Sunday, February 14, 2010

What Makes for Catholic Lite?

For that matter, what makes for Taliban Catholicism?

In his book The Courage to be Catholic: Crisis, Reform, and the Future of the Church, George Weigel famously came up with the term "Catholic Lite" while saying:
The answer to the current crisis will not be found in Catholic Lite... It will only be found in a classic Catholicism — a Catholicism with the courage to be countercultural, a Catholicism that has reclaimed the wisdom of the past in order to face the corruption of the present and create a renewed future, a Catholicism that risks the high adventure of fidelity... There is little in Catholic Lite theology that poses a serious countercultural challenge to the spirit of the age. Catholic Lite is a soft Catholicism, understanding and sympathetic. Being understanding and sympathetic are, of course, virtues. But as G. K. Chesterton pointed out long ago, the world is filled with old Christian virtues ‘gone mad.’ When a religious tradition is profoundly challenged, as Christianity is by modernity, more than vices are set loose in the world, Chesterton wrote: ‘The virtues are let loose also; and the virtues wander more wildly, and the virtues do more damage.’ That is precisely what has happened in the culture of dissent.
John Allen, writing recently in the National Catholic Reporter, had a thought-provoking take on this. In his column A 'Dallas experiment' in Orthodoxy and Openness he mentioned his coining of the term "Taliban Catholicism" and the criticism he has taken for it. That criticism continued after that column. I share the feeling of many conservatives that the term is hyperbolic, insulting, and not very useful, but what I found particularly interesting was his observation on how he sees the problem of "Catholic Lite" on the right and "Taliban Catholicism" on the left:
In fact, there's a right-wing form of Catholicism Lite that's just as watered-down and sold out to secularism as its kissing cousin on the left. In the States, it can take the form of a country club Republican Catholicism -- untroubled by the inequities of global free-market capitalism, quite at home with anti-immigrant rhetoric, the death penalty, and the use of armed force.

At least in my mind, the defining feature of "Catholicism Lite" is not a liberal or conservative outlook, but rather taking one's cues from secular culture rather than the faith. No ideological camp has a monopoly on that.

Similarly, there's a Taliban instinct on the Catholic left that can be just as noxious as its right-wing version. It generally includes paranoia about almost any exercise of authority in the church, coupled with derision of any attempt to defend traditional Catholic thought, speech or practice -- a liberal "hermeneutic of suspicion" that can easily shade off into rage. Try telling a certain kind of Catholic liberal that Benedict XVI isn't actually "rolling back the clock" on Vatican II, for example, and you'll want to duck and
I see where Allen is coming from, but I wonder about that last part. I get what is behind his critique of liberals and I understand the rationale that lies behind the claims for a "hermeneutic of continuity" and a reform of the reform" but there are plenty of centrists and conservatives who think that Benedict is "turning back the clock" too. In fact, many conservatives openly celebrate it.


Garpu said...

I'd be happy with some sort of middle ground, you know? And I don't think it's just the Benedictine in me talking. There's been an erosion of any kind of cohesion among Catholics the past 10 years or so. It seemed like even if we disagreed, we were still Catholic. Now each side points to the other and finds reasons to kick them out. I'm not sure what the answer is, and I hope it doesn't result in a split or even more people leaving the Church.

Julia said...

I'm always mystified by people who coin names for "those others." How is it helpful? More telling are the groups who name themselves, like "Catholics for Choice," usually groups, I suppose, who have a particular axe to grind. Aren't most Catholics a mixture of liberal and conservative? I'm opposed to abortion but don't see anything wrong with married priests.

Garpu, in what way do you see an erosion of cohesion? I see a different situation, that Catholics don't have that strong sense, any more, of who they are, something that has been going on for 30 or 40 years.

Jeff said...

Hi Jen & Julia,

I may be getting old, but I remember when most everyone was centrist. At least if felt that way in my parish, and it wasn't all that long ago. The abuse crisis and the web semed to change things. I think the web makes dividing and subdividing very easy. I often wonder how much things on the ground really resemble what we see online.

As for labels, people seem to need them in order to categorize and make sense of certain things, but I can see how someone whose vision of the Church gets labelled in what he considers to be a pejorative fashion responds to his critics in kind. Again, another natural reaction amplified and exacerbated by the web.

shera10 said...

The wide majority of Italian churchgoers are “catholic lite “ as John Allen means. Conservatives are against immigrants ( and very often openly xenophobic), believe it’s ok to be a tax dodge, and to fire a worker because she is pregnant, liberals don’t care about moral and bed room issues. For both abortion isn’t a big issue. In both side some don’t know the church’s teachings but most disagree with.

I belong to second group ( I’m a liberal and I disagree)

How can Allen state that B16 isn’t turning back the clock???!!!

Jeff said...

Hi Cristina,

I really don't understand why European Catholics take a more casual attitude towards abortion than American Catholics do. Maybe it's because the American Church has been so Irish in character...?

