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Liberals and Christian Tradition

It began with Douthat taking potshots at the Episcopal Church (USA) in a recent NYTimes editorial. He points to a 23% decline in Sunday attendance over the last decade, and concludes with a sneer:

Today, by contrast, the leaders of the Episcopal Church and similar bodies often dont seem to be offering anything you cant already get from a purely secular liberalism. Which suggests that perhaps they should pause, amid their frantic renovations, and consider not just what they would change about historic Christianity, but what they would defend and offer uncompromisingly to the world.

Diana Butler Bass fired back over at HuffPo, pointing out that it is mainstream Christianity that is in decline, not only liberal churches. Among other examples, she notes:

The Roman Catholic Church, a body that has moved in markedly conservative directions and of which Mr. Douthat is a member, is straining as members leave in droves. By 2008, one in ten Americans considered him- or herself a former Roman Catholic. On the surface, Catholic membership numbers seem steady. But this is a function of Catholic immigration from Latin America. If one factors out immigrants, American Catholicism matches the membership decline of any liberal Protestant denomination. Decline is not exclusive to the Episcopal Church, nor to liberal denominations--it is a reality facing the whole of American Christianity.

In addition:

Unexpectedly, liberal Christianity is--in some congregations at least--undergoing renewal. A grass-roots affair to be sure, sputtering along in local churches, prompted by good pastors doing hard work and theologians mostly unknown to the larger culture. Some local congregations are growing, having seriously re-engaged practices of theological reflection, hospitality, prayer, worship, doing justice, and Christian formation.

Absolutely. For example, I'd point to the missional church movement, a pan-ideological phenomenon that centers on the common Christian call to service. We are Church FOR others, not as a substitute for Christian spiritual practice, but as part of a holistic vision of Christian living.

Douthat was also addressed by Jay Emerson Johnson, (one of the drafters of the Episcopal Church's new blessing for same-sex couples,) over at peculiarfaith.com: "I am socially and politically liberal because I am theologically and religiously conservative." His thoughtful post recognizes the disconnect between the common use of labels like "liberal" and "conservative," and points to the deep Christian theological roots of progressive ecclesial causes, citing as examples both the EC(USA) new blessing materials and the social justice work of those progressive Roman Catholic nuns who are under fire for not embracing the bishops' largely (but not entirely) conservative culture-wars agenda. The issue, he concludes, is not that there is insufficient traditional theological grounding for progressive theological positions, but that progressives have been insufficiently evangelical about proclaiming it.I say, Amen! It does seem that Catholic progressives have been so eager to build bridges with broader society, (iow, to use "natural law" kinds of arguments,) that we've sometimes neglected to connect our stances sufficiently to specifically Christian resources, like the example of that scandalously progressive guy Jesus. You know, the fellow who violated religious law when compassion demanded it, who hung around with unrighteous types, who commanded us to serve our neighbor, and who never demanded a doctrinal accounting before inviting others to join his crew.Thoughts?

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Ed Kilgore, long active in the "New Democrat" wing of the Democratic Party and an observant Episcopalian, also had an interesting response to Douthat's column: "I read this and wonder if Ross Douthat has ever actually set foot in an Episcopalian Church, where each and every week, the Nicene Creed is recited, a Eucharist is celebrated (at least that is the trend that has accelerated under the liberal leadership of that church; less frequent communion is mostly the dying habit of more conservative, evangelical Episcopalians), scriptures are read, and theres all sorts of talk about Jesus Christ and the Kingdom of God. Ross is either ignorant about all this, or has the temerity to suggest that none of the people sitting on or kneeling at those pews mean a thing of what they say."http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/political-animal-a/2012_07/straw_crosse... former pastor of ours was fond of the old saying, "Be careful about pointing fingers at other people; because when you've got one finger pointed at them, you've got three fingers pointing back at yourself."Given the decline of the Catholic Church in the northeastern United States (where Douthat has lived most of his life) over the past couple of decades, I'm kind of surprised he wrote the column that he did.(Lisa, your last paragraph reminded me of this "half in fun, whole in earnest" one-liner which has been making its way around some liberal/Christian circles in the US in recent years: https://twitter.com/JohnFugelsang/status/217713004756733952 )

Douthat shows the danger of thinking in slogans and on the basis of statistical impressionism. Liberal Christians have nothing to apologize for and should not let themselves be browbeaten by the tawdry slogans who see them as "a dying breed" etc.

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As a fan of Douthat's, the column certainly needs a little work. Many here have rightly pointed to some "muddying" facts that he doesn't seem to account for. My wife is a Methodist, and I'm always struck the "conservativeness" of the hymnody (and the quality of the singing). I was also struck during the recent Missal translation kerfluffle by the "conservativeness" of some of the Episcopal translations in use. But he points to a legitimate concern, namely the rapid decline of the "old-line" mainstream Protestant churches and institutions, and the view they have represented. Many religious progressives lament the "union" of Catholics and Evangelicals in this country, but that is in part a function of these Protestant denominations' shunning any alliance w/ Catholics on social matters. For example, the Episcopal Church & the Presbyterian Church USA have essentially adopted the Democratic Party's position on abortion. I think it's a mistake for progressives to take Douthat's points as so much "sneering." Douthat is genuinely concerned about what shape Protestantism is taking in this country, & he laments the evaporation of a kind of Protestantism represented by the Episcopal Church. He has written many times that Christianity in this country is essentially becoming a victim of our over-politicization, and I think that's worth saying. Finally, it strikes me that he's not saying things that much different than Rowan Williams has started to say in the recent debate over same-sex marriage in England.

