Wednesday, January 15, 2014


  This is from the magazine, "This Week" and it is very interesting and hits the nail on the head. Liberals don't care about Church Doctrines or Church teaching on morality. They simply want to feel welcomed and not made to feel guilty for their unbelief. This article could have just as well be entitled by the last sentence of this article: When does a church without a doctrine cease to be a church at all?
What do liberal Catholics want? 
Pope Francis isn't leading a wave of doctrinal reform. Yet liberals seem perfectly content.
The pope has talked the talk. Does he need to walk the walk, too?
The pope has talked the talk. Does he need to walk the walk, too? (Franco Origlia/Getty Images)
few months ago, I wrote a cover story for The New Republic about Pope Francis, assessing what reforms, if any, we could expect from the Roman Catholic Church under his leadership. I was impressed with the new pontiff's gestures of modesty and expressions of loving acceptance for all — for gays ("Who am I to judge?"), for Muslims, for atheists, and especially for the poor. I also took note of early signs that Francis would attempt significant reform of the Vatican bureaucracy (the Curia).
I was far more skeptical that the new pope would attempt to reform or revise church doctrine in a liberal direction — permitting married priests, easing restrictions on abortion or gay marriage, ordaining women. While it was conceivable that Francis might push to strike down the celibacy requirement for priests, it wasn't likely. And as for the other doctrinal reforms, they just weren't going to happen. There are simply too many institutional obstacles to that kind of fundamental change in the church.
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. Not about the pope's focus on reforming the Curia. Not about the importance of his rhetorical shift away from policing sexuality and toward economic injustice. And not about the unlikelihood of him pursuing liberal reform of Catholic doctrine. Nothing in the past few months, including the New York Times' splashy front page story this week, has led me to change my mind or revise my analysis — except in one respect.
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.
The seeds of doubt were planted a couple of weeks after my TNR essay was published, when I appeared on an NPR radio show to discuss the pope. I repeated my argument, but then a 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. As I indicated in my remarks responding to Trish, I had assumed all along that liberal Catholics wanted to liberalize Catholic doctrine — that they wanted to bring the church, as I wrote in TNR, "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.

(J. Emilio Flores/Getty Images)
Is Trish right? To judge by the passionate intensity of liberal response to Francis over the past few months, despite the fact that he's done nothing at all to change or reform the church's teachings, I suspect she might be. And that's an interesting development that raises important questions for the Catholic Church in the United States — and, I suspect, throughout much of the Western world.
Consider what Trish might have said. She could have said that she feels a tension between the pope's warm and welcoming statements and the church's doctrines on contraception and divorce. She could have said that, when she reflects on that tension, her conscience tells her that the pope's words are closer to Christ's teaching, and so she will be praying that the church eventually revises its doctrines to conform to the truth as she and Pope Francis (she likes to believe) see it.
But Trish doesn't hold this view. She's completely indifferent to what the church teaches across a range of topics, and she thinks her fellow American Catholics agree with her.
For all I know, many or even most liberal Catholics hope and pray for doctrinal reform. But what if Trish is right? If so, the question I'd want to ask these liberals is: Why do you continue to attend church and think of yourself as a Catholic?
If you attend for the beauty of the liturgy, why not just become an Episcopalian? If it's the sense of community you crave, why not join the Unitarian church? Either way, you could certainly continue to be spiritually moved by the pope's public utterances, in the same way you might be stirred by an inspiring presidential speech.
But what's the point of staying put when you're utterly indifferent to so much of what the Catholic Church (and on contraception at least, pretty much only the Catholic Church) proclaims to be true?
The answer matters because of what it might portend about the future of the church. Maybe Trish, a cradle Catholic, has a sentimental attachment to the church. But what about her children, presumably raised to believe that Catholic doctrine is "useless"? Will they remain Catholics and choose to raise their children in the church? I'd be surprised, frankly, if they did.
Upholding church doctrine and affirming it as true, in the style of conservative Catholics, is one thing. Fighting to change church doctrine, as my perhaps imaginary liberal Catholic reformers would want to do, is another. But treating doctrine as completely beside the point is something else entirely.
If Trish is the future of American Catholicism, we appear to be left with a puzzle: When does a church without a doctrine cease to be a church at all?

Damon Linker is a senior correspondent at He is also a consulting editor at the University of Pennsylvania Press, a contributing editor at The New Republic, and the author of The Theocons and The Religious Test.


Anon friend said...

I believe there is a whole generation of Trishes out there, for whom doctrine is irrelevant. I think that Pope B12 knew it, but didn't know how to address it (in addition to his vast problems with the Curia!). The one hope I have for Trish and her children resides in her generation having produced some awesome doctrinally-conservative (interestingly for this blog, that is reflected in their liturgies! all PIs take note...) priests. As I have said before: As go the priests, so go their laity.
Now, the real question is posed for all priests: Can you be doctrinally-conservative and concomitantly pastorally open and non-judgmental as our present Pope is apparently trying to model? Tough question--and one we parents have to face and finesse 24/7. It takes a father who is strong in faith belief (knowledge of God), absolutely solid belief in himself (knowledge of self without being self-centered), AND a gentle-man about all. I've seen it happen--it works even though a very tough road fraught with misunderstandings and misinterpretations. Some of the greatest, on-fire young adults I know were raised this way (a couple of them now priests!).

Henry said...

Is this a new perspective on Pope Francis? That his adherence to doctrine is of little significance, even irrelevant, that what may change the Church is his warm welcoming language. Image over substance in today's Church?

Anon friend said...

Henry, I think only the MSM and certain blogs take this simplistic approach...believe me, I understand they seem to be ruling the interpretive show right now, but I would say only if we let them. Could it perhaps be a more nuanced approach that the pope has in mind? Perhaps if we give it time and patience, we will see the Holy Father's more complete agenda? --The agenda that these "news" sources cannot see, lacking the deeper eyes of faith, hope and love? I dunno, Perhaps I am being the simple-minded one here. I am not as clairvoyant as Fr.! We'll see, I guess...

Joe Potillor said...

Perception is often worse than reality. The Pope can't change dogma (he doesn't have that power, and even if he would attempt to do so, he would be thwarted in those plans)

It is apparently, the image that things can change, (and one can argue this approach could potentially be a disaster)...that causes frustration for so many people.

rcg said...

Tish is sort of right in that people don't think about it a lot. Where she is wrong is that she thinks it does not matter and that God's love will save her without any effort or contrition on her part. I am also a big supporter of Pergatory.

Anonymous said...

"She's completely indifferent to what the church teaches across a range of topics, and she thinks her fellow American Catholics agree with her."

The mistake we make is to underestimate the extent to which one's internal feelings, wishes and desires drive the modern young person. They literally don't care what the Church teaches. The secular world view has very cleverly played right into this notion, to its success.

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Gene said...

Anybody read about Cardinal O'Malley playing in water at that Methodist baptism with the female Methodist preacher? Great…just great!

Gene said...

RCG, are you also a big supporter of spell check? 'Pergatory'…is that where coffee makers do penance?