Worried about the Gospel?

Ross Douthat identifies the three groups of Roman Catholic conservatives who are critical of Pope Francis (I don’t think Jason and the Callers made the list — no mention of logic or motives of credibility):

1. Traditionalists. These are Catholics defined by their preference/zeal for the Tridentine Rite Mass and their rejection of (or at least doubts about) various reforms of the Second Vatican Council. Some attend mainstream parishes that offer the mass in Latin, others are affiliated with orders specifically organized around the old rite, others are connected to parishes run by the (arguably; it’s a long argument) schismatic Society of Saint Pius X. There’s lots of variation within traditionalist ranks (my friend Michael Brendan Dougherty, cited by Bruenig, is a “trad” of a different sort than, say, this fellow), but the important things to emphasize are first, that their numbers (in the American context and otherwise) are quite small; second, that their concerns are not usually the same as those of the typical John Paul II-admiring conservative Catholic (traditionalists were often not admirers of the Polish pope); and third, that their skepticism of Pope Francis was probably inevitable and pretty clearly mutual. . . .

2. Catholics who are economic conservatives or libertarians. These are Catholic writers and personalities who have publicly disagreed with the pope’s statements on the economy, capitalism and (pre-emptively, regarding his looming encyclical) the environment; in its crudest form, their criticism proceeds from the same premises as the (not-at-all Catholic) Rush Limbaugh’s famous suggestion that Francis is “preaching Marxism” when he critiques the global economy’s rapacious side. But it’s noteworthy, I think, that the loudest voices here are not usually figures particularly known for their Catholicism. . . .

3. Doctrinal conservatives. These are conservative American Catholics whose Francis-era anxieties center around the issues raised during last fall’s synod on the family, and particularly around Cardinal Walter Kasper’s proposal to admit Catholics in second marriages (which the church does not recognize as marriages at all) to communion — an issue I may have written about from time to time. Many of them are also economic conservatives and likely Republican voters, but not all, and notwithstanding that overlap they mostly regard the stakes in the Kasper/divorce debates as much more theologically significant than the stakes in, say, the pope’s forthcoming environmental encyclical. As with the economic debate, the more prominent the commentator, the more circumspect they tend to be in directly criticizing Francis on these issues: The tendency, instead, is almost always to separate the pope from the Kasper faction, critiquing that faction vigorously while reassuring readers that no doctrinal change is in the offing. (My own approach here is distinctive, and perhaps imprudent.) But at the same time, the pattern in which the debate has proceeded, I think, leaves little doubt that if Francis were to adopt Kasper’s proposals or others like them there would necessarily be much more open opposition from this group.

One way of interpreting this is to say that conservative Roman Catholics are concerned about the language of the liturgy, the economy, or the family. Where, Protestants may wonder, among these criticisms of the pope is a concern about mortal sin and protecting the church as a means of grace for freeing believers from guilt and condemnation? To be fair, Douthat himself as one of the doctrinal conservatives has raised the issue of mortal sin and whether the church could conceivably turn a blind eye to it if it tolerates people on second marriages, or gay couples to take communion.

But it is striking to this observer how little concern there seems to be for defending and maintaining the gospel as set forth by the Council of Trent or even John Paul II’s catechism. It could be that these are settled matters that need no more attention. But if you have ever studied the history of Protestantism, such silence about the most important teachings of the church are likely an indication not of confidence but of indifference.

By the way, I wonder if Jason and the Callers have noticed how small the conservative presence is within the U.S.?

Earlier this month, the Pew Forum released the results of its latest survey of American Catholic opinion about Pope Francis. The headline was that he’s basically as popular as Pope John Paul II at his peak, but the truly interesting nugget comes when American Catholics are asked to identify themselves politically.

Francis has an 89 percent approval rating among Catholic Republicans, almost identical to his 90 percent mark among Democrats. Among self-described “conservatives” he gets a 94 percent thumbs-up, which is actually seven points higher than his 87 percent approval among Catholics who call themselves “moderates/liberals.”

Perhaps what the conservatives have figured out is that Francis may be all about compassion and mercy in implementation of doctrine, but he’s hardly Che Guevara in a cassock. If there’s a “Francis revolution” underway, it appears to be more about the pastoral application of teaching rather than revisions to it.

