Culture wars in the Catholic Church – April 2013


Professor Gerry Carruthers charts divisions between liberals and conservatives and makes a plea for dialogue in the spirit of the Newman Association as a necessary constituent in the unfolding tradition of church teaching.

Cultural wars have always raged, Professor Carruthers observed, across societies, nations and institutions: God has seen it all before. But he confessed to being weary of the current divisions in the church between ‘liberals’ and ‘conservatives’, ‘progressives’ and ‘traditionalists’ which have rumbled under the surface since at least the Second Vatican Council, allowing self-confessed moderates like him to be labelled as a fanatic by some and heretic by others. Divisions have sharpened over the last ten years because of disputes between church and society; the car crash came with child abuse scandals, when ‘secular’ child welfare issues began to trump ecclesiastical authority misused to maintain the good name of the church. This was the church admitting its accountability on earth as well as in heaven: a painful but eventually healthy coming together of sacred and secular sensibilities.

But the sacred/secular division remains in the terminology at the heart of the current culture war, causing many to feel frustrated. Gerry cited recent controversy over the decision to prohibit Professor Tina Beattie’s talk on Our Lady in the diocese of Clifton because she had signed a letter to The Times on the issue of gay marriage. In the letter she used comments of the late Cardinal Basil Hume to propose a progressive view on gay marriage. The Newman Association defended Professor Beattie’s right to be heard on the subject of Mary, while dissociating itself from any defence of her in the context of the letter to The Times. Gerry argued that she had quoted the cardinal out of context, but some of her critics had attempted to pitch her against episcopal authority when she was in fact trying to work with it. The episode, played out in the media, allowed some to question the loyalty of the Newman Association which, he said, includes some of the most thoughtful Catholics in the United Kingdom.

For Catholics, the church and its teaching authority – the magisterium – is the will of God. But the magisterium is in the hands of human beings, prone to incomplete reason and understanding, even with the help of the Holy Spirit. To believe otherwise is heresy and disrespects the decision of Pope Benedict, for example, to abdicate because of failing health and, it is reported, failing spirit. Such an orthodox middle of the road view is seen by many today as unorthodox: a striking shift, Gerry observed, in the last ten years. The new orthodoxy, he suggested, appears to abdicate conscience to the complete ‘authority’ of the church/episcopacy /papal office.

Conscience is used only once and the rest is left to the church, once admission is gained.

One of the most famous and explicit Catholic champions of conscience was John Henry Newman. He wrote that ‘[man] has within his breast a certain commanding dictate, not a mere sentiment, not a mere opinion or impression, or a view of things, but a law, an authoritative voice, bidding him do certain things and avoid others… This is Conscience; and from the nature of the case, its very existence carries on in our minds to a being exterior to ourselves; for else whence does it come?’

Conscience is not conviction. Our consciences must be put to the test within the community of the church, which includes the magisterium. Canon lawyers and church historians distinguish between the Sacred Magisterium, the canon of pronounced infallible beliefs derived from tradition and church teaching, and the Ordinary Magisterium which contains potentially fallible teaching that might in time be confirmed as infallible (or not). The example usually given is slavery. Ideally both aspects of the magisterium work in harmony; but it is more complex than some suggest. It allows for a certain stability and for the possibility of gradual change on some matters as the church’s tradition unfolds. But for many conservatives, tradition is seen as static.

There are many factors involved where our collective conscience is formed, and in many cases never perfectly or certainly arrived at, in this fallen world. Our ability to reason is an imperfect reflection of the divine presence which lies always beyond us. Among church councils, Vatican II is the fault-line, its legacy disputed by liberals and conservatives alike. Liberals see its reforms being rolled back. Conservatives cite Pope John Paul II and Benedict XIV to present the reforming council as still unfolding, part of a ‘hermeneutic of continuity’. The fact that the most extremely conservative, anti-conciliar voice is largely a lay one is not without irony: it is a voice entitled by Vatican II and its call to lay action, enabled by the mass media and burgeoning online magazines and blogs. In this context, there is a lack of precise consensus about the role of the laity and none in general about the validity of their voice as a voice. This is a radically new situation in Catholic history: even if the conservatives are right and the genie is out of the bottle following Vatican II, they are part of that genie. The lay voice has become a factor as never before.

Catholic lay activism in the 19th century had several key priorities including the achievement of social and intellectual respectability for a historically mistrusted migrant community. Upper class Catholic patriarchs like the Marquess of Bute, who endowed places of worship and enabled the increased presence of religious orders, were joined by prelates like Cardinal Vaughan who established the Catholic Truth Society in 1868. Efforts such as these brought Catholicism into the mainstream of British society.

Perhaps the most influential lay voice in the church in the early 20th century was G. K. Chesterton, who expressed mistrust both of conservatives and what he called ‘progressives’. He represented middle-of-the-road orthodoxy but objected to humanity’s increasing materialism and appropriation of a Godlike status to itself. Monsignor Ronald Knox, who gave the homily at Chesterton’s funeral, was appalled by the atomic bombing of Japan, one of the first and most striking acts of Catholic dissent from the British worldview in the 20th century. Hiroshima and Nagasaki, together with the Nazi death camps, created a moral fault line in the western world, challenging the universalism supposedly espoused at the heart of western Christianity. For the post world war II generation, including Catholics, whose university educated ranks burgeoned from the 1950s, this new world demanded intellectual and practical activism. This meant condemning much of the moral, political, social and cultural climate, such as opposition to nuclear weapons, or attempting to find places of accommodation, like the Worker Priest movement in France or Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker project.

In the age of mass media, neither conservatives nor liberals can avoid engagement with the secular word, even as they may disagree about how to do it. Within all Catholic positions there are fine judgements to be made, and the Newman Association has continuing value in promoting open dialogue, the necessary constituent along with authority in the unfolding of the tradition of Catholic belief and teaching on all issues. This happens not because we adapt ourselves to the world, but because Catholicism constantly needs to find new ways of speaking its essential truths to a changing world. Tradition works dynamically and with its own sense of progress. Retreating into the catacombs will make us merely museum pieces.

Gerard Carruthers is Professor of Scottish Literature since 1700 at the University of Glasgow.

Feb/Mar 2020

In June 2019 Open House held a conference exploring possible new directions for the Catholic Church in Scotland. See conference papers.

Open House also held a conference on the role of lay people in the governance of the Catholic Church in November 2013. See conference papers.