TO SEE ourselves as others see us: it probably seemed like a good idea to invite an eminent American Protestant theologian to give the opening address at a conference entitled “The Spirit of Catholic Renewal”, which was held this week at Durham University to mark the 175th anniversary of the Roman Catholic weekly The Tablet. But perhaps some outside perspectives can be, well, too outside.
Professor Stanley Hauerwas is an immensely distinguished figure. He was termed “America’s Best Theologian” by Time magazine in 2001, and his volume A Community of Character was named as one of the 100 most important books on religion in the 20th century. He is known for his work on Christianity and politics, but he has also written on ecclesiology.
This Lutheran thinker seemed just the external commentator to offer a disinterested perspective on the Roman Catholic tradition at a key moment of transition through the “Francis effect”, as the current Pope’s admirers style it — or the Jesuit Experiment, as it is known among his detractors.
He certainly offered some good one-liners: “The deepest riddle of the Roman Catholic Church is that she cannot forget and yet cannot remember what she was before the Reformation;” and “Natural law is not as obvious as people think.”
But, rather eccentrically, he chose to focus his keynote on a book, The Catholic Moment: The paradox of the Church in the postmodern world, written in 1987 by Richard Neuhaus, a prominent Lutheran pastor who became a Roman Catholic 25 years ago, at the height of the John Paul II era.
Neuhaus is an interesting historical figure. At a time when some US Catholics were struggling to reconcile being loyal Catholics and loyal Americans, he was a leading light in translating the political vision of George W. Bush’s neo-cons into a theo-con vision that gave a religious undergirding to right-wing policies against abortion, stem-cell research, cloning, and same-sex marriage. But he was an extreme figure, who was part of the infantilisation of the Roman Catholic Church under the authoritarian approach of Pope John Paul II.
It felt odd to cite such an exemplar. Professor Hauerwas is of the view that mainstream Protestantism in the United States has succumbed to secular liberalism. In contrast, he praises what he sees as the Catholic instinct for stability. His message was that the Church must learn again to be a Church in exile, with a diminished number of adherents, and a loss of its social privileges. It will, he feels, be the more agilely Christian for that.
Such a message seems out of time. That was the vision of Benedict XVI. It tempts the Church to see itself as against the world rather than in favour of the gospel. The rest of the conference turned its attention to the option for the poor in a globalised world, the migrant crisis, mercy and the signs of the times, and the need for Rome to put its own house in order. It was about the future, not the past.