After leaving my academic post earlier this year, I am rediscovering the joy of reading for its own sake, free from publication deadlines and the pressure to produce peer-reviewed journal articles. This week I started reading Bernard Häring’s three-volume study, Free and Faithful in Christ. Published in 1978, the first volume – General Moral Theology – can, with hindsight, be seen as a pivotal moment when the tide began to turn in the postconciliar Church. As a formative influence on the Council, Häring writes with all the intellectual vigor and openness that characterized Catholic theology after Vatican II, but the election of Pope John Paul II that same year would see a closing down of the Catholic mind, with an increasingly authoritarian approach promoted by John Paul II and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as Head of the CDF and then as Pope Benedict XVI.
The McCarrick report (published by the Vatican on November 10) exposes the damage caused by two popes who appointed bishops to do their will in the U.S. Church, clamping down on progressive and liberationist Catholicism and cultivating an obsessive preoccupation with sexual and reproductive issues – particularly abortion – that has contributed to the near disintegration of democracy in U.S. politics. That same day saw the British publication of a widely anticipated report into sex abuse in the Catholic Church by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sex Abuse (IICSA), and it makes equally devastating reading with regard to the failure of the Church’s most senior leaders to offer an appropriate response to the trauma of victims and survivors and to take effective action to investigate charges of abuse.
It was against this background of clerical complacency, cronyism and betrayal that I read these words from Häring’s introduction. He writes,
what most influenced my thinking about moral theology was the mindless and criminal obedience of Christians to Hitler, a madman and tyrant. This led me to the conviction that the character of a Christian must not be formed one-sidedly by a leitmotif of obedience but rather by a discerning responsibility, a capacity to respond courageously to new value insights and new needs, and a readiness to take the risk. (p. 2)
I am not suggesting a direct comparison between Trump and Hitler, but the support of many white Catholics for Trump is deeply disturbing. Nor am I suggesting that the U.S. Church has a monopoly on mindless and criminal obedience to tyranny. Across eastern and central Europe, and playing an obscure but influential role in Brexiteering British politics, there are powerful Catholics today walking a dark path towards political extremism. The warning lights are flashing orange for the future of democracy, and the Catholic Church is not an innocent bystander. So, I focus on the U.S. only because it is the crucible of so many of the conflicts in the Church today, and I find myself asking how far the Catholic education system there bears some responsibility for the failure to develop the qualities of moral formation that Häring describes – and, of course, I know that this refers only to a minority within the vastly diverse demographics of U.S. Catholicism, but it is a significant minority.
I’ve had the pleasure of teaching exchange students from U.S. universities in London. I was surprised to learn from some that their Catholic schools would bus them to March for Life events. March for Life is a well-funded vehicle for promoting the values of the U.S. religious right in countries as far afield as Croatia and Kenya, often working alongside the petition website CitizenGo, which gathers thousands of signatures from its subscribers around the world for campaigns against sexual and reproductive rights. I asked those exchange students if their Catholic schools encouraged them to join protest marches about other issues of social justice, but they said no. This is anecdotal, but I wonder how typical they were.
I have my own experience of constraints on the intellectual freedom of Catholic institutions in the U.S., having been ‘disinvited’ in 2012 from the University of San Diego where I had been asked to take up a six-week fellowship by my dear friend and colleague, the late Professor Gerard Mannion. The Newman Society was behind the campaign to have me banned, and I understand they have put similar pressure on other academic institutions in the U.S. Their doctrinal weapon was Pope John Paul II’s 1990 apostolic constitution on Catholic Universities, Ex Corde Ecclesia, which lent justification to many acts of censorship and intimidation. Watching from a distance, all this makes the land of the free seem very unfree insofar as Catholic intellectual life is concerned.
So reading Häring in this time of tumult, I’m reflecting on how high a price is being paid for the failure of the last two papacies to defend the Church’s rich traditions of learning and philosophical enquiry. Pope Francis has done much to reanimate the spirit of Vatican II, yet his obstinate resistance to engaging with women scholars or with gender theorists means that, however much he condemns clericalism, he continues to support a male hierarchical elite that underpins most of the systemic failures and abuses afflicting Catholic life today.
But there is no going back and there is no normal to go back to. After the pandemic recedes, and when we begin to take stock of the lessons to be learned from the U.S. election and from the publication of two more devastating reports into the ongoing sex abuse scandal, we may realize that the Church as we know it is finished. Far from seeing this as a tragedy, I believe that in the dying throes of this corrupted and dysfunctional institution, we can discern the birthing pains of a new era struggling to be born, but the stakes are high and there is much to lose if the old authoritarianism reasserts itself. This is indeed a time when Catholics must manifest ‘a discerning responsibility, a capacity to respond courageously to new value insights and new needs, and a readiness to take the risk.’
Tina Beattie is professor emirita of Catholic Studies, University of Roehampton, London, and director of Catherine of Siena College.