He may not have been thinking about it at the time, but Pope Benedict, in the course of his recent U.S. visit may have dealt a knockout blow to the liberal American Catholicism that has challenged Rome since the early 1960s. He did so by speaking frankly and forcefully of his "deep shame" during his meeting with victims of the Church's sex-abuse scandal.
By demonstrating that he "gets" this most visceral of issues, the pontiff may have successfully mollified a good many alienated believers — and in the process, neutralized the last great rallying point for what was once a feisty and optimistic style of progressivism.
The liberal rebellion in American Catholicism has dogged Benedict and his predecessors since the Second Vatican Council of 1962-65. "Vatican II," which overhauled much of Catholic teaching and ritual, had a revolutionary impact on the Church as a whole. It enabled people to hear the Mass in their own languages; embraced the principle of religious freedom; rejected anti-Semitism; and permitted Catholic scholars to grapple with modernity.
But Vatican II meant even more to a generation of devout but restless young people in the U.S. Rather than a course correction, Terrence Tilley, now head of the Fordham University's theology department, wrote recently, his generation perceived "an interruption of history, a divine typhoon that left only the keel and structure of the church unchanged." They discerned in the Council a call to greater church democracy, and an assertion of individual conscience that could stand up to the authority of even the Pope. So, they battled the
Then he adds, "But I think the end of an era is here."
To some extent, liberal Catholicism has been a victim of its own success. Its positions on sex and gender issues have become commonplace in the
Then, the movement received a monstrous reprieve. The priest sex abuse scandal implicated not only the predators, but the superiors who shielded them. John Paul remained mostly silent. A new reform group, Voice of the Faithful, arose; the old anger returned, crystallizing around the battle-cry "They just don't get it."
Benedict's visit, however, changed the dynamic. And that's a problem for progressives. Says Fr. Thomas Reese, a senior fellow at
Not everyone agrees. Says Voice of the Faithful spokesman John Moynihan, "That's funny; I just came from a meeting of COR [Catholic Organizations for Reform], and there were a lot of people very buoyed up. We can now say to people, 'We have made a difference, and if you stick with us we are going to make a further difference'." Adds Peter Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal, now a director of Fordham's Religion and
But the familiar progressives-versus-Vatican paradigm seems almost certain to be undone by a looming demographic tsunami. Almost everyone agrees that the "millennial generation," born in 1980 or later, while sharing liberal views on many issues, has no desire to mount the barricades. Notes Reese, "Younger Catholics don't argue with the bishops; they simply do what they want or shop for another church." And Hispanic Catholics, who may be the
And so, unless Benedict contradicts in