Knock it off
They say it’s lonely at the top, but it’s also lonely in the middle. That’s where Oblate Father Ronald Rolheiser often finds himself, trying to negotiate a peace between liberals and conservatives in the church.
Whether as president of a seminary, where the younger, more conservative students clash with older, more liberal faculty, or as a speaker, columnist, and author, Rolheiser is often seen as a bridge who can see both sides fairly and bring them together.
But it can be frustrating work. “It’s pretty isolating,” he told U.S. Catholic editors. “A lot of times you end up being too liberal for the conservatives and too conservative for the liberals.”
A former philosophy profesor, Rolheiser now serves as president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas. He is the author of the best-selling The Holy Longing (Doubleday, 1999) and most recently edited Secularity and the Gospel (Crossroad, 2006). His weekly column is carried by 50 newspapers worldwide. He grew up in a conservative German immigrant community in his native Canada, experienced the liberalism of the 1960s, and now says the secret is to “always be looking for balance.”
There’s a lot of polarity in the church and in U.S. culture today, tension between liberals and conservatives. What is the cause of that?
First of all, you’ll always have polarity, and it’s always been there, although not always as intense. During the Second Vatican Council, we had a window of some years when polarization wasn’t red hot.
Then we had a massive pendulum swing in the Western world, actually worldwide, in the late 1960s. There was a liberalization that set in and that caused its own reaction. So what you’re seeing today inside of the church and inside of society (and in the Islamic world) is a fierce and a powerful conservatism. This conservatism actually feeds off an unbalanced liberalism. Excessive liberalism sparks excessive conservatism, then excessive conservatism sparks excessive liberalism, and so on.
Are we just caught in this constant pendulum swing, or is there a way to get to a more balanced place?
Partly it’s that human beings are human. There is a way out, but it requires two things. First, it has to be reflective, as opposed to simply reactive. For instance, in liberal circles I often see just a quick negative reaction to conservatives.
Secondly, there has to be a grounding in faith. As Jim Wallis of Sojourners magazine says, “Don’t be a liberal, don’t be a conservative, be a man or woman of faith. Don’t turn right, don’t turn left, go deeper.” It’s simple but it’s true: Don’t act liberally or conservatively, just act out of faith, and that will take you where you should be.
You see that in Jesus. Sometimes he was liberal and sometimes he was conservative, but he always acted out of faith.
But don’t a lot of liberals and conservatives think they already are acting out of faith?
Yes, we all do. But sincerity is a tough thing. Ideology is like a virus; we breathe it in, and it’s really hard to be free of and to truly think our own thoughts.
For example, one of the things that conservatives struggle with is writing something off just because it is politically correct. But sometimes when something is politically correct, it’s also correct.
So often people are just reacting and saying everything in secular culture is bad. While there are negatives, there are also some incredible positives that we don’t want to lose.
What’s positive about liberal secular culture?
Liberalism is about freedoms, many of which we take for granted. The opposite of secularity is not the church; the opposite of secularity is the Taliban. I don’t think you want to live in Iran, which is a theocracy. Holland, on the other hand, is the most secularized culture in the world, far more secular than the United States. It has very low church attendance, and everything is legal: abortion, euthanasia, prostitution, drugs. You could look at that and say it’s a cesspool of moral relativity.
Those aren’t good things. But Holland takes care of its poor better than any culture in the world, and the status of women is the highest of any place in the world. Those are major moral achievements. And they didn’t come out of conservatism. Those are liberal achievements, which also come out of the gospel. So it’s a complicated thing for some to say the church is a culture of life and secularity is a culture of death. That’s far too simple.
Not only that, people don’t buy it. Young people are not looking at the church and saying, “Ah, that’s life!” and at Hollywood and the Super Bowl and saying, “That’s a culture of death.” That’s not the way they see it at all. They see something in the Jerry Seinfelds, the David Lettermans, the Olympics: There’s life in there, and there’s also something about God in there.
What’s good about conservatism?
