It’s been a bad three and a half decades for self-styled “progressive” Catholics.
First, there was John Paul II, whom many in that camp habitually labeled a charismatic reactionary. Yet the Polish pope was a hero all over the world during an epic pontificate that bent history’s arc in a more humane direction, and did so without the aid of liberation theology. John Paul’s funeral Mass on April 8, 2005, became, in the apt phrase of NBC anchor Brian Williams, “the human event of a generation,” a moniker unlikely to be attached to the obsequies of, say, Hans Küng, John Paul’s most embittered progressive critic.
Then came the election of the progressives’ bête noire, Joseph Ratzinger, as Pope Benedict XVI: a horror that a prominent progressive, Notre Dame’s Fr. Richard McBrien, declared electorally impossible a mere 24 hours before it happened. Catholic progressives hunkered down for what they hoped would be a brief Ratzingerian interregnum. But Benedict XVI has proven an energetic pope whose pontificate has been in dynamic continuity with that of his predecessor, an astute analyst of the cultural crisis of the West, and a man determined to strengthen Catholic identity as the sine qua non of Catholic reform.
Thus the Wojtyla-Ratzinger years have put paid to the notion, beloved of Catholic progressives, that Catholicism began anew — ex nihilo, as it were — at the Second Vatican Council. Committed to the hoary “liberal/conservative” hermeneutic of the Council’s history, Catholic progressives hold that Vatican II represented a dramatic rupture with the past. The great teaching pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, however, have proposed a far more plausible interpretation of the Council as one in dynamic continuity with the great tradition of Christian orthodoxy. That interpretation, in turn, is shaping an entire new generation of Catholic intellectuals who are far more interested in exploring the complex riches of that tradition than in deconstructing it. Unlike the aging progressives, who have shown themselves rather infertile intellectually and who survive in large part because of that most conservative of institutions, the tenure system, many younger Catholic scholars are fully committed to putting theology at the service of the “New Evangelization” for which John Paul II and Benedict XVI have insistently called.
In the United States, the progressives have also been steadily losing their grip at the national, diocesan, and local-parish levels. Various lay-renewal movements have become vital and self-consciously orthodox factors in Catholic life, and a new generation of priests and bishops, many of whom look explicitly to John Paul II as their model of ecclesiastical leadership, have come to the fore. For the past half-decade or more, the Catholic bishops of the United States, following the pope’s lead, have increasingly stressed the importance of Catholic identity, by which they understand fidelity to Catholic teaching, in confronting an increasingly hostile cultural and legal/political environment. That problem has been considerably exacerbated by the Obama administration, which many Catholic progressives welcomed with loud hosannas, and for whose regulatory assault on Catholic health-care and social-service agencies progressives have provided cover, often by implausible appeals to Catholic social doctrine.