I have been asking this question ever since liberal Catholics (and liberal non-Catholics) started going gaga over Francis. This Pope holds to traditional Catholic doctrines on abortion, divorce, contraception, the priesthood, and gay marriage. Yet liberals love him.
Damon Linker, writing at The Week, tries to understand why this is the case. After a progressive Catholic named Trish told him on a radio program that she and her fellow liberal Catholics don’t really care what the Church teaches on matters of doctrine, Linker began to wonder why folks like Trish continue to affiliate with the Catholic Church.
Here is a taste:
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?
You've probably already seen this, but Sullivan has an excellent discussion that pivots off the Linker piece, here: http://dish.andrewsullivan.com/2014/01/16/and-so-it-begins/
On a related note, Charity Carney posted a piece yesterday on the RIAH blog about Methodism and church discipline, now and in the 19th Century, in which she notes that discipline (reflecting doctrine) was malleable. Both I and Christopher Jones concurred based on our own respective research. Somehow that's relative to the Pope stuff, but I only just now thought of it and have too many papers to grade to follow through.
Tom Van Dyke says
An irony here is that Francis seeks to remove sexual matters from their current centrality in some circles.
It's Sullivan who keeps sex there.
Instead of seeing sex as intricately bound up in sin, policed by doctrine, subject to rules first seriously devised in the thirteenth century, Catholics can see the intimacy and vulnerability of sex as requiring a kind of grace to remove from it all forms of power, exploitation, and disrespect. This is not the language of rights-based liberalism. It is the language of reason, experience and respect for the profound and great gift of sexuality and its capacity to emancipate us, to show us a way to truly care for one another, and to protect the vulnerable in an avenue of joyfulness.
That's pseudo-Christianity happytalk, morally therapeutic deism as it were. Sex untethered from the mystery of life–procreation–is not sex atall, really, merely gratification, of no more transcendence or “grace” than a backrub.
And Sullivan repeats the canard of “sex as intricately bound up in sin, policed by doctrine.” That is not the Catholic position–it is the reduction of sex to the mere gratification of desire that is intrinsically “sinful” [or “wrong” or “ungood” or whatever morally therapeutic term best suits modern discourse].
But this “sin” can be committed by anyone, regardless of the gender of their object of desire. I think you'll see Francis make this clear over the coming years, to restore sex and sexual desire to its ordered place. the the Catholic natural law scheme, the sexual urge is part of a larger purpose, the teleology of the procreative act, and cannot be ordered outside it.
Catholic/Thomistic natural law philosophy does not see anything [like an act of sexual gratification] as “neutral.” All things must be ordered to their end, their purpose, their telos, or they are disordered.
[None of this doctrine has anything to do with “divine commands” as in Leviticus.]