The end of liberal Catholicism

The Catholic left in America is doomed.

This is the conclusion I came to after attending two recent events that were held the same week. One was an examination of Vatican II, the early 1960s Catholic Church council that revitalized the pastoral nature of Catholicism. The second event was the Mass for Life and Liberty, a rally held at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. This gathering was to protest the Obama administration mandate that Catholic institutions pay for contraception and abortifacient drugs.

The first event, a symposium on the 50th anniversary of Vatican II held at Georgetown University, was attended by a small number of angry and graying 1960s liberals who worship Vatican II more than Jesus and who don’t like the pope (at all). The second event was attended by a massive outpouring of people, most of them Latino, who sang and danced and prayed in defense of the Catholic Church against the Obama administration’s assault on the First Amendment. They love Pope Benedict, they love the bishops, they love their faith and they have a lot of kids.

The Georgetown event often looked like a retirement home. I hadn’t seen this much gray hair outside an Animals reunion concert. The Basilica celebration looked like the future. If you want to see for yourself, Georgetown taped the symposium and I took footage from the Shrine rally.

The first event featured some wonderful speakers delivering papers examining the nature and effect of the council. My favorite paper, and one crucial to the point I am making in this article, was delivered by Father John O’Malley, a Jesuit professor at Georgetown. Father O’Malley noted the important changes that had come with Vatican II: “For the first time in history Catholics were encouraged to foster friendly relations with non-Catholic Christians and even to pray with them. The church entered into formal dialogues with other churches and revisited doctrines that had for centuries divided Catholics from both the Orthodox and the Protestants. Breaking with a long-standing tradition, the council affirmed the principle of religious liberty and, in so doing, reaffirmed fidelity to conscience as the norm for moral decision-making. In the long shadow cast by the Holocaust, it categorically repudiated anti-Semitism.”

Bravo and amen. Yet there was, is, more: “Important though these and similar changes were in their own right, they do not singly or collectively capture the sense pervasive at the time of the council that something further happened, something of which the particulars were but manifestations. The council’s import, that is to say, included but also transcended its specific enactments.”

He was speaking of a term liberal Catholics love: “the spirit of the council.” For 50 years the Catholic left has used this phrase to excuse dissent. Female priests should be allowed because of “the spirit of the council.” Kids should be allowed to run around the altar during mass because of “the spirit of the council.” Abortion should be legal because of “the spirit of the council.” When delivering his paper, Father O’Malley said this: “[Liberal Catholics] did not mean to imply that the ‘spirit’ was at odds with the ‘letter’ of the council’s documents, but, rather, that it, while building on the letter, rose to a higher level of generalization. In so doing it served as a lens in which to interpret the particulars and to fit them into more general patterns.” Hate the pope? It’s “the spirit of the council.”

That last example is no exaggeration. The most appalling part of the Georgetown symposium came during a talk by Massimo Faggioli, the author of “Vatican II: The Battle for Meaning.” During the Q and A, an old hippie got up and started talking about Pope Benedict’s recent comments, delivered at St. Peter’s Square, on the 50th anniversary of the council. “The pope started talking about original sin!” the man cried. The crowd in the audience, including a couple of nuns sitting in front of me, erupted in derision and rage. God! Ugh! Oh! Someone else got up and wondered how we are ever going to get beyond this pope and his “Augustinian” interpretation of human nature. Faggioli concluded that the council “cannot be turned back” and that Catholics should continue to consult their consciences and the gospels, not the pope, for guidance. In short, Catholic liberals will continue to be Protestants.