Are you a resister or an engager?

Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, in an article in Commonweal provocatively entitled "Is the Pope Obsolete?", suggests that the polarization within the contemporary Catholic church is not so much between conservatives and liberals, but between two smaller, passionate groups of Catholics. She writes:

Finally, there is a polarized church usually described as divided between conservatives and liberals. That is not wholly wrong. But increasingly it seems to me that the polarization is between two smaller groups both deeply committed to the church and the Catholic tradition. The first group we might call resisters. They regard the church and tradition as bulwarks against a culture enthralled (as they see it) by consumption, technological fixes, and novel social arrangements. Their remedy is resistance to the power of the culture (and sometimes the state) and preservation of a Catholic ethos centered on family, religious devotion, and an integral intellectual framework for defending the tradition. Certainly many of these can be described as conservative or traditionalists, but there is a left-wing version developing, including those who style themselves “radical orthodox”.

The second group we might call engagers. They do not buy the “culture of death” analysis on which the resisters argue their case, though they too may be critics of some of the same economic and cultural practices. They see in the culture and the outlines of modernity (and post-modernity) a challenge to which the church and tradition bring rich and powerful ideas, analysis, and counter-practices. Dialogue and engagement are their primary responses, though preservation of Catholic practice is important to their endeavors. Many of these can be described as liberals, but they are increasingly joined by moderates and some conservatives who, at least in the United States, are reluctant to join the more integralist resisters. (It is paradoxical that the resisters take John Paul II for their hero, though in many respects he is a model for the engagers.)

While "resisters" and "engagers" might be nicer terms, or at least less ideologically or politically freighted terms, than "conservatives" and "liberals", I'm not sure that Steinfels' attempt to stretch these terms as an alternative structure of analysis really works. While I have no doubt that there may be left-wing resisters (e.g., my Catholic worker friends), they're not exactly thick on the ground. In fact, most of the more intelligent "liberal" and "conservative" Catholics seem to fall within the "engager" camp; but then you no longer have a source for contemporary R.C. polarization, which is far more rooted in mainstream Catholicism than in the splinter groups one finds at either end of the spectrum. Even as ideal types, I'm not sure that the categories work. Readers (all two of you), show me where I'm wrong.

Where I think O'Brien Steinfels hits the nail on the head perfectly, though, is on her analysis of how the shriveling of authority at the level of the local church has contributed to the decline of energy in contemporary Catholicism. She writes that many of our most pressing issues "are best addressed by the local church, if only it had more guts and gusto. But it's precisely where the local church meets the Vatican that the engine of Catholicism has seized up." Amen. When bishops are looking over their shoulders for their next promotion, when they know that their stay in Providence or Manchester is a trial-run for the "big leagues" of Boston and New York, when a bishop can't make decisions regarding the pastoral or liturgical life of his church without being subject to intense scrutiny from above, we have a real problem. Many of these points were made in admirable fashion by Fr. Michael Buckley, S.J., of Boston College theology, at a talk sponsored by the B.C. Church in the 21st Century Project in 2002. Entitled "Resources for Reform from the First Millenium", you can view the webcast of the talk, with co-speakers Michael Himes and Mary Ann Hinsdale, I.H.M., by clicking here. (If you want to hear the audio only, or learn more about the event, it is on the C21 Project webcast page as "Legitimate Expectations", a panel on "The Laity and the Governance of the Church", from September 30, 2002.) Fr. Buckley's talk is also available in the recent volume Common Calling: The Laity and Governance of the Catholic Church, which brings together many of the best papers from the first two years of the C21 Project's existence.

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