Reflecting on the Divisions in the Catholic Church at the Fordham Conversation Project

My good friend Charlie Camosy (check out his blog No Hidden Magenta) helped organize and host the Fordham Conversation Project a few weeks ago. The FCP (which I heard him refer to in conversation as the “anti-conference”) was an opportunity for young, non-tenured Catholic theologians to come together to discuss the divisions in the church and the future of Catholic theology. I was honored to be invited to Fordham to participate.

The FCP kicked off with a keynote address by Peter Steinfels, author of A People Adrift, on the current sociological data on the 70 million American Catholics. The data doesn’t look good. For example, only 10% of Catholic teens say their faith is extremely important in shaping their daily life, as opposed to 40% of Mormon teens and 30% of Evangelical teens. One-third of the adults raised Catholic have left the Church, and three Catholics leave for each one that enters. Steinfels noted tongue in cheek that the problem of declining members wasn’t exclusively a Catholic problem: “If it weren’t for people leaving the Roman Catholic Church, the Episcopal Church would have died a long time ago.”

Steinfels went on to describe two opposing concerns in the Church: concerns of identity and concerns of inclusion. Those Catholics who emphasize more the former tend to want a smaller, more homogeneous church, while those who identify the latter want a larger, more diverse church. If we think of these two concerns on a supply and demand graph, argued Steinfels, the best place for the church is where the two lines meet.

The next day, we listened to Catholic reporter John Allen talk about two trends from his new book The Future Church: globalization and the rise in Evangelical Catholicism. Regarding the first, Allen and others are adamant that the Church is moving south, and that this new “southern majority” is going to bring big changes to the current Euro-American dominated church. First of all, southern Catholics (those who live below the southern hemisphere) tend to be conservative on sexual issues but liberal on social justice. They tend to be more biblical than European and American Catholics and they tend to place a heavy emphasis on the supernatural. Southern Catholics are also more likely to prefer an “incluturated” liturgical celebration that incorporates elements of their own indigenous culture. Clearly, these southern Catholics challenge our traditional Catholic stereotypes.

At the same time, in the US we are seeing a different trend which Allen calls the rise of Evangelical Catholicism. These Catholics are characterized by their efforts to revive a traditional form of Catholic identity (on Steinfels’ chart, these are the “identity Catholics”). Evangelical Catholics are likely to say the Rosary regularly, go to confession regularly, prefer more traditional forms of liturgy, and choose a religious vocation.

So essentially, we have two opposing trends in the southern hemisphere and in the U.S. What does this mean? It means that the church is in a state of tension. We might say that U.S. Catholics are tending to emphasize “identity” more while southern Catholics are tending to emphasize “inclusion.” It also means that the Catholic Church looks and sounds very different depending on where you are. So are we doomed? Is the Catholic Church a church divided?

I don’t think so, and if you want to see some of my thoughts on this, check out my comments on the National Catholic Reporter “Distinctly Catholic” site. To draw from some of Fr. Robert Imbelli’s remarks at the conference, I think that in light of all the negative sociological data on the Catholic Church, there is still hope, a hope that is based in an incarnational reflection on the global Church. Despite the vast differences in the church on specific matters of faith, politics, morality, and liturgy, the center of the Church is strong enough to hold it all together. That center is Christ.

The essence of the Catholic Church’s identity is not a specific liturgical form (though some forms may be better than others; I, for one, would like to see more acapella singing and fewer organs drowning out the feeble voices trying to offer up a suitable worship to God). Nor is the essence of the Church its Marian devotions, its emphasis on the sacrament of confession, its Catechism, or its popes and bishops. Don’t get me wrong, all of these are incredibly important. They may not make the Church, but they surely do make her strong. No, the essence of the Church is her firm, enduring, unchanging conviction that Jesus Christ, the only son of the one eternal and immaterial God, became flesh for our sake, living among us and dying as one of us so that in dying, He might defeat death and the power of sin that had enslaved humanity. The essence of the Church is that we believe that Jesus lives still and works with us still through His Holy Spirit, until that day when our work will be through, and we can join Jesus where he reins.

This does not mean that our differences are not unimportant, nor does it mean that everybody who calls themselves “Catholic” is right about everything he or she holds. But it does mean that our center is not ideology, but Christ, and through that Center, we can, God-willing, work with Christ to reconcile the whole world to Him.

The Fordham Conversation Project was a wonderful opportunity for theologians and teachers like myself to think about how we might do just this—maintain unity in the face of diversity while at the same time, working to speak and live the truth. Catholic theologians, like every theologian since the time of Augustine who invited the Donatists back in the fold despite their heresy and apostasy, have to figure out how to address and reconcile the differences that exist in the Church without letting those differences ultimately triumph over us.


1 comment so far

  1. everydaythomist on

    Here is Charlie’s post summing up the reactions to the FCP. I encourage you to check it out:

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