Ideological labels for the church are notoriously ill-fitting, but if we're going to use them, I prefer the European taxonomy of "left, center-left, center-right, and right" to the American convention of "liberals, moderates and conservatives." In my experience, most self-described moderates actually lean one way or the other, but their defining trait is a preference for consensus.The venue being National Catholic Reporter, I wasn't really surprised that the comments tended towards anti-hierarchy vitriol and denunciations of Allan's column.
Applying the European frame to American Catholicism these days, you have to feel a little sorry for the center-left, meaning Catholics whose instincts run to the liberal side but who still believe in working within the system.
Looking around, everyone else seems to know what to do. The right is egging the bishops on in fights over religious freedom, while the left is howling over the latest perceived outrage -- above all, a Vatican-mandated overhaul of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which is meeting this week in St. Louis. Center-right Catholics generally can find something appetizing on the official smorgasbord, such as the "new evangelization."
The center-left, however, sometimes seems adrift.
You can find these folks working in chanceries, ministering in parishes and teaching in Catholic schools, not to mention making up a good chunk of the rank-and-file. They don't like some of what they're seeing from Rome and the U.S. bishops, but they don't want to end up in opposition either. It's not always clear to them what the third option might be.
Here's one possibility, and it will be interesting to see if it gains traction in that crowd: The quest for confidence-building measures with the bishops one might describe as "surprising support."
By that, I mean areas where the resources and concerns of the center-left intersect with the emerging priorities of the bishops in surprising ways and thus have the potential to recalibrate perceptions on both sides of the relationship.
In addition to an ecclesiology of communion, "thinking with the church," or whatever spiritual motive one might advance, offering surprising support is also smart tactics. It means opening channels of conversation before a crisis erupts, and it would give the center-left more leverage to push back against trajectories they don't like. As a rule of thumb, it's generally easier to manage disagreements among friends than strangers.
What did surprise me a bit was when I got the dotCommonweal newsletter in my inbox today (why they put me their email list I really have no idea -- I've certainly never been a Commonweal subscriber) and found that J. Peter Nixon had written a response piece which took a significantly more discouraged view than Allen's:
Allen seems to be suggesting that, once-upon-a-time, conservatives were able to expand their influence among the bishops by “building relationships.” This is, to put it mildly, a curious reading of history. I think a more accurate assessment would be that conservatives expanded their influence by openly opposing “center-left” bishops where they could, going around those bishops to Rome where they could not, and doing everything they could to ensure that future bishops would be “center-right” if not simply “right.”For twenty years, at least, I've heard fellow "conservative" Catholics argue (with varying degrees of charity) that "liberal Catholicism" is dying out. This is, however, perhaps the first time that I've heard someone who considers himself a liberal Catholic do the same, and in Commonweal of all places.
My point in recounting this history is less to criticize the center-right than to correct Allen’s misreading of recent ecclesiastical history. The uncomfortable truth is that no-holds-barred theological conflict is a recurrent feature of church history. 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.
In the 1980s, center-left bishops had to listen to the center-right because they had the ear of Rome. The center-left has the ear of no one. They have nothing that the bishops really need and probably nothing that the bishops want. They have no leverage.
Allen suggests that “center left” probably describes the majority of American Catholics and perhaps a super-majority of those working in Catholic institutions, such as chancery offices, Catholic Charities, etc. This is true, but it is changing. We have had a fair amount of episcopal turnover in California in the last few years, and the trend is unmistakable. Older, largely “center-left” staff are retiring or leaving and being replaced by younger, more self-consciously “orthodox” Catholics.
UPDATE: FWIW, I think one issue with both of these articles that they conflate political conservatism with theological/liturgical orthodoxy/orthopraxy. In part due to the religious consumerism Nixon notes, and in part due to the simple unsustainability of belonging to a Church such as the Catholic Church while insisting that it isn't really what it claims to be, it seems to me that "liberal Catholicism" in the theological and liturgical sense is probably doomed to wither away in just the way that we have lately seen. This does not, however, necessarily mean that all Catholics will be "conservative" in political or cultural sense.