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Church's future beyond left-right divide


Pope on human rights Much popular reflection about the current state of the Roman Catholic Church frames the church's situation in terms of a tussle between two groups, variously named left and right, progressive and conservative, or liberal and restorationist.

Coverage of church affairs in the secular media seems dominated by this polarity and although it may be tempting to see the tension as a creation of the media, in truth it's far more than a media mirage. Catholics often speak about the greatest challenge facing their church as either one of updating, to make it more relevant in this age, or one of returning to the true identity that it abandoned in the early 1960s.

Yet it seems to me the polarity is the problem. When the church's place in the world is understood from the perspective of the restorationist-liberal divide, we are let down on two fronts. Firstly, both sides of the polarity rely on a shallow analysis of the cultural change that swept through Western society in the 1960s. Second, both sides underestimate the power of the gospel to transform this culture.

There are issues, then, of cultural analysis and of the relationship of the gospel to culture. I will discuss them briefly in turn.

Both liberals and restorationists believe that the church has adapted in response to the radical cultural change that has shaped the West since the '60s. Liberals evaluate this cultural change positively, highlighting the furtherance of human rights, the recognition of the equal dignity of women, the increasing emphasis on aid for poor nations, and many other developments. Restorationists evaluate the cultural change negatively, highlighting the decline of religious practice, the seeming failure of family life, and the many other signs of disintegration in contemporary Western culture.

Yet neither of these evaluations gives an adequate picture of the cultural shift; nor will a trade-off between the positive and negative evaluations give a fuller picture. The cultural change in the West over the last 40 years is much more subtle and complex than either of these positions allows.

In a sense, both positive and negative evaluations portray part of the picture. Much is admirable in the development of Western culture, the furtherance of human rights being a fine example. Much is also frightening in the West's cultural shift, for example when significant relationships like marriage are treated instrumentally — seen as there to be taken up or set aside as determined by an individual's happiness.

So, both get part of the picture but simple positive or negative evaluations of cultural change won't suffice. What's needed is an analysis that would allow us to judge how best to foster the admirable developments in this culture while avoiding its debased forms. And that analysis is far richer than the polarity allows.

Second, both sides of the liberal-restorationist polarity underestimate the gospel's power to transform culture. Restorationists tend to withdraw from contemporary culture because of its supposed degenerate, godless state, and they step out into the world only to fire a volley of shots at their latest targets — a strategy with minimal likelihood of success. Liberals, focused on updating the church, tend to lose sight of the significance for our world of the great transformation to which Christian faith calls us — to open human life to the divine.

From my perspective, the greatest challenge facing the church today is to find a way to express Christian faith in this new context. This requires a broad and deep analysis of the culture in order to distinguish authentic developments of the gospel-inspired way of life from those aspects of the culture that negate the gospel.

But once stated in this way, the challenge has just begun. Both the individual and the Church itself are called to live in such a way that those with whom they share the planet could discover the love of God embodied in very ordinary existence. Simplistic solutions won't communicate what's required here. A life lived in love with God while attentive to God's action in the world has a far better chance.

James McEvoyJames McEvoy teaches theology at Catholic Theological College, Adelaide.



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Existing comments

Oh what joy to read such wisdom on the modern changes versus the "good old days". Yes, the world and society has changed immeasurably. Please, please let us work towards a pathway accepting the present and working towards the future. I find I am struggling more today than I ever have with a 'Church" seemingly unable to move forward, and reverting to the old dictatorial, You must, and you must not! Can we please listen to Christ's voice and begin to grow again.

Helen Konynenburg | 22 April 2008  

James McEvoy's chronology is all wrong: John XXIII called Vatican II in 1959. Like the cultural changes in the '60s, it was a "response", not to them but to the failed socio-cultural and political philosophies of the preceding century, and part of a "ressourcement" designed to shape a Church (and society) that could embrace the Enlightenment that Christendom had spawned.

But, giving up Christendom and its supporting philosophical and theological structures proved too much for those who held power in the Church, much in the same way as it was too much for many despots who wielded civil power over the next 40 years.

What we need is the fall of the ecclesiastical Berlin Wall: there might be some salvation out there!

Terry | 22 April 2008  

A thoughtful and considered article that is very clear. All of us can look for the "soft option" - the last sentence sums it up nicely. Thank you!!

Patrick Jurd | 22 April 2008  

James McEvoy says: 'Liberals, focused on updating the church, tend to lose sight of the significance for our world of the great transformation to which Christian faith calls us — to open human life to the divine.'

