Deeply – or vaguely – Catholic? Print
By Bevil Bramwell, OMI   
Wednesday, 21 July 2010

In his book Religious Freedom, Truth and American Liberalism, David Schindler makes a rather provocative assertion that institutional liberalism "draws us into a con game, inviting us to dialog within the (putatively) open and pluralistic market of religions, all the while having, hiddenly, filled the terms of that dialogue with a liberal theory of religion." When I first saw these words in 1994, I thought: he has a hold on something, and then I filed and forgot them.

But I’ve gone back to them lately. The events of the past year – the presentation of an honorary doctorate to President Obama, revelations of the Campaign for Human Development’s continuing involvement with organizations that work against Catholic teaching, Catholic Charities’ battles to remain Catholic while accepting government monies, the Catholic Health Association’s support of Obamacare, the appointment of the new president of CUA (who as dean of the Boston College Law School went out of his way to portray a colleague who worked against gay "marriage" as only expressing "his own opinion"), the struggles of genuinely Catholic (by which I do not mean fanatic traditionalist) educational institutions, and so on – make abundantly clear that some members of the Catholic Church are adopting the liberal view of institutions, with hidden and sometimes not- so-hidden effect.

In crude terms, the effect is to aim for the vaguely Catholic rather than the deeply Catholic. The English Dominican Aidan Nichols, for example, has argued that "a deep Catholicism is not simply sure of its dogmatic basis and at home in its corporate memory, though these are essential. It is also profoundly rooted in the Scriptures, the Fathers, the great doctors and spiritual teachers, and receptive to whatever is lovely in the human world of any and every time and place, which the Word draws to himself by assuming human nature into union with his own divine person." Reading Schindler’s framing of the problem of liberalism through the lens that Nichols gives us, brings us at a minimum to the following:

Catholic institutions need to be deeply Catholic and not just package what they imagine Catholicism to be as a commodity. In practical terms, this means that institutions need staff who think like Catholics and behave like Catholics, in short who are Catholics. Everyone from the secretary answering the phone, to the spokesperson, to the head of the institution needs to think and act as a Catholic. There is no neutral institutional frame that is able to operate in a Catholic way without having well-informed functional Catholics at all levels. It may be thought broadminded to hire a Moslem as a researcher, for example, but from a theoretical and practical point of view it makes no sense, unless the employee happens to be researching Islam.

The liberal vision is that an institution is some kind of neutral collection of people all of whom – with the best will in the world – will do the best for the institution that is paying them. Unfortunately there is an old maxim, tried and tested, that says: nemo dat quod non habet – you cannot give what you ain’t got. Employing secretaries, presidents, directors, spokespeople who do not firmly believe what they are saying means that the institution has in fact consciously decided to buy the liberal view of the institution wholesale. Then the institution is not doing what it says it does. The kind of liberalism that Schindler is referring to is not Catholicism. George Weigel, coming at the question from a different angle, terms it Catholic lite.

Catholic institutions who appoint officials who do not see Catholicism as the wellspring for every hire, every communication, and every decision, have bought the vision of the liberal institution as neutral. In doing this they have introduced a "logical ambivalence" (Schindler’s phrase) into the Catholicism being expressed by their institution. They are saying, in effect, that Catholicism needs to be completed by the secular culture, which is a better expression of truth and freedom than Catholicism is. The ambivalence wreaks havoc with the actual mission of the Catholic institution, which is to present a witness of Catholicism to the world. The ambivalence becomes part of the message.

Never mind the simple logic that if you work for IBM then you do not sell Apple! The liberal idea of the institution is that it is value-free. Schindler has argued very cogently that the very notion of a liberal institution embodies all kinds of values and very often these are the ones that contradict Catholic values. What is at issue is the connection between the apparently secular (such as an institution like a bureaucracy) and the sacred (the world redeemed by Christ). For example, Schindler says that for the great modern theologian Henri de Lubac, even the secular, "everywhere and always retains an ordering that is first from within, towards God in Jesus Christ." A bureaucracy run by the Church may look like any other bureaucracy. Catholic bureaucracy has a different inner principle because it has a different goal. It is not embarrassed about being Catholic and desperately trying to look like a liberal institution. Now that is deep Catholicism!


Bevil Bramwell, priest of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, teaches theology at Catholic Distance University. He holds a Ph.D from Boston College and works in the area of ecclesiology.


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