IMHO the whole entire thing needs to be rethought, top to bottom and bottom to topbelief (i.e., we need to redraw the line between mystery and knowledge), morals (i.e., can we finally put Humanae Vitae out of our misery), and liturgy (i.e., can we refresh the meaning of the sacred and the Catholic sacramental imagination). We should save our egalitarianism for governance and finally move past the eighteenth century royal monarchy as a way to run the Church.

I didn't see Douthat taking "potshots" at the Episcopal Church. This ecclesial body's decline in the USA is staggering. At the current rate, it will disappear for all intents and purposes in our life times. It is interesting that you do not speak of his discussion of Bishop Spong et al who have gone on to deny Christ's bodily resurrection. Maybe there are some things in Xty that are non-negotiable? The Apostle's Creed? If so, who gets to define these? For argument's sake, maybe the Episcopal Church--USA is doing all the "right things." However, despite this, it is incapable (like so many other Churches, RCC included) in convincing Americans in any meaningful way that faith in Christ is worth surrendering their lives to. To be the most interesting/important question today is: why believe in Christ? Issues such as human sexuality can only come after this is "settled."

I would be also interested in knowing hard numbers of how many Catholics now attend the ECUSA. I would assume it is quite large. And I would bet a lot of these Catholics fall in the baby boomer generation and were raised in a Church that was still quite traditional in the faith it taught and the spiritual practices it instilled. They were taught to believe in SOMETHING and despite their dissatisfaction with the Church hierarchy and some teachings, they have held on to something core and now worship at the ECUSA. Not too many younger Catholics (under 45) in the ECUSA. We were taught a faith that was largely devoid of content

Anthony says, "We were taught a faith that was largely devoid of content." As a priest whose career began just before the end of Vatican II, I have often reflected on what happened, at least as I experienced it. Teaching in a Catholic highschool, I inherited Freshmen who had just experienced 8 years of Catholic gradeschool via the memorized formulae of the Baltimore Catechism, taught by nuns who often were not even college educated. Religion, to them, was boring, boring. Looking back now, I wonder if that isn't where the mistake really begins. We teach the kids religion for eight years and then they go into highschool and we want to do it some more. Anyway, I found teaching religion the challenge of a lifetime, trying to talk kids into learning about their faith in a more mature way. Many weren't buying it. At the same time, we were developing CCD programs for the students who were not attending Catcholic schools, the majority in most parishes. These classes were presented through a series of books moving away from the Baltimore Catechism format. Unfortunately, most of the teachers were well meaning volunteers without a solid grounding in their own faith, and no real skill as teachers. So, for eight years, good stuff was taught in an ineffective way. It was very, very difficult to help the teachers improve their skills and deepen their theology. Then the kids would come to highschool CCD, bored, expecting more of the same. Their attendance was on a weekly basis, sporadic, taught by new unskilled teachers with no real background in theology. I maintain that this was the system responsible for the dilemma we are in today. Each parish made a piecemeal effort on a shoestring with second class teachers or worse. Today the situation has gotten more grim, because parents who serve as volunteers are busier than ever, with even less time to learn teaching skills, prepare classes, and upgrade their own knowledge of their faith.

I think that Fr. Anthony raises an issue about out young Catholics being "devoid of content" -which, as is pointed out, has some merit compared to the days when there were many parochial schools.But, those days are gone and Lisa's point is extremely germane then ISTM -we need a complete retrhink!As we try to educate in the faith, who do we aim at?It strikes me that curently, when possible, we try to indoctrinate out young into the CCC version of Catholicism with its definitiveness.Is that the content we need to be talking about or should it be reduced to a more kerygmatic bassis emphasizing scripture?Should our efforts be primarily on the young?I think it's easy to say they're"bored" but I fear it's often true they don't feel inspited.Fot all the reasons many drift, as polls suggest, they're not being uplifted in a Church so heavily divided and polticized.In pushing our "brand" I think we need a cleaner message of the Gospel demands coupled with more examples of lived faith valued (like our poor nuns who are put down instead,)Finally, I think the issue of sex abuse has contributed significantly toward seeing the Church as credible (and particularly in areas of sexuality where so much has changed in modern demographics.)I don't think the issue has been (despite some zero tolerance/review board actions ) been resolved when the primary teachers are seen as secretive and unaccountable.Forget about liberal/conservative, Ross vs. whoever, and think about rethinking and as the good Sister asked in her radio interview, can't we have questions?Can't we, I'd add, have really intelligent discourse across the Church?I think we can try to go back to a past and create a kind of smaller enclave, but that's not the same as making disciples of all.

