A Conservative Gets It … Sort Of

Damon Linker concedes he got it wrong about liberals and Pope Francis:

I was far more skeptical that the new pope would attempt to reform or revise church doctrine … Liberals would therefore have to settle for a moderation of papal rhetoric, and little else. I concluded by noting that although rhetoric matters in religion, this was far less than most liberal Catholics were hoping for.

But now I’m not so sure.

I think this is right. And I’m glad Mr Linker is not so sure.

There are many liberals who do not walk in lockstep with the secular world. The secular world doesn’t care about the poor, about peace, or a whole raft of issues that have led many of us to check out of secular politics a long time ago. Some, like me, hoped to find a more welcome place for justice concerns in the Church. And some of us do well enough in our own corner of Christianity. And some do not. And some are always dissatisfied.

I would suggest most liberals, even if they are secular, are not the only ones practicing serial monogamy, contraception, abortion, and all sorts of other things that fly as banners in the culturewar. Conservatives are sinners like all the rest of us. And being anti-abortion or pro-marriage politically is no guarantee that they won’t get abortions, fund another person’s abortion, or get divorced (maybe more than once) themselves. This is one reason, by the way, why the culturewar seems to be losing steam. When the people who promote virtue aren’t virtuous, it makes for comedy, not obedience.

Maybe many secular liberals are squeamish about abortion and all sorts of issues, but they are unwilling to put the government clamp down on an action someone else might take. That could stem from a belief in self-determination. That could also be a result of pragmatic pessimism. For example: I don’t think that a reversal of Roe v Wade will make much of a dent in overall abortion statistics. I’d say a far better, though more arduous, approach would be to convert the prevailing throwaway culture. But I don’t have a problem with marchers, writers, activists, and such doing their thing. I did it once, too. And I gave it up because I found something I thought was more effective.

More from Mr Linker:

After reading an endless stream of gushing commentary by liberal Catholics on Pope Francis, I’m beginning to wonder if they ever really cared about reforming doctrine in the first place.

Speaking for myself, I wasn’t waiting on Pope Francis to change any doctrines. Changing the tone of leadership would be a start. One bit of tone-change would be to excise terms like “lapsed Catholic” from our vocabulary. We can talk about inactive believers. We can talk about people who perceive the Church left them. Behind a change in tone is a degree of telling the truth. So truth, openness, and honesty: that’s all a huge improvement from 1978-2013 in my view.

Getting the curia and bishops to follow Catholic doctrine and moral teaching would be a huge help. A change in tone from bishops, I’m willing to wait a decade for that. Cleaning house at the Vatican Bank? That works for me, too.

I do think there are issues in how we handle people who have transgressed moral law or church law. Do we forgive? Do we keep doors open? It’s more a matter of addressing how we interact with people than it is about interacting with words on a piece of paper.

The seeds of doubt were planted (when an NPR) caller challenged me. Describing herself as a progressive Catholic, she dismissed my skepticism about the likelihood of Francis reforming church doctrine. “Doctrine for a Catholic, now, is not even an issue,” said Trish from Kentucky (you can listen to her beginning at 24:43). “Catholics do not care about doctrine,” she said, adding, “It’s irrelevant. It’s a non-issue for Catholics.”

That, to be honest, is something that I hadn’t considered when I wrote my essay. … I had assumed all along that liberal Catholics wanted … to bring the church … into conformity with the egalitarian ethos of modern liberalism, including its embrace of gay rights, sexual freedom, and gender equality.

But here was a liberal Catholic telling me I’d gotten it all wrong. The pope’s warm, welcoming words are “everything,” Trish said, because doctrine, including that covering contraception and divorce, is “useless.”

“The congregation does not care,” she declaimed.

Not caring is true for most all Catholics, and it is also true for bishops, the curia, and others who have arrayed themselves in various camps in the culturewar. We’ve seen bishops not care in following their own directives on protecting the innocent from sexual predators. Too often we know what is right, and yet we do the wrong. Pope Francis has allied himself in that group of sinners. And we’re all in it with him.

Like most Catholics, I am not going to divorce my wife in the near future–to give one example. We are in our fifties, so contraception issues are moot as well. My wife and I have no desire to hear sermons based on these topics. We want our preachers to give us insight into the Scriptures, and we look for the action of God in grace to help us through our medical issues, parenting our child, in various relationships, and others things that do impact our lives after Mass, later that evening, and in the week ahead.

On that level, few in the congregation care about doctrine. And among those few, many of that slice want it preached to other people, not to themselves.

Doctrine does not get the average Catholic through the week.

But a change in tone will accomplish much.

I want to end on a side note here about the endless comparisons between the last two popes. Pope Benedict was a well-known figure in Catholic circles before being elected to the papacy. He wrote books, he did speaking engagements, and he was the head of a very prominent curial department for well over two decades. These pre-papacy activities set a tone, and for good or ill, he was stamped with that tone from his first day as pope. People were dismayed or overjoyed. And some, like me, were ready to wait and see.

Pope Benedict did little to change the tone of the papacy, though I’m sure he was wholly capable of great gentleness, compassion, acts of sacrifice, and such. And his allies and fans continue to remind us of the continuity between the man and his successor.

Pope Francis was a virtual unknown outside of Argentina, the Jesuits, and the college of cardinals prior to March 2013. So people were judging on first impressions. Not second, or third, or beyond.

As long as people run with the meme that April 2005 was a new day for Joseph Ratzinger, they will be disappointed with the continuing fascination with Pope Francis, and the denigrating by comparison of B16.

For many people, the change in tone is enough. Pope Francis’ recent words about abortion are not going to drive liberals, Catholic or secular, into apoplexy. First, it’s not anything we don’t know, or even that we don’t agree with. And two, few of us are going to give conservatives the satisfaction. We think they’re doing fine as Franciskeptics, and as long as they want to run with that ball, I’m good with the handoff.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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