A Warning to Catholic Extremists: From August 31, 1968
The pre-history of Catholic renewal and reform in our time reaches back to mid-19th-century England, turn-of- the-century France and Germany of the 1930’s. But the reform and renewal of which most people speak today is born of the Vatican II situation and of the postconciliar issues. The reformers are today engaged in mopping up operations. While the old establishments survive and intransigent forces hold sway, whoever looks ahead and studies the young priests and religious or the laymen and laywomen who in the next generation will take much of a part in Catholic life finds it hard to believe that reformist forces are beleaguered. If they are not, in fact, beleaguered, present-day concerns should devote themselves less to excoriating the old and more to refining the new.
In that spirit I recently accepted an invitation to utter a Protestant critique of Catholic extremism in renewal. Except for the first point below, no particular Protestant angle emerges. Nor did I find the term "extremism” congenial, for devotees of isms do not converse or listen, and these words are designed to stimulate response and reply. Extremism in renewal is anything but the greatest problem in today's Catholicism. But misdirection has often ended reform movements, and my criticisms are designed to help others ask questions of direction. I see fundamentally five problems of direction.
Renewal as removal.Catholic renewalists engage in overkill when their attempt to reform the Church leads to their removal from it. According to the newer dictionaries, "to overkill”means "to overdestroy.”And people who know that reform of the Church involves destruction of that which is obsolete or dehumanizing are involved in a delicate art. If they are truly prophetic, they overdestroy when they remove themselves from the scene, as some of them have, by leaving the Church.
The decision to leave the Church catholic must be profound and personal; in some senses it has to remain "none of our business.” But if this decision is portrayed to the world as an act designed to reform and save the Church, it is fair to ask questions concerning the substantive issue "What is the Church?” and the tactical issue "How best do you reform it?” You do not reform it by standing outside; at least in our culture, little effective criticism of the Church comes from the outside. Christians close ranks against those who pronounce such judgments in a way that they cannot do against those who raise questions from within.
At this point, and perhaps only at this point, Protestant Christianity has a gift to bring Catholic renewal: the idea that prophetic protest is an act of loyalty, directed to the true purposes of a group, and that it is expressed from within. The Roman Catholic who petulantly removes himself or herself from the scene the morning after he discovers the first basic flaw has not appropriated the Protestant principle or recognized that it legitimately be- longs to the whole Church. Protestantism has tolerated and blunted its inner principle for centuries because it often saw protest issue in schism—something the world and the Church hardly need today—but as often it has had to listen to its critics from within, like the Niebuhrs in the recent past, in ways that it did not have to adopt toward outsiders.
The one who removes himself, then, either is woefully inept as a tactician or works with an individualistic view of Christian reality. Paul Ricoeur (as cited by Charles Moeller in Concilium, Vol. 23. p. 43) reminds us that the subject of faith is “we” not “I.” “The dialectic of conviction and responsibility,” he says, "must be supported by the more profound dialectic of the ecclesial and the social.” The self-remover sees the Church only as captive of its past and limited to its present; he has written it off as a community of hope.
Some renewalists and ex-renewalists go one step farther: instead of merely removing themselves from the Church, they would like to remove the Church from the face of the world. If this is done in a spirit of hostility to the Christian impetus, that is one thing: the Church can use some well-placed enemies. But if it is done in an avowed devotion to the “real” plan of God, one may again raise questions of substance and strategy. Once again, Paul Ricoeur, no slave of past and present, is helpful: “The idea that the Church loses itself in the world makes no sense to me; for if it is lost without trace, there is nothing more that can be lost.”
Lest this sound like triumphalism, Protestant style, read on: Ricoeur means only that the function of worship and preaching is to help maintain a where a grip on the "sense” of reality can be preserved, so that the "outward dialectic between the Church and the world” can be fostered. Those who have removed themselves or who would remove the Church are far from the point of proving that such removal provides them with better instrumentation for service of the world. Meanwhile, in a mood of mixed emotions marked by disappointment, hope, repentance—but never rage or scorn—members of the Church listen to what still filters through from these former (and future?) brothers come to judge them.
Renewal as romance with the world.Catholic reform and renewal came during the 1960's, the decade in which Protestant and Catholic Christians were trying to make up for centuries of world denial. For scores of decades, “secular” had meant only Christ denial and “world” had meant only the sphere in which enmity to God's purpose was expressed. Asceticism. Jansenism and Protestant-style rigorism had worked their way into the wrong pieces and parts and places of Christian expression. The Church was seen through these centuries as engaged in disgraceful and nonstrategic retreat from an encroaching world of science, politics and autonomous human development.
What a breath of fresh air the second spring of secular theology in the 1960's has been, coming as it did on the scene where world denial bad been treated undialectically. To see the world as the arena of divine activity, the milieu of Christic formation, the workshop of God, the raw material of which sanctity was made; to see the world on its own terms without a penumbra of Other-World for distraction—such a vision was assuredly a gain. But at its best, this view was to be dialectically related to the biblical and traditional motifs in which “world” also personified that which stood in the way of the purposes of God. These motifs were often forgotten in Catholic secular theology and action.
