WASHINGTON — What do the Roman Catholic Church and the American political system have in common? Both are divided into factions that neither trust nor understand each other, and both confront a crisis of governance.
Divisions in the Church are usually seen as mimicking those of secular politics. Conservatives or traditionalists are pitted against liberals or progressives. But Timothy Radcliffe, a Dominican friar and the former head of his order, suggests a more fruitful way to understand the Catholic split.
The conflict goes back to competing reactions to the reforms of the Second Vatican Council inaugurated in the 1960s by Pope John XXIII. The relevant camps — Radcliffe describes them in his 2005 book, What Is the Point of Being a Christian? — are the “Kingdom Catholics” and the “Communion Catholics.”
The Kingdom Catholics, corresponding to those we usually call progressive, were “exhilarated by the council’s embrace of modernity” and “see our church as primarily the People of God on pilgrimage towards the Kingdom.”
“The Christ whom they cherished,” he writes, “was the one who overthrew the boundaries between human beings, who touched lepers, reached out to foreigners and gathered us into the People of God.” Theirs was “an outward-looking theology” that was “rooted in experience” and emphasized “liberation.” The Kingdom Catholics look back to the council era as a time when “everything seemed possible.”
The Communion Catholics view the same period quite differently — as the equivalent of “ecclesiastical urban planning, tearing up our neighborhood.” This group, in which Pope Benedict XVI is the leading figure, insists that the church “stand firm in the proclamation of our faith.”
Radcliffe explains their skepticism of the Kingdom Catholics’ attitude toward modern ideas: “If one embraces the language of modernity too uncritically, then we are likely to lose our identity and be absorbed without a trace. … We must not let ourselves be assimilated to the world. We must not be afraid to underline what is distinctive about our faith, otherwise we will disappear.”
While the Communion Catholics can fairly be seen as conservative, their views do not always conform to what most American conservatives believe. Benedict, for example, was tough on the injustices of capitalism, a view consistent with a traditionalist critique of modern materialism.