Douthat's column was on target, and it could be enriched by reference to the example of the Church of England, the Lutheran churches in Scandinavia and Germany, and the Reformed churches in the Netherlands and Switzerland. These examples are instructive because they show, definitively, that the solution to the problems within the Church is not to emulate the example of liberal Protestantism. The denominations I mentioned all have married clergy and female clergy, are more or less accepting of homosexuality, are generally tolerant of divorce and abortion, and have a large measure of lay governance. Yet each of them is losing members rapidly. Conforming Christianity to the spirit of the age, as these denominations have done, is a recipe for stagnation and decline. Diana Butler Bass's rebuttal to Douthat mentioned offers little in the way of facts to contradict Douthat. Indeed, the Hartford Institute for Religion Research report cited in the rebuttal notes that 'Among historically white congregations, the membership of the typical Oldline Protestant congregation is much older than that of Evangelical Protestant congregations. For 75 percent of Oldline Protestant congregations, less than 10 percent are young adult.'The answer to the problems in the Church is to be found, I believe, in the other example of the Christian bodies that are growing, particularly in the Third World: the evangelicals and Pentecostals. These groups are characterized by the intensity of their belief: they believe that the supernatural is real, that our actions in this life have eternal consequences, and that Christians must convert non-Christians. These beliefs have also been characteristic of Catholicism, though they are less characteristic today than they once were. They are still more prevalent among Catholics than they are among liberal Protestants, which is why the Catholic Church is faring better than liberal Protestant bodies are, but they are less prevalent among Catholics than they are among the type of evangelical and Pentecostal groups that are flourishing, which is precisely why those groups are flourishing. To solve the problems in the Church, we need a fresh infusion of Faith and a new focus on evangelization, which is why Pope Benedict has proclaimed a Year of Faith and has urged what he calls the New Evangelization.And here is another example of how the belief that our actions in this life have eternal consequences is important in encouraging religious practice: http://nineteensixty-four.blogspot.com/2012/06/reigniting-sacramental-li...

Anthony A. --About who gets to decide what is rockbottom dogma -- It seems to me that the basic dogmas themselves support each other, and to deny the one is to at least weaken another. To deny the Resurrection, ISTM, would nullify some of Jesus' other claims, e.g., that He is God, all-powerful and will rise from the dead. He'd look pretty silly if He didn't. Or, to deny His miracles would weaken our implicit assumption that the early Christians were basically sensible people who could be trusted to tell the truth about what didn't and did happen. No, such reasoning doesn't apply to all dogmas, but taken as a whole the dogmas of the Creed do seem to describe an account of what the world needed (but didn't know it) and what a loving God might do for us to get us out of our predicament (Original Sin). But that's a whole other thread.

In further response to the Diana Butler Bass piece linked to above, here is a useful summary of the data relating to growth in the Catholic population in the United States: http://nineteensixty-four.blogspot.com/2010/11/pies-damned-pies-and-stat... particular note here is the fact that 56% of American raised Episcopalian have left their church, versus 32% of Americans raised Catholic have left the Church.

I'm with Anthony and Jeff on this one. Of course Douthat's column doesn't tell the whole story. (How could it?) But it does address an important religious trend in this country. Versions of Christianity -- Protestant or Catholic -- that minimize the contrast between the gospel and the zeitgeist tend to attract fewer new converts and to lose more members over time than versions of Christianity that heighten this contrast. This is a sociological fact, not a theological argument. People are more likely to upend their lives for a radical alternative to what was available to them outside the church than for a moral and political theology that simply offers them another kind of warrant for prevailing secular attitudes and ideas. One may lament this tendency; one may dismiss it as the sectarian temptation. But there's no point in denying that the forms of Christianity that are growing the fastest here and elsewhere offer themselves as a sign of contradiction to the spirit of the age. What was it Chesterton said? -- something about how the church had saved him from becoming a child of his time. He was grateful that the church had given him a perspective that wasn't entirely determined by the historical period in which he happened to live.

I think it always salutary to keep in mind H. Richard Niebuhr's chastisement of the theological liberalism of his day:"A God without wrath brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross." ("The Kingdom of God in America").He wrote the words in 1937, but they seem still (excuse the word) relevant in 2012. Indeed, what he foresaw has come to pass among the main-line Protestant congregations. And, of course, Catholics breathe the same theological air ... or lack thereof.

