Who Paved the Way for Trump?

It was not Jerry Falwell (or his son).

It was the gatekeepers who decided gates were simply mental constructions and who celebrated those who ran with the new freedom.

Want to know where fake news came from? Looks like it was Harvard not Liberty University (thanks to one of our many southern correspondents):

Trump’s playbook should be familiar to any student of critical theory and philosophy. It often feels like Trump has stolen our ideas and weaponized them.

For decades, critical social scientists and humanists have chipped away at the idea of truth. We’ve deconstructed facts, insisted that knowledge is situated and denied the existence of objectivity. The bedrock claim of critical philosophy, going back to Kant, is simple: We can never have certain knowledge about the world in its entirety. Claiming to know the truth is therefore a kind of assertion of power.

These ideas animate the work of influential thinkers like Nietzsche, Foucault and Derrida, and they’ve become axiomatic for many scholars in literary studies, cultural anthropology and sociology.

From these premises, philosophers and theorists have derived a number of related insights. One is that facts are socially constructed. People who produce facts — scientists, reporters, witnesses — do so from a particular social position (maybe they’re white, male and live in America) that influences how they perceive, interpret and judge the world. They rely on non-neutral methods (microscopes, cameras, eyeballs) and use non-neutral symbols (words, numbers, images) to communicate facts to people who receive, interpret and deploy them from their own social positions.

Call it what you want: relativism, constructivism, deconstruction, postmodernism, critique. The idea is the same: Truth is not found, but made, and making truth means exercising power.

Casey Williams argues that the populist right has abused postmodernism.

The reductive version is simpler and easier to abuse: Fact is fiction, and anything goes. It’s this version of critical social theory that the populist right has seized on and that Trump has made into a powerful weapon.

One might object that Trump’s disregard for the truth is nothing new. American presidents have always twisted facts to fit their agenda and have always dismissed truths that threatened to sink them. Even George Washington’s great claim to honesty — that he ’fessed up to felling a cherry tree — was a deception. One could also argue that Trump is more Machiavellian than Foucauldian and that he doesn’t actually believe what he says: He propagates misinformation strategically, to excite his base and smear his opponents.

Not to be missed is what happens when other celebrities flout conventions. Then it becomes art and poignant. And so Lena Dunham is prescient (while Trump is so ordinary when he is not despicable):

The romance between this newspaper and the HBO show “Girls” is somewhat legendary. Between its debut in 2012 and its finale last Sunday, according to some exhaustive data journalism from The Awl, The New York Times published 37 articles about the show, its fans, its creator and star, Lena Dunham, plus her co-stars’ clothes and paintings and workout routines and exotic pets.

Except, fact-check: I made up the exotic pets, and The Awl’s list unaccountably failed to include my own contribution to The Times’s Dunham-mania, a love letter to the show’s flirtations with cultural reaction.

Was some of this coverage excessive? Well, let’s concede that the ratio of thinkpieces (all over the web, not just in this newspaper) to actual viewers was considerably higher for “Girls” than for, say, “Game of Thrones.” Let’s concede that the media loved to talk about the show in part because it was set among young white people in Brooklyn, a demographic just possibly overrepresented among the people who write about pop culture for a living. Let’s concede that Dunham’s peculiar role in electoral politics, as one of the most visible and, um, creative millennial-generation surrogates for Barack Obama and then Hillary Clinton, played some role in the press’s fascination with her show.

But now that we have the show in full, I think the scale of coverage actually holds up quite well — my own small part in it very much included. Indeed, I suspect that “Girls” will be remembered as the most interesting and important television show of the years in which it ran, to which cultural critics will inevitably return when they argue about art and society in the now-vanished era of Obama.

I know it’s hard to seem to be upholding the status quo. Baby boomers would rather have an edge, be a little deviant, and resist being part of the establishment.

But at some point you grow up, or you find no rationale for opposing a man (now president) who has been simply floating along with the decline of standards.

Why Didn’t Douthat Recommend Keller?

