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.