Pope John XXIII leads the opening session of the Second Vatican Council in St. Peter's Basilica (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano).

The New York Times columnist Ross Douthat is an often-persuasive critic of cultural, political, and religious liberalism, and I welcome the attention he gives to Catholicism in the pages of the paper of record. That said, his instinctive skepticism toward Pope Francis can be vexing. He often casts Francis as a kind of Trojan Horse determined to smuggle the dreaded post–Vatican II reform agenda back into the Church. Douthat finds that agenda particularly frustrating. In his view, the clear-eyed orthodoxy and discipline of John Paul II and Benedict XVI righted the Ark of Peter after it had taken on a good deal of liberal sludge in the 1960s and ’70s.

As Douthat acknowledges, Francis is something of a conundrum for conservative and traditional Catholics who tend to idealize papal authority. Most conservative Catholic pundits, however, don’t let that stop them from denouncing the current pope’s alleged inconsistencies and doctrinal unpredictability. Over many decades and a few popes, I have tried to take the papacy with a respectful grain of salt. As the distinguished convert Fr. Ronald Knox famously put it, “He who travels in the barque of St. Peter had better not look too closely into the engine room.” There is something undeniably appealing about Francis’s unpretentiousness and unwavering emphasis on the Church’s social teaching regarding the poor, war, the economy, and the climate crisis. On the other hand, there is no denying that some of his off-hand remarks, a few official statements, and certain aspects of the Synod on Synodality, can leave one scratching one’s head. (For example, even if you welcomed the decision about blessing same-sex unions, the Vatican's justification for the change was not easy to parse.)

Douthat tackles some of Francis’s supposedly atavistic tendencies (“an old and faded thing…a relic of the 1970s”) in a recent column titled “Can Conservative and Liberal Catholics Coexist?” Douthat has written about Church unity in the past, often with a partiality that sees the Church’s more conservative forces in the ascendency and its so-called liberal wing in terminal, sexually wayward, decline. I credit that sentiment to Douthat’s youthful infatuation with First Things, where Richard John Neuhaus delighted his readers by gleefully roasting Catholic liberals (including yours truly once or twice).

Reading Douthat, it is hard not to conclude that what he knows about “liberal Catholics” is gleaned largely from the caricature offered by their conservative Catholic critics. Yet in his recent Times column, he seems to have re-evaluated, up to a point, the case for the inevitability of liberal decline and irrelevance. “The entanglements between American Catholicism and American culture writ large all but guarantee that conservative and liberal forms of Catholic faith will persist together—undoubtedly in tension and conflict, but ideally in charity as well.” I whole-heartedly concur with that prediction. At the same time, Douthat seems to harbor a hope that “some more decisive event” might finally separate the liberal goats from the orthodox sheep.


Douthat laments that the mainstream media presents conservative Catholics “as a monolith,” when in fact the movement comes in various shapes and sizes. He points to the significant differences between John Paul II Catholics comfortable with Vatican II and more traditionalist groups who long for a restoration of pre-Vatican II certainties and practices. Fair enough. Yet “liberal” Catholicism, which Douthat himself tends to present “as a monolith,” also comes in various shapes and sizes.

Reading Douthat, it is hard not to conclude that what he knows about “liberal Catholics” is gleaned largely from the caricature offered by their conservative Catholic critics.

When I arrived at Commonweal in 1990, Peggy O’Brien Steinfels was editor, having succeeded her husband, Peter Steinfels. Peggy and Peter were political liberals with a recognizable Chicago sensibility. They were enthusiastic supporters of Vatican II, firmly prolife, and skeptical of the sexual revolution. Their first instincts seemed to be to question the arguments made by allies and opponents alike. Nor did they always agree with each other. Senior writer Bob Hoyt, the founding editor of the National Catholic Reporter, was much more of a crusading liberal in both Church and secular politics. His position was far to my left, and he and I had many spirited debates. I guess I would describe my own position as liberal-centrist in politics and somewhat conservative when it comes to theology and liturgy. The magazine’s managing editor, Patrick Jordan, had spent many years at the Catholic Worker. He had been an editor of the Catholic Worker newspaper. I’m ashamed to admit that before coming to Commonweal I had never heard of Dorothy Day or the Catholic Worker movement and was only vaguely familiar with Catholic pacifism. Catholic Workers, I was surprised to learn, were as doubtful of the modern welfare state as they were of American militarism. I was utterly baffled by the Worker’s belief in voluntary poverty, something that seemed deeply inimical to the values of my upwardly mobile suburban Catholic upbringing.

Ours, then, was an eclectic group, with a shared commitment to civil rights, economic fairness, military restraint, and the place of moral debate in evaluating culture. We strongly resisted the notion that the Church could never change, or that its theological tradition was uniform. It is fair to say that on the challenge of secularism and the decline of Church membership, we agreed with the Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor. “Too many answers choking off questions, and too little sense of the enigmas that accompany a life of faith,” Taylor wrote, “these are what stop a conversation from ever starting between our Church and much of our world.” At the same time, we were determined that advocates of change must take tradition and Scripture seriously. We relied on the Creed and the Catholic intellectual tradition to guide us to common ground. That, at least, was my experience of so-called liberal Catholicism at Commonweal.

I realize many Catholic liberals and progressives find tradition and Scripture stumbling blocks rather than reliable compasses. But I wish Douthat would make more room in his analysis of American Catholicism for liberal Catholics who do not fit the conservative Catholics’ stereotype of them. One prominent example is National Catholic Reporter columnist Michael Sean Winters. He is a strong advocate for Pope Francis’s teachings and initiatives and does not hesitate to mix it up with the pope’s critics. At the same time, Winters will criticize Catholic reformers on the left who seem to want to clearcut the theological landscape in pursuit of the latest liberal cause. “Experience matters but in the making of theology, experience can never be the only thing that matters,” Winters writes of those who have rejected Francis’s criticism of gender ideology. “We have canonical Scriptures. We have a theological tradition. We have an authoritative magisterium. More importantly, there is not a human alive who has not at least once made a choice that seemed obvious at the moment given his or her lived experience, but the decision turned out to be a disaster.”

Debates between conservative and liberal Catholics have been going on for a long time. More than a decade ago, Charles Taylor put it well. “The Church, by which I mean all of us, has a very challenging task, that of holding together in one sacramental union modes of living that faith which have at present no affinity for each other, and even are tempted roundly to condemn each other. This is not an unprecedented situation…. And we haven’t always done very well in the past. But it is to be hoped that we can do better than our present dismal performance.” I’m glad Douthat agrees.

Paul Baumann is Commonweal’s senior writer.

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