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Catholicism in Crisis

September 13, 2012

Pope John Paul II once said that “The Church does not impose; she only proposes.” On the face of it, the Pope’s remark seems unobjectionable. Parish priests do not fine the laity for skipping mass. No one has, to my knowledge, been imprisoned for dissenting from Humanae vitae. That said, it seems to me that the Church does in at least one sense impose. The Church does may not impose fines or prison sentences, but it does impose beliefs.

Admittedly, there are Catholics who take the Catholic faith to be a mere extension of what reason can discover on its own. GK Chesterton, for example, famously argued that “to become a Catholic is not to leave off thinking, but to learn how to think.” While Chesterton may have been a fast learner, for many Catholics learning to think with the Church does not come easily. Moreover, certain doctrines—the contraception ban comes to mind—are so arcane and so badly articulated as to call into question the Church’s overall credibility.

Liberal and conservative Catholics alike tend to avoid the uncertainty and confusion associated with an authentic encounter with Catholic doctrine. (I include myself.) The difference is that whereas liberal Catholics grapple with the doctrines while disregarding the authority, conservatives respect the authority while accepting the doctrines uncritically. More generally, if the Catholic faith calls believers to be in the world but not of it, liberal Catholics err on the side of being both “in” and “of” the world, whereas conservative Catholics do just the opposite, being neither “in” nor “of” the world.

Liberal Catholicism too often simply maps secular norms and ideals onto Catholic theology. Certainly, this approach achieves gains in inclusivity–e.g. by not alienating gay and lesbian Catholics on the basis of teachings on sexual morality that have yet to be supported by coherent arguments. These gains are offset, however, by a loss of theological distinctiveness. Catholicism becomes a mere appendage to the Democratic party platform, causing sensible people to ask along with Ross Douthat: “Why would you need to wash down your left-wing convictions with a draft of Communion wine, when you could take the activism straight and do something else with your weekends?”* Christianity seems redundant. For liberal Catholics of a more mystical bent–e.g. Fr. Thomas Keating and his followers–another question posed by Douthat seems relevant: “Why would you get your mysticism from somebody who was just play-acting, when you could get it instead from someone who really believed it—whether that someone was a swami or a Pentecosalist?” Why, in other words, practice Centering prayer and not Zen?

To their credit, conservative Catholics manage to embrace and defend much of what is distinctive about the faith. Too often, however, conservatives fail to authentically engage with the culture, preferring instead to shield Catholicism from outside influence and criticism. With respect to doctrine, opponents of the HHS mandate virtually never defend Church teaching on its merits. Instead, we are subjected to a constant refrain about religious liberty.

With respect to the beloved figures of conservative Catholicism, one is simply not allowed to question them. I have experienced this personally. Awhile back, in a review of Ross Douthat’s book Bad Religion I advanced an argument not unlike the one I am advancing here, taking Dale Ahlquist, president of the American Chesterton Society, as an example of a conservative Catholic who had failed to engage Chesterton with secular culture. Rather than engage me in respectful debate, the American Chesterton Society responded by simply dismissing me as a “dishonest blogger.” At EWTN, that bastion of conservative Catholicism, criticism of beloved figures is even more taboo. Not long ago, when Kevin O’Brien speculated—correctly as it turned out—that Raymond Arroyo’s interview of Mitt Romney was going to be more of an exercise in PR than journalism, he was, in his words

inundated with comments and emails, two of which told me that I was sinning by criticizing Raymond Arroyo, and that I should repent in the confessional.

Yesterday, the powers-that-be at EWTN called me and said that they were fielding complaints from viewers who were saying, in effect, “You must choose between airing Kevin O’Brien or airing Raymond Arroyo. You can’t put them both on the air.

O’Brien, being a conservative Catholic himself, defused the conflict by removing the offensive post and stating that

I will not criticize the Network again – either in public or in private.

And I have decided I will remove myself from any future appearances on the Network. I do not want to force them to choose between Raymond Arroyo and me.

Even more recently, John Burger, the writer and editor at the EWTN-owned National Catholic Register, was fired after conducting an interview with celebrity priest Fr. Benedict Groeschel in which Groeschel made remarks sympathetic to pedophile priests, causing a media uproar. Burgher had commited what Rod Dreher incisively refers to as “the sin of journalism.” Dreher continues:

At the Register, the truth won’t set you free; it’ll cost you your job. See, this is part of the reason why so many talented men and women of faith stay away from church-affiliated news and entertainment media. People who run churches and church organizations often don’t understand what communications (journalism, filmmaking, etc.) is. They think it’s all supposed to be publicity, and so they guarantee mediocrity, and ultimately the discouragement of talented people — artists and journalists — who have good and useful talents to give to the whole church.

Alasdair MacIntyre once remarked that it is a “mark of a degenerate tradition that it has contrived a set of epistemological defenses that enable it to avoid being put in question.” This is quite plainly the case with conservative Catholicism. But it is also true of liberal Catholicism. While it is true that liberals question the Catholic tradition’s stance on sexual morality, liberals too often simply take it for granted that their own dissent is compatible with full participation in the sacraments—despite very clear statements from the USCCB to the contrary.**

Catholicism is in crisis. For liberals, the crisis is how to remain loyal to a Church that imposes teachings (specifically, with respect to sexual morality) unable to withstand rational scrutiny. How is it possible to combine loyalty with skepticism? For conservative, the crisis is how to question received dogmas and respected figures in the Church while remaining loyal. How is it possible to combine skepticism with loyalty? Really, there are not two crises, but one. There is one holy, Catholic, apostolic, and seriously flawed Church.

* Quotes are from Douthat’s highly recommended book, Bad Religion.
** See Happy are Those Who Are Called to His Supper: On Preparing to Receive Christ Worthily in the Eucharist.

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