They get a very important part of the gospel: intimacy with Jesus. People may say they don’t care about justice. Maybe they don’t, but they get the intimacy part.
Sometimes people in liberal circles don’t get that intimacy with Jesus part. We’re doing the social justice, but we’re not really sure why we’re doing it, like sometimes we don’t know the difference between Christian social doctrine and Greenpeace. The better ones get it—Dorothy Day, Jim Wallis, Daniel Berrigan.
But we all pick and choose; we’re all “cafeteria Catholics.” I was once asked to write a definition of a practicing Catholic. I began by saying that only Jesus does God real well, and the rest of us drop off, either to the left or to the right. Conservatives have major blind spots and liberals have major blind spots.
What are those blind spots?
Liberals have to ask, “What deep truths are conservatives defending?” For example, they care about the family. And conservatives have to ask, “What are liberals’ deep instincts?” Some conservatives say that feminism is a liberal cause, but it comes from the gospel. And not all feminism is anti-family. Gloria Steinem allowed her employees to bring their children to work, which made for healthier families. So in some cases feminism goes against the family, and in some ways it supports families.
Is moving to the center the answer?
Not really. The middle can end up being the lowest common denominator, kind of wishy-washy. In politics, moving to the center is the way to win elections. It may be the solution politically, but not prophetically. Of course prophets don’t often get to be president of the United States. They don’t make good politicians because they’re driving an edge.
How do you balance being prophetic with being popular if you’re trying to reach out to people?
Let’s take Jesus. When Jesus started preaching, people liked what he said so he drew really big crowds. Then at a certain point, he said some unpopular things and everybody left. Jesus wasn’t very happy about that; he didn’t want to be unpopular.
Daniel Berrigan says we have to make sure not to make a vow of alienation, just to get in somebody’s face. You try to speak the truth and be a loving person, and sometimes it makes you unpopular. The danger is sometimes ideologues intentionally try to take themselves there.
Any advice for people trying to bridge the liberal/conservative gap?
When I was a seminarian, I set up the rule for myself that I must always try to read against my temperament. At the time I was a natural conservative, so I would read liberal stuff. Then I went through some years where I was a natural liberal, so I read conservative literature. It’s good to look for balance.
Is indifference harder to deal with than anger?
Absolutely, and this is one time I’ll be categorical. The biggest problem in the church is not anger, it’s indifference. A Canadian sociologist of religion, Reginald Bibby, has found that of people not going to church, fewer than 5 percent are angry at the church. The other 95 are indifferent.
Those of us who move in church circles see anger—at the pope, the sex-abuse crisis—but for most Catholics anger is not an issue. On Sunday morning, if people aren’t going to church, it’s not because they’re angry. It’s because they’re sleeping, shopping, or getting ready for football.
Bibby also says that the biggest problem with religion in North America and the Western world isn’t religious, it’s societal. People treat their churches the way they treat their families. People haven’t left their churches, they just aren’t going to their churches; the same as they haven’t left their families, they just don’t come home a lot.
So can you blame secular society for offering all these options, like shopping or football?
It’s not so much blame, but secular society does produce opportunity and amusement and distraction. Until something happens to me, I don’t have to think seriously about God or faith. You’re a good-hearted person, you work hard, you come home in the evening and you’re tired, so you have a glass of scotch and watch TV, you go to bed, and the next day you do it again. Until the doctor says you have terminal cancer or your mother dies or something happens that gives you kind of a psychic stick of dynamite, we can just cruise along. We’re vulnerable but we think we’re invulnerable.
Is there a kind of a mutual indifference in that the church says, “Well, fine. If you don’t want what we’ve got, then we don’t want you either”?
Today there are two schools of thought in the church. One of them is that the church needs to be trimmer and purer. If you don’t want to make the commitment, you’re out. The other school of thought says Jesus’ mercy is universal. It says the church is a family, and a family keeps embracing even when members don’t come home.
A lot of conservatives want a leaner, trimmer, purer, committed church. Liberals are more likely to say Christ’s mercy and compassion is infinite and the church is a big enough family that we don’t have to be exclusivistic.
