Rod Dreher

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Catholics, the Real Liberals

Reader Marko sends in this FiveThirtyEight analysis showing that on social issues, especially homosexuality, Catholics are far more likely to be liberal than other Christians, and even Americans in general Excerpts:

In the U.S, the General Social Survey, which is conducted by the research organization NORC at the University of Chicago, has been asking about divorce and gay rights since the early 1970s, and about cohabitation since 1994 (typically at least every two years). At my request, GSS director Tom W. Smith sent data, broken down by religion, for half a dozen questions. In their answers, American Catholics consistently have shown themselves to be more tolerant of divorce, gay rights and unmarried cohabitation than have American Protestants and Americans overall — especially in recent years.

More, from an international perspective:

In general, the higher a share of a country’s residents are Catholic, the higher percentage of residents express tolerance toward divorce and towards gays. The effect isn’t huge, but it’s consistent.

I think most conservative Catholics intuit this, which accounts partly for their anxiety over the prospect of Rome’s waffling. They know that they are minorities within their own church, and they grieve over the possibility that the Church itself may undercut their convictions.

The Pew Center finds that an overwhelming number of US Catholics aged 18 to 29 accept homosexuality (85 percent) and support same-sex marriage (75 percent). More worryingly for conservative Catholics, when the question is asked of weekly massgoers, who are by definition more likely to be involved in the faith and in their parish, the number of overall pro-SSM Catholics is an astonishing 45 percent. Only 44 percent of weekly massgoers support the Church’s teaching, which is to oppose same-sex marriage. The last 11 percent presumably don’t know how they feel. Given the strong cultural currents moving toward full acceptance of gay marriage, there is no reason to believe that when they do make their minds up, that all, or even most, of those undecided Catholics will break for the Church’s position. In fact, given that Pew’s analysis doesn’t break out the weekly massgoers by age group, it is likely that the opposition to SSM is heavily weighted toward the seniors, a group that is literally dying out.

So, is it the case that the Catholic Church has to liberalize on these issues to attract disaffected Catholics? I wouldn’t say so at all. In a survey published in March, Pew polled American Catholics on their thoughts about Pope Francis. Money graf:

But despite the pope’s popularity and the widespread perception that he is a change for the better, it is less clear whether there has been a so-called “Francis effect,” a discernible change in the way American Catholics approach their faith. There has been no measurable rise in the percentage of Americans who identify as Catholic. Nor has there been a statistically significant change in how often Catholics say they go to Mass. And the survey finds no evidence that large numbers of Catholics are going to confession or volunteering in their churches or communities more often.

So, this is the dilemma the Pope and the bishops face: Western nations (North and South America, and Europe) are liberalizing radically on homosexuality, and so are many Catholics. But there is no evidence that the liberalized attitudes symbolized (rightly or wrongly) by Pope Francis are making any difference in the participation of Catholics in the life of the Church. In other words, the Catholic Church is not regaining liberals it has lost, or who have drifted away from engagement with the faith. At the same time, Rome runs the very real risk of alienating the orthodox core that remains faithful to its teachings. Where will that leave the Church?

This is not to say that the Roman church doesn’t need to develop a better set of pastoral practices regarding divorce and homosexuality. Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t. The question shouldn’t be off limits. But as the controversies coming out of the Synod in this past week have demonstrated, the Pope and his men are playing with fire. One way or another, the Catholic Church, like all Christian churches, is going to experience significant decline in the West in the decades to come. The Church will, as Pope Benedict XVI predicted, be smaller. No doubt about it. The children of today’s Christian progressives will likely be tomorrow’s secularists. The future of Christianity in the West depends on the orthodox and their families. It is very hard to get religious progressives to see this, but there it is. If the Pope isn’t careful, he could suppress and alienate those who are the most faithful to the Church, without any gain whatsoever.

That said, as these polls reveal, the ocean between Rome and the United States is not just the one called the Atlantic.


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Piety, Doubt, & Evangelical Colleges

Cardinal Wuerl (R) of Washington at Catholic University of America's graduation. Are faith and religion easier to reconcile on a Catholic campus? L. Kragt Bakker /
Cardinal Wuerl (R) of Washington at Catholic University of America's graduation. Are faith and religion easier to reconcile on a Catholic campus? L. Kragt Bakker /

Edward Hamilton is a reader of this blog whose comments are without fail illuminating. But he really outdoes himself with this one:

Evangelicalism is gifted with a heritage of self-criticism. As the most radically reforming wing of the Reformation, it has to constantly subject itself to scrutiny on the level of private discussions and personal meditations. There’s no external formal body made of leading evangelical scholars that can set doctrine for the entire movement. The academic community (theological faculty at seminaries, but also faculty in general) are the closest thing we have to a functional magisterium.

I’ve taught on several different college campuses [and] the atmosphere on the evangelical campus where I am now has been the one where faculty feel the most subversive — the most out of step with parents, trustees, and administrators. Teaching at Gonzaga (Jesuit), I felt virtually no pressure for secrecy, nor tension between student/parent and professor expectations. Catholicism was a pretty thin veneer of social responsibility, and priests, nuns, and bishops were colorful local mascots. There were a handful of distinctly Catholic professors (mostly in the philosophy department), but they were mostly dismissed as cranks by everyone else. There was little need for the university as a whole to pretend to be more Catholic than it was, since no agent for external accountability was expecting it to be.

The evangelical college world is constantly under the twin pressures of advertising its separation from the degenerate culture (a vital selling point to many parents) and yet creating space for serious scholarship. That amounts to giving each faculty member the license to privately undermine aspects of evangelical doctrine, but only in a handful of directly relevant academic categories. At the same time, the institution as a whole will double down on overt demonstrations of cultural purity, in all of its ceremonies and PR work. Anyone on the outside, reading the copy on the brochures or the college website, must assume I live in the world’s most claustrophobic bubble of ideological conformity. Instead, I’m living in an enclave full of diligently plotting revolutionaries.

