Is it Possible to Be a "Progressive Catholic?"

Patrick Deneen does not think so.

The Georgetown University politics professor (soon to be a Notre Dame politics professor) believes that the phrase “progressive Catholic” does not make sense. He makes this argument in a very insightful piece that critiques his colleague E.J. Dionne’s use of terms such as “progressive Catholic” and “social justice Catholics.”

It seems that Deneen is right when he suggests that the social teaching of the Catholic Church does not “map” very well on our current political landscape.  I have always wondered about this–both as a former Catholic and as a student of American religion.

Why don’t I ever hear so-called “progressive” or “liberal” Catholics defend the Church’s teaching on abortion and gay marriage?  In the last year or so I have spent some time with administrators and professors at Catholic universities and colleges who sound no different on these moral questions than any liberal academic. They all talk a good game on the “social justice” front, but they are rarely proactive in discussing the Church’s position on some of the issues that have become talking points for political conservatives.

And why don’t I ever hear conservative Catholics, such as those of the First Things variety (where Deneen published his piece), talk about social justice issues.  Instead, they extoll the virtues of capitalism, defend a pro-life position on abortion, and rail against gay marriage and stem-cell research. I rarely  hear them speak about poverty, the role of government, or other issues that have become talking points for political liberals.

Deneen’s piece is helpful on this front.

A taste:

The labels themselves are inappropriate, particularly that of “progressive Catholic”—a combination that is fundamentally a contradiction in terms, yet a label that Dionne uses again and again to describe his approach to the Catholic faith. The Progressives were theologically millenarian, even Arian, believing that salvation could be achieved through human effort and especially through the twin avenues of science and politics. In the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century Progressives such as John Dewey, Herbert Croly, and Walter Rauschenbusch were self-described critics of the past and hostile to tradition. John Dewey equated Christianity and democracy, believing that democracy had become the new means of ongoing revelation, and in which the teacher should seek to bring about the kingdom of God—progress advanced in the classroom could accelerate the coming of the millennium on earth.

G.K. Chesterton wrote that “the fatal metaphor of progress, which means leaving things behind us, has utterly obscured the real idea of growth, which means leaving things inside us.” Catholicism is an accumulation of tradition, including a magisterium that does not waver from the fundamental truth as divulged in the teachings and life of Jesus. It is a faith that traces itself back through apostolic succession to its point of origin with Jesus’s commission to his apostles to go forth and spread the Word. It is a faith that is populated by constant remembrance of the cloud of witnesses, the communion of the saints, who are remembered in every Mass during the Eucharistic prayer. While Catholics look forward to the future with hope, they do not invest their hopes in perfection of the City of Man. If Catholics are anything, they are not “progressives,” and to import the political term for the description of Catholics is to collapse the Church into a political program that cannot be reconciled to the Catholic worldview.

If less pernicious, Dionne’s other preferred form of self-description—“Social Justice Catholic”—appears only to endorse the Church’s charitable work on behalf of the poor, with a heavy preference for government’s role in that effort. But is the Church’s efforts on behalf of the dignity of every human life—born or unborn—any less a part of its commitment to social justice? Is not the defense and preservation of the family a central focus of social justice? Should not we understand the Bishop’s opposition to the HHS mandate, and preservation of the Church’s ministry without needless interference by the State, also to be a part of social justice? Dionne seems to define social justice to be activities that conform solely to the platform of the Democratic Party, but, here again, American partisan positions map poorly onto the Church’s rich tradition of Catholic Social Thought. His portrayal of “Social Justice Catholics” as distinct from “conservative Catholics” is a disfigurement of the fullness of Catholic teaching.

3 thoughts on “Is it Possible to Be a "Progressive Catholic?"

  1. Deneen may believe all those descriptions of the Church as a growing accumulation of tradition, but as a scholar he should be skeptical.

    Like most institutions, religious or secular, there is a lot of “invented tradition” in the Church. The continuity of the RCC is called into question by the schism of the Orthodox Church, for example. Or the departure of the modernist Catholic Churches in the 19th century (who have as great a claim to the tradition as the Church based in Rome.)

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  2. I also saw this piece, John, and it made me think about my own analysis of progressive evangelicals.

    But I think that what is important to note here is that Deneen is speaking prescriptively as an interested party. Yet descriptively I think that the labels “progressive,” “liberal,” “conservative,” etc. do tell us something about the ways that different religious groups prioritize their political commitments.

    Perhaps it should not be so, but thus it is.

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  3. As someone who tries to adhere to the actual teachings of Catholicism, I can vouch for the fact that it's easy to get distracted in the American political culture of “us vs. them” or “red vs. blue”. We tend to pick a side that most clearly aligns with Church teachings and then focus only the positions offered up by popular media outlets. It's easier that way.

    It requires more discipline and humility for a known Catholic Republican to defend, say, environmental protection, and for a known Catholic Democrat to defend life and the sanctity of marriage, lest each be labeled as disloyal, fake, or weak. A label like that can wreak havoc on a pundit's credibility among those who can only see in red or blue.

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