During the Long Lent of 2002, Sister Betsy Conway, who lived in the Bostonian epicenter of the clerical sexual abuse crisis, spoke for many self-identified progressive Catholics when she told syndicated columnist Michael Kelly, “This is our Church, all of us, and we need to take it back.” Mr. Kelly, a thoughtful liberal columnist who died tragically in Iraq a year later, agreed. But they were both mistaken.
The Church is not “ours”; the Church is Christ’s. As I wrote at the time, the Church “was not created by us, or by our Christian ancestors, or by the donors to the diocesan annual fund—a point the Lord made abundantly clear himself in the gospels: ‘You did not choose me, but I chose you’” [John 15:16]. As a friend put it, “the Church is not ours to take back because it never belonged to us, and the instant we make it ‘our own’ we are damned. No merely human institution, no matter how perfectly pure and gutsy and dutiful to its members, can take away even a venial sin. That’s the point St. Paul takes sixteen chapters to get across to the Romans.”
In a fine example of the maxim that what goes around comes around, this familiar progressive trope of a Church that “we” must “take back” has now migrated to the opposite extreme of the ecclesiastical spectrum, as exemplified in a Remnant TV video, “Catholics Rising,” announcing a “Catholic Identity Conference” to be held in late October in Pittsburgh. The call-to-arms is identical to that which the Catholic left was broadcasting in 2002: “Many Catholics have had enough. They want their Church back. . . . Join us and let’s take our Church back.”
The strange symmetry at the opposite poles of the twenty-first-century Church is neatly demonstrated by the messaging tactics of this brief video. The woolier parts of today’s Catholic left insist, in a false and exaggerated way, that the reform of the liturgy has been hijacked by reactionaries; the Remnant TV video, in a similarly false and exaggerated way, suggests that sacrilegious, goofball liturgy is the norm wherever the Novus Ordo Mass is celebrated. The Catholic left is nostalgic for the days when Catholic Lite ruled the roost, and somehow imagines that the 1970s can be recreated; those who made the Remnant TV video manifest a deep nostalgia for the Catholic 1950s, which they, too, seem to imagine can be recreated, and not just in bunkers and catacombs. The Catholic left has long indulged in the conspiracy-theorizing encoded in secular progressivism’s DNA; the unstated but unmistakable subtheme of “Catholics Rising” is that malign and clandestine conspirators have hijacked “our Church.”
Moreover, both polar extremes in the Church today seem locked into the same meta-narrative of Catholicism and modernity, in which the paramount question is, “How much should the Church concede to modern culture?” The farther reaches of the Catholic left are willing to surrender a lot, to the point where Catholicism fades into the dull incoherence of liberal Protestantism; the farther reaches of the Catholic right aren’t willing to surrender an inch. Neither side seems much interested in the real question, which is, “How does the Church convert the modern world and the post-modern world—like it converted the world of classical antiquity, similarly beset by the collapse of ancient truths and venerable institutions?”
The Pittsburgh “Catholic Identity Conference” promises that “two bishops and priests from every major traditionalist fraternity in the world” will address the question, “Where do we go from here?” Were I asked (which I won’t be), I’d suggest that “where we go from here” is back to the fifteenth chapter of John’s gospel and Paul’s letter to the Romans. No authentic renewal of Catholic life, and no effective response to the untruths that bedevil Catholicism today, will begin from the premise that “this is our Church and we must take it back.” It is Christ’s Church, and if any of us proceeds from any other premise, we are part of the problem, not the solution.
I hope someone among those “two bishops and priests from every major traditionalist fraternity in the world” makes that point in Pittsburgh—and then links it to the imperative of missionary discipleship in the Church of the New Evangelization.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington, D.C.’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.
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