Those Radical Conservative Catholics

Ross DouthatI love liberalism in its most general sense. The thing about liberalism is that it is fearless. A liberal is not afraid of change. This probably explains why political conservatives are so effected by fear. It also explains their jingoism and the belief that America must spend as much as the rest of the world combined on its military. This isn’t the thinking of the brave; it is the thinking of the coward. So it just makes sense that God would be very liberal. After all, the universe is constantly changing. And we would have to assume that God is brave.

So when Pope Francis beatified the very liberal “Vatican II” Pope Paul VI, he said, “God is not afraid of new things.” (It was Pope John XXIII who started Vatican II, and Pope Paul VI who completed it.) It’s sad that he had to remind believers about this. But then, let’s face it, it isn’t God that is conservative; it is churches. People get those things mixed up. Churches claim that they have their holy documents and they can’t be questioned, because they don’t want the churches’ authority questioned. It has little if anything to do with what the people in those churches actually believe about God.

Right now, there is a big dust-up in the Catholic Church. Pope Francis just sent the conservative Cardinal Raymond Burke packing. Basically, he made him retire. He moved him from the very important and powerful position at the head of the Holy See’s highest court and put him in a ceremonial position that is normally given to retired cardinals. It was expected. Francis is trying to make the church less hostile to everyone and Burke has been running around saying, “There is a strong sense that the church is like a ship without a rudder.” Burke, you may remember, was the American archbishop who was denying communion to pro-choice Catholic politicians. He’s a real charmer. And humble too!

My great concern is that Ross Douthat be on a suicide watch. Over the last year, the conservative Catholic who (in yet another example of conservative affirmative action) writes for The New York Times has gotten more are more shrill in his concern about schism in the church. Two weeks ago, he wrote, The Pope and the Precipice. What I find interesting is that people like Douthat just take their conservative approach to the church as given. And in Douthat’s case, that’s understandable. He was born in 1979 — a year into Pope John Paul II’s reign. So he’s only known conservative popes. But that isn’t all there is to the Catholic Church, or it would still be burning people at the stake.

Tom Gallagher at the Nation Catholic Reporter call this bunk, Contra Douthat: We Are Not on the Edge of a Precipice. He even asked the rhetorical question, “Is Douthat really threatening the pope and calling for both an insurrection against Pope Francis and a schism?” Well, yes; he is. It isn’t the first time, either. Douthat has made it abundantly clear that the dedication of conservative Catholics to the church is dependent upon the church doing what the conservative Cathlics want.

This is entirely typical of American conservatives in a general sense. We see that political conservatives are patriotic only to their conception of “America.” When it comes to the actual America, they are more interested in talking armed insurrection if their fabled “America” is not honored. It is even more bizarre to see this in religion. But I think it really all comes down to this idea that The Truth™ is defined at some point in the conservative’s life — normally in childhood. And they never get past that and to the mature understanding that all things in life are fluid. (And a brief look at history will show that it is for the best!)

What’s sad and funny is that Douthat approves of Vatican II. Yet there were lots of conservative Catholics just like him who left the church because of it. But Douthat noted that Vatican II was approved overwhelmingly. The problem, as usual, is that Douthat has “a little knowledge.” Shortly after his article appeared, John O’Malley schooled Douthat on the matter:

Yes, they finally passed with that degree of unanimity. But before they reached that point they were so hotly contested and seen as such radical changes in Catholic tradition that the Secretariat for Christian Unity, the body at the council responsible for them, seriously considered withdrawing them from the agenda rather than risk a vote.

If you are interested in the Catholic Church at all, I recommend reading O’Malley’s article. I also suggest reading it if enjoy seeing an immature upstart thwacked up side the head. O’Malley noted that Douthat was equating “conservative” with “orthodox” and that he was implicitly equating “liberal” with “heterodox.” That’s an excellent point. That is exactly what he is doing. Because as usual with American conservatives, Douthat thinks that he defines The Truth™. O’Malley is a different kind of conservative:

Finally, what are we to make of this: “Remember there is another pope still living!”? “Another pope still living!” This sounds like a threat. Are Mr Douthat and the like-minded Catholics for whom he speaks appealing to a pope more to their liking over a pope less to their liking? If so, the statement has a regrettable sinister ring. Or what? Let’s hope that Ross Douthat does not mean his reminder to be as schism-suggesting and radically un-Catholic as it sounds to my conservative ears.