“The world affirms itself”: these arresting words of Albert Schweitzer provide an appropriate answer to those Christians who would tell the world to be more worldly. Though such people can effectively serve as icon smashers and as idol topplers, they are hardly needed to encourage simple worldliness. Robert Frost’s depiction of man having a lover's quarrel with the world issued in calls for the Church to have a love affair, pure and simple, with the world.
One side of the secular theology and the celebration of the world turned out to be romantic. In the early 1960's the empirical situation seemed to favor it; Utopia was not wholly implausible. Pope John and President John, Saint Nikita and Reverend King, would help take care of things; only mopping-up operations for the kingdom of God were ahead. More recently the simple affirmation of the secular by reformers or renewalists has seemed to be merely naive and beside the point.
Rev. John Fry, of Chicago's First Presbyterian Church, a man who could tell us a thing or two about the world—especially now that be has met the McClellan Committee—once told me: “You guys can write romantic things about the secular city, if you are middle-class holders of academic tenure who meet architects, planners, folk- singers and swingers.” But his secular world and his city were made up also of corrupt police and politicians, of bunger and disease, of prejudice and deprivation. Have the celebrators and the secularizers taken these fully and finally into account in their vision of the world and of reality?
Renewal as revolution. As the secular motif of the first half-decade of renewalism gave way to the revolutionary appeals of the second half, many Catholic reformers once again rewrote their theology almost entirely in the mood of the moment. Since it is obvious that human evolution bas outpaced most political development, it seems clear that conventional identification of churchly reform with liberalizing political forces is as obsolete as churchly identification with political conservatism had been oppressive. When the need for new modes reached the renewers, many of them uncritically accepted the simple calls for revolution that were being uttered by people here and there in the Church. Soon some of them were outshouting their non-Church confreres.
One must remember that in the world of modern weaponry and power, revolution = violence = killing. If he does not remember, he will soon be reminded by plenty of Christian pro-revolutionists that they are well aware of what those “equals signs” mean. The old order is so corrupt that one must be ready to pay any price to bring it down, no matter what replaces it.
Substantive and strategic questions come into play here, too. Substantively: can “kill” be the first word of Christian agency for change? Killing involves the arrogation to one's self of the historical vantage one could hold only if he knew the end and outcome of history; that is, if he were God. Christians have to act even though they lack that vantage and cannot therefore know what would have been best or who will have been proved to be right; but for that reason they have to act humbly, repentantly, in the knowledge that they could possibly be wrong. Killing involves the removal of the potential of another person from the world. Killing in revolution means that mainly innocents will suffer, the people who are caught between small ruling elites and small revolutionary parties.
The Christian does not necessarily rule out revolution as a last word. Those of us who first were brought to the renewal movement in Protestantism through the witness of Dietrich Bonhoeffer know that we are celebrating the recall of a pacifist turned revolutionary who was executed in part because he was implicated in the plot on Hitler's life—and we cheer him. We may respond favorably to the remembrance of Camilo Torres or others who engaged in the ultimate kind of activities when the penultimate kind had given cut. But we do so in the spirit of an “ethic of distress” and not with violence as the a priori of Christian political engagement.
Strategically and tactically the Christian identification with violent revolution all over the world has to be reexamined in the light of the counterrevolutionary power and antihumanizing potential of the people who have the guns and who have the votes. Christian reformers, it would seem, would do better to try to exhaust some of the political potential that remains in the realms of persuasion and nonviolence, or at least to remain reluctant and not bloodthirsty revolutionaries.
Renewal as premature resolution. The movements for reform and renewal were born in a decade of response to change, change so sudden and so sweeping that no one can claim to perceive the eye at the center of its storm, to say nothing of being unable to assess its perimeters. Revolutions in the media, in education, in human relations, in self-understanding—one can only begin the catalogue—have established the climate of churchly reform.
Renewal would be pointless if it did not take these changes into account and also integrate the principle of change into the heart of theology and program: most of us would not be in business two seconds if we did not devote ourselves to the task. But to be in favor of every kind of change can be foolish: one must ask what is to be changed, under what auspices and with what means, toward what purpose and goal?
To take one example, the extremes of renewal theology in the 1960’s have evidenced a fickle and faddish spirit; the Christian faithful are marched up one hill and then down again; they are led to the Catholic version of the secular city as a promised land and then told that it was a dead-end, that the Church should move in another direction, and that that is what was held in mind all along. Can one be “right” when in the space of a few years the whole Christian tradition is to be spent first on activism and then on dropping out; first on the cool pragmatic man and then on the guru?
