The American Interest
Religion & Other Curiosities
Published on August 21, 2013
Cardinal Newman and the Progressive View of the World


The British Catholic journal The Tablet carried a story on August 3, 2013 that I found suggestive (although its topic is not terribly interesting in itself). The story reports on the surprising growth in England of the Roman Catholic Congregation of the Oratory. This is not a monastic order but a community of secular priests, who live together in residences while working outside in a variety of ministries. The Oratory (which has branches in several countries) has just taken over the parish of St. Wilfrid’s, “the mother church of Catholicism in York”. This has been the second Oratory establishment this year, the third in a decade. In addition to York, there are branches (in the order of their founding) in Birmingham, London, Oxford and Manchester. The Oratory in England has been successful in attracting recruits to the priesthood (a rare achievement) and its worship services are especially well attended by young people (the demographic most alienated from organized religion). England is as strongly secularized as just about any other country in Europe. A story about a lively music scene is news if its dateline is from a community of deaf people.

The Congregation of the Oratory was founded by St. Philip Neri in Rome in 1575. Its founder was known as a mystic, a popular preacher, and a man with a dry sense of humor. The Oratory was brought to England in 1847 by John Henry Newman (1801-1890), probably the most famous convert to Roman Catholicism in the nineteenth century. Starting out as an Evangelically oriented Anglican priest and theologian, he was one of the founders of the Anglo-Catholic Oxford Movement (known as “smells and bells” to its critics), which deplored the schism between Rome and the Church of England). He finally “submitted” to Rome himself, became a Roman Catholic priest and finally a cardinal (despite some resistance in the hierarchy, where he was suspected, probably correctly, as an independent mind). He was (somewhat belatedly) beatified in 2010. Newman was a deeply conservative theologian, both before and after his “swim in the Tiber”—indeed this theological conservatism was the cause of his conversion. In other words, he was certainly not “progressive” in his religious position. Newman thought that the Oratory, with its distinctive blend of community and individualism, would be a good fit with the English national character. He was probably right. Someone has observed that an Oratory residence is less like a monastery, more like a gentleman’s club.

The Oratory today is both theologically and liturgically conservative (its priests emphasize that this is a religious, not a political conservatism).  Its churches regularly celebrate the Mass in Latin—thus going against the progressive affection for the vernacular. The young  people who like to attend the Oratory’s services are not put off by the liturgical traditionalism—on the contrary, this is an attraction for them. They are concerned about the tension between traditional faith and modernity—the lectures at the Oratory most attended by young people are on “faith and science”—proposing that the two are not contradictory. A young parishioner (who met his wife at one of the services) had this to say: “It [the Oratory church] is my spiritual home and has a fantastic parish life. I love it because when I go there I am reminded, for at least once in my day, that it isn’t about me, it is about Christ.” One of the priests observed: “These days it’s a much more radical decision to be a practicing Catholic if you’re under 40.” I note: Some young people are tired of the “it’s about me” of contemporary identity culture, and young people have always been attracted to “radical decisions”—that is those that upset their (often secularized) parents.

Of course one must guard against generalizing from single cases. Thus it is possible that while some young people in England are attracted to traditional religion, others are repelled. It is well to recall the most iconic term for all survey researchers—frequency distribution—how many of one?/how many of the other?  Nevertheless, putting the Tablet story into the much larger context of what we know about contemporary religion, it suggests that some widely diffused progressive assumptions are empirically questionable. Of course the theological beliefs of either progressives or conservatives cannot be empirically tested: There is no historical, sociological or psychological method that could decide whether Jesus is God incarnate and cosmic redeemer, or simply a great moral teacher. But views about social reality by any theological party can be tested for their validity. If one does that, a number of progressive views turn out to be questionable (so do some conservative ones, but that is not my concern right now). Specifically: A basic proposition is that Christian churches have a problem because they have not sufficiently adapted to modernity. Young people in particular are put off by the supernaturalism and sexual repressiveness of the churches. A strategic recommendation follows from this perspective: Churches will be more credible if they become less supernaturalist/more attentive to this world rather than the next, and less repressive in sexual matters.

How far do these progressive views stand up empirically? As to the basic proposition about the churches and modernity, one must obviously ask what one means by modernity. For most people, the word suggests science, and the “problem” for the churches then means that they should not deny established scientific facts. Most people don’t know enough about science to be greatly troubled by this “problem”, but it is probably not a good idea if a church latches on to a denial of facts about which there is a broad scientific consensus (which lay people have somehow absorbed in school and through the media). In America, Evangelical Protestants have this worry more than other groups, as in the still ongoing controversy over evolution.