But I’m still worried about Douthat. I thought a lot of stupid things when I was 34. I would hate to lose him. If we are very lucky, he might mature into someone more like Garry Wills.

Update (10 November 2014 11:56 am)

Charlie Pierce has a few choice words for the young Douthat:

If Douthat and the church’s conservatives are feeling a little tender in the nether regions over what’s happened to a crank like Raymond Burke, well, hell, I can sympathize. I have lived through the silencing of Teilhard de Chardin, the betrayal of the promise of the Second Vatican Council, the disciplining of Hans Kung, the witch-hunt against Edward Schillebeeckx, the command that Father Robert Drinan leave the Congress, the condemnation of the Central American liberation theologians, some of whom were the only people standing between the poor and the US-sponsored savagery of the Reagan-era death squads, the way that late St. John Paul II (abetted by then-Cardinal Ratzinger) cracked down on American theologians.  I did not leave the church or threaten schism.

7 thoughts on “Those Radical Conservative Catholics

  1. How did this guy get elected Pope????? Frank, it’s fucking me up – this stream of common sense from the top of the Catholic church. I didn’t see it coming. Did you, as more than a hypothesis? I don’t know how to express how amazed I am at this guy. Is there someone out there who will explain that Francis is not as different than he seems?

    When I see a Catholic leader repeatedly doing things I agree with, it makes me think I’m hallucinating. Am I the only one who feels this way?

    • Well, there are a couple of things. One is that he isn’t quite as liberal as many of us liberals would like to believe. Garry Wills has written a bit about this and he’s somewhat skeptical, even though he likes the new pope.

      I think Francis was named pope for one primary reason: the church felt it needed to do something extreme because of the sexual abuse scandal. The funny thing is that Francis doesn’t seem that interested in it. He’s always been focused on the poor. But he’s been stirring things up in the church bureaucracy. And that is critically important, because that is the institutional cause of the problem: this “us versus them” mentality that caused the bureaucracy to cover for these awful priests.

      And imagine what it would do to the Catholic Church to allow married men and women into the priesthood. I’m not saying they are going to do that, but that would be revolutionary. And as Garry Wills has been saying for decades: most of this kind of Catholic dogma is not found in the Gospels and often nowhere at all in the Bible.

  2. Presumably they would set up their Avignon papacy somewhere in Iowa. With Rick Santorum as their anti-pope? One could only hope. I read the O’Malley piece you linked, but it didn’t tell me the most important part. Does Rome control the assets of the American catholic church? Not that you can’t find wealthy backers for a right wing authoritarian church. Mel Gibson built his own. But they would be leaving so much on the table. And how many sheep could they herd over to the new pasture? Some. My in laws in Wisconsin who abstain from meat on Fridays because they don’t approve of Vatican 2. So, rich backers and some high fraction of old, white, Fox watching catholics. And in so doing, unburdening the larger community of it’s reactionary leadership. Not sure that’s a good idea. And Ratzinger, whose name is on the “Anyone who talks to the cops about the child rapes gets excommunicated” order, well Ross, that I expected no less of you doesn’t make it less despicable. You may wish him well, because you are a better person than I am. I have a stool and a coil of rope to put in the mail.

    • Santorum, Scalia, Douthat. Whatever. All these guys seem to think that they are holier than the pope. And I think this gets to something really fundamental in conservatives: this idea that because their opinions date back to the neolithic period, it must mean they are right. The idea is that there must be some ancient Catholicism that was True and that the march of progress only soils it. We get the same thing in politics where conservatives think that there was some True America that existed in 1790 and has been lost since. It’s an amazing amount of hubris, based on a complete lack of knowledge.

      I assume that anything that belongs to the American Catholics must also belong, at least in part, to the Holy Roman Empire. That’s how they roll.

  3. Frank:
    Married people have a vocation already. Some take holy orders later in life as widowers. But the real revolution lies in the ordination of single women, on the same grounds as single men. That’s when genuine change will be sparked.

    • Yeah, the church is very much screwed up in this way. It isn’t just that women can’t be priests. It is also that that nuns don’t get any direct support from the church. I guess they are supposed to be like monks. But when the church has no professional women, that’s very bad. I blame it all on Paul — he clearly had sexual hangups.

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