"People are more likely to upend their lives for a radical alternative to what they know outside the church than for a moral and political theology that simply offers them another kind of warrant for prevailing secular attitudes and ideas."So that explains why there are more Orthodox than other kinds of Jews (there aren't) or why there are more Jehovah's Witnesses and Christian Scientists than Episcopalians (there aren't).Seriously, the research that you are citing (I think) goes to the intensity of commitment, loyalty, etc., it doesn't go to the popularity in terms of numbers of people who belong to such denominations. Indeed, many may join and then fall back when they get tired of that very intensity. Although not enumerated, I have read that the trend toward fierce orthodoxy in Israel may be misleading because, even though birth rates may be higher, there is a lot of evidence that a lot people leave as well as join orthodoxy. I am also curious as to why, when Catholics leave, that makes the church smaller and purer but when Episcopalians leave it's proof there is something wrong with the ECUSA. But the main problem I have is that, when you postulate the opposite of what many are saying -- don't want to be too mainstream because then people won't see the point of joining -- you step back and say, "but what if society caught up with US instead of US with society?" Do you see? What does it say that you MUST be oppositional to whatever is happening in the mainstream for fear of not having a sufficiently differentiated "brand?" Should we advocate for things to to to hell in a handbasket so we will offer more "value add" to our members? Should we oppose programs we actually support because, if they succeed no one will come to church anymore?

convincing Americans in any meaningful way that faith in Christ is worth surrendering their lives to. To be the most interesting/important question today is: why believe in Christ?To repeat what I wrote somewhere else, if someone asks you: You dont believe in Greek myths. Do you actually believe that there was a man who lived 2000 years ago and who was God? Do you really believe that he came back to life after he had died?, what do you answer? When they phrase it that way, it sounds preposterous. And how about that question: "How come you believe that Jesus had a mother who was a virgin and God as his father, but you do not believe that Mahomet flew on a horse from the Mecca to Jerusalem?" - what makes us accept some bizarre, preposterous statements, but not others?I find the first two questions delicate to answer - they require defining "believe" carefully... As to the third one, the short of it is that I'm stumped.

"Today, by contrast, the leaders of the Episcopal Church and similar bodies often dont seem to be offering anything you cant already get from a purely secular liberalism."A God without wrath brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross. (The Kingdom of God in America).These comments in no way reflect what I hear in the Episcopal Church I occasionally attend. In some ways, the disarray in ECUSA has made those dwindling congregations more attune to what God wants (not just what is ethical/legal in some secular sense), and the pastor clearly tries to address these questions in her homilies. I believe with all my heart that Jesus Christ is trying to keep the Episcopalians afloat, if only to nudge their life raft a little closer to the great big Love Boat which is, supposedly, the Roman Catholic and/or Orthodox Church. Though, as Barbara points out, the "smaller, purer" notion that seems ascendant among some RC's is not doing much to make room for those in other denominations afloat in a sea of change.(I apologize in advance for that metaphor.)When St. Augustine of Canterbury kept pestering Pope Gregory the Great with fussy questions about whether menstruating women could receive communion and how monks should cut their hair, Gregory responded that, like babies, new converts need to be fed on the milk of their mothers, not stuffed with bread and meat as soon as they were born. Wise words. Most of us converts tend to be able to digest only a little at a time. RCIA tends to be a kind of stuff-and-go weekly affair as I experienced it. I know other parishes have more thoughtful, ongoing faith formation for adults, so please don't bitch me out for dissing anybody here in RCIA.

There is certainly a danger in liberal Christianity (whatever that term means) that the canons of liberalism (western in particular) will come to be the standard against which Christian beliefs must be measured, rather than those of Scripture, tradition, and the necessary adaptations and updating that must be made if Christianity is to speak to a world in change. There are those who believe that the world should speak in the voice of the first century AD, or perhaps the thirteenth century, or the nineteenth century, or indeed other slices of the past (though I doubt that anyone would favor the eighth century).But if these adaptations are not made, ossification steps in and freezes the Church (look at the combination of late Roman imperial practices and the absolute monarchies of the late Renaissance, that seem to have frozen the Vatican in the belief that these past adaptations of secular politics somehow represent the will of God.I do not think it becoming of a Catholic like Douthat to point his finger at Protestant leakage. Matthew 7:3-5 has something to say about this. What does worry me about the ECUSA is the apparent willingness of some of its members to sever the Church's ties to Canterbury, and move towards what might turn out to be a purely national American church, rather than one that maintains (as both Canterbury and Rome do) its catholicity. But I also don't know what the answers to these questions are, though I am very glad I am neither Archbishop Rowan Williams nor his successor.

Barack Obama is not a radical brown-skinned antiwar socialist who gives away free health care. You're thinking of Jesus.Seriously Luke? Jesus would demand that all of His followers vote for liberal democrats in order to institute an Obama-inspired government? A government that takes taxpayers' money to pay for the killing of unborn children, for example? A government that has explicitly defined same-sex attraction as a serious spiritual/psychological disorder, and the performance of same-sex acts as gravely sinful? By the way, Jesus did say that He came not to bring peace, but a sword. That because of Him, father would turn against son, wife against husband, you get the drift...But God Bless you for at least thinking about these things. You write well and are very persuasive.

Oops! It should have said, where the Catholic Church has explicitly defined same-sex attraction as a serious spiritual/psychological disorder, and the performance of same-sex acts as gravely sinful?Obviously Luke is a much better writer than I!

