As probably most of you know by now, Ross Douthat has written about “A Crisis of Conservative Catholicism.” And it’s remarkable that this article was first given as part of a lecture series sponsored by First Things and is now published on their website – the publication that is the very stronghold of Conservative Catholicism! And what I understand Mr. Douthat to be saying is equally astonishing:
The Conservative Catholic “story” (Mr. Douthat mercifully does not use the word “narrative”) is in a state of collapse. As our author says: “Our victories were not as permanent as we supposed, our arguments were less persuasive than we’d hoped, the Catholic center was not quite where we believed it to be, and our adversaries were not as foredoomed as we fondly wanted to believe.”
“Liberal Catholicism” (to use Mr. Douthat’s term) is immensely stronger than Conservative Catholics ever imagined. Key factors sustaining “Liberal Catholicism” are its message of reconciliation with the world and the complete religious indifference of the majority of the Catholic faithful.
“The papacy is not always the first bulwark of Orthodoxy.” “[T]here needs to be more discretion in the claims made for papal authority, more weight placed on the fullness of tradition rather than on the words of just one pope… .”
“Conservative Catholics need to come to terms with certain essential failures of Vatican II.” Indeed, that council may resemble (most closely?) the now forgotten Fifth Lateran Council – which also completely misread the “signs of the times.”
The foreseeable future of the Catholic Church will be not consolidation and recovery but ongoing internal conflict.
And much, much more. It sounds like a collection of observations made by Traditionalist Catholics over the years.
According to Mr Douthat, the crisis has been brought to a head primarily by the papacy of Francis but also by other recent developments such as the sexual abuse scandals of the Church, the political “rout” of cultural conservatism in the US on issues like marriage, etc. What is necessary is a radical rethinking of the conservative view of the world and the Church. I agree – but would like to add a few observations and helpful suggestions.
First, Mr Douthat calls for a turn away from the unrestrained papalism that has been the hallmark of the Conservative Catholic movement. But his own thoughts in this regard – which still reflect the conservative Catholic worldview – need further clarification. How is it possible, for example, to reconcile the following statements?
(Pope) “Francis is not a theological liberal as we understand the term in the United States. He is too supernaturalist, too pietistic, too much of a moral conservative, too Catholic for that.”
“I firmly believe 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… the Church’s entire teaching on sexual ethics.” (These proposals, of course, have enjoyed the support, both open and covert, of Francis).
Second, Mr Douthat still adheres to the idea of a mythical “center” equidistant from Traditionalism and progressivism. He then marvels how quickly this center has succumbed under Francis, when its remaining adherents find themselves on the “center – right.” But one main reason for this was that the hierarchy, the Vatican and the papacy – even that of John Paul II and Benedict – never subscribed to the doctrines of “conservative Catholicism” in the first place. This was especially evidenced by the episcopal nominations of these two pontiffs. Anyone aware of the laissez-faire appointment policy of these popes would not, like Mr. Douthat, be surprised that a college of cardinals allegedly “stacked” by John Paul II and Benedict elected Francis.
Third, the crack-up of the Conservative Catholic “story “ actually began much earlier than Mr. Douthat indicates. In the realm of liturgy – which, characteristically, Mr. Douthat does not even mention – the Vatican has consistently disappointed the “strict construction of the Novus Ordo” /”reform of the reform” doctrines of the Conservative Catholics since at least 1980. On the progressive side of the ledger, “abuses” like communion in the hand and altar girls were made almost universal with Vatican blessing. On the right, starting with the indults of the 1980’s and culminating in Summorum Pontificum, the Traditional Mass obtained once more a legal position in the Church – something the Conservative Catholics said would never happen. This saga of Conservative Catholic liturgical failure continues to the present day with the recent decree on the Holy Thursday Mandatum. Rubrics were changed to legalize the prior departure from liturgical norms by than no less a person than the Bishop of Rome. And when the decree was introduced it was made clear that further changes would likely be in the offing – also motivated by the deeds and statements of Francis.
Obviously, Mr Douthat will have an uphill battle in converting the Conservative Catholic movement to his views. For example, immediately following Mr. Douthat’s article in First Things we find George Weigel’s “What Really Happened at Synod 2015. ” Mr. Weigel summarizes the results of the synod as follows:
“But for all the confusions caused by ignorant, irresponsible, and ideologically skewed reporting on what happened in Rome, the recent synod reaffirmed the Gospel and the settled truths of Catholic faith and practice.”
That’s surely one of the most extraordinary analyses of last fall’s proceedings and their significance I have seen coming from any ideological quarter. To actually praise a synod of Catholic bishops for “reaffirming the gospel and the settled truths of Catholic faith” only reveals the depths of the problem Mr. Weigel does not want to acknowledge. And the role of Pope Francis before, during and after the synod is hardly mentioned except in a couple of references in which Mr. Weigel leaves the impression the pope was an opponent of the “Kasperite” party.
But, as they say, Rome wasn’t built in a day. We can only agree with Mr. Douthat’s summons to conservatives to undertake a more searching and honest review of the developments of the last century. For only truth and the understanding of reality can serve as a real basis for policies of action.