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George calls liberal Catholicism ‘parasitical’

Special Report Writer

In a wide-ranging and, at times, extremely complex presentation at the University of Chicago Jan. 9, Chicago Cardinal Francis George said liberal Catholicism has little to offer the church because it is fixated on the past and has failed to hand on the faith “in its integrity.” In passing, he also dismissed conservative Catholicism because of its “extreme sectarianism” and “obsession with particular practices.”

The occasion was a symposium on “Catholic Faith and the Secular Academy” sponsored by the Catholic Common Ground Initiative, founded by George’s predecessor, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, and the Lumen Christi Institute, an enterprise of the Catholic student center at the university.

In his talk, George amplified somewhat on remarks he made almost a year ago at a conference of the National Center of the Laity. At that time he called liberal Catholicism “an exhausted project parasitical on a substance that no longer exists.”

What he means, explained George, is that liberal Catholicism cannot energize the church because it has become “parasitical,” that is, preoccupied with attacking “the church of the 1950s” -- attacking a church perceived as rigid, with absolute “doctrinal clarity, maybe even a superficiality” (although that is “arguable”). In any event, George said, that church is gone.

Yet the liberal critique has become “internalized,” he said, so that instead of directing its efforts toward society, it persists in criticizing today’s church “as if it were the source of oppression.” George said, “Liberal Catholicism has shown itself unable to pass on the faith in its integrity.”

He faulted Fr. Philip Murnion, director of the National Pastoral Life Center, for his claim that conflicts in American Catholicism are about moral and peripheral doctrinal issues, not about substantial matters like the Trinity, the Resurrection and the Eucharist.

“I don’t think that’s true,” said George. “As a pastor I think there’s an enormous ignorance of the central doctrines of the faith, if not always an explicit rejection. Quite often when you push, there’s a rejection of them [central doctrines] as much as there is of the moral teachings of the church.”

Furthermore, said the cardinal, “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.”

A key factor, he explained, is that many Catholics in the 1960s, especially priests, found “a liberating moment in their own lives through secularity which, rightly or wrongly, opened up horizons,” freeing them from an understanding of the church that had become “stifling.” Thus liberated, he noted, they sought transcendence in nature, music, literature or self, which, in turn, “left them trapped in their own experience.”

Nor is the answer to the church’s future to be found in “a conservative Catholicism obsessed with particular practices,” said George, “and so sectarian in outlook it cannot serve as a sign of the unity of all peoples in Christ -- a sacrament of the unity of the human race that the [Vatican II] council called the church to be.”

George said his solution to the problem facing the American church is “a Catholicism in all its fullness and depth,” a faith that is “open to debate and open to initiatives as various as the people God loves ... a church able to distinguish between what fits into the tradition and what is a false start or distorting thesis ... a church united here and now because she’s always one with the church through the ages.”

He admitted that such a grand, idealistic vision is something of a “cop-out,” adding that he intends soon to think and write more fully on these issues. All this analysis came toward the conclusion of George’s scholarly and esoteric summary of the various schools of thought on the appropriate relation between faith and culture -- a subject, he said, he has “probably thought about too much.”

He roamed through the views of Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, David Tracy, Friedrich Schleirmacher, Martin Heidigger, George A. Lindbeck, John Millbank and a dozen other thinkers, pointing out distinctions among co-relational, postmodern and post-liberal approaches to faith and culture. Where he himself fits in this spectrum of thought depends, he said, “on which day you talk to me.”

Nevertheless, he insisted, the church can never be totally isolated from culture: “It is the reason we have gargoyles in cathedrals and a Catholic art that is rather erotic; that’s what you expect in an incarnational religion.” Yet, distinctions must be maintained, George said. “Though the church is at home in the world, it never collapses into it.”

National Catholic Reporter, January 22, 1999