When Ross encouraged liberals to go to church on Easter, he even mentioned Marilynne Robinson:

Liberals, give mainline Protestantism another chance.

Do it for your political philosophy: More religion would make liberalism more intellectually coherent (the “created” in “created equal” is there for a reason), more politically effective, more rooted in its own history, less of a congerie of suspicious “allies” and more of an actual fraternity.

Do it for your friends and neighbors, town and cities: Thriving congregations have spillover effects that even anti-Trump marches can’t match.

Do it for your family: Church is good for health and happiness, it’s a better place to meet a mate than Tinder, and even its most modernized form is still an ark of memory, a link between the living and the dead.

I understand that there’s the minor problem of actual belief. But honestly, dear liberals, many of you do believe in the kind of open Gospel that a lot of mainline churches preach.

If pressed, most of you aren’t hard-core atheists: You pursue religious experiences, you have affinities for Unitarianism or Quakerism, you can even appreciate Christian orthodoxy when it’s woven into Marilynne Robinson novels or the “Letter From Birmingham Jail.”

Did Princeton Seminary spook Douthat? Shouldn’t Jonathan Merritt be outraged that Douthat snubbed Keller?

Christians and the Life of the Mind

A popular perception out there is that Tim Keller is a version — maybe the most popular one — of a Protestant intellectual. Back when Nicholas Kristof interviewed Keller in the pages of the New York Times (can you believe it? A CHRISTIAN IN THE PAGES OF THE NEW YORK TIMES!!!!! No, I’ve never heard of Ross Douthat), Scot McKnight wrote a favorable piece about how Keller is defending Christianity against the skeptics and cynics of our times:

Kristof is no H.L. Mencken and Tim Keller is no Willam Lane Craig nor is he a Rob Bell. He’s a conservative, Reformed, Presbyterian pastor with a lot in his noggin’ about how to respond to Manhattan singles and marrieds and wealthy-wannabes and educated. He’s done this well. He just told Nicholas Kristof he will need to join the throng of believers in the resurrection. In a pastorally sensitive way. No doubt Kristof got the message.

Maybe his critics would do themselves a favor by looking in the mirror and asking if they are reaching with the gospel and converting skeptics and cynics and doubters. If not, maybe they could look at Tim Keller and ask Why is he? I know I do.

Maybe.

But can’t we ask if Keller has as much in his noggin’ as the promoters promote? Here’s one reason for asking: the recent piece in ByFaith magazine which indicates what Keller will be doing once he retires from regular preaching. He will be training pastors for ministry in urban settings:

When it comes to the urban environment, ministry here requires also a knowledge of urban life dynamics, urban social systems, cross-cultural communication, non-western Christianity, and many other subjects not covered in ordinary seminary programs. I also want to give more than the usual help on both expository preaching, on developing a life of prayer, on leading the church in an adverse cultural and financial environment, and on reading that provides cultural analysis and insight. The combination of the M.A. (which in two years covers all the academic material, including languages and exegesis) together with the City Ministry Year will provide much more space for these than an ordinary M.Div. can.

For one thing, this was precisely the sort of agenda that William Rainey Harper took to the University of Chicago Divinity School almost 120 years ago — the idea that modern (read urban) times need new ways of doing ministry.

For another, how does someone with at most a D. Min. have enough intellectual chops to discern which books to read on urban life dynamics, urban social systems, cross-cultural communication? And is Keller proposing for pastors what medical specialists endure — 12 years of training (9 beyond the basics of Greek, Hebrew, exegesis, systematics, church history, etc.)?

In other words, the different parts of an urban setting require specialists in academic disciplines that go way beyond the competency of a specialist in the Bible or even a Ph.D. in historical science. To suggest that a person with a D. Min. is competent to adjudicate sociology, political science, urban studies, history, economics, demographics, anthropology and communications is not intellectual but borders on middle brow if not anti-intellectual.

And not to be forgotten, once you’ve mastered planting a church in Manhattan, are you really prepared to minister to the outer boroughs — Trump country?