How can Allen state that B16 isn’t turning back the clock?

I don't know. I suppose Allen must take Benedict at his word that he wants to advance a proper understanding of Vatican II that looks at the actual texts rather than a questionable "spirit" and wants to emphasize how Vatican II was in continuity with tradition rather than a rupture.

As for me, I tend to go with the principle that "if it walks like a duck, talks like a duck...."

shera10 said...

Hi Jeff

“I really don't understand why European Catholics take a more casual attitude towards abortion than American Catholics do.”

Jeff, I too don’t understand why Americans are so concerned about abortion, and apparently don’t care that US has the worst infant mortality rate among the western countries. Do only unborn babies matter?

I think here we are more aware that we don’t live in an ideal world, but in a real world where abortion has always been with human beings, so it is better to have it legal and under State control. And so happily In Italy since abortion law passed the abortion rate is decreasing. Anyway I cannot imagine to live in a country where abortion is outlaw.
Actually among my parish members or my catholic coworkers I know very few pro-life as you Americans mean, that’s one that want outlaw the abortion law. But anyway we speak very seldom about this and I never heard an homily about this.

A little Italian story about this.
Few years ago at the maternity hospital of Torino, doctors began to use RU486 to perform abortions. A very conservative journalist asked to the bishop, cardinal Poletto :”Why can we meet in front of the hospital, saying rosaries, singing, holding billboard?” and the card answered “ We will never do these americanate”

Americanata is an Italian term describing anything that is exaggerated, overdone, extravagant, garish, foolishness, or just in plain bad taste in a uniquely American way.

Maybe about abortion exists a cultural gap between Italy and USA

Jeff said...


I too don’t understand why Americans are so concerned about abortion, and apparently don’t care that US has the worst infant mortality rate among the western countries. Do only unborn babies matter?

I think you've been reading my blog long enough to know that I care about these things and that they do matter to me.

I understand the back-alley problem. Let's not talk so much about the legal aspect, but of what it means to build a culture of life. Let's talk of how we can persuade people to make positive, non-destructive choices. Despite all the difficulties and complications, abortion is ultimately a destructive act, not a life-affirming act. The unborn epitomize the mot defenseless, weak, and vulnerable among us. I'd like to see us speak in defense of extending humanity to them and the decent treatment that humanity requires. If we as Catholics have a preferential option for the poor, why not a preferential option for the unborn? A culture of life is easier to build when it is consistent.

I think a lot of it comes down to how we actually see God's will at work in our lives. Does God have a hand in our creation, or is our creation due only to the will and volition of our parents, by sheer chance or otherwise? If we are co-creators with God, if God wills our very existence, it seems to me that we need to speak in defense of the unborn.

The Catholic lay community I admire the most is the Community of Sant' Egidio, which was founded in Rome. If Sant' Egidio can openly be a friend and champion of the poor, work for peace and reconciliation in a high-profile manner, and work tirelessly and publicy to eliminate capital punishment around the world, I think they are capable of finding a way to discourage abortion without submitting to the bad taste of being "americanate."

shera10 said...

“I think you've been reading my blog long enough to know that I care about these things and that they do matter to me”

Yes, I know, Jeff. I was speaking about many conservative Americans pro-life that on Commonweal, America or other blogs all the time, whatever subject is posted comment only about abortion. I apologize to you for badly explained myself.

If you look at the home page of the Community of Sant' Egidio’s site, you don’t see anywhere the word abortion. This would be impossible in US. I only wanted pointed out this difference between USA and Italy.

Mike McG... said...

The zeitgeist is surely with the more sanguine European attitude toward abortion but in time this may prove not have been the more prophetic stance.

The conversation between Shera and Jeff left me wondering whether the esteemed Community of Saint Egedio was on record regarding abortion. At least in the quotation below their position seems to favor a consistent ethic of life.

If Google Translate can be trusted, this commentary speaks in part to the controversy over capital punishment at the United Nations:

Regarding "the debate launched at the United Nations moratorium on the death penalty, which will have another key step in key European Union, the EU summit in Lisbon: 'It's the culmination of a battle over the last 10 years has seen 50 countries to renounce the use of capital punishment as an instrument of justice. It's a step forward in the culture of life', states Sant'Egidio. 'Life is sacred from conception to natural death, and can not be removed by the hand of man that you can not return.'"

The Community seems also to regret Amnesty International's change of position re: abortion. "The Community of Sant'Egidio, which reaffirms the 'profound root of the battle for human rights can only be a culture of life, without exceptions...'one can only respond with the power of love and solidarity and with the firm conviction that both the lives of women and the unborn cannot be infringed.'"

Jeff said...


Thanks for doing that research. I was looking for quotes from Sant' Egidio or from Andrea Riccardi indicating what their postion was on abortion, and there was very little to find. I'm glad they've stated it publicly the way they have, but as Cristina points out, it doesn't seem to be one of their highest priorities.