Tale of Two Catholic Churches

From Hans Küng:

There’s no way to ignore the church’s desperate needs. There is a catastrophic shortage of priests, in Europe and in Latin America and Africa. Huge numbers of people have left the church or gone into “internal emigration,” especially in the industrialized countries. There has been an unmistakable loss of respect for bishops and priests, alienation, particularly on the part of younger women, and a failure to integrate young people into the church.

One shouldn’t be misled by the media hype of grandly staged papal mass events or by the wild applause of conservative Catholic youth groups. Behind the facade, the whole house is crumbling.

In this dramatic situation the church needs a pope who’s not living intellectually in the Middle Ages, who doesn’t champion any kind of medieval theology, liturgy or church constitution. It needs a pope who is open to the concerns of the Reformation, to modernity. A pope who stands up for the freedom of the church in the world not just by giving sermons but by fighting with words and deeds for freedom and human rights within the church, for theologians, for women, for all Catholics who want to speak the truth openly. A pope who no longer forces the bishops to toe a reactionary party line, who puts into practice an appropriate democracy in the church, one shaped on the model of primitive Christianity. A pope who doesn’t let himself be influenced by a Vatican-based “shadow pope” like Benedict and his loyal followers.

Where the new pope comes from should not play a crucial role. The College of Cardinals must simply elect the best man. Unfortunately, since the time of Pope John Paul II, a questionnaire has been used to make all bishops follow official Roman Catholic doctrine on controversial issues, a process sealed by a vow of unconditional obedience to the pope. That’s why there have so far been no public dissenters among the bishops.

Ross Douthat:

It was the work of Ratzinger’s subsequent career, first as John Paul II’s doctrinal policeman and then as his successor, to re-establish where Catholicism actually stood. This was mostly a project of reassertion: yes, the church still believes in the Resurrection, the Trinity and the Virgin birth. Yes, the church still opposes abortion, divorce, sex outside of marriage. Yes, the church still considers itself the one true faith. And yes — this above all, for a man whose chief gifts were intellectual — the church believes that its doctrines are compatible with reason, scholarship and science.

It was understandable that this project made Ratzinger many enemies. It turned him into a traitor to his class, since it involved disciplining theologians who had been colleagues, peers and rivals. It disappointed or wounded the many Catholics who couldn’t reconcile the church’s teachings with their post-sexual-revolution lives. And it obviously did not solve the broad cultural challenges facing institutional Christianity in the West.

But it did stabilize Catholicism, especially in America, to an extent that was far from inevitable 40 years ago. The church’s civil wars continued, but without producing major schisms. Mass attendance stopped its plunge and gradually leveled off, holding up even during some of the worst sex abuse revelations. Vocations likewise stabilized, and both ordinations and interest in religious life have actually risen modestly over the last decade. Today’s American Catholics, while deeply divided, are more favorably disposed to both the pope emeritus and the current direction of the church than press coverage sometimes suggests.

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  • dopderbeck

    When these kinds of contrasts get set up, it’s kind of like Conservative Evangelicals suggesting that Mainline Protestant churches are dramatically declining because of doctrine. Rarely are things that simple. There are spectrums of views, and spectrums of reasons for phenomena such as growth or decline in Church membership.

    The really odd thing is that many aspects of Ratzinger / Benedict’s theology would be considered “liberal” by most Conservative Evangelicals.

  • Greg Metzger

    Good selections that demonstrate wide perspectives.

  • Kenton

    Interesting. My perception is that there is a bell shaped curve here, and Küng and Douthat are both a good ways from the middle. I’ve always admired Küng for being so forthright – the full article of his is well worth clicking through IMO. It would be good if my friends on the other side of the Tiber elect a man closer to his vision. I’m not betting that way, but one can always hope.

  • Robin


    I have a gnawing question you might be able to help with. I grew up in a conservative Catholic home and I have a hard time understanding how (why) liberal Catholics still consider themselves Catholic.

