Earlier this month, the New York Times devoted the entire Letters to the Editor section of its “Sunday Review” to current controversies in the Catholic Church (“Where Does the Catholic Church Go From Here?”). The letters were all written in response to two columns, one by the Times’s conservative Catholic columnist Ross Douthat (“The Ungovernable Catholic Church”) and the other by Matthew Walther (“This is Why America Needs Catholicism”). Walther is the editor of the Lamp, a new Catholic bimonthly journal, and a contributing editor at the American Conservative.
Douthat’s column argued that Pope Francis’s recent effort to curtail the celebration of the traditional Latin Mass was likely to fail given the Church’s internal divisions and loss of authority. “More than any other point in my lifetime, neither past analogies nor present trends supply much clarity about the church’s future,” he wrote. “Whether you are theologically left or right, it’s disruption all the way down.”
Walther’s argument about the pertinence of the Church’s moral and social teachings to the politics of twenty-first-century America was more idiosyncratic and idealistic. The nation’s current polarization, Walther argues, does not reflect the beliefs or values of most Americans, who are socially conservative but reject the winner-take-all modern economy. Americans reject the libertarianism of both the cultural Left and the corporate Right, and so does the Catholic Church. “The church presents a refreshing response to our nation’s enforced ideological bifurcation,” Walther writes. “A new Catholic politics would ‘baptize’ Bernie Sanders’s health-care plan, degrowth economics, and bans on single-use plastic while drawing attention to neglected elements of our own political heritage that really are worth preserving, such as the presumption of innocence.”
As you might imagine, the suggestion that “America Needs Catholicism” was not received enthusiastically by letter writers to the Times. One correspondent asked where the Church had been in the 1920s and 1930s during the advent of European fascism. A fair question, to be sure, but one that ignores how the Church became an outspoken and influential force for democratization and human rights after the Second Vatican Council. Another writer was “truly appalled” by Walther’s proposal that America would benefit from a version of post–World War II European Christian Democracy. He was sure such a political outcome would threaten the freedom of nonreligious citizens, although there is little evidence that Christian Democracy ever threatened the freedom of nonreligious Europeans. Quite the contrary: secularization has triumphed in Europe, including in those countries where Christian Democratic parties have been the most successful. Still another letter writer complained that the Catholic Church denies decision-making authority to women, that it continues to condemn abortion and divorce, and that its creeds and doctrines are nothing more than “magical thinking.” So far from being relevant, the Church is, from this point of view, beyond redemption.