Does POTUS Define US?

Of course, not. The federal government has two other branches and the United States is way more than its government. McDonalds? Hollywood? Caitlyn? Harvard? The military? Heck, we don’t even pledge allegiance to the White House.

But what’s true for a nation is not true for a church like Roman Catholicism. There the papacy does define Roman Catholicism. And Ross Douthat explains why investing all that power and identity in a single office is a mistake, or why Pope Francis is more of a threat than President Trump:

Friendly media coverage casts the pontiff as a man of the center, an ecclesiastical equivalent of Angela Merkel or Barack Obama or David Cameron, menaced by authoritarians to his right. But he is no such thing, and not only because his politics are much more radical and apocalyptic than any Western technocrat. In the context of the papacy, in his style as a ruler of the church, Francis is flagrantly Trumpian: a shatterer of norms, a disregarder of traditions, an insult-heavy rhetorician, a pontiff impatient with the strictures of church law and inclined to govern by decree when existing rules and structures resist his will.

His admirers believe that all these aggressive moves, from his high-stakes push to change church discipline on remarriage and divorce to his recent annexation of the Knights of Malta, are justified by the ossification of the church and the need for rapid change. Which is to say, they regard the unhappiness of Vatican bureaucrats, the doubts of theologians, the confusion of bishops and the despair of canon lawyers the way Trump supporters regard the anxiety of D.C. insiders and policy experts and journalists — as a sign that their hero’s moves are working, that he’s finally draining the Roman swamp.

Meanwhile the church’s institutionalists are divided along roughly the same lines as mainstream politicians in the face of Trump’s ascent.

There is a faction that has thrown in with Francis completely, some out of theological conviction, some out of opportunism, some out of simple loyalty to the papal office. (The analogy would be to the mix of populists, opportunists and institutionalists who smoothed Trump’s progress to the Republican nomination.)

There is a group that is simply silent or deeply cautious — note how few of the world’s bishops have taken any position on the controversy over divorce and remarriage — in the hopes that things will simply return to normal without their having to put anything at risk. (The analogy would be to most Republican elected officials, and a few red-state Democrats as well.)

There is a group that is relatively open in criticism of the pope’s agenda but also unwilling to cross the line into norm-smashing of its own. (The analogy would be to the American center-right and center-left, from John McCain to Hillary Clinton.)

This last group’s sheer diversity is one reason the Bannon-versus-Francis theory fails. The ranks of papal skeptics are filled with Africans and Latin Americans as well as North Americans and Europeans, with prelates and theologians and laypeople of diverse economic and political perspectives. Most are not traditionalists like Burke; they are simply conservatives, comfortable with the Pope John Paul II model of Catholicism, with its fusion of the traditional and modern, its attempt to maintain doctrinal conservatism while embracing the Second Vatican Council’s reforms.

But because this larger group is cautious, its members have been overshadowed by the more forthright, combative and, yes, reactionary Cardinal Burke, whose interventions might as well come with the hashtag #TheResistance.

Which places him in the same position, relative to Francis, that a Bernie Sanders occupies relative to Trump — or that Jeremy Corbyn occupies relative to Brexit. He’s a figure from the fringe whose ideas gain influence because the other fringe is suddenly in power; a reactionary critic of a radical pope just as Sanders or Corbyn are radical critics of a suddenly empowered spirit of reaction.

So the story of Catholicism right now has less to do with reaction alone and more to do with what happens generally when an institution’s center doesn’t hold.

You don’t hear Bryan and the Jasons saying much about church politics. It’s like reading the Federalist Papers and ignoring the 2016 presidential campaign. And yet, ideas do have consequences and the theory of chief and infallible interpreter of the faith is not simply an idea. It is a way of life. At least the federalists left behind a Constitution. What enumerated powers did papal supremacists leave behind?

America Is Not America (part one)

Ross Douthat wrote a very good piece on the two U.S. narratives that have vied with each other for the last thirty-five years.

