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Church, Interrupted:
Havoc & Hope: The Tender Revolt of Pope Francis

by john cornwell
chronicle prism, 304 pages, $27.95

The Truth at the Heart of the Lie:
How the Catholic Church Lost Its Soul

by james carroll
random house, 384 pages, $28.99

Is this liberal Catholicism’s big moment? In the Oval Office, a pro-abortion president sits with a photograph of the Holy Father displayed proudly over his left shoulder. In Germany, Europe’s most powerful bishops’ conference ­presses ahead with its “synodal path,” reassessing doctrine on questions from sexual ethics to the nature of Church authority. Liberal Catholic journals like Commonweal and the ­National Catholic Reporter have a certain swagger about them these days; the Catholic bestseller of 2021 is likely to be Learning to Pray by Fr. James Martin, a bête noire of conservative believers for his determined ­ambiguity as to Church teaching. Catholic schools are appointing diversity consultants, Catholic colleges are announcing their fealty to socially liberal causes. Celebrities from Lady Gaga to ­Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez don’t hesitate to mix progressive ­politics with references to their Catholic upbringing.

Conservative Catholics used to assume that the liberal Catholic brand was a product of the 1960s and would soon be as dated as Woodstock. In a secular society—so the thinking went—if you’re going to be Catholic, you might as well go all in. That was partly right: In many parishes and seminaries, it is older Catholics who tut and shake their heads at the rigid conservatism of the younger generation. But there is still a considerable appetite, among all generations, for a version of Catholicism that retains much of the Catechism while ­watering down (or dissolving entirely) the more countercultural aspects of the faith.

Although the exact nature of Pope Francis’s views can be and has been debated ad nauseam, his pontificate has been viewed by most liberal Catholics as a decisive change for the better. “The Church can never be the same again,” writes the British journalist John Cornwell in his new book about the Francis papacy, Church, Interrupted. “He has restored hope in the Church and in the world.” The Guardian recently argued that Francis’s relationship with Joe Biden “could constitute an important new axis of liberal influence in the West.”

These great expectations, however, conceal a basic question, which liberal Catholicism has always struggled to answer. Namely: What is it? Examining the answers given, or implied, by churchmen, politicians, historians, propagandists, and journalists can produce a feeling of unreality, a sense that—to quote Gertrude Stein—there’s no “there” there. The harder you try to define it, the more elusive it seems.

Since the mid-nineteenth century, “liberal Catholic” has been an ambiguous term. In one sense, it referred to those Catholic intellectuals who disliked the Vatican’s aggressive ­defiance of the modern world. During the pontificate of Pius IX, Catholicism was faced with grave challenges: the rise of democracy, which threatened the political power of the pope and bishops; new findings in history and ­science, which raised questions about the credibility of the Bible and the Church; and a culture of individualism, in which the Catholic claim to possess an authoritative, universal truth seemed overbearing and harsh. To all these difficulties, the Vatican and its partisans responded with unyielding contempt. The more the world asked, in effect, “You can’t ­really believe all this stuff, surely?” the more Rome proclaimed, “Oh yes we do!” Papal infallibility and the inerrancy of Scripture were put on an even firmer doctrinal basis; “progress” and “modern civilization,” in the words of Pope Pius’s “Syllabus of Errors,” were denounced ever more magnificently; theologians who wanted to discuss complex questions lived in fear of being condemned by the hierarchy.

In its innocent meaning, the “liberal” wing merely consisted of those who felt this strategy was counterproductive. St. John Henry ­Newman, for instance, publicly adopted a more nuanced approach and privately criticized Pius’s intransigent policy. The challenges to Catholic belief were serious ones, Newman thought, and the leaders of the extreme pro-Vatican party were “blind to the intellectual difficulties of the day. You cannot make men believe by force and repression.” When a friend suggested founding a journal of Catholic history, Newman said it was a fine idea in theory, but amid the narrow-minded atmosphere of the 1860s, “Unless one doctored all one’s facts one would be thought a bad Catholic.” The kind of liberalism associated with Newman meant preferring intellectual honesty to mere defiance of the non-Catholic world.

Yet “liberal” was already acquiring another meaning—referring to those who genuinely wanted to overturn or retreat from Catholicism’s more unpopular beliefs. In that sense Newman loathed liberalism, repeatedly describing it as satanic. When Pius’s successor Leo XIII made ­Newman a cardinal, the new Prince of the Church rejoiced that people could no longer accuse him of “being a half Catholic, a Liberal Catholic.” This double meaning has never quite been resolved—partly because it provides the ideal cover for those who want to undermine Church teaching without setting off alarm bells. A bishop who disbelieves, say, the doctrine of Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist may not want to risk saying so; but he can probably get away with a statement like, “We must consider whether, in the light of modern science, current articulations of Eucharistic doctrine are a bar to effective witness.” Liberal Catholicism exists in that ambiguous space of the Venn diagram where “contradicting Church teaching” meets “seeking a new way to explain Catholic beliefs.”

