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The Future Ain’t What It Used to Be

Charlotte Allen kicked off the new year with an article in The Wall Street Journal (Jan. 14) that quickly became a minor sensation among observers of trends in the Church. Titled “As the Flame of Catholic Dissent Dies Out,” Allen made the provocative assertion that the project of Catholic dissent has “lost steam as an intellectual movement.”

As proof, Allen points to the passing in late 2009 of the infamous radical theologians Mary Daly and Edward Schillebeeckx, standard bearers of the movement. Allen also mentions the “bright lights of dissident Catholicism” who have “dimmed with advanced age”: Charles Curran, age 75 (whose ideas Fr. Daniel Gallagher examined in a Sept. 2008 NOR article titled “A Legacy of Dissent”); Sr. Sandra M. Schneiders, who is “past retirement age” (and whom we quoted at length in our June 2009 New Oxford Note “Surprise! Femi-Nuns Find Themselves Under the Microscope”); and Hans Küng, age 81. The reason the movement is moribund, Allen says, is because the theologians who made their name in the wake of Vatican II “have left no coherent second generation of dissident Catholic intellectuals to follow them.” Where are the Daleys, Currans, Küngs, and Schneiderses of today?

The extant big-name “bright lights” from the earlier generation, however, refuse to go gently into that dark night. They seem instead to be desperately grasping for some golden future that is fast fading into an unreachable fantasy realm. Take, for example, Old Man Hans. The “Young Turk of Vatican II,” as Allen calls him, became a “living martyr among progressives” when he was censored by the Vatican in 1979 and stripped of his license to teach theology for questioning such doctrines as papal infallibility and the divinity of Christ. Küng was recently seen making a spectacle of himself, as he was always wont to do — George Weigel (dis)credits him with being “the man who single-handedly invented a new global personality type — the dissident theologian as international media star.” True to form, Küng was at it again, this time penning an “open letter” to the bishops of the world that was syndicated by The New York Times and enjoyed broad exposure.

Küng opens his April 16 letter by declaring that the Catholic Church is wallowing through her “worst credibility crisis since the Reformation.” And, wouldn’t you know it, Küng lays the blame for the Church’s sorry state at the feet of his former colleague at Tübingen University in Germany, the current Pope Benedict XVI. Küng pulls out a laundry list of what he perceives are Benedict’s pontifical failures, heaping scorn upon the Pope, in incredibly acerbic prose, for his inability to foster further rapprochement with Protestants, or long-term reconciliation with Jews, or trustworthy dialogue with Muslims, or reconciliation with the “colonized indigenous peoples of Latin America” — and for instead shackling them with the religion of their “European conquerors.” (What is he supposed to do, encourage them to apostatize?) Küng also scores the Holy Father for his refusal to “help the people of Africa” in the fight against AIDS and overpopulation by sanctioning condoms (a policy of proven failure — see our May 2009 New Oxford Note “Condom Worshipers & Their Perennial Bogeyman”), and for failing to “make peace with modern science” by approving evolution theory and stem-cell research.

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