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Shrugging toward St. Peter's.

Last August, just five months after Pope Francis was elected, Damon Linker emerged from the balcony of St. Wieseltier's to dump a vat of cold water on the gathering masses anxiously awaiting the doctrinal liberalization of the Catholic Church. Progressives who thought Francis's pastoral gestures heralded the end of the celibate priesthood, or the reversal of church teachings against contraception, birth control, and sex outside of marriage, were deluding themselves, Linker argued. "Even an analyst normally as sober and sensible as John L. Allen Jr. of the National Catholic Reporter," he wrote, "has gone so far as to conclude that nothing less than a Vatican 'revolution' is underway. It isn’t."

Perhaps the New Republic's editors thought Linker's observation that a new pope wasn't about to upend Catholic doctrine amounted to big news. For my part, I don't know anyone who's expecting Francis to abrogate Humanae Vitae. So I found the piece largley unobjectionable, apart from Linker's misperception of the extent to which a pontiff can remake the Curia in his preferred image. "A new pope," Linker claimed, "has comparatively little freedom to remake the ideological cast of the Roman Curia." He "must choose new appointees solely from the existing ranks of cardinals and archbishops, all of whom will have been promoted to their positions by his predecessors." Well, yes. But that doesn't mean the world's bishops are carbon copies of the popes who appointed them. After all, the man who made Bergoglio archbishop of Buenos Aires was John Paul II.

Of course, Linker's TNR piece was written five months ago. Today at the Week, he's back with a reassessment of liberal Catholic hopes for the new pope. Have the past five months changed his opinion of them, or of Francis's pontificate? The shakeup at the Congregation for Bishops? The Vatican's attempt to get parishioners to weigh in on controversial church teachings like gay marriage and contraception? The fact that almost none of Francis's first cardinals are professional theologians, and most are from the global south? What about that time he baptized the baby of a couple who were married outside the church--a first for a pope? Not really.

"Nothing in the past few months...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." You see, Linker appeared on Boston's NPR affiliate in September to discuss the pope, and when it came time to take calls, one listener challenged Linker's assessment of the progressive-Catholic agenda.

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."

Linker hadn't considered that possibility. He "had assumed all along that liberal Catholics wanted to liberalize Catholic doctrine." But here comes Trish, shaking up Damon's liberal-Catholic assumption matrix by saying she wasn't expecting doctrinal reform, and had no intention of skipping Communion.

For Linker, this is "an interesting development that raises important questions for the Catholic Church in the United States." Because, he writes, Trish "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," and that she'll be praying for the church to revise those doctrines to be more welcoming to Catholics who find them unpersuasive. "But Trish doesn't hold this view," Linker says. "She's completely indifferent to what the church teaches across a range of topics, and she thinks her fellow American Catholics agree with her."

Please do listen to Trish. She's talking about contraception mostly, and then throws in divorce and annulment for good measure (an issue Francis happens to be looking at). Is she offering a nuanced description of the problem? Not so much. Could her understanding of doctrine use some help? Of course. (Thank goodness the program wasn't about the hypostatic union.) But does it sound to you like she's dismissing all doctrine? Apparently it does to Linker, because his dramatic walkaway line is "When does a church without a doctrine cease to be a church at all?"

Give me a break. Does Linker--one-time editor of First Things--really not know that large majorities of Catholics disagree with church teaching against contraception, even practicing Catholics? According to a February poll, just 27 percent of weekly Mass-goers say it's "morally wrong." Thirty-three percent of weekly Mass-goers agree that contraception is "morally acceptable," and 30 percent say it's "not a moral issue."

