Mainline Protestantism’s Elder Brother

Boniface takes the temperature of Roman Catholicism in the light of Governor Cuomo and Archbishop Dolan:

the purpose of excommunication is not merely for the good of the sinner’s soul; it is also for the edification and protection of the community. “Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump.” St. Paul teaches that excommunication helps purge the body of “leaven”, and that without this purging such leaven will cause a rot throughout the body. When the offender is singled out and has judgment pronounced upon him, the faithful at least see that such behavior is proscripted. St. Paul is not only worried about the sinner, but about the boasting of the congregation, that is, their attitude about the sinner. By excommunicating him, St. Paul judges not only the sinner, but the broader attitude that allows sin to flourish unchecked.

To bring this back to Governor Cuomo: from the biblical perspective, whether Cuomo will repent or not, whether he respects the authority of the Church or not, whether the Church can claim any socio-political leverage in these matters, is not ultimately the main concern. The fact is, the good of the Catholic Church in America demands that this man be thrown out. At least make an attempt to purify the lump of its leaven. If we don’t, we are celebrating with the old leaven. It’s about the integrity of the community as much as it is about the sinner.

* * * * * *

There have often been times in Church history where discipline has been lost or seriously eroded. We can think of various monastic reforms throughout the centuries. Or the era of the Counter Reform and the Council of Trent when the Church had to fight an uphill battle to transform the episcopacy from a class of political courtiers into something more in line with what Christ intended. Countless regional synods from the first millennium and the era of the barbarian invasions attest to the Church’s commitment to maintaining or restoring discipline in an age of chaos when order seemed to be falling apart everywhere.

…And that’s the sad truth here. Cardinal Tobin, Dolan and the like don’t care what the optics are here. They don’t care whether the House of the Lord is an eye sore, an abomination to the people. “God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you” (Rom. 2:24); but they don’t care. If discipline has been lost, then the common sense approach is to restore it. You restore it by making examples of people and actually asserting your will to enforce discipline. If you can’t do that or refuse to, it simply means you don’t even want discipline restored. You’re happy with the status quo. This is the inescapable conclusion: Cuomo will not face excommunication because the princes of the Church are content with the current situation.

So why convert? Protestants are supposed to think this is the church founded no matter how much it resembles mainline Protestantism? When the successors to the apostles are so far from following the apostles, we’re supposed to see nothing and come back to mother church?

Op-Ed 101

Ross explains his credentials:

A columnist has two tasks: To explain and to provoke. The first requires giving readers a sense of the stakes in a given controversy, and why it might deserve a moment of their fragmenting attention span. The second requires taking a clear position on that controversy, the better to induce the feelings (solidarity, stimulation, blinding rage) that persuade people to read, return, and re-subscribe.

He also explains what most people aside from the apologists (who are in denial) and the academic theologians (who are part of the mainstream and whom the apologists also refuse to acknowledge) see:

I hope we can agree that current controversies in Roman Catholicism cry out for explanation. And not only for Catholics: The world is fascinated — as it should be — by Pope Francis’ efforts to reshape our church. But the main parties in the church’s controversies have incentives to downplay the stakes. Conservative Catholics don’t want to concede that disruptive change is even possible. Liberal Catholics don’t want to admit that the pope might be leading the church into a crisis.

So in my columns, I’ve tried to cut through those obfuscations toward what seems like basic truth. There really is a high-stakes division, at the highest levels of the church, over whether to admit divorced and remarried Catholics to communion and what that change would mean. In this division, the pope clearly inclines toward the liberalizing view and has consistently maneuvered to advance it. At the recent synod, he was dealt a modest but genuine setback by conservatives.

And then to this description, I’ve added my own provoking view: Within the framework of Catholic tradition, the conservatives have by far the better of the argument.

Finally, Ross explains how liberal theologians and Roman Catholic apologists wind up engaging in privileged knowledge unavailable to anyone else — paradigm? — to maintain intellectual and denominational superiority — Bryan Cross and Richard McBrien together:

I have listened carefully when credentialed theologians make the liberalizing case. What I have heard are three main claims. The first is that the changes being debated would be merely “pastoral” rather than “doctrinal,” and that so long as the church continues to say that marriage is indissoluble, nothing revolutionary will have transpired.

