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Does Doctrine Even Matter To Liberal Catholics?

Last summer, Damon Linker, a Catholic, made a prediction that Bergoglio pontificate would be all about a change in style, but would barely touch doctrinal reform, if it touched it at all — and that this would prove disappointing to liberal Catholics. He assumed that liberal Catholics wanted to liberalize Catholic doctrine, to bring it more into harmony with modern sensibilities, and that because of this, they were probably in for heartbreak when Francis didn’t play by the script.

Well, he was right on the doctrinal call — Francis hasn’t budged on doctrine, and there’s little indication that he plans to — but Linker is now starting to doubt that he made the right call on liberal Catholics. In a new column for The Week, Linker recalls being on an NPR call-in show talking about his 2013 piece, and speaking to a caller named Trish, a liberal Catholic who loves Francis’s new style, and who assured him that nobody cares about doctrine anymore anyway. Linker reflects:

For all I know, many or even most liberal Catholics hope and pray for doctrinal reform. But what if Trish is right? If so, the question I’d want to ask these liberals is: Why do you continue to attend church and think of yourself as a Catholic?

If you attend for the beauty of the liturgy, why not just become an Episcopalian? If it’s the sense of community you crave, why not join the Unitarian church? Either way, you could certainly continue to be spiritually moved by the pope’s public utterances, in the same way you might be stirred by an inspiring presidential speech.

But what’s the point of staying put when you’re utterly indifferent to so much of what the Catholic Church (and on contraception at least, pretty much only the Catholic Church) proclaims to be true?

The answer matters because of what it might portend about the future of the church. Maybe Trish, a cradle Catholic, has a sentimental attachment to the church. But what about her children, presumably raised to believe that Catholic doctrine is “useless”? Will they remain Catholics and choose to raise their children in the church? I’d be surprised, frankly, if they did.

Upholding church doctrine and affirming it as true, in the style of conservative Catholics, is one thing. Fighting to change church doctrine, as my perhaps imaginary liberal Catholic reformers would want to do, is another. But treating doctrine as completely beside the point is something else entirely.

If Trish is the future of American Catholicism, we appear to be left with a puzzle: When does a church without a doctrine cease to be a church at all?

Excellent, excellent question — and powerfully stated by a Catholic who is not a conservative, but who is a serious thinker about the Church. Francis’s continuing popularity among progressive American Catholics, despite his reaffirmation of Church doctrine (even the unpopular ones), reveals a weakness in the Church, not a strength. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not at all saying that liberal Catholics (or conservative Catholics) should dislike this or any pope. Linker’s column, though, crystallized a sense I had, but could not define, about this pontificate, and the Church that Francis leads.

Treating doctrine as beside the point is something else entirely. Yes it is. Even after I left the Catholic Church, I would find myself in the bizarre position of arguing with Catholics, and defending Catholic doctrine. The thing is, it was impossible to find common ground, because a) they knew nothing about doctrine, not even basics, and b) whatever the Church taught didn’t matter to them, because they didn’t see it as binding anyway; and c) they genuinely did not understand why this had anything at all to do with their status as Catholics. The freaky thing, to me, was that this wasn’t a pose; they were as sincere as they could be.

I remember back then often thinking of something I had read — I thought it was a Commonweal essay by Cardinal George of Chicago — saying that dialogue was all but impossible between conservative and liberal Catholics today. A generation or two ago, both sides had different interpretations of doctrine, but they both agreed that doctrine mattered, that doctrine was authoritative, and that magisterial doctrinal teaching set the terms for their debate. Today (the writer lamented), there can be no meaningful dialogue because most contemporary liberal Catholics, unlike their predecessors before and immediately after the Council, don’t share that basic commitment to the Church’s doctrine and doctrinal authority. It’s not so much that they’ve thought about it and rejected it; it’s that they haven’t thought about it at all, and doesn’t see what that has to do with anything.

Just now, I went to find that Cardinal George essay in Commonweal. It turns out that indeed the Cardinal had written an essay along those lines for the magazine, but that he hadn’t said exactly what I thought he’d said (it must have been someone else). But in the piece describing how liberal Catholicism was failing the Church, he did say some interesting things, among them:

The call to personal conversion, which is at the heart of the gospel, has been smothered by a pillow of accommodation. The project for a liberal Catholic church is as unoriginal as the project for a liberal reinterpretation of the mission for the church. A church, all of whose ministries, construed only functionally, are open to any of the baptized; a church unwilling to say that all homosexual genital relations are morally wrong; a church which at least makes some allowance for abortion when necessary to assure a mother’s freedom; a church accepting contraception as moral within marriage and prudent outside of marriage; a church willing to admit the sacramentally married to a second marriage in complete sacramental communion; a church whose teaching has to stand the acid test of modern criticism and personal acceptance in order to have not just credibility but legitimacy—there is nothing new in all this. It already exists, but outside the Catholic church.

