The Catholic story, conservative vs. progressive

by Thomas Reese

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Ross Douthat is a thoughtful and articulate conservative who converted to Catholicism in his teens and now writes for The New York Times. He infuriates many of my progressive friends, but I usually find his writings interesting and thought provoking even if I often disagree with him.

This month, First Things has published his 2015 talk, "A Crisis of Conservative Catholicism," which is a thoughtful address to conservative Catholics in the era of Pope Francis. He is attempting to help conservatives cope with the changes happening in the church today.

I hope I will be forgiven for entering this intraconservative conversation. Although no one today would label me a conservative, I was raised in the conservative church of the 1950s, entered a conservative Jesuit novitiate in 1962 before the Second Vatican Council, and had a very difficult time making the transition to the post-Vatican II church.

In short, I have some sympathy with what conservatives are experiencing today because I went through a similar experience in the late 1960s.

For another view, see "Ross Douthat's Erasmus Lecture" by Michael Sean Winters, which I did not see until after I wrote this column.

Douthat begins his talk by relating the accepted conservative narrative explaining the last 50 years of Catholicism, beginning with Vatican II. The goal of the council was "to reorient Catholicism away from its nineteenth-century fortress mentality, to open a new dialogue with the modern world, to look more deeply into the Catholic past in order to prepare for the Catholic future, and to usher in an era of evangelization and renewal."

But "the hoped-for renewal was hijacked, in many cases, by those for whom renewal meant an accommodation to the spirit of the 1960s, and the transformation of the Church along liberal Protestant lines."

The post-conciliar church was divided into two camps. "One followed the actual documents of the council and urged the Church to maintain continuity with Catholic teaching and tradition, and the other was loyal to a 'spirit of the council' that just happened to coincide with the cultural fashions that came in its wake."

Douthat writes that in the period immediately after the council, the second party controlled seminaries, religious orders, Catholic universities, and diocesan bureaucracies. "The results were at best disappointing, at worst disastrous: collapsing Mass attendance, vanishing vocations, a swift erosion of Catholic identity everywhere you looked."

Fortunately, according to this narrative, a new pope was elected from the first party "who rejected the hermeneutic of rupture, who carried the true intentions of the council forward while proclaiming the ancient truths of Catholicism anew." This pope and his successor "inspired exactly the kind of renewal the council fathers had hoped for: a generation of bishops, priests, and laity prepared to witness to the fullness of Catholicism, the splendor of its truth."

Liberal Catholicism was dead and the future belonged to the conservatives.

Douthat acknowledges that this narrative is in crisis. The sex abuse crisis and its cover-up "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."

The rout of conservatives in the cultural wars, the continued decline in church numbers, and the rise of the "nones" show that the conservative program has not succeeded. He might have also added the growing alienation of women from the hierarchy. 

Finally, according to Douthat, Benedict proved an administrative failure who could not finish John Paul’s work of restoration or control an "essentially ungovernable Vatican, blind to contemporary media realities, corrupt and leak-riddled."

Before moving on to Douthat’s recommendations, let me first respond to his outline of the conservative narrative and what went wrong.

First, I think it is necessary to push the timeline back to the 19th century, when the Catholic hierarchy after the catastrophic experience of the French Revolution, aligned itself with the conservative political establishment in fighting all things modern (free press, free speech, democracy, unions, etc.). The church lost European intellectuals and the working classes (especially men) long before Vatican II. The response of Europe to the church’s alliance with political conservatism was anticlericalism.

The American experience was different because while in Europe the church fought against the expansion of freedom, in America the church was on the side of freedom and accepted the separation of church and state. As a result, until the sex abuse crisis and the culture wars, there was no significant anticlerical movement in the United States. American bishops were seen as defenders of unions and working class families from which they had come. The bishops faced anti-Catholicism but not anticlericalism.

Today, on the other hand, anticlericalism is alive and well in America among political liberals, because of the bishops' political agenda, and among women, because of the bishops' stance on women's issues both in and outside the church. Much of what is labeled anti-Catholicism by conservatives is really anticlericalism. The liberal elites do not hate Catholics; they hate the bishops.

Second, Douthat’s narrative passes over the actual events of Vatican II as if there was no conflict or disagreements at the council. In the progressive narrative, a conservative Roman Curia attempted to foist its draft documents on the council fathers who revolted and turned to theologians for help in drafting alternatives.

The bishops did not arrive in Rome as reformers. Rather the first couple of years of the council proved to be a continuing education program where bishops became educated in contemporary developments in theology. Only after updating their theology were they ready to work on documents. 

