activism so we may receive the grace and favor of God in our efforts to evangelize and transform the world for the sake of Jesus Christ and the least of His brothers and sisters.

  2. Tonks says:

    The best article I’ve read on the very first day of the year. Thanks 🙂

    Happy new year

  3. Lemm says:

    Please For Adult Web Sites.Thank You..

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