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Douthat reaches for the Red Pill

I’ll just start by saying, yes, I know this is a year old. But it’s quite interesting, since Douthat, the New York Times’ token conservative Catholic, is showing rather strong signs of Tradding.

Ross Douthat is possibly the most prominent member of the “conservative” class of Catholic in the Anglosphere who is clearly realising the failures of this position. Keeping an eye on Douthat’s movement from prominent “conservative,” (though more polite about his disagreements with Traditionalists than most) to an increasingly traddie-sounding position has been very interesting.

This piece in First Things, “A Crisis of Conservative Catholicism,” could be considered a follow-up of this talk in the video, and seems to be his most cutting a critique so far of the “conservative” narrative. Its major flaw was its failure to take sufficiently seriously the vast, uncrossable gulf between the apostates, heretics and functional atheists we have for 50-odd years been calling “liberal Catholics” and the ever-shrinking number who still believe.

I suppose it could be claimed as a reiteration of the Hilary Thesis that the election of this pope is in fact the reality-check wake-up call that the dreamy-eyed “conservatives” have needed.

He starts by summarising the position itself:

By the turn of the millennium, it was clear to anyone with eyes to see that this [JPII-conservative] generation owned the Catholic future, that the liberal alternative had been tried and failed, and that the Church of the twenty-first century would embody a successful synthesis—conservative but modern, rooted in tradition but not traditionalist—of conciliar and pre-conciliar Catholicism, the Church of two thousand years of history and the Church of Vatican II.

The story I’ve just sketched is the master narrative of conservative Catholicism in the West. It’s the story that was waiting for me when I became a Catholic in the late 1990s, late in John Paul II’s pontificate but while he was still hale and firmly in command.

Rosy, isn’t it.

Sadly, Douthat’s observations since the election of Francis has shown the entire story to have been, at best, a vast exaggeration, fuelled by little more than wishful thinking and an insouciant ability to ignore certain uncomfortable realities.

John Paul II–era Catholicism had perhaps stabilized the Church and influenced the wider culture less than many Catholics had hoped. [George Weigel, call your agent] But they did not suggest an alternative to the John Paul II synthesis, or call its ascendancy within the Church into real doubt. The conservative master narrative might have looked more questionable in 2010 than it did in 1999 or upon Ratzinger’s election as Benedict, but there was no vibrant, potent alternative. The waning of liberal Catholicism seemed to be continuing, and outside of certain theology departments and the pages of the National Catholic Reporter, the idea that the Church needed constant revolution seemed to have lost its once intoxicating appeal.

Until the election of Jorge Bergoglio as Pope ­Francis, that is.

The stellar success of the Bergoglian clique has depended on the weakness of the “conservative” side in the Church, and – perhaps much more – on the delusions of conservatives themselves, who continue to carry its water.

Some of this liberal resilience was always visible; conservatives just tended to close their eyes to it. Many of the legacy institutions of Western Catholicism, the diocesan bureaucracies and national committees and prominent universities and charitable organizations, never reconciled themselves to the John Paul II era, or they went along with it half-heartedly, awaiting a different era and a different pope…[E]ven after three decades and two ­conservative popes, conservative Catholicism is often still a counterculture within important institutions of the Church.

How were Jorge Bergoglio and his friends able to accomplish so much so quickly? Because “conservatism” itself is a sham. Many of the bishops and other Church leaders so often thought of as “conservatives” only carry that label within an extremely narrow frame of reference, much of it generated by the secular media. In no other age of the Church, for instance, would a man like Charles Chaput have been regarded as a “conservative.” The position is by its nature relativistic; you are only a “conservative” depending on who is standing next to you.

Apparently until the Synods, Douthat was among those, as he puts it, “centre-right” Catholics who felt there was room in the Church for an alternate narrative, a “little more” attention to the poor and less to the “Culture Wars” issues of abortion and homosexuality. Big umbrella, as we all were incessantly told…

Two things have been genuinely revelatory about the Francis era, however. The first is how weak the Catholic center remains, how quickly consensus falls apart, and how much space actually separates the center-left and center-right within the Church.

