Secularization theology. The death of God. Imperial overstretch. The end of history. The half-life of an intellectual fad is what, now, three months? Will the aforementioned relics of arguments past soon be joined on the antiquities shelves by the idea that we live in “the Catholic Moment”—Richard Neuhaus’ bold ecumenical claim that this is “the moment in which the Roman Catholic Church in the United States assumes its rightful role in the culture-forming task of constructing a religiously informed public philosophy for the American experiment in ordered liberty”?
Media coverage of things religious being what it is in these United States, the fact that it was a Lutheran pastor proclaiming the Catholic Moment (without benefit of theses nailed to the National Conference of Catholic Bishops’ door, alas) helped give the Neuhaus proposition its first fifteen minutes of fame. Still, the proposal may have a lot more staying power than the fads cited above, and for a simple reason: the empirical foundation of the Catholic Moment proposal seems stronger than when it was first announced.
That Americans are, and seem likely to remain, an incorrigibly religious people is now admitted by Norman Lear and his People for the American Way. The notion that religious convictions will have something to do with how Americans think about this republican experiment in ordered liberty is beginning to sink into such previous bastions of unrelieved numbers-crunching as the American Political Science Association. And that there is a “circulation of elites” going on in American religion, with the churches of the great Protestant mainline continuing to fade from their accustomed location at the center of the debate over religion and public life, is now conceded at the very apex of the ecumenical and liberal Protestant pyramid: it was not a disgruntled critic, but the Rev. Arie Brouwer, then general secretary of the National Council of Churches, who admitted some time back that the mainline was, indeed, becoming the oldline, and might soon be the sideline.
In short, the sociological premise of the Catholic Moment proposal—that an opening for leadership existed at the point of intersection between religiously grounded moral conviction and public argument over the nature and course of the American experiment—seems as firmly established as these things get.
Whether Catholicism in America will seize its “moment” is another matter.
It can’t be said that the proposal has exactly swept the field among American Catholic opinion-makers. Among the periodicals, the idea of a Catholic Moment has virtually disappeared from America, Commonweal, and the National Catholic Reporter, in each case after initially deprecatory reviews. Nor is this disinclination to press the argument forward driven ideologically from the port side: over to starboard, Neuhaus’ analysis has been found distasteful by Communio, The Wanderer, and 30 Days. Nor, at the higher altitudes of American Catholic intellectual and institutional officialdom, can it be said that the proposition has seized the imaginations of theologians and bishops. The former have been indifferent-to-hostile, in the main; and the latter are, well, cf. Luke 10:38 (Mary and Martha) for a poignant reflection on the ancient problem of busyness.
Nor does it seem likely that Rome will be prodding the Church in the United States into taking seriously the notion that this may be its “moment” in shaping an ecumenically vibrant religious debate over American public life. The Pope and Cardinal Ratzinger might find the proposal (and the role they play in Neuhaus’ analysis of the moment) intriguing, but in Vatican venues the classic Continental biases about Catholic social thought have been further reinforced by the presence in the Curia of some Latin Americans whose affection for the United States is not exactly over-developed.
In short, and precisely in the place where one might have expected the proclamation of a Catholic Moment to be most welcome—in the Catholic Church in the United States—it has been, if not a bust, then something less than a grand triumph.
Does that mean that the Catholic Moment proposal will fail? Not really. It does mean that the odds on its success have lengthened. But just as there was no reason to think the Catholic Moment would be automatically seized in some foreordained fashion, there is no reason to think that it is doomed to failure. In fact, there are some reasons to think that the proposal may enjoy a second springtime, if you will.
The sociological reason for that modest optimism has been sketched above: there is a circulation of elites in religion-and-public-life circles in America, the mainline has become the oldline, and some institution or cluster of institutions will fill the space left by the mainline/oldline’s abdication of its historical role as chief culture-former. On the numbers, the Catholics still look like the best bet, particularly if their religious and intellectual leadership can shake itself out of the exhaustion that seems to have set in after a generation of cantankerousness in the wake of the Second Vatican Council.
But there is also a theological “circulation” in progress these days that may press the Catholic Moment forward in a thoroughly ecumenical direction. The fault line in contemporary American theology is not denominational but methodological and attitudinal: between those who still define the theological enterprise in terms of the deconstruction of the Christian classics (the “Catholic” heritage, if you will, the heritage of the first seven ecumenical councils), and those who wish to go beyond modernism into a post-modern reconstruction of creedal Christianity for a world capable of a second naivete.
It is the latter—the post-modernists—who seem on the frontiers of debate in questions of biblical hermeneutics, dogmatic and systematic theology, and religious ethics today. The deconstructionists, and particularly those feminist theologians who have made explicit their contempt for classic Christianity, are yesterday’s news. The new news, in the 1990s, is the “new Catholics”: those ecumenical theologians who seek to reclaim the heritage of the early Catholic consensus, not in a romantic return to the status quo ante Schleiermacher, but in a creative extension of the classic tradition for a post-modern world.
The Catholic Church may or may not become a significant institutional force in shaping, and carrying, this dynamic element in American religious thought—which will have a profound impact on the narrower issue of religion and “public life.” One hopes, even expects, that it will. But the Catholic Moment has gone beyond “the Catholics,” denominationally defined: which is, one suspects, not entirely incongruent with what its author had in mind in the first place.
George Weigel is president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. He is the author of Catholicism and the Renewal of American Democracy.