Ross Douthat on Conservative Catholicism
#1
Here is Ross Douthat's New York Times Op-Ed column today: "What Will Happen to Conservative Catholicism?"

I paste it here for ease of reference, for those who may be limited to the NYT web access. Eager to share it and hear from you all.

What Will Happen to Conservative Catholicism?

How long, and in what form, can a conservative opposition to the pope endure?

Last month the Vatican and Pope Francis hosted the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region, a meeting to discuss the challenges facing Amazonia and the Catholic Church therein that managed to be extremely wild and extremely predictable at once.

The wild part featured not just the expected debates about married priests and female deacons, but an extended meltdown over whether a wooden statue of a naked, kneeling pregnant woman, used in a ritual on the Vatican grounds, embodied indigenous reverence for the Virgin Mary or indigenous pantheism and nature-worship. Vatican officials seemed determined not to clarify the matter, traditionalist outrage ran wild, and eventually a young traditionalist swiped one of the statues from a Roman church and pitched it into the River Tiber — making himself either a successor of Saint Boniface or a racist iconoclast, depending on which faction of Catholic media you believed.

All exciting stuff — but also a bit irrelevant to the actual outcome of the synod, which featured little of the conservative resistance that characterized earlier synodal battles over divorce and remarriage, and eventually produced a document backing the major project of the Francis era: the decentralization of doctrine and discipline, with priestly celibacy the latest rule that’s likely to soon vary across different Roman Catholic regions, as the interpretation of church teaching on divorce and remarriage already does.

And even the act of traditionalist defiance was part of the predictability of the proceedings. As conservative resistance to Francis has grown more intense, it has also grown more marginal, defined by symbolic gestures rather than practical strategies, burning ever-hotter on the internet even as resistance within the hierarchy has faded with retirements, firings, deaths.

Four years ago I wrote an essay describing the Francis era as a crisis for conservative Catholicism — or at least the conservative Catholicism that believed John Paul II had permanently settled debates over celibacy, divorce, intercommunion and female ordination. That crisis is worse now, manifest in furious arguments within the Catholic right as much as in online opposition to the pope himself. And I don’t think we’re any closer to a definite answer to what happens to conservative Catholicism when it no longer seems to have the papacy on its side.

While the synod was going on, I conducted a long interview, online in accompaniment to this column, with one of the pope’s most prominent conservative critics, Cardinal Raymond Burke. I had never met him before, but he was as I anticipated: at once obdurate and guileless, without the usual church politician’s affect, and with a straightforward bullet-biting to his criticism of the pope.

The Burke critique is simple enough. Church teaching on questions like marriage’s indissolubility is supposed to be unchanging, and that’s what he’s upholding: “I haven’t changed. I’m still teaching the same things I always taught and they’re not my ideas.” What is unchanging certainly can’t be altered by an individual pontiff: “The pope is not a revolutionary, elected to change the church’s teaching.” And thus if Francis seems to be tacitly encouraging changes, through some sort of decentralizing process, it means “there’s a breakdown of the central teaching authority of the Roman pontiff,” and that the pope has effectively “refused to exercise [his] office.”

This is a position with some precedents in Catholic history. John Henry Newman, the Victorian convert, theologian and cardinal recently sainted by Francis, once suggested that there had been a “temporary suspense” of the church’s magisterium, its teaching authority, during eras in which the papacy failed to teach definitively or exercise discipline on controversial subjects. And the church’s saints from such periods include bishops who stood alone in defense of orthodoxy, sometimes against misguided papal pressure.

But you can also see in my conversation with the cardinal how hard it is to sustain a Catholicism that is orthodox against the pope. For instance, Burke himself brought up a hypothetical scenario where Francis endorses a document that includes what the cardinal considers heresy. “People say if you don’t accept that, you’ll be in schism,” Burke said, when “my point would be the document is schismatic. I’m not.”

But this implies that, in effect, the pope could lead a schism, even though schism by definition involves breaking with the pope. This is an idea that several conservative Catholic theologians have brought up recently; it does not become more persuasive with elaboration. And Burke himself acknowledges as much: It would be a “total contradiction” with no precedent or explanation in church law.

The pull of such ideas, though, explains why you need only take a step beyond Burke’s position to end up as a kind of de facto sedevacantist, a believer that the pope is not really the pope — or, alternatively, that the church is so corrupted and compromised by modernity that the pope might technically still be pope but his authority doesn’t matter anymore. This is the flavor of a lot of very-online traditionalism, and it’s hard to see how it wouldn’t (eventually) lead many of its adherents to a separation from the larger church, joining the traditionalist quasi-exile pioneered after Vatican II by the Society of Saint Pius X.