A few years ago an Episcopalian church in Seattle advertised that anyone who wanted to show up at Easter Vigil with a sincere desire to be baptized could be. I know liturgical people who had cardiac arrest over this! A couple of hundred people showed up, they baptized them, and they probably got 60 or 70 really good Episcopalians out of that. This shows the two schools of thought. For one, it’s a sacrilege. For the other, they say Jesus can handle it.
Both liberals and conservatives talk about evangelization. Are either having any success with this?
There are two buzz words: maintenance and mission. The way the church is set up today we are very good at maintenance. We know what to do when a Catholic comes to church. But “mission” is not about maintaining what you have. It’s about bringing in new people. And that’s where the church is weak.
We often don’t have the time or energy for evangelization. But the second issue is that we don’t have the imagination for it. Maybe we need to look beyond the model of the parish.
The Oblates have a project in Birmingham, England, where six young priests are trying to do evangelization in a creative way. They’ve tried lots of things, going into bars and sitting in Starbucks. Their biggest struggle isn’t the liberal/conservative thing, it’s trying to break through religious indifference.
I went to World Youth Day in Toronto, where over a million kids came out to see Pope John Paul II. That’s wonderful, but 50 million weren’t there. So which one do you focus on: the million who are there or the 50 million who aren’t there? I’m trying to focus on the 50 million and on how to reach them.
Who’s to blame for those 50 million not being there?
There isn’t just one reason. There’s blame for everybody. Partly it’s indifference, partly it’s the culture, partly it’s the breakdown of family life and community life. Bibby says if your kids aren’t coming home every Sunday for dinner, it’s probably not the cooking. So it’s not so much that the cooking in church is bad, it’s simply that people are preoccupied with their lives.
Is the problem that religion just has too many rules?
In John’s gospel, written for his community, there are no rules. Jesus says there’s only one commandment: love. That worked while the Beloved Disciple was alive, but after he died the community broke down. No rules works when you have mature people. But where levels of maturity aren’t high enough, you have to have rules.
Malcolm X once said he became a Muslim because he was working with people in the inner city who need the discipline of Allah. Later they need the love of Jesus. And he even calls it the “liberal” love of Jesus. We’re supposed to grow to a point where we no longer need rules, where they’re internalized.
Some of the rules are precisely to weed out the non-committed for those who want the leaner, purer church. I’m not so worried about that. I tend to believe that when I die I’m not going to be accused of being too merciful. As a priest, I have a certain level of power, and there’s always the danger of abusing power. The Catholic Church is the most powerful multinational organization in the whole world. We’re 2,000 years old, we have more than a billion people, we’re founded on rock, with scriptures and creeds. We can carry some weak family members. We don’t have to play it safe. Jesus never played it safe.
What about those who say we should be more aggressive in our outreach, more like evangelicals?
Some people say that one of the things that has always driven Catholicism is public display, like Corpus Christi processions and World Youth Days, where there’s a certain pride: “I’m Catholic and I’m proud of it.” They would say today we’re too reticent, too shy, too apologetic. Some of the younger seminarians want priests to always wear their collars so they can make a statement.
Others, including myself, say that the real witness is your life. I believe that you don’t witness to anybody walking through an airport with a collar. You only witness to people you know through the quality of your life. I don’t think wearing a collar in public converts anybody. A lot of people in my generation don’t feel that public witness should be in anyone’s face.
I agree that sometimes we need to preach a triumphant Christ, the Christ who died and rose. But I move in so many circles where it’s not what people need or want to hear. That’s exactly why they aren’t going to church—because they’re turned off by that. So we need to preach the Christ who self-empties, the Christ who doesn’t twist anybody’s arm, the Christ who isn’t triumphant about anything, the Christ who was born as a helpless infant, who is the complete antithesis of any power.
Ronald Rolheiser on:
Three Things for Liberals to Ponder
Things rarely are simple. Nothing, save God, comes without a shadow.
