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.