The wimp factor

by Joe Ferullo

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Let's own up to it -- there's something wrong with progressives in the Catholic church. It's the same malady that plagues progressives in national politics -- we just don't get angry enough. We don't scream and yell. The fire and brimstone script is not our thing. 

We seek a "middle way." Call it the wimp factor.

For proof, look no further than the hellfire and damnation that has followed in the wake of the extraordinary synod on the family. Pope Francis, apparently under the delusion that he was head of the church and could set its direction, sought to shift (to what degree it is unclear) the Catholic dialogue on a host of family issues -- and was greeted with head-on challenges from the right wing that would be considered blasphemy if progressives has directed them toward Popes John Paul II or Benedict XVI.

The latest example comes in the most recent New York Times column from Ross Douthat. Quick confession here: though he leans right, Douthat is my favorite Times columnist -- he is always thought-provoking and rarely an ideologue. He strikes a reasoned and reasonable tone that makes his arguments worth examining and respecting. 

Not so much this time. 

Just so you are forewarned, his column is headlined "The Pope And The Precipice." The precipice of the title is the cliff over which Francis is pushing the church as he nudges it towards some bit of reform. For added measure, Douthat begins his column with an examination of papal infallibility, informing readers that -- really -- the whole thing wasn't meant to be taken all that seriously. 

This is an argument I had not seen him make under previous (traditionalist) popes. 

But the stage is now set for the rest of his argument, which is, essentially: hey, it's okay to push back against Francis, it's okay to fight him, ignore him, pillory him. Okay for the right-wing, that is.

He ends his column with a rallying cry for strong dissent:

But if he (Francis) seems to be choosing the more dangerous path — if he moves to reassign potential critics in the hierarchy, if he seems to be stacking the next synod’s ranks with supporters of a sweeping change — then conservative Catholics will need a cleareyed understanding of the situation.

They can certainly persist in the belief that God protects the church from self-contradiction. But they might want to consider the possibility that they have a role to play, and that this pope may be preserved from error only if the church itself resists him. 

Let's repeat that final phrase: "… this pope may be preserved from error only if the church itself resists him." 

Nothing like this was heard from the left as American nuns were made into doctrinal targets, nor while the Curia fiddled as the abuse scandal burned the church. Nor was such talk permitted when bishops denied politicians communion and turned pulpits into political soapboxes election after election. 

But just try to shift the church to the left after three-plus decades of rightward pull, and the traditionalists man the barricades, speaking of the pope as if he were a mad king who must be removed for the good of God and country. 

And this, again, is from Douthat -- a moderate, reasonable voice. One can only guess at the manic mutterings coming from more ideological precincts inside and outside the Vatican walls.

So, this then may be time for progressives to shed the wimp factor, time (if not past time) to speak out against traditionalists who issue thinly-veiled threats that conjure up medieval echoes and chatter of schism.

It is paranoid and ridiculous -- but it can't be allowed to take hold. 

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