Douthat On Liberals On Pope Francis

I have to confess my main problem with many conservative ideas and ideals is that they strike me as unintelligent, lazy, self-indulgent, and even on occasion hypocritical (values for thee, not for me). Ross Douthat has a rep as a thinking person’s conservative. I don’t find he escapes the silliness indulged by some on the Right. But he wants to offer me some advice. I’ll pay attention.

The caution I offer here is that I recognize Mr Douthat is a political conservative first, and most of what I read of him places him in the locus of the secular world. He and I aren’t quite in alignment because I would categorize myself more as a theological pragmatist first. I happen to think a more liberal theology still serves the Church well, especially in an age where we are put on our toes (hopefully not on our heels) to remain fruitful and effective in the mission given us by Jesus.

In yesterday afternoon’s column he acknowledges the “equally-interesting question … (of) how Catholics of a more liberal persuasion (politically and theologically) should respond to Francis.”

On average, I don’t think liberals are as authority-driven as conservatives. Speaking for myself, my heroes were tarnished early in my life, and among people I don’t know, there’s not a lot of luster among people who are, in my eyes, unproven. Historical example: I’m not going to glom onto Al Gore because I think Bush II is a threat. A political candidate has to earn my vote and admiration as something more than a not-the-opposition.

While there are certainly lemmings among those on the political and theological Left, there seem to be fewer than on the Right. I’m willing to be corrected on that, but I’ll concede we should have a lot more independent thinkers on all sides of the various human spectra. That doesn’t always jive with so-called orthodox theology.

So on the level that Pope Francis is not a policeman–I’m glad for that.

Mr Douthat goes on to describe various camps as he sees them. I suppose I must have spent too much time in ecclesial circles for these to seem very relevant to me. The culturewar issues all seem decided to me, and not in ways of which I might approve across the board.

My conservative brothers and sisters seem more intent in exercising a hermeneutic of subtraction, and not very successfully. They claim they are defending traditional marriage, but I haven’t seen any direct benefit to any man-woman marriage I know. Has there been a surge in Marriage Encounter? Better efforts at forming young engaged adults before the wedding day? How about just a couples’ night with child-sitting provided? The Knights of Columbus culturewarriors were willing to plunk down a few mil to lobby against what gays were doing. How many of them put some work into their own marriages? Retreats? Spiritual direction? Volunteering as a couple as well as as a men’s group?

Some few did, no doubt. But if you’re going to take a stand in favor of marriage, in favor of life, it’s going to involve something more gritty, more dangerous, and more commitment-oriented than throwing a few bucks at a political problem. It’s not just about telling other people what they should or shouldn’t do.

Mr Douthat’s “soft dissent” doesn’t really resonate with me. Neither do I think much of the more Catholic-hostile crowd. When “an eventual large-scale backlash” is anticipated, I have to laugh. It’s already coming from the conservative entertainer Mr Limbaugh.

Then, finally, you have Catholics who are morally/culturally/theologically liberal but also realistic about the ways in which Catholicism can and cannot change — by which mean I mean that they want to see their church address and adapt to certain post-sexual revolution realities, but don’t expect or desire a revolution that suddenly makes every church-versus-culture conflict on these issues disappear. My (provisional) sense is that Francis is trying to invite liberal believers with this perspective into a kind of dialogue about what’s possible for the church.

One of Mr Douthat’s problems is that like much of our culture, he betrays a certain obsession about sex. And still the authority thing.

My concern about the Catholic possibilities rests less on what I or my friends get out of it, but more with what will work for the good of the Gospel. I’m really looking for more inspiration, more hope to think that I can engage college students and the unchurched of my college town and I’m not going to have Cardinal Law blow up in my face like 2002, or have an empty RCIA like 2007, or my earnest, holy, well-meaning, but naive bishop pull the rug out from under a big chunk of my state.

In a way, I’ve bought into the hermeneutic of subtraction. Please, Holy Father, subtract the numbskulls and the agents of the antigospel to I can have a prayer my labors won’t be fruitless.

I can admire Pope Benedict to a point. But the man was no administrator. After eight years, I don’t know what was worse: the fuzzy-headed theology erupting from many of his bishops or the bureaucratic meltdown that threatened much of the good the man tried to do.

So I don’t mind a little advice:

For my own part — if liberal Catholics don’t mind a little advice from a conservative — I think the first area is by the far the most promising, since it offers a way for the church to say, in effect, “yes and no” to the cultural revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s: Yes to the dignity of women, yes to their further empowerment, but no to the idea that this dignity and empowerment depends on jettisoning Catholic (and biblical, and New Testament) ideals about sex and chastity, male-female difference, the indissolubility of marriage and the elevated place of celibacy in Christian life.

… as long as Mr Douthat is willing to extend his advice on morality to his own confreres on the Right. I will always have fewer wives and medications than his ideological bedfellow of the radio airwaves. Catholic ideals apply not only to the people preached at, but also the preachers themselves.

So, yes, there was a lot of good that came out of the 60’s and 70’s. And determining what was not good is a continuing act of discernment. But let’s keep the same standard for the decades that followed.

In sum, I’m satisfied we have a Jesuit in the Chair of Peter. I trust discernment will be at the top of the to-do list, above considerations of sycophantry, nepotism, and such.

I’m satisfied we have something of a curial outsider–someone to clean up the mess of the past twelve to twenty years.

I’m satisfied that many loyal Catholics are getting tweaked. I hope they feel free to tweak me as they have for the past decade or so online.

I’m satisfied that there’s a lot to challenge everybody to live a better life, and align ourselves more closely with the mission of Christ.

I’m satisfied we’re leaving behind the Left-Right spectrum and moving off in a third direction.

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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