Liberal Catholicism, in the too general and somewhat unfair way I have sketched it here, has not sufficiently distinguished between the properly theological warrants necessary to argue convincingly to some of its desiderata and the reasons for ecclesial change that take their strength merely from a liberal culture which tells us, as all cultures do, what to think and how to act. In an apostolic church, however, the burden of proof for changing established doctrinal and moral teaching rests on those who ask for change. The faith of the Apostles and martyrs, of Iraeneus and Augustine, of Bridget of Sweden and Catherine of Siena, of Thomas of Canterbury and Thomas More, of Elizabeth Ann Seton and John Neumann, of Edith Stein and Maximilian Kolbe, of our parents and grandparents cannot be set aside to make our contemporaries happy or ourselves free of personal responsibility and its consequent guilt. When the apostolic faith is preached in its integrity to the young, to those who have not grown up in a church which confined them and who have found themselves, instead, trapped in our secularized culture, they take notice. Here is something different. They do not always agree, but they are open in ways surprising to those whose own liberating experiences are still bound up with the immediate aftermath of the Second Vatican Council.

Peggy Steinfels’s generation of liberal Catholics may not completely agree with the Cardinal, but they can make sense of what he’s saying. My generation and younger, broadly speaking, really don’t get it. I mean, the orthodox Catholics do, but the liberals? It’s just not important at all to them, as far as I can tell. Along those lines, read Sidney Callahan’s shocking Commonweal piece about the neutron bomb that went off in her liberal Catholic family. Excerpt:

In 1967, my husband Dan and I, along with our five sons and one daughter (all born between 1955 and ’65), could be found each Sunday at Mass. Everyone was baptized, the three oldest confirmed. I had been teaching in the CCD program for seven years. We were a full-court-press Catholic family, members of the Christian Family Movement (observe, judge, act), Catholic Worker enthusiasts, and eager advocates of Vatican II reforms. Dan was an editor of Commonweal and we both wrote for and participated in exciting Catholic intellectual circles. Forty-six years later, I sit alone in the same pew on Sundays, and have been doing so for decades. I remain a grateful Catholic convert, while everyone else in the family is long gone from the church.

This, I think, is why some conservative Catholics can deal with Francis’s change of style and tone, as long as he leaves doctrine alone. They may not like this or that thing about him, but he’s leaving the core untouched, as Linker said he would. If they can hold on long enough, and pass the faith on to their children, the children of Trish will have fallen away, for lack of anything other than sentimentality and habit binding them. Now, it is true that you can effectively change doctrine in people’s hearts by failing to teach the truth as by affirmatively teaching a lie. Perhaps Francis may one day be fairly faulted for failing in this way, I don’t know. It’s too early to tell for sure. But 20, 30 years out, will the children and grandchildren of the No-Doctrine Catholics, the Trishes of American Catholicism, still be in the Church? Or will they have given up out of boredom, or moved to a conservative Evangelical church, where at least people still believe that we can’t just make it up as we go along?

This is what Damon Linker, a serious Catholic intellectual who is not a conservative, is asking. It’s not only a fair question, it’s a necessary one. Again, don’t miss the crucial point: it’s one thing to want to change doctrine to make it reflect what you believe is the Truth; it’s very much another to say that doctrine doesn’t matter, that the core of the Church’s moral and theological structure is beside the point; that the way the Pope makes us feel is more important. This is not Francis’s fault, of course, but as the supreme governor of the Roman Catholic Church, it is his problem.

UPDATE: From the comboxes, this exchange between Lee Podles and me:

The laity’s reception of Catholic doctrine has often been very fuzzy. Membership in the Catholic Church has tended to be founded on tribal feelings rather than intellectual conviction (and I suspect the same is true of the Orthodox Church). The ignorance of Catholic doctrine during the medieval laity was astounding, and the Counter Reformation tried to instill some basic beliefs in people.

In 16th-cetury Catalonia a village priest who was performing a baptism decided to examine the godfather about his beliefs about the Trinity. The godfather confessed total ignorance, and the priest told him he couldn’t be the godfather. The rejected godfather answered that he believed whatever the Catholic Church believed (whatever that was), and wasn’t that enough. A good reply.

This attitude works in a Catholic society, but in a society in which Catholicism is a small and alien presence, it does not work. People believe whatever the society around them believes about moral matters, and society believes in a Morally Therapeutic Deity and little else theologically.

Pope Francis is not calling for repentance and conversion as the first step to entry into the new life of Christ. Repentance is never appealing, and Francis is trying to make Christianity appealing, in the hope that people will commit to it and eventually change their lives. Francis seems to be following the advice of another namesake, St. Francis de Sales who said, ”A spoonful of honey attracts more flies than a barrelful of vinegar.” Will this approach work? Time will tell.

