The Present Crisis

THOSE OF US who planned this new journal did so under the working title Catholicism in Crisis. We did so with the example of Reinhold Niebuhr vividly in mind, who on February 10, 1941, under analogous circumstances, finding existing periodicals inhospitable, launched Christianity and Crisis. There were many crises in 1941, Niebuhr wrote, but only one the crisis the intention of Hitler’s armies in extinguish Christian civilization in Europe. “Our civilization was built by faith and prayers and hard work,” he wrote “—and it was also built by fighting.”

Is there a Christian minister who believes that the rights which he daily enjoys and which he takes for granted, like the air he breathes, would be his to enjoy unless these rights had been fought for by Cromwell, by William of Orange and by Washington? Are Protestants in the United States to live off the liberties which others are maintaining for them and then express complete indifference to the fate of those whose sacrifice makes the tranquil and serene life of American Christians possible? Should this become the American Protestant attitude toward the world, it would inscribe one of the darkest pages of the annals of the Church.

In 1941, the Christian Church was threatened with extinction in the North Atlantic. Today the crisis which threatens Catholicism is worldwide and far more formidable in military and police power than the juggernaut built by Adolph Hitler. While that crisis can never be far from our thoughts, it is not the crisis we have most in mind in launching this journal in 1982.

In a lesser sense, our crisis is literary. We are dissatisfied with existing Catholic journals and with — as we see it — the deteriorating quality of Catholic intellectual life. As Alasdair Maclntyre describes it in another context, too much moral “debate” has been reduced to shouting slogans at one another across partisan lines.

The Editors believe that what used to be called “the liberal Catholic tradition” has virtually disappeared in the United States. Moreover, the intellectual divisions ot twenty years ago between “progressives” and “conservatives” are now out of date. Many who used to be liberal have moved decisively to the left, both in substance and in style of argument. Many, formerly conservatives, have become inventive , socially conscious and politically concerned. A new Catholic spirit is being born. It calls tor a new voice.

Moreover, the crisis in which we find ourselves is one of faith and theology, especially concerning questions of the temporal order and the role of the laity.

Stated precisely, the crisis is that clerical power — not onh in the bishops and in their administrative stalls — has become overweening. This is a direct consequence of so-called “Vatican I I theology.” This “new theology” has four parts. Each of them weakens laymen and laywomen in their proper vocation.

First is the misuse of the “collegiality” of bishops. In itself, linked to the pre-eminent authority of the Pope, such collegiality is good. But certain institutional developments seem to us quite errant. National conferences of bishops are bringing political divisions into the church.

Second is the dimimshment of the clergy. Many younger clergymen stress “the priesthood of the laity” in a false way, so as to diminish the distinctiveness of their own priestly role and, in effect, merely to patronize the laity. We who are laymen and laywomen are not, and do not aspire to be, priests. We do not want priests usurping lay roles. We need, and desire, a sharper theology of differentiation.

Third is the aggrandizement of the clergy. Even as the distinction between vocations (manifested even in dress) is being fudged, clergymen are everywhere preempting lay roles. There is a manifest and tangible clericalization of the Catholic church, worse now than before the Council. More and more often, priests and bishops make political, economic and social pronouncements about the temporal order, to which the laity is expected solely to react. This is an inversion of vocations and roles. It thwarts the normal workings of grace and personal vocation. It compounds mutual weaknesses. It invites hubris.

Fourth is the diminishment of words of faith and holiness of life. Words like “prophecy,” “witness,” and “charism” are more and more used for strictly partisan political opinions, less and less used of authentic faith and practice. This is a species of theological imperialism, the coercion of false labeling.

The crisis in the Catholic church of 1982 is that the church seems in danger of losing its true, original, and profound identity, in order to become what it is not, an instrument of temporal power. Nearly always today, this temporal assertion of the church is leftward in its force, as in former times it was often rightward. Yet whether tilting to the left or to the right, the fundamental theological error is the same.

We do not wish merely to mourn the passing of the liberal Catholic tradition; we wish to breathe life back into it. Many battles must be fought, both to our left and to our right. We are, first of all, Catholic — our faith is dear to us. To be “Catholic” means to have a sense of community, of tradition, of faith and prayer and contemplation, and perhaps of tragedy (as in the crucifixion and death) not common to those who are “liberal” in other ways.

But we are also “liberal” in the sense that not all Catholics are. We are neither socialists nor traditionalists. Our vision of the temporal order is rather like that of Jacques Maritain, from whose Center we publish. We believe that history has a narrative form; that social progress, though difficult and reversible, lies within human possibility; and that the liberal society is an authentic, although imperfect, expression of the Gospels in political economy, made possible by the long leavening of human cultures with the faith of Judaism and Christianity.

We dread the “great, climactic battle” which Solzhenitsyn predicts on the horizon. We resist the flirtation of so many in the Church with ideas of political economy certain to diminish both liberty and productivity. We look for a return of American laymen and laywomen to their full responsibilities in the Church. We expect a “new spring,” after the present critical years.


(From time to time, the editors will enhance the reputations
of Lord Acton, Chesterum, Orestes Brownson and others
by attributing to them their common view.)

From Vol. 1, No. 1 of the original “Catholicism in Crisis”, published November 1982.


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