First Things
January 2016

The Crisis of Conservative Catholicism featuring Ross Douthat from First Things on Vimeo.

Let’s begin with a story. It’s one I’ve heard many times; it’s one I’ve told more than a few times myself. It’s a story about the Catholic Church in the second half of the twentieth century, and it goes something like this.

Once, fifty years ago, there was an ecumenical council of the Church. Its goal 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.

This was not intended to be a revolutionary council, and nothing in its deliberations, documents, and reforms was meant to rewrite doctrine or Protestantize the faith. But the council’s sessions coincided with an era of social upheaval and cultural revolution in the West, and 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.

Soon, two parties developed: 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.

The second party had its way in many Catholic institutions—seminaries and religious orders, Catholic universities and diocesan bureaucracies—for many years. The results were at best disappointing, at worst disastrous: collapsing Mass attendance, vanishing vocations, a swift erosion of Catholic identity everywhere you looked.

But fortunately for the Church, a pope was elected who belonged to 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. And while a liberalized, accommodationist Catholicism failed to reproduce itself and began to (literally) die out, the Catholic witness of 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.

And by the turn of the millennium, it was clear to anyone with eyes to see that this generation owned the Catholic future, that the liberal alternative had been tried and failed, and that the Church of the twenty-first century would embody a successful synthesis—conservative but modern, rooted in tradition but not traditionalist—of conciliar and pre-conciliar Catholicism, the Church of two thousand years of history and the Church of Vatican II.

The story I’ve just sketched is the master narrative of conservative Catholicism in the West. It’s the story that was waiting for me when I became a Catholic in the late 1990s, late in John Paul II’s pontificate but while he was still hale and firmly in command. It’s a story that seemed confirmed by developments outside the Church and outside the ­United States—the collapse of Mainline Protestantism and the emergence of a kind of “Catholic moment” in American politics and culture; the growth of Catholicism in Africa and the faith’s clear fade in northern Europe, the home territory of the hermeneutic of rupture; and more. And when Joseph ­Ratzinger succeeded John Paul as Benedict XVI, “spirit of Vatican II” Catholicism seemed all but defeated, the triumph of conservative Catholicism seemed all but ratified, and the story I’ve just told, all but confirmed as true.

But now it’s a story in crisis.

The crisis has been building for a little while. It began with the 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.

The scandal could be partially assimilated into the conservative narrative, since the abuse itself looked liked it peaked in the chaotic years after Vatican II, and the moral laxness of that era clearly contributed to its spread. But the cover-up went on far longer, and it did not fit neatly with the conservative narrative of post-1970s revival and renewal, suggesting as it did a persistent clericalist blindness to the good of ordinary Catholics, a corruption in the hierarchy that could not be blamed on theological or social liberalism alone.

Then, hard on the heels of that crisis, came the crack-up of George W. Bush’s presidency, which had appeared so full of promise for religious conservatives, and then the rout of cultural conservatism in the United States on a range of issues—most notably same-sex marriage, which had once seemed like a place where a natural-law understanding of sexuality still enjoyed at least some post–sexual revolution traction, but which turned out to be, if anything, a weak point, a reason to reject natural law altogether.

The rout on marriage overlapped with, and probably contributed to, the rise of the so-called “nones,” Americans with no religious affiliation, whose growth in the millennial generation undercut the ’90s-era hope that America might be on the cusp of a sustained religious revival. And while the growth of this population was spread across almost every faith tradition, the Catholic losses were still striking. Ex-Catholics are one of the country’s largest religious groups, and without Hispanic immigration, trends in Catholic affiliation and practice would resemble Mainline Protestantism more than many would be eager to admit.

Finally came the administrative failures of ­Benedict’s pontificate, which began with the hope that he would finish John Paul’s work of restoration and fully clean up what he called the “filth” within the Church, and which ended with the sense of an essentially ungovernable Vatican, blind to contemporary media realities, corrupt and leak-riddled, and beyond the capacity of the man who had been Joseph Ratzinger to master.

All these developments undercut conservative Catholic optimism. They were signs that John Paul II–era Catholicism had perhaps stabilized the Church and influenced the wider culture less than many Catholics had hoped. But they did not suggest an alternative to the John Paul II synthesis, or call its ascendancy within the Church into real doubt. The conservative master narrative might have looked more questionable in 2010 than it did in 1999 or upon Ratzinger’s election as Benedict, but there was no vibrant, potent alternative. 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.

