Let's Get Everything on the Table

So, Ross Douthat, predictably, expressed his views on the Synod on the Family in the pages of the New York Times Sunday editorial page yesterday.  I like Douthat, even though I don't agree with many, many of the things he says, and this piece was a good example of what I like about him.  In this piece, Douthat says what has been apparent for a while, but no one has been willing to actually admit/threaten---the conservative/traditional wing of Catholicism (i.e. Cardinal Burke, EWTN, Douthat, etc.) are not going to stand for a return to status quo pre-John Paul II, and they are prepared to walk, or at least consider walking, if that looks like Pope Francis (or whomever) is actually going to push things in that direction.

To understand the Douthat piece, it's important to understand the theology of history used by conservative, EWTN-style Catholics to understand the last 50 years of Catholicism.  It goes something like this.  In the beginning, there was the pre-Vatican II Church, and it was good.  No perfect, but good (if you think it was perfect, then you are a SSPX type).  Then came Vatican II, which was more or less good (which, again, distinguishes them from the SSPX crowd, who view it as Very Bad), but critically did not represent a fundamental break from what came before.  Basically, it was a thing that happened, and it resulting in some tweaks on the edges, but it was ultimately not an earthshaking big deal.  But, in the immediate aftermath of Vatican II, the Dark Times came.  During these Dark Times, Evil Liberals of various sorts used Vatican II as an excuse to make changes that they wanted to make that had little to nothing to do with Vatican II itself.  Now, which changes were the products of Evil Liberals and which were authentic products of Vatican II depends to some degree on who you are talking to.  Nevertheless, the changes made by Evil Liberals were Very Bad.

But more important than any specific changes made by Evil Liberals, according to this view, was the promotion of an ideology that the Catholic Church was doing a New Thing, and that the old rules of the pre-Vatican II Church could be safely ignored, or otherwise were up for discussion.  When the old guard pushed back (paradigmatically with Humanae Vitae in '68), Evil Liberals encouraged folks to "follow their conscience," which (in the minds of conservatives) is a code word for "ignore the Vatican."  Thus, the Dark Times grew darker as people more and more stopped being "real Catholics," i.e. following the Vatican on all topics, especially sexual ones, as Evil Liberals spread their "confusion" (and "confusion," as Archbishop Chaput helpfully reminds us, is of the devil).  Still, there was a brave contingent of a Nixonian "Silent Majority" that kept the faith, even during these Dark Times.

The Dark Times came to an end on October 16, 1978, when Karol Wojtyla became Pope John Paul II.  He didn't fix everything overnight, but he made clear that there is no New Thing to be had, that Evil Liberals were no longer in the ascendancy, and that the Silent Majority had been right all along.  As awesome as JPII was, there were still Evil Liberals and their fellow travelers about, hiding behind rocks and stuff.  Still, the Silent Majority was completely vindicated, and no longer had to listen to Evil Liberals telling them that they didn't "understand" Vatican II, or that their ideas were retrograde.  They were Right, and the Evil Liberals were Wrong.

Douthat's piece is, in essence, an ultimatum from the Silent Majority--we are not willing to go back to the Dark Times.  We are not willing to go back to what it was like on October 15, 1978, when Evil Liberals had the backing of the official church and could not be definitively said to be Wrong.  After all, we the Silent Majority are the real Church:

Those adherents are, yes, a minority — sometimes a small minority — among self-identified Catholics in the West. But they are the people who have done the most to keep the church vital in an age of institutional decline: who have given their energy and time and money in an era when the church is stained by scandal, who have struggled to raise families and live up to demanding teachings, who have joined the priesthood and religious life in an age when those vocations are not honored as they once were. They have kept the faith amid moral betrayals by their leaders; they do not deserve a theological betrayal.

I am not sure how useful it is to pick apart the elements of Douthat's arguments (though, Bill Lindsey more than gives it the ol' college try; [update: Andrew Sullivan, too.]).  I think the take-away from the Douthat piece is that it accurately reflects the point of view of that segment of the Catholic Church.  They are not interested in any but the most superficial retreats from the Culture War.  They have defined their religious experience as being in unyielding opposition to the broader cultural trends, especially regarding sex, and they are not going to give up the fight.  Like it or not, these folks are here, and they are committed, and (as Lindsey points out) they have cash.  And, most importantly, they are not intimidated by a South American chemistry professor who happens to be a wildly popular occupant of the Throne of Peter.

I took a shot a Pope Francis in a previous post for not moving beyond the "politics of certainty."  I still hold to that, but in the Pope's defense, I believe he sees his job as, perhaps beyond all other things, to maintain unity.  It is pretty clear to me that he is going to do everything in his power to keep everyone under the same tent.  I get that.

I get it, but I don't think it is going to work.  I have a feeling that Christianity may be undergoing one of those periodic shake-ups that seem to come about every 500 years or so.  People are choosing up sides and going to their respective corners.  The problem is not that folks like Ross Douthat think that people like Bill Lindsey, or me, are wrong about the theological importance of gay rights issues.  The real problem is that folks like Douthat don't think that we are really Christians at all.  And, while this is not as talked about because progressive Christianity is still smaller and less visible (though, I think this is changing and will continue to change), the feeling is increasingly mutual.  We are coming to a place where, as happened during the Protestant Reformation, both sides are looking at each other across an unbridgeable and mutually unintelligible gap.  It wasn't fixable then, and it may not be fixable now.

I don't say this because I welcome this result.  But I think it may be inevitable.  Either way, there is no way to possibility fix it if people are not honest about where they stand.  Douthat is being honest.  Let's all be honest about where we stand.


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