However, if there is the notion that to be “modern” means that every supernatural dimension is eradicated from belief and piety, all the empirical evidence contradicts this assumption. Most of the world today is feistily supernaturalist in religious faith and practice—in America far beyond the Evangelical subculture. Mainline Protestant churches have gone farthest in such an exercise, which as early as 1963 my friend and colleague Thomas Luckmann, in his book The Invisible Religion, called “secularization from within”. It has taken three avenues: equating the Gospel with a benign morality (the American sociologist Nancy Ammerman called this “Golden Rule Christianity”), or a way of life conducive to mental and physical health (Mary Baker Eddy, founder of Christian Science, pioneered this approach—she has presumably more sophisticated successors today who say that religion, no matter whether true or not, is good for you), or finally translate the Gospel into a political agenda (this could theoretically be of any ideological hue, but in recent decades it has been generally of the Left—Liberation Theology is prototypical for this).

The history of mainline Protestantism since the mid-twentieth century demonstrates that the excision of the supernatural from the Christian message is radically counter-productive, and in the long run disastrous. I think that the issue of sexual repression is a different matter: The sexual revolution that began in the 1960s and 1970s has had obvious libidinal gains, especially for young people, and the suggestion that one should roll these results back will meet, indeed does meet, with strong resistance. To the extent that conservative churches are seen as favoring such a rollback this is indeed a problem for them. On the other hand, there is a certain attraction to the countercultural opposition to all this liberated sexuality. I have recently read a fascinating study of so-called Virginity Clubs in which young Southern Baptist women vow to remain virgins until marriage and have annual ceremonies (accompanied by, no less, their fathers) to renew the vow. I take it that there is a certain market for this kind of thing; I don’t think that it is a very big market.  Of course people on all sides of these issues have strong religious convictions. But if, as is done when the above recommendations are made, one simply thinks in instrumental terms—that is, in terms of institutional success or failure—a plausible strategy would be more supernaturalism and less sexual repression. I will not put this into a position paper for the Southern Baptist Convention.

One may want to be in tune with the Zeitgeist, the spirit of the age. Or, alternatively, one may have principled reasons for defying this spirit. In either case, it is a good idea to have a fairly accurate picture of just what this spirit is. The Anglican theologian William Ralph Inge (1860-1954), best known as a Dean of St.Paul’s Cathedral, drew a pithy lesson: “He who would marry the spirit of the age will soon find himself a widower”.

The conservative/progressive split runs through all religious communities, in America and in Europe and elsewhere. There are always debates over how these terms are defined. Still, survey data give us at least a rough idea of their frequency distribution. Virtually everywhere conservatives are doing much better (despite and maybe because of supernaturalism, and at least in places despite sexual repression). On July 18, 2013, the Public Religion Research Institute (in collaboration with the Brookings Institution) released a report on a survey of American religion (Christian and non-Christian). Over all it classified 28% as conservative, 19% as progressive. White Evangelicals fall overwhelmingly, 70% ,into the conservative category. But, apart from this very clear case, the dividing line between the two categories runs both between and within denominations. In terms of “secularization from within” no group seems to be exempt. It is noteworthy that 59% of Americans think that being a religious person is “primarily about living a good life and doing the right thing’, as opposed to being “primarily about having faith and the right beliefs”.

Back to the case of the Roman Catholic Church, so passionately embraced by Cardinal Newman and, it seems, more alive in allegedly secular England than is widely thought. The Second Vatican Council was haunted by the slogan of aggiornamento—literally, “bringing up to date” (giorno means “day” as well as “date” in Italian). Obvious question: Just what is our giorno.  I think the fathers of the Council were right that we are in the day of human rights and, over and beyond the credibility of their definition of religious freedom (which I share), their embrace of it has greatly enhanced the standing of the Catholic Church in recent decades. The sexual positions of the Church, hardly changed over the same period, and (though of course there are strong convictions involved here), this (in the words that State Department spokespersons like to use), “has not been helpful”. What about the marginalization of Latin and other liturgical changes? How many lay Catholics have been encouraged by this, how many have been put off by them, how many have not been affected either way? There have been studies of this. I am not sure what the best evidence is on the respective frequency distribution of these reactions.