Until the election of Jorge Bergoglio as Pope ­Francis, that is.

Given the endless debates about what the current pontiff actually believes, it should be stressed that 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.

However, his economic views are a little more radical and a lot more strongly felt than those of his immediate predecessors, he plainly feels that the Church under John Paul and Benedict laid too much stress on issues like abortion and marriage and not enough on poverty, immigration, and the environment, and he has sympathy for liberal proposals—particularly concerning divorce and remarriage—that seem to promise to bring more people back to the sacraments and full participation in the faith.

Put those tendencies together, and you have a pontificate that—in words, deeds, and appointments—has reopened doors that seemed to be closed since 1978, offering liberal Catholicism a second chance, a new springtime of the sort that seemed hard to imagine just a few short years ago.

The response to this opening 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.

And make themselves felt they have. The recent Synod on the Family and the many arguments swirling around its deliberations have been dominated by ideas that many conservatives thought had been put to rest by John Paul II, from sociological updatings of gospel faith to visions of an essentially Anglicanized Catholicism. Didn’t we win these arguments already? The answer is yes—but not as permanently as conservative Catholics had sometimes thought.

Some of this liberal resilience was always visible; conservatives just tended to close their eyes to it. Many of the legacy institutions of Western Catholicism, the diocesan bureaucracies and national committees and prominent universities and charitable organizations, never reconciled themselves to the John Paul II era, or they went along with it half-heartedly, awaiting a different era and a different pope. And the fact that many conservatives think of some of these institutions as functionally post-Catholic doesn’t make them any less integral to the Church as an organism, a culture. They are part, often a large part, of the Catholic ­experience for the average Mass-goer and Catholic family. (Far more young American Catholics ­graduate from ­colleges and universities “in the Jesuit tradition” than graduate from, say, Thomas Aquinas or Wyoming Catholic College or Christendom or Steubenville.) In that sense, even after three decades and two ­conservative popes, conservative Catholicism is often still a counterculture within important institutions of the Church.

In the pews, too, Western Catholicism remains a faith deeply divided. Conservatives complain, with some justification, that media polls showing high levels of dissent from church teaching often lump churchgoing Catholics together with the Christmas-and-Easter variety and the all-but-fully-lapsed. But in the United States, even frequent Mass-goers are split on the questions that conservatives consider part of the clear and unchangeable teaching of the Church.

Everyone is aware that only a minority of practicing Catholics accept Humanae Vitae’s teaching on artificial contraception. But it isn’t just birth control where dissent from the Church’s view of marriage is pervasive. To take the pressing issue of the moment, according to Pew Research Center, a mere 42 percent of American Catholics who attend Mass weekly think that the divorced and remarried should not be allowed to receive Communion. Only forty-eight percent think cohabiting Catholics should not be allowed to receive. That last number shouldn’t be surprising, since only 46 percent of weekly Mass attenders believe living together outside of wedlock is a sin at all.

So at the elite and grassroots levels alike, there remains a very large constituency for a different direction, a more liberal turn within the Church. And of course this constituency—as conservatives have always known—has the advantage of having many, many lapsed Catholics and non-Catholics on its side, particularly non-Catholics in the commanding heights of Western culture, where it is widely assumed that the Church will eventually, inevitably, imitate Episcopalianism, and where the champagne bottles sit iced and ready to celebrate that turn whenever it seems to be arriving.

Two things have been genuinely revelatory about the Francis era, however. The first is 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. Until recently I thought of myself as part of that center-right, and from that vantage point, it seemed like there was a great deal of room for Pope Francis to tack center-leftward without opening up major doctrinal debates—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. On some of these fronts conservatives would have doubted, questioned, or opposed, but the debates wouldn’t have led so quickly to fears of heresy and schism.

But instead, as Francis has pushed into more divisive territory, 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,” the purest vintage of the year of our Lord 1968 or 1975. Which perhaps reveals that I’ve actually been further “right” all along, but either way suggests a hollowness at the Catholic center, a striking lack of common ground.

Then it’s also been revelatory how strong a liberal constituency still remains within the priesthood and the episcopate, the places where one would have thought thirty years of papal conservatism would have left their strongest impact. Which, to be clear, they did: Seminaries really have changed dramatically since the ’70s, there really is a John Paul II and Benedict generation of younger priests, and the hierarchy is markedly more conservative than it was in the later years of Paul VI. Moreover, 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.

