What Rome and Mainline Protestants Have in Common

Fear of being small and on the margins.

The most poignant part of Ross Douthat’s new book on Pope Francis and the crisis over remarriage and divorce is the admission that to be large and influential, Roman Catholicism cannot demand too much from its adherents. Douthat uses several episodes from church history to put the current controversy in perspective and one of those was the seventeenth-century conflict between Jansensists and Jesuits. Jansenism lost not because they laced “theologically decisive argument,” “brilliant” exegesis, or a persuasive interpretation of Augustine’s thought. The problem was that Roman Catholicism would not survive as a global faith on Jansenists’ grounds. Here he quotes Leszek Kolakowski (who wrote a book on the controversy):

In the new world, full of novelty and excitement. . . Christianity had to mae itself, if not “easy,” at least much easier, in order to survive. One could not resurrect as a universal norm the ethos of the apostolic time when the faithful lived in the shadow of imminent apocalypse. But that is precisely what the [Jansenists] tried to do — to their doom.

One way of putting that is to say that to ask Christians to live as if pilgrims and exiles, as if this world is not their home, is too much, even if that’s exactly what Christ and the apostles taught.

Douthat adds that this — the gap between rigor and accommodation — may be why Francis will wind up winning:

…history’s likely verdict on this era in the church would be that Pope Francis had understood, as his critics do not, what the Catholic faith must accept to move forward and continue preaching Christ. Like the Jansenists before them, with their desperate quest for purity in a changing world, the “more orthodox” church of today’s conservatives could only be a sect, not a universal faith, so great is the gap between our own new world and their kind of rigorism. So the faith must change, and in the changing, the conservatives must diminish, and like the Jansenists before them, lose. (To Change the Church, 167, 168)

What this says about why conservative churches are growing is anyone’s guess. And whether its a consoling view for Protestants who operate in micro-communions may be tempting, but pride in smallness is a danger also.

What it does explain is the consolation that many Roman Catholics take from that 1.2 billion number. It is encouraging apparently to belong to something big (like those who follow Tim Keller on Twitter). But size has its cost and one of those debits is faithfulness. The current Vatican and many others in the church want Roman Catholicism but not too much.

9 thoughts on “What Rome and Mainline Protestants Have in Common

  1. What this says about why conservative churches are growing is anyone’s guess…

    Possible good answer (from a thoughtful atheistic perspective) at Slate Star Codex, which references this Patheos article. Money quote:

    According to Iannaccone… churches that demanded real sacrifice of their members were automatically stronger, since they had built-in tools to eliminate people with weaker commitments. Think about it: if your church says that you have to tithe 10% of your income, arrive on time each Sunday without fail, and agree to believe seemingly crazy things, you’re only going to stick around if you’re really sure you want to. Those who aren’t totally committed will sneak out the back door before the collection plate even gets passed around.

    And when a community only retains the most committed followers, it has a much stronger core than a community with laxer membership requirements. Members receive more valuable benefits, in the form of social support and community, than members of other communities, because the social fabric is composed of people who have demonstrated that they’re totally committed to being there. This muscular social fabric, in turn, attracts more members, who are drawn to the benefits of a strong community – leading to growth for groups with strict membership requirements.


  2. The “accommodation” on the part of most Catholics and Mainline Protestants is doomed to fail. The proof is in New York City, a place unfriendly – if not outright hostile – to conservative orthodoxy. The numbers show an ongoing precipitous drop in Catholic/Mainline congregants, concomitant with a meteoric rise in orthodox, quasi-Reformed churches and congregants throughout the city.


  3. Terry Teach out writes,

    “Once I believed—or at least told myself—that the deposit of faith could somehow be kept separate from the fallibility of its protectors. Now I have come to feel that the institution itself is radically, fundamentally corrupt, so much so that it is incapable of self-cleansing.”

    Given the Cardinal Ted fiasco, one wonders if the hierarchy believes what they profess. It is hard to pass on what you don’t have. Unlike the medieval era, people have options. I suspect that conservative prots do relatively well because the clergy believes what they are selling.


  4. b, sd, as I’ve been wondering for a long time, if the bishops can cover up for wayward priests, why can’t the cover up for wayward teachers of doctrine.


  5. A quote from SlateStarCodex! Thumbs up.

    But strength-by-demand has a pathological side. It’s hard to preach a gospel of grace when you practice muscular law-keeping.


  6. Does anyone know if Cornelis Jansen’s study of Augustine has ever been translated into English?
    Are there any good analysis of Jansenism from a Calvinist perspective? Historical or Theological?


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