Ross Douthat wrote recently about the odd reaction of liberal Roman Catholics to the notion that Pope Francis may change church teaching. He referred to Damon Linker’s surprise when doing an NPR talk show and a liberal Roman Catholic caller indicated that Linker was wrong to think that Francis changing the church’s stands was a potentially big deal:
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.”
Douthat concedes that this form of liberal Roman Catholicism may be more prevalent in U.S. circles than he had imagined (though you’d never know that from CTC):
The Commonweal-reading wing of liberal Catholicism would certainly reject the latter idea [i.e., “Roman Catholicism” just happens to be the name of the stage on which your purely individual spiritual drama is taking place], 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 have a strong wind at their back in a way that would-be reformers of the old, 1960s-era school of liberal Catholicism arguably do not.
But Douthat is hopeful of another way of reading the situation, one he found among Jewish Americans whose conflicted and at times hypocritical observance of Judaism’s norms translated into children more observant than their parents.
[The problem is] 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 . . . 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.
Whatever this post may indicate about the more than cognitive dissonance — call it denial — that Protestants-turned-Roman Catholic must face when seeing how broad the spectrum of Roman Catholicism in action and possibly wondering why nothing of consequence happens, it does lead to a curious point that many miss about Protestantism, Douthat included. I can actually imagine describing the OPC as the kind of place where the room for dissent that Douthat imagines exists — a church that makes room for dissenters to turn into people with children who become much more disciplined in their observance. After all, we have plenty of public disputes in Reformed circles about the application of redemption, about the law, about biblical interpretation. An ordinary church member doesn’t need to worry about any of this, but also may follow the latest blogs with great zeal. At the same time, our officers know the procedures for negotiating such dissent. We have well prescribed rules and frameworks of jurisdiction that allow for discipline to be real and serious. If you cross the line as an officer, you will suffer, and the people who can make you suffer know what to do. As a lay person, if you don’t adhere to church teaching (as long as you don’t sin), you simply can’t teach Sunday school. Sabbath observance is arguably the best case of this. In many congregations, if you don’t attend both services you won’t be considered for special office. If you don’t return to church at night, no one is going to shame you into a puddle of remorse. Sanctifying the Lord’s Day is the norm, the standard, and it may even be an aspiration. Either way, the rules governing church discipline — which is in the hands of a variety of officers at a number of levels, thus insuring mixed government (hello, ecclesiastical subsidiarity) — give officers a clear sense of how to enforce the norms, even supplying a dose of wisdom by forcing an officer particularly zealous about the Lord’s Day to calculate how his charges against a fellow church member will go with other members of session, presbytery, and even General Assembly.
What Rome seems to lack, in contrast, is any mechanism for dissenters, bishops, priests, Knights of Columbus, Nancy Pelosi to know how to process dissent and its flipside. The Vatican has the levers of power but they are remote from ordinary priests, lay people, religious. In which case, dissent becomes as much a piece of ecclesiastical furniture as papal power. Dissent and papal power are there, but it’s just white noise. There’s no manual for how to adjust the volume or turn off the machine. (And what’s particularly odd about this state of affairs is that Rome has had over a millenium to try to figure this out, and with all that charism no less!)
Thanks to Calvin’s Ecclesiastical Ordinances (based on Scripture, of course), Presbyterians have the instructions.
Postscript: Here’s an example of the kind of white noise that dissent and authority comprise for the superior mechanism of an infallible pope. It is from John Allen’s story about papal representatives’ testimony in Geneva before the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Church about the child-abuse scandal:
Second, most of the immediate blowback against Thursday’s presentation by Tomasi and Scicluna focused on the claim that Rome is not responsible for supervising the more than 400,000 Catholic priests of the world, which falls instead to local bishops and religious superiors. Repeatedly, Tomasi and Scicluna offered statements of principle as to how the church ought to operate, but were then forced to concede that implementation varies widely at the grassroots.
Critics found the claim that the Vatican can’t take direct control of the situation disingenuous.
“We’re very saddened that such a huge and powerful church bureaucracy continues to pretend it’s powerless over its own officials,” said a statement from the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
In fairness, insistence on the autonomy of the local church is perfectly consistent with both official Catholic ecclesiology and actual practice in the church. It’s worth noting that a federal judge in Oregon, who’s a Mormon with no dog in Catholic fights, took a close look at the contention that priests are “employees” of the Vatican in a lawsuit related to the abuse scandals in 2012 and ruled that they clearly aren’t.
Nevertheless, the skepticism those claims elicited Thursday illustrates the uphill climb the Vatican faces in trying to persuade people that it couldn’t impose its will if it really wanted to.
In truth, this has long been one the paradoxes generated by the sex abuse mess. For decades, church reformers (especially on the liberal end of things) have clamored for greater collegiality in Catholicism, and they applauded vigorously when Pope Francis pledged support for a “healthy decentralization” in his recent document, Evangelii Gaudium. Yet when it comes to sex abuse, they seem to want the exact opposite — they want the long arm of the law to reach down from Rome and crack heads.
What this perhaps suggests is that theologians working on the nature and limits of papal authority and the relationship between local churches and Rome need to sit down with the child protection people to make sure that the real-world experience of the abuse scandals is brought into the conversation.
The truth of it may be that a strong pope is a bit like a lawyer — everybody loves to complain until they need one.
Turns out that papal authority is great for apologetics, not so great for running the church.