The liberal narrative (with President Obama functioning as story-teller in chief) runs like this:

“That’s not who we are.” So said President Obama, again and again throughout his administration, in speeches urging Americans to side with him against the various outrages perpetrated by Republicans. And now so say countless liberals, urging their fellow Americans to reject the exclusionary policies and America-first posturing of President Donald Trump.

The problem with this rhetorical line is that it implicitly undercuts itself. If close to half of America voted for Republicans in the Obama years and support Trump today, then clearly something besides the pieties of cosmopolitan liberalism is very much a part of who we are.

. . . In this narrative, which has surged to the fore in response to Trump’s refugee and visa policies, we are a propositional nation bound together by ideas rather than any specific cultural traditions — a nation of immigrants drawn to Ellis Island, a nation of minorities claiming rights too long denied, a universal nation destined to welcome foreigners and defend liberty abroad.

Given this story’s premises, saying that’s not who we are is a way of saying that all more particularist understandings of Americanism, all non-universalist forms of patriotic memory, need to be transcended. Thus our national religion isn’t anything specific, but we know it’s not-Protestant and not-Judeo-Christian. Our national culture is not-Anglo-Saxon, not-European; the prototypical American is not-white, not-male, not-heterosexual. We don’t know what the American future is, but we know it’s not-the-past.

Then there’s the conservative narrative (with Trump adding Jacksonian democratic accents):

But the real American past was particularist as well as universalist. Our founders built a new order atop specifically European intellectual traditions. Our immigrants joined a settler culture, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant, that demanded assimilation to its norms. Our crisis of the house divided was a Christian civil war. Our great national drama was a westward expansion that conquered a native population rather than coexisting with it.

As late as the 1960s, liberalism as well as conservatism identified with these particularisms, and with a national narrative that honored and included them. The exhortations of civil rights activists assumed a Christian moral consensus. Liberal intellectuals linked the New Deal and the Great Society to Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson. Pop-culture utopians projected “Wagon Train” into the future as “Star Trek.”. . .

But meanwhile for a great many Americans the older narrative still feels like the real history. They still see themselves more as settlers than as immigrants, identifying with the Pilgrims and the Founders, with Lewis and Clark and Davy Crockett and Laura Ingalls Wilder. They still embrace the Iliadic mythos that grew up around the Civil War, prefer the melting pot to multiculturalism, assume a Judeo-Christian civil religion rather the “spiritual but not religious” version.

Douthat wonders if one narrative is any longer possible.

But any leader who wants to bury Trumpism (as opposed to just beating Trump) would need to reach for one — for a story about who we are and were, not just what we’re not, that the people who still believe in yesterday’s American story can recognize as their own.

What he observes though is a truth about liberal progressive narratives that we also see in mainline Protestantism — historical denial (read fake history). The PCUSA can’t talk about the days it opposed Arminianism, refused to ordain women, and possessed Princeton Theological Seminary as its chief intellectual jewel. No mainline Presbyterian today recognizes the names of William Adams Brown, Robert Speer, or Harry Emerson Fosdick. Why? Because they were not who contemporary Presbyterians are. They don’t measure up to the present.

The same goes for political progressives. They have no useful past in the actual institutions of national life because old Americans are not contemporary Americans. It is what it is becomes we are who we are. We have no capacity to say “we are who we were” even in part.

If that’s so, let’s not simply ban the confederate flag. Let’s burn the U.S. flag — what a racist, misogynist, heterosexist, capitalist country. How dare President Obama wear a flag lapel pin.

Even better — let’s move to Mars where we can reboot the human race.

Just In Time for the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation

A papal crackdown:

For most of us, who are not Knights of Malta, the resignation of the group’s grand master will have little immediate impact. But the unprecedented papal intervention into the affairs of that venerable body fits into a pattern that should, at this point, worry all faithful Catholics. Under Pope Francis, the Vatican is systematically silencing, eliminating, and replacing critics of the Pope’s views.