Are there alternatives to Burke’s tenuous position or the schismatic plunge? At the moment there are two: One is a conservative Catholicism that strains more mightily than Burke to interpret all of Francis’ moves in continuity with his predecessors, while arguing that the pope’s liberalizing allies and appointees are somehow misinterpreting him. This was the default conservative position early in the Francis pontificate; it has since become more difficult to sustain. But it persists in the hope of a kind of snapping-back moment, when Francis or a successor decides that Catholic bishops in countries like Germany are pushing things too far, at which point there can be a kind of restoration of the John Paul II-era battle lines, with the papacy — despite Francis’ experiments — reinterpreted to have always been on the side of orthodoxy.

Another alternative is a conservatism that simply resolves the apparent conflict between tradition and papal power in favor of the latter, submitting its private judgment to papal authority in 19th-century style — even if that submission requires accepting shifts on sex, marriage, celibacy and other issues that look awfully like the sort of liberal Protestantism that the 19th-century popes opposed. This would be a conservatism of structure more than doctrine, as suggested by the title of a website that champions its approach: “Where Peter Is.” But it would still need, for its long-term coherence, an account of how doctrine can and cannot change beyond just papal fiat. So it, too, awaits clarifications that this papacy has conspicuously not supplied.

The importance of that waiting is the only definite conclusion that I can draw from the whole mess. Where conservative Catholics have the power to resist what seem like false ideas or disastrous innovations they must do so. But they also need to see their relative powerlessness through their own religion’s lens. That means treating it as a possible purgation, a lesson in the insufficiency of human strategies and wisdom, and a reason to embrace T.S. Eliot’s poetic admonition: There is yet faith, but the faith and the hope and the love are all in the waiting.

Separate link to Interview w/Cardinal Burke
The deeds you do may be the only sermon some people may hear today (Francis of Assisi); Win an argument, lose a soul (Fulton Sheen)
[-] The following 1 user Likes Fionnchu's post:
  • Imperator Caesar Trump
Reply
#2
I actually thought this was one of his worst.  Over the past 5-6 years he has taken an increasingly pessimistic view of conservative Catholicism.  This turn occurred shortly after the publication of Bad Religion.  He gave a First Things talk where he shot holes in the traditional line about how the conservatives would outbreed the liberals and the liberals would eventually leave.  He appears to have fallen into despair here, due in no small part to his excessive equivocation.  Complaining about Douthat equivocating is like complaining about Francis worshiping idols, but still.  

I find the Burke critique confusing and strawmannish: I don't know why the focus is on whether or not the pope is schismatic, which is patently oxymoronic, when the real question is whether the pope is engaging in heresy or apostasy.  Douthat is not dumb enough to make such mistakes, so for him to throw up his hands and go "Well I guess Burke is just a retard or something!" feels like he's putting on a show.  For whom, I do not know.

His descriptors of the SSPX have changed over time from "schismatic" to now "quasi-exile" which I guess is an improvement, but overall Douthat is too caught up in the essentially defunct "neocon" wing of the Church when describing opposition to Francis.  It's time for him to accept that it's either Francis' Way or traditionalism.  Nothing else is intellectually tenable or politically palatable.  I believe he sees traditionalism as relegated to its own ghettos, which it is, but who cares.  I think more importantly he feels that traditionalism is too "out there" and too closely associated with anti-Semitism - even in Bad Religion he spends at least a page congratulating Vatican II for condemning the Church for its past relationship to the Jews.  

Douthat with Catholicism is like Douthat with Republicans.  He insists on holding onto the compromising, effeminate form of conservatism in both cases despite it having the popularity of venereal disease outside of elite right wing holdouts.  Unlike with Trump and the GOP however, the neocon Catholic position is now so absurd that Douthat's only conclusion is to cross his hands at the article's conclusion - only after punching right for a few paragraphs to satisfy his petulance.  Douthat is always on the losing side because of this.  At least in To Change the Church, he acknowledges the growing power and future of traditionalism.  I expect he will only openly sanction it for NYT readers once he feels it is politically safe and sufficiently popular enough to not cause him any trouble.  He has dabbled in these waters by talking about The Young Pope, but that's about it.
[-] The following 2 users Like Imperator Caesar Trump's post:
  • antiquarian, Fionnchu
Reply
#3
I think reading it a second time, Douthat's big issue is not that he is disagreeable to traditionalism, but that he sees it as a form of defeat.  His hang up is not theological, but he really expects conservatives like Burke to wrestle the Vatican and the papacy from liberal hands.  How he feels this is possible I can't say.  He talks about how no one is utilizing any "strategies".  It is not clear what these might be.  The pope does what the pope wants to do.  Yes, the neocon popes compromised with liberals in various ways.  Liberals don't want to return the favor.  There are not any avenues of recourse, so Douthat's schvitzing isn't going to change that. 