For the most part, professors are often sincere in the personal belief that most of evangelicalism is intellectually robust, except the little bit that intrudes on their turf. Old Testament professors in the religion department will feel free to use source-critical methodology you’d never hear Sunday morning. Psychology professors will subsume what would historically have been called “sinful” tendencies under naturalistic explanations. Humanities classes will be full of praise for secular art and literature, and patronizing dismissal of the poor quality of the stuff on the shelves of the local Christian bookstore. As a science professor, I think I’ve seen precisely ZERO examples of young-earth creationists in the science and engineering departments at two evangelical colleges (a sample set of around four dozen), and the number of times you’ll hear a science professor say anything in lecture that would offend Richard Dawkins is countable on fingers (aside from compartmentalized moments for prayer or devotionals). The aggregate effect is that students repeatedly hear a message along the lines of “Evangelicalism is perfectly healthy, except the bits of it that would interfere with this class” — which after 120 credit hours of classes amounts collectively to saying that it’s an intellectual desert.

The cumulative effect of having powerful spiritual experiences (short-term missions trips, campus rallies, richly toned formal prayers at ceremonies) coupled with a steady diet of deconstructionist pedagogy is that graduates will want to dispense entirely with the unwieldy intellectual baggage of the evangelical traditional, and use evangelicalism as a brand label for marketing and community identity. That’s what the university did, after all. I feel guilty about participating this state of affairs, but I’m not sure how to overcome its inertia. I feel a distinct envy for Catholics who can evince a sincere confidence in the infallibility of the Papal office, and avoid this interminable charade of exaggerated outward piety and compartmentalized private doubt.

Do you teach at an Evangelical college? Have you ever? Or, are you now or have you ever been a student at one? If so, what do you think of Prof. Hamilton’s observations?

UPDATE: Baylor’s Alan Jacobs has a strong response in the comments section. Here it is:

The first thing I would say about Professor Hamilton’s comment is that it’s plainly unethical. He names no names and offers no evidence, contenting himself with smearing pretty much everyone who teaches at evangelical colleges, including colleges where he has had no experience, making no distinctions and offering no exceptions. (Note that he claims to tell us, not about his own personal experience, but about “the evangelical college world.”) Perhaps he has been unfortunate enough to have colleagues who are as dishonest and corrupt as he says they are; if so, I pity him. But since my own experience of three decades in Christian higher education — during many years of which I served as mentor to faculty in a wide range of disciplines — is radically different, I can’t help wondering if he’s making a great many unwarranted assumptions based on a small and skewed sample size.

If I try to understand what his substantive accusations are, they amount to the following: evangelical scientists aren’t six-day creationists; evangelical biblical scholars don’t teach Sunday-school-style classes; and evangelical humanities don’t teach and celebrate popular Christian fiction. It is my fervent hope that every professor at every evangelical college can plead guilty to such charges.

Professor Hamilton sets up a simplistic binary world where evangelical professors can either (a) reaffirm every preference of fundamentalist churches or (b) become “diligently plotting revolutionaries.” Any serious evangelical academic will choose neither of the above. The overwhelming majority of the Christian faculty I have met see it as their goal to take their students beyond whatever they might have learned in Sunday school without undermining their faith — rather, the goal is to deepen it and strengthen it, often by removing, or at least minimizing, fear of the unknown. For instance, students don’t have to end up just like me to see that reading Wallace Stevens and James Joyce instead of Christian devotional fiction isn’t a mark of perfidy and heresy. They might even see that it’s possible to read Stevens and Joyce with care and appreciation and yet come away from the experience with a stronger Christian faith, rather than an eviscerated one.

The other day an old friend of mine forwarded a letter from a former student, someone who had grown up in a very conservative theological environment. She wrote, “I do not know how to capture my gratitude to you for challenging me. For helping me to learn to think and question. You changed my life. I was resistant at the time, and you planted the seeds that needed time to grow. Thank you. I am who I am now and doing the work that I do, in part, because of you.” I know many, many people like this woman — people who have told me that they would not be Christians today if they had not been exposed to a more expansive and more intellectually rigorous Christianity than they had learned at their home church (even if, as if often the case, they love their home church and are thankful for all that it taught them). People who serve the Church and the world as adults, but would not be doing so if they had been left with the minimal intellectual equipment Professor Hamilton prefers.

That’s what most of us who teach, or have taught, at evangelical colleges want for our students. I’m sorry that Professor Hamilton has managed to get through a fairly lengthy career without meeting any of us.

UPDATE.2: For the record, because John Wilson complained vociferously, I have no opinion at all about Evangelical colleges, because I know nothing about the culture there. I found Edward Hamilton’s comment to be provocative and interesting, as his usually are, and my endorsement of it is on the quality of the comment, not the accuracy of its substance.  As regular readers know, from time to time I post comments from readers whose perspective I disagree with, because I find them challenging. That’s all this was.

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Kasper’s Media Metaphysics

Oh, this is so, so rich. From the German Catholic website

Die Diskussion rund um die Afrika-Aussagen von Kardinal Walter Kasper im Rahmen eines Interviews weitet sich aus. Kasper wird in dem Interview, dass er allerdings bestreitet, unter anderem mit folgenden Sätzen über afrikanische Bischöfe zitiert: „Sie sollen uns nicht zu sehr erklären, was wir zu tun haben“, hat berichtet.

Gegenüber teilte er am Donnerstag am späten Nachmittag folgendes mit: „So habe ich nie über Afrikaner geredet und würde ich auch nie reden.” Danach hat allerdings der zuständige Zenit-Redakteur das Tonband veröffentlicht und erklärt, dass sogar zwei andere Journalisten als Zeugen dabei waren. Im Tonband ist die Stimme von Kasper klar zu hören und auch die Aussagen werden von Zenit wahrheitsgetreu wiedergegeben. Kardinal Kasper hat am Freitagvormittag persönlich mitgeteilt: „Ich werde ein heimlich aufgenommenes privates Gespräch, das kein Interview war, mit zwei anderen Journalisten, das ein dritter, den ich gar nicht kenne und der sich mir auch nicht persönlich vorgestellt hat, nicht kommentieren und noch weniger autorisieren. Das sind keine anständigen journalistischen Methoden.”

Translation (from Google and me):

The discussion around the Africa-focused statements by Cardinal Walter Kasper in an interview grows. Kasper denied saying, among other things, the following about African bishops: “They should not tell us too much what we have to do,” reported.

