A Catholic Liberal’s Nightmare

The election of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as pope will cause heartbreak – not to mention much heartburn – among liberal or progressive Catholics.

Ratzinger, who on Tuesday became Pope Benedict XVI, is a very learned but strictly orthodox German theologian. As head of the Vatican Office for the Doctrine of the Faith (the old name for this was the Holy Office, a division of which was the Roman Inquisition _ best remembered for its persecution of Galileo), the new pontiff was Pope John Paul II’s doctrinal “enforcer.”

It was Ratzinger’s job to warn, and in some cases punish, theologians who had wandered too far from what the Vatican counts as Catholic orthodoxy (e.g., Hans Kung in Germany; Charles Curran in the United States and Latin American proponents of “liberation theology”). Such sanctions were very distressing to progressive Catholics, who are great believers in free speech in the church.

Ratzinger also wrote a number of documents that troubled liberals, who viewed these as attempts to undermine the progressive “spirit” of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965).

I am thinking especially of two documents: “Dominus Jesus” (2000), which reaffirmed, in what liberals deemed a very unecumenical manner, the old idea that the only path to salvation is through Jesus Christ and the Catholic Church; and “On the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons” (1986), which declared that while “the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil, and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder.” Liberals were horrified by these last two words, which they saw as verbal cruelty.

With this track record, there is absolutely no reason to believe that the new pope will be any more receptive to the liberal-Catholic wish list than was John Paul _ a wish list that includes, among other things, married priests; the priesthood open to women; the decentralization of church authority; local election of bishops; contraception for married couples; remarriage for divorced Catholics; a relaxation of the taboos on premarital sex, abortion and homosexual conduct; and recognition of non-Catholic and even non-Christian religions as fully valid paths to God.

Indeed, there is every reason to believe that Ratzinger will strongly resist this wish list. For years, liberals have looked forward to the death of John Paul II, whom they regarded (despite what they would concede were his many good points) as an ecclesiastical dark reactionary. And they have been looking forward to the election of a successor who would resume the progressive movement initiated by Vatican II.

With the choice of Ratzinger, their hopes have now been blasted.

So where do they go from here? Since Ratzinger is old (78), many liberals will return to their earlier hope that the conservative pope will soon die and be replaced by a progressive (who on his first day in office will, perhaps, distribute condoms from the balcony of St. Peter’s).

But some will at long last awaken to a truth that should be abundantly clear to all students of the history of the Roman Catholic Church: namely, that Catholicism is not the kind of religion that lends itself to progressive reform, at least not as liberals would define “progressive.”

These disillusioned liberals will follow one of three courses. Some will remain Catholic and be depressed by the whole situation; some will join a church that better suits their idea of what a church should be (e.g., the Episcopal Church); and some will drift away from institutionalized religion altogether, and instead practice their own private forms of Christianity.

Catholic liberals, despite their rather high average level of education, have never understood what kind of religion they belong to _ a profoundly conservative religion, and one whose conservatism is not merely the byproduct of its being led by a gang of old men who never married; rather, its conservatism is of its very essence.

For better or for worse, Catholicism is a backward-looking religion, not a forward-looking one, since its legitimacy rests on its claim to be the custodian of the teachings of Jesus Christ and his Apostles. A religion of that kind is simply incapable of adopting a “progressive” agenda.

(David Carlin, a professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island, is the author of “The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America.”)