Can the Catholic Church Survive? (You Betcha!)


Two weeks ago, in the New York Times, Ross Douthat stirred up a bit of an ecclesial ruckus by asking “Can liberal Christianity be saved?” Douthat was moved to ask by viewing the news out of the then recently concluded General Convention of the Episcopal Church—news that confirmed the markedly liberal social and ecclasiastical turn the denomination has taken in recent years—alongside recently released statistics on the precipitous decline of membership, financial support, and active involvement in Episcopal congregations that parallels that sharp left turn in polity.

I thought Douthat made some good points, especially when comparing the Episcopal Church to liberal Catholicism:

As a result, today the Episcopal Church looks roughly how Roman Catholicism would look if Pope Benedict XVI suddenly adopted every reform ever urged on the Vatican by liberal pundits and theologians. It still has priests and bishops, altars and stained-glass windows. But it is flexible to the point of indifference on dogma, friendly to sexual liberation in almost every form, willing to blend Christianity with other faiths, and eager to downplay theology entirely in favor of secular political causes.

Unfortunately, his good points were swiftly buried under a deluge of combox bombs and retaliatory postings from both liberal Christians (who must have been stung by Douthat’s comparing their ostrich-y denial of the demographics of decline to the dismembered knights of Monty Python & The Holy Grail claiming “It’s just a flesh wound!”) and atheists (who want no religion—especially the conservative Catholicism Douthat practices—to be saved, but might make an exception for liberal Christians who demonstrate almost no religion anyway). Most of the reaction devolved into the usual ad hominem slaps at Douthat’s academic credentials, writing style, and facial hair. Which is too bad, because his best point of all, it seems to me, got completely lost.

Douthat was not predicting, and still less hoping for, the disappearance of liberal Christianity, which has added so much to the spread of the Gospel and the work of justice around the world. Instead, he hopes for its redemption:

The defining idea of liberal Christianity — that faith should spur social reform as well as personal conversion — has been an immensely positive force in our national life. No one should wish for its extinction, or for a world where Christianity becomes the exclusive property of the political right.

What should be wished for, instead, is that liberal Christianity recovers a religious reason for its own existence.

I didn’t respond to Douthat’s column two weeks ago, but I’m moved to ask my own question by two pieces of “news” (features with a clear editorial bias) I ran into this weekend. One was an NPR All Things Considered Weekend report on the trend away from formal religion in general in the United States, into which was sandwiched a gloom-and-doom report on Catholicism in the form of a conversation with National Catholic Reporter editor-at-large Tom Roberts. The other was Sunday’s NY Times story by Laurie Goodstein (h/t Fr Jim Martin) entitled “Nuns weigh response to scathing Vatican rebuke.”

The premise of both—that the Church will not survive unless it rejects recent pendulum swings toward conservatism by Church leaders and becomes more accommodating to the world—has been accorded the status of canonical gospel by the media and by many Catholics, both public and private. The received narrative paints a Church disproportionately and irreconcilably divided between The People, a vast international sea of those who reject doctrinal pronouncements, tradition, and authority in favor of relevance, inclusivity, and individual conscience, and The Bishops (among whom the Pope is just one of the boys), a tiny aged and withering cabal of whited sepulchers fanatically and fruitlessly clinging to the power to hate, oppress, abuse, and impoverish Christ’s true followers. It’s Jesus v Pharisees all over again, they want us to believe.

In the NPR piece, reporter Guy Raz gives the Reporter’s Tom Roberts a chance to quote an unnamed young Catholic summing up liberal Catholics’ indictment of The Bishops:

RAZ: In an article, you quoted a young Catholic 20-year-old. He said, you know, the church since my childhood has felt like a faith rooted in sincere virtue represented by a junta rooted in insincere vice.

ROBERTS: A junta, yeah. It’s a severe judgment of an institution that has not acted the way it says it should and the way it demands of everyone else.