But this seems rather like claiming that China has not, in fact, undergone a market revolution because it’s still governed by self-described Marxists. No: In politics and religion alike, a doctrine emptied in practice is actually emptied, whatever official rhetoric suggests.

When this point is raised, reformers pivot to the idea that, well, maybe the proposed changes really are effectively doctrinal, but not every doctrinal issue is equally important, and anyway Catholic doctrine can develop over time.

But the development of doctrine is supposed to deepen church teaching, not reverse or contradict it. This distinction allows for many gray areas, admittedly. But effacing Jesus’ own words on the not-exactly-minor topics of marriage and sexuality certainly looks more like a major reversal than an organic, doctrinally-deepening shift.

At which point we come to the third argument, which makes an appearance in your letter: You don’t understand, you’re not a theologian. As indeed I am not. But neither is Catholicism supposed to be an esoteric religion, its teachings accessible only to academic adepts. And the impression left by this moving target, I’m afraid, is that some reformers are downplaying their real position in the hopes of bringing conservatives gradually along.

What is that real position? That almost anything Catholic can change when the times require it, and “developing” doctrine just means keeping up with capital-H History, no matter how much of the New Testament is left behind.

Protestantism may be worse, but Protestants see this. Why don’t the really smart ones?

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.

Liberal Christianity Makes A Come Back

Maybe not. Ross Douthat’s reflections on what ails the mainline churches in the United States (though a bit stale now) generated a round of responses about the nature and viability of the Protestant mainline. I plan to return to this discussion, particularly in relation to a parallel one among historians about ecumenical Protestants. But for now I draw attention to the response to Douthat by Diana Butler.

On the one hand, the New York Times columnist cannot but help connect the dots between liberal Protestants’ capitulation to sexual promiscuity and declining church membership. Case in point, The Episcopal Church (no longer the ECUSA and be sure to capitalize the definite article):

. . . instead of attracting a younger, more open-minded demographic with these changes, the Episcopal Church’s dying has proceeded apace. Last week, while the church’s House of Bishops was approving a rite to bless same-sex unions, Episcopalian church attendance figures for 2000-10 circulated in the religion blogosphere. They showed something between a decline and a collapse: In the last decade, average Sunday attendance dropped 23 percent, and not a single Episcopal diocese in the country saw churchgoing increase.

Butler counters:

. . . liberal churches are not the only ones declining. It is true that progressive religious bodies started to decline in the 1960s. However, conservative denominations are now experiencing the same. For example, the Southern Baptist Convention, one of America’s most conservative churches, has for a dozen years struggled with membership loss and overall erosion in programming, staffing, and budgets. Many smaller conservative denominations, such as the Missouri Synod Lutherans, are under pressure by loss. The Roman Catholic Church, a body that has moved in markedly conservative directions and of which Mr. Douthat is a member, is straining as members leave in droves. By 2008, one in ten Americans considered him- or herself a former Roman Catholic. On the surface, Catholic membership numbers seem steady. But this is a function of Catholic immigration from Latin America. If one factors out immigrants, American Catholicism matches the membership decline of any liberal Protestant denomination. Decline is not exclusive to the Episcopal Church, nor to liberal denominations–it is a reality facing the whole of American Christianity.

As much as this looks like a “well-your-glass-is-half-empty-too” retort, Butler goes on to suggest that liberal churches are healthier for having experienced decline earlier than conservatives. She also believes that given the mainline’s ordeal, liberal Christians are discovering resources that constitute them as the site of unexpected spiritual vigor among Protestants (talk about counter-intuitive):

Unexpectedly, liberal Christianity is–in some congregations at least–undergoing renewal. A grass-roots affair to be sure, sputtering along in local churches, prompted by good pastors doing hard work and theologians mostly unknown to the larger culture. Some local congregations are growing, having seriously re-engaged practices of theological reflection, hospitality, prayer, worship, doing justice, and Christian formation. . . . There is more than a little historical irony in this. A quiet renewal is occurring, but the denominational structures have yet to adjust their institutions to the recovery of practical wisdom that is remaking local congregations. And the media continues to fixate on big pastors and big churches with conservative followings as the center-point of American religion, ignoring the passion and goodness of the old liberal tradition that is once again finding its heart. Yet, the accepted story of conservative growth and liberal decline is a twentieth century tale, at odds with what the surveys, data, and best research says what is happening now.

