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What About The Protestant Catholics?

Pope Francis forces a schismatic way of thinking that wasn't supposed to be possible in Roman Catholicism
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The term “cafeteria Catholic” is old-school for theologically conservative Catholics in the US. It refers to Catholics who pick and choose what they prefer to believe from the panoply of Catholic teachings. It has long been a slur term that Catholic conservatives use against Catholics — usually liberal/progressives — who selectively accept magisterial Church teaching. The idea is that they are basically Protestants without admitting it.

But what does “cafeteria Catholic” mean in the era of Pope Francis? Until his papacy, it was easy enough for theologically conservative Catholics (henceforth, “conservative Catholics,” which I mean in the strictly theological sense, not political) to point to the Pope and say, “What he says, I believe.” Now, those days are over. As Ross Douthat wrote (based on his interview with Cardinal Raymond Burke, perceived, fairly or not, as Francis’s chief antagonist):

But you can also see in my conversation with the cardinal how hard it is to sustain a Catholicism that is orthodox against the pope. For instance, Burke himself brought up a hypothetical scenario where Francis endorses a document that includes what the cardinal considers heresy. “People say if you don’t accept that, you’ll be in schism,” Burke said, when “my point would be the document is schismatic. I’m not.”

But this implies that, in effect, the pope could lead a schism, even though schism by definition involves breaking with the pope. This is an idea that several conservative Catholic theologians have brought up recently; it does not become more persuasive with elaboration. And Burke himself acknowledges as much: It would be a “total contradiction” with no precedent or explanation in church law.

The pull of such ideas, though, explains why you need only take a step beyond Burke’s position to end up as a kind of de facto sedevacantist, a believer that the pope is not really the pope — or, alternatively, that the church is so corrupted and compromised by modernity that the pope might technically still be pope but his authority doesn’t matter anymore. This is the flavor of a lot of very-online traditionalism, and it’s hard to see how it wouldn’t (eventually) lead many of its adherents to a separation from the larger church, joining the traditionalist quasi-exile pioneered after Vatican II by the Society of Saint Pius X.

Are there alternatives to Burke’s tenuous position or the schismatic plunge? At the moment there are two: One is a conservative Catholicism that strains more mightily than Burke to interpret all of Francis’ moves in continuity with his predecessors, while arguing that the pope’s liberalizing allies and appointees are somehow misinterpreting him. This was the default conservative position early in the Francis pontificate; it has since become more difficult to sustain. But it persists in the hope of a kind of snapping-back moment, when Francis or a successor decides that Catholic bishops in countries like Germany are pushing things too far, at which point there can be a kind of restoration of the John Paul II-era battle lines, with the papacy — despite Francis’ experiments — reinterpreted to have always been on the side of orthodoxy.

Another alternative is a conservatism that simply resolves the apparent conflict between tradition and papal power in favor of the latter, submitting its private judgment to papal authority in 19th-century style — even if that submission requires accepting shifts on sex, marriage, celibacy and other issues that look awfully like the sort of liberal Protestantism that the 19th-century popes opposed. This would be a conservatism of structure more than doctrine, as suggested by the title of a website that champions its approach: “Where Peter Is.” But it would still need, for its long-term coherence, an account of how doctrine can and cannot change beyond just papal fiat. So it, too, awaits clarifications that this papacy has conspicuously not supplied.

Douthat appears not to be satisfied with any of these outcomes, and he’s right not to be. It is very, very difficult to square any kind of Catholic orthodoxy with being on the other side of this or any Pope. On the other hand, Catholic orthodoxy, as I understand it, is not coterminous with “whatever the Pope says” — and Francis has said some things that are pretty far out there. To say nothing of Pachamama, about which Father Dwight Longenecker has some troubling thoughts about the future. 

The plain fact is, a pope like Francis was not supposed to happen. Everybody knows that there have been bad popes — most notoriously, the popes of the Renaissance, in particular Alexander VI Borgia — but it has also been the case that however personally corrupt they might have been, they did not change Catholic doctrine. No one argues seriously that Francis is personally corrupt, but there is certainly reason to believe that he is either changing doctrine, either de facto or indirectly, by virtue of changing the disciplines of the Church, and allowing disfavored doctrines to wither on the vine.

What to do? Jake Meador, a conservative Presbyterian, says that conservative Catholics these days find themselves faced with their own inherent Protestantism. 


Thus we come to the fault line that has opened up under the Franciscan papacy: Faced with a liberalizing pope, conservatives in the church are arguing that there is an objectively discernible body of divinely revealed teachings over which the church has no authority and which it is literally unable to alter.

Oddly enough, the relationship between “divine law” and ecclesial authority articulated by these conservatives in the American church is, to my eyes, strikingly similar to the relationship between Scripture and ecclesial authority as defined by the Reformation.

This is not to say that either Cardinal Burke or J. D. are themselves arguing for Protestantism. Protestant theology encompasses much more than its stance on the nature of ecclesial authority, though it is worth noting that this vision of ecclesial authority is the foundation of everything that follows in Protestant thought.

Rather, I am arguing that the current maneuverings amongst conservative Catholics bear a striking resemblance to Protestantism precisely because they are confronting the same problem that vexed the first Protestants: What do you do when the institutional church seems to be endorsing views that contradict what you understand orthodoxy to be? Not only that, they are addressing the problem with a strikingly similar answer: You appeal to a divine law that is able to be discerned independent of the authority of the papacy and which is binding for everyone, including bishops. Thus the much cited problem of private judgment is merely a fact to be confronted and navigated rather than an inherent theological problem from which we must be rescued.

Read it all. 

To be clear, he’s not saying that conservative Catholics are Protestants. He’s too smart for that. But Jake is saying that to no longer be able to trust the theological and doctrinal judgment of the Pope puts even the most reactionary Catholic pretty much in the shoes of Protestants, in  a functional sense. 

How is he wrong? Not “how is he wrong in theory,” but how is he wrong, in the way the Catholic Church operates on a daily basis?

My sense is that the only way this really matters to Catholics who care about it is in the realm of theory. Catholic life in the US has been effectively Protestant for decades, in that Catholics have felt free to pick and choose their beliefs, and have paid no disciplinary price for it — and indeed, in some postconciliar parishes, were taught that this was expected of them. When I was a Catholic, I often met other Catholics who had no idea that being Catholic meant submitting private judgment to the magisterium of the Catholic Church. Though they wouldn’t have put it that way, they just assumed that Catholicism was another form of Protestantism, because in a functional sense, that is how they were formed.

Before Catholic readers get defensive, let me fully concede that in this country, at least, Orthodoxy has a similar problem. We live in a Protestant country, and modernity — which makes the individual sacrosanct — is, religiously, hyper-Protestant. Our Protestant friends may say “sola Scriptura,” but they well know that there are countless interpretations of Scripture. All of us Christians who profess belief in a religious authority higher than individual conscience, and private judgment, find ourselves in a bind. I have no respect for the claims of liberal Catholics who, having dismissed John Paul II and Benedict XVI, have reconfigured themselves as ultramontanists under Francis. But they weren’t to be taken seriously anyway, because they always believed themselves above the law of the Church. Conservative Catholics, though, are in a hard place. But then, as I said, so are all of us small-o orthodox Christians. The point is, the barque of Peter offers no sure escape from the problems of modernity.