But I cannot help recalling a conversation I had some years after the Council with a very Catholic Italian whom I knew at this time. He was terribly shocked, to the point where he didn’t want to go to church any more. He didn’t like the linguistic change, from the majestic Latin to the colloquial language he uses for the ordinary business of life. After all, he thought, the miracle of the Mass is supposed to take us out of the concerns and troubles of this life to an anticipation of the glory of the life to come. But he was most shocked by the way the officiating priest was now positioned—no longer facing the altar with his back to the congregation—but now standing behind the altar, facing the congregation. His first (very unfortunate) association was with a bartender standing behind the bar, preparing the drinks and cleaning the glasses. He admitted that this association was unfair. But then he added that turning the priest around had a much more profound symbolic meaning: The old position made it very clear that the priest was standing before God, who was believed to be present in the elements of wine and bread on the altar, but who was definitely not standing in the congregation. The new position suggested that what was worshipped did not transcend the gathered assembly, but was identical with the latter. In other words, what was happening now was a group of people worshipping themselves. Did the liturgical reformers intend this? Of course not. How many Catholics reacted as my Italian friend did? I don’t know. If I were Catholic, I would worry about it.

  • Tom

    “But if, as is done when the above recommendations are made, one simply thinks in instrumental terms—that is, in terms of institutional success or failure—a plausible strategy would be more supernaturalism and less sexual repression.”

    While I don’t disagree that what is discussed here is probably a bad idea (I say this as a Southern Baptist), I would like to point out that this is not sexual repression but supression, aka self-control. There’s a difference. Repression denies the sex drive’s existence and drives it into the subconscious. Suppression does not permit the sex drive’s full expression.
    Also, good article, otherwise.

  • Anthony

    The ethic of Divinity , without attendees realizing it, may be what attracts to Oratory in England. Anglo-Irish conservative Edmund Burke has offered religious tradition as one component of keeping humans from a moral abyss. Also, the progressive-conservative continuum may in fact be imbued by different conceptions of the reglious sphere in a modern society – relational models and how they apply both religiously and morally (although giorno ought not to apply it has become part of our spiritual world). “He who would marry the spirit of the age will soon find himself a widower.”

  • steve5656546346

    The author misses a critical point: the entire premiss of the Catholic Church.

    That central premiss is that there really is a God who really did send his Son who really did found a Church (the same one found in Acts, the Epistles, and Revelation), that that Church is the “pillar of truth” to quote the Bible which is protected from error in TEACHINGS (NOT actions) regarding faith and morals.

    Oh, and one more thing: the deposit of faith closed with the death of the last apostle.

    What this means is simply this: the Church may change all sorts of things, but if it ever changes at teaching on faith and morals (e.g., decides that homosex is fine, or that adultery is fine, or that divorce is fine, or that abortion is fine): the Church would be admitting that it was a fraud from the beginning.

    A deeper understanding is one thing (it’s called “development of doctrine”), a contradiction is off the table.

    Besides, Western society has had a mammoth experiment, and proven the Church correct in every particular–why change now?

  • Percy Gryce

    “Of course people on all sides of these issues have strong religious convictions.”

    Is there a strongly convicted religious case for not preserving virginity until marriage? Does any strongly convicted religious believer actually make such case? Seems doubtful to me.

  • Jim__L

    “One may want to be in tune with the Zeitgeist, the spirit of the age. Or, alternatively, one may have principled reasons for defying this spirit.”

    Either Zeitgeist, or Holy Spirit… you cannot be the servant of two masters.

    Look at Luther’s writings about the moral depravities he saw in the world around him, sometime. Things are not so different now. Look at Regency England, too.

    The existence of the Victorian Era and its sanitization of literature and written history have (at least for the English-speaking peoples) given the impression that all who came before the Victorians were as upright as the Victorians themselves, and consequently (for our times) that uprightness is “old-fashioned”. This is simply false.

    It leads to the further false impression of some kind of teleological “progress” in today’s moral backsliding. The destruction of the family and the acceptance of perversion in its place is not “the right side of history”. History staggers back and forth from one trend to another, based on lessons learned and lessons forgotten. As children, Victoria and Albert suffered from the accepted
    depravities of their times, as children today are suffering from the depravities of our own. Lessons are re-learned, at great cost.

    To say that churches should deliberately ignore those lessons — which are given for free in the Word of God — is to say that that Word has nothing to offer. How can anyone with faith in God, faith based on the teachings of the Bible, possibly come to that conclusion?

    These are conclusions that naturally arise from the implications of Berger’s articles. It is conclusions like these that make me question whether Berger’s self-professed faith actually resembles Biblically-based Lutheranism.