Sometimes, though, the heavy fog of double-meaning lifts and the real conflicts become clear. The 1960s were one such time. In the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council, large numbers of clergy and laity signed public statements opposing Church teaching on contraception, and Catholic institutions began to witness bold, transgressive experiments. In his new memoir The Truth at the Heart of the Lie, James Carroll recalls his days at seminary, where he learned among other things that St. Paul had not actually converted: “Historical criticism helped us seminarians understand . . . that in Paul’s lifetime, ‘the Church’ had not yet come into existence.”

After ordination, Carroll served as chaplain at Boston University, carrying out a shared ministry with

a radical nun, Sister Gloria Fitzgerald, who joined me at the altar at Mass, doing everything but consecrating the bread and wine. . . . When I was ordered [by the local bishop] to forbid Sister Gloria to stand with me to hand out the consecrated Host, I simply left the plates full of sacred bread on the altar and let communicants come forward to help themselves. Sister Gloria and I stood on either side of the altar in mute resistance.

The expression “sacred bread” hints at how this newly confident liberalism was casting doubt on basic doctrines. In 1970, the Ampleforth Journal, the house publication of a venerable North Yorkshire ­monastery, announced in the perfervid tone of the times that the decade had been “the richest for the Church since St. John died in a.d. 100.” Among other breakthroughs, the Church had supposedly realized “that dogma is ­revisable.”

What wasn’t clear was just how revisable. Even those at liberalism’s radical vanguard weren’t sure where to draw the line. One momentous day, Carroll was away from his chaplaincy duties and Sister Gloria took charge, this time saying the words of consecration by which—when pronounced by an ordained priest—the bread and wine are changed into the Body and Blood of Christ. When Carroll found out, he recalls, he “got really angry. How had she imagined she could do such a thing without consequences?” Both Carroll and Sister Gloria were fired from the chaplaincy; not long after, he left priestly ministry altogether. Yet he now regrets that he didn’t “properly stand with Gloria”—that his principled resistance only went so far.

The basic dilemma was summed up by the liberal Catholic author David Lodge, in a novel that described six characters’ gradual departure from traditional belief and practice. As the book’s wily narrator remarks:

They had to dismantle all that apparatus of superfluous belief and discard it piece by piece. But in matters of belief (as of literary convention) it is a nice question how far you can go in this process without throwing out something vital.

The key issue was where “revision” turned into outright rejection, as Lodge indicated in the title (which also contained a sly reference to how many of these dogmatic issues were below-the-belt ones): How Far Can You Go? It was an awkward question, since at the heart of Catholic life is an attitude of trusting the Church. And if the Church had been completely wrong about a crucial question for century after century—be it the sacraments or the priesthood or salvation—why should it be trusted on anything else?

In some ways, liberal Catholicism was saved from having to confront that question. The music abruptly stopped. St. Paul VI reaffirmed the prohibition of birth control. A new generation of clerics, led by St. John Paul II and Joseph Cardinal ­Ratzinger, labored to shore up the old doctrines. Though the extent of John Paul and Ratzinger’s ruthless inflexibility was greatly exaggerated, they did ensure that, if you were a schoolteacher passing on the belief that Jesus Christ was the only way to salvation, or a parish priest following Catholic doctrine on Communion and divorce, you could feel that Rome had your back.

Meanwhile, liberal theologians learned to frame their remarks carefully. The academic James Keenan, S.J., recalled some advice from his older friend and fellow-Jesuit Fr. ­Josef Fuchs:

He remarked often that though he never said something he didn’t believe, he didn’t always say everything that he did believe. He told me that whenever I wrote, I should learn to let readers come to the evident conclusions. Learn to use a question mark at the end of your work and be less emphatic with the period, he would advise me, so as to avoid investigations by Rome.

Ambiguity, then, became even more essential to liberal Catholicism. How Far Can You Go? Just so far as to imply what you mean—but not so far that you might have to confront the full implications, or deal with letters from the Vatican about what you were teaching your students.

One refreshing aspect of James Carroll’s book is its honesty about how far he wants to go. Carroll doesn’t bother pretending, for instance, that Communion for the sexually active divorced-and-remarried would be a minor pastoral tweak. Doctrinal conservatives who fear that such a reform would “pave the way . . . to a host of other changes regarding matters of sexuality, gender, and indeed the entire Catholic worldview,” Carroll says, “are right.”

For Carroll, the entire Catholic worldview needs an overhaul, and his manifesto is an interesting example of what happens when a liberal Catholic simply takes the brakes off. ­Carroll dispenses with the priesthood (“a male supremacist institution”), the sacrament of Confession (“completely unrelated to anything Jesus was first believed to have said or done”), vast portions of the Catholic theological tradition (“­Augustine and Anselm together gave to us a doom-­threatening monster God”), “miracles” and the “soul” (the scare-quotes are ­Carroll’s), and pretty much everything else. Carroll is a gifted writer, and his portrait of 1950s clericalism and “idolatry of the priest” makes some telling points about the abuse crisis. But the book is light on actual argument. For ­instance, despite pouring much scorn on the Church’s “incoherent” sexual teaching, it never occurs to Carroll to engage with Elizabeth Anscombe, Dorothy Day, Dietrich von Hildebrand, or any other defender of that teaching.