But the fact remains that a college theoretically “stacked” by John Paul II and Benedict XVI ­elected as pope a candidate who had been championed, across two conclaves, by the most liberal cardinals in the Church. The fact remains that all of the bishops who have agitated for changing the Church’s ­doctrine—or, as they claim, the Church’s discipline—on marriage and the sacraments were appointed by the last two popes. And the fact remains that while the majority of bishops do seem loyal in principle to the magisterium of John Paul II, there has been no shortage of episcopal enthusiasm for an ­essentially ­Hegelian understanding of the development of ­doctrine.

Yes, Francis did have to reach down to Spokane, Washington, to find Blase Cupich, his most liberal American appointment, now serving as archbishop of Chicago. But the view that “history will have its way” in the Church eventually is not just a province of European liberals. That quote comes from an Australian, the archbishop of Brisbane, Mark Coleridge, responding to critics of his comments that stable ­second marriages shouldn’t be called adultery. A similar perspective has emanated from geographic regions that conservative Catholics have sometimes tended to contrast with decadent Europe, like Latin America and South Asia. (The current liberal hope for the next conclave is not a Belgian or a German, but Cardinal Tagle of the Phillipines.)

So even in the hierarchy that the last two popes themselves appointed, there is no full consensus about John Paul II’s teaching, or about the post-1970s conservative restoration writ large. Many bishops who seemed centrist and center-left look more straightforwardly liberal now that liberalism is once more in good odor in Rome.

And of course the last two popes are no longer appointing bishops and archbishops: Should Pope Francis live another five years, he will probably have appointed half the cardinals in the conclave that elects his successor. While not all of his appointments have been as transparently liberal as Archbishop (and, many assume, Cardinal-to-be) Cupich, it would be foolish to expect that a more conservative conclave will assemble when the current pontiff passes to his reward.

What conclusions might conservative Catholics draw from all of these developments and revelations? To begin with, they should recognize that the future of Catholicism is still deeply contested. A “spirit of Vatican II” vision for the Church does indeed have many of the weaknesses that conservatives have spent the last few decades pointing out, and the fate of the Protestant Mainline does indeed suggest that a full Hegelianism is the royal road to institutional suicide. But the promise of some kind of reconciliation between Catholicism and contemporary liberal modernity, sexual modernity especially, has a persistent, entirely understandable appeal, which is why theological liberalism is rediscovered as often as it seems to wane. And the Church exists within a larger cultural matrix that persistently regards a liberalized, Protestantized Catholicism as the coming thing, the inevitable next step for the Church, a prophecy that need not be fulfilled to shape the way that millions of Catholics think about their faith.

So conservative Catholics need to recalibrate their expectations. The idea that there would be a “bio­logical solution” to the post–Vatican II divisions in the Church—in which liberal Catholics have small families, fail to raise them in the faith, and gradually go extinct—looks too simplistic. Liberal Catholicism will be with us for generations yet to come.

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.

Then there is a form of liberal Catholicism that doesn’t have a sweeping program of change for the Church, but just finds certain teachings either too challenging to live up to or too difficult to fully comprehend. This form is less a threat to orthodoxy than a necessary challenge to conservatives—a challenge to charity and generosity of spirit and also an intellectual and theological challenge. Some teachings fail to persuade or resonate because the case for them is made poorly, and needs to be reconceived and made anew. In other instances, liberal difficulties really can point the way either toward an authentic development of doctrine or a genuinely pastoral change in how the Church approaches an issue, a group, a situation.

But then, finally, there is a form of liberal Catholicism that envisions a Catholicism too much like the present Protestant Mainline or the deteriorating Anglican Communion to be recognized as Catholic. This form has revolutionary ambitions, it proceeds from premises that owe more to a brief era in twentieth-century theology than to the full inheritance of the Church, and its theological vision and Catholic orthodoxy are not ultimately compatible. Indeed, they are locked in a conflict that’s as serious as the Church’s struggle with Arianism or Gnosticism (and resembles those conflicts on specific theological points as well).

It may be that this conflict has only just begun. And it may be that as with previous conflicts in church history, it will eventually be serious enough to end in real schism, a permanent parting of the ways.

My initial hope for this pontificate was that it would successfully separate the first two forms of liberal Catholicism from the third, offering outreach, engagement, and a sense of the Catholic Church as something bigger than a partisan conservatism without handing territory to the full-blown theological liberalism that seeks, at some level, a very different Church.