On the other hand, he said on Thursday afternoon: “I have never spoken about Africans, and I would never speak.” After that, however, the Zenit-editor published the audio of the interview, and said that even two other journalists were present. In the tape, the voice of Kasper is clear, and the statements are reproduced faithfully by Zenit. Cardinal Kasper announced on Friday morning to personally: “I was secretly recorded in a private conversation that was not an interview, with two other journalists and a third writer I do not know and who was not personally introduced to me; I did not comment, and even less did I authorize these words These are not decent journalistic methods.”

(If you are a fluent German speaker, I would appreciate an improvement on this rendering of Kasper’s words, as reported in

This is remarkable. Kasper knew he was speaking to journalists, even if he did not know who Edward Pentin was (Pentin has been covering the Vatican for 10 years). Yet even though Kasper’s words, as reported, are undeniably true, he is accusing Pentin of ambushing him, and of being an unprofessional journalist. Listen to the tape yourself. It is simply not credible that Kasper was “secretly recorded,” or that this was a “private” conversation. Three journalists stopped the cardinal on a street and asked him straightforward, basic journalistic questions. Listen to the tape yourself. 

I suppose argumentum ad hominem is the last refuge of a scoundrelous prince of the Church. Thank God Pentin has that recording, and was able to make it public on the Internet. Kasper would have sooner seen this man lose his professional reputation than have owned up to the truth of what he, the cardinal, actually said.

Memo to journalists interviewing Walter Kasper in the future: always, always, always have your recorder on. Meanwhile, let us ponder Cardinal Kasper’s principle of media metaphysics: if an act of journalism committed in public redounds to the discredit of a German cardinal, that act of journalism is therefore fictional, no matter what the material evidence for its existence.

Next question: if a tree falls in the woods and Cardinal Kasper isn’t there to hear it, does it make a sound?

(By the way, John L. Allen has a good piece up on the clash between the German-speaking bishops and the African ones at this Synod. In short, he says that the Africans aren’t willing to Stepin Fetchit for the Europeans any longer.)

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Maggie Gallagher’s Crisis of Faith

What would St. Thomas More think about the Rome Synod? George Kollidas/Shutterstock
What would St. Thomas More think about the Rome Synod? George Kollidas/Shutterstock

I don’t know a single Christian in public life who has suffered more in defending traditional teaching on marriage than has Maggie Gallagher. She and I have clashed in the past over tactics (but not on basic principles), but I have boundless respect for her in part because I have seen the kind of unshirted hatred she has had to endure over the years. And she lost. She knows that she lost the fight — but when so many others who shared her beliefs but not her courage stood on the sidelines, she fought.

That counts for something. That counts for a lot.

So when Maggie Gallagher expresses great distress over what’s going on in Rome this week, I pay special attention. Excerpts:

After the initial shock, many leading Catholic voices are regrouping to refocus their public response to the synod report, which is after all not a teaching of the bishops (as the New York Timesmisreported), but a mid-session committee report.

As Robert George wrote on Public Discourse: “[The synod] has no teaching authority whatsoever. What’s more, it proposed no changes – none — in the doctrine or moral teaching of the Church.”

Nothing has changed, they tell us.

But something has changed. Pope Francis, by hand-selecting these six men to issue an unprecedented public report on a discussion in mid-process, is sending a strong if indirect signal about how Catholics and our institutions should respond, practically, to the triumph of the sexual revolution, including its latest phase, gay marriage. The synod report, if adopted by the bishops, will change Catholic witness and teaching either on marriage, or on the Eucharist, or both.

She goes on to talk about her very personal reasons for believing in and defending the Catholic Church’s teaching on marriage. And then:

The “growing majority are in favor of an opening,” said Cardinal Kasper, meaning an opening to the possibility that divorced, civilly remarried Catholics will receivie Communion without first having had an annulment. He added that the Holy Father has been “silent” about his opinion and “has listened very carefully” during the synod. “But it’s clearly what he wants, and that’s evident,” Cardinal Kasper said. “He wants a major part of the episcopacy with him and he needs it. He cannot do it against the majority of the episcopacy.” He added that the pope had told him problems exist “in his family” and that he has “looked at the laity and seen the great majority are for a reasonable, responsible opening.”

This is high drama with the highest of stakes, calling into question whether or not the pope himself believes what the Catholic Church has taught for 2,000 years, based on the words of Jesus Christ: a sacramental marriage between baptized Christians cannot be dissolved by any power on earth. And through this public debate, the most anti-clerical of all recent popes is permitting others to call into question (using his own name) the settled Church teaching not only on two sacraments, the Eucharist and Marriage, but ultimately on papal authority. The pope cannot teach that divorce is impossible and possible at the same time. If divorced and remarried Catholics (who are committing either adultery or polygamy depending on your point of view in the Catholic tradition) can in good conscience take the Eucharist, then either Pope Francis is wrong, or the popes before him were all wrong. Either way the idea that we can look with confidence to the Holy Father to guide our lives is exploded.

It’s likely that the pope will not pronounce any change in practice “ex cathedra,” so the doctrine of papal infallibility that attaches to those rare statements will not be formally in question. But the ordinary faith that Catholics are supposed to have and that they once had in the words of the pope will have become impossible. I cannot stake my life on the words of Cardinal Kasper and John Paul II at the same time. If Pope Francis makes Cardinal Kasper’s views his own, I will have to disbelieve one or the other of our Holy Fathers. A schism will have been introduced into the fabric of the Catholic faith at the very heart of what is distinctively Catholic.

Read the whole thing. Gallagher emphasizes that the people who comfort themselves by saying nothing to see here, move along are flat-out wrong. This is consequential.

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Hillsong & Evangelicalism’s Future

Hillsong worship in New York City
Hillsong worship in New York City

Jonathan Merritt of Religion News Service notes that at the conference of Hillsong, the international Evangelical megachurch, its leaders declined to defend Biblical teaching on homosexuality. When a NYT reporter asked leader Brian Houston to clarify the church’s position on same-sex marriage, this is what happened:

But Houston would not offer a definitive answer, instead saying that it was “an ongoing conversation” among church leaders and they were “on the journey with it.”

Houston says that he considers three things when evaluating the topic: “There’s the world we live in, there’s the weight we live with, and there’s the word we live by.”

He notes that the Western world is shifting its thinking on this issue, and churches are struggling to stay relevant. The weight we live in, he added, refers to a context where LGBT young people may feel rejected or shunned by churches, often leading to depression and suicide. But when Houston began speaking about the word we live by or “what the Bible says,” he refused to offer a concrete position.

