An Offering for Reflection and Discussion
Note: Since the words “Catholic” and “progressive” have many meanings, the editorial board of the Progressive Catholic Voice feels that it is important to clarify what those terms mean to us and to our readers. To that end in recent months we have had discussions among ourselves and with a wider group of Catholic theologians. In an attempt to broaden the dialog, we are sharing the results of these discussions with you in the following paper. We invite your comments.
In what sense are we catholic?
We are catholic or universal in the sense that we see ourselves as part of a worldwide Church full of richness and diversity, rather than members of a narrow sect. We speak from within the great Christian tradition that comes to us down through the ages and from every corner of the world. The depth of this tradition provides resources that enable us to encounter modern culture without fear and to address issues of the day with confidence. We are also catholic in the sense that we are open to the influence of other movements and streams of thought. The Spirit is greater than the Church, and we expect to discern God’s Spirit at work in other religions and movements.
In what sense are we Roman Catholic?
We are Roman Catholics in the sense that we recognize a ministry of unifying and reconciling: that is, we believe that Jesus’ mission can be concretely symbolized in the church of Rome and its bishop in communion with all the other Catholic churches and their bishops.
This ministry of unifying and reconciling does not require uniformity. It is a centripetal force that, far from eliminating the centrifugal force of the Gospel reaching out to the whole world, exists in a dynamic balance with it. This ministry is only imperfectly symbolized in the church and bishop of Rome, given the divisions among Christians and the constant need of the Church to be reformed.
We recognize many ways of being authentically Catholic as part of the desired pluralism and diversity within the Catholic Church. At the same time we aspire to being a unifying force and are hesitant to draw lines or to force people out. We acknowledge our indebtedness to other religious and secular influences and seek to enter into dialog with fellow pilgrims seeking the truth.
In what sense are we progressive Catholics?
First, we feel a strong sense of urgency about institutional reform. We see painful incongruities between the mission of Jesus and the institution that purports to symbolize his mission in the world. Although we recognize that humans are ever-evolving in their consciousness of God, and, therefore, that the institution will always be in need of reform, we think that, at present, institutional leadership is blocking the evolution of consciousness in its members and standing as a scandalous obstacle to the mission of Jesus.
For us, being progressive is more a matter of method than of positions. We recognize that knowing truth, as well as knowing what reforms to implement in the institutional Church, is a process of research, discernment, and ever-increasing understanding. We do hold positions, but being progressive is primarily a characteristic way of approaching both theological and practical issues and a commitment to critiquing our own positions, using the same method by which we critique the positions of our counterparts in dialog.
That being said, what are some of the characteristics and methods that identify us as progressive Catholics?
1. Historical Consciousness
As progressive Catholics we strive to understand the history of Catholic teachings and practices in their cultural setting and to relate them to the issues of the present time. Since divine truth can never be captured completely in a particular formula of words, it is important to understand the terms of the debate that led to a particular formulation. This attempt to understand a given formulation in its own historical-cultural context is the necessary prelude to applying the underlying teaching to the changed circumstances of our own time.
The same is true of church laws and practices. They are also contingent responses to concrete circumstances. When the circumstances change often it is necessary to change laws and practices in order to achieve the same goal.
As progressive Catholics we welcome solid historical studies that help us understand church laws and teachings in the context of the times in which they were articulated.
2. A Developmental Perspective that Values Diversity
This is closely related to historical consciousness. Historical studies show that church laws and church teaching have changed over time. This means that current laws, teachings, and even worldviews can change in fidelity to the search for divine truth.
Diversity plays an important role here. In evolutionary biology diversity is crucial to survival. As an ecosystem changes some members of a given species turn out to be better adapted to the changing environment than the once dominant type. Similarly, with regard to church teaching and practice, some minority views that were considered marginal at a given period of time turn out to be crucial in a radically changed cultural context. For this and other reasons we see a positive value in contemporary religious diversity.
3. Commitment to Dialog and Discernment
Far from wishing to have a completely uniform Church, we as progressive Catholics welcome diverse points of view as an opportunity for respectful dialog and spiritual discernment in pursuit of what is most appropriate for today’s Church.
We are particularly interested in intra-Catholic dialog. Starting from the truth as we understand it, our goal is mutual understanding and, if possible, creative consensus – not victory. Dialog involves vulnerability. The reciprocal possibility of conversion from one’s point of view to that of one’s partner in dialog must remain open. In addition, there is always the possibility that divergent views lovingly shared can lead to a higher synthesis that brings out aspects neither party fully realized before entering into dialog. We feel that this is the most effective way to assure widespread agreement on church teaching and common action for justice and peace.
In addition to other Catholics, we are open to other partners for dialog and discernment: other Christians (Orthodox, Protestant, Evangelical, Pentecostal, non-denominational, etc.); representatives of other religious traditions (Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, etc.); people who profess no religion, and even atheists and anti-religious persons. Each has a perspective on the truth, and each can assist us in the journey to the truth.
4. Attentiveness to the Stories of Marginal Catholics
As progressive Catholics we seek to identify where church is happening, especially in the margins of contemporary society. We attempt to listen to and retell the stories of Catholics who are engaging with the dominant culture or seeking new ways to embody their religious and spiritual experiences within the large home of Catholicism. Their voices are precious.
5. Commitment to Inclusiveness
As progressive Catholics we seek to bridge the gaps that divide Church and society. We invite all to take part in the dialog regardless of gender, age, social status, education, ethnic identity, sexual orientation, level of affluence, etc. The religious experience of each human being is valuable. Only if the conversation is open to all concerned parties can any semblance of consensus be achieved.
6. Commitment to Openness and Accountability
As progressive Catholics we have little tolerance for secrecy in either church or society. Although we may differ among ourselves in our preference for various models of church governance, we are one in our demand for transparency in church affairs and clear lines of accountability in such matters as finances and appointments to positions of authority and responsibility.
7. Solidarity with Other Groups Working for Church Renewal
As progressive Catholics we realize that no single group or movement has all the answers to the problems the Church faces today. Hence, we hope to build bridges to other groups working for church renewal and work cooperatively with them whenever practical.