I am not so hopeful anymore. I think that Francis is risking far too much that’s essential in his quest for new directions, his fealty to “the God of surprises.” Which brings me to the second conclusion conservatives should draw from this particular moment: The papacy is not always the first bulwark of orthodoxy.

Note that this is not the same as saying that the pope can actually fall into heresy, or teach it ex cathedra as doctrine. But a glance at Catholic history indicates that even if they are preserved from the gravest errors, popes are not necessarily the heroic protagonists in major theological conflicts. In many cases, we remember councils and saints rather than popes—Nicea and Trent, Athanasius and Ignatius. Rome tends to move late and not always effectually at first, and in some cases (the unfortunate Pope ­Honorius being only the starkest example), the ­papacy has conspicuously failed to be either wise or courageous when orthodoxy is on the line. And ­occasionally we even get Avignons and anti-popes as well!

All of this became easy for conservative Catholics to forget across the last two pontificates, when appealing to Rome meant appealing to one of the Church’s most subtle and sapient theological minds, Joseph Ratzinger, first as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and then as Benedict XVI. Combine this sense of security with the natural and healthy Catholic affection for the pope, and then add the larger role the pontiff occupies in the Catholic imagination in an age of mass media, and you have a recipe for a certain amount of conservative papolatry, and a certain overzealousness in how much weight was placed on each and every Vatican pronouncement: The magisterium has spoken, the case is closed!

Except that sometimes it isn’t closed, and sometimes Peter misspeaks or goes astray. Over the long run, as Pope Francis’s casual, prolix, and occasionally doctrinally ambiguous style has demonstrated, 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—and overall, we need lower expectations for how much any pope can do alone.

Here conservatives should take cautionary instruction from the liberal ultramontanism suddenly flourishing around Francis. We have lately been informed that the pope is singlehandedly developing doctrine with his comments on the death penalty; we’ve heard accounts of bishops at the synod discussing how the pope can allegedly “twist the hands of God” or show the mercy of Moses (as opposed to Jesus) on marriage and divorce; and we have prominent Jesuits acting shocked, shocked that conservative cardinals might ever dare to differ with the pope.

It’s easy to mock this sudden enthusiasm 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. So without accepting the liberal arguments themselves, conservative Catholics should accept the lesson, and begin to think more deeply both about the ways in which even popes can go astray—and about how orthodoxy might be defended even when Rome seems, at the very least, to be dozing at the switch.

In thinking through these issues, it seems to me that the revival of 1970s-era debates is evidence that conservative Catholics need a more robust theory of the development of doctrine. 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. Of which, as liberal Catholics love to point out, there have been a great many: not only the explicit shifts that came in with Vatican II, on religious liberty especially, but the various debates where the range of acceptable Catholic viewpoints has clearly shifted in one direction or another over the last century. A few examples might include 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. One could ­multiply examples.

When it comes to these changes, both Catholic traditionalists and theological liberals have the advantage of a consistent view: Traditionalists think almost all of it is creeping modernism in need of an eventual anathema, while liberals tend to see it all as evidence that the Church can change almost anything, excepting perhaps the creed, so long as a sufficiently clever theologian can figure out a way to preface the change with “as the Church has always taught . . .”

Against these approaches, the conservative perspective has the virtue of nuance and complexity. But it also sometimes has the vices of ambiguity, sophistry, and special pleading. And we have reached a point, perhaps, where conservative Catholicism needs to step back and take stock: to produce, at the very least, a more conservative answer to or adaptation of the arguments that John Noonan made in his work A Church That Can and Cannot Change, if not a new (and doubtless very different) Cardinal Newman. Conservatives need to sift the developments of the last century and bring a clear order and structure to what they mean for orthodoxy, for what Catholics must believe as Catholics.

To bring things to a finer point: I firmly believe 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. I feel more certain about this than I am about the precise arguments in Humanae Vitae; more confident in Humanae Vitae than I am about what Catholics are currently permitted to believe about the death penalty; more confident in the state of the death penalty debate than I am about the question of female deacons . . . and I could continue, down a longer list.

This is a journalist and layman’s perspective, not a theologian’s—as I have had occasion to be ­reminded lately! But I think my instinct toward ranking is ­suggestive of the challenge for conservatives, because one of the arguments that the most liberal synod fathers kept raising was that of course some Catholic teachings can’t be changed, but that there is a hierarchy of teachings, and some are more susceptible to development than others.

