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Progressive Catholic authoritarianism: An enduring problem

July 17, 2015
George Weigel

Back in the day (the late 1960s or thereabouts), Father Andrew Greeley – the model of an old-fashioned liberal Catholic – accused Father Daniel Berrigan (the beau ideal of postconciliar Catholic radicalism) of harboring an authoritarian streak in his politics. By which Greeley meant that, were Berrigan and his radical friends to achieve power, their aggressive sense of moral superiority would lead them to put Greeley and his liberal friends in jail. It was classic Greeley hyperbole, but like some of Andy’s polemics, there was a grain of truth in it.

The ‘60s Catholic radicalism that shaped what is now self-styled “progressive” Catholicism did have a pronounced authoritarian streak in it, despite its disdain for traditional forms of authority (including church authority). So as old-fashioned Catholic liberalism morphed into today’s “progressive” Catholicism, forms of authoritarian bullying, shaming, and exclusion that would have appalled 1950s Catholic liberals – who knew what it meant to be stung by the lash of conservative clerical authoritarianism – made their way into the kitbag of contemporary progressive Catholicism. There they remain, an offense against the openness, tolerance and commitment to “dialogue” for which progressive Catholicism habitually pats itself on the back.

The most obvious example of this involves Catholic higher education in the United States. The anti-modernist denunciations of the early 20th-century “Sodalitium Pianum” damaged reputations and destroyed careers in an attempt to enforce a narrow form of Catholic intellectual life; so did the below-the-belt machinations that followed the 1950 encyclical “Humani Generis.” Both of these episodes are now widely and rightly acknowledged as disgraceful violations of evangelical freedom. But hasn’t something similar been happening on Catholic campuses in recent decades, now that progressive Catholics (who claim to have learned the lessons of 20th-century ecclesial authoritarianism) have the whip hand?

For example: It is widely known that it would be impossible for a young scholar, no matter how talented, to get a tenure-track position in the theology department of certain prestigious Catholic universities, if he or she had, during the course of their doctoral work, or in their early teaching and publishing, promoted “Humanae Vitae” as both true and prophetic. Or had defended John Paul II’s declaration in “Ordinatio Sacerdotalis” that the church has no authority to admit women to the ministerial priesthood. Or had written in support of the catechism’s teaching that homosexual inclinations are a sign of spiritual disturbance. Or had signed any of the recent declarations in defense of marriage classically understood.

Precisely the kind of academic closed shop that old-fashioned liberals deplored after “Humani Generis” is now being unblushingly enforced by progressive Catholics at Fordham, Boston College, Georgetown, Seattle University and on many other campuses – and, as in the past, Catholic intellectual life is being crippled when it isn’t being reduced to incoherence.

Then there is the Catholic blogosphere. Authoritarian bullying and shaming are certainly not a monopoly of progressive Catholic blog-post writers; there are plenty of ignorant, ill-informed, graceless and narrow-minded folk on the other end of the spectrum. But those boys and girls don’t regularly congratulate themselves on their openness and tolerance of diversity. That the progressive Catholic blogosphere does so is almost as bad as its penchant for misrepresentation and calumny.

I’ve cited it before, but it’s so prescient that it’s worth citing again. Thomas Merton, who was no one’s idea of a traditional or conservative Catholic, was nonetheless attacked by the Catholic left of his day for alleged offenses against the orthodoxies of radicalism. His response, in one of his charming “nonsense letters” to his friend and fellow-poet, Robert Lax, has a certain prophetic ring to it, read at a distance of 48 years:

“I am truly spry and full of fun but am pursued by the vilifications of progressed Catholics. Mark my word man there is no uglier species on the face of the earth than progressed Catholics, mean, frivol, ungainly, inarticulate, venomous and bursting at the seams with progress into the secular cities and Teilhardian subways. The Ottavianis was bad but these are infinitely worse. You wait and see.”

Progressive Catholic authoritarianism is, one might say, an enduring problem.

Weigel is a senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Washington, D.C.

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