<i>[NFR: This, Lee, is exactly the way I see it. I might be wrong about this, because I don’t pay nearly as much attention to Catholicism’s inner workings as I used to, but as Francis’s pontificate has played out, I’ve come to think that his strategy is more pastoral than catechetical. American Catholics, in their factionalism, tend to see things as either/or, rather than both/and. Come to think of it, the relationship between the two should be yin-yang, in the sense that they flow into each other, influence each other, and are constantly adjusting to maintain balance in the ebb and flow of real life. I get that. The problem, as you say, is that Catholicism exists in a world that conceives of the Deity as Moralistic and Therapeutic. There is no firm “truth” to God; He is whatever feels right to us. Mind you, it is absolutely the case that intellectually affirming doctrine will not save a man, but it is also the case that denying the truths conveyed in doctrine and embracing feeling exclusively will not save a man either, because feelings alone are not a reliable guide to reality.

I think of it this way (warning! Dante reference coming!): if you are lost in a dark wood and scared and confused, and a man shows up to offer you a map that will get you out of the wood and safely home, it will do you no good if he does not first meet you where you are, and address the fear and anxiety. You might be able to read a map just fine, and to affirm intellectually the accuracy of the map, but if you can’t take those first steps because you are too paralyzed by fear, confusion, or whatever, to start the journey home, it’s not going to do you any good. This, I think, is what Francis is trying to address. The problem he faces — and this, I think, is what Linker identifies — is that he’s leading a Church that has been catechized by the culture and the era to believe that **there’s no such thing as a reliable map.** There is no such thing as a reliable map, because nobody can say with any confidence that there is a way home. For all we know (the thinking goes), the dark wood is fine. Just go find a nice sunny clearing in the wood and settle down there.

“But there are bears in this wood,” the guide says. “I know this territory. I’m a licensed guide, trained in how to get people out of this valley. My company has been helping lost travelers for generations. Besides, my people have been in this area for a long, long time. Trust me, if you stay here, you have a good chance of getting badly hurt or even killed.”

“That’s what you say,” says the lost traveler. “Maybe I’m not lost at all. Who are you to say what lost is? Who are you to say that this dark wood isn’t just fine? Just because your people have been here a long time doesn’t make you right. I can make my own decisions without your help, thank you very much.”

Et cetera. The point is not that every lost person has to fully understand every aspect of the map before they can get out of the woods. The point is that they have to accept, at the most fundamental level, that a) they are lost in a dangerous place; b) the map out of the wood is reliable; and c) the guide is trustworthy.

Though conservative Catholics — as I once was, and with whose side I still sympathize — put so much emphasis on doctrine is because they perceive that we are in danger of losing sight of the fact that we are in a dangerous wood, and that there exists a reliable map out, and back home, and that there are reliable guides to get us home free. If a generation or two decides to make their dwelling in the dark wood, where they are instructed by their parents that this is the way the world is, they won’t know what to do if a guide shows up and says, “You’re lost; I’ve got a map that can get us out of here — come on, follow me, I’ll show you the way out.” <em>What do you mean, lost?</em> they’ll say. <em>Why should I believe you?</em> And then they’re stuck. The problem is made worse if they, or the previous generation, have met a different guide who has affirmed their prejudices about the unreliability of maps and of the guide service. They might say, “Well, one of your colleagues showed up one day and told us there was no problem, we’re fine staying here, that we should just learn to be happy where we are. Why should we take your judgment over his?”

Mind you, a rigid guide, certain of the reliability of his map and his authority, might say to the lost, “Listen, be quiet. Follow me out of this place, or die!” And he would be right. But that wouldn’t do the lost travelers any good. If he really wants to save them, he has to learn how to talk to them to convince them that they’re lost in the first place. Previous generations of lost travelers would have followed him out of the valley, even if they didn’t know how to read a map. Nowadays, many of the lost don’t even believe in maps, and don’t recognize that some people know the woods and its dangers better than they do, because of training and experience. The guide today has to be able to convince the lost to trust him in the first place.

To sum up, it’s a far greater challenge to this pope, to his bishops, and to his priests, to help people to safety because we moderns are a stiff-necked people who think we don’t have to listen to anybody else. Their challenge is exacerbated by the fact that for a long time, many guides in the guide service have been telling people that maps don’t matter, and if they’re happy in the dark wood, that’s perfectly fine, because their happiness is what really matters.

This is what Linker was getting at. It is true that guides, if they’re concerned about rescuing the lost instead of simply being right, have to adjust their appeal to those lost in the woods to convince them that they are in danger. The much greater threat, though, comes from the loss of faith that maps and official guides have anything to tell us about the real world. If people no longer believe in maps, how much longer will they bother to listen to or trust the guides? And if they don’t trust in guides or maps, they really are permanently lost.

In my case, what I can tell definitively about Orthodox Christian doctrine would be about one-third of the length of my big long Dante blog post yesterday. But I trust the guides who know the territory. I don’t need to know how to read maps to trust them to lead me out of the dark wood. Moreover, I don’t have to worry that there’s a big fight among the guide corps over whether or not the maps and the methods of map-reading have anything true to tell us about where we are in the world, and what we need to do if we are to get out of the dark wood.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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