Nicholas,Thank you for your thoughtful reflection. I have maintained that the genius of the Council was its ability to sustain a creative tension between "ressourcement" and "aggiornamento;" and that often, in the years since, we have not been able to sustain the tension, slipping towards either mere reiteration of the past or capitulation to the present.In the preparatory document for the upcoming Synod on Evangelization it states:The Church feels the responsibility to devise new tools and new expressions to ensure that the word of faith, which has begotten the true life of God in us, be heard more and be better understood, even in the new deserts of this world (#8).Hopefully (adverbial usage now permitted), the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Council will promote this goal.

"Douthats column was on target, and it could be enriched by reference to the example of the Church of England, the Lutheran churches in Scandinavia and Germany, and the Reformed churches in the Netherlands and Switzerland. These examples are instructive because they show, definitively, that the solution to the problems within the Church is not to emulate the example of liberal Protestantism. The denominations I mentioned all have married clergy and female clergy, are more or less accepting of homosexuality, are generally tolerant of divorce and abortion, and have a large measure of lay governance. Yet each of them is losing members rapidly."And Catholicism throughout Europe is doing exactly what ????

"What does worry me about the ECUSA is the apparent willingness of some of its members to sever the Churchs ties to Canterbury, and move towards what might turn out to be a purely national American church, rather than one that maintains (as both Canterbury and Rome do) its catholicity."Hence, the Orneryariate? They want to join the fish, but not swim with them in the same Roman waters. (In that respect, I can't say that I blame them.)

@Bob Schwartz (7/23, 4:29 pm) Thanks for your reply. Actually, no...not seriously. Or at least not entirely seriously on my part. (I don't know what the author of that one-liner had in mind.)I took it as, among other things, a helpful reminder of Jesus' "oppositional" life and teachings. Because Jesus really was:"a radical" (or was seen as one by the religious and political authorities of the day);"brown-skinned" (or at least, more brown-skinned than he appears in the windows of many of our churches); "antiwar" (somewhat debatable as you point out, but likely would not have endorsed the use of predator drones);"socialist" (an anachronistic term and again, somewhat debatable, but the Great Commission---to choose an example more-or-less at random---is hardly an endorsement of unfettered finance capitalism); "who gives away free health care" (one of the things He was most famous for).I like it because it relativizes *all* of our contemporary American politics (liberal, conservative, libertarian, socialist) and places them in the context of Jesus and his life.

Mr. McCrea:Catholic practice in Western Europe has declined, but it is higher than attendance at the services at the historic Protestant denominations I mentioned, which has collapsed. Indeed, the number of Catholics attending Mass in Britain is higher than the number of Anglicans attending Sunday services, although baptized Anglicans outnumber baptized Catholics by five to one: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/11297461John Allen also has some interesting statistics here on how Catholicism in Europe has weathered secularization better than Protestantism: http://ncronline.org/blogs/all-things-catholic/laws-christian-thermodyna...

It's all very well to claim that religions that put plenty of distance between themselves and the zeitgeist are the ones that succeed in the long run. However, isn't the zeitgeist sometimes right? Has a church that elects its bishops, or allows women to serve as clergy and leaders, sealed its doom by pandering to the spirit of the age? Or is it more of a "sign of contradiction" than a church that doesn't? (Chesterton would have hated it, it's true.)It'd be nice if contemporary Catholicism looked to the young like a radical, demanding alternative to the worst of mainline wimpiness and cultural indulgence. It may be that they are as poorly catechized as Anthony suggests above, and that's why so many of them don't embrace it. Or it may be that they suspect (as my children seem to) that our own church is just as in thrall to its own older culture as we accuse the Episcopalians of being to a new one.

This might help clarify things a bit:http://www.nationalreview.com/articles/309256/catholics-and-modernity-ge... sums it up nicely:So, as we approach the golden anniversary of the opening of Vatican II, perhaps its time to lay Xavier Rynne to rest once and for all. There are a virtual infinity of interesting Catholic stories available to inquiring journalists, and virtually none of them makes sense if parsed in liberal-vs.-conservative terms. Rynne/Murphy had a good run. But the days when that optic on all things Catholic made even a modicum of sense are long past. Only the intellectually lazy or ideologically besotted will fail to recognize that and to move beyond it, into that real engagement with history for which Blessed John XXIII rightly called.

@Ken (7/23, 5:58 pm) I found this an interesting paragraph of Weigel's essay:"When Rynne/Murphy created the liberals-vs.-conservatives story line of modern Catholicism in the fall of 1962, there was, it must be said, something to it. Pope John XXIII did open the Second Vatican Council on October 11, 1962, by appealing to history as the teacher of life and gently scolding the prophets of gloom who saw nothing but disaster in modernity. The early days of Vatican II were dominated by a political struggle in which entrenched curial forces committed to a specific way of doing theology and a specific understanding of the Church and its authority battled for control of the councils agenda with bishops who had more pastoral experience and whose thinking was being shaped by theologians open to a variety of methods in Catholic theology. Echoes of that struggle, which was won by the forces Rynne portrayed (and not without reason) as the good guys, continued until the council closed on December 8, 1965."