In both his Week article and his TNR piece, Linker confuses two kinds of Catholic: the activist and the average Mass-goer. Yes, among the Catholic chattering classes you'll find no shortage of advocates for this or that doctrinal position--some liberal, some really not. Lots of practicing Catholics are members of, say, Call to Action or Catholic Advocate. But most Catholics who show up every Sunday are basically with Trish: the morality of contraception doesn't weigh on them. They probably don't have a problem with the idea of married priests--until, perhaps, you ask them to pay for it. Women priests? Fine by them. Gay civil marriage? Live and let live. But are many of them pining for the day the church changes its teachings to suit their positions, eagerly expecting Francis to grab the wheel and jerk it left? No. They're Catholic. They know the bark of Peter doesn't turn on a dime.

In other words, they are ecclesiastical realists. Damon Linker should pay more attention to them. He might learn a thing or two.



Commenting Guidelines

Jim Jenkins,

The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step...perhaps climbing out of a deep whole begins with a Franciscan papacy. 

The Trinity was the first declared feast that is not a salvation event. I am not sure whether it is a good idea to get into Trinitarian theology. But I will say that to place it number 1 in core beliefs is absolute nonsense since Jesus placed little or no significance on that doctrine.

I think the Sciptures show us that Jesus placed enormous significance on the reality of the Trinity. 

"And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens opened and the Spirit descending upon him like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, "Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased." 

The Trinity is present in the baptismal accounts of Jesus. It is again present at the Transfiguration (Jesus, the Father's voice, and the Spirit in the form of the enveloping cloud).  Jesus tells Philip in the Gospel of John that He and the Father are one; when we look at Jesus, we see the Father. And then we have John's account of Jesus promising to send another advocate who will lead them into "all Truth." 


The Trinity is a foundational dogma because God is Love (I John 4:8) and love must be expressed between persons. Before He loved His creation, the Lord loved Himself perfectly in the Trinity. Jesus' participation in this eternal communon of persons is seen in his statement "Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am."  "I am" is how God identifies Himself to Moses in Exodus, "tell them I AM sent you." 


To paraphrase Dorothy Sayers "the drama is in the dogma".  That is to say, the immeasurable love of God can be better appreciated when we plumb the richness of our Faith. 


@ Jim Dunn:  Perhaps.  We'll see ...

Today's media reports of the appearance before the U.N. panel in Geneva by Archbishop Silvano Tomasi and Bishop Charles Sicluna to answer pointed questions regarding the church's handling of clergy sexual abuse of children [despite Sicluna's claim that "The Holy See gets it"] do not give us any confidence, or evidence, that the boys in the Vatican curia really do "get it."  

For better or worse, Francesco's papacy will judged ultimately on his ability to bring humble service and justice for the survivors of sexual exploitation by priests.

Bruce. On what ethereal plane or in what quadrant of the galaxy does the "law" exist if it "exists outside of man." Law exists as an entity? I it in the Platonic realm of the Eidos? Seriously! One must get real and get down to earth with head out of the clouds and use common sense rather than try to justify the "latent pattern maintenance" imposed over generations and introjected in childhood.


Something that exists for me, has to be outside of me, else it is not 'for' me but part of me.  A car can exist for me because it is outside of me.  My heart cannot exist for me, because it is part of me.  I think thats common sense.  

Once more the confusion of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception with the dogma of the Virgin Birth has reared its ugly head and right here at dotCommonweal.  NOTE WELL;  The dogma of the Immaculate Conception (Mary's not being scarred by Original Sin)  has NOTHING to do with the dogma of the Virgin Birth of Jesus (Jesus' birth miraculously did not alter Mary's bodily integrity, to put it prudishly).  

ALSO NOTE WELL:   (theologians please correct me if I'm wrong) the literal interpretation of "Original Sin" is no longer the interpretation of Genesis favored by the official Catholic Church.  As I under stand it, the story of Adam's Original Sin is now interpreted as a primitive attempt to explain the obvious fact that human beings are prone to sin.  It follows that we are not born saints who act only for our own good and the good of others, and given the weakness of our wills we need help (grace) to measure up to our best potentials.  In a theology which does not admit the reality of sin -- only the reality of "mistakes" -- this interpretation also makes no sense.  The crux of the problem is:  are we prone to sin or not?  