With this perspective I think conservatives should agree. It’s just that the liberal view, the liberal ranking—to the extent that a specific one is ever offered—seems deeply mistaken about how much is essential, how much is changeable, and where the lines are drawn. But I’m not sure conservative Catholicism has fully come to grips with the need to think through its own understanding of that hierarchy in the wake of Vatican II and a long period of Catholic change.

The unsettling of the Church’s teaching requires more of a response, more of a synthesis. In the end, conservative Catholicism might conclude that traditionalists are correct about certain errors that have crept in, or that liberals are right about certain innovations that are possible. But either way (or both ways), the Catholic faithful need a clearer sense of how the hierarchy of teaching actually works.

To the challenge of looking back and synthesizing and taking stock, I would add a second, related challenge: Conservative Catholics need to come to terms with certain essential failures of Vatican II. For two generations now, conservatives in the Church have felt a need to rescue the real council, the orthodox council, from what Pope Benedict called “the council of the media.” This was and remains an important intellectual project, and the debate about what the council means for Catholic theology is a rich one that deserves to continue for generations to come.

But this work needs to coexist with a clear recog­nition that the council as experienced by most Catholics was the “council of the media,” the “spirit of Vatican II” council, and that the faithful’s experience of a council and its aftermath is a large part of its historical reality, no matter how much we might wish it to be otherwise.

It needs to coexist, as well, with a recognition that a major part of Vatican II’s mission was to equip the Church to evangelize the modern world, and that five decades is long enough to say that in this ambition the council mostly failed. Since the close of the council, we’ve seen fifty years of Catholic civil war and institutional collapse in the world’s most modern (and once, most Catholic) societies, fifty years in which only Africa looks like a successful Catholic mission territory, while in Asia and Latin America the Church has been lapped and lapped again by Protestants. The new evangelization exists as an undercurrent, at best, in Catholic life; the dominant reality is not new growth, but permanent crisis.

This doesn’t mean the council was a failure in its entirety, or that arch-traditionalists are right to condemn it as heretical, or (as more moderate traditionalists would argue) that the council itself was primarily to blame for everything that followed. The experience of every other Christian confession suggests that some version of the same civil war and institutional crisis would have arrived with or without the council.

But we need to recognize, finally, that for all its future-oriented rhetoric, Vatican II’s clearest achievements were mostly backward-looking. It dealt impressively with problems that came to the fore during the crises and debates of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (the Church’s relationship to democracy, to religious liberty, to anti-Semitism). But its deliberations simply took place too soon to address the problems that broke across Catholicism and Christianity with the sexual revolution and that still preoccupy us now.

In this respect, Vatican II partially resembles not the great councils of the Catholic past but one of the largely forgotten ones: Fifth Lateran, the last council before the Protestant Reformation, which looked backward toward the fifteenth-century debates over conciliarism and promoted some reforms that were half-implemented and insufficient to address the storm that began just seven months after the council’s closing, when Martin Luther nailed his theses to the door in Wittenberg.

Which is not to say that what the Church needs right now is a Council of Trent, exactly. The recent Synod on the Family suggests that, if attempted, the outcome would be either empty or disastrous.

But the liberal Catholic tendency to pine for a Vatican III has not been entirely misplaced. The last ecumenical council, in whose shadow we have been living as Catholics for two generations, did little to address the debates that came in im­mediately afterward—at least in ways that would lead to settled conclusions. Instead, the council’s own ambivalences, its tendency to balance rather than synthesize, have provided premises to both sides of those debates. And it would not surprise me in the long run—the very long run, perhaps—if the civil wars of the post-1960s period, which now look to be more extended than conservatives hoped, ultimately bring us back around to another council. That might be what it takes to settle today’s debates permanently, instead of having the pendulum swing from pope to pope.

For now, though, that pendulum swing is what we’re living with, for as long as Francis reigns and probably longer, and it is folly to pretend otherwise—and greater folly still to conceal that reality from our brethren in the hopes that it will simply disappear.

The pope, in a homily following the synod, made much of the importance for Christians of reading the “signs of the times” and changing our approach when those signs seem to demand it. I can think of no better advice for conservative Catholics under this pontificate.

My own reading is this: 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.

