CHICAGO—Margaret Steinfels, editor of Commonweal magazine, recalls a “famous moment” a year ago that led to the forum on the topic of liberal Catholicism Oct. 6.

It was during a homily that Cardinal Francis George, Archbishop of Chicago, said liberal Catholicism was an “exhausted project.”

This year's Commonweal conference invited him to explain what he meant, and he did. Other featured speakers included Steinfels and her husband, Peter Steinfels, a former Commonweal editor himself and religion and ethics columnist at The New York Times.

The evening's title, “The Crisis of Liberal Catholicism,” seemed to acknowledge that Cardinal George was on to something.

The audience was overwhelmingly liberal, Catholic, and over 50, including many who have helped make Chicago famous as a bastion of independent Catholic thinking. The audience was also large, leaving standing room only in the 270-seat little theater on the campus of Loyola University.

If Cardinal George felt outnumbered, he gave no sign of it. The Church, he said, could no longer be seen as a way to achieve “the world's goals.” That, he said, was the “exhausted project.”

But he had plenty of criticism for conservative Catholicism as well. While the Church cannot set aside its traditions “to make someone happy,” neither can it embrace “a conservatism that looks only to the hierarchy, making it responsible for all the good or bad that happens.” Bishops, he said, “are a reality check for faith. Do they control the Gospel? No, they serve it.”

In a critique of both tendencies, he said: “Become liberal or conservative, and you stop thinking things through.”

A Debate?

Peter Steinfels analyzed the crisis of liberal Catholicism in what he called a “parallel and independent” manner, not directly countering Cardinal George.

U.S. Judge John Noonan, Jr., former law professor at U. of California-Berkeley and author of Contraception, also spoke. His book helped undermine support for Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI's encyclical that reaffirmed the Church's opposition to artificial birth control. University of Notre Dame historian John McGreevey and Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, Jr. rounded out the program.

Steinfels argued in favor of liberalism as a reaction against oppression by Church authorities, in part a corrective element that is still needed. Pius IX said he had “always condemned” liberal Catholics. The future Pius X said, “Their piety disguised their venom.”

Even now, he said he finds it “depressing and even embittering” to read of such matters, especially since it was liberal Catholicism, he said, that saved some countries from being immersed in anti-Semitism and other evils. He decried “crisis-mongering” in our day, “when liberal Catholicism is the dominant outlook in the Church” while the fight against liberals is waged by a “well-funded movement and its publications.”

It “cannot be ruled out” that the Pope is in error on the ordination of women, he said, conceding that this position is well-received by “liberal society.” On the other hand, he said, his opposition to the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that permitted abortion are “as unwelcome” at The New York Times, his employer, as his views on Humanae Vitae are in the Roman curia.

Liberal is Not Left

Steinfels severely criticized “the Catholic left” as something more extreme than liberal Catholicism and which is embodied in the group A Call to Action and others for whom “inclusiveness” is so highly prized that it has become a meaningless “cant word.”

As an example, he cited A Call to Action convention speaker who called for an end to the episcopacy, a stand that didn't warrant criticism by Call to Action leaders or even by other Catholic liberals, who maintain a “discreet silence” about such excesses, and fail to “insist on the defining marks of Catholicism.”

Steinfels said Catholics on either extreme tend to be suspicious and are quick to question the motives of others; discussion gives way to “rallies” in an atmosphere in which people act as though they are members of political parties.

Cardinal George agreed. “We are a liberal culture,” he said, “and engagement with it is more complex than it appears … The ‘party’ spirit puts a stop to thinking.”

Catholics must talk about these things, he said, “but not as liberal or conservative.” The answer, he said, lies not in “power plays” and other maneuvers but in “what makes us holy.”

Points of Agreement

Both men had similar ideas about the damage that has been caused by false concepts of personhood.

“Both conservatism and liberalism … tend to look on the person as a bundle of desires or dreams, animal impulses and higher aspirations which are synthesized individually by choice and controlled socially by law,” the cardinal said.

Steinfels agreed that personal experience has been elevated to the beginning and the ending point of religious reflection.

The cardinal also noted “a darker side” to U.S. Catholicism, which is increasingly apathetic and dependent on immigrant newcomers to sustain itself.

“Are we forming people capable of sacrifice needed to continue the human project?” he asked. “Who are filling our graduate schools in the hard sciences? How many Indian and other Asian doctors staff our hospitals? How many study in our seminaries who are not Americans? Who's entering marriage with a sense of commitment?”

The last of Cardinal George's comments focused on the central importance of doctrine. “So serious is the question of doctrine,” he said, “that faced with [a substantial point of doctrine demanding my acceptance], I would resign if I couldn't say I accepted it.”

Chicago Tribune religion columnist Steve Kloehn described the George-Steinfels conversation as “a soaring tour” of intellectual and cultural history. “Most strikingly,” he said, “they often agreed.”

The speakers demonstrated “hope for a more rigorous and sophisticated approach to person, culture and God,” said Kloehn. “Seen in that light, today's [Church] spats could change fundamentally, or disappear altogether.”

Jim Bowman writes from Chicago.