Adds Merritt:

If the leaders of Hillsong, one of the most influential evangelical ministry conglomerates in the world, refuse to draw lines on these issues, it could influence other churches and pastors to reconsider their own positions.

Andrew Walker adds:

First, if I were writing the Art of Cultural War, this is the strategy I’d use to bring the opposing side to heel. The steps look something like this: Relativize the issue with other issues. Be uncertain about the issue. Refuse to speak publicly on the issue. Be indifferent toward the issue. Accept the issue. Affirm the issue. Require the issue. Hillsong is currently on step three. I don’t think they’ll stay there.

Second, a non-answer is an answer. Let’s be very clear on that. It’s also a very vapid answer. What we’re seeing in many corners of evangelicalism is a pliability that makes Christianity an obsequious servant to whatever the reigning zeitgeist is. With non-answers like this, it isn’t Jesus who is sitting at the right hand of the Father. Culture is. Perhaps Hillsong would rather abide by a “Don’t Ask; Don’t Tell” policy on matters of orthodoxy. That’s their prerogative. But let’s be clear that this is not the route of faithfulness.

Of course not. But what is to be done? Earlier, Walker wrote that Evangelicals who want to compromise Christian witness on marriage in favor of a radical position that no Christian had ever endorsed in nearly 2,000 years of the Church’s existence is cowardly. But he added something interesting:

Today, a spirit similar to that of early twentieth Fundamentalism is encountering revival. It preaches “peace” in overtones of cultural withdrawal. It seeks “love” by way of “pluralism” only to adopt foreign interpretations and incoherent social policies. Love and pluralism are, of course, good things in our diverse society, but not when it leads to the abandonment of sound theology and the adoption of unloving policies. This is a gentrified fundamentalism. This fundamentalism seeks compromise in the name of social detente.

I want to say something here about the Benedict Option, which advocates for a kind of strategic withdrawal. The point of the Benedict Option is not to seek peace with the Zeitgeist. It is to recognize that the cultural currents in which we Christians move are so strong today that we have to build a stronger identity, and thicker ties to our historical theology and to each other, if we are going to ride this thing out. I don’t seek compromise at all, much less social detente. Our opponents are never going to give us this, so as a matter of survival, we have to figure out how to build resilience and cultural resistance into ourselves and our little platoons. That’s very different from what Walker describes.

The Southern Baptist theologian Al Mohler sees the stakes clearly, in his column about a (disfellowshipped) Southern Baptist pastor who said he seeks a “Third Way” on LGBT issues. Mohler:

The church eventually split over the issue, with those remaining declaring their intention to affirm their pastor and to become a “Third Way church” that allows for disagreement on the question of the sinfulness of homosexual acts and same-sex marriage.

But, as I argued at the time, there is no third way. A church or denomination will either believe and teach that same-sex behaviors and relationships are sinful, or it will affirm them. In short order, every single congregation in America will face the same decision — do we affirm same-sex relationships or not? Those who suggest that there is some way around this “binary” choice are fooling themselves and confusing the church.

Consider this — the only way to construct a “third way” is to suggest that one can allow for the affirmation of homosexuality without affirming it. That simply does not work. To allow the affirmation is to affirm.

This was the sad lesson learned by conservatives in the Church of England on the question of woman priests. The “third way” presented then to the Church of England promised that those who believed that women should not be priests could coexist within the church with those who affirmed that women should be priests. The problem is that the church had to decide who would be priests, and they decided for the ordination of women. Thus, the “third way” was just an argument to get to the eventual goal that the church would have women priests.

The third way disappears very quickly when the church has to decide if it will recognize or celebrate a same-sex marriage. There is no third way when that decision arrives, and there are limitless decisions that will eventually have to be made.

As I wrote this past summer, whether you like it or not, sex — and specifically, homosexuality — is the great divide on which American churches are separating.  There cannot be a third way. As Evangelicals Al Mohler and Andrew Walker rightly see, those congregations that now believe the traditional teaching is optional will soon make it anathema (Neuhaus’s Law: Where orthodoxy is optional, orthodoxy will sooner or later be proscribed.)

Every one of us Christians will have to make that decision. It may be painful, but it is also unavoidable. There is no Third Way.

What does Evangelical self-loathing on college campuses have to do with this? A lot, I’d say, but my guess is that we’re not going to accumulate real evidence of this for another decade or so.

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If Pope Francis Loses Conservatives

Do you trust this man? [Catholic Church England/Flickr

Veteran Vatican correspondent John L. Allen speculates on what will happen if the Synod ends with conservative laity believing that the Pope is not on their side. Some will hunker down in their own parishes, if they have good ones, but others may drift away from involvement in Church activities, he says. And this could significantly damage the Church, in his view. More:

What people generally think of as “conservative” Catholics are often among the Church’s most dedicated members, among other things serving as major financial donors. Already, one head of a conservative think tank in Rome this week said he’d gotten a call from one of his benefactors saying that if things keep going the way they are, he was going to stop ponying up.

More broadly, Catholics typically labeled as “conservative” are often people who carry water for the Church at all levels, from the local to the universal. If that pool of human capital begins to dry up, it could make it more difficult for Francis to advance his agenda.

Assuming that conservative (or, as I prefer, orthodox) Catholics find themselves alienated from Francis in the way many liberal Catholics were from Benedict, I think few orthodox Catholics will leave the Church over it. After all, as Allen says, they are tied to the RC institution as liberal Catholics are not. Relatedly, they know as a matter of theological conviction that a bad pope does not invalidate the truths proclaimed by the Church. They will dig in and endure (though this caveat: it is dangerous to believe that doctrinal conviction will be enough to hold all conservative believers; faith is not based on reason alone). Allen would know better than I, certainly, but I do not see an exodus into Orthodoxy or any other form of Christianity.

But I do think Allen is on to something when he says there could be a retreat from the day to day life of the Church. If you move in conservative Catholic circles, you are well acquainted with parents who are angry about their Catholic schools because, in their view, the schools do not teach Catholicism in any real sense; they are, in effect, public schools with religion courses tacked on. Plus, there are many orthodox Catholics who don’t get involved in their parishes because the parish is run by priests and/or a strong coterie of laity who are liberal; the orthodox may conclude that life in the parish should not be an ideological battleground. I know this is true because I lived it myself, once upon a time.