During the reigns of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, “progressive” Catholics frequently complained about a crackdown on theological dissent. On the rare occasions when the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a warning about a wayward theologian’s published works, there were anguished warnings about a reign of terror at the Vatican. Now a crackdown really is occurring—instigated by the Pontiff who famously asked, “Who am I to judge?” And the objects of the current crackdown are not theologians who question established doctrines, but Catholics who uphold the traditional teachings of the Church.

The first and most prominent victim of the purge was Cardinal Raymond Burke, who was exiled from the Roman Curia soon after Pope Francis took office, and given a mostly ceremonial post as patron of the Knights of Malta. It is ironic—and perhaps not coincidental—that the latest incident involves his new charge.

As much as I admire and sympathize with conservative Roman Catholics (like Ross Douthat and the author of this piece, Phil Lawler), can such folks really complain about papal supremacy? Isn’t this what rule by one is supposed to look like (and why Americans love to talk about checks and balances)? In fact, as long as Rome depends on the Bishop of Rome to support its claims of superiority — unity, authority, antiquity — can devout Roman Catholics really object to popes who use their authority to enforce unity?

The Church Still Has Standards

While Ross Douthat worries about changes in church teaching about marriage and divorce, the cardinals in Rome have not lost discernment when it comes to commerce and food. At issue is the opening of a McDonald’s close to St. Peter’s:

Cardinal Elio Sgreccia, a former president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, has publicly voiced his opposition to the move, telling the Italian daily La Repubblica it is “a controversial, perverse decision to say the least”. The Italian cardinal doesn’t live in the property, a former bank that borders Borgo Pio and Piazza Leonina, but spoke on behalf of the residents who wrote to the Pope. Cardinals Walter Kasper and George Pell also live in the block and Benedict XVI was resident there when he was a cardinal.

Opening a McDonald’s so close to the Vatican basilica is “not at all respectful of the architectural traditions of one of the most characteristic squares which look onto the colonnade of Saint Peter’s, visited everyday by thousands of pilgrims and tourists,” Cardinal Sgreccia said. He added that the “business decision” is a “disgrace” which “ignores the culinary traditions of the Roman restaurant”, is “not in line with the aesthetics of the place,” and would “inevitably penalize” other restaurateurs in the area.

He also criticized McDonald’s, saying its mix of burgers and French fries are “far from the traditions of Roman cuisine” and that “according to analyses and studies by not a few nutritionists and doctors, do not guarantee the health of consumers.”

Is that a vote for In-and-Out Burger?

Once upon a time, Vatican officials worried about Americanism as a form of government and freedom of religion. Not any more.

From Crisis to Crisis

If Ross Douthat thinks conservative Roman Catholics are having trouble with the current magisterium, he should remember how liberal Roman Catholics felt a little more than a decade ago in the last years of John Paul II’s papacy:

Thirty years after Vatican II, liberal Catholicism is once again passing through a cycle of official hostility and internal disarray. In a time of crisis-mongering, it is easy to exaggerate the situation. In many sectors of American Catholicism, liberal Catholicism is the dominant outlook—in the academy, in many seminaries and diocesan agencies, among religious educators and liturgists, and, on many questions, in the Catholic population generally. Are these liberal Catholic church workers, people in the trenches, as they like to say of themselves, much affected by some of the tensions and conflicts I am going to describe? Do their moods sink and their energies flag with every week’s alarms sounded in the National Catholic Reporter? Reliable observers tell me no. Mostly they get on about their work and hope for the best.

Nonetheless, liberal Catholics have good reason to feel on the defensive and threatened from both within the church and without. Rome considers us suspect, and has been pursuing a slow but steady policy of discrediting, marginalizing, and replacing us, and now and again, where the cost appears sustainable, rooting us out. The same goal is being similarly pursued by a number of influential, well-funded movements and publications that identify themselves as “orthodox” Catholics, presumably in distinction to the rest of us who are heretics. The most obvious and fundamental working difference between these groups and liberal Catholics turns on the possibility that the pope, despite the guidance of the Holy Spirit, might be subject to tragic error. Liberal Catholics believe that this possibility, which all Catholics recognize as historical fact, did not conveniently disappear at some point in the distant past, like 1950, but was probably the case in the 1968 issuance of Humanae vitae and cannot be ruled out in the refusal of ordination to women.