The NY Times quotes Sr Pat Farrell, President of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and anointed representative of The People, on what “real obedience” means, clearly accepting the LCWR’s view that it does not have anything at all to do with smart women listening to the direction of unenlightened men.

“We have a differing perspective on obedience,” Sister Farrell said. “Our understanding is that we need to continue to respond to the signs of the times, and the new questions and issues that arise in the complexities of modern life are not something we see as a threat.”

These same conflicts are gripping the Catholic Church at large. Nearly 50 years after the start of Vatican II, which was intended to open the church to the modern world and respond to the “signs of the times,” the church is gravely polarized between a progressive wing still eager for change and reform and a traditionalist flank focused on returning to what it sees as doctrinal fundamentals.

Fr Angelo Anthony, C.PP.S., celebrates the annual Gaelic Mass at the Dayton Celtic Festival

Both of these pieces riled me enough to get me talking back to the car radio and the laptop. Both of them begged fisking, though my skills at that are nowhere near Ross Douthat’s or his commenters’, and fisking doesn’t really accomplish much in most cases beyond making the fisker feel slightly less like throwing the laptop across the room. I didn’t, in any case, have time, because I wanted to squeeze room into the weekend’s dudgeon for the annual Gaelic Mass celebrated as part of the Dayton Celtic Festival. And while I was there, with a thousand or more others in the riverside peace of a Sunday morning—hearing the readings in Irish and singing the praises of Our Lady of Knock, worshiping under a big tent with a communion of saints that included kilted men and tattooed lasses, Knights of Columbus in plumes and babies in sunsuits and homeless people and veiled women from the Tridentine parish, an ASL interpreter signing the Irish Blessing and lovely young people dancing a hornpipe to Jesu, Joy as an Offertory—somehow my rile just ebbed away.

Because this is the Church: one, holy, catholic and apostolic, and in no danger—never in any danger, we are promised—of being prevailed upon by the gates of hell. Every day, in every corner of the world, the vast majority of Catholics go about their lives as they always have and always will, living their faith to the best of their ability and to the full extent of their love for Christ and his Church.

They—we—are not interested in juntas or headlines. We are conservatives and liberals and everything in between, though few of us bother with labels. We are daily communicants and Christmas-and-Easter Catholics, guitar strummers and chanters Gregorian, piners after “And also with you” and speakers of Et cum spiritu tuo. Those of us in the US may shake our heads occasionally at the drop in weekly attendance, but those of us elsewhere—like the parishioners of my Ugandan friend Fr Simon Wankya, whose territory is so vast that he can only celebrate Mass two or three times a year at each of its many station churches, rattling in over the unpaved roads on his donated motorbike to be swarmed by thousands of chanting, dancing, joyful Catholics—have no idea what we are so worried about. We are privileged and persecuted, deeply involved in the world and profoundly countercultural.

We are women who share our gifts of leadership and prophetic witness and Gospel proclamation and healing with the Church and the world and have long since made peace with (or never questioned in the first place) an all-male priesthood. We are married and single and widowed and divorced and every initial of LGBT and we make our daily and difficult peace with the call to chastity, and living the gift of our sexuality in the way God has given us to live it and with the grace God gives us to do it is not always (and sometimes not ever) the first thing we think about when we identify ourselves as human. We are people of deep generosity; we care for the least among us—our hurting neighbors around the world, next door, in our own homes—without stint or question, and most of us wouldn’t even recognize that we are doing social justice when we do. We are men—laymen and deacons, presbyters and bishops—who have never oppressed or abused or wrangled for power or greed, who live and serve and love in humility and even in reparation for the evil done in our name.

In his conversation with NPR’s Guy Raz, Tom Roberts (sounding fairly illiberal, surprisingly) laments the demise of the Church as he knows it.

RAZ: And in that future, the sort of the stereotype of these sort of Irish-American silver-haired priest or the Italian-American priest, that probably is not going to be the future either. I mean, presumably, the growth is going to be coming from Spanish-speaking communities.

