Freddy Gray’s American Diary
ith so many headlines about Pope Benedict XVI’s Apostolic Constitu tion and a rapprochement between Catholicism and traditional Anglicanism, it is easy to forget the interesting developments at the other end of the Anglosphere’s Catholic spectrum. Just as conservative Anglicans find themselves more and more chastened by the gay and women bishops in their midst, many liberal Catholics feel increasingly ill at ease in their Church thanks to the Vatican’s emphasis on resisting secular culture and promoting traditional liturgies and teaching.
In America, the grumbles of the Catholic Left are growing louder. This year, the American Catholic Council, a group of devout liberals, has been busily preparing for a major conference in Detroit in 2011. The organisation’s aims are not modest. “We seek nothing short of a personal conversion of all to create a new Church,” declares the ACC’s mission statement, “fully in tune with the authentic Gospel message, the teachings of our Church, and the American context in which we live.” That sounds quasi-schismatic. The ACC, in its enthusiasm to re-ignite the fire of progressive Catholicism, seems intent on having its own version of a Vatican II council, only this time on American soil, where the reactionary hand of Rome cannot easily slap them down.
The conference’s list of formal endorsers would no doubt prompt some alarm among the officials at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. It includes the Women’s Ordination Conference, DignityUSA, New Ways Ministry, Corpus, FutureChurch, Americans for Rights in the Catholic Church, Call to Action, Take Back Our Church, Catholic Diocese of One Spirit, WomenChurch Convergence, We Are Church, the European Network, Sacred Quest, and many more. It’s like a Who’s Who of Lefty Catholic dissent. The choice of venue is also important. In 1976, the US bishops’ conference – then far more in thrall to liberal thinking – hosted a notorious “Call to Action” summit in Detroit. More than 1,000 delegates urged the Vatican to “re-evaluate its positions on issues like celibacy for priests, the male-only clergy, homosexuality, birth control, and the involvement of every level of the Church in important decisions”. Joseph Bottum, editor of the journal First Things, once described the Call to Action conference as “the low point in post-Vatican II American Catholic unity”. Indeed, most US Catholics look back on that time with some embarrassment.
Not so the activists of the ACC. On its website the group boasts that its 2011 meeting will mark “the 50th anniversary of the opening of Vatican II and the 35th anniversary of Call to Action in Detroit to celebrate the impact of Vatican II principles upon the US Catholic Church”.
The ACC’s leaders insist, of course, that their designs for 2011 are not divisive. The group claims not to differ with the Church “in matters of faith, but in matters of discipline”. Rather, “we want to fulfil the promise of Vatican II to create a more responsive, accountable Church that calls on the active participation of all its people and a Church that more closely models the American experience”.
Orthodox Catholics remain highly suspicious, however. “While the organisers of the proposed council have appropriated the language and trappings of an authentic Catholic council,” said Anne Hendershott in the conservative Catholic World Report, “the reality is that the American Catholic Council will be conducted entirely outside the purview of the Church, flouting canon law, and ignoring input from current Church leaders.” Yet the absence of official involvement in the ACC’s Detroit conclave might be less an indication of the group’s insubordinate intentions and more an illustration of how the American Catholic establishment has moved Right since the heyday of Catholic liberalism in the 1960s and 1970s.
Still, America’s bishops should be on their guard in 2011: the ageing sisters and brothers of FutureChurch might have a bit of fight left in them.