This morning Damon Linker published an interesting essay in The Week called "What do liberal Catholics want?", in which Linker tries to make sense of a conversation he had with a listener on an NPR call-in show regarding Pope Francis. He was under the assumption that "liberal" Catholics wanted the Pope to change Church doctrine, particularly its teachings on sexuality, and he expressed confusion that "liberals" kept gushing over the Pope despite the fact that he has not changed Church doctrine. This assumption was challenged after his appearance on NPR:
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 my TNR 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 can listen 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."I don't entirely know what to make of Trish's comments except to say that I really don't think Trish can be seen in any way to represent "progressive Catholicism" in the United States or elsewhere. Nor does Damon Linker correctly understand "progressive Catholicism." (I use scare quotes when using the words "liberal" or "progressive" because I think such labels are far less helpful than most people assume them to be. I've been accused of being "progressive" by some and of being "conservative" by others; precisely where a centrist like myself wants to be!).
However, for the sake of ease, let's agree that what Linker refers to when using the word "liberal" are Catholics who disagree with official Church teaching regarding issues of sexuality. Linker assumes that such Catholics simply want to bring the church "into conformity with the egalitarian ethos of modern liberalism, including its embrace of gay rights, sexual freedom, and gender equality." This is, I think, a fundamental misconception of such Catholics, but is one I regularly encounter. The assumption is that "liberal" Catholics simply want to turn the Church into the image of the dominant culture, that the starting point for these Catholics is modern liberalism's sexual mores. I've no doubt that some "liberal" Catholics think like this; Trish appears to be an example. But, and here I admittedly appeal to my experience with "progressive" friends and colleagues, the starting point for most of the "liberals" I know is theological not cultural. Undoubtedly, of course, their reading of theology is shaped by their societal and cultural contexts (as is always the case), but it is far too easy to dismiss "progressive" Catholic ideas re: sexuality as simply "worldly conformity" when, in fact, many of the arguments I've encountered are both theologically-centered and theologically-weighty, and need to be engaged as such
Which brings me to Trish. Whatever may be her understanding of theology, she certainly did not represent her viewpoints well. Without meaning to disparage her, I would say that she represents a kind of "progressivism" that does indeed exist within the Church, one that is somewhat illiterate theologically (an illiteracy due, I should add, in no small part to the unfortunate state of catechesis in this country, but that's a topic for another day). But as we are all aware, viewpoints that lack sufficient depth of analysis are to be found on all points of the ecclesial and political spectrum.