Bishop Sheen used to say that if you cannot explain it to an 8th grader you probably do not understand it yourself. Jesus follows that pattern in plain language. "The lame walk, the blind see and the poor have the gospel preached to them." That is, the lame can walk now because they live hopefully now, the blind see that God saves them so life is hopeful while the poor have now an unshakeable faith in the path of Jesus in God's joy. All of this makes them free, not captives. Brought together by the words of Jesus in loving neighbor and God. Why do we complicate it?

"Its all very well to claim that religions that put plenty of distance between themselves and the zeitgeist are the ones that succeed in the long run."I don't know if they'll succeed in the long run, but they're succeeding now, in purely demographic terms."However, isnt the zeitgeist sometimes right?"Yes. That's what I meant when I said this a sociological fact, not a theological argument. Maybe liberal Christianity represents the smaller, purer Christianity that conservative Catholics are supposed to be pining for. There's right and wrong, and then there's successful and unsuccessful. Only a rigid pragmatist imagines that these two sets of categories neatly overlap."Has a church that elects its bishops, or allows women to serve as clergy and leaders, sealed its doom by pandering to the spirit of the age?"No, I don't think so. But if a church's practical theology perfectly matches the ethos of the established secular culture, this is unlikely to be a coincidence. It should at least make us uneasy when things seem to be that easy. We don't want the church to stand apart just for the sake of high contrast -- or in order to preserve the illusion that the church can never change its teachings. But shouldn't we also be worried by a Christianity that stands out only in its liturgies and devotional practices? If the salt loses its flavor, etc.

It is hard for me to take George Weigel seriously as an academic when he begins his article with a snarky dig against Xavier Rynne:Somewhere on the far side of what Tom Wolfe called the Halusian Gulp, Father Francis X. Murphy, C.Ss.R., is reading the July 11 Washington Post and groaning if, that is, his purgatorial purification has been effective.Cheap shot!His comment contributes little to a rational discussion of what happened at Vatican II, which is so needed today. Fr. F. X. Murphy did not invent the conflicts that occurred at Vatican II. They were there as anyone who has read the reminiscences and commentaries of those who attended know.

Grammar Correction:Fr. F. X. Murphy did not invent the conflicts that occurred at Vatican II. They were there as anyone who has read the reminiscences and commentaries of those who attended knows.

isn't the zeitgeist sometimes right?

No, I don't think so - it just is, like the weather or artistic fashion. Right and wrong are in each human heart, not in the zeitgeist. The zeitgeist has only preferences, which are by nature evanescent.

I think Douthat criticizes both conservative and liberals. What both poles need to address is that the gospel is not being practised which is a blemish on the whole church.

I think Douthat was pretty even-handed in his criticism and observations. I also think that beyond a certain point "progressive" Catholicism cannot help but become Protestantism. Jesus may have been "dangerously progressive fellow who violated religious law when compassion demanded it..." but he never contradicted God's law because he could not contradict himself. And this is why issues like gay marriage, which directly contradict Jesus' own words about "a man and a woman" becoming one flesh (as well as natural law) can never become "fine" because of compassion. There are boundaries. Some truths cannot be played with subjectively, or they can. But then you might as well become an Episcopalian and just have everything you want and never have to consider the word no.

I've never understood the argument that taking unpopular positions is so popular that those who have been taking the popular opinions should follow our lead so they can stop being unpopular.It's a very unproductive place for a discussion. Beginning with the insult that others are taking positions to win the approval of others rather than serious discernment and arguments poisons the discussion, and starting a discussion about the popularity of a position rather than the correctness is a waste of time.It might feel good to believe that those who disagree are doing so for trivial reasons, but we have to listen, think, speak, pray, stand firm if we are right, and change if we are wrong.

@Clamato (7/23, 11:21 pm) I don't want to draw us off-topic and into a discussion of same-sex marriage, but Jesus' words about a man and a woman becoming one flesh are, if I recall correctly, basically a midrash on marriage and divorce.Jesus (Mark 10:6-9) teaches that "the two shall become one" is not, as it is in Genesis 2:24, because God has made woman out of man, but because "from the beginning of creation God made them male and female" (Mark 10:6 in which Jesus is citing Genesis 1:27).By doing a "mash-up" of the two creation stories in Genesis, Jesus is teaching about the fundamental equality of men and women...and teaching against divorce from that perspective. The question of same-sex relationships/marriage never comes up in Mark 10.(NOTE: This is my memory---made hazy by the passage of time---of an insight of the priest who presided at our wedding. I know there are theologians and students of scripture here who can speak to this better than I can...and I hope they will.)