But if liberal Catholics increasingly feel that they are not wanted in the church, they are hardly more welcome in the ranks of secular liberalism. American political liberalism has shifted its passion from issues of economic deprivation and concentration of power to issues of gender, sexuality, and personal choice. This shift has opened a serious philosophical chasm between liberal Catholicism and a secular liberalism that would demand an illusory stance of state neutrality, maybe even social or cultural neutrality, on all fundamental questions of lifestyle and therefore a relegation of religious claims to private life and, as Stephen Carter has argued, ultimately to trivialization.

Liberal Roman Catholicism, by the way, was not necessarily about liberal theology but about adjusting ecclesiology to the modern world of liberal politics:

Liberal Catholicism began with a concern for freedom, not of the individual, not of the dissenting conscience, not of an aspiring class, but of the Catholic church. Its pioneers were not revolutionaries but restorationists, who dreamed of restoring the church’s cultural power. Initially they rebelled not against the church’s use of the throne but against the throne’s intervention in the affairs of the church. Then they rebelled against the alliance of throne and altar because they saw the possibility of reconquering society for Catholic Christianity doomed as long as the church remained chained to bankrupt regimes. Only at the end of this process did they conclude that the freedom necessary for the church to prevail implied the general freedom of all.

What I wonder is why a bright guy like Peter Steinfels only sees two options — Roman Catholicism or secular liberalism. Is he so parochial — he worked for the New York Times mind you — to identify Protestantism with secular liberalism? Sure a liberal Roman Catholic has gotten over the idea that liberal Roman Catholicism is the church that Jesus founded.

What’s A Conservative To Do?

Ross Douthat explained what converts did not have in mind when they swam the Tiber:

Conservative Catholics need to come to terms with certain essential failures of Vatican II. For two generations now, conservatives in the Church have felt a need to rescue the real council, the orthodox council, from what Pope Benedict called “the council of the media.” This was and remains an important intellectual project, and the debate about what the council means for Catholic theology is a rich one that deserves to continue for generations to come.

But this work needs to coexist with a clear recog­nition that the council as experienced by most Catholics was the “council of the media,” the “spirit of Vatican II” council, and that the faithful’s experience of a council and its aftermath is a large part of its historical reality, no matter how much we might wish it to be otherwise.

It needs to coexist, as well, with a recognition that a major part of Vatican II’s mission was to equip the Church to evangelize the modern world, and that five decades is long enough to say that in this ambition the council mostly failed. Since the close of the council, we’ve seen fifty years of Catholic civil war and institutional collapse in the world’s most modern (and once, most Catholic) societies, fifty years in which only Africa looks like a successful Catholic mission territory, while in Asia and Latin America the Church has been lapped and lapped again by Protestants. The new evangelization exists as an undercurrent, at best, in Catholic life; the dominant reality is not new growth, but permanent crisis.

This doesn’t mean the council was a failure in its entirety, or that arch-traditionalists are right to condemn it as heretical, or (as more moderate traditionalists would argue) that the council itself was primarily to blame for everything that followed. The experience of every other Christian confession suggests that some version of the same civil war and institutional crisis would have arrived with or without the council.

But we need to recognize, finally, that for all its future-oriented rhetoric, Vatican II’s clearest achievements were mostly backward-looking. It dealt impressively with problems that came to the fore during the crises and debates of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (the Church’s relationship to democracy, to religious liberty, to anti-Semitism). But its deliberations simply took place too soon to address the problems that broke across Catholicism and Christianity with the sexual revolution and that still preoccupy us now.