"Paul told slaves to be obedient to their masters and women to their husbands. The Church later justified slavery. We now know tht Paul was preaching a pernicious moralilty as regards slavery; His teaching that women obey the presbyters, remain silent in the Church and cover themselves is no less pernicious. Paul's moral teachings and his teachings on the role of women were colored by his cultural situation."

The words of Paul on women are interpolations. Otherwise that Epistle makes no sense. In one paragraph he is saying women can teach and prophecy and in another he writes that she should be silent. Further given the cultural situation no one treated women better than St. Paul.

Ann Oliver, Thank you for pointing out the distinction between the two Marian dogmas in case the theologically sophisticated readers may not have been aware of the difference.

I shortened the story of the liberal priest being quetioned at the Immaculate Conception Seminary in Huntington, New York. The second challenge was ,"Do you believe in the Virgin Birth. His answer was the same, "Yes, whatever it means." I should have separated the paragraph or otherwise made it clearer. The point I was making, however, stands.

When I spoke to a distantly related Domincan who was teaching theology at Providence College about an article in a Jesuit publication quetioning the notion of "virgo Intacta", the Dominican's response was "all those Jesuits are heretics." Not surprisingly, the Dominicans are associated with the Inquisition.

Unfortunately, most lay Catholics have the theological interpretations given to them in grammar school or r"released time" instruction. The Church doesn't seem to foster continuing adult education about Scripture or theology, particularly if it would lead to a more nuanced understanding or to questioning,  nor are they willing to tolerate probing discussion even in theology faculties in Catholic Universities. The "official Church" seems to appreciate ignorance or shallow understanding of these issues among the laity.

Ann, you are certainly correct in noting that the current liberal interpretations of much of scripture, morality and indeed of doctrine are no longer the interpretation "favored by the official Catholic Church." For example, some Jesuit professors in the theology department at Fordham University have taught that there is no such thing as a mortal sin (cannot give full consent of the will to an unknown) since without knowing God (without the Beatific vision), one cannot reject God irrevocably. The Professor posited that rejection and "mortal sin" can only occur after death and after adequate knowledge of God.

Bruce correctly mentioned the primacy of conscience and indeed one must attempt to inform conscience, but when "official teaching" violates human nature, human rights and full human development, these warped teachings cannot be relied upon to inform conscience.

Bill Mazzella, Your position in regard to women is much appreciated. A question, however. Many modern techniques can distinguish later interpolations in extant writings, but cannot know what the original text was. If there was a proto-gospel, for example, on which Matthew, Mark and Luke were derived, we have no knowledge of this text. Who knows what the original texts of Paul's epistles were, and in fact, who the original authors were -- not Paul in all cases.

Frank Gibbons, 

Saying God is love does not make the Trinity a foundational dogma. Jesus is one with the Father. One cannot conclude divinity from that. Jesus wants union with us just as he and the father are one. This does not make us divine. Though some writers have gone as far. No one has ever given a satisfactory explanation of the "Third Person." Your conclusion of a picture of a dove is a large stretch. Though others have made it.  Augustine has made the most elaborate supposition about the nature of the Trinity. But he well noted that"Others may differ" Knowing how much his theory was speculative.  Further, this was such a source of confusion that the issue was only "settled" by the sixth century. The period of Niceans and Arians was marked by conflict and bloodshed. "Great marks of a foundational dogma."

This may not be a scholarly  way of putting it. But the fact that there is such a lack of explanation and idenity of the third person shows that the dogma is severely in trouble. But I guess the dogma was so important that people like Augustine, Bernard, Charlemagne and others could blithely ignore the beatitudes and extoll the magnitude of the trinity by having Christians kill others for the expiation of their sins. 



My comment is a reference to your comment about selling the artwork,  They can't.  The artists who did the work initially---signed agreements with the Vatican that this would remain within the Vatican (and as the artists decendents are still living and desire this as well---it will remain).


