In the winter of 1974, Richard John Neuhaus, then a Lutheran pastor, and Peter Berger, the distinguished sociologist of religion, spent an evening smoking cigarillos in the Bergers’ Brooklyn Heights kitchen and jotting down the things they found most annoying in the liberal theology that dominated American Christian circles. That kitchen-table list eventually led to a meeting at Hartford Seminary, where an ecumenical group of Christian thinkers, by no means confined to the conservative precincts of Catholicism and Protestantism, refined the original Neuhaus/Berger critique of progressive, secularized theology into “An Appeal for Theological Affirmation” (later discussed in a book, Against the World for the World: The Hartford Appeal and the Future of American Religion).
Ridiculed by the regnant liberal theological guilds as the “Hartford heresies,” the Hartford Appeal in fact signaled a new seriousness about dynamic orthodoxy—as distinguished from fossilized traditionalism—in theology, the effects of which are still felt in the living parts of twenty-first-century American Christianity. I was a kind of second-generation “Hartford heretic,” as Neuhaus and Berger (both of whom became good friends and collaborators in numerous projects) helped me understand the discomforts I had experienced, but couldn’t quite specify, during my graduate studies in theology and my later teaching.
Be that as it may, I recently retrieved Against the World for the World from my library and was struck by the ways in which, half a century ago, the Hartford Appeal presciently identified some of the woolier ideas that have emerged in the two years of discussions leading up to this month’s Synod on Synodality.
Thus Bad Idea #1 flagged by the Hartford Appeal: Modern thought is superior to all past forms of understanding reality, and is therefore normative for Christian faith and life. How many times have we heard variations on that theme—“We know better”—in the run-up to Synod-2023, as we did during the 2014 and 2015 Synods on the Family and along the German “Synodal Way”?
And Hartford’s Bad Idea #4: Jesus can only be understood in terms of contemporary models of humanity. In this instance, things have actually gotten worse since 1975, in that some protagonists of progressive Catholicism now claim that the Lord Jesus was simply mistaken about certain matters, due to the cultural limitations of his time and place. And that’s before they get to St. Paul.
And Hartford’s Bad Idea #5: All religions are equally valid; the choice among them is not a matter of conviction about truth but only of personal preference or lifestyle. Something similar was implicit in the 2019 “Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together” signed by the pope and the grand imam of Al-Azhar, which affirmed that the diversity of religions is of the will of God—a claim somewhat in tension with the Great Commission to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:1). Yet how often, in the materials issued during the two years of preparation for Synod-2023, does one find an unambiguous affirmation of the unique salvific role of Jesus Christ in history? Will that classic Christian claim set the Christocentric baseline for the conversations in Rome this month?
And Hartford’s Bad Idea #9: Institutions and historical traditions are oppressive and inimical to our being truly human; liberation from them is required for authentic existence and authentic religion. Too many of the discussions in the years leading up to Synod-2023 have been framed in precisely these terms, not least in Germany. The worst example of this has been the weaponization of the sin and crime of clerical sexual abuse to advance the Catholic Lite program of reinventing Catholicism.
And Hartford’s Bad Idea #10: The world must set the agenda for the Church. Social, political, and economic programs to improve the quality of life are ultimately normative for the Church’s mission in the world. Anyone who imagines that deep discussions of Christology or ecclesiology (the theology of the Church) will get more attention during Synod-2023 than climate change, the LGBTQ agenda, and migrant resettlement will likely be disappointed.
The challenges of offering a decadent culture the healing medicine of the gospel have intensified since the Hartford Appeal: The biblical understanding of the human person is now under direct assault by gender ideology; moral theologians are denying that some acts are gravely evil in all circumstances. That’s why the Hartford Appeal—a bracing reminder that surrender to the spirit of the age is betrayal of the gospel—is worth revisiting during Synod-2023.
George Weigel’s column “The Catholic Difference” is syndicated by the Denver Catholic, the official publication of the Archdiocese of Denver.