Wednesday, January 15, 2014

"Catholics do not care about doctrine"

Debates about Pope Francis rage furiously.  At least they do on my Twitter feed.  I try to follow people on Twitter who represent a broad spectrum of viewpoints, theological and political, and the question of whether Pope Francis is a liberal or not is one of the most debated among those I follow.

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.


  1. Trish may be an "unthinking" progressive Catholic, but this kind of reactive mass mind is evident across the spectrum, as you say.

    There are those of us who are over 50 years old, who were formed in the daily catechesis of Catholic schools, and depend on a sacramental vision of reality that is based in sound Catholic doctrine. Yet we are liberal, the last remnants of the Catholic Left that followed the Berrigans in our protests of right wing ideology that kept us at war. Most of us have found ourselves confounded and lost in the local parish Churches these last couple of decades, without a home. We didn't go away, we just went underground or something.

    I think that things will change with Francis. But something tells me that change at the parish level will be coming from the young people, not the old ones, and it will not look like anything that we've seen before. Prepare to be surprised (and changed)!

  2. Speaking of genuinely liberal Catholics who are quite rightly appalled at the influence of (and pandering to) right-wing outfits such as Opus Dei plus Communion and Liberation I find the critical perspective available at and via the website titled Enlightened Catholicism to be quite refreshing.
    Meanwhile you must of course that the Catholic church runs the worlds largest "privately" owned corporate propaganda machine, the tenacles of which are all-pervasive. I would therefore be highly skeptical of any and every thing associated with Pope Francis promoted by the official party-line propaganda machine.
    As if the appearance of one seemingly benign new Pope on the scene is (or can) make any real difference to the Catholic behemoth and the immensely worldly power that it wields in the world, ALL of which is purposed to protecting and extending its power and privileges.

    1. You exaggerate the power of the Church too much. For example, Catholicism is almost non-existent in East Asia, and in China the Church doesn't even have control of its own bishops. And for the 1 billion Catholics that exist, there are only about 500,000 members of the clergy if I'm not wrong. The Vatican also depends a lot on the state of Italy, and the Church has almost to no influence in Europe where secularity is extremely dominant. Heck, when Pope John Paul II opposed the Iraq war, Bush just ignored him completely like nothing. Even in sexuality the influence of the Church is also exaggerated. In Latin America the music that is dominant, like the one that comes from the United States and also that is made in Latin American countries like Reggaeton, is sex-filled, something that wouldn't happen if its true that Church is very powerful. Either the Church is tolerant, or it doesn't have as much influence as you think. And I don't think every action Francis does is to preserve the power of the Church. Again, the Church doesn't have nearly as much power as you ascribe to it, and a lot of the things he does are definitely genuine. I agree he can do more, but to say he only does good things to preserve his power is just irrational anti-Catholicism.

  3. If Western Catholics can only think about sexuality, then we are rather screwed, really. There are wayyy more important things than that. For instance, what to do with the Catholics living in the third world who do not speak the dominant languages and live in very precarious conditions. For instance, one problem is that most of the clergy continues to be of European descent. For example, here in Guatemala having a Mayan priest is very rare and most priests do not know the Mayan languages and can only speak Spanish. These excludes the people that do not know Spanish and contributes to the destruction of their culture. Those are much more important things than even contraception. Really, all those debates show how people have become ignorant and even brainwashed by their culture and is a product of the accomodated living conditions they have which makes them ignore the real issues of the world.