"the basic dogmas themselves support each other, and to deny the one is to at least weaken another. To deny the Resurrection, ISTM, would nullify some of Jesus other claims, e.g., that He is God, all-powerful and will rise from the dead. Hed look pretty silly if He didnt."This is childish -- historically, Jesus did not claim to be God or all powerful, and it is not clear that he predicted his resurrection." Or, to deny His miracles would weaken our implicit assumption that the early Christians were basically sensible people who could be trusted to tell the truth about what didnt and did happen."An assumption that relies on total obliviousness to the nature of biblical literary and theological composition.

cupcake, others, this is what happens when statistical illiteracy takes over. Most of the stats about anti-zeitgeist religions being "popular" relates to GROWTH not SIZE of these trends. So, if last year your "Church of the I'm Against Whatever Is Popular Right Now" had 10 members and this year it has 20, WOWZA! You have grown 100%!!!! in One YEAR!!!!!! Whereas those 2 or 3 million ECUSA members lost another 5% (or whatever). It's hard to derive numbers for any religion. I can imagine that there are at least two parishes that report me as a member even though I haven't been to the one in five years and the other in more than 10. But the role of news is to report on what is newsworthy, so trends assume much larger importance in the imagination than they probably deserve. Just for example, there is a fast growing church (according to them) in my neighborhood that is the church for people who left the ECUSA over gay marriage. It now has something like a couple hundred members, whereas, it didn't exist 10 years ago. But it's the only one so far as I know in the entire county, and its maximum growth potential is probably somewhat low (in the long term). I doubt if many of its members are coming from an unchurched starting point. Plus, if you scratch below the surface of most anti-zeitgeist type movements, they are really only "against" one or maybe two things -- they fully embrace most elements of the zeitgeist -- for instance, my neighbor church is solely preoccupied with gay marriage, but so far as I can tell, it has no other bone to pick with its ECUSA roots. There aren't many religions that are FULLY anti-zeitgeist -- maybe the Amish or Mennonites, or some ultra-Orthodox Jewish groups. This is but one reason these anti-zeitgeist religions sometimes seem to be as political as their pro-zeitgeist alternatives, because they look suspiciously like they are as reactionary for reasons having nothing to do with theology as those other folks are progressive for reasons that appear to have nothing to do with theology.

In some distant day, people will go back to Xavier Rynne and recapture the joy and the excitement and wonder what happened. Then someone will write a book with the title: We Was Robbed! How Pope John Paul Stole the Vatican Council From the Next Generations.

I was interested to read Ed Kilgore's blog post, to which Luke Hill linked in the first comment on this thread. In the discussion following the Kilgore post, David Carlton made a trenchant comment which brings up "division turmoil" as a key factor. It's well worth a read:"Among the many things I found tiresome about Douthat's column was his utter lack of understanding that the salient quality of Mainline Protestantism over the last generation of so hasn't been "liberalism," but division turmoil. Just as politics has gotten more polarized, so has Protestant Christianity--and the polarization has come *within* denominations [One also sees the proliferation of parachurch organizations and "think tanks" funded by rich guys seeking to exploit the turmoil to their own advantage, but I digress]. Thus, one can argue that much of what we're seeing [not all, TBS] isn't "liberal decline" so much as conservatives losing intradenominational battles and choosing to leave.Furthermore, the notion that the liberal side in these conflicts lacks theological seriousness is hogwash. I've been engaged for some years in my own denomination's [Presbyterian Church (USA)] struggle over GLBT ordination, and if anything I've found the liberal side [which, TBS, is mine] more theologically serious than that of the opponents, who rest their case on appeals to scriptural authority that they themselves slough off whenever it's convenient. Finally, even now those in the PCUSA who've fully embraced inclusion have done so at a cost--the disruption of an institution to which they are devoted and of longstanding personal friendships. That people like Douthat think they're doing this just to be faddish is insulting; they're doing it because they believe their faith demands it. Until he understands how they come to that conclusion--instead of dismissing faith that isn't his as no faith at all--he has nothing worthwile to say. And that's a shame--because there's just enough real insight in this column to suggest that he could be a reasoned voice."Division turmoil seems to me a useful concept, and one which describes a phenomenon that is accelerating in the Roman Catholic Church in the USA in recent years. It's important to diagnose the problem correctly, if one wants to find adequate remedies.

A repeated, heartbreaking experience of my 20 plus years of life in the US has been to observe the sadness of many "progressive" Catholic friends of mine (mostly people of a certain age) when all their children drifted away from the Church. What was obvious, though, was that the source of the problem was not the usual laundry list of complaints about the hierarchy, doctrial rigidity. Purely and simply, many of my friends' children had been cathechized into a form of moralistic deism, which a strong emphasis on doing good works, being good people etc. Certainly a moralistic deist does not need is the Church.But, ultimately, even Jesus becomes superfluous.

Lisa: thanks for pointing to Jay's site and quoting from this particular musing. Anyone who has the chance to hear him in person should avail themselves of the opportunity.Carlo: to what do you attribute the ever-increasing loss of people of my age (70ish) who were indoctrinated in the old St. Joseph Catechism and religion-by-ruler? What were WE catechized into?BTW, we don't drift. We simply walk or run away. Drifting is for the timid.

