Over the past few weeks, I’ve read lots of congratulatory backslapping over David Van Biema’s piece in Time, "Is Liberal Catholicism Dead?" Let me offer some words of caution for my friends here at InsideCatholic and in the Church at large: Be very distrustful of the news of liberals you hear borne on the tongues of conservatives. (And vice versa, naturally.)
Here’s a corollary: Take with a grain of salt whatever you read about religion in the secular press.
What does it mean to be a progressive? Is it better or different from being a liberal? Some quibble over the terms, and the dictionary provides a distinction, but I believe they are interrelated insofar as each seeks authentic reform. Each yearns — through faith and optimism — for something better than the way things are.
Being a progressive is a natural attitude when a person is convinced that reform is not only possible, but necessary. My own Catholic liberalism is based on this same optimism: Like the bishops of Vatican II, I feel a sense of hope for the Church. This hope is not grounded in human activity, but in having the faith to enter into a partnership with the Living God. Many of my liberal friends think big, dream big, and put their trust in God as they do so. Conservatives, while perhaps not sharing that particular emphasis, serve as a helpful counterbalance to us when our own liberal hubris threatens to overhaul the Divine Partnership.
I’m often asked if my progressive Catholicism comes with a different set of beliefs from other Catholics. It’s a good question, if I take its meaning. Is progressive reform rooted in a change in essential dogma? Can one claim a personal orthodoxy while advocating for the Church to mark a distance from certain time-honored aspects? If those aspects are outside the essence of Catholicism, I think the answer is yes.
(To give one example, questioning how the Church now selects bishops falls well within the realm of orthodoxy. Do I think we might get better bishops if they were chosen locally and verified in Rome? Not necessarily. But I would look for a solution superior to the careerism and file-shuffling in the curia.)
In some circles, such thinking will get me labeled a "dissenter." I don’t mind. This is a healthy dissent — necessary even. I don’t have a problem distancing myself from conventional practice, even if it does have a long pedigree in the small-"t" tradition. Nor would I hesitate to dissent when others are simply wrong or misguided. For that, I’m in the same boat as Dorothy Day, a staunch Catholic and quite traditional in morality and piety. She was dissatisfied with both Church and society for a lack of care for the poor and too much indulgence in war.
Day typifies for me the ancient dictum, In necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus autem caritas — in essentials unity, in nonessentials liberty, in all things charity. The difference between conservatives and progressives comes down to how they sort out the necessariis and dubiis.
Today it has become fashionable to criticize Vatican II — dismiss its spirit, quench its hope, dilute its message, cast doubts on its application, and remind us that the young are ignorant of it. I refuse to surrender so easily.
Long before either Vatican Council, Ralph Waldo Emerson had the measure of all of us in his famous lecture, "The Conservative":
Conservatism makes no poetry, breathes no prayer, has no invention; it is all memory. Reform has no gratitude, no prudence, no husbandry.
We would do well to recall with Emerson that "it may be safely affirmed of these two metaphysical antagonists, that each is a good half, but an impossible whole. Each exposes the abuses of the other, but in a true society, in a true man, both must combine."
Emerson speaks of reform — what today we might call the progressive approach — as the opposite of conservatism. Such reform is essential to the serious believer. Jesus preached metanoia — a personal reform, a turning around to align the person with God and the Divine Will. How can any believer expect to maintain a steady state without reform? And wouldn’t that hold true for the various communal expressions of our Catholic society?
The authentically Catholic progressive finds empowerment through God’s grace. But the sensible progressive also knows that memory, gratitude, and prudence are essential for the good of the whole, be it for an individual, the community, or for the larger society. And so the progressive is actually more effective with the support (or the watch-dogging) of conservatives, and with the knowledge that a prayerful approach has unified the entire community behind the effort.
There are those who want to split ideologies in our Catholic tradition, to tell us that one side can thrive without the other. This is naïve. In the parish, people of all views work together, pray together, and share the same aspirations for holiness.
Remember the example of the early Church in the Acts of the Apostles: A conservative approach — keeping the believers under the umbrella of Judaism — was unquestionably wise for the early Christians. And yet in Acts 15, when confronted with the challenge of Gentile conversions, the apostles bravely changed the course of the Church, setting aside all but the most essential traditions of Judaism.
That same dynamic existed in the various reform movements throughout Church history: the Desert Fathers, the Trappists, and the Capuchins, among others. Each worked to reform their traditions — to become something more radical, closer to the original intent. Yet they all combined it with the commitment to conserve those things that were valuable and good in their traditions.
Following their example, progressive Catholicism is truly Catholic when it seeks God’s will to change what must be changed. This impulse — this necessity — hasn’t gone anywhere. Progressive Catholicism is alive and well, because the Church is alive and well.
Todd Flowerday has served the Catholic Church as an ecclesial lay minister for 20 years. He and his family will be relocating soon to serve at the campus parish for Iowa State University. Online you can find him at his blog Catholic Sensibility.