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Catholics And Evangelicals Apart

The Rev. Richard John Neuhaus (d. 2009), whose lack of presence is keenly felt in the Ahmari-French dispute (AnthonyBuono/screenshot)

Michael Brendan Dougherty — a traditionalist Catholic — offers an intriguing insight onto the Sohrab Ahmari/David French dust-up. He wonders if the fact that Ahmari is Catholic and French is Evangelical has something to do with the Ahmari’s political pessimism and French’s political optimism. Evangelicals, says MBD, have grown greatly, and become more morally conservative since mid-century. But:

Meanwhile, the Catholic Church’s growth as it touches the United States is only by movement, into and around. Some dioceses are growing, particularly in the American South, due to internal migration. And then there is immigration into the country. But since the Second Vatican Council, the trend is toward a massive fall off in practice. There is the massive, humiliating, sex-abuse crisis, implicating every level of the hierarchy. It has experienced the dissolution of the ethnic communities that sustained the archipelago of parochial schools, which are closing faster than they are opening. Many major dioceses are set to close and combine parishes: Boston, New York, Chicago. On the political front, the Catholic Church’s massive network of institutions — its hospitals, colleges, charities, and adoption agencies — have a public-facing mission that makes them the recipients of state and federal dollars. They are operating in industries that hardly exist apart from state funding and heavy regulation, which makes them vulnerable. Barack Obama, a president whose political career began within the Catholic Church’s social movements, turned around and had his Secretary of Health and Human Services specifically put the Church’s unpopular doctrine against the use and provision of artificial birth control into a major public controversy. Catholic adoption agencies are still being closedue to the application of non-discrimination principles. The ACLU has started testing legal tactics against Catholic health-care facilities and their prohibition on abortion.

Theologically, Catholic conservatives and traditionalists are more cohesive than they were before, say, 2007. But clearly they are on the wrong side of the current papacy. The pope defeated them handily in a controversy over divorce and the sacraments. Catholics also expect that the leaders of their prized institutions are often not-so-secretly on the other side. See how the president of Notre Dame — a priest — could not even take his own institution’s side in the birth-control debate. And more recently rejected calls from students to ban access to pornography on campus Wi-Fi.

Read it all. 

To be clear, MBD doesn’t make an extended case. He offers it as just a passing insight. But I sense that there’s something substantive here. What we are seeing now is in part the result of the absence of Richard John Neuhaus from the scene, and the failure of the Neuhaus-Weigel-Novak project to reconcile orthodox Catholicism with liberal democracy and capitalism.

You can blame them for betting so heavily on the Iraq War and the Republican Party, and you would have some grounds for it. But my sense is that the greater fault lies with the fact that they bet even more heavily — and understandably! — on institutional Catholicism. They had no idea that the deeds of the Catholic bishops and the abusive priests for whom they covered up would destroy the moral authority of the Church.

But even if the abuse crisis had never happened, I strongly doubt that the Catholic Church would be in much different circumstances today. Boston broke the scandal wide open in 2002, but the decline lines were well established in US Catholicism, since the 1960s and the Council. When John Paul II was pope, it was possible to convince oneself that the Church was repairing itself after the disastrous 1970s, and that maybe even Father Neuhaus was right that America was headed towards a “Catholic moment.”

It was certainly true that the intellectual confidence of Catholics in the 1980s and 1990s was intoxicating. I was mesmerized by it, and converted. It surprised me to discover that the difference between on one side, the Catholic Church of John Paul II and the Church I was reading about in the pages of First Things magazine, and on the other side the actual real-life American parishes, was jarring. Still, a number of us took it for granted that things were going to get better and better once the John Paul II bishops cleaned things up.

There was also among some of us right-of-center Catholic egghead types a barely concealed condescension towards Evangelicalism. One admired their zeal, certainly, but bless their hearts, they just don’t have the intellectual deep bench that we do. I really did think like that, and I wasn’t the only one.

I have heard it said that some Arab Muslim students who come to the US struggle to reconcile the lush greenness of the lands of the infidels with the fact that Americans do not hold the true faith. Why does Allah bless the unbelievers, but compel His faithful to live in the deserts? This may not be true, but I can see that kind of logic possibly at work among American Catholics, versus Evangelicals. I was never an Evangelical, and did not take Christianity seriously at all until I converted to Catholicism as an adult in my mid-twenties. But I remember thinking at the time that Evangelicalism was doomed, ultimately, to fall prey to the forces of dissolution in American culture, because it lacked a Magisterium (the teaching authority of the Catholic Church), which was a solid rock. A few years into practicing Catholicism, I found myself struggling to reconcile that triumphalist belief with the fact that on certain matters of basic Christian morality, Evangelicals did a much better job of holding to Christian orthodoxy than we Catholics did.

In fact, today, white US Evangelicals hold more faithfully to magisterial Catholic teaching about abortion and homosexuality than US Catholics do:

It wasn’t supposed to be that way. That’s not how the script read. But that’s what happened. And, as MBD observes, the ascent of Pope Francis has been a series of gut punches for orthodox Catholics — trads and ordinary theological conservatives both — who had grown comfortable under JP2 and Benedict XVI. This wasn’t in the script either. But it has happened.

I think it’s hard for Evangelicals to appreciate how strange it is for conservative Catholics, who, unless they go to a Latin mass parish, are almost always going to be the minority in their parishes. The common Evangelical experience of knowing that just about everybody else with you in your congregation shares the same belief is alien to most Catholics. This gives individual Evangelical congregations more coherence, and, I think, confidence.