    As a youth being Catholic meant believing in the teachings of the Church…immaculate conceptions, papal infallibility, priestly succession, celibate priesthood, transubstantiation, Trent, etc.

    I struggle now looking at someone like, say Andrew Sullivan (I don’t know as much about Hans Kung) or the liberal nuns pushing for women’s ordination…people who don’t appear to believe in any historic Catholic teaching, who don’t recognize church teaching on abortion or other issues, and I am just puzzled by why they are still considered Catholic or still call themselves Catholic.

    Is it nothing more than “I like the Catholic liturgy but reject all of the actual teaching and doctrine” or is there something deeper that I am missing. I just really don’t get it. It would be like saying that I am reformed, but reject all facets of reformed theology.

  • Greg Metzger

    Robin– I think there is south more depth of struggle I see in everyday Catholics, like myself, who you might describe as progressive or liberal. I don’t doubt for a second the Creeds, transubstantiation, the vital and ongoing role of the bishops including the Pope. But that does not mean, particularly in light of Vatican II’s teachings, that there are not a wide number of things that I disagree with on biblical, theological and historical grounds.Read John Allen to get a sense of the broad, faithful diversity in te Catholic Church.

  • Douthat sees what he wishes to see. His link to his previous column buttresses his argument that ardent Catholic church attendees are devoted to doctrinal direction of Benedict — but that is textbook selection bias, emphasizing that over the scores of not-as-active Catholics, along with ex-Catholics, which dwarf the former group tally by a multiplicative mark. Also, the big factor on why attendance decline stabilized is more due to Latin immigration than a tempering of American Catholic sentiment.

  • Dana Ames

    dopderbeck can answer when he gets back to this; in the meantime, I would say that at least for some, it’s a matter of Identity that comes with being baptized, and the view of the Church as an entity that really is meant to be “universal” in scope and inclusion. Many of those folk I have met and read along the way do take their Baptism very seriously.


  • dopderbeck

    Robin — I’m not Catholic, and I didn’t grow up Catholic, so I really can’t answer that. I have spoken with some “liberal” Catholics who have a strong sense of the right of conscience in Catholic moral teaching.

    I guess one thing I might say is this: no matter what tradition you find yourself in, it seems to me, you’ll quickly discover internal debates about the nature and meaning of that tradition and about what it means to participate faithfully within the tradition. Even if you become a fundamentalist within your tradition, you’ll quickly find other fundamentalists who disagree with you on some seemingly important point. Always, there is a need to make choices that constructively appropriate the tradition.

  • dopderbeck

    Appropos, from Commonweal’s “Interregnum Report” today:

    Of potential interest stateside, results from the latest New York Times/CBS poll of American Catholics are up. Short version: Frequent Mass-goers depart from official church stances on same-sex marriage and birth control; seven out of ten respondents say the Vatican has done a poor job of handling sexual abuse; and overall, Benedict made little impression. See the full story, though, for some interesting follow-up responses from those who were surveyed.

  • dopderbeck

    Robin I might also add this: in my experience — admittedly a small sample of folks who have studied theology seriously — there seems to be much more willingness in Catholic circles to leave judgments about who is “authentic” to God than there is in many Protestant circles. That seems pretty ironic to me. But maybe it also reflects a more “corporate” understanding of faith — an individual can get things pretty wrong but still dispositionally be participating the in the community, and its finally the community, the Church, that gets things right rather than any one person. OTOH I have seen letters from the American Bishops urging congregants who disagree with them on political issues to avoid taking communion … so go figure.

  • Robin

    Thank you for the discussion Greg, Dopderbeck, and Dana. I think it is perplexing to me because I have always equated membership with some minimal level of theological agreement…if you don’t believe in baptism by immersion…you’re not a baptist…and that sort of thing.

