Speaking to a group of theologians in Chicago recently, Cardinal Francis George offered this critique: “Liberal Catholicism is inadequate in fostering the joyful self-surrender called for in Christian marriage, in consecrated life, in the ordained priesthood, even in discipleship itself. … A sociological theory that defines the central value as autonomy is only with great difficulty able to hear a doctrinal or gospel call to surrender.”
Among the many criticisms made of liberal Catholicism, this one is perhaps the most stinging. It sears the hypothalamus. More than one is the liberal who, upon hearing this, reacts a bit like Herod in the face of John the Baptist: “He was greatly upset listening to John, yet he liked to listen to him.” Of course, such a reaction doesn’t say that Cardinal George’s criticism is necessarily fair, but it does indicate a rather direct hit of the achilles heel. Liberal ideology, whatever its other strengths, is not strong on this point, it doesn’t easily bend the knee in joyous doctrinal and gospel surrender.
But it has its own strong points. It fosters other gospel values. Precisely because it does so much value human autonomy, it has been a major prophetic force in helping overcome intolerance, bigotry, narrowness, and rigidity of every sort. The fight, and it is a gospel fight, against racism, sexism, ecological insensitivity, and undue privilege for the rich, has, more often than not, been led by the liberals. Liberty, equality, and fraternity, despite the baggage these words carry, are in the end gospel values. The enlightenment, as Louis Dupre puts it, like a struggling adolescent, is not bad, just unfinished. Human autonomy and the gospel are not at odds.
The same type of criterion might also be applied to conservative Catholicism. It too has its strengths, along with an achilles heel. Conservative Catholicism is strong on doctrinal and gospel surrender and, in theory at least, emphasizes that this surrender be a joyful one. The problem is that too often, in practice, that surrender is anything but joyful. The achilles heel of conservative Catholicism is that it often produces the older brother of the prodigal son, namely, someone who can, in truth, say: “All these years I have been faithful. I have never done anything seriously wrong to put myself outside God’s house, but I will not enter the house and celebrate with my younger brother.” Like his or her biblical counterpart, this person too often stands outside the circle celebration, outside the dance, outside the circle of gratitude. Too many conservatives are bitter, jealous, angry at the faults of others.
But conservative Catholicism also has its strengths, not the least of which is the one that Cardinal George intimates in his critique of liberalism, namely, that it can inspire a healthy genuflection to something higher than the individual and collective ego. Moreover its emphasis on the fact that, here in this life, we mourn and weep in a valley of tears and live without the final symphony, helps make its devotees a bit more willing to sweat the blood of self-sacrifice, even if that means sacrificing autonomy and private dreams. For us, adult children of the enlightenment, the call to self-sacrifice is not easily embraced. Conservative Catholicism has an important prophetic voice.
So where does that leave us? Cardinal George is, I submit, basically right in his comment on liberal Catholicism, too often it cannot induce joyful self-surrender. However, my own experience with conservative Catholicism leads me to believe it also has a congenital weakness, too often it produces angry, rigid people. Both ideologies have their innate dangers: one can easily make for “prodigal sons”, just as the other can easily make for “older brothers”. We can be outside the Father’s house through wilful-pride or through jealous-bitterness. There’s more than one way to put ourselves outside the circle of gratitude and celebration.
Perhaps this is all a bit strong, since I very much doubt that most liberals and conservatives are outside the Father’s house. Sincerity, integrity, and goodness abound, despite weakness. What’s more true, I suspect, is that ideology, on both sides, more often than not, puts us outside the circle of full compassion. As Jim Wallis puts it: “It is time for left and the right to admit that they have run out of imagination, that the categories of liberal and conservative are dysfunctional and that what is needed is a radicalism that takes us beyond the selective sympathies of both the right and the left. Such a radicalism can be found only in the gospel which is neither liberal or conservative but fully compassionate.”
How to become fully compassionate or, at least, more compassionate? My advice? Become post-ideological … post-right, post-left, post-middle, post-liberal, post-conservative, post-anti-modern, post-modern, post-post-modern, post-sophisticated, post-angry, post-neurotic, and post-classifiable. Sound a bit complicated? Maybe Jesus put it more simply: “The good scribe reaches into the bag and pulls out the new as well as the old.”