By JAMES K. FITZPATRICK
A few weeks back in this space, I offered for your consideration the proposition that it serves us well to keep an eye on what the liberals, both Catholic and otherwise, have to say about Pope Francis. My position was that their perspective is likely to be different from that of Catholics on our side of the barricades in the culture wars, and that we can learn from it. I pointed to an article on the web site Religion Dispatches by Mary Hunt, who describes herself as a “feminist theologian” and a “Roman Catholic active in the women-church movement” who “lectures and writes on theology and ethics with particular attention to liberation issues.”
Hunt does not agree that Francis is as liberal as many of his critics on the right allege. She sees Francis’ public image as the product of a “very powerful public relations machine” concocted not to reform the Church along liberal lines but as a deception, “as a way of shoring up a model of the church that has endured for centuries.” She sees a danger in making the “papacy look good” through the “warm feelings” that Francis is generating around the world, when the Pope has made clear his commitment to orthodoxy.
This week I would like to focus on another liberal critic of the favorable public reaction to Pope Francis. It comes from Damon Linker, writing on the web site The Week on January 14, in a column titled, “What Do Liberal Catholics Want?” Linker doesn’t fear that liberal Catholics will be lured into backing the Church’s teachings because of their favorable opinion of the Pope. He thinks the liberal Catholics applauding Francis know perfectly well what they are doing, and that they have no intention of returning to orthodoxy. Surprisingly, liberal though he may be, Linker finds that troubling. I suspect readers of The Wanderer will agree with what Linker says, but for reasons different from his.
Linker is not uninformed about liberal opinion. He is a contributing editor to the liberal magazine New Republic, also a contributing editor at the University of Pennsylvania Press. He favors the ordination of women, married priests, and a loosening of the Church’s teaching on abortion and same-sex marriage. Like Mary Hunt, he sees little chance of Pope Francis moving to enact those “reforms.”
What he finds problematic is the possibility that “Trish from Kentucky,” a caller to a National Public Radio station where he was being interviewed recently, may be right about the reason for the liberal reaction to Francis. After describing herself as a “progressive Catholic,” Trish dismissed as irrelevant Linker’s skepticism about Pope Francis reforming Church doctrine in the manner Linker hopes for. “Doctrine,” said Trish, “for a Catholic, now, is not even an issue. Catholics do not care about doctrine. It is irrelevant. The congregation does not care,” she stated emphatically.
You might think at first that Linker would be on board with Trish. But he is not. He wants a liberalized Church that teaches his values, one that will bring “Catholic doctrine into conformity with the egalitarian ethos of modern liberalism, including its embrace of gay rights, sexual freedom, and gender equality.” But doing that requires a Church with authority, muscle, clout. A church without teaching authority cannot be enlisted into the service of his liberal agenda; it cannot be counted upon to convert the masses, still clinging to their traditional values.
Linker’s hope was that people such as Trish would “pray that the church eventually revises its doctrines to conform to the truth,” as she and he see it. “But Trish doesn’t hold this view. She’s completely indifferent to what the church teaches across a range of topics, and she thinks her fellow American Catholics agree with her.”
What Linker says next sounds as if it might have come from an archconservative Catholic, mutatis mutandis: “Why do you continue to attend church and think of yourself as a Catholic? If you attend for the beauty of the liturgy, why not just become an Episcopalian? If it is the sense of community you crave, why not join the Unitarian church? Either way, you could certainly continue to be spiritually moved by the pope’s public utterances, in the same way you might be stirred by an inspiring presidential speech. But what’s the point of staying put when you’re utterly indifferent to so much of what the Catholic Church . . . proclaims to be true.”
Are you reacting to Linker’s exasperation the way I am? Are you torn between despondency and a bout of schadenfreude? If Trish is right, it is not just Linker who has something to fret about. If she is right, the great majority of modern Catholics now reject the authority of the Church and view Catholicism in much the way the English view Anglicanism, as some vague cultural representation of their family’s and social class’ search for ethical values and meaning in life. Not an outcome to be welcomed.
Permit me to offer some words of hope: Even though the polls indicate the majority of modern Catholics disagree with the Church on the issues that matter to Linker and Trish (divorce, abortion, contraception, same-sex marriage), I would argue it is not because they think the Church’s teachings a “non-issue,” but because they find them too difficult to accept. That makes a difference.
I do not have a polling service to prove my point. What I offer is anecdotal evidence. But I think I am correct, and that Trish is not. It has been my experience over the years that when practicing Catholics disobey the Church’s teachings on the above issues, it is not because they think the Church’s teachings erroneous, but because they think they cannot be expected to live up to them. I have found, for example, that divorced and remarried Catholics will say that they agree that a marriage should be “forever.” Their hope is that God will understand and forgive them because they could not live up to that ideal in their circumstance in life.
Likewise, I have found that, when pressed to explain themselves, Catholics who practice contraception will agree with the Church that there is a necessary moral connection between sex, love, and the creation of new life. Their problem is that they can’t see how to conform to that ideal in their own lives. They hope that God will understand the compromise that they are making. They hope the Church will one day find a way to accommodate this compromise.
In other words, these Catholics, as well as Catholics who do not live their lives in line with the Church’s teachings on abortion and homosexuality, are not denying the Church’s authority to teach on matters of faith and morals. Rather, they are wrestling with their inability to live by those teachings because of their weaknesses or what they think are the “unique” problems in their lives.
Please do not misread me. I am not saying these Catholics are morally correct to think and behave in this manner.
My point is only that their disobedience need not imply that they agree with Trish that Church doctrine “is not an issue.” They well may be struggling and praying and consulting with a confessor over what God wants from them in their situation in life. That is a far different understanding of Church doctrine than Trish’s.