In my memory, after the changes of Vatican II (which we liked but which compromised old-school authority) and after the disaster of Humanae Vitae (which most everyone thought was flat-out crazy), a Church authority that was trusted to define the rules for being Catholic faded away. As a result, we started defining Catholicism on our own terms. We decided for ourselves what was important and what was not, parsing the beliefs and practices of the faith, making sense of it on on our own rather than receiving it whole from the tradition. The definition of belief passed from the institution to the believer.We embraced those aspects of faith that made sensethe message of love, social justice, gathering for a common meal, and a renewed intellectual insight into scripture. Those aspects of faith, like the mysteries and the beliefs and practices associated with old-school tradition and authority, were avoided or rejectedno old world piety, no ethnic gaudiness, no old guys in funny hats, no statues of saints holding their eyeballs, no more carrying the Pope around on the sedia gestatoria, no spooky presences, no smells and bells, no bloody sacrifices. But If you accept what makes sense and back away from mystery and tradition in a Church where mystery and tradition is its stock in trade, you're going to end up with a pretty boring Church. Accepting only that which makes sense may be a natural thing to do when reason crashes into faith. Yet if doing so eliminates significant parts of what makes us Catholic, it creates a self-contradiction for the Church, because as an institution it exists to pass its traditions down whole across generations.I think we simply haven't thought our way through to a modern way to handle mystery and the sacred.

Too many people mistake "sacred" for "scared."

'I think we simply havent thought our way through to a modern way to handle mystery and the sacred.'Fine insight, Jeanne. And I agree with Jim that there can be an element of fear when meeting with claims about realities existing "beyond" ordinary things -- I mean "the supernatural". These days the use of the word "supernatural" in ordinary conversation seems to be limited to ghosties and ghoulies and some of the New Age nonsense. It certainly doesn't mean spiritual in the old Catholic theological sense, and it was in the supernatural that our happiness was said to be found.It also seems to me that the generations since VII are much more hedonistic than my generation was (or could afford to be :-), and that can be awfully distracting when the preachers are trying to turn people's attention beyond the goods of this life, especially when the preachers and older generations disapprove. Maybe I should add that my generation (the very old, I"m almost 82) did marry young, so they generally didn't have the temptations that the younger generations did/do have. (In fact, many married to avoid sexual temptation.) But it is also true that in my generation parents were willing to be quite poor as they raised 4,8,10 kids. Lots of sex, obviously, but not many vacations or other perks. I think that has been a huge difference -- today's young people not only don't *want* to be without a lot of spending money, but they *are expected* to do better than their parents.Some expectations have got to give somewhere. With all kids have to deal with these days, no wonder they turn off talk of satisfaction in some "supernatural" dimension, some other sort of life.

Too often the language on each side of the liberal/conservative divide is condemnatory of the other. It might be more useful if we worked more on bridges rather than division. For example on the question of a bodily resurrection of Jesus. One view states that he resurrected bodily whereas the other side claims the disciples believed he resurrected and went to God. The important truth is that He is Risen is it not? It seems both can agree on that. Same with the children of liberals and conservatives who stay or leave the church. I would say it is rather even. So why do we have to ridicule those who don't think as we do. For example the Kennedy family might be counted as those who remain in the church. But the fact is most of them consider attending Mass the proper rather than the religious thing to do. JFK said as much quoting his father who insisted on Mass attendance but not necessarily on practicing virtue.

"It might be more useful if we worked more on bridges rather than division. "My concern in this respect is that as the Episcopal church continues to evolve toward the margins (which I don't mean in a derogatory way; on the margins can be an honorable place for a Christian community to be), they do separate themselves ever more from Catholicism and, probably, Orthodoxy, and the dream of ecumenical unity seems to recede ever farther away. What can be done about this?

"My concern in this respect is that as the Episcopal church continues to evolve toward the margins (which I dont mean in a derogatory way; on the margins can be an honorable place for a Christian community to be), they do separate themselves ever more from Catholicism and, probably, Orthodoxy, and the dream of ecumenical unity seems to recede ever farther away. What can be done about this?"Jim P., I'm truly not trying to follow you around the blog causing arguments, and I guess I can see why it looks like ECUSA is "evolving toward the margins," though what comes from the bishops sometimes doesn't represent the parishioner in the pew anymore than it does in the RCC. I would also ask whether the dream of ecumenical unity is affected by any perceived RCC drift toward the margins. If Church teaching has not changed, certainly the tone with which it is transmitted has. If ECUSA is struggling to maintain its ties with the Anglican communion, which allows for a good deal of latitude within its national churches, imagine the impossibility of its being able to deal with the RCC, whose spokespersons (real and self-appointed) are not exactly in open-arms mode these days, not even when it comes to other Catholics.

Jim Mc Crea:"Carlo: to what do you attribute the ever-increasing loss of people of my age (70ish) who were indoctrinated in the old St. Joseph Catechism and religion-by-ruler? What were WE catechized into?"Yes, I agree: I always tell my "conservative" American friends that the Sixites and Seventies were a result of the Fifties. Inasmuch in the Fifties Cathechesis was largely moralistic, people in the SIxties and Seventies were defenseless against more secularized forms of moralism.

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About the Author

Lisa Fullam is associate professor of moral theology at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley. She is the author of The Virtue of Humility: A Thomistic Apologetic (Edwin Mellen Press).