    When I realized that my beliefs had departed from church teaching on multiple fronts I left the church voluntarily. I guess I am waiting for others to make that jump or for there to be some official split the liberals and traditionalists.

  • Dianne P

    Can I jump into the fray to echo Greg, doperdeck, and Dana… and add some cents of my own?

    As a cradle Catholic of the Eastern/Byzantine Rite, something which many/most Western Rite RCs know little about, I grew up realizing that there is a lot of room for differences of opinion and practice within the umbrella of the RCC. For example,
    -we had married priests up until the last century, and I believe some of the eastern rites outside the US still do
    -we fasted more like the EO than traditional Catholics – more fasting, not less
    -in fact, the liturgy was the same as the EO- the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom
    -the liturgy was always in the language of the people-we didn’t need permission from any pope or Vatican II
    -no Ash Wednesday; Lent began on a Monday, same as the EO
    -infants presented for Baptism were Chrismated – confirmation and eucharist – all at the same time
    -no confessionals – confession is face to face as in the EO – more in the realm of spiritual counseling than listing of sins
    -no organs in church – responses were chanted under the direction of a cantor
    -no statues in church – only icons
    -in the sign of the cross, you touch your right shouder first, then the left
    -the eucharist has always been the bread and wine together – never wafers – never without wine
    -as in the EO, some eastern rite churches have returned to the creed minus the filioque clause – especially interesting as that was a theology issue that was foundational to the great schism

    I’ll stop there, but I hope I’ve made my point that in many ways, the RCC is a pretty big house. Officially and unofficially. Some of the issues that many disagree on are not essential to the faith. I am not a practicing Catholic, but after some time in the evangelical non-denoms, I continue to be very favorably impressed by the ability of the RCC to house one great big, albeit, squabbling family. The only “divorce” if you will was with the EO some centuries back. They don’t go running off to establish a new denomination every time there’s a difference of opinion.

    Whenever I do attend a mass, I also love the amazing diversity of parishioners. Shorts, suits, clean cut, long hairs, all races, children abound. A short time ago, there was a post here about diversity in the evan non denom churches… maybe a glance at the RCC might be informative.

    BTW, I side with Kung, mostly. His “On Being a Christian” was one of the first serious theology books that graced my bookshelf some decades ago.

  • Steve

    That first guy thinks the Church should be open to the ideas of modernity? Did not Paul say: “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” He thinks it should be more enlightened by the Reformation? Tell me more about how mainline Protestant Churches are burgeoning havens of orthodox Christianity.

  • R.C.

    Let’s keep in mind, though, that Hans Kung is forbidden by the Catholic church to teach as a “Catholic”: His church doesn’t allow him to attach the name of his church to what he teaches. So there’s an asymmetry here.

    To make things more symmetrical one really ought to have both ends of one’s “spectrum” within the boundaries of avoiding censure by the church. I mean, if you wanted to talk about faithful Catholic political involvement, you could use Rick Santorum and Dorothy Day, but you wouldn’t want to use Father Feeney or Nancy Pelosi, because neither could partake of communion because their views put them outside the Catholic fold.

  • Camassia

    It’s also worth noting that disagreeing with Catholic teaching doesn’t necessarily mean agreeing with Protestant teaching. If praying to Mary and the saints or taking daily communion premised on the Real Presence is an important part of your spiritual life, you’re kind of low on options.

  • Relevant to the topic thread — New thinking vital to meet crisis of vocations and faith

    In 20 years the Irish Catholic Church will have far fewer priests unless admission policies are changed. WHAT WILL the Irish Catholic Church look like in 20 years? The year 2032 will be all of 1,600 years after St Patrick arrived on these shores in AD 432. He may need to return. Let’s get some grim statistics out of the way first. The average age of the Irish Catholic priest today is 64. His retirement age is 75. In 2032 the average age will be higher still, with a greater proportion of Irish priests in retirement.

