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Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Past the point of no return.

John Allen strikes me as a thoroughly decent man, and a fine, even-handed chronicler of things Catholic, both in America and abroad. He is also a fervent proponent of building a conversation between the factions in the Church in America, and this latest essay is another example of that.

In it, he touts as epochal a speech by Daniel Finn, the outgoing president of the Catholic Theological Society of America. Among other topics, in his speech, Finn lamented the fact that the CTSA had run off its conservative membership and had become a blunt instrument in the hands of progressives in the American Catholic civil war.

My read is that Allen is investing far more hope in this speech than is warranted. First of all, it was given by the outgoing president. It's just as possible the ovation was a send-off for a guy they all liked--gonna miss you, Fr. Finn! More to the point, why did Fr. Finn have to wait until he was going out the door to deliver this? Perhaps because it wouldn't be well-received as a program of action?

More damning to the thesis of hope, why couldn't Allen get the incoming president to say what she thought? He was on the floor, what about a sampling of the membership's reaction? Sounds like it's more hypothetical than real hope at this point.

Still, the speech as reported is, indeed, somewhat cheering. If nothing else it is an honest (and sadly rare) self-diagnosis of a serious problem. And I, too, at one time thought that maybe an official honest hashing out of the differences between self-identified Catholics would be helpful. Alas, no longer.

Allen is right that there's a canyon between the tribes, and the problem is at its root one of trust. But, sadly, he's wrong to think that any amount of discussion and building of "safe spaces" is going to heal the fissure. Only time can do that now.

The fact is, after forty years of conflict and isolation, the tribes have become so divided that they have developed different dialects and attach different meanings to the same words. For example, if I see "Eucharist" without the definite article, or "being church," or like terminology, I either stop reading or recognize that it's going to be a chore to finish the piece in question. By using such insider lingo, the article's trying to take me to Progressiville, and I don't care to go.

There are other badges of division. The most obvious is that both sides gravitate to parishes according to the way Mass is celebrated. Another is that we read different publishers (right down to different study bibles), different academics and go to different schools, admire different thinkers and bishops. In short, we know our opponents by what they are reading, where they went to school and who they admire.

Thus any proposed discussion is already hobbled by a lack of common experiences and common intellectual frameworks. But what kills any such proposal is that there is no common basis for understanding the truth, no mutual recognition of applicable boundaries.

What is the point of such discussion spaces? If it's to feel better about "the other," I dunno--maybe for that limited purpose it would work.

"Well, I guess Richard McBrien/Neuhaus doesn't guzzle embryonic stem cell cocktails/use poor children for skeet shooting after all."

Other than that, what? Feel good about agreeing to disagree? Yeesh. I can't speak for anyone but myself, but I fail to see the point of signing up for a chat-fest with co-religionists who undercut the faith I'm trying to pass on in the name of "being prophetic." Or "exercising academic freedom." Or whatever.

["Prophetic" is another one of those code words that each side of the divide attaches different meanings to. For progressives, "being prophetic" means following the Spirit and challenging injustice. For the orthodox, "being prophetic" is just a hopped-up term describing the act of pissing on the common ecclesial rug.

The one that really tied the room together, man.]

Like it or not, progressives have to face up to the fact that they are preceived on the other side as ecstatic about signing the latest surrender accords with the culture, both in morality and with regard to theology. Bluntly, they want to make the traditionally-profane sacred and the traditionally-sacred optional--where they would permit it to exist at all, that is.

To illustrate the pointlessness of the dialogue proposal, consider the CTSA itself. Some of you may have heard of the Rev. Roger Haight, a theologian now infamous for his claim that belief in an empty tomb is optional for good Catholics, which resulted in him being properly hammered by the Vatican for his stylings.

He's still a member in good standing. In fact, he is a past president.

Kyle voice: "Really?"

Yep, really--he's a member. And the guild's reaction to the Notification was to circle ranks and bare its fangs at the Vatican for its temerity in putting the kibosh on the Catholic Press Association's 2000 Theological Book of the Year.

And this is supposed to be the forum for rapprochement? Those who believe in the bodily resurrection of Christ are going to link arms with the "Cameron just might have found his corpse after all" wing? Doesn't sound particularly promising to me. "No boundaries" might be a catchy sales slogan, but it's not a project that the orthodox tribe will want to invest a lot of their time in. Nor does "anything [PC] goes" inspire confidence in the durability of any understandings reached.

Who knows where the Spirit™ will lead next week?

It's something of a shame, because Lord knows that the orthodox need regular reality checks and criticism of our numerous flaws (the ever-popular circular firing squad, intolerance for the messiness of life, and too quick a recourse to iron fist, to name but three). And perhaps, yes, occasionally, prodded to think outside the box.

But we won't take that prompting from self-identified Catholics who, when all is said and done, don't think the empty tomb is all that important.

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