On the other hand, I wonder if there’s a grass-is-always-greener factor at work here. A decade ago, Michael Spencer, who has since died, published a widely commented-on essay called “The Coming Evangelical Collapse,” in which he predicted that within ten years, most Evangelical churches and institutions will have fallen apart.

Well, he pretty clearly got the timing wrong. But parts of his essay still seem relevant today. Such as this excerpt from Spencer’s analysis of what’s driving the collapse:

2) Evangelicals have failed to pass on to our young people the evangelical Christian faith in an orthodox form that can take root and survive the secular onslaught. In what must be the most ironic of all possible factors, an evangelical culture that has spent billions of youth ministers, Christian music, Christian publishing and Christian media has produced an entire burgeoning culture of young Christians who know next to nothing about their own faith except how they feel about it. Our young people have deep beliefs about the culture war, but do not know why they should obey scripture, the essentials of theology or the experience of spiritual discipline and community. Coming generations of Christians are going to be monumentally ignorant and unprepared for culture-wide pressures that they will endure.

Do not be deceived by conferences or movements that are theological in nature. These are a tiny minority of evangelicalism. A strong core of evangelical beliefs is not present in most of our young people, and will be less present in the future. This loss of “the core” has been at work for some time, and the fruit of this vacancy is about to become obvious.

3) Evangelical churches have now passed into a three part chapter: 1) mega-churches that are consumer driven, 2) churches that are dying and 3) new churches that whose future is dependent on a large number of factors. I believe most of these new churches will fail, and the ones that do survive will not be able to continue evangelicalism at anything resembling its current influence. Denominations will shrink, even vanish, while fewer and fewer evangelical churches will survive and thrive.

Our numbers, our churches and our influence are going to dramatically decrease in the next 10-15 years. And they will be replaced by an evangelical landscape that will be chaotic and largely irrelevant.

4) Despite some very successful developments in the last 25 years, Christian education has not produced a product that can hold the line in the rising tide of secularism. The ingrown, self-evaluated ghetto of evangelicalism has used its educational system primarily to staff its own needs and talk to itself. I believe Christian schools always have a mission in our culture, but I am skeptical that they can produce any sort of effect that will make any difference. Millions of Christian school graduates are going to walk away from the faith and the church.

There are many outstanding schools and outstanding graduates, but as I have said before, these are going to be the exceptions that won’t alter the coming reality. Christian schools are going to suffer greatly in this collapse.

I would like for readers who are Evangelical, and active within Evangelicalism, to tell me why Spencer’s prophecy of doom has not come to pass. Is it still valid, and he simply got the dates wrong? Because I’ll tell you, everything he says here is confirmed for me anecdotally by Evangelicals I meet in my travels, and with whom I’m in touch weekly. And the sociologist of religious Christian Smith found that emerging adult Evangelicals are very much on the same path of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism as their Catholic counterparts, who are farther gone. One noted Evangelical leader I met in my travels a couple of years ago that he used to think Evangelicalism was going to hold to Biblical orthodoxy on LGBT matters, but now has given up that expectation. Just the other day, an Evangelical academic friend said to me:

American Christians, with a tiny handful of exceptions, have no means of self-defense, nothing, nil, nada. They are completely at the mercy of the culture, and completely in denial about it.

To sum up: maybe what looks to demoralized Catholics like justified Evangelical self-confidence is more of a false front than even many Evangelicals know.

I don’t know, gang. What do you think?

Here’s part of it too, I’m guessing (notice that I’m using these hedge words; a lot of this is just speculation). French tweeted recently:


I’ve seen over the years that Evangelicals tend to be much more bullish on the American project than Catholics. I’m not saying that Evangelicals are more patriotic than Catholics. I’m saying that Evangelicals, in general, have nurtured an esteem for the Founding that is harder to find among Catholics — who, patriotic though they may be, may have philosophical doubts. It’s significant that French quoted from the Declaration of Independence as if to call into question the good faith of Christian (Catholic) critics of classical liberalism. Don’t misread me: I don’t think he was trying to be insulting, or was insulting. I think, actually, that his is an important point! Was America founded on a half-truth, a lie, or (less harshly), a philosophical mistake? 

The American political order is Protestant and Enlightenment, so it’s obvious why Evangelicals would be more at ease within it, and why Catholics would have philosophical problems with it. It was just over a century ago that the Vatican denounced the heresy of “Americanism,” which held in part that Church and State should be separate, and that the consciences of individual Catholics should have more liberty from Church teachings. Of course the Second Vatican Council revised many of these teachings; I only bring them up here to say that skepticism of classical liberalism is deep in the Catholic thought.

In my case, I share most of that skepticism, but the bone that gets stuck in my own throat is the question, “What’s a better system for us than classical liberalism?” Like most Americans (including, I would wager, American Catholics), I would not stand one second for integrating the US political order with the Catholic Church, or any church (if such a thing were possible). The problem with this is that liberalism itself behaves like a rival religion, one that doesn’t understand itself as a religion.

I have no good answer here. I’m still thinking through it. The Ahmari-French dispute, though it has had some regrettable manifestations, has been really helpful in spurring thought and conversation. Finally, everybody would benefit from reading Michael Hanby’s essay on “The Civic Project Of American Christianity” — which is about the meaning of politics for Christians in a post-Christian world. It might have been subtitled, “Father Neuhaus is dead, and I don’t feel so good myself.”

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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