ROBERTS: Yes. And all of those old anchor images, all of those old, you know, givens that I grew up with in my years of Catholics in the ’50s and ’60s, you can eliminate that. It’s not going to be the same. There are 30,000, for instance, lay ministers who are being paid to do ministry in a Catholic Church today. That didn’t exist 50 years ago.

So the seismic shifts, the changes that we’re sort of in the midst of, and sometimes we don’t recognize because we’re right in the middle of it all as it’s going on, I think are significant. Where they lead, we’re not certain, but things are changing rather dramatically.

“It’s not going to be the same.” Well, there’s a place we can agree. The New York Times will not be the final word on whether, and how, the Catholic Church survives. Neither will NPR, or the LCWR, or Ross Douthat or his critics, or the National Catholic Reporter (or the National Catholic Register, for that matter). But we don’t need them to be. All we have to do is look around, at a Celtic Mass or a parish council meeting or Christmas Eve in the Vatican or a Men’s Fellowship bowling night or a youth mission trip or an International Eucharistic Congress. We’re here, we’re queerly impossible to reduce to a set of memes, get used to us.

We’re Catholics. It’s never Jesus v Pharisees, it’s us v our own forgetfulness of who we are. And whether “the liberal wing” recalls it in time for a deathbed conversion or not, we don’t just have what Douthat calls “a religious reason for existence.” Our existence, individually and as a Church, is inseparable from our religion. As they say in Irish, Buíochas le Dia—Thanks be to God.

  • Nick

    another Dayton-ian waves hello!

  • Woodeene

    If we spent more time working on our own lives, our own inclinations toward sin, our own faith journey and less on judging our neighbor or trying to assign the “proper” label, we would go much further toward transforming the culture.

  • Melody

    The Gaelic Mass and Celtic Festival you attended sounded wonderful. I had a similar experience of being a Catholic last weekend attending a retreat at a Benedictine monastery, and also this Sunday at Mass in my own parish. Where, incidentally, we were priveleged to hear a brass sextet (guests from a local Lutheran congregation) play some north German baroque pieces. Like you, we weren’t worried about headlines or juntas.
    I like what you said, that… ” It’s never Jesus v Pharisees, it’s us v our own forgetfulness of who we are.”
    And I’m glad that you included the quote from Ross Douthat’s piece, “The defining idea of liberal Christianity — that faith should spur social reform as well as personal conversion — has been an immensely positive force in our national life. No one should wish for its extinction, or for a world where Christianity becomes the exclusive property of the political right.” Because indeed, this point does get lost in the discussion. Lately I have seen a lot of ill- wishing, online and in print, for one group or another’s extinction or demise, which I find unseemly, similar to throwing dirt on someone’s casket when they’re not even dead. Makes me think of another Monty Python quote, “I’m not dead yet; I’m getting better!”

  • monty_python_lives

    I’m a liberal Catholic. I believe in solidarity with the poor, gospel witness through service and peacemaking. I believe in the Apostles Creed, the Bible, and apostolic succession. I’ve never had any trouble reconciling my beliefs with my strong Teilhardian convictions. Liberal Protestantism is a different animal altogether, quite willing to reject core tenets of the faith to accommodate itself to the world. Christianity must be counter-cultural or it dies, engaged in a continual retrieval of its tradition, or it dies. Countless Catholics live faithful, counter-cultural lives quietly; they don’t get much attention; they’re not going away.
    The LCWR flap is sad. I’ve looked at scores of the sites of member congregations in recent weeks and I see almost no evidence of the problems alleged by the Vatican. I do see signs of spiritual exhaustion, orders with doubtful futures. And I also see evidence of women with profound faith and integrity. It’s terrible that these elderly nuns—the ones who stayed, because they love religious life, the people they serve, the good they accomplish—are now being publicly scolded and humiliated in this witch-hunt.
    The bishops have lost my respect, for their failures in the sex abuse crisis. But I can accept them as forgiven sinners, chastened and humbled by what they’ve been through—better men. I don’t see them as grumpy old, hate-filled, gay-bashers. They’ve backed off from the social progressivism of the past to pursue a culturally conservative agenda, because they’re convinced the present situation requires it. The bishops are tolerant, reconciling and as inclusive as possible, within the bounds of Catholic faith and practice. Orthodoxy has always recognized such boundaries, and has always been able to reconcile them with a belief in God’s infinite, unconditional love.
    My principal concern is the growing tide of anger and increasing polarization within the church. A belligerent ultra-right Catholic wing is virtually indistinguishable from the evangelical Christian Right in its social views. While on the left, we see Associations of Catholic Priests springing up around the world, militantly opposed to the roll-back of Vatican II. They demand reforms which, for the most part, I sympathize with, yet with a defiance that is leading the Vatican to dismiss many of them. And then there are those Catholics who have concluded that the hierarchy is a complete irrelevance, a view which is irreconcilable with Catholic Christianity. Sane, objective voices have expressed the view that the Catholic church is heading toward schism, a tragedy which I hope we can avert. The last thing Catholicism needs is a second Reformation. One solution would be the election of a moderate Pope, a bridge-builder, along with a clean sweep of curial corruption.