To back up this contention, Butler cites a study by the erstwhile pulse-taker of the Protestant mainline — the Cooperative Congregational Studies Partnership and Professor of Religion and Society at Hartford Seminary. According to the press release linked in Butler’s post:

Innovative Worship: The surge in contemporary worship continued, to more than 40 percent of congregations that always or often use electric guitars or drums in their worship in 2010. Also, both innovative and contemporary worship are catalysts of spiritual vitality.

Religion Goes Electronic: A third of congregations reported that their use of modern technology grew more than 10 percent. The more a congregation uses technology, the more open it is to change.

Racial/Ethnic Congregations: There has been a dramatic increase in racial/ethnic congregations, many for immigrant groups. In 2010, three in ten congregations reported that more than 50 percent of their members were members of minority groups, up from two in ten in 2000. One clear impact of the increase in minority congregations is that they inject a strong dose of growth and vitality into American religious life.

“Congregation is More Than Worship”: Despite the overall erosion in congregational vitality and size from 2000 to 2010, there has been a slight increase in member-oriented and mission-oriented programming.

Financial Health: The number of congregations with excellent financial health declined from 31 percent in 2000 to 14 percent in 2010. Eighty percent of congregations reported that the recent recession negatively affected their finances.

Congregational Conflict: Almost two of every three congregations experienced conflict in 2010. In a third of the congregations, the conflict was serious enough that members left or withheld contributions, or a leader left. Conflict is corrosive – it leads to attendance decline and financial stress.

Demographic Details: The average percentage of participants over 65 has increased at the same time as the average percentage of 18-34 year olds has declined. Racial/ethnic congregations buck this trend, with significantly higher proportions of young adults among their participants than white congregations. Among historically white congregations, the membership of the typical Oldline Protestant congregation is much older than that of Evangelical Protestant congregations. For 75 percent of Oldline Protestant congregations, less than 10 percent are young adult. This aging of congregations is significant because as congregations age, their capacity for change erodes.

Interfaith Engagement: A little more than one in ten congregations surveyed in 2010 indicated they had shared worship across faith traditions in the past year, 13.9 percent in 2010 versus 6.8 percent in 2000. A special report on congregations’ interfaith engagement is available at

The Electoral Process: There has been a reversal between Oldline and Evangelical Protestantism in political action, through voter registration or education programs, in the past decade. While the use of the political process declined from 2000 to 2010 among Oldline Protestant Congregations, to 11.9 percent, it surged among Evangelical Protestant congregations, to 25.8 percent. The Black church also continues to use the political process, with 55 percent saying they offer voter education or registration campaigns.

Church Attendance: The average weekend worship attendance at a typical congregation declined from 2000 to 2010. Median weekend worship attendance at the typical congregation dropped from 130 to 108 during the past decade. More than one in four American congregations had fewer than 50 in worship in 2010.

Spiritual Vitality: Fewer congregations report high spiritual vitality – from 42.8 percent in 2000 to 28.4 percent in 2010. This decline in spiritual vitality is true across the board – including denominational family, race and ethnicity, region and size. Among the trends that negatively impact spiritual vitality are decreasing financial health, shrinking worship attendance, aging membership and high levels of conflict. One unexpected finding is that spiritual vitality rises considerably higher at the liberal end of the theological continuum than the very conservative end.

I am no sociologist, so I don’t have credentials to crunch the data responsibly. But how do you look at the figures on finances, controversy, church attendance, membership, and vitality and then conclude that liberal Christianity is making a comeback? I understand Butler’s need to cheer lead for her peeps. But the director of Hartford’s Center, David Roozen, cannot summon up the positivity that Butler taps. Even his conclusion, “Despite bursts of innovation, pockets of vitality and interesting forays into greater civic participation, American congregations enter the second decade of the twenty-first century a bit less healthy than at the turn of the century,” sounds like a reach.