As the dust settles, the Catholic Church is still saying “no” to women priests, gay marriage, and contraception, even if it’s trending softer in terms of how those positions are communicated and enforced. It’s an agenda that plays well with moderates, but leaves many liberals disappointed.

11 thoughts on “Worried about the Gospel?

  1. Happy with Pope Francis but not so much with President Obama:

    • She cites Pew data showing that 53% of white Catholics favor the GOP, versus 39% who favor Democrats.

    • Catholics voted for John McCain over Barack Obama in 2008’s presidential race by 5 percentage points, she says — but chose Mitt Romney over Obama by 19 points four years later, she says.

    • The U.S. House has gone from a Catholic Democrat “bastian” in 2009 — with 98 Catholic Democrats and 37 Catholic Republicans to having more Catholic Republicans than Catholic Democrats for the first time ever in 2015 — though only barely; 69 to 68.

    • Between 2009 and 2014 the number of white Catholics who thought the White House was unfriendly to religious doubled from 17% to 36%, according to Pew, says Miller.


  2. Where, Protestants may wonder, among these criticisms of the pope is a concern about mortal sin and protecting the church as a means of grace for freeing believers from guilt and condemnation.


    I think that’s a great point. What happens to mortal sin when the Church itself is the perpetrator? As T.S. Eliot said: “And the Church must be forever building, and always decaying.
    / and always being restored.”

    Apparently, too much decay and not much restoring for some famous ex-Romans. Maybe some of those who criticize the Pope and the Vatican don’t so easily fall into those three categories (and aren’t part of the Society of Three Sensory-Deprived Monkeys, a.k.a. Jason & the Callers). Maybe some of those who know there is something rotten in Denmark know this because they’ve been hurt. Really hurt. Or have seen children hurt. The liturgy won’t stop child abuse, folks. The Law will. Would that certain authorities knew how to wield it. And knew when to let the Sword take over.


  3. RCs, insofar as they are believers, struggle with all of the issues that make confessing Christ by one’s life too, a long, hard persevering struggle. The clericalism of a detached clergy has always been a yoke but even that can’t prevent the inclination of RC believers to position themselves so as to help ward-off permanent deformation. Hence Obama’s bad numbers.

    The Gospel (and beautiful it is, that’s why I like this place) according to your description of Church as place of safety and assurance I’d guess is something the RC receives in a different way. Bellarmine doesn’t really control the ropes here. There can be a tendency toward scrupulosity and it is the enemy of faith and assurance but the rhythm of the RCs life in the church is very different from that of the Reformed. In some ways I think it’s better, in some worse.

    Bobby said that Andy Stanley represents the future of the Church, maybe he’s right. But a church that de-emphasizes the message in the Gospel that speaks to repentance is one that won’t be able to indefinitely prolong deformation and finally become unrecognizable, however much dispensing with moralism, because you are His, is thought of and proud to be called Core.


  4. I look at the struggle between the Pope and Roman Church conservatives as a battle between authoritarians with the Pope seemingly going authoritarian-lite.

    In terms of social and economic views, Pope Francis is as good as any Leftist could hope for from a pope. He is offering valid criticisms of Capitalism while not trying to say too much. It isn’t his position to pair the Gospel with Marxism, a pairing that should never be made in the first place; it is his position to call people to acknowledge and repent of their sins.

    In terms of homosexuality and same-sex marriage within the Church, Pope Francis is making some horrendous compromises. It would be one thing if he stated that homosexuality and same-sex marriage in society should be tolerated; but to not be clear about how it cannot be tolerated in the Church shows a failure on his part to meet his responsibilities. And on this subject, he has given mixed messages.


  5. Does this apply to Roman Catholics as well?

    Christians in pursuit of unity should not be afraid to broach potential areas of disagreement, such as marriage, family and sexuality, Pope Francis said in a meeting with the head of Sweden’s Lutheran church.

    “All Catholic faithful” are invited “to take up, recognize the signs of the times, the way of unity for overcoming divisions among Christians,” the Holy Father said during the private audience with Lutheran Archbishop Uppsala Antje Jackelen.

    What about submission to the teaching of the magisterium?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.