Secondly, just how do you expect to scrape frescos off the walls?  Can't be done.  The Vatican does not charge (donations are accepted, though) to enter the museum to see these works.  No other museum would do that---they ALL CHARGE fees to see their exhibits.


Finally, no museum would (or has the place) to put all of this pieces.  Finally, if you have the pieces of artwork---one has to have the real estate, as well.




Bill Mazzela,

The Holy Spirit is present in the Scriptures from the first chapter of Genesis ("and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters" to the last chapter of Revelation ("The Spirit and the Bride say, 'Come.'") John the Baptist said that Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit.  Jesus Himself explicitly mentions the Holy Spirit in his admonition to the pharasees about blaspheming the Holy Spirit. And, of course, the Acts of the Apostles is replete with the work of the Holy Spirit.

Pope Francis has talked about the necessity of being guided by the Holy Spirit -

“Being Christian means allowing oneself to be renewed by Jesus in this new life. ‘I am a good Christian, I go to Mass every Sunday from 11 til noon, I do this, I do that’. . . as if it were a collection. But the Christian life is not a collage of things. It is a harmonious whole, harmonious, and the Holy Spirit does it! He renews all things: He renews our heart, our life, and makes us live differently, but in a way that takes up the whole of our life. You cannot be a Christian of pieces, a part time Christian. Being a part-time Christian simply doesn’t work! The whole, everything, full-time. The Spirit accomplishes this renewal. Being Christian ultimately means, not doing things, but allowing oneself to be renewed by the Holy Spirit – or, to use the words of Jesus, becoming new wine.” 

Bill Mazzella,

I don't see how you can explain the final discourse in John's Gospel, specifically Chaps. 16 and 17, without the Trinity or its functional equivalent. I am not saying the Trinity explains it because then you would have to explain the Trinity, and I can't. But you can't explain those two chapters either unless God is a Trinity.

Crystal, I know that the idea of selling the riches of the church comes up periodically. I don't know what would be gained from taking the result of the work of Christians of the past and putting them in the hand of our wealthiest contemporaries. I find that short-sighted, not respectful of the wishes of the people of the past who did the work, neither of the people of the future who will want to admire the art. It's like a state selling its assets, castles, museums, etc., so as to balance its budget at a time of an economic crisis. 

I might be in favor of the Vatican charging for entry and using that money for charitable work.


If "the law is for man" and, by definition, exists outside of man, who perceives the law?  If one man (a pope, for instance) perceives artificial contraception to be contrary to natural law, and if most Catholics perceive otherwise, who is correct? 



'Most Catholics' seems a little hubristic to me. The church has taught that contraception is immoral throughout its entire 2000 year history.  Despite the belief of some, contraception, even chemical contraception, is not a new invention of humanity. 


This website has some history on the church and contraception

Sorry, Bruce, your statement is incorrect factually and historically in terms of condemnation of contraception.



Some highlights:

-  a new name likewise was needed for what till then in moral theology had been called onanism.  

-  From secular society, where Margaret Sanger’s cause of Planned Parenthood was advancing, the name contraception was taken.  (this concept emerged only at the beginning of the 20th century)

- For the church, then, the ethical question about contraception is not whether it is morally right. It is rather: What kinds of human control of fertility (description) fulfill a person’s moral responsibility and duty to exercise such control (evaluation), and what kinds act against the natural good of conception (evaluation)? Put differently, what control of fertility is an expression of spousal love and responsible parenthood, and what control is contraceptive?in, of course, the Catholic, evaluative, not the popular, descriptive meaning of this term.

- Contraception, however, is not the only term in the theological discussion that needs clarification: Birth control is another. This is not synonymous with fertility control. Abortion is a very common mode of birth control, but it is essentially different from fertility control. The use of the term birth control to refer to fertility control obscures the fact that the ethical question of abortion is radically different from that of fertility control. Such use makes it easier for abortion to be seen as if it were on a continuum with means of limiting or preventing conception and had no more ethical significance than a last resort when these have been neglected or fail.