Which is not reason for pessimism, but for thinking anew and acting anew: Our work is—as ever—only just begun.

Ross Douthat is a New York Times op-ed columnist.

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  1. The Crisis Of Conservative Catholicism: Ross Douthat’s Erasmus Lecture at First Things

    OCTOBER 27, 2015 / WILLIAM M. BRIGGS / wmbriggs.com

    Ross Douthat gave the 28th Erasmus Lecture at the Union League Club (they have a complete set of books on the “Rebellion” in their library) in Manhattan. Your roving reporter was there. Here are some notes and thoughts.

    After stepping (tieless) to microphone and welcoming us to the third Synod on the family, Douthat told the familiar story of the Church since Vatican II—as it is seen by conservative eyes. By conservative, Douthat means roughly orthodox and not (always) American political right.

    That story is this. The sound theology of VII fought against the Spirit of VII and the spirit of the age. Two against one, and conservatives were forced to retreat from the onslaught of felt banners, pant-suited religious, guitar masses, and Jesuit education. Douthat was not shy about naming names and a quip about Jesuits trying to stealthily weaken doctrine produced both genuine and nervous laughter.

    It was a rout. The precipice was reached and the Church was thisclose to full-on Episcopalianism. (What’s that? For an idea, the new dean of the Washington National Cathedral has progressed far beyond Arianism.) Then a miracle happened, of a sort. John Paul II became Pope. He had the Theology of the Body and a Rottweiler. But he also had to mop up the abuse scandal, which was caused by the ordination of too many men “oriented” toward teenage boys. The Rottweiler became Pope himself and Dogma had its champion. The succession of two sound leaders stacked the deck with conservative appointments, which would surely lead to the election of another conservative Pope and secure the future.

    Then came Francis.

    Well, that’s the story. But it’s flawed. VII, sound or not, fought the wrong battle. That council still thought reconciling itself to democracy and Jews was important. But the culture no longer cared about such mundane items. It had flung itself headlong into the sexual rebellion (two can play at that game), the thrills of civil rights, and the first rush of environmentalism. That guaranteed the great liberalizing “spirit” of VII was what most would see.

    Progressive priests and bishops embraced leftist politics, but that led to their downfall because democratic politics are too volatile and ephemeral to cling to for long. JP-II tried to right the balance, but it was really too late. Church leaders accepted JP-II’s teachings, to varying degrees, but many were afraid to preach it. Bishops too often want to be liked by the world—and by their brother bishops.

    A unhealthy dose of clericalism gave the Church its Nixon moment and taught it a valuable lesson the world already knew: it’s not the deed that gets you, it’s the cover-up. And Benedict XVI wasn’t a rottweiler after all. This most holy, erudite, humble and, let’s face it, old man did not have the musculature to clear out the Curia.

    Francis does; or, at least he is trying. But how did he get elected by all those conservative Cardinals appointed by JP-II and B-XVI?

    Conservatives thought the leftists were bested, or were dying out, removed by the “biological solution”. But—surprise!—there they were, lying dormant, waiting for their moment, which is now. How were they awakened? Conservatives made the same mistake progressives did: they embraced right-wing politics. To be a Christian was, in the many minds, to be George W. Bush, endorsing torture and foreign wars and being a “compassionate” conservative. It’s no wonder a theologically left Church is resurgent.

    The left are still trying to weaken doctrine, by claiming to seek for “pastoral solutions” for a mortally wounded culture (the wounds are self-inflicted). Douthat openly acknowledged what all know: that the left lies often about its intent. This produced even more nervous laughter. Yet it’s true that the left’s various attempts to weaken doctrine about “remarriage” largely failed at the Synod.

    Pope Francis has the final word, though. Or does he? After the long reigns of two conservative Popes, many on the theological right fell into the bad habit of pronouncing, “The Pope rules, man.” Conservatives liked what the Popes were saying, but they were saying the Popes were right because they were Pope. Oops. That fallacy had two consequences. Some on the right tried to stay consistent and agreed that Francis, as Pope, must be right even in those matters in which he is demonstrably wrong, like global warming and “remarriage”.

    On the other hand, others cast off their papalotry and have openly criticized the Holy Father. And, as we have seen, Francis doesn’t like it. But he is in charge, which accounts for men like Soupy Cupich, the theological embodiment of the Peter Principle. Francis is stacking the deck with progressives, which Douthat thinks might even lead to genuine schism. The urge to Protestantism is too strong in many on the left and they will not be satisfied until the need for the transcendent Church is obviated.