  • BradK

    Steve #13,

    Hasn’t the Church been open throughout its history to the ideas of modernity? Orthodox Christianity (a slippery term, no?) of the Church today is not exactly the same as orthodox Christianity of the Church 1800+ years ago, is it?

    Not to sound all Restorationist, but it could be argued that the theology and practice of many Protestants is closer to the orthodox Christianity of the first 200 years of Church history than those of the RCC today. E.g. like the Apostle and first pope Peter, most elders in Protestant churches have a mother-in-law whereas Pope Benedict does not. What is orthodoxy? Yes, this kind of discussion can lead down a rabbit hole, but you catch my drift.

  • R.C.


    “It could be argued,” you say…and of course many things could be argued (some even successfully; some without success).

    And of course a non-Catholic would say that the Catholic Christianity of today is far from the Christianity of the apostles; a Catholic would say the opposite. Fair enough.

    However, I think the example you give is not a good one. All Christian churches have two categories of practice:

    1. Those obligatory because of Doctrine/Dogma, and which must never change because the truth never changes; and,

    2. Those which are adopted at particular times and places because consistency and standards are needed, but which may not be for all times or all places.

    An example of the distinction from secular life: It is illegal to murder, and it is illegal (in the U.S.) to drive on the left side of the road. But the illegality of murder can never change. What side of the road we drive on is, in one sense, arbitrary…it is changeable and they do it differently elsewhere. But it is unlikely to change.

    In Western/Latin Catholic Churches, priests normally are chosen only from men who have opted to give up the very great good of marriage in a selfless act of serving the Church as unmarried, celebate priests. This is not a dogma, though. It is a mere discipline; it could change. Some Latin priests are married; they were Anglicans who converted. They are “dispensed from the discipline of requiring the unmarried state.” Such a dispensation is only possible because this is a matter of discipline, not of dogma. And Eastern Rite Catholics have long had married priests, though not married bishops: That is THEIR discipline.

    Because the question of whether it is better, as a practical matter, for priests to be married or not is thus not a good example of a church’s “orthodoxy” being closer to or further from the apostolic faith.

    To give a hypothetical example going the other way: Suppose we found out (through some newly-discovered first century document) that, in addition to meeting on Sundays, the early Christians often fasted on Fridays in honor of the crucifixion and had a special fellowship meal on Thursdays in honor of the Last Supper.

    And, suppose that some hypothetical non-Trinitarian quasi-Christian group (with, let’s say, a Christology and Theology mid-way between the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Mormons; call them the “Jemornesses”) had the practice of fellowshipping on Thursdays and fasting on Fridays.

    We would not, on hearing that news, say, “Well, clearly the Jemornesses are more orthodox than the Southern Baptists; after all, the latter always do their fellowship meals and meetings on Wednesday nights and their fasting, when they do it, is chosen individually on no fixed day. So the Jemornesses are clearly closer to apostolic orthodoxy.”

    Anyone who said that would be chuckled at, and rightly so! What evening you hold your mid-week meetings on is not obligatory doctrine/dogma at all! It’s mere discipline; it could change. It’s not something to judge a church’s orthodoxy by. Likewise with the discipline of fasting: It’s vital to spiritual maturity and Jesus clearly anticipated it (“when you fast”), but organizing it to occur on day X as opposed to day Y is a matter of discipline, not dogma.

    All of that is to say, yes, the pope is not married. That’s a discipline. It’s often good that priests are usually unmarried: They have no conflict of interest when serving in dangerous places or leaving their house at all hours of the night to sit bedside with the dying. They will not miss their children’s softball games because they had to rush to give someone Extreme Unction. So it’s a discipline with some serious advantages to it…which is probably why it came into being in the first place.

    But orthodoxy does not hinge on it. If one wishes to argue that the Catholics are less orthodox than another Christian faith tradition (using the faith and practice of the apostles as the yardstick for such a judgment), one must look at theology and moral teachings, not matters of discipline.