Many years ago a Dominican priest published a piece in America magazine about how the “revolution” in the Church was over. He bemoaned the new conservative seminarians and the new conservative bishops appointed by Rome. That was maybe ten years ago.
Like the Japanese soldiers climbing out of a cave twenty years after the World War II, bit by bit, others on the Catholic left are straggling into the light of day and realizing the war is over. And they have lost.
J. Peter Nixon, one of the less breathless contributors to publications of the Oh-So-Thoughtful-Church, is the latest example. He has published a piece on the Commonweal site discussing a John Allen column in the National Catholic Reporter about how the “center-left” could survive in the current Church climate.
Allen said the center-left would probably not want to go whole-hog with what they see as the lead issues of the bishops – abortion, contraception, marriage – but that they could latch onto some of the other more acceptable concerns of the conservative bishops, like religious liberty, and help out as best they can.
He called this giving “surprising support”: the center-left ought to help the bishops on the HHS contraceptive mandate, but only with respect to the narrow religious exemption. They could help the bishops on Christian persecution around the world and assist in navigating the Church’s transition from the global north to the global south.
Then Allen added something that made Nixon stumble – and rightly so. Allen wrote that, “Once upon a time, when the tone-setting camp among the bishops came out of center-left circles, it was the conservatives and the center-right that had to be intentional about building relationships. Today the shoe is on the other foot, and showing ‘surprising support’ at least seems a possibility worth pondering.”
Nixon pointed out that, rather than building relationships, conservatives began both public campaigns against positions taken by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and, perhaps more importantly, these roughnecks began regular trips to Rome to whisper complaints into eager Vatican ears.
What Nixon doesn’t say, probably because he does not understand or agree, is that conservatives had to go around local bishops and the USCCB, and talk directly with Rome, because dialogue is not real for the left, particularly to the left in power. When you run the rectories and the chanceries and the USCCB, you can pretty much make the decisions and completely ignore the concerns of those who may fundamentally disagree with you.
The battlefield at Gettysburg
Maybe the bishops reached out to the likes of Michael Novak and William Simon prior to publishing “Economic Justice for All.” But I doubt it. Maybe Novak, Simon, and others tried to get a hearing, but if they got a meeting, it is clear their concerns were not seriously considered. Otherwise Novak and Simon wouldn’t have felt it necessary to produce a public “Lay Letter” criticizing the document. I suspect also that Novak and Simon burned up transatlantic phone lines and lots of jet fuel back and forth to Rome, too. And God bless them for it.
Nixon has it right that the conservatives did not offer “surprising support.” They fought back and largely won the argument. This highlights that not only was there a lack of dialogue, but a profound disconnect between the center-left in America and the home office in Rome.
The most interesting thing in Nixon’s piece is where he writes of surrender:
Am I suggesting, then, that “center left” Catholics should adopt the bare-knuckled tactics of their conservative counterparts rather than the dialogue favored by Allen? I am not, for the simple reason that I can’t imagine it being effective. Nor, however, can I imagine Allen’s approach yielding any substantive benefits for the center left. The truth is that, like the South after Gettysburg, the left has been defeated and little is left but to negotiate the terms of its surrender.
Linger over that for just a moment: “The truth is that, like the South after Gettysburg, the left has been defeated and little is left but to negotiate the terms of its surrender.” Who would have thought back in the darkest days of 1975 that such a statement would ever be possible?
Back in 1998, Chicago’s Cardinal Francis George famously said that liberal Catholicism is an “exhausted project.” He was roundly criticized for saying that. In the intervening years, you sometimes had the feeling that everyone knew that except the liberals. With Nixon’s admission, maybe that’s finally changed.
But how could their project be anything other than exhausted? The Leadership Conference of Women Religious hosted a national conference last month at which they featured a poor creature from Cloud Cuckoo Land named Barbara Marx Hubbard. Listen to her comical gobbledygook and ponder that this is where the institutional Church left chooses to make their last stand. Talk about exhausted.
Should “conservatives” proceed to the end-zone dance? Not by a long shot. Exhausted does not mean finished. It just means tired. They could revive. They will revive. This argument has been going on since the Garden of Eden and will continue until Christ returns.
Even so, while we do not wish ill for any individuals not even nutty nuns, we should be pleased that the ideas that have done so much harm to the Church seem to be receding – at least for now.