Just good feelings?

An interesting blog post from the New York Times discusses the state of liberal Catholicism under Pope Francis. He opens”I’m written a bit about the question of what kind of reforms liberal Catholics should be actually be hoping for from Pope Francis, besides the good feelings that the pope’s rhetorical focus on social justice has inspired. In a deliberate provocation, Damon Linker raises the possibility that the good feelings are really all that the church’s liberal dissenters really want, because many of them just don’t think church teaching (or, for that matter, any kind of religious doctrine) matters anymore:

After reading an endless stream of gushing commentary by liberal Catholics on Pope Francis, I’m beginning to wonder if they ever really cared about reforming doctrine in the first place.

The seeds of doubt were planted a couple of weeks after myTNR essay was published, when I appeared on an NPR radio show to discuss the pope. I repeated my argument, but then a caller challenged me. Describing herself as a progressive Catholic, she dismissed my skepticism about the likelihood of Francis reforming church doctrine. “Doctrine for a Catholic, now, is not even an issue,” said Trish from Kentucky (you canlisten to her beginning at 24:43). “Catholics do not care about doctrine,” she said, adding, “It’s irrelevant. It’s a non-issue for Catholics.”

That, to be honest, is something that I hadn’t considered when I wrote my essay. As I indicated in my remarks responding to Trish, I had assumed all along that liberal Catholics wanted to liberalize Catholic doctrine — that they wanted to bring the church, as I wrote in TNR, “into conformity with the egalitarian ethos of modern liberalism, including its embrace of gay rights, sexual freedom, and gender equality.”

But here was a liberal Catholic telling me I’d gotten it all wrong. The pope’s warm, welcoming words are “everything,” Trish said, because doctrine, including that covering contraception and divorce, is “useless.”

There are dangers in reading too much into an NPR caller, obviously, but Linker is putting his finger on a real tension within liberal Christianity today— or, if you prefer, a real fork in the road, with one path leading in the direction that he assumed dissenting Catholics wanted to take (which seeks to alter church teaching precisely because it still believes that teaching really matters), and the other leading toward a kind of Emersonian, therapeutic, basically post-ecclesiastical form of faith, in which “Roman Catholicism” just happens to be the name of the stage on which your purely individual spiritual drama is taking place. The Commonweal-reading wing of liberal Catholicism would certainly reject the latter idea, but the kind of “post-Catholic Catholicism” Linker describes is clearly more of a force in our culture today than it was during the early days of the American Church’s post-Vatican II civil war (it’s hard to understand the controversy over American nuns, for instance, without recognizing its impact), and the Trishes of the culture havea strong wind at their back in a way that would-be reformers of the old, 1960s-era school of liberal Catholicism arguably do not”.

He goes on to argue that “some of those would-be reformers would argue that Trish-ism (which as Linker describes it is basically a Catholic version of Sheila-ism, Robert Bellah’s Reagan-era gloss on individualistic spirituality) is what happens, more or less inevitably, when the church’s leaders hollow out their credibility by trying to enforce the unenforceable, and that a church that had evolved with the culture forty years ago would have actually preserved a sense that doctrine actually matters. This argument is problematic, though, because the (mostly Protestant) churches that did evolve along those lines often seem to be churches where Trish-ism is fully enthroned and all talk of traditional doctrine is a dead letter. Hence the appeal of the conservative counter-argument that actually Trish-ism is the fruit of the Catholic hierarchy’sinattention to doctrinal matters, its eagerness to soft-pedal the tough stuff, its attempt to keep everyone on board in an age of division and dissent: “It’s not that dissenting Catholics don’t care what the Church teaches,” Matthew Schmitz writes in a response to Linker’s piece, “it’s that the Church has taught them not to care. To that lesson, they’ve paid close attention.” But I wonder if this argument doesn’t oversimplify things as well. To explain what I mean, let me quote an extract from Daniel Gordis’s recent argument about how Orthodox Judaism gained ground at Conservative Judaism’s expense”.

He ends the post noting that “Now for a variety of reasons this may be an easier wire for Judaism to walk than Catholicism. But Gordis is raising an issue that any tradition-minded religious body needs to think through: Namely, how to make its hardest rules seem like aspirations rather than just judgments, and how to deal with the many fine personal gradations that can exist between orthodoxy and apostasy, fidelity and dissent. And I suspect there are many Catholics who would be classified as “liberal” who want something like what he’s describing in Modern Orthodoxy from their church. That is, they want room to dissent from a teaching or fail to live up to it in practice, but they don’t necessarily want the church to change that teaching so that the dissonance or tension they feel simply goes away. Hence their positive reaction to Francis’s rhetorical shift and their lack of urgency about actual doctrinal change. They aren’t necessarily all Trishes who have decided that they don’t care about what the Catechism says. Some of them, at least, might be more like the Orthodox Jews who parked their cars around the corner without demanding that the rabbi be okay with it, and whose children turned out to be more observant, rather than less. To conclude, and clarify: I’m not trying to minimize the problem of Trish-ism (trust me!), I will be as depressed as Linker if liberal Catholicism just turns out to have faded into moralistic therapeutic deism, and I’m strongly sympathetic to Schmitz’s point about the dangers of officially upholding orthodoxy while making it seem optional and/or unimportant with winks and nods. But I think there are some complexities here. It could be that liberal Catholics who heart Francis despite his lack of doctrinal movement are testifying to a hopelessly emptied-out understanding of their faith. But some kind of cognitive dissonance in these areas, some gap between what individual Catholics believe and what they want the papacy to teach, might not be the worst sign for the future of church”.

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