In this respect, Vatican II partially resembles not the great councils of the Catholic past but one of the largely forgotten ones: Fifth Lateran, the last council before the Protestant Reformation, which looked backward toward the fifteenth-century debates over conciliarism and promoted some reforms that were half-implemented and insufficient to address the storm that began just seven months after the council’s closing, when Martin Luther nailed his theses to the door in Wittenberg.

Which is not to say that what the Church needs right now is a Council of Trent, exactly. The recent Synod on the Family suggests that, if attempted, the outcome would be either empty or disastrous.

This is not business as usual so shrug. This is crisis.

How Far Will Conservatives Bend?

Ross Douthat finds the progressive fundamentalist inner-self of conservative Roman Catholics (is this what Bryan and the Jasons signed up for?):

Let’s make a partial list of the changes that most conservative Catholics have accepted — sometimes grudgingly, sometimes enthusiastically — in their church since the 1960s. A transformation in the church’s attitude toward liberal democracy and religious freedom. A transformation in the church’s attitude toward other Christian churches and non-Christian religions. A total renovation of the church’s liturgy, one with inevitable implications for sacramental life, theology, biblical interpretation, the works, that was staggering in hindsight but accepted at the time by everyone except a tiny minority. A revolution in sacred architecture, albeit one that stalled out once it became apparent that it was, you know, kind of terrible. Massive shifts in church rhetoric around issues of personal morality (sexual morality very much included) even where the formal teaching remained intact. Stark changes in the way the church talks about sin, hell and damnation, and openings (again, including among conservative Catholics) to theological perspectives once considered flatly heterodox. Clear changes, slow-moving or swift, in the Vatican’s public stance on hot-button issues like the death penalty and torture (and perhaps soon just war theory as well). The purging or diminution of a host of Catholic distinctives, from meatless Fridays to communion on the tongue to the ban on cremation to … well, like I said, it’s a partial list, so I’ll stop there.

So whatever the conservative religious psychology, however strong the conservative craving for certainty and stability, nobody looking at the changes wrought in the church over the last fifty years could possibly describe conservative Catholicism as actually committed, in any kind of rigorous or non-negotiable sense, to defending a changeless, timeless church against serious alteration. (Indeed, this is a point that traditionalist Catholics make about the mainstream Catholic right at every opportunity!)

Rather, conservative Catholicism has been on a kind of quest, ever since the crisis atmosphere of the 1960s and 1970s, to define certain essentials of the faith in a time of sweeping flux and change, while effectively conceding (to borrow Linker’s architectural image) that reformers can rearrange and remove the bricks of Catholicism so long as they don’t touch those crucial foundations. For a long time this conservative quest was lent a certain solidity and rigor and self-confidence by John Paul II and Benedict XVI. But the advent of Francis has made it clear that conservative Catholicism doesn’t have as clear a synthesis as conservatives wanted to believe, and that in some ways the conservative view of the post-Vatican II church is a theory in crisis — or the very least that it lacks a clear-enough account of itself, and of what can and cannot change in its vision of Catholicism, to navigate an era in which the pope himself does not seem to be “on side.”

The parallel here between Douthat and Carl Henry & Co. is striking. Try to preserve conservative Protestantism by identifying essentials like the National Association of Evangelicals list of doctrinal non-negotiables. The point about how to interpret history is also apt. Neo-evangelicals had to find a narrative that placed them in the mainstream of American Protestantism without offending Arminians, Calvinists, or Pentecostals. The way to do that was to read sixteenth-century Protestantism (Reformation) into the First and Second Pretty Good Awakenings. Meanwhile, like conservative Roman Catholics, Douthat has to distance himself from the SSPXers just as Henry and Billy Graham disavowed fundamentalism as mean.

That sort of spiritual and theological retrieval may have its moments, but it is hardly — as the those inclined to overstatement like to put it — “robust.”

