Religion within the Limits of Liberalism

By Neuhaus, Richard | First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, January 1999 | Go to article overview
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Religion within the Limits of Liberalism


Neuhaus, Richard, First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life


The editors of Commonweal were taken aback by recent assertions by two sociologists, Father Andrew Greeley and Professor Peter Berger. Greeley, writing in Commonweal, says that the significance of Vatican II is that individual Catholics "decided that it was not wrong to be Catholic on their own terms." In the Church today, says Greeley, people who disagree with official positions and want decisions to go in another direction simply "anticipate such decisions and change on their own authority." In "Liberalism and Its Limits," the editors indicate a deep uneasiness about such freelancing.

They also find surprising Berger's essay in the Christian Century ("Protestantism and the Quest for Certainty"), in which he suggests that the future of mainline/oldline Protestantism may be to cater to those who see no alternative to "modern skepticism." Sola fide--"faith alone"--means living with uncertainty, says Berger. This assumes a "contradiction" between belief and knowledge: "If we know something, there is no reason to believe; conversely, if we say that we believe something, we are implying that we don't know." Those who cannot or will not live with uncertainty may seek refuge in biblical fundamentalism or in what some sociologists call "strong churches" such as the Roman Catholic. The oldline Protestant market is among those who are able to "refuse the various offers of certainty." Encouraging oldliners to consider the high promise of premising religious adherence on modern skepticism, Berger points to "the robust growth of Unitarian-Universalist churches in recent years." (Today the Unitarian-Universalist Association counts 214,000 members, up from 176,698 ten years ago.)

The Commonweal editors, seem to accept the Greeley-Berger analysis of "the realities of modern religious practices," but indicate that more is required in order to sustain a church that is recognizably the Catholic Church. Priests and people must be accountable to a bishop who is, in turn, "accountable both to his fellow bishops and to a two-thousand-year tradition.

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