The Old, Gray, Catholic Left Isn’t What it Used to Be and Faces a Desolate Future

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The Old, Gray, Catholic Left Isn’t What it Used to Be and Faces a Desolate Future
The Old, Gray, Catholic Left Isn’t What it Used to Be and Faces a Desolate Future

Leftist and progressive forces always present themselves as the wave of the future. Indeed, Marxism’s Hegelian roots postulate history as a process of clashing classes inevitably evolving forward. The Catholic left likewise frames its liberation theology and similar programs in these terms.

Marxist theory is very clear about the forward pace of history. However, it does not say what happens when the process suddenly stops and stagnates. What happens when no one wants to liberate or be liberated?

Many older Catholic leftists worldwide are now asking what is happening to their Revolution. The old guard of the sixties is still manning the trenches, but few recruits are entering the ranks. Leftist militants report that their meetings and events are dominated by “white hairs.”

Frei Betto Is Getting Old

One expressive example is a recent article by the Brazilian leftist Frei (Friar) Betto. The Dominican friar was on the front lines of the liberation theology scene back when it was popular. A friend of Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez and other late leftist icons, he finds himself increasingly alone and ever older.

In a frank article for the Instituto Humanitas Unisinos, the aged revolutionary, soon to be 80, recounts how he recently attended the 12th National Meeting of Faith and Politics with two thousand leftists in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. Nearly everyone had white or gray hair.

The popular speaker says he finds similar scenes all over Brazil. He complains of how the demonstrations and protests of the Catholic left now unite inexpressive numbers who tend to color gray. The Brazilian political left, strongly aligned with the Catholic left, has difficulty fielding young candidates and often resorts to bringing ancient figures out of retirement to contest elections.

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The Catholic left is getting old and gray. No one is filling the ranks. “Our white hair is a sign of the winter that is upon us,” Frei Betto observes.

Lamenting the Fall of the Berlin Wall

The die-hard Marxist friar traces the cause of this decline to the fall of the Berlin Wall, which he laments as an event that “shattered our hopes of a world where everyone would have a dignified existence.”

Frei Betto believes this shaking of certainties caused by the fall of oppressive communist regimes is responsible for thinning leftist ranks and hairlines. However, he also recognizes new energy and dynamism on the right.

Everything has changed, he claims. “The right is like a rising tide that threatens to drown what liberal democracy we have left.”

What Went Wrong on the Left

Frei Betto blames the crisis on the left’s failure to adapt and be relevant in a postmodern world. It has been involved in useless power plays.

“We didn’t sow a crop of new militants for fear that they would stand out and occupy our positions of power,” he says of the movement’s complacency and intrigues.

Leftists also lost contact with the poor by abandoning the favelas (slums), poor rural areas and neighborhood networks. The movement tends to be reduced to high-profile meetings rather than dealing with real people. The leftist message is clearly exhausted, with little new to offer.

Complaints About the Right

However, Frei Betto finds the rise of the religious right to be the greatest reason for the crisis inside the Catholic left.

Such a declaration might surprise more traditional Catholics who have long considered themselves outgunned and isolated by the ecclesial liberal establishment. The Catholic left has enjoyed overwhelming financial and media support over the decades.

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Despite all the handicaps, the religious right is winning because of the attraction of its message. The more worshipers are true to their traditional Gospel message, the greater their influence in society.

Frei Betto laments the inability of the Catholic left to react to what he scornfully calls “religious fundamentalism,” which “mobilizes crowds” and “fills ballot boxes.” According to him, the right’s message undermines class struggle by teaching a message that harmonizes “social inequalities and class contradictions. It “emphasizes that everything is reduced to a dispute between God and the devil.”

By concentrating on sin, the “fundamental” perspective eliminates the obstacles to prosperity and thus “empowers and favors domination” or the hated free market solutions to problems. The radical friar further decries the “cancellation of all those who do not embrace the ‘morals and good customs’ of those who cry out against abortion.”

The religious right message is powerful, and the friar complains that its members “monopolize the digital trenches” where the left has yet to learn how to act.

Of course, for all progressives, there is always a call for a new springtime and a need to “reinvent the future.” However, the possibilities are not promising. No sprouts are springing up.

The Fading Away of Leftist Icons Everywhere

The dire analysis of Frei Betto on the state of the Catholic left is shared by his fellow comrade-in-liberation ex-Friar Leonardo Boff (85) who talks of a “worrying retreat of the popular grassroots” and a lack of commitment. He claims the “majority of people, regrettably young people, are not encouraged to engage socially or politically in any movement of projection or transformation.”

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The malaise is not limited to Brazil, the world’s largest Catholic country. Similar signs of age and decline are happening everywhere in the Catholic left. Peruvian Fr. Gustavo Gutiérrez, founder of liberation theology, will be 96 in June.

All the leftist icons of the American Catholic left are likewise graying. Benedictine activist Sister Joan Chittister is 88 years old. LGBTQ advocate Sister Jeannine Gramick (82) is likewise in her golden years. The nuns on the bus all get senior citizen discounts. No young figures are taking their places.

Where Dark Hair Dominates

The Associated Press just released a lengthy article published everywhere (including in the leftist National Catholic Reporter). The title says it all: “A Step Back in Time: America’s Catholic Church Sees an Immense Shift Toward the Old Ways.”

Author Tim Sullivan tells of how many Catholics are tired of the progressive program that leans left. Things are changing—the music, sermons and liturgy. People want talks about sin, confession and abortion. Priests wear cassocks and promote Gregorian chant. This general step back to old ways is trending in parishes of all types and sizes and gradually changing American Catholic worship.

Above all, the march to tradition is propelled by young people and families in search of stability and sanctification. College campus ministries are suddenly reporting record conversions. Dark hair dominates. Pope Francis dubs it “backward,” but this traditional trend is filled with enthusiasm and hope for the future.

As the old graying priests from the sixties die off, young priests, zealous for tradition, take their places.

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There is no human explanation for this movement toward tradition. There is no formal organization orienting the trend on such a scale. It is dynamic and counter-cultural. All the cultural and religious forces and trends since the sixties go in the opposite direction. Young people are demanding things that predate their birth.

Is This the Fruit of Grace?

Indeed, impulses such as these suggest something beyond the natural. They are the fruit of the yearning for the discarded sublime, metaphysical and sacred worlds, contrary to the postmodern world that leaves everything sterile, directionless and meaningless.

Throughout history, improbable movements like these have appeared as fruits of God’s grace working inside souls and whole nations. It could well be that this grace is stirring up in countless souls ardent desires for the love of God. When people correspond to these graces, the marvels of history are worked in the face of insurmountable obstacles.

Indeed, a new springtime may be coming. But it will not spring from the frozen wastelands of the left but from Our Lady’s Immaculate Heart.

Photo Credit:  © Goran Skrtic/Wirestock –

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