What Francis risks is these orthodox Catholic believers seceding in place from the institutional church. For example, you find in some places independently-run Catholic schools that exist outside the diocesan bureaucracy. These schools are typically formed by parents dissatisfied with the official Catholic schools, and who want their children to receive a more robust and orthodox Catholic education. Or, these parents homeschool. Some of them make involvement in Catholic groups like Opus Dei the center of their faith activity, and not the parish — this, not because of any sinister reason, but because they want to be spiritually fed, and they’re not getting it at parishes run like sacrament factories.

And so forth. This, I believe, is the sort of danger Francis faces in trying to liberalize the Church: the laypeople most committed to the faith withdrawing from active participation in the Church’s official ministries, and instead pouring their energy and their money into parallel Catholic institutions, with the broad idea being that the faith needs some institutional expression to endure the long dying of the liberalized mainstream within the Catholic Church. In 2012, Ross Douthat wrote:

 [T]oday 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.

Yet instead of attracting a younger, more open-minded demographic with these changes, the Episcopal Church’s dying has proceeded apace. Last week, while the church’s House of Bishops was approving a rite to bless same-sex unions, Episcopalian church attendance figures for 2000-10 circulated in the religion blogosphere. They showed something between a decline and a collapse: In the last decade, average Sunday attendance dropped 23 percent, and not a single Episcopal diocese in the country saw churchgoing increase.

Douthat points out that no Christian church has escaped decline, but while the conservative churches have merely declined, the liberal ones have collapsed. There is absolutely no reason to believe that liberalizing doctrine or pastoral practice (which, at the grassroots level, is a distinction without much of a difference) will result in a resurgence of support for the Catholic Church.

A Catholic friend says this is why he doesn’t believe that Damon Linker’s Francis-as-liberal-Machiavelli scenario is valid. Surely Francis can look around him and see the false hope of liberalized Christianity, which has been a disaster for every church that has tried it. I disagree. It is very hard to wean religious progressives away from the belief that making the church more like the secular world is the answer to the problem of religious decline. As Douthat himself wrote in that 2012 column, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Katharine Jefferts Schori, gave a rather less than persuasive answer when asked about the failure of Episcopalians to reproduce themselves. From that interview:

How many members of the Episcopal Church are there in this country?

About 2.2 million. It used to be larger percentagewise, but Episcopalians tend to be better-educated and tend to reproduce at lower rates than some other denominations. Roman Catholics and Mormons both have theological reasons for producing lots of children.

Episcopalians aren’t interested in replenishing their ranks by having children?

No. It’s probably the opposite. We encourage people to pay attention to the stewardship of the earth and not use more than their portion.

To be clear, no Christian church has come up with a credible plan to reverse the overall decline. But there is no reason at all to believe that liberalization will be successful, and many reasons to believe that it will be a disaster. Doing so would alienate many of the most committed believers, while doing little to attract those who don’t have much interest in a sacrificial commitment to the faith. Good luck trying to get the progressive theological mind to see these facts. The liberal avatar Cardinal Kasper represents Catholics in a highly secular, socially liberal country in which Catholicism is moribund, yet he truly believes that liberalizing is the way to bring Germans back into the faith, such that he thinks that Catholics in parts of the world where the faith is healthy ought not be listened to when their (orthodox Catholic) beliefs contradict what he chooses to believe. Cardinal Kasper is not a stupid man, not by a long shot. But he is in the grips of an ideology.

I’m interested to hear from your readers who consider yourselves conservative/orthodox Catholics. Does John Allen have a point? What do you consider to be the danger? If you lose confidence in Pope Francis’s leadership, what do you think your response will be?

UPDATE: Sign of the times, photographed at that everything-must-go sale at a closing Benedictine convent in Pennsylvania:


UPDATE.2: If Sandro Magister’s report is correct, the fix is in, and the main fixer is Pope Francis, who has stage-managed this coup. Stunning, stunning stuff:

On Tuesday, October 14, at a press conference, South African cardinal Wilfrid Napier denounced in biting words the effect of the prevarication carried out by Forte by inserting those explosive paragraphs into the “Relatio.” These, he says, have put the Church in an “irredeemable” position, with no way out. Because by now “the message has gone out: This is what the synod is saying, this is what the Catholic Church is saying. No matter how we try correcting that, whatever we say hereafter is going to be as if we’re doing some damage control.”

In reality, in the ten linguistic circles in which the synod fathers carried out the discussion, the “Relatio” was heading for a massacre. Starting with its language, “overblown, rambling, too wordy and therefore boring,” as the official relator of the French-speaking “Gallicus B” group mercilessly blasted it, although this group contained two champions of its language – and of its likewise vague and equivocal contents – in cardinals Christoph Schönborn and Godfried Danneels.

When the assembly resumed its work on Thursday, October 16, secretary general Baldisseri, with the pope beside him, made the announcement that the reports of the ten groups would not be made public. A protest exploded. Australian cardinal George Pell, with the physique and temperament of a rugby player, was the most intransigent in demanding the publication of the texts. Baldisseri gave up. That same day, Pope Francis saw himself forced to expand the group charged with writing the final relation, adding Melbourne archbishop Denis J. Hart and above all the combative South African cardinal Napier.

Who, however, had seen correctly. Because no matter what may be the outcome of this synod, intentionally devoid of any conclusion, the effect desired by its directors has to a large extent been reached.

On homosexuality as on divorce and remarriage, in fact, the new talk of reform inserted into the global media circuit is worth much more than the favor actually gained among the synod fathers by the proposals of Kasper or Spadaro.

Francis as liberal Machiavelli indeed. Amazing. Read the whole thing.  Mene, mene tekel upharsin.

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Cardinal Kasper Busted!

Card. Walter Kasper, with Asian Catholics [Catholic Church of England/Flickr
Card. Walter Kasper, with Asian Catholics [Catholic Church of England/Flickr

Well blow me down. The Catholic journalist Edward Pentin proves that Cardinal Walter Kasper is lying when he denies having said what he said about the African bishops, and when he denies having given an interview. Pentin has the recording and has put it on his site. I listened to it. The transcript he published differs slightly from what the cardinal says, but not meaningfully (it appears that Pentin simply clarified the cardinal’s English). The Cardinal did say that you can’t discuss homosexuality with the Africans (and Asians and Muslims), and he did say that the Synod isn’t listening to their views. The money quotes start at around the three-minute mark on the recording.