- Contemporary theology, however, presents a quite different understanding of marriage. Seeking a more adequate and profounder truth of marriage than that attained by the earlier theology, it understands marriage primarily not in terms of legal realities but in terms of persons and their interpersonal relationships. This deepening of the theology of marriage has transformed church law itself so that it now reflects rather than molds theology. According to the revised Code of Canon Law (1983), marriage is a covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of their whole life, one that of its own very nature is ordered to the well-being of the spouses and to the procreation and upbringing of children. This unique covenant and partnership of lives is, of course, not something to be used but an interpersonal relationship to be lived.


Bill, I had never realized you questioned the Trinity and did not, apparently, believe in the Holy Spirit!

It's funny because I can just picture you filled with the Holy Spirit. When you go on and on about the Beatitudes, and when in real life you clothe the naked or feed the hungry or whatever you do, what is it that compels you in that way, what is that inner strength that drives you? 

In the Acts of the Apostles, we repeatedly hear about the disciples being "filled with the Holy Spirit". My guess is that your irresistible urge to be an advocate for and help the poor does not come from you; it transcends you: it's the Holy Spirit in you. 


Your comment is about words, not the underlying ideas and behaviors.  Even if Sanger came up with the word contraception, the goal of sex without conception is as old as mankind. 


Marriage in itself merits esteem and the highest approval, for the Lord wished men to “be fruitful and multiply.” He did not tell them, however, to act like libertines, nor did He intend them to surrender themselves to pleasure as though born only to indulge in sexual relations. Let the Educator (Christ) put us to shame with the word Exechiel: “Put away your fornications.” Why, even unreasoning beasts know enough not to mate at certain times. To indulge in intercourse without intending children is to outrage nature, whom should take as our instructor (Paedagogues, 2, 10; 95, 3, GCS, 12, 214).

Clement of Alexandria, (150-215)


Bruce, there's no hubris on my part. 

I wrote that "most Catholics" do not share Rome's view that artificial contraception is contrary to the natural law.   

Fact is, most Catholics (in the USA) do not subscribe to official church teaching on contraception.  This is common knowledge.  The Pew Research Center's findings support my assertion. 


Catholics in the US are a small group compared to all Catholics alive today, and you also need to include all those who have gone before us...  In addition, Truth is not defined by popularity. 

I limited my comments to the thinking of U.S. Catholics.  I have no idea what Catholics elsewhere specifically think of church teaching on contraception.  I do not include all those who have gone before us:  Tthey are dead, products of their own time and place.  The only "Truth" (upper case) is "God is Love". 

For those who might worry about being morally and spiritually tainted by visiting his site, Andrew Sullivan has kept the story going at said site:

The Church doesn't seem to foster continuing adult education about Scripture or theology.


In some circles an educated laity is a questioning laity.  A questioning laity can be a dangerous laity because it wants to know "why," not just "what."


Too many "whys" leads to a lack of control.


I believe in the Holy Spirit. It is God's Spirit or God herself. God is spoken of in many ways in Scripture. As the Holy Spirit (of God) it is probably the most powerful way. Your guess is right Claire. Praise God.

Frank, I agree with you about the Holy Spirit. We do not have to be complicated with the Trinity to regale in God's Spirit. See above. I usually participate in the 11AM Eucharist also. Don't assume that I do not live and pray to the Holy Spirit as I do not say you do not.

Tom B.

We get into genre and the times when we come to John's gospel. Jesus is the personifcation of God in earth. The Father sent him to dwell among us. John is in the fashion of his time when writing about this. He has to show that Jesus is way above all those false gods that were floating around. 

Come O God, let your Spirit renew the face of the earth. 

George. Can you state your question more clearly, perhaps. I know that Paul did not write all the Epistles. Appears that it is only 7. The text about wome is obviously tampered with. Otherwise he looks schizoid.