Douthat goes on to do a pretty good impersonation of what it felt like to be an evangelical in the PCUSA who also belonged to the NAE while General Assembly after General Assembly did not perform as badly as it might:

. . . if Pope Francis was blocked from going the full Kasper, he still produced a document that if read straightforwardly seems to introduce various kinds of ambiguity into the church’s official teaching on marriage, sin and the sacraments — providing papal cover for theological liberalism, in effect, without actually endorsing the liberal position. It’s not the first time this has happened; as Joseph Shaw notes, it’s very easy to find “examples of Popes and other organs of the Church issuing documents which seemed, if not actually motivated by a rejection of traditional teaching, then are at least motivated by a desire not to be in conflict with those who reject it.” But it’s the first time it’s happened recently on a controversy of this gravity, on an issue where conservative Catholics have tried to draw a clear line and invested so much capital … and I think it’s fair to say that they (that we) don’t know exactly how to respond.

Do conservatives simply declare victory, because the worst didn’t happen, the full theological crisis didn’t come, and it’s important to maintain a basic deference to papal authority (itself a big part of the JPII-era conservative synthesis) so long as no doctrinal line is explicitly crossed? Do they acknowledge the document’s deliberate ambiguities, as my own treatment did, when doing so might give aid and comfort to liberals who are eager to make the most of any perceived shift? Do they deny that any real ambiguity exists, not out of pure deference to Francis but because given conservative premises this document should be read in the context of prior documents, not as a stand-alone, and if you read it that way there’s no issue, no rupture, everything’s fine? Do they stress the technicalities of what counts as magisterial teaching to make the document’s seeming ambiguity less important or less binding? Do they attack the document (and the pope) head-on, on the theory that conservative Catholicism’s essential problem is its vulnerability to constant end-arounds, constant winking “pastoral” moves, and that these need more forthright opposition?

Conservatives have tried all of these strategies and more. Some sincerely believe that the letter of the document is a defeat for liberals and that anxious Catholic pundits are overstating the problems with its spirit. Some think the problems with its spirit are real but also think the church will be better off if conservatives simply claim the document as their own and advance the most orthodox reading of its contents. Some think the best course is to downplay the document’s significance entirely and wait for a different pope to clarify its ambiguities. Some (mostly journalists, as opposed to priests or theologians) think it’s important to acknowledge that this pope has significantly strengthened liberal Catholicism’s hand, and to describe that reality accurately and answer his arguments head-on where they seem to cut against the essentials of the faith. Some think that this document, indeed this entire pontificate, has vindicated a traditionalist critique of post-conciliar Catholicism, and that the time has come for a complete rethinking of past concessions and compromises, past deference to Rome. Some are ambivalent, uncertain, conflicted, unsure of what comes next. Some have shifted between these various perspectives as the debate has proceeded. (And this long list excludes the many moderately-conservative Catholics who didn’t see a grave problem with the Kasper proposal to begin with, or who have simply drifted in a more liberal direction under this pontificate.)

Consequently, while conservative Roman Catholics discern the best defense of Pope Francis, the claims of papal audacity by Bryan and the Jasons look all the more dubious. If the interpret in chief nurtures uncertainty, what’s the point of abandoning Protestant diversity?

I do not have an answer, alas, to all of this uncertainty. But I do think it’s important to acknowledge its existence, rather than taking a kind of comfort, as some conservative Catholics do, in being accused of Total Inflexibility in Defense of Absolute Truth by writers like Damon Linker. For good or ill (or for good in some cases, and ill in others), that has rarely been an accurate description of the conservative position in the modern church, and it clearly isn’t accurate at the moment. Conservative Catholicism isn’t standing athwart church history yelling stop; since (at least) the 1960s it’s always occupied somewhat more unstable terrain, and under Francis it’s increasingly a movement adrift, tugged at by traditionalism and liberalism alike, and well short of the synthesis that would integrate fifty years of rapid change into a coherent picture of how the church can remain the church, what fidelity and integrity require.

You mean the instability of post-Vatican II Roman Catholicism was the church Christ founded? Note to apologists: update your defense as much as your bishops updated your communion.