Progressive Catholicism: you’re kidding, right? Catholics have made clear what they stand for, and it would be a big stretch to call their stands progressive in just about any area you can name.
Opposition to women’s ordination (and women’s rights); opposition to same-sex marriage (and gay rights); support for the Republican party in the U.S. and right-leaning political movements all across the globe; opposition to liberation theology and its preaching of a preferential option for the poor: the Catholic church has made clear where it stands.
And the place where the church stands is definitely not progressive.
So why do we, a group of catholic-minded bloggers announce with confidence that we think it’s worthwhile to explore the progressive side of Catholicism/catholicism, at this period of such strong, entrenched reaction (at the very center of the Catholic church) to progressive movements around the world?
We do so for a variety of reasons. In the first place, though the last two papacies, the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, have made concerted efforts in key respects to “restore” the church to its Tridentine forms, we remain confident that the Spirit-led movement that resulted in the Second Vatican Council has deeply affected Catholics worldwide, altering their perception of what it means to be Catholic. We remain confident that the Spirit-led movement that resulted in Vatican II will continue to affect Catholics worldwide, despite attempts from the center to deny what the Council meant and did.
In much of the Western world, polls of Catholics for some years now have indicated a growing gap between the mentality dictated from the center, and what Catholics actually believe and do. Though Pope Paul VI rejected the advice of the theological commission he drew together to advise him about artificial contraception, and though he refused to acknowledge the many sound reasons that the Catholic church should revise its position on contraception, the vast majority of Catholics in the West have long ago rejected Rome’s teaching about contraception. And about sexual ethics in general, insofar as sexual teachings are based in the narrow biologistic natural-law theory that now dominates the Catholic outlook.
Catholics in the Western world have been significantly affected by the strong human rights teachings that gained prominence in the church following Vatican II, and on the basis of those teachings, Catholics of the West reject discrimination against LGBT people as decisively as they reject social and economic policies that serve the rich at the expense of the poor. For many Catholics, the social teaching of the church is a seamless garment. Remove one thread, and the entire garment unravels.
For this reason, many Catholics today have made up their minds about women’s ordination and gay rights, and are comfortable disagreeing with Rome about these issues—precisely because they value what the church has taught them about social justice and human rights more than they value the example the church gives by its choice (from the center) to engage in selective discrimination.
The progressive tradition is now deeply entrenched in the Catholic church following Vatican II—in the thought and practice of lay believers—and it will not be eradicated by decrees from the center intent on turning back the clock. The stress of Vatican II on the entire church as the locus of the Spirit’s action—Vatican II’s correction of the top-down, hierarchical ecclesiology of Trent and Vatican I, which subordinated the laity to the clergy—also reinforces the tendency of Catholics today to think for themselves, to make decisions about matters of faith and morals independent of clerical dictates.
The clock won’t run backwards for many Catholics, no matter what Rome says.
To understand why this is the case, it’s important to look at the fundamental significance of the Second Vatican Council, and how that council reoriented the Catholic church. Though critics of Vatican II and those who want to “restore” the pre-Vatican II church often depict this council as a radical assault on “traditional” Catholicism, Vatican II was actually a corrective of an out-of-kilter expression of Catholicism that dominated the Catholic church for only a discrete part of its history. Vatican II was a call to the church to return to more ancient, biblical, traditional understandings of church than those that arose in the period of reaction to the Reformation and modernity.
In reaction to the Reformation and then to the rise of the modern world, the Council of Trent and the First Vatican Council developed a cleric-centered, top-down model of church that emphasized the need for submission to centralized authority, for unquestioning obedience to the dictates of that authority, and for a united front to combat the “enemies” of the church. The church of Trent and Vatican I was a church in reaction. It was a fortress church determined to do battle with the world.
The fortress-church ecclesiology of this period of Catholic history overlooked significant aspects of the Catholic tradition, which emphasize that the church is a sacramental sign of God’s salvific action in the world—of God’s salvific action that is much broader than and transcends the boundaries of the church. This ancient patristic and biblical understanding of the church as a sacramental sign of salvation recognizes that God is at work universally and throughout history to call the created world to salvation. The church points to a divine action of salvation that is vastly wider than the church itself.
In retrieving this traditional notion of the church as the sacrament of salvation in the world, Vatican II also incorporated the significant work of biblical scholars who note that Jesus proclaimed the reign of God. Jesus did not, strictly speaking, found a church. He announced that in his life and ministry, the reign of God was breaking into the world.
The church exists to serve the reign of God—to serve God’s salvific activity in the world, which transcends the church itself. The Spirit is active in the world in ways that eclipse the inwardly-focused viewpoint of the fortress model of church promoted by Trent and Vatican II.
The obligation of the church is to read the signs of the times, to listen for the Spirit’s voice wherever the Spirit is speaking in the world today—even when the Spirit speaks outside the boundaries of the church. The obligation of the church is to respond to the Spirit’s movement wherever that movement occurs in the world.
This understanding of church, formulated by the documents of Vatican II, breaks down the barriers between church and world that had been so carefully built in the period of reaction from Trent to Vatican I. The ecclesiology of Vatican II recognizes that, in collaborating with secular movements on behalf of justice, or in making common cause with believers in other religious traditions seeking to build a more humane world, Catholics act in accord with the Spirit.
Vatican II also significantly corrected the top-down, clericalist ecclesiology of Trent and Vatican I, which made the church synonymous with its ordained members and ignored the significance of the laity in the church, except insofar as the laity obeyed and provided the material wealth necessary to sustain the church. Here, too, Vatican II retrieved a venerable biblical and patristic symbol of the church—the church as the people of God—which had been lost sight of with the fortress model of church and its stress on the hierarchy as the essential element of the church.
All of the steps I have sketched very quickly here (and I recommend that readers supplement this quick sketch with more careful study of Vatican II and its documents) have opened the door for the flourishing of progressive movements in Catholicism. In recent years, those who want to return to pre-Vatican II models of church have done everything possible to check those progressive movements, both in the inner life of the church and in political movements in which Catholics are involved.
Because we continue to believe in the significance of Vatican II for the church, and because we continue to discern the activity of the Spirit in various progressive movements both within and beyond the boundaries of the Catholic church, we have created this dialogue space, the Open Tabernacle, to foster conversation among progressive Catholics and those interested in the progressive Catholic conversation.
Including progressive catholics. We want to stress very strongly that, though most of those collaborating to create the Open Tabernacle conversation space are Catholics, we invite and welcome anyone interested in conversation about political and religious issues, with a progressive bent. Our goal is to create a conversation space that is catholic, rather than Catholic.
And so here comes everybody . . . .