    • joannemcportland

      I’m mostly with you, Monty. Thanks for saying it more reflectively, less reflexively, than I did.

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  • Joseph H. M. Ortiz

    Maybe of interest here is what the moderately liberal John L. Allen wrote in his column “All Things Catholic” dated Oct. 7, 2011 in the National Catholic Reporter, clearly not “on the same page” with his own editor-at-large in the NPR interview: 
”Fundamentally, I don’t think the Catholic church gets enough credit for being … a lot of fun. There’s great warmth and laughter in most Catholic circles, a rich intellectual tradition, a vast body of lore, an incredible range of characters, a deep desire to do good, an abiding faith against all odds, an ability to go anywhere and feel instantly at home, and even a deep love of good food, good drink, and good company. All that is part of the tapestry of Catholic life, but it rarely sees the light of day in commentary and reporting that focuses exclusively on crisis, scandal, and heartache.”

  • Manny

    Here are my thoughts on the status of Liberal Catholicism, and up front, let me admit I’m a Conservative politically and by nature, and my Catholicism reflects it. The goals of Liberal Catholicism, “social justice” for the poor, the death penalty, gay marriage, women priests, contraceptives, and abortion have either been met or cannot be met. If social justice means poverty programs that provide shelter and food and living expenses, free education and job training, libraries and public parks, some publically funded entertainment, and free medical care for the poor, then that has already been accomplished. We can debate a little more, a little less, but what was started about a hundred years ago has reached its conclusion in our safety net. Is there a tension that must be resolved in that if you provide too much, it de-incentivizes work? Of course, and where that balance point is judgment. But policy is in place.

    As to the death penalty, Liberals have also won within Catholicism. Much to my disagreement the Catholic Church is fairly set against it. No one in the Church hierarchy that I can see supports the death penalty. You have the rest of the rank and file Catholics to convince, but no one in my estimation will break from the Church over this.

    As to issues that I categorize as coming from the values of the sexual revolution, the Liberals have reached a wall, a wall that is not just dependant on persuasion of hierarchy but on overturning established Magisterium. I’m sympathetic to adjusting the teaching on contraceptives. I see no difference in using contraceptives that are not abortifacients, especially when the Church endorses NFP. I see no difference in using a condom and monitoring cycle, and the rationale for NFP seems silly. However, if the Church were to open up the contraception issue, it would be signaling that it might reconsider other sex related issues, and whether the signal is intended or not it would cause quite a bit of turmoil.

    Which brings me to the three biggies of gay marriage, women priests, and abortion. If the Church were to change Magisterial teaching on any of these three, it would be more than turmoil, it could very likely be a schism. And in my opinion, rightly so. The Church’s position on these issues is engrained into the core of what it means to be Christian. These issues have torn apart all the major denominations that altered them. And given the Catholic Church Magisterium it would be even worse for her. Church hierarchy has their hands tied, either by a correct reliance on the Magisterium or a threat possible as severe as the Protestant Reformation. In my estimation Catholics who push for these issues either don’t see how explosive they are or don’t care.