Is he upset that traditionalists are perfectly content in "quasi-exile" practicing their faith as they see fit?  Why does he not simply do the same?  I suppose it may be because he genuinely believes in the neocon post Vat II form of Catholicism, but if so... that's stupid?
[-] The following 1 user Likes Imperator Caesar Trump's post:
  • Fionnchu
Reply
#4
And for my third post in a row: I just read his accompanying interview with Cardinal Burke.  As I suspected, Burke uses the word "apostasy" in reference to the Synod document and Douthat guides the conversation toward "schism."  Again, for what purpose I cannot say.

It is clear that Douthat is committed to an ultramontanist view of the papacy: He states that since conservatives felt this way under JPII and Benedict, they have some sort of obligation to feel this way under Francis.  Bizarrely, he acknowledges that this view of the papacy is not theologically or historically grounded, but derides more limited views of papal authority anyway.  Such dismissive snark is unacceptable and, simply, not an argument.

He further, as I suspected, derides traditionalism as a subculture.  Here's the problem with that: Per his own words, ALL of conservative Catholicism was always a subculture.  Even during the height of the neocon fever dream during the last two papacies, conservatives were not the heads of theology departments at Catholic universities.  They did not constitute a majority of cardinals and certainly not bishops.  They had their own little universities with small endowments and nascent student bodies, or small little orders committed to neocon Catholicism.  Despite the surge of support for this brand, it was never "in charge."  The elite institutions of the Church were in the hands of liberals, as they had been since V*tican II.  Douthat is well aware of this because these words are paraphrased from him.  

So what is his point?  Conservatism was never winning.  It was always a subculture.  It was a larger subculture than traditionalism is now, but at the same time it was never experiencing the exponential growth of traditionalism; it had the same unconvincing, member-hemorrhaging outcomes as the Church at large has.  At best, it possibly represented a more insidious bleed, and I believe it had better outcomes in terms of vocations.  Nevertheless, it was a failing proposition then and it definitely is now.  

My sense is that Douthat is either playing the long-game in terms of messaging at this time, or he is experiencing some severe cognitive dissonance.
Reply
#5
(11-10-2019, 07:56 PM)Imperator Caesar Trump Wrote: I think reading it a second time, Douthat's big issue is not that he is disagreeable to traditionalism, but that he sees it as a form of defeat. 

Is he upset that traditionalists are perfectly content in "quasi-exile" practicing their faith as they see fit?  Why does he not simply do the same?  I suppose it may be because he genuinely believes in the neocon post Vat II form of Catholicism, but if so... that's stupid?
Thanks for your comments in all the replies, ICT. First time I had free time to read them was just now, due to long work hours (and I sympathize with your weekend stints and hope they get you out of there and into where you deserve to be soon). I agree with your take on Douthat's wishywashyness. In To Change the Church, although he did distinguish traditional from (neo-)conservative factions as opposed to liberals, he did not have much hope in either dissident side's long term impact given their shared marginal status. What he needed to hammer home more forcefully was the firmer ground that the trads occupy vs. the convoluted postures of the neo-Catholics as to affirming the remarks of whomever sits on the throne of Peter. Douthat nods to the former in passing early on but then shifts to the conservatives.

Which blurs a necessary distinction that Douthat himself has promoted to a wider audience: the triple if unequal pattern of current U.S. Catholics. He crammed too much into a single piece. As if these separate topics were edited down too severely. I reckon nuances will be lost on those most likely to race through this and a dozen other entries in the Sunday Opinion section. (By the way, this may complicate the neo-C position. I read a counterargument in Modern Age from the ICI who got ticked off by First Things' nods to anticorporate populism: Against the Dead Consensus. Which may have been an opening salvo in Ahmari vs French.)

