Ross Douthat's Erasmus Lecture

by Michael Sean Winters

View Author Profile

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts to Letters to the Editor. Learn more

First Things has now posted the text of Ross Douthat’s “Erasmus Lecture,” delivered at the end of October, and a curious text it is, starting with the title. Is there really a "crisis" for conservative Catholics, or is it just a snit? Douthat is smart, but he has for too long accepted at face value the American conservative, or neo-conservative, narrative about developments within the Catholic Church over the past fifty years. In this talk he admirably seeks to correct some of the blind spots that narrative entailed but, in the end, Douthat is still unable to find a lens that does his subject justice.

First, the good points. It took a bit of courage to point out to this audience that “It’s easy to mock this sudden enthusiasm [on the left] for papal authority. But a conservative Catholicism that became too quick to play the ‘magisterium’ card as a substitute for sustained argument must acknowledge that it’s being hoisted on its own petard.” Indeed, these two sentences all but admit that too many conservatives saw the teaching of the Church as part of a political game, a card to be played, not a truth to be embraced, and that the persuasiveness of an argument was a source of indifference to them: So long as they were confirmed in their righteousness, who cared if others were alienated from the faith?

Similarly, I think this paragraph is significant and important, not so much for what is says about the left but for what it says about the right:

With that recognition there needs to be a deeper process of discernment, because what gets described as “liberal” Catholicism is far more multifarious and complicated than that politicized label conveys. There is a form of liberal Catholicism that is simply a Catholicism that doesn’t want to vote Republican—or outside the American context, that’s skeptical of the excesses of late modern global capitalism—and that doesn’t see the social doctrine of the Church fully embodied in political conservatism. This sort of liberalism is fully compatible with doctrinal orthodoxy, and indeed, its flourishing should be regarded even by those who differ with its politics as a sign of a healthy Catholicism, one not imprisoned by partisanship and ideology.

The imprisonment of conservative Catholicism to partisanship and ideology was nowhere more apparent than in the rejection of St. Pope John Paul II’s pleas to the George W. Bush administration not to go to war in Iraq, and the subsequent conservative defense of torture. Less apparent, but more important, has been the laxity with which conservatives have wrestled with the consequences for the Church of modern consumer capitalism. Douthat acknowledges “excesses” but it is not only the excesses that are the problem. The “sexual revolution” did not spring on the world without assistance from a consumer culture that feeds on superficiality and hedonism. Its materialism is, of course, its raison d’etre. Rare were the conservative Catholic commentaries in the long reign of John Paul II about the brutal fact of massive improverishment, and the Christian obligation to do something about it, even though their “heroic pope” was not shy about addressing the issue. Rarer still was any acknowledgement that it was not liberal theologians or liberal priests or even the pages of NCR, still less the Second Vatican Council, that brought on the decline of Catholicism sui generis, but the sudden experience of widespread material prosperity. Jesus came to proclaim good news to the poor, not to the upper middle class, and the Church in the West is still only beginning to recognize that this material prosperity is its primary challenge, of which the sexual revolution is merely one product line among many.

Amidst these flashes of insight, however, Douthat’s weaknesses as an analyst of the Church are all too apparent. He begins his talk by recounting the classic conservative narrative about Vatican II and what followed. He goes on to point out how, circa 2000, the right was too convinced that its narrative had been accomplished, when in fact it was not, but he has drunk too deeply at those wells to achieve a genuinely critical stance. For example, he hurls the adjective “Hegelian” at the Catholic left a couple of time. I am not sure what he means. Certainly, Cardinal Kasper does not cite Hegel as the source for his proposal for a different approach to divorced and remarried Catholics. And, later in the talk, Douthat talks about a pendulum effect. Is that Hegelian? And, while Douthat may not know it, there is an old Italian saying, one that probably pre-dates Hegel, that “after a fat pope, a thin pope,” meaning that the Church looks to different styles of papal leadership in different times, precisely because the Church has need of the insights of all types of persons, not just one kind. Is that Hegelian?

