Maybe this "liberal vs. conservative" paradigm is dumb.
In the last few years, there have been complete Catholic theological conferences devoted to getting beyond this polarization, or to the recognition that more and more young Catholic theologians find the language of "liberal vs. conservative" to be inaccurate, unhelpful, and distracting, rather than reflecting serious understanding of the dynamics of contemporary Catholicism. When, in 1994, long before I had come to understand post-modern thoughts about the power of "meta-narratives," I first began to express my suspicion that this was so, I was looked at with confusion and suspicion in turn, probably because everyone was so used to using these categories that I sounded incoherent in questioning them. Now, not only is questioning them taken for granted, but I was too old to be invited to a recent conference of young Catholic theologians gathering to critique the paradigm. And after the young whippersnappers done stole my idea! (Which, to be honest, I hadn't published, but I could amuse myself by imagining that I anonymously started the conversation on the topic.)
One aspect of this ongoing conversation has inevitably been watching and discussing major figures in the Church, not least of whom is our current Pope, Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger. As the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith during most of Pope John Paul II's papacy, Ratzinger was invariably a target of "progressive" wrath. The office he headed is intended to function in a conservative way within the Church, policing the authenticity of teaching within the Church, and Ratzinger was, unsurprisingly, identified with his actions in office. He raised even more ire by having been one of the leaders of the theologically "progressive" experts at the Second Vatican Council, and having, from the perspective of those identifying as Catholic liberals, betrayed their movement by having become much more conservative during the late 1960s. Indeed, this was a major part of a common interpretation of Ratzinger's life, that in the face of student rebellions in Europe in 1968, he got scared and became more conservative, falling short of the early greatness he evidenced as a young leader during the Council.
As I began to read and understand more of contemporary Catholic history, and about Ratzinger himself, I began to wonder whether this narrative really made sense. Did Ratzinger really move to the Right in 1968? What seemed rather absent to me in most of these accounts was any acknowledgment that the Left had moved well to the Left in 1968 and thereafter. This was true in the United States as well as Europe, and the New Left that emerged here was (in religious matters) of the dogmatically secularizing European sort, more influenced by the heritage of the French Revolution than of the American Revolution. As the generation of the New Left took over Democratic Party politics in the United States, it certainly made icons of leaders of the 1960s such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but I have wondered whether it actually would have tolerated the explicitly Christian and theological politics of King, had he survived. The liberals of the early 1960s, with their rallying motto of unity of "Protestant, Catholic, Jew" couldn't find much of a home in the aggressively secular new politics, and now, I suspect, might be found such places as the neo-conservative camp, as much as that would horrify the Democrats who still invoke the glory days and figures of the early 1960s as icons. So in this context, I began to wonder whether Ratzinger was really as much of a Rightist as he was made out to be by those devoted to a "Left-Right" interpretive scheme, or whether it was his context that had changed, more than he had: that he had more appeared to move to the right, but that that was because the backdrop against which he was seen was actually what was moving. Thus, when he was elected to the papacy in the conclave of 2005, I was more open-minded and curious rather than alarmed, and waited to see whether Benedict XVI would be distinct from the figure (or caricature?) of Joseph Ratzinger, Prefect of the CDF, with which I had become so familiar. I suspected that, rather than Right or Left, Ratzinger thought in Catholic or Augustinian terms, and might not easily fit into the expectations or fears of those who had been analyzing him for so long in "liberal vs. conservative" terms.
All that really brings me to the point of this entry, which is to note some of the reporting that Sandro Magister has been engaging in in the last month or two. He has been writing in Italy about the unhappiness of many of the self-identified "Traditionalist" members of the hierarchy with Benedict's papacy. So, in his recent columns:
High Up, Let Down by Pope Benedict
They are some of the leading traditionalist thinkers. They had wagered on him, and now they feel betrayed. The latest disappointments: the Courtyard of the gentiles and the encounter in Assisi. The accusation that they make against Ratzinger is the same that they make against the Council: having replaced condemnation with dialogue
The Disappointed Have Spoken. The Vatican responds
Inos Biffi and Agostino Marchetto reply in "L'Osservatore Romano" to the traditionalists Brunero Gherardini and Roberto de Mattei, who criticize the current pope for not having corrected the "errors" of Vatican Council II
Who's Betraying Tradition. The Grand Dispute
The discussion is becoming heated over how to interpret the innovations of Vatican Council II, above all on freedom of religion. The traditionalists against Benedict XVI. An essay by philosopher Martin Rhonheimer in support of the pope
The Church Is Infallible, But Not Vatican II
And it made mistakes, maintains traditionalist historian Roberto de Mattei. The dispute continues for and against the popes who guided the Council and put its innovations into practice
Benedict XVI the "Reformist." The Prosecution Rests
Introvigne replies to de Mattei, a leader of the anti-conciliarists. And Professor Rhonheimer returns to explain how and why Vatican II must be understood and accepted. In the way indicated by the pope