The cult of relevance removed from theology that trace of an aristocratic note which is the only reason people have turned to Christian thought in the past. When Christian thought and policy is a floating magnetic needle, lacking a pole or an axis, it can hardly do more than try to point to “where the action is” at the moment. It cannot be expected to guide people to where the action should be. This “axis” cannot be seen to be an unreflective celebration of tradition or appropriation of past dogma or form. But renewalists and reformers have to remind themselves that no words, models, images, concepts, paradigms or parables for the future make sense unless they are seen in the context of the past that caused them to enter our heads in the first place.
Renewal and reform in a time of sudden change properly begin on this assumption: the Church of the future may and probably should assume sociological forms that cannot yet be envisioned and conceptual patterns that will probably surprise us with their innovative power. But these forms and concepts belong to “the Church” and thus are seen in a continuity; they are not wholly and only new. The extremists of the renewal movements, impatient with history or even with careful contemporary empirical assessment, like to deny this fact. They are proved wrong, both in their analysis and their programming, year after year.
Renewal as representation of personal problems. The kind of renewalism that has bred reaction as opposed to reform can often be identified as a representation of the problems of the self as Oedipal or aggressive. In this situation, the reformer has to kill off the parent. The Protestant is sometimes awed by the force of the tantruming in some Catholic renewal circles. He mourns that the Church can have done so much to malform people, knowing how little formative or malformative power his own Church has known. I am almost tempted to say that having a Catholic identity crisis is a compliment to Catholicism, for it at least provided an original identity to have a crisis about—something that not all non-Catholic entities were capable of doing.
In the square world one could plead on the basis of etiquette, however, that those overcoming malformation or working out identity crises keep something to themselves: that they resolve on the couch or in the bed what should he resolved there with psychiatrist or mate before they try to spread their disease to those parts of the world that do not share their specific problems. But the world is not square, it is swinging; so etiquette and taste will not carry strong appeal. The grounds must be substance and strategy: Is the hang-up of a late adolescent enough to cause the world to stand still for others; is the public representation of the hang-up effective to bring about reform, or will it issue only in the shrug or in disgust?
Rage against Mother Church is paralleled by fury against Father in the faith; someday someone will have to repent for a generation's neglect of the people caught up by forces of reform and renewal. I do not speak here of the over-eighty Catholics; many of them have been able to ally themselves with the under-thirty set. The members of the establishment generation, shaped by pre-reformist Catholicism, unable to move easily into the post-Vatican II era, deserve humane concern. They may often seem unlovely and unlovable, but they have to be understood if there is to be any hope of involving them in effecting change. And a word must be spoken for the laymen of any age who having taken garlic-and-babushka Catholicism into the Gestalt of their lives, have been asked to forgo its often banal comforts for new risks that they do not always understand and must therefore resist. Reforms and renewal dare not be blunted by their protest, but the agents of reform and renewal could be generous enough to include these individual selves and their concerns.
Whenever it issues in fanaticism, obsession or crusading spirit, renewal appears not as renewal of Church but as representation of personal problems. The crusader always overlooks something; the obsessed man has to neglect many humane needs; the fanatic has to screen out conflicting realities. The Christian tries to deal with complexity. He can therefore be pardoned if, while he identifies with some of the crusader's goals, he does not take on his spirit or drop everything else. One can give his shekel or lend his signature to this or that cause—of adjusting some nuns' skirt lengths, of renewing a particular order, of marching for a specific piece of legislation—without letting it become the be-all and end-all of existence.
Looking hack over these lines, I hasten to assert that I am not by nature sulking or grumpy and that when I sulk or grump I rarely do so over against issues presented by Catholics, least of all by reformers or renewalists among them. I have simply indulged in the luxury of enjoying a subsidized and solicited gripe session, called for by sponsors of a recent conference and editors of a Catholic magazine. These words were written by one who believes that now that reformers have made so many points, they should go on to making more and that they are hampered in this task when they turn extremist or forget to be self-critical.
In the future, renewalists can be expected to devote compensatory energy to the constructive tasks of new building, for all the energy they have had to put into the destructive tasks of tearing apart the old. To say that reform is in the “mopping up” stage is not to say that its years ahead will be easy or that there are not real dangers to faith and personhood remaining in the unreformed Church. To criticize novelty seeking and faddism in theology is not to shun innovation: the “new” is the first note of Christian witness. To speak of extremism is not to blunt the radicalism of the Christian message. I expect to find God in the middle of anything except the middle of the road, where Church politicians want to place Him. It is impossible to be too radical in one's quest for appropriate new theological language or ecclesial forms. It is possible to pursue the radical in wrong ways.
So this is not a time for a “New Conservatism” in Catholicism or Christianity in general. When one looks at the recent past from which reform and renewal have moved us and stares at all the faults and irrelevancies, he would not for a moment want to go back. If my criticisms are giving aid and comfort to those enemies who would take us back, they have failed of their simple intention: to spot a good thing—reform—and to help keep it going.