Douthat also insists that there was nothing revolutionary about Vatican II. I do not want to get hung up on semantics. If he wishes to make a Burkean point, that there is a difference between reform and innovation, and revolutionaries innovate, I am mostly in agreement, but while the Council did not itself innovate per se, it reformed a lot. Through much of the nineteenth and the first-half of the twentieth century, Rome carried on an extensive correspondence with the American hierarchy on the subject of interreligious events. The officials in Rome did not like the idea of a Catholic priest saying a prayer at a civic event alongside ministers of other religions. What caused Rome to change its mind? In the postwar era, they recognized that the needed America as a bulwark against communism and that non-Catholics would be needed too. Now, interreligious events characterize all local churches and all papal trips. If that is not a revolution, I am not sure what is and, I dare say, it might even qualify as an innovation, a necessary one to be sure and novel only because previously no country, like the U.S. had experienced the admixture of religious groups to the extent that we did.

Most egregiously, not once does one grasp in his analysis of Vatican II that the Holy Spirit was active in the deliberations of the Council, and that this is not only testified to by those who participated in it, but by our Catholic beliefs about the Spirit’s presence in the Church. If the Spirit was not active at Vatican II, why should we think it was active at Trent or Nicaea? One can deride, as Douthat does, those who invoked “the spirit of the Council” to justify positions that were actually in conflict with the texts of the Council, but there really was a “spirit of the Council” and Pope Francis is not wrong to invoke it. Yes, the “spirit of the Council” was invoked to justify silly things but not by Pope Francis or Cardinal Kasper.

Similarly, Douthat subscribes to the American conservative understanding of who John Paul II was and what he wanted to accomplish. As I have said repeatedly, the Catholic left was too quick to accept George Weigel’s interpretations of John Paul II’s papacy at face value too. Weigel and Neuhaus and Novak ignored the parts of Centesimus Annus they did not appreciate, such as the calls for a conversion of Western lifestyles, or the profound challenge to capitalism the text as a whole represents, and instead focused on the few sentences that appeared to give a more favorable interpretation of the market economy than that contained in earlier papal documents. (They like a hermeneutic of rupture when it suits their purposes!) Douthat seems to acknowledge this, when he points out that the cardinals and bishops who agree with Francis were all appointed by John Paul II or Benedict, but he does not go far enough in re-evaluating the whole conservative narrative of the Council and post-conciliar period.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in Douthat’s discussion of the sex abuse crisis. He notes that the conservative narrative of ecclesial renewal under John Paul II took a hit with the clergy sex abuse crisis

which was not a crisis of conservative Catholicism per se—its roots twined much too deep for that—but which cast a shadow over John Paul II’s last years, raised ­significant questions about his governance of the Church, and discredited Catholic leaders (from Bernard Law in Boston to the nightmare that was Marcial Maciel) who had once seemed pillars of a conservative ­revival.

Fr. Maciel was a nightmare to be sure, but before conservatives admitted that fact, he was a paragon of the “heroic priesthood” that was so central to “conservative revival” under John Paul II. You can find the encomiums to Maciel from Weigel, Mary Ann Glendon and others, all of whom now say they were fooled, but as one bishop told me, “There was so much sugarcoating on him, you had to be willfully fooled.” There was a hierarchy of values at work among those who defended Maciel (and who protected abusers) and loyalty to a conservative vision of the Church trumped the protection of children. That hierarchy of values showed that there was something rotten at the heart of the “restoration” not just the “clericalist blindness” that Douthat acknowledges, but a hubris that, sadly, still characterizes many conservative commentaries.

In explaining his surprise at the extent of resistance to the conservative narrative about the Council and post-conciliar era, Douthat notes the appointment of Archbishop Blase Cupich to Chicago. He writes, “Francis did have to reach down to Spokane, Washington, to find Blase Cupich, his most liberal American appointment, now serving as archbishop of Chicago.” He makes it sound like +Cupich fell off an apple cart into the cathedra at Holy Name. Does he have something against the archbishop or against Spokane? Did Paul VI and John Paul II “reach down” to Springfield-Cape Giradeau when selecting, respectively, Bishop William Baum to become the Archbishop of Washington and Bishop Bernard Law to become the Archbishop of Boston? Compared to those two small towns in Missouri, Spokane is a veritable metropolis. Douthat might have better used the appointment of +Cupich to reinforce his point about the extent of diversity within the hierarchy under the two previous popes. After all, +Cupich was named Bishop of Spokane by Pope Benedict and, before that, Bishop of Rapid City by Pope John Paul II. He also was elected to chair committees of the USCCB by his brother bishops. And, he was chosen to serve as rector at a pontifical seminary, a decision confirmed by John Paul II. Douthat may disagree with Archbishop Cupich. He may not like him very much. But, speaking of such a formidable pastor in such dismissive ways does not reflect well on Douthat.

