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After Decades of Left v. Right, Is It Now Bishops v. Everybody Else?

Moments of great crisis generally affect institutions in multiple ways, some of which are immediately evident and others that take longer to discern. Amid the clerical abuse scandals currently rocking Catholicism, it’s worth asking if one such long-term result is playing out before our eyes.

To wit, are we seeing a redefinition of the traditional left/right divides in the Church because the focus of popular complaint is no longer really teaching, one of the three traditional duties of a bishop, but rather governing?

Recently I sat down with a senior Church leader who was musing on criticism of the bishops of late, which he said at times seems reminiscent of Congregationalism – the idea that it’s the lay congregation, not the clerical caste, that exercises real power over Church affairs.

“Basically, they just want us to be Greek Orthodox priests and keep the thurible full,” this leader said. “Otherwise, they want us to get out of the way.”

Looking around, one understands the reaction. There’s a cohort of Catholic laity today, often wealthy and influential, who seem increasingly bold about clashing with bishops over governance questions. The recent dust-up within the Papal Foundation over funding of a Roman hospital a good case in point.

At one level, it seems almost silly to say that the left v. right divide is diminishing, given all the ways in which the Pope Francis era seems to have brought those tensions to the surface and given them a turbo-charge. From the death penalty and immigration to communion for divorced and remarried Catholics, it’s not as if progressives and traditionalists aren’t going at it hammer and tong every day.

Even within the abuse crisis, liberal and conservative Catholics often propose very different diagnoses of the problem. For the left, it’s often about mandatory celibacy and the exclusion of women from leadership; for the right, the chief culprit is often an excessive tolerance of homosexuality within the clerical ranks.

So no, the ideological clash that has defined Catholic debate since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) isn’t about to disappear. The question is whether those questions will continue to set the agenda.

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