Welcome to the cafeteria, Ross

by Thomas Reese

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Last week I reviewed and commented on the conservative narrative as described by Ross Douthat in "A Crisis in Conservative Catholicism." This week I would like to continue the conversation by looking at his comments on Pope Francis and his recommendations to conservatives.

Douthat believed that there was no "vibrant, potent alternative" to conservative Catholicism until the election of Pope Francis. "The waning of liberal Catholicism seemed to be continuing, and outside of certain theology departments and the pages of the National Catholic Reporter, the idea that the Church needed constant revolution seemed to have lost its once intoxicating appeal."

I will ignore his rhetorical excesses (that liberal Catholicism wanted "constant revolution") and partially agree with him. It is true that the hierarchy suppressed progressive voices in their publications and seminaries. Only NCR and Commonweal, as lay-run publications, were able to be critical voices in a time of heavy-handed censorship. Likewise, only tenured lay theologians in Catholic universities had the freedom to speak and write, which was not enjoyed by their clerical colleagues.

Liberalism did not die because it lost the argument; it was forcibly suppressed wherever church authorities had the power to do it. The weakness of the conservative cause was shown by its need to use power when persuasion failed.

I agree with Douthat, the response to Pope Francis "should be revelatory for conservative Catholics accustomed to thinking of theological liberalism as moribund, frozen in amber with felt banners and guitar Masses and the Call to Action conference. Liberal Catholicism turns out to have been more resilient than the conservative master narrative suggested. It has resources, personnel, and a persistent appeal that were only awaiting a more favorable environment to make themselves felt."

I also agree that conservatives ignored polling data that showed that even church-going Catholics were much more liberal on many issues (sexual ethics, access to Communion, etc.) than the hierarchy. Thus, he writes, "at the elite and grassroots levels alike, there remains a very large constituency for a different direction, a more liberal turn within the Church."

But liberals should not be smug. Despite attempts by Call to Action, Voice of the Faithful, and other groups, this liberal lay voice has never been organized successfully in America. Membership in these groups is almost always under 100,000 people. Nor have subscriptions to progressive publications ever exceeded 100,000 subscribers except for very short periods.

Douthat and other conservatives love to claim that liberal Catholics want to make the Catholic church more like mainline churches, especially the Anglicans.

Sorry to have to disillusion you, Ross, but Evangelicals have married clergy and women ministers, they elect their leaders, welcome divorced and remarried couples, and have no problem with birth control. They are also much better at enculturating their worship services with contemporary music and language than the staid old mainliners.

In short, the Evangelicals are already doing many of the things liberal Catholics want for their church, the very things that are opposed by Douthat and other conservatives. So you might as well say that liberal Catholics want to imitate the Evangelicals as say they want to imitate the mainline churches, although liberal Catholics would not want to abandon the Eucharist, which is absent from most Evangelical churches but included in many mainline churches.

Douthat says that he would have had no problem with Pope Francis if he had stuck to the center left by "tackling divorce and remarriage by streamlining the annulment process and making it more available in poorer countries, stressing the social gospel a little more and the culture war a little less, appointing women to run Vatican dicasteries, even reopening debates over female deacons and married priests."

But "Francis has pushed into more divisive territory," and "what I had thought of as the Catholic center-left has not only welcomed that push but written and spoken in ways that suggest they want to push further still -- toward understandings of the sacraments, ecclesiology, and moral theology that seem less center-left than simply 'left.' "

Douthat is probably right when he says, "I do not think that most of the cardinals voting for Jorge Bergoglio thought that they were voting to reopen the Communion-and-remarriage debate, let alone that their votes were any kind of deliberate rejection of the magisterium of the previous two popes." On the other hand, I think the cardinals were sophisticated enough to know that not everything written by these popes was unchangeable.

To conservatives who have used the popes as a club to beat up liberals, he warns, "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."

Now Douthat concludes, "The papacy is not always the first bulwark of orthodoxy." In some cases, "the papacy has conspicuously failed to be either wise or courageous when orthodoxy is on the line." In short, "sometimes Peter misspeaks or goes astray."

Douthat now believes, "There needs to be more discretion in the claims made for papal authority, more weight placed on the fullness of tradition rather than the words of just one pope."

All I can say to that is, "Welcome to the cafeteria, Ross." Liberal Catholics were condemned as cafeteria Catholics during the last two papacies for saying the same thing. 

In truth, conservative Catholics have been feeding in the papal cafeteria for decades by skipping the broccoli of Catholic social teaching, but it is nice to see one finally admit it. Pope Francis has forced conservatives to think about the "hierarchy of truths" and what can change and what cannot change in church teaching.

Proposals to change the church's treatment of divorced and remarried Catholics is a real stumbling block for Douthat and many other conservatives.

He firmly believes "that the proposals to admit remarried Catholics to Communion without an annulment strike at the heart of how the Church has traditionally understood the sacraments, and threaten to unravel (as for some supporters, they are intended to unravel) the Church's entire teaching on sexual ethics."

More fundamentally, I think this is a disagreement over the understanding of the development of doctrine and the meaning of words like faith, dogma, doctrine, theology, magisterial teaching, papal teaching, and pastoral practice. It is also a disagreement over the exegesis of scriptural passages on marriage.

As I said elsewhere, the synod could have benefited from more robust theological input on these issues from knowledgeable theologians. I would welcome, as I think Douthat would, a serious theological debate on these questions that avoids name calling and condemnations. In the papacy of Pope Francis, such a debate is possible whereas it was not in the last two papacies.

"Conservative Catholics need a more robust theory of the development of doctrine [his italics]," acknowledges Douthat. "Or, perhaps more aptly, they need a clearer theory of how development of doctrine applies to developments that have occurred since John Henry Newman wrote his famous essay."

He admits conservatives don’t know how to think about changes in church teaching on religious liberty, "the possibility of universal salvation, the precise moral status of the death penalty, whether slavery and torture are intrinsic evils, as well as the question of supersessionism and the Church’s relationship to the Jews."

Liberals have no problem with these changes, he says, because "liberals tend to see it all as evidence that the Church can change almost anything." Really? It is such off the cuff slurs that enrage liberal Catholics and make dialogue difficult.

Douthat says what is needed is "a more conservative answer to or adaptation of the arguments that John Noonan made in his work A Church That Can and Cannot Change." I would also suggest they read Magisterium by Jesuit Fr. Francis A. Sullivan.

Douthat addressed his talk to conservatives, but I hope I will be forgiven for butting into the conversation. The topics he raises are important to the whole church. The challenge is not just to conservatives, but to all Catholics. In the past, such discussions were suppressed or blew up in anathemas and name calling. Let’s hope that we can have this conversation in a civil manner, which is now possible because of Pope Francis.

[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 treesesj@ncronline.org.]  

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