The interview was conducted in public (you can hear the sounds of traffic), with at least two other journalists participating. The reporters identified themselves as reporters. There is no sense that the cardinal was ambushed. He spoke to the reporters for seven minutes. What clearly happened is that Cardinal Kasper made a Kinsleyesque gaffe: that is, he erred by telling an impolitic truth, at least as he sees the truth.

Why on earth did Kasper deny saying what he said, or giving the interview? I understand why this is embarrassing to him, but good grief, he looks like a fool now, and a manipulative fool. A (non-trad) Catholic friend of mine e-mails to say that so far, it looks like all the trad conspiracy theories about the Synod are coming true.

You have to understand that at least some Catholic bishops have no trouble dissembling to reporters and to the public when it’s to their perceived advantage. That’s just how it is, and the sooner you realize this, the better off you are. This is one big reason the institution lacks credibility. Some bishops play fast and loose with the truth when it suits their agendas. And sometimes, it blows up in their faces.

But Cardinal Kasper doesn’t look as bad as the Catholic news service Zenit, which sandbagged its reporter by taking down the news story, presumably at Cardinal Kasper’s request. Zenit is owned and run by the disgraced ultraconservative religious order the Legionaries of Christ. Back in the spring of 2002, when the LCs owned the National Catholic Register (they no longer do), I participated in a conference of Catholic journalists. We talked about the scandal. The then-publisher of the Register, a Legionary priest named Fr. Owen Kearns, smugly praised his own paper for not getting down in the gutter with the secular press and writing about this filthy scandal. It was a shocking display of the lack of journalistic integrity under LC leadership. The publisher-priest plainly saw his job as carrying water for the hierarchy, not reporting the truth.

Some things with the LCs never change, I suppose. Shame on them for what they did to Edward Pentin.

UPDATE: Take it away, Matthew Schmitz:

It is hard to say why Kasper chose to tell a very obvious lie. It is even harder to say why some were so ready to defend his original comments. It requires an exceedingly partisan mind to spin as insightful comments so offensive that even their speaker won’t stand behind them. Gallicho’s choice to take to the pages of Commonweal to lavish praise on the remarks suggests something that anyone who watches Church politics begins to suspect: Catholicism is now second only to Sufism in the central role accorded to spin.


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Moscow’s Disappointing Line in Rome

Metropolitan Hilarion (left) of the Moscow Patriarchate, with London Archbishop Vincent Nichols [Catholic Church of England/Flickr]
Metropolitan Hilarion (left) of the Moscow Patriarchate, with London Archbishop Vincent Nichols [Catholic Church of England/Flickr]

I find this bit from John L. Allen’s Synod reporting very discouraging:

On a different front, Metropolitan Hilarion of the Russian Orthodox Church used his speech in the synod today to take a shot at the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine, basically telling them to stop complaining about Russian foreign policy and the support for Russian incursions in Ukraine voiced by Russian Orthodox leaders.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York was sufficiently outraged that be grabbed Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, head of the Greek Catholic Church, who was also in the synod hall, and immediately taped a segment for his radio show in New York to object to Hilarion’s rhetoric.

You should read Hilarion’s entire speech. It is not primarily about “Uniatism.” Here’s an excerpt that shows what the greater part of the speech concerns:

The topic of the family is one of the most acute and vital today. It is an indicator of the moral state of the society in which we live.

We have anxiously watched as abuse of the notions of freedom and tolerance has been used in recent years to dismantle the basic values rooted in religious traditions. There is an increasingly aggressive propagation of the idea of moral relativism applied also to the institution of the family held sacred by all of humanity.

In quite a number of countries in Europe and America, despite numerous protests, same-sex unions are approved and recognized on the level of the state. In some places, the right of same-sex partners to adopt children has already been fixed legally and implemented, including through the use of “surrogate motherhood” technology.

At the same time, traditional families built on the notion of marriage as union of man and woman become weaker and weaker. Instead of concern for their consolidation, there is the propaganda of so-called “free relations”. The notions of fidelity, mutual respect and responsibility of spouses are replaced by the imposition of hedonism and calls to live for one’s own self.

Children are no longer seen as the desirable fruit of spouses’ mutual love. The right of abortion, restricted by almost nothing, has become widespread, and has led to the legalization of the destruction of millions of lives. Among the serious problems is the existence of orphans whose parents are still alive, and abandoned and lonely disabled children.

The ideas of moral relativism have also affected many Christians who in words confess the Church’s teaching on the family but in deed refuse to follow it.

Asserting the sanctity of marriage based on the words of the Saviour Himself (see Mt. 19:6, Mk. 10:9), the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church traditionally place personal responsibility above egotistical interests. To cultivate in a Christian this responsibility before the family, society and the surrounding world is the most important tasks for Churches today. The protection of human dignity and affirmation of the lofty value of love realized in the family is an integral component of the Gospel message that we are called to bring to people.

In November 2013, the Department for External Church Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate and the Pontifical Council for the Family led by Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia held in Rome a conference on ‘Orthodox and Catholics Protecting the Family Together’. In the final statement, we underlined “our conviction that we bear a common responsibility for making marriage and family life the way to sanctity for Christian families”.

The time has come for Christians to join efforts and come out as a united front for the noble goal of protecting the family when confronted by the challenges of the secular world for the sake of preserving the future of civilization. It is the field in which our alliance may become really needed.

We should together defend our positions both in dialogue with the legislative and executive authorities in particular countries and on the platforms of international organizations, such as the UN and the Council of Europe. We already have a certain experience of such cooperation; it is enough to recall the well-known case of Lautsi versus Italy.

It is essential not to confine ourselves to noble appeals, but to press in every possible way for the legal protection of the family. It is necessary to restore in our society the awareness that freedom is unthinkable without responsibility for one’s actions.

The Orthodox Church consistently proclaims the ideal of the one and only marital union concluded once and for all. At the same time, conceding the weakness of human nature, in exceptional cases the Orthodox Church allows for a new church marriage in the instance of the breakup of the first marriage. In this our Church follows the principle of oikonomia, guided as she is by the love of the sinner who is not to be deprived of the means of salvation. In today’s world, in which the strict observance of the church ordinances becomes increasingly rare, the practice of oikonomia, which has existed in Orthodoxy throughout the centuries, may become a valuable experience in settling the pastoral problems of the family.

