KANSAS CITY, Mo. (National Catholic Reporter) – Evangelical Catholicism may be running the table in terms of official policy, but most experts say that rumors of the death of liberal Catholicism have been greatly exaggerated.
Just as the evangelical impulse is one way of responding to modernity, so too is liberalism, and most sociologists say that complex religious institutions are likely to contain both and many others – only sects, they argue, have the luxury of rigid consistency. Further, terms such as “evangelical” and “liberal” are ideal types rather than airtight ways of categorizing real people, and many Catholics reflect elements of both in their own thinking.
At least in the United States, many observers believe that a broad liberal instinct is firmly entrenched at the grass roots.
“I think the genie has been let out of the bottle, and there is no putting it back in,” said Richard Gaillardetz, a prominent lay theologian at the University of Toledo, Ohio, even though he conceded that “liberal Catholicism … no longer enjoys the ecclesiastical support to which many had become accustomed in the ’70s, ’80s and early ’90s.”
Gaillardetz argued that in the United States, liberal Catholicism is less an ideology than a “pastoral phenomenon … alive in parishes that have a flourishing catechumenate, vibrant liturgies, thoughtful and relevant preaching, and multiple lay ministerial opportunities,” as well as “in a growing number of intentional Christian communities that are determined to keep alive a vision of the church that they associate with Vatican II.”
Looking around, observers such as Gaillardetz say that the moderate-to-liberal camp probably represents a disproportionate share of the church’s ministerial workforce, meaning priests, deacons, religious, and laity, as well as the theological guild.
Nor are these attitudes confined to a class of church professionals.
In fact, the evangelical camp seems a distinct minority within the overall Catholic population. In 2005, sociologist Dean Hoge published a survey about how American Catholics define what it means to be Catholic. At the top of their list was belief in the resurrection of Jesus, the Eucharist and the other sacraments, and helping the poor.
Other traditional markers of identity were sidelined – only 29 percent said a celibate male clergy was important, and just 42 percent said that about the teaching authority of the Vatican. Seventy-six percent said one could be a good Catholic without going to Mass on Sunday, and 75 percent said the same about following church teaching on birth control.
This is not just an aging cohort that will soon vanish, some stereotypes to the contrary. On several points, younger Catholics are more likely to hold what is popularly seen as a “liberal” position. Only 43 percent of Catholics 26 or younger, for example, agree that the Catholic church has “more truth” than other religions, as compared to 61 percent of Catholics 65 and older.
Pointing to Hoge’s survey, noted sociologist Father Andrew Greeley expressed skepticism about the long-term prospects of evangelical Catholicism.
“It is not within the pope’s power to establish a Catholic identity,” Greeley said. “He may think it is, but he deceives himself.”
Some Catholics identified with progressive causes believe that, given the way the winds are blowing, the future lies in engaging social and political questions outside the church. Social Service Sister Simone Campbell, for example, executive director of the Catholic social justice lobby Network, said the call of the hour is “mission.”
“This mission is discovered by touching the anguish of the world, listening to the crying needs around us, and being willing to respond in new ways,” she told National Catholic Reporter.
In a lecture delivered a decade ago, Jesuit Father Thomas Reese laid out seven survival strategies for reform-minded Catholics in an era in which church leaders are increasingly closed to their agenda:
- Prophetic criticism and demands for reform.
- Public conformity but private independence.
- Christian witness in the world.
- Doing what you can within existing structures.
- Laying the intellectual foundations for change.
While one can debate the merits of each choice, perhaps the relevant sociological observation, Reese said recently, is that Catholic liberals today can be found doing all of the above.
Catholic liberalism may be in for some time in the wilderness as the evangelical movement rolls through the church and its package of concerns may mutate, but there’s little reason to believe it’s going away.
Finally, some observers of the global Catholic scene say the future may belong neither to evangelicals nor to liberals, but to a third force emerging in Africa, Latin America and Asia, usually called “charismatic Catholicism.” While sharing some theological ground with evangelicals, these Catholics prioritize spiritual experiences, especially the gifts of the Holy Spirit – miracles, healings and deliverance from evil spirits – that correspond to the grass-roots religious instincts of much of the non-Western world.
Recent data from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life suggest that a broadly charismatic approach is becoming the dominant way of being Christian across the global South, with a strong following inside Catholicism. Given that two-thirds of the world’s 1.1 billion Catholics today live in Africa, Latin America and Asia, experts such as Gaillardetz believe it’s an important wave to watch.
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John L. Allen Jr. is National Catholic Reporter senior correspondent.
Republished by Catholic Online with permission of the National Catholic Reporter (www.ncronline.org), a Catholic Online Preferred Publishing Partner.
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