The most worrisome part of Douthat’s talk, however, is the breezy way he invites a certain hermeneutic of suspicion regarding Pope Francis and, by extension, the papacy. I think we should all of us worry about a cult of personality surrounding this or any pope, but I also believe that the development of doctrine regarding the Petrine ministry has occurred for a reason, perhaps a reason not yet clear to us. And Pope Francis is, to my mind, perfectly in touch with Vatican II and the effort at ressourcement that was at the heart of the Council. Attending to the “signs of the times” was not, in the Council’s mind or in the teachings of Pope Francis, an invitation to relativism. It was, instead, an affirmation that the Spirit is alive in the Church today, here and now, aiding us as we face new and different problems from those faced by our predecessors. There is no guarantee that a pope will not make a mistake here or there, but encouraging a sense of suspicion is unhelpful to say the least.

The Church changes and you do not need to be a Hegelian to say so. Sometimes we take steps forward, sometimes not. In the High Middle Ages, the moral sensibilities of leading churchmen were different from those in our own time. For example, the canons of the Cathedral of Notre Dame decided to receive a donation towards the construction of the cathedral from the city’s prostitutes, but refused one from the city’s bankers. The women, they argued, had worked for their money. Perhaps this will cost me my reputation as a progressive, but in this instance, I prefer the moral analysis of the High Middle Ages to that of our own time.

The change that has Douthat worried is a change in pastoral practice towards the divorced and remarried. He seems to think that a change in practice necessarily means a change in doctrine, which is far from clear. And, he seems to think that any change amounts to caving in to the culture, a Protestantization of the Catholic faith, subverting doctrine on account of sociological analysis. (And, appealing to the decline in church membership among the mainline Protestant churches is a sociological argument too. Conservatives are only too happy to use sociology when it supports their arguments.) In the event, I think it is the Orthodox practice that is more likely guiding the Holy Father’s views, and I do not think that anyone can convincingly make the case that the Orthodox have “caved” to the culture. The fact that their Churches are apostolic should certainly give pause, but doesn’t, to those who throw around words like “heresy.” The fact that the differing Orthodox practice pre-dates the Great Schism is a theological fact of great significance, and why should we not learn from our sister churches? Douthat and other conservatives may think that any change in practice amounts to a weakening of our doctrinal solidity, but might it not also be a retrieval of biblical understandings about mercy, that needs to be brought to bear now because of the tsunami of divorce that has afflicted the modern West. The sudden shift in divorce rates, within a couple of generations, certainly suggests a degree of caution in assigning personal moral fault to those who find themselves divorced. Why should we not look to the resources of our tradition to help these people?

Let me close by pointing to another point of agreement with Douthat. He notes that the Francis papacy has revealed “how weak the Catholic center remains, how quickly consensus falls apart, and how much space actually separates the center-left and center-right within the Church.” I agree that the Catholic center remains weak and believe that this is something that should urgently concern both the leaders of the Church and those of us in the commentariat. As I have noted before, building the Catholic center requires two things, to think as a Catholic first and a willingness to call out those on one’s political or ideological side of the divides when they do not think like a Catholic first. I would encourage Douthat to help build the Catholic center. I can think of several, prominent left-of-center commentators who have eagerly been seeking to build the Catholic center, people like Catholic University’s Steve Schneck, who writes for US Catholic, and Georgetown University’s John Carr, who writes for America, and, well, me. I have trouble thinking of many people on the right-of-center who are making a similar effort, Kim Daniels of Catholic Voices being the exception that proves the rule.

We could use Douthat’s help. I look forward to him penning an article that is as critical of the Acton Institute’s fawning over markets and undermining Catholic Social Teaching as I have been critical of groups like Catholics for Choice for their undermining of Catholic moral teachings. I hope he will try to look at Francis’ writings and talks as I looked at Benedict’s, with an open mind and an eager heart: I was not disappointed to explore the richness of Benedict’s theological vision and I suspect Douthat might be similarly moved if he turned to Francis with an open heart, one freed from the conservative narratives that remain too influential in this latest essay. Building the unity of the Church is something to which we are all called, but the task is properly overseen first and foremost by the Bishop of Rome, and there is no way that denigrating him and his authority serves the unity of the Church. Overcoming that bias, too evident in this essay, is the first step in building the unity of the Church.  



Latest News


1x per dayDaily Newsletters
1x per weekWeekly Newsletters
2x WeeklyBiweekly Newsletters