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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.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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