The Secular City Redux

By Richard John Neuhaus
First Things
Downloaded November 22, 2003

There are in the press repeated references to "the rapidly growing lay protest movement, Voice of the Faithful.” There is indeed such an organization, but, as for "rapidly growing,” VOTF doesn't seem to have moved much beyond the thirty to forty thousand range of the old liberal reliables who can always be counted on to sign up for the revolution that they think the Second Vatican Council was supposed to be. Remember that a few years ago most of the same folk launched a campaign to get millions to sign a petition of generalized protest in the hope of matching the several million who subscribed to the "We Are Church” insurgency in Germany and Austria. After extending the time for the campaign several times, they ended up with thirty thousand signatures, tantamount to a couple of large parishes in this country of more than sixty-five million Catholics.

But VOTF plods on, and now some of its leaders believe Voice has found its theological voice in Paul Lakeland, Professor of Religious Studies at Fairfield University, who has just published The Liberation of the Laity: In Search of an Accountable Church (Continuum). Scott Appleby of Notre Dame, a liberal of studied moderation, writes in America that Lakeland is just what is needed if we are to escape the fate of "our embarrassingly dysfunctional way until the last ounce of credibility and influence of our faith community is squandered.” (It is a sure sign that something's up when people speak of the Catholic Church as "our faith community.”) Appleby says that, if we have the courage for it, Lakeland's book could become a "landmark.” Lakeland's chief point is the familiar one that Christianity is not about religion or the salvation of souls but about affirming and revolutionizing the secular. God planned for Adam and Eve to fall, for, in being expelled from the garden, God "gives them the world.” With his typical brio, Lakeland writes, "Paradise is for infants, not for human beings.”

Confessing his debt to liberation theology, he says that Catholic laity are "oppressed” and "in chains” under the tyranny of the clergy who enjoy "the most secure lifestyle of anyone in the community, except perhaps for the fabulously wealthy." (In connection with secure lifestyles, he does not mention tenured university professors.) Along the way, he vehemently rejects a bundle of Church teachings which are depicted as the baggage lay people must leave behind if they are really to take over. Perhaps not surprisingly, he ends up with a minimalist, medieval, and post-Tridentine view of priesthood as limited to the cultic functions of presiding at the Eucharist and the sacrament of penance. It is the very view of episcopacy and priesthood, one might note, that Vatican II so explicitly aimed to correct. He endorses a variant of Gallicanism, or nationalism, in which the "American church" would have a synodal structure composed of "bishops, leaders of local communities, ministers of the church, and ministers in the world" who would have the power to act in matters such as abolishing priestly celibacy and ordaining women. Bishops are referred to as "the oligarchy"; "leaders of local communities" are, except for cultic functions, lay people, as are "ministers of the church," while "ministers in the world" includes, as best I understand him, everybody.

Christopher Ruddy writes in Commonweal: "Lakeland's insistence on the Church's 'worldly' mission leads him to deprecate the centrality of worship. The Eucharist is not simply something that the Church does, however, but what the Church is. In this context, his understanding of worship as an event where believers renew themselves for their worldly mission is somewhat functionalistic. In writing that worship is 'not the task or even the most important task' of the Church, Lakeland contradicts Vatican II's statement that the liturgy is the 'summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; it is also the source from which all its power flows.'" Ruddy draws attention to a different understanding of Christian faith and life set forth in Robert Louis Wilken's recent book, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought. Ruddy is right; there could hardly be a sharper contrast in understandings of what it means to be a Christian than that between Wilken and Lakeland.

Lakeland's view of Christian faith brings to mind Obi-Wan Kenobi of Star Wars fame: "The key word in this working definition of faith is 'force.' Faith is a primal force. It is not an attitude, or a set of opinions, or an ideology. It is the imagination on the move." There is much more. "If modernity was the time of demythologization, postmodernity is surely the moment for a return to the myth, albeit that—unlike premodernity—we now know it as a myth." "If we ask where . . . the future of faith lies, the smart money is on the power of the people." "The God in whom the whole of Western religion has throughout premodernity and well into modernity placed all its faith is either dead with Hegel, buried with Heine, murdered by Nietzsche, or alive but an abuser." The oppressed of the world—which apparently includes everybody but Catholic clergy—live in a "polemological" world. "Thus the practice of popular religion in such contexts is resistant, transgressive, and utopian. Faith becomes an opening to the utopian space within the polemological space of everyday power relations." "It is plain to me at least that if we are to have a worthwhile future to bequeath to our children, it will only be because we shall find the strength for true political activism and real social change precisely where Gandhi said it would be, at the grassroots."

Ah, yes, "the grassroots." All of us of a certain age remember them well. Lakeland acknowledges his debt to the Baptist theologian, Harvey Cox of Harvard Divinity School. If you enjoyed Cox's book of thirty-eight years ago, The Secular City, you will love The Liberation of the Laity. In fact, except for the specifically Catholic embellishments, you have already read it.


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