This is a very narrow and simplistic summary of the attitudes of people who want to see the Church continue to be open to the call of the Spirit for our times. Many of the so-called liberal thinkers are, in fact, very much in tune with the need to be led by the Gospel. This may be what leads many to their theological perspective. I agree that the divide is destructive, but to present it in such simplistic terms merely plays into the black and white thinking that the media fosters on this topic.

The future and the present calls us to be open to the Spirit through prayer and reflection on the Gospel. This must lead us to openness to the views of others and to understanding. I don't believe that this article helps that process.

Vivienne | 22 April 2008  

I am always confused as to what people within the Roman Catholic Communion understand by the word Church/church. Is your article referring to the Christian Church or just the Catholic Communion within the Christian Church? As a Christian I wonder why Roman Catholic commentators seem to write as if 'the Church' is limited to the 'Catholic' tradition of the church. Perhaps those in this expression of the Christian Church do see their 'Church' as 'The Church' to the exclusion of other expressions such as Reformed etc. Surely those who follow the way, truth and life of Jesus of Nazareth are all Christians regardless of which institutional expression or group in which they gather. Blessings.

neville edwards | 22 April 2008  

This commentary gets right to the crucial point: that of better expression of Christianity. The gospel message and all scripture are sublime literature pointing through allegory to the transcendent.

We need to awake our people to good artistic expression to lead them to faith development. In the West people have been subverted by too much shoddy entertainment posing as 'art'!

Gerard Tonks | 22 April 2008  

The categories of left-right are too blunt for such a complex issue as the Church's role in the modern world. The key text is of course Gaudium et Spes and its oft repeated hermeneutical key, paragraph 22. Indeed, Christ fully reveals man to himself! Consequently the Church is called to engage the Modern world and not retreat from it! However, I refer to the famous question posed by Karl Barth to Paul VI, what is aggiornamento? What are we updating to? The Church relies on the faith it has received from the Apostles, not on the waxing and waning trends of culture. We are called by Christ to be salt and light and so we bring flavour to the world by remaining faithful to Jesus. This is not done by conforming to the modern world, but by conforming to Jesus. Indeed there are wonderful developments such as sexual equality, but the Church should be faithful to these values, not because they make us more 'relevant' to the world, but because they are called for by the Gospel!

It is too simple to view this issue in terms of progressive-restorationist, I do not think we should conform to the modern world, but I do not support a retreat. This is typically a Ratzingerian view, but does not conform to the categories of progressive or restorationist. Let's look for better descriptors.

Paul | 22 April 2008  

The article is very interesting. It seems James' view would involve Christians making a concerted effort to deepen their spiritual life and make themselves more open to hearing what mission God is giving each of them so they can live a life of greater love in the world. If that is right part of what we need is greater access to spiritual direction. I believe this is right.

Anthony Julian Santospirito | 22 April 2008  

Thanks James, for a concise attempt to define the causes of the dissonance and for attempting to point the way forward.

Unfortunately, your proffered solution is, I think, too succinctly stated and needs another article to spell out what we must do and how to do it.

While it may seem like 'bread and butter' stuff, to achieve this without resorting to cliched terms, would represent a valuable contribution to this discussion. I shall look forward to it!

Thanks for your insights to date.

TED CLEARY | 23 April 2008  

Amen, Mr McEvoy. You are correct. Only with the preaching of the Gospel and our acceptance of its message can we indeed "move forward". The Church founded by Jesus Christ is neither a political party nor a social group reflecting our own personal whims. If we accept the good news of Jesus Christ, good indeed will flow forth from each of us. It is only when we try to make a Jesus and a Church in our own image we end up ostracising our Christian brothers and sisters with whom we do not agree and therefore offend God and do harm to his church. Jesus surrounded himself with all kinds of folks of differing points of view, that should be our model.

AJ | 23 April 2008  

This is a fine article. A three-month visit of mine to my native land, America, East Coast, last year for my 50th high school reunion, dramatised these polarities. With Rob Manne no longer at Quadrant, I had nowhere to write about some of them when I returned in November to Oz, where I've resided for 42 years.
My dear friend Jim Franklin has of course written for you. Maybe I could once I'm less busy preparing my book, The Living Word, for inclusion on the World Youth Day web site. A philanthropist is publishing 3000 copies, first edition. It's a text text book on the meaning of Catholicism, eight years in the making. Imprimatur Bishop Anthony Fisher.

Dr Susan Reibel Moore | 23 April 2008  

What a delight to read James McEvoy! And I give my wholehearted support to Helen Konynenburg sentiments.

Mrs Beverley Scott | 08 May 2008  

Your writing was really insightful, this is the challenge for us as we live our lives in the presence of God every day.

Robert Allen- Lakes Entrance | 21 May 2008  

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