That's good to keep in mind when we assess the pros and cons of liberals and conservatives. Each brings something to the table and each too has an achilles heel.
What is the achilles heel within liberal Catholicism? I suggest three places where liberal Catholicism (Protestantism included) might want to do some self-scrutiny:
1) On our failure, by and large, to inspire permanent, joyous religious commitment.
Cardinal Francis George, speaking at a colloquium organized by COMMONWEAL magazine, recently made this statement:
"We are at a turning point in the life of the church in this century. Liberal Catholicism is an exhausted project. Essentially a critique, even a necessary critique at one point in our history, it is now parasitical on a substance that no longer exists. It has shown itself unable to pass on the faith in its integrity and is inadequate, therefore, in fostering the joyful self-surrender called for in Christian marriage, in consecrated life, in ordained priesthood."
Cardinal George's comment is directed more towards liberals within Roman Catholic circles, but it applies, I suggest, equally well within Protestant and Jewish circles.
This is not a comment that goes down well with everyone, especially with those of us who have given the best part of our lives struggling to open our churches up to a healthier, less-fearful relationship with modernism, science, secularity, and the very real moral progress that these have helped to bring to the world. Liberal ideology, despite all it has been accused of, has been one of the most powerful moral forces on the planet for the last 400 years. The opposite of the liberal and secular is not the spiritual or the church, but the Taliban. I don't think any of us, conservatives included, want to be there.
But George's comment strikes at a particular painful area. For all of our work at affirming human dignity, spreading the democratic principle, highlighting the plight of the poor, working at eliminating racism, pushing for gender equality, furthering ecological sensitivity, and affirming non-violence we haven't been able to inspire our own children to follow us in the path of the faith and in the path of adult commitment. Former generations, whatever their faults, did this better. Whether that fault is inherent in liberal ideology itself is not the point. We haven't been able to do it and it's something we must examine ourselves on.
2) Have we been too naive in hooking our moral star to liberal ideology in the secular world?
There was a time between 1960 and 1990 when it seemed that the moral idealism of liberals in the church and the moral idealism of liberals in the culture were good dance partners. Liberals inspired by the gospel and liberals fuelled by secular sources had, it seemed, the same agenda: equality for all, non-elitism, greater ecological sensitivity, the elimination of poverty, greater ethnic and racial harmony, wider tolerance, wider mutual respect, and so on. The social agenda of the gospel and the agenda of liberal secular ideology seemed to be one and the same. We lived with the naive assumption that it would ever be thus.
But is this so? Hardly. Divorced from their Judeo-Christian roots, secular liberals have grown-up, and, like so many of our own children, taken some distance from the gospel. Secular liberalism has shifted its moral passion away from the issues of the poor and the misuse of power to issues of gender, sexuality, personal choice, and lifestyle. Secular liberals and liberal Christians are, today, no longer the harmonious dance partners they once. And we've been slow to recognize and accept this. Too often, we, liberal Christians, are now dancing with the wrong partner.
3) Have we been too fundamentalistic in not appreciating or even condemning certain religious movements and practices because these offend our liberal sensitivities or remind us too much of our own religious past?
One wonders whether the under-appreciation that we, liberals in general, have had for movements like PROMISE KEEPERS, CHARISMATIC RENEWAL, MARRIAGE ENCOUNTER, CURSILLO, RENEW, ALPHA, and the like, draws its source in genuine concern for the gospel or from offended liberal sensibilities. We tend to look at these movements, see there some strains of patriarchy, fundamentalism, piety, and uncritical submission to authority, and, irritated by these, fail to admit the real gospel transformation these movements sometimes help inspire. Offended in our liberal sensitivities, we become fundamentalist ourselves - uncompromising, unnuanced, locked into a pre-prescribed view, unable to see that sometimes the cruder discipline of authority is needed before someone can live the fuller freedom of the gospel.
PROMISE KEEPERS, for example, may not be a spirituality for a mature Christian, but anything that helps get millions of men back home, faithful to their wives, and back to prayer and church should certainly not be seen as the enemy. Liberal assessment of these movements has sometimes been far from compassionate and wise.
