Some Thoughts on Douthat vs. Bruenig

So, Ross Douthat took to his NY Times supported blog to throw cold water (if respectfully) on Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig's cover story in The New Republic on Pope Francis.  Before I get into the substance of Douthat's piece, I suppose I should engage in full disclosure.  I have become, in the last couple of months, a pretty serious Bruenig fanboy.  I think her New Republic stuff is smart and funny and on-point and always impeccably written.  She's great, and everyone should read her stuff, and big thanks to Frank from Letters to the Catholic Right for directing me to her pre-New Republic material.  Her twitter feed is great, too.  So, if you think I'm biased in favor of Bruenig, you are probably right.

With that out of the way, Douthat basically makes two criticisms of Brueing's basic thesis that conservatives hate Pope Francis and his agenda and are looking to undermine him at every turn.  First, Douthat suggests that we should distinguish between various flavors of "conservative" and consider them separately.  Second, Douthat suggests that these various branches of the Catholic conservative tree are not as opposed to Francis as Bruenig suggests, or that they have good reasons to be opposed, or both.

Douthat is certainly right that there are different flavors of Catholic conservative, and that these different flavors do not all share the same set of goals or policy positions.  One might note, however, that all three of the groups Douthat identifies were by-and-large pleased with the direction of the Church under Benedict, and are all now some level of Not Fired Up about the direction of things under Francis.  That's Bruenig's point--this group of people who identify as "Catholic conservatives" (even if different ways) who thought they were in the ascendency before now feel like they are not on top, and they don't like it.  The fact these different groups have different objections and pressure points does not undermine the basic point Bruenig is trying to make.

That being said, I agree with Douthat that it is a mistake to conflate the different versions of Catholic conservative, even if one person can be two, or even all three, different types at once.  So, let's look at Douthat's taxonomy.  The first group are the Latin Mass traditionalists, i.e. Rorate Caeli bloggers, Father Z, crypto SSPX sympathizers, etc.  One cannot reasonably dispute these folks are displeased with and opposed to the Francis papacy--even Father Z has abandoned his "Reading Francis through Benedict" tag line.  Douthat's response is two-fold.
First, Douthat asserts that these folks are few in number, so who cares about them?  Well, they may be few in number, but one must care about them quite a bit if they happen to be your parish priest or even your bishop.  To paraphrase Tip O'Neill, ultimately all Church life is local, and if you live in Madison, Wisconsin or have one of these priests in your parish, this is your world.  If Pope Francis is telling people that we can never go backward in the liturgy and you are in a parish or diocese run by folks who absolutely want to go back, then we have a problem, don't we?

Second, Douthat implies that this resistance is at least partially Francis's fault because he has both made his discomfort with the traditionalists known and has in fact worked to marginalize them.  In other words, it's not paranoia if Pope Francis is really out to get you.  Maybe so, but again that seems to make Bruenig's point, no?  These traditionalists think that Francis represents a turn toward a vision of the Catholic Church that is bad/contrary to their interests, and so they are fighting back.

And, by the way, let's call a spade a spade.  Douthat artfully talks around the real problem with traditionalist Catholics, which is the not-well-disguised anti-Semitism that still flourishes in those spheres.  I know, I know #notalltraditionalists, but this fact cannot be underplayed or minimized.  Richard Williamson, the former head of the SSPX seminary in Buenos Aires, is not an "unpleasant person" as Douthat coyly suggests; he is a Holocaust denier and a vicious anti-Semite.  It was unconscionable of Benedict, of all people, to countenance any rapprochement with folks like Williamson.  If Francis is being tough on the traditionalists because he fears that they might carry of the disease of anti-Semitism back into the Church, a disease that Vatican II and especially Pope John Paul II did so much to eradicate, then let me be the first to support him in those efforts.

Then we have the economic conservatives.  Sure, Douthat suggests, some of those folks will be a little leery of some of the stuff coming from Francis, but it is all in the spirit of "healthy debate."  "[T]here’s nothing threatening to church unity about [Francis's thinking], and to the extent that 'movement conservatism' as a whole turns explicitly anti-papal over Francis’s economic pronouncements (and I don’t expect it will) so much the worse for the movement."  In other words, Douthat suggests, Catholic economic conservatives are Catholics first and economic conservatives second, and they will learn to live with whatever comes from the Vatican, even if uncomfortably.

That's a nice picture of Catholic economic conservatives.  I could be persuaded that Douthat believes that.  I am even somewhat persuaded that Douthat would do that if push can to shove.  But I think he is in fantasy land about the other members of his tribe.  To take a single example, George Weigel spent 20 years telling everyone who would listen that John Paul II was the greatest thing since sliced bread, up to and including writing a long, pedantic, and tedious biography of the Pope to prove it.  And yet, the moment John Paul II opposed the war in Iraq, Weigel was the first to the microphone and pen to tell us that the Pope didn't know what he was talking about.  Or, even better, take Michael Novak, who seems to suggest that it is sinful to even consider the idea that we should address income inequality.

Call me cynical, but I am fully convinced that Weigel, and Novak, and Paul Ryan, and all of these other neo-Randian libertarians see Catholicism as a vehicle to advance their policy agendas by other means.  If Francis comes out and says that global warming is real and governments have a duty to take active steps to remedy it, they are going to be indistinguishable from the Rush Limbaughs and Club for Growth disciples of the Right.  These guys have no interest in doing "hard thinking on these issues," as Douthat suggests.

Look, maybe I'm wrong.  But it is reasonable, as Bruenig is, to be skeptical of the spin Douthat puts on his fellow travelers.

Finally, we have what Douthat calls the "theological" conservatives.  Here, Douthat really doesn't have an argument with Bruenig's characterization as much as a justification for being opposed to the (tentative and uncertain) moves toward changes in areas related to marriage and family.  The fact that, in other parts of the world, people can be in favor of the Pope's economic policies and opposed to relaxation of annulments is both true and beside the point in an article about American Catholic conservatives.  Indeed, Douthat in essence proves Bruenig's point when he frames resistance to any change in the practice of allowing divorced couples to receive communion in terms of "spar[ing]" the Catholic faith.  As I have discussed before, I think that this framing of Douthat's is deeply alarmist, even a bit silly.

Be that as it may, there is no question Douthat (a Catholic conservative) is completely opposed to even the consideration of reforms in this area.  Since Pope Francis gives all indications of being at least open to changes, one can fairly say that Douthat is diametrically opposed to Pope Francis, at least in this area.  Which is Bruenig's point in her piece.

Ultimately, this is a debate about substance.  If you are someone like Bruenig (and me), you think the kinds of things Francis is proposing are good things; if you are a Catholic conservative, you likely think that some or all of them are bad things.  Bruenig makes the case in the piece that her/Pope Francis's position is a better one that the conservative one, pointing out (very cogently) how "conservative" thought is often just using the past to prop up one's own policy preferences in the present.  I would suspect that Douthat disagree with that characterization.  Fine.  But it's not unfair to point out the obvious fact that some segment of Catholic conservatives are opposed to more or less everything Pope Francis is trying to do.


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