'Simply Catholicism': Please Explain

By Steinfels, Margaret O'Brien | Commonweal, April 10, 1998 | Go to article overview

'Simply Catholicism': Please Explain


Steinfels, Margaret O'Brien, Commonweal


At a recent meeting of the National Center for the Laity in Chicago, Archbishop Francis George presided at a Saturday-evening liturgy. It was a prayerful and impressive Mass at Old Saint Patrick's on West Adams Street. The newly renovated church glowed with its refurbished Celtic borders and symbols - a bit like being inside the Book of Kells. Toward the end of his homily, Archbishop George (whose elevation to cardinal was announced on the following day, January 18) said that liberal Catholicism was exhausted, that conservative Catholicism was sectarian, and that, in any case, there was only one Catholicism.

Well, he said something like that, but darn, I didn't have my tape recorder! I didn't even have pen and paper with me. Some journalist, she. But I did have a chance afterward to ask Archbishop George what he meant, and he started to tell me. Unfortunately, there wasn't enough time; our conversation ended amicably but unsatisfyingly. Subsequently, at my request, he sent a copy of his notes, averring that although "I don't relish getting into a national debate at this time, ... I have to take responsibility for what I said."

This is the quote he sent from his homily:

"We are at a turning point in the life of the church in this country. Liberal Catholicism is an exhausted project. Essentially a critique, even a necessary critique at one point in our history, it is now parasitical on a substance that no longer exists. It has shown itself unable to pass on the faith in its integrity and inadequate, therefore, in fostering the joyful self-surrender called for in Christian marriage, in consecrated life, in ordained priesthood. It no longer gives us life.

"The answer, however, it not to be found in a type of conservative Catholicism obsessed with particular practices and so sectarian in its outlook that it cannot serve as a sign of unity of all peoples in Christ.

"The answer is simply Catholicism, in all its fullness and depth, a faith able to distinguish itself from any culture and yet able to engage and transform them all, a faith joyful in all the gifts Christ wants to give us and open to the whole world he died to save. The Catholic faith shapes a church with a lot of room for differences in pastoral approach, for discussion and debate, for initiatives as various as the peoples whom God loves. But, more profoundly, the faith shapes a church which knows her Lord and knows her own identity, a church able to distinguish between what fits into the tradition that unites her to Christ and what is a false start or a distorting thesis, a church united here and now because she is always one with the church throughout the ages and with the saints in heaven."

Whether or not Cardinal George is inclined to continue the conversation, those three paragraphs warrant the attention of those who sense that the Catholic church in the United States is, indeed, at a turning point. If that is the case, is "simply Catholicism" the trajectory toward which the church is turning? Is liberal Catholicism an exhausted project in toto? If not, what is exhausted and what remains vital?

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