    That’s where Douthat left off. My thinking is that VII was wrong after all. The Church should not have sought to accommodate democracy, which is the cause of the problems we face. Any system which puts “truth” to a vote must end badly—and bloodily. The Church should not have sought to embrace all other religions as one, in some ill-thought-out ecumenicism, which in any case failed. Any system which fails to insist this is true must fall to one which does. The Church possess the truth. If it can’t bring itself to trumpet it, then, while it can’t fail entirely, it will surely be greatly diminished (B-XVI predicted this).

    What will come? So-called conservatives elected Francis, so why can’t so-called progressives elect a dogma-minded Pope? Education is largely in the hands of the left, but education is everywhere crumbling as it approaches the event horizon of the left singularity. My guess is this: surprise. World events will cause, in the words of my drill Sergeant Enrico Montoya, a major attitude adjustment.

    Addendum Sometimes I suspect Hollywood is scripting Church politics. The McCarthyism of Liberal Catholic Elites: “The Catholic layman Ross Douthat, according to these liberal Catholic academics, is too stupid to have an opinion about Catholicism, because he has not been trained in theology.” Truly, the left can dish it out, but they act like Lost in Space’s Dr Smith when they have to take it.

  2. Captain Kirk: Mister Spock! Reconciling Vatican II and modernity…analyze using your usual superior Vulcan logic!

    Spock It depends to some degree on whose definition of modernity or democracy is in play, Captain. In the case of Pope Bergoglio, it is not democracy or democratic pluralism with which he seeks to reconcile the retro-’70s Spirit of Vatican II but the globalist socialist World Federalism of the United Nations and its Malthusian totalitarian population control imposed by the globalist power cabals not through the electoral process of democratic elections or constitutional representation but by globalist oligarchical fiat at the U.N.

    Captain Kirk: But won’t that undermine the freedom of conscience for the laity rhetoric that so much of the Spirit of Vatican II has been based on?

    Spock: It is possible, Captain, that Pope Francis himself may not be aware of such contradictions of his own clericalism and in the confusion of such hermeneutics of discontinuity his progressive modernist and secular progressive followers and admirers continue in their delusions that such posturing fosters freedom of conscience for the laity and participatory democracy within the institutional Church despite the authoritarian and totalitarian direction of his progressive modernist Ultramontane tendencies toward global socialism and climate change hysteria.

    Walker Percy: I thought that after Vatican II we would get to vote in papal elections and for any new rules added on.

    Father Philip Lamont, S.J.: A papacy liberated from reason and Catholic orthodoxy into the arms of the globalist population controllers of secular world government. In short, the nightmare of the tribulation from which the Omega Point cannot save him from himself or the Teilhardian noösphere of his own modernist chiliasm.

    Father O’Malley: Incidentally, Bingo Night and the CYO Dance have been cancelled out of concerns about climate change and global warming.

  3. Captain Kirk: But won’t progressive modernist calls for the right of the laity to dissent on the ban on artificial birth control also lead to similar calls for the right to dissent on man-made global warming and climate change hysteria which rest on much shakier ground, at least as far as Catholic teaching is concerned, Mister Spock?

    Spock: That is a distinct possibility, Captain, that would seem logical as a possible next direction within the dialectic of the Spirit of Vatican II. Even apart from the hermeneutics of discontinuity which fascinate progressive modernists in their enthusiasm to prune Catholic doctrine, calls for the right of the laity to dissent on papal opinions on debatable scientific controversies would seem most logical, Captain.

    Father Mulcahy, S.J.: Of course, if Pope Francis follows the footsteps of Pope Benedict and retires early, he could always get a part-time job as the Weather Man on the Weather Channel. That provides a lot of opportunities for predicting temperatures and discussing air-conditioning and thermostats.

  4. Two very interesting articles; the “crisis” in Conservative Catholicism, which Douthat doesn’t seem to grasp, is that it has compromised time and again on Catholic truth in the name of obedience to the Pope. But now thanks to Francis, it is come face to face with a compromise that it cannot justify, hard as it might try. If Francis does go ahead and approve of Communion for the divorced/still living in sin; this will be the end of Conservative Catholicism, as the false “center” of the post conciliar epoch will fall apart, with supporters either opting for traditionalism or progressivism.

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