The Orthodox Church has accumulated a rich experience of pastoral care for the family. She has always preserved the institution of married clergy. As a rule, the families of priests are large and their children are brought up in the spirit of Christian devotion and faithfulness to church teaching. A priest with his own experience of family relations and parenting can better understand family problems and give his spiritual children the necessary pastoral aid. I believe it would be useful to notice this experience, which is also present in the Catholic Churches of the Eastern Rite.

Excellent, all of it, and important. But then Hilarion goes on to make a most undiplomatic protest against the involvement of Catholic churches in Ukraine’s civil war. To be clear, I do not begrudge Moscow its position here, or Moscow advocating for what it believes is true. But boy, do I regret that the Metropolitan said what he said in this forum. What an unnecessary and harmful provocation to say these things at a Roman Catholic Synod on the Family, when there is such a crying need for the Churches of the East and the West to speak with one voice to defend the traditional family, and traditional marriage. Why bring bitter ecclesial geopolitics into this forum? What unites the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches on matters of sexuality and the family, and in our mutual concern for the religious liberties of Christians, is far greater, and a far more pressing problem, than the fighting in Ukraine.

The Kremlin doesn’t see it that way, I guess, but I wish the Moscow Patriarchate did. What Met. Hilarion said about the church disputes is important, but this wasn’t the time or the place to have said it. This diplomatic row will be the thing that is most remembered from Hilarion’s address, and not the terrific things that formed the bulk of his speech. A botched opportunity, I think, and to me, unexpected, given that Hilarion has for years made great speeches about the need for collaboration among small-o orthodox believers and traditionalists in the Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox camps.

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Marilynne Robinson on Fear

I love Marilynne Robinson. I really do. I do not agree with her on all things theological, certainly, but this is a wise, wise woman. From a recent NYT Magazine profile of her:

The question that led to Robinson’s assessment of our cultural condition — that we have become overwhelmingly fearful and that our fear has become a respectable excuse for not acting as we should — was this: “What do you think people should be talking about more?”

“One of the things that bothers me,” she began, with feeling, “is that there are prohibitions of an unarticulated kind that are culturally felt that prevent people from actually saying what they think.” From there, she raised her well-documented relationship to faith; said that students at Iowa from faith-based backgrounds seek her out; sketched the inhibition these students nonetheless feel in describing the sacred (“If you’re Jewish or Catholic, you can make all the jokes about your mother or the nun, but in terms of saying on one’s deathbed, ‘What will it mean to me that this is how I would have described myself, how does the cosmos feel as it nestles in my particular breast?’ they are completely inarticulate about that”); addressed that inhibition and suggested its root (“It’s as if when you describe something good, you are being deceived or are being deceptive”); offered Flannery O’Connor as an example of a religious writer who fails to describe goodness (“Her prose is beautiful, her imagination appalls me”); evoked the nature of O’Connor’s failure (“There’s a lot of writing about religion with a cold eye, but virtually none with a loving heart”); complained about the widespread ignorance of religion in American life; told the story of Oseola McCarty, a laundress who bequeathed most of her life savings to the University of Southern Mississippi (“[An] interviewer was talking about how McCarty took down this Bible and First Corinthians fell out of it, it had been so read. And you think, Here is this woman that, by many standards, might have been considered marginally literate, that by another standard would have been considered to be a major expert on the meaning of First Corinthians!”); suggested that McCarty’s understanding of First Corinthians — in which Paul lays out the kind of communitarian behaviors upon which Christian decency might depend — reveals what it means to read a text well (“It makes you think that comprehension has an ethical content”); jumped to some reading she has been doing that has an explicit ethical content — essays by John Wycliffe, who played a crucial role in the first English translations of the Bible (“Wycliffe says that if you do not object strenuously to a superior’s bad behavior, you are as bad, as guilty as he is of what happens”); and rehearsed the radical activist tradition of translating the Bible, how rendering it into English was a courageous act, a risky resistance of royal authority.

“Wycliffe was the founding figure of Lollardy,” she said, “an amazing attempt to spread literacy and scriptural understanding into the common world. Little Oxford students creeping out at night to take a page of Matthew to a hovel somewhere and tell someone what it actually said. . . . The Wycliffe Bibles and Tyndale Bibles, which you could be killed for owning, were circulated widely. It was a very subversive thing, the Bible.”

And it was here that Robinson brought up fear: How it has come to keep us at bay from our best selves, the selves that could and should “do something.” In her case, that “something” has been writing. For Robinson, writing is not a craft; it is “testimony,” a bearing witness: an act that demands much of its maker, not least of which is the courage to reveal what one loves.

“A lot of people who actually believe in the sacredness of life, they write things that are horrible, desolating things, ” Robinson said. “Because, for some reason, this deeper belief doesn’t turn the world. . . . It comes down to fear; the fear of making self-revelation of the seriousness of ‘I sense a sacredness in things.’ ”

Read the whole thing.  When I first saw this passage, it reminded me of a strong feeling I got standing in the crypt church at the Benedictine monastery in Norcia last week. It occurred to me that we live in a time when much is at stake, and that in fact there is no time ever when there isn’t much at stake. The drama of human life is always before us. There are no inconsequential lives, because each of us is an immortal being. “We only have one life to live,” a monk had said to me, by which he meant that the choices we make, and fail to make, have consequences for eternity. In the darkness of that crypt church, I thought, “Why shouldn’t we be brave in what we say? If life is sacred, and if things matter in the light of eternity, why not say what you believe to be true? There will be people who don’t want to hear it, but there will also be people who want and need to hear it.”

To stand in prayer in front of an altar space that has been there for 1,600 years is to feel the brevity of our lives, but also their intensity. Dante reserves the vestibule of Hell for those who refused to take a stand in the mortal life, but tried to stay aloof. There is no virtue in lukewarmness. There is a sacredness in things. That moment in the monastery crypt consoled, encouraged, and emboldened me as I start this Dante book. Reading Marilynne Robinson’s words did too.