The Curia and its conservative allies fought tooth and nail against these reforms, which they certainly saw as revolutionary and a rupture with the past. Putting the liturgy into the vernacular, giving the cup to the laity, promoting ecumenism, acknowledging freedom of conscience and religion -- all of these were seen as Protestant innovations, and they were right. After hundreds of years of opposition, the church finally accepted some of the reforms that came out of the Reformation and the Enlightenment.

Paul VI, fearing schism on the right, forced the progressive majority to accept numerous compromises in order to get the conservatives to vote for the final documents. This led to documents with ambiguous and sometimes contradictory language.

Progressives accepted the compromises because they saw the council as the beginning of a process of reform not as a conclusion. The compromises and ambiguous texts were simply ways of postponing until a later time discussions that they thought would continue in the church.

The fight between conservatives and progressives continued after the council, but it is false to portray it simply as conservatives promoting the documents while the progressives promoted the "spirit" of the council. In fact, the argument was also over the interpretation of the documents, which sometime were purposefully ambiguous.

Douthat’s narrative also skips Humanae Vitae and its impact on the church. In the United States, this marked the end of clerical dominance over the faithful who rejected out of hand the conclusion that all artificial contraception is immoral. When papal teaching contradicted their own personal experience, the laity rejected the teaching. Earlier generations might have felt compelled to leave the church over such a serious disagreement, but that did not happen here.

Humanae Vitae also had a profound impact on Karol Wojtyła, who had been in the minority on the papal birth control commission that had recommended a change in church teaching. He was scandalized by dissenting bishops and theologians who questioned the encyclical. His experience in the Polish church had taught him the importance of unity for a church under siege first by Nazism and then Communism.

As pope, he made loyalty to papal teaching (especially Humanae Vitae) the litmus test for episcopal appointments. Loyalty trumped theological, pastoral, or administrative skills. His long reign, plus the shorter reign of his successor, insured that the episcopacy was remade in his image.

John Paul also brought in Joseph Ratzinger to rein in dissenting theologians, removing or silencing priests and religious who questioned papal teaching. He also presented an authoritative and often conservative interpretation to ambiguous texts in conciliar documents. Topics that had been postponed at the council became closed to discussion.  

Loyalty became the critical requirement for seminary professors and theological advisors. Since the vast majority of theologians disagreed with Humanae Vitae, this meant the alienation of this important constituency in the church. In order to avoid conflict and keep their jobs, most priest theologians simply stopped discussing controversial topics. Even lay theologians, who were not subject to vows of obedience, avoided controversy at least until they got tenure.

Whether by design or by accident, the John Paul papacy broke the alliance between bishops and theologians which had proved so successful against the Roman Curia at Vatican II. In fact, the bishops appointed by John Paul either attacked theologians or avoided them. As I have written elsewhere, this is the ecclesial equivalent of a corporation where management is not on speaking terms with the research and development division. 

In short, the renewal process started by the council was stopped and sometimes rolled back, according to the progressive narrative. For example, if married clergy had been allowed and Humanae Vitae had not happened, we would have a very different church today. The church ran into trouble after the council because the reform agenda was abandoned not because of the reforms that were implemented.  

Finally, in the United States, Republican operatives saw a unique opportunity to bring white Catholics into their party. They wanted to turn the Catholic church and the Evangelicals into the Republican Party at prayer. On the campaign trail, they promised aid to Catholic schools and an end to abortion, but never made these priorities once they were in office.

Many American conservative Catholics downplayed Catholic social teaching because it went contrary to their political and economic views or because they felt it would distract attention from the culture wars. They ignored or spun what John Paul and Benedict had to say about war and peace and economic justice. 

I agree with Douthat that the conservative narrative is undercut by the sexual abuse crisis and the continued exodus of people (especially young people) from the church under John Paul and Benedict. I also agree that the progressive narrative is undercut by the rise of the Evangelicals and the decline of the mainline churches. While half those who leave the church become unchurched or "nones," about a third become Evangelical. Few in comparison join mainline churches.

Neither the conservative nor the progressive narrative has a good explanation for the Catholic exodus. My personal belief is that it has little to do with theology and more to do with a desire for emotionally charged worship services and a sense of community, which are absent from most Catholic parishes. 

Narratives are important for explaining the world to ourselves and others. These competing conservative and progressive narratives help define the church of today. Can we have a conversation about them without name calling and stone throwing? I hope so.

Next week, my column, "Welcome to the cafeteria, Ross," will also be on Douthat's piece.

[Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese is a senior analyst for NCR and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church. His email address is]  

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