Meanwhile, Back at the Culture Wars: Douthat on "Franciscan Catholicism"

It should go without saying that a columnist for the New York Times enjoys an extraordinary power. What an opportunity to shape, if not opinions, at least the frame of a discussion! It should also go without saying that people without power often adulate those with it. Ross Douthat has power, and he’s gotten his share of adulation. He’s also gotten attention, including in Commonweal, and has brought Commonweal to the attention of the Times’ multitudinous readers, including in his Sunday column entitled “Springtime for Liberal Christianity.” In this case it probably goes without saying that the magazine’s editors and supporters owe him a measure of thanks.

Perhaps then it is a touch churlish to be frustrated with him. But “Springtime for Liberal Christianity”—the title makes me think of both Mel Brooks and Alexander Dubcek: hard to square—is a frustrating piece of journalism.

The column concerns “the gift to liberals who are also Christians” that Pope Francis has been. Stop there: “gift to liberals who are also Christians”? That way of framing the discussion suggests that the persons who have been invigorated by so-called Franciscan Catholicism are liberals first who just happen to be Christians second. Is that true of the editors and supporters of Commonweal? (Douthat writes he “would far rather debate politics with Cornel West or the editors of Commonweal than with a liberalism that thinks it can impose meaning” on a meaningless cosmos.)

Douthat says he wishes “liberal-leaning” Christians well, but he sees two dangers, the column’s Russian bears roaming in the East. The first is “the tendency for a liberal-learning faith to simply become a secularized faith.” Stop: Is this how to explain the phenomenon of secularization? Liberal politics crowds out supernatural faith? Seems simplistic. The second danger is “religious liberalism’s urge to follow secular liberalism in embracing the sexual revolution and all its works,” which is a nice but cunning turn of phrase.

According to Douthat, no doubt looking here to the October synod of bishops on the family, Pope Francis has encouraged this “urge” (?) by “empowering clerics and theologians who seem to believe that Rome’s future lies in imitating the moribund Episcopal Church’s approach to sex, marriage, and divorce.” Stop a third time: Is this a remotely fair characterization of the beliefs of “clerics and theologians” in favor of development of doctrine regarding, for example, contraception, annulment, and the availability of communion for divorced persons who have remarried?  Further, is it fair to say that the Episcopal church, full stop, is moribund? Not some communities I know, anyway. Finally, if it’s granted that the Episcopal church is on the decline, does the reason lie in its approach to sex, marriage, and divorce? Is it plausible to suggest that the Episcopal church’s teachings on sex, marriage, and divorce explain its declining numbers? Hard to see it; that seems, instead, like an attempt to change the topic of conversation back to the culture wars.

Douthat can do better. (He’s done better, for example in his blogs replying to Katha Pollitt’s questions for opponents of abortion, though I think he concedes too much to Judith Jarvis Thomson's famous thought experiments.) If he wants to debate politics with editors—and supporters—of Commonweal, he should cut out the low blows and exercise his power more responsibly.

Bernard G. Prusak is professor of philosophy and director of the McGowan Center for Ethics and Social Responsibility at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. His co-edited volume, with Jennifer Reed-Bouley, Catholic Higher Education and Catholic Social Thought, will be published by Paulist Press in February 2023.

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