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Dante vs. the Mottramists

Not Rex Mottram La Marga/Flickr
Not Rex Mottram La Marga/Flickr

Last week in Italy, my friend Casella, a Catholic who had lots of consternation over recent events in his church, said to me, “It’s time for us Catholics to quit being so docile about our bishops. I really wish that we could find courage that Catholics had in the past, and stand up to them when they’re wrecking the faith.”

“You sound like an anti-Mottramist,” I said.

“What’s a Mottramist?” he said.

A few years ago, I wrote this:

I would like to propose a name for this phenomenon of inveterate support for any and all Papal actions, imputing to him wisdom and spiritual insight beyond all the Saints and Popes of past ages: Mottramism.

This takes its name, of course, from Rex Mottram, Julia Flyte’s husband in Brideshead Revisited. At one point, Rex decides to convert to Catholicism in order to have a proper Church wedding with Julia. But the sincerity of his conversion becomes suspect when he is willing to agree with any absurdity proposed in the name of Catholic authority, and shows no intellectual curiosity into its truth or falsehood. As his Jesuit instructor, Father Mowbray describes his catechetical progress:

“Yesterday I asked him whether Our Lord had more than one nature. He said: ‘Just as many as you say, Father.’ Then again I asked him: ‘Supposing the Pope looked up and saw a cloud and said ‘It’s going to rain’, would that be bound to happen?’ ‘Oh, yes, Father.’ ‘But supposing it didn’t?’ He thought a moment and said, “I suppose it would be sort of raining spiritually, only we were too sinful to see it.’”

If it’s a cure for Mottramism you seek, turn to the pages of the Divine Comedy. Dante is utterly unsparing of corrupt popes, bishops, priests and monks. He speaks of them in terms and in a tone worthy of the Biblical prophets. Here, for example, are the words Dante puts in the mouth of St. Peter, denouncing his successor, Pope Boniface VIII:

“He who on earth usurps my place,

my place, my place, which in the eyes

of God’s own Son is vacant,

“has made my tomb a sewer of blood and filth,

so that the Evil One, who fell from here above,

takes satisfaction there below.”

I’ve seen on my Facebook feed and elsewhere in the past few days that some faithful Catholics are denouncing critics of the Synod as “divisive” and “wounding the Body of Christ” by their complaints. It is certainly possible that one’s protest is only destructive, and therefore wrong. But I get the idea that there are more than a few people who, perhaps out of fear, adopt an essentially Mottramist stance toward the bishops and the Pope, when what is needed is a full-throated defense of the Truth. Mottramism, a subset of clericalism, is one of the reasons the sexual abuse scandal metastasized within the Body of Christ. Outside of the saints, you will find no more faithful Catholic of the High Middle Ages than Dante Alighieri, and it is precisely because of his Catholic faith that he stood up, in verse, to the clerics that traduced it. He understood that the Church is not merely the institution, and that the deposit of faith belongs to all Catholics, not just the priestly class.

Six hundred years after the Divine Comedy first appeared, a leading Catholic had this to say about it, and its author, as a guide to faith. Excerpt:

No need to recall Alighieri’s great reverence for the authority of the Catholic Church, the account in which he holds the power of the Roman Pontiff as the base of every law and institution of that Church. Hence the outspoken warning to Christians: You have the Old and the New Testament: the Pastor of the Church as Guide; Let that suffice for your salvation. He felt the troubles of the Church as his own, and while he deplored and condemned all rebellion against its Supreme Head he wrote as follows to the Italian Cardinals during the stay at Avignon: “To us who confess the same Father and Son, the same God and Man, the same Mother and Virgin; to us for whom and for whose salvation the message was given, after the triple Lovest thou Me? Feed My sacred sheepfold; to us, driven to mourn with Jeremias – but not over things to come but over things that are – for Rome – that Rome on which Christ, after all the old pomp and triumph, confirmed by word and work the empire of the world, and which Peter, too, and Paul the Apostle of the Nations consecrated with their very blood as Apostolic See – now widowed and desolate; to us it is as terrible grief to see this as to see the tragedy of heresy” (Epist. VIII). For him the Roman Church is The Most Holy Mother, Bride of Him Crucified and to Peter, infallible judge of revealed truths, is owing perfect submission in matters of faith and morals. Hence, however much he may hold that the dignity of the Emperor is derived immediately from God, still he asserts that this truth “must not be understood so strictly as to mean that the Roman Prince is not subject to the Roman Pontiff in anything, because this mortal happiness is subjected in certain measure to immortal happiness” (Mon. III, 16). Excellent and wise principle indeed which, if it were observed today as it ought to be, would bring to States abundant fruits of civil prosperity. But, it will be said, he inveighs with terrible bitterness against the Supreme Pontiffs of his times. True; but it was against those who differed from him in politics and he thought were on the side of those who had driven him from his country. One can feel for a man so beaten down by fortune, if with lacerated mind he breaks out sometimes into words of excessive blame, the more so that, to increase his feeling, false statements were being made by his political enemies ready, as always happens, to give an evil interpretation to everything. And indeed, since, through mortal infirmity, “by worldly dust even religious hearts must needs be soiled” (St. Leo M. S. IV de Quadrag), it cannot be denied that at that time there were matters on which the clergy might be reproved, and a mind as devoted to the Church as was that of Dante could not but feel disgust while we know, too, that reproof came also from men of conspicuous holiness. But, however he might inveigh, rightly or wrongly, against ecclesiastical personages, never did he fail in respect due to the Church and reverence for the “Supreme Keys”; and on the political side he laid down as rule for his views “the reverence which a good son should show towards his father, a dutiful son to his mother, to Christ, to the Church, to the Supreme Pastor, to all who profess the Christian religion, for the safeguarding of truth.”

I think that slightly overstates matters — you don’t get from this a real sense of how scathing Dante was about the churchmen of his day — but then again, the author of that passage was the pope, Benedict XV, in an encyclical (!) commending Dante’s work and memory.

The point is, Dante’s criticism of the Church’s pastors came from a position of unswerving faith in God, and loyalty to the Church. And in time — lots of time — even a Pope wrote an encyclical praising him for his criticism in the context of loyalty to Catholic orthodoxy. Dante was calling on the popes and the priests not to abandon Catholic truth, but rather to be truly Catholic. His is an example worth remembering and emulating for Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox alike.

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