Ross Douthat gave the 28th Erasmus Lecture at the Union League Club (they have a complete set of books on the “Rebellion” in their library) in Manhattan. Your roving reporter was there. Here are some notes and thoughts.
After stepping (tieless) to microphone and welcoming us to the third Synod on the family, Douthat told the familiar story of the Church since Vatican II—as it is seen by conservative eyes. By conservative, Douthat means roughly orthodox and not (always) American political right.
That story is this. The sound theology of VII fought against the Spirit of VII and the spirit of the age. Two against one, and conservatives were forced to retreat from the onslaught of felt banners, pant-suited religious, guitar masses, and Jesuit education. Douthat was not shy about naming names and a quip about Jesuits trying to stealthily weaken doctrine produced both genuine and nervous laughter.
It was a rout. The precipice was reached and the Church was thisclose to full-on Episcopalianism. (What’s that? For an idea, the new dean of the Washington National Cathedral has progressed far beyond Arianism.) Then a miracle happened, of a sort. John Paul II became Pope. He had the Theology of the Body and a Rottweiler. But he also had to mop up the abuse scandal, which was caused by the ordination of too many men “oriented” toward teenage boys. The Rottweiler became Pope himself and Dogma had its champion. The succession of two sound leaders stacked the deck with conservative appointments, which would surely lead to the election of another conservative Pope and secure the future.
Then came Francis.
Well, that’s the story. But it’s flawed. VII, sound or not, fought the wrong battle. That council still thought reconciling itself to democracy and Jews was important. But the culture no longer cared about such mundane items. It had flung itself headlong into the sexual rebellion (two can play at that game), the thrills of civil rights, and the first rush of environmentalism. That guaranteed the great liberalizing “spirit” of VII was what most would see.
Progressive priests and bishops embraced leftist politics, but that led to their downfall because democratic politics are too volatile and ephemeral to cling to for long. JP-II tried to right the balance, but it was really too late. Church leaders accepted JP-II’s teachings, to varying degrees, but many were afraid to preach it. Bishops too often want to be liked by the world—and by their brother bishops.
A unhealthy dose of clericalism gave the Church its Nixon moment and taught it a valuable lesson the world already knew: it’s not the deed that gets you, it’s the cover-up. And Benedict XVI wasn’t a rottweiler after all. This most holy, erudite, humble and, let’s face it, old man did not have the musculature to clear out the Curia.
Francis does; or, at least he is trying. But how did he get elected by all those conservative Cardinals appointed by JP-II and B-XVI?
Conservatives thought the leftists were bested, or were dying out, removed by the “biological solution”. But—surprise!—there they were, lying dormant, waiting for their moment, which is now. How were they awakened? Conservatives made the same mistake progressives did: they embraced right-wing politics. To be a Christian was, in the many minds, to be George W. Bush, endorsing torture and foreign wars and being a “compassionate” conservative. It’s no wonder a theologically left Church is resurgent.
The left are still trying to weaken doctrine, by claiming to seek for “pastoral solutions” for a mortally wounded culture (the wounds are self-inflicted). Douthat openly acknowledged what all know: that the left lies often about its intent. This produced even more nervous laughter. Yet it’s true that the left’s various attempts to weaken doctrine about “remarriage” largely failed at the Synod.
Pope Francis has the final word, though. Or does he? After the long reigns of two conservative Popes, many on the theological right fell into the bad habit of pronouncing, “The Pope rules, man.” Conservatives liked what the Popes were saying, but they were saying the Popes were right because they were Pope. Oops. That fallacy had two consequences. Some on the right tried to stay consistent and agreed that Francis, as Pope, must be right even in those matters in which he is demonstrably wrong, like global warming and “remarriage”.
On the other hand, others cast off their papalotry and have openly criticized the Holy Father. And, as we have seen, Francis doesn’t like it. But he is in charge, which accounts for men like Soupy Cupich, the theological embodiment of the Peter Principle. Francis is stacking the deck with progressives, which Douthat thinks might even lead to genuine schism. The urge to Protestantism is too strong in many on the left and they will not be satisfied until the need for the transcendent Church is obviated.
That’s where Douthat left off. My thinking is that VII was wrong after all. The Church should not have sought to accommodate democracy, which is the cause of the problems we face. Any system which puts “truth” to a vote must end badly—and bloodily. The Church should not have sought to embrace all other religions as one, in some ill-thought-out ecumenicism, which in any case failed. Any system which fails to insist this is true must fall to one which does. The Church possess the truth. If it can’t bring itself to trumpet it, then, while it can’t fail entirely, it will surely be greatly diminished (B-XVI predicted this).
What will come? So-called conservatives elected Francis, so why can’t so-called progressives elect a dogma-minded Pope? Education is largely in the hands of the left, but education is everywhere crumbling as it approaches the event horizon of the left singularity. My guess is this: surprise. World events will cause, in the words of my drill Sergeant Enrico Montoya, a major attitude adjustment.
Addendum Sometimes I suspect Hollywood is scripting Church politics. The McCarthyism of Liberal Catholic Elites: “The Catholic layman Ross Douthat, according to these liberal Catholic academics, is too stupid to have an opinion about Catholicism, because he has not been trained in theology.” Truly, the left can dish it out, but they act like Lost in Space’s Dr Smith when they have to take it.