    If I’ve missed any salient issue remind me, but as far as I can see, Liberal Catholicism has nowhere to reasonably progress. What I would like to see is that it remains a voice for the poor, the voice for the poor in the debate over this tension between providing too much and not providing enough. I would be more inclined to support them.

  • veritasjc

    Joanne, I laughed when I read that you talk back to your radio because so do I and at times I’m downright screaming at it! I have to say that as far as the LCWR they have brought about their own troubles and as far as I am concerned, they were way overdue for criticism by the Vatican. You simply cannot go off on a theological tangent and expect it to be o.k. because it’s not. Somewhere along the way many of these women became very angry at men and the male hierarchy and lost their way. They virtually have no vocations while the so-called traditional orders are bursting at the seams. Neither a Pope nor a Bishop can ever change Church teachings in the area of faith and morals so electing a “moderate Pope” as someone mentioned is impossible. We Catholics are called to be obedient to the teachings of the Church which is not a democracy (thank God). We do this by being docile to the promptings of the Holy Spirit and removing all remnants of pride. I get just as angry at the so-called progressives as I do with the so-called pre-Vatican II crowd who insist on making up their own rules instead of being obedient to the Magisterium. Sometimes attending Sunday Mass really calls for a plea to be at peace while someone decides to exercise their “right” to free expression at Mass. The Church will absolutely survive because Jesus made us that promise. As someone very involved in the RCIA process in my parish, converts tell me over and over again how much they love the stability of the Church and how the Catholic Church and that it does not cave in to changing times. This is what makes “us” so special and thanks be to God for that!

  • lethargic

    I’m disconcerted by the ineffable self-centeredness of the so-called liberal Catholics … in the sense that … well, all those that I know personally, at any rate … are quite well-traveled, with many trips to various places around the world, study-abroad experiences, much reading of non-English writers, educations to die for, etc. … yet these same “broad-minded” folks haven’t absorbed the simple notion that people from other parts of the world have cultures that are different from the American upper-middle-class boomer culture … and maybe don’t appreciate such notions as womenpriests or whatnot … what’s up with that provincialism on the part of the liberals … i’m not gettin’ it …

  • janen7

    We won’t survive unless we capitulate and become more accomodating to the world? There’s already a church that has done that – the Episcopal Church – and, acoording to Douthat:
    “In the last decade, average Sunday attendance dropped 23 percent, and not a single Episcopal diocese in the country saw churchgoing increase.”
    Where is the logic?

  • jem

    If the measure of another person’s intelligence is how much they agree with my views, you must be a genius :)

    Keep writing, sister. Although we don’t get interviewed or make the headlines, there are many of us out here who feel the way you do.

  • George

    These types of stories used to rile me up as well until I realized that a small, unnoticed, almost negligible shift occurred. At some point, the pundits writing the gloom and doom, the Church needs to get with the times articles stopped trying to convince the world of their story and focusing on convincing themselves.

    Anyone spends time in any Catholic community knows that the story painted by this interview is not true. This story remains false even if every media outlet in the world picked up on it and ran with it. There are issues to be dealt with still, and things are going to be rocky for a bit, but by and large I see the start of a good future for the Catholic Church. The future I see from actually spending time among Catholics is comically different than the one painted by the New York Times.

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  • Linda Dailey

    I’ve recently made the decision to leave the Catholic Church. Since then, I often feel lonely and wonder if I can find my way back. Then I read Catholic blogs and remember why I left. Thanks for the reminder.

    • joannemcportland

      I’m sorry if I confirmed you in your flight; don’t blame the Church for me and my ilk. I’ll pray that you find a place that’s less lonely, and if you’ll forgive me I’ll pray that the place is back home with the family. Took me 35 years to come back, and I still get lots of it wrong.