Three Things for Conservatives to Ponder
It's time for the flip-side. What three areas might conservatives ponder?
1) Jesus' admonition that truth alone is not enough.
For Jesus, truth needs a certain aesthetics: "Speak your truth in parables," he cautioned, "lest people might look but not perceive, listen but not understand." Among other things, this means that the truth is not a sledge-hammer. It's not enough simply to have the right truth, we need the right energy and patience as well.
As conservatives, we sometimes forget that. In our itch to defend the truth and protect proper boundaries, too often we try to impose truth by law and subdue opposing voices by legislative force. Contrary to Jesus' advice, we aren't content to let the weeds and the wheat grow together, but are habitually over-eager to uproot opposing views.
Passion alone is not enough. Neither is truth. The occupational pitfall for us, conservatives, is this: Not infrequently we end up like the older brother of the prodigal son, doing all the right things, not straying, but standing outside the circles of the celebration, unable to dance because we are angry that someone else has strayed. Too often our passion for truth has us bracket Jesus' call for patience, wide tolerance, and a mellow heart.
2) One issue does not make for a whole gospel.
The litmus test, biblically, as to one's Christian orthodoxy is love of one's enemies.
This isn't always our position as conservatives. In our passion for truth, we too frequently judge others' orthodoxy and good-will on another basis, namely, on how they stand on a given moral or doctrinal issue: abortion, sexual ethics, homosexuality, euthanasia, feminist ideology, papal infallibility, intercommunion, or even liturgical rubrics. The point is not that these issues aren't important. They are. The point rather is that, too often, we are focused so exclusively on one issue that we no longer see the larger moral picture.
For example, as conservatives, it is easy for us to look at a culture such as exists in Holland and assess it very negatively from a Christian point of view: Holland has legalized abortion, euthanasia, prostitution, and various drugs. Church attendance is very low, many people no longer bother to get married inside of the church or even inside of a courthouse, and, from many points of view, things look very post- Christian.
Yet, on the other hand, Holland has established one of the most compassionate, peace-loving cultures in the whole world. They take care of their poor better perhaps than any other country in the world, are peace-loving, solicitous that everyone have equal rights, anxious about the environment, and display a wonderful religious and ethnic tolerance. These are no small moral achievements. Too often we don't see this because obsessive focus on one moral issue blinds us to the larger moral picture. Sadly, this is also true, in reverse, when we assess more conservative cultures.
Another example might be our reaction to feminism. Too often we blame it for our culture's struggle with marriage and family life, not seeing at all that many of its tenets are a direct challenge to certain principles in the workplace (which creates too little place for family life) that are the real culprits in the dissipation of so many marriages and families. It was Gloria Steinem, not the corporations we trust, who let her employees bring their children along to the work and let them be parents and workers both at the same time.
3) The social gospel is just as non-negotiable as the sexual one.
As conservatives, we can be proud that, in a culture not given to accepting much in the way of challenge in terms of sexual ethics and private morality, we have remained prophetic in terms of affirming a higher sexual ethos, the road less-taken. Our culture owes conservatives a huge debt here, not that it will ever pay it.
But sometimes our vigilance has been one-sided. We have been healthily vigilant about sexual morality and what it protects (marriage, family life, emotional stability, social order, personal integrity, proper transparency, the capacity for trust) without, at the same time, being equally (or at all) solicitous about the other half of the gospel, justice and feeding the poor. Like our liberals colleagues, we too are selective in our morality, able to compartmentalize, and able to feel comfortable with neglecting important parts of the gospel because of our passion for one area of it.
Jesus, however, makes social morality and private morality equally non-negotiable. In the gospels, we don't go to heaven if we break the commandments, but we don't go there either if we don't feed the poor.
Sally Bingham was recently asked how she adjusts herself in terms of speaking to either a conservative or a liberal congregation. Her reply: "I don't look at whether a congregation is liberal or conservative; I look at how devout they are." Sound advice for us all.