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 Vatican's birth-control ban, its rejection of female priests and insistence on celibacy, and its authoritarianism.
Rome pushed back, and the ensuing struggle defined a movement, whose icons included peace activist Fr. Daniel Berrigan, feminist Sister Joan Chittister, and sociologist/author Fr. Andrew Greeley. Its perspectives were covered in The National Catholic Reporter, Commonweal and America. Martin Sheen held down Hollywood, and the movement even boasted its own cheesy singing act: the St. Louis Jesuits. The reformers' premier membership organization was Call to Action, but their influence was felt at the highest reaches of the American Church, as sympathetic American bishops passed left-leaning statements on nuclear weapons and economic justice. Remarks Tilley, "For a couple of generations, progressivism was an [important] way to be Catholic."
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 American Church, diminishing the distinctiveness of the progressives. More importantly, they failed to transform the main body of the Church: John Paul II, a charismatic conservative, enjoyed the third-longest papacy in church history, and refused to budge on the left's demands; instead, he eventually swept away liberal bishops. The heads at Call to Action grayed, and by the late 1990s, Vatican II progressivism began to look like a self-limited Boomer moment.
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 Georgetown University's Woodstock Theological Center whom Benedict famously removed from his previous job as editor of America, "Reform movements need an enemy to organize against. As most bishops have gotten their acts together on sex abuse, they have looked less like the enemy and more like part of the solution. Enthusiasm for reform declined. With the Pope's forthright response, it will decline even more."
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 Culture Center, "I think there is continuity in terms of the issues and the questions about whether Church structures can be altered." He notes that a social justice group, Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, formed just three years ago.
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 U.S. majority by 2020, don't see this as their battle. "I'm sure they're happy that the celebration of the Eucharist is in the vernacular," says Tilley, "but they don't have significant issues connected to Vatican II."
And so, unless Benedict contradicts in Rome what he said in New York, the Church may have reached a tipping point. This is not to say that the (overhyped) young Catholic Right will swing into lay dominance. Nor will liberal single-issue groups simply evaporate. But if they cohere again, it will be around different defining issues. "It's a new ball game," admits Steinfels. As Tilley wrote recently in Commonweal regarding his fellow theologians, "A new generation has neither the baggage nor the ballast of mine. Theirs is the future. Let's hope they remember the Council as the most important event in twentieth-century Catholicism."