The NYT piece needed clarity. It would've been better if he'd split his critique into three columns published in turn. One on trads, one on conservatives, one on Burke. Too much of this piece is summing up his Burke interview. That space could be elaborated his "Option." I doubt NYT readers will have had much of any recollection of To Change which mapped out the three teams, or even whatever arguments he was advancing a while back when he was drafting his reaction to the changing of the Vatican guard...in the wake of Pope Francis' full speed ahead rather than his current doldrums, as far as the MSM coverage (or lack of) goes. I'd write more if I was not on a Kindle tapping away. Which may not be a bad thing.
The deeds you do may be the only sermon some people may hear today (Francis of Assisi); Win an argument, lose a soul (Fulton Sheen)
[-] The following 1 user Likes Fionnchu's post:
  • Imperator Caesar Trump
Reply
#6
(11-11-2019, 11:55 PM)Fionnchu Wrote: Thanks for your comments in all the replies, ICT. First time I had free time to read them was just now, due to long work hours (and I sympathize with your weekend stints and hope they get you out of there and into where you deserve to be soon). I agree with your take on Douthat's wishywashyness. In To Change the Church, although he did distinguish traditional from (neo-)conservative factions as opposed to liberals, he did not have much hope in either dissident side's long term impact given their shared marginal status. What he needed to hammer home more forcefully was the firmer ground that the trads occupy vs. the convoluted postures of the neo-Catholics as to affirming the remarks of whomever sits on the throne of Peter. Douthat nods to the former in passing early on but then shifts to the conservatives.

Which blurs a necessary distinction that Douthat himself has promoted to a wider audience: the triple if unequal pattern of current U.S. Catholics. He crammed too much into a single piece. As if these separate topics were edited down too severely. I reckon nuances will be lost on those most likely to race through this and a dozen other entries in the Sunday Opinion section. (By the way, this may complicate the neo-C position. I read a counterargument in Modern Age from the ICI who got ticked off by First Things' nods to anticorporate populism: Against the Dead Consensus. Which may have been an opening salvo in Ahmari vs French.)

The NYT piece needed clarity. It would've been better if he'd split his critique into three columns published in turn. One on trads, one on conservatives, one on Burke. Too much of this piece is summing up his Burke interview. That space could be elaborated his "Option." I doubt NYT readers will have had much of any recollection of To Change which mapped out the three teams, or even whatever arguments he was advancing a while back when he was drafting his reaction to the changing of the Vatican guard...in the wake of Pope Francis' full speed ahead rather than his current doldrums, as far as the MSM coverage (or lack of) goes. I'd write more if I was not on a Kindle tapping away. Which may not be a bad thing.

Wow I don't really follow First Things too closely these days, but maybe I should; I was impressed with the article on David French...
[-] The following 1 user Likes Imperator Caesar Trump's post:
  • Fionnchu
Reply
#7
Imperator has a point.

The meat of Douthat's take is his belief that: If the pope were to sign off on a doc that has heresy in it, that would "imply" that the pope "leads a schism," which is not possible because the pope cannot be in schism with himself.

Saying a heretical thing ==/== leading a schismatic group. Especially if, whenever you are pressed on the statement, you fold into silence, unintelligibility, or capitulation (Dubia, the Valentina Alazraki Crastich interview, and Bp Schenider, respectively).

Even if Bergoglio is furtively trying to cause schisms (which he probably is), thus in some sense "leading [to a] schism," this would not be the same as him being in schism. This would be evidence that he is a wicked sinner, but it would not be evidence he isn't pope.

Douthat might accuse me of being the sort of guy who behaves like "the pope might technically still be pope but his authority doesn’t matter anymore."

I don't know how much his authority must matter to me. His juridical authority, I accept. Year of Mercy? The indulgences are real. With his only encyclical, I believe confidently in those non-meaningless sentences where he actually treats faith and morals. You say God wants me to try to pollute less? Sure thing there Jorge. 

I think Douthat believes that we have to be loyal to the man. Like, if the Vatican (by actions and non-binding statements) evinces a policy, we have to pursue that policy. We can  reject his policy agenda, but still be compliant when given a direct order.

Being in the military has taught me a lot about obedience in the Church militant.
[-] The following 2 users Like meandmyshadow's post:
  • antiquarian, Imperator Caesar Trump
Reply
#8
(11-12-2019, 01:55 PM)meandmyshadow Wrote: You say God wants me to try to pollute less? Sure thing there Jorge. 

Lol
Reply




Users browsing this thread: 1 Guest(s)