Conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat is among the most intelligent and fair-minded commentators on Catholic issues writing today. I often disagree with him, but even when I do I tend to share his reservations about how far the sort of church reform called for by some “progressive” Catholics can go before it damages something essential in Catholicism’s DNA. The problem, of course, is determining what is essential and what isn’t. The history of Catholicism can be quite surprising in that regard, as Frank Oakley’s article in our ninetieth anniversary issue demonstrated (“Authoritative & Ignored”).

Less compelling is Douthat’s tendency to wave the bloody shirt of schism when struggling to come to grips with a pope who is clearly not as punctilious when it comes to doctrine and discipline as were his immediate predecessors. Douthat has a long article in The Atlantic, “Will Pope Francis Break the Church?” that rehearses many of the arguments he has made on his blog and occasionally in his columns about the dangers of “a kind of progressive ultramontanism.” Unfortunately, beyond a brief indictment of Garry Wills, when it comes to the errant views of Catholic progressives Douthat does not name names. Wills’s views are fairly unrepresentative, even idiosyncratic, as Douthat himself concedes. But what most progressives share with Wills, Douthat insists, is a belief “that Catholicism will always somehow remain Catholicism no matter how many once-essential-seeming things are altered or abandoned.” Worse, “progressives” think “a revolution from above can carry all before it.”

I have made the acquaintance of many so-called liberal Catholics, and a desire to strengthen Rome’s hand for any reason has never been high on their wish list. Indeed, for most liberal Catholics a revolution from above would not be a liberal solution at all. I have, however, heard many conservative Catholics say something about the need for “a revolution from above” when waxing on about how the steely witness of John Paul II and Benedict righted the church’s sinking ship. George Weigel, for one, won’t stop proclaiming the resounding success of that revolution.

Still, Douthat is right to ask hard questions about what in the church can change and what cannot.

He points to the jettisoning of traditional beliefs and practices among Protestant churches and their subsequent decline as evidence for the indispensable ballast provided by the tradition as received and handed on untouched in its fundamentals. For good measure, he mentions the rapid dwindling of Cardinal Kasper’s reform-minded German Catholic Church.  

Of course, there isn’t much evidence, at least in the secular West, that holding firm to the doctrines and practices of the post-Enlightenment Catholic Church, the church as fortress and subculture, would have staved off the church’s current demographic decline in most of the developed world. Nor is there much recognition (there is some) on Douthat’s part that the post-Vatican II church really is very different from the preconciliar version, or that the church has gone through other profound transformations. “If it obviously had many and even essential features in common with the Catholicism of earlier centuries, modern Roman Catholicism [meaning post-Enlightenment Catholicism] differed in many ways from the Catholicism of the ancien regime, from that of the Counter Reformation, and from that of the vaunted age of medieval Christendom,” according to our fellow blogger Joseph A. Komonchak (“Modernity and the Construction of Roman Catholicism” [.pdf]). In resisting the liberal and secularizing forces of modernity the church itself adopted practices that are “very modern indeed.” For one, it followed the modern state in becoming a bureaucratically organized institution, one in which authority over local life was increasingly handed over to a centralizing power.    

In certain respects, I don’t think anyone knows what the church will look like—or should look like—a hundred years from now. I suspect that part of Francis’s appeal is that he seems willing to take a serious look at how that bureaucratically organized institution actually functions. He also seems to think the church has something to learn from the experience of the laity. That’s part of the tradition as well.

Douthat’s fear-mongering about schism is, I hope, misplaced. A good many “once-essential-seeming things” in Catholic belief and practice have in fact been altered or even abandoned. As Komonchak suggests, historically the discontinuities can be as striking as the continuities. The historian Peter Brown makes the same point in his new book about the changing understanding of the afterlife among Christians in late antiquity (The Ransom of the Soul: Afterlife and Wealth in Early Western Christianity). The contending, often contradictory, views of resurrection or the disposition of the soul after death were expressions of a “perpetual argument among Christians,” he writes. A bishop from the sixth century, Brown notes, would find the beliefs about the afterlife held by a bishop from the second and third centuries utterly baffling. “Certain notions of the afterlife … emerge[d] with unusual urgency at certain times, for reasons that were never exclusively theological,” Brown writes, reminding us of how religious belief is always shaped by engagement with the social and economic realities of the times.

Indeed, Brown writes of different “Christianities” emerging at different times within the same Latin tradition. Changes in teachings about the afterlife often struck early Christians “as almost a denial of Christianity itself,” yet change they did. Clearly, the Christian storehouse of once-essential-seeming things is vast. Brown reminds us that we should be cautious when speaking about an “unbroken Christian tradition.” No cherished tradition comes down to us unbroken. If traditions survive it’s because they’ve been mended, the way this country’s constitutional tradition was broken and mended over the question of slavery. The arguments among Christians have been going on for two thousand years and in certain details the final shape of the faith is yet to be determined. Be not afraid—or at least less afraid.  

Paul Baumann is Commonweal’s senior writer.

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