More Conservative Angst

The young miss and I were lunching over pizza today. Her last semester final was this morning, and she was in a daze when I pulled into the roundabout at the school main doors.

She was talking about the shift in schedules and teachers (for the same subjects!) in the coming semester. I told her I never experienced that in the 70’s. Except in senior-year religion. We rotated through four “mini-courses” with four different teachers. Some of the classes were jokes. Religion and Sexuality, for one. While it beat taking a test or hearing a lecture, I remember clearly the day when the brother scrawled “penis” on the blackboard and gave us one class period to come up with as many synonyms as we could. On the other scale, the lay person teaching religion treated his course like a course. The seniors treated it like it was nothing. The principal stepped in and made sure that while just three of us scored higher than a 65, everybody was going to pass because we simply couldn’t have thirty senior boys going to summer school in order to get a diploma.

I found it hard to muster respect for people who clearly didn’t respect one another. Or me. Or my classmates. Graduate school, obviously, was a far better learning experience for theology. We were trained for something purposeful–an aim to ministry.

A handful of Catholic commentators weighed in on Damon Linker’s piece. I’m not sure all the conservatives are getting it. Too many, especially in the commentariat, seemed gleeful to interpret Kentucky Trish (who, according to Ross Douthat, now has a quasi-sect named for her) that doctrine was totally out the window. Religious orthodoxy confirmed with a smirk: we care and other people don’t.

Part of the disconnect is that not everybody is like me. Or Mr Linker. Or Mr Douthat. If I care about authority and authoritarianism, then everybody must care, so the theory goes. Change the words of the authority, and people who disagree with me will follow, and I might be left out in the cold. This is likely a parody of “orthodox” thinking. But truly, we all suffer from it to some degree.

I think my daughter will appreciate something I do. But not always. Sometimes I do somebody a favor because I would like it done to me. So the reaction I get is “meh.” I’ve learned to react in turn, “hmm,” and file it away for future reference. The young miss didn’t care where we went for lunch. What was more important (once she thawed) was the face-time with dad. I get that.

Ross Douthat surfaces the not-so-old old canard about hardcore religion gaining followers and wussy mainline Protestants going into the Big Fade. Mr Douthat suspects it is a little more than that. And he’s right.

Very occasionally, a mainline Protestant community will imitate evangelical megachurchism, and move out to draw in seekers and such. And those churches will grow, despite not being particularly demanding. In fact, from what I’ve been of evangelical megachurchism, they don’t make a whole lot of demands on their members. You can drop in for worship, and the seeker stuff. And keep coming back for more. And never go deep. Or, one can dive in deep. I don’t think ideology matters a whole lot.

When I was in grad school, I attended an inner city Catholic parish that was very liberal, and very thriving. The reason, I think, was because it was demanding of people. People who wanted to go deeper, were encouraged to go deep, and they might have found (as I did) whole changes in life’s direction. When I joined that parish,  I was working in university development wanting to get into communications or student life or alumni affairs. (Anything but fundraising!) And I landed in ministry.

Obviously, I responded then–and still respond today–to challenges to go deeper, be more fruitful, cooperate with grace, self-improvement, or what-have-you. So it may be that I’m projecting my own faith life on others. Or maybe not.

I think churches succeed because they invite people to go deeper, they provide an environment in which people are at once encouraged and challenged.

I think Ross Douthat is close here:

But Daniel Gordis is raising an issue that any tradition-minded religious body needs to think through: Namely, how to make its hardest rules seem like aspirations rather than just judgments …

My sense of Catholicism is that the biggest aspiration I have is sainthood. I view my love for my wife, our sacramental marriage, my experience as a father, my position as a church minister as means to that end–a way to serve and to learn about what it means to be more like Jesus.

On the point of contraception, the Magisterium misses the boat by not urging generativity across the board, rather than just openness to be human breeding animals at every moment of intercourse. A couple in their seventies, for example, has the opportunity to be generative in its role in the Church, to continue to be creative, supportive, nurturing, and life-giving. Just following the prescriptions of HV isn’t enough. It’s not that Church teaching on contraception is wrong. It’s that it’s too easy, too undeveloped, too thin, too impoverished.

(“Liberal” Catholics) want room to dissent from a teaching or fail to live up to it in practice, but they don’t necessarily want the church to change that teaching so that the dissonance or tension they feel simply goes away. Hence their positive reaction to Francis’s rhetorical shift and their lack of urgency about actual doctrinal change.

For some liberal Catholics, this may be true. But it might also be that we are telling the Magisterium, directly or otherwise, that some teachings aren’t adequate. For my part, not because I disagree or find them too harsh. But because I find them incomplete and too easy.

Pope Francis is on the right track, as far as I’m concerned. He seems to trust that if the environment is right, a wider variety of seeds will grow–not just the elder siblings. I think some people will take him up on his challenge. And some people will dither for awhile and come aboard later. It would have happened anyway.

About catholicsensibility

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