But Carroll is seeking not so much to persuade as to inspire. He urges a mass movement of pickets, sit-ins, and social media campaigns (“Why not something like #ChurchResist?”) to bring about a simpler Catholic future. What will be left is “global solidarity,” a sense of “meaning,” and “the pillars of Catholicism—the Book and the bread, traditional prayers and songs, reflection centered on the wisdom of the saints” (presumably ignoring most of what they actually said), and “an understanding of life as a form of discipleship.” I am probably not the target audience for this, but it all feels a little too 1960s to work. Indeed, in many ways it has already been tried, in parishes, religious communities, and schools over the last half-century, with limited success.

John Cornwell’s version of liberal Catholicism seems more likely to catch on. And perhaps it already has: In the popularity of Pope ­Francis, Cornwell glimpses a bright future. Sometimes he overestimates the revolutionary nature of the ­Francis pontificate, as when he enthuses about one recent papal exhortation: “­Unlike his predecessors, [Francis] proceeds to call on all Christians to get involved in concrete and practical responses to economic injustices”—a slur on ­previous popes easily disproved by a reading of any social encyclical since Leo XIII. But the real essence of ­Francis’s revolutionary genius, for Cornwell, is his “capacity to hold ­opposites in tension,” his “Jesuit adoption of multiple, even contradictory ecclesial masks.” Amoris Laetitia, the pope’s most contested document, “was written so as to lead to potentially opposite conclusions simultaneously.” What is the Catholic approach to divorce, r­emarriage, and Communion? For Francis, “There was no answer.” That was the answer.

Cornwell’s analysis could have been applied to many other areas. The pope has promoted outspoken supporters of women priests, then pointedly declined to implement their proposals. He has warned mafiosi they will go to hell but refused to correct hundreds of news reports claiming he has privately denied that any such place exists. He has placed great emphasis on a public statement declaring that non-Christian religions are “willed by God,” while occasionally suggesting that he didn’t really mean it. There are few areas of Church doctrine on which the pope has not expressed similar contradictions. It is, perhaps, the most ­ingenious response yet given to the liberal Catholic dilemma. How Far Can You Go? As far as you want, and at the same time nowhere at all.

For Cornwell, Francis has ­intuited that “being Catholic essentially means keeping contradictions and opposites in tension.” The next generation, Cornwell suggests, is not too interested in resolving such things: “Young Catholic Christians are less inspired and affiliated by ideas and by doctrinal definitions than they are by prayer, the Mass, and engagement with the world, its joys and sorrows, as it is.”

There’s at least a half-truth there. But ideas and doctrinal definitions have a way of coming in useful. Should I move in with my girlfriend? If I skipped Mass last Sunday, do I need to get to Confession as soon as possible? Would it be wrong for me to pray fervently for my Muslim friend’s conversion? Such questions cannot be wished away with ­ambiguities. In the end, a liberal Catholicism that refuses to follow its own logic looks a lot like an elaborate exercise in changing the subject.

It also represents a real decline. The radicalism of the sixties, which echoes through James Carroll’s impassioned manifesto, at least had the virtues of a youthful revolutionary movement: boldness, ambition, a sense of adventure, a place for heroes (dashing theologians like the late Hans Küng) and martyrs (poor Sister Gloria). Today’s version is, by comparison, a pretty staid affair. The post–Vatican II generation of liberal Catholics wanted to make all things new. Their successors just want to make all things sufficiently vague that nobody gets scared off.

Perhaps it sounds paradoxical to speak of liberal Catholicism’s decline when I started this review by listing its recent triumphs. But there is a precedent. Back in the fourth century, a movement arose that undermined, and threatened to transform, Church teaching. It did so not by a head-on attack, but with clever ambiguities that seemed orthodox while subtly casting doubt on core doctrines. In this way it gained supporters among critics of those doctrines, but also among the ambivalent, the timid, the well-meaning, and the confused. The movement’s greatest opponent, St. Athanasius, thundered against its deliberate vagueness: “There is no middle path, and they know this well; but in their craft, I say, they conceal it.” Yet he had to watch as the movement gained victory after victory, winning bishops and statesmen to its side, even persuading the pope to excommunicate Athanasius himself.

Ambiguity gave Arianism its strength; but it was also a fatal weakness, because behind the clever ­phrases there was nothing solid—and when the collapse came, it was sudden. The movement split into factions and orthodoxy reasserted itself. For St. John Henry Newman, this abrupt disintegration bore out a law of ecclesiastical history. “The domination of heresy,” he wrote, “however prolonged, is but one stage in its existence; it ever hastens to an end, and that end is the triumph of the Truth.” When reflecting on this theme, as he often did, Newman sometimes liked to quote Psalm 37: “I myself have seen the ungodly in great power, and flourishing like a green bay tree; I went by, and lo, he was gone; I sought him, but his place could nowhere be found.” 

Dan Hitchens writes from London.