Until recently I thought of myself as part of that center-right, and from that vantage point, it seemed like there was a great deal of room for Pope Francis to tack center-leftward without opening up major doctrinal debates—tackling divorce and remarriage by streamlining the annulment process and making it more available in poorer countries, stressing the social gospel a little more and the culture war a little less, appointing women to run Vatican dicasteries, even reopening debates over female deacons and married priests. On some of these fronts conservatives would have doubted, questioned, or opposed, but the debates wouldn’t have led so quickly to fears of heresy and schism.

As in the Church of the early 1960s, the appearance of great strength and unity of the JPII/Benedict era was as fragile as a soap bubble, requiring only the “tender caresses” of our new pope to end it. This “conservative” fantasy that the good guys had won the Church’s civil war, (and to a lesser degree the fantasy that there was essentially nothing really catastrophic happening for which the Council was responsible) has disappeared faster than teaching sisters from Catholic schools. With John Paul II having refused for nearly 30 years to govern the Church, and allowing the Vatican machine to run along its own little course so as to make it completely ungovernable by 2005, the apostates were able to take over every institution in Christendom without any serious opposition, essentially leaving the papacy itself as the last bastion, heavily besieged. And it finally fell in February and March 2013.

Douthat neatly lists the real accomplishments of 30+ years of “conservative” popes:

Everyone is aware that only a minority of practicing Catholics accept Humanae Vitae’s teaching on artificial contraception. But it isn’t just birth control where dissent from the Church’s view of marriage is pervasive. To take the pressing issue of the moment, according to Pew Research Center, a mere 42 percent of American Catholics who attend Mass weekly think that the divorced and remarried should not be allowed to receive Communion. Only forty-eight percent think cohabiting Catholics should not be allowed to receive. That last number shouldn’t be surprising, since only 46 percent of weekly Mass attenders believe living together outside of wedlock is a sin at all.

One of the “conservatives'” favourite fantasies is that Catholics and so-called “liberal Catholics” can find “common ground,” that there was some core at the centre that we all agreed on; that, after all, we were all Catholics together, one big squabbling and dysfunctional family, but a family nonetheless. This, it seems, Douthat is also recognising as false, derived from the same accommodationist impulse that drives bishops to hold “divisiveness” as a worse sin than apostasy:

As Francis has pushed into more divisive territory, what I had thought of as the Catholic center-left has not only welcomed that push but written and spoken in ways that suggest they want to push further still—toward understandings of the sacraments, ecclesiology, and moral theology that seem less center-left than simply “left,” the purest vintage of the year of our Lord 1968 or 1975. Which perhaps reveals that I’ve actually been further “right” all along, but either way suggests a hollowness at the Catholic center, a striking lack of common ground.

And yes, we do have some “JPII-era” seminarians and even a few Ratzingerian bishops…But Douthat finally admits out loud what the Trads have been saying: these two “conservative” popes – perhaps driven by the same accommodationist urge, and blindness to the gravity of the crisis and the viciousness of the apostates – are the ones responsible for every “liberal” bishop and cardinal under whom the faithful are currently suffering an escalating persecution.

[T]he fact remains that a college theoretically “stacked” by John Paul II and Benedict XVI ­elected as pope a candidate who had been championed, across two conclaves, by the most liberal cardinals in the Church. The fact remains that all of the bishops who have agitated for changing the Church’s ­doctrine—or, as they claim, the Church’s discipline—on marriage and the sacraments were appointed by the last two popes. And the fact remains that while the majority of bishops do seem loyal in principle to the magisterium of John Paul II, there has been no shortage of episcopal enthusiasm for an ­essentially ­Hegelian understanding of the development of ­doctrine.

[E]ven in the hierarchy that the last two popes themselves appointed, there is no full consensus about John Paul II’s teaching, or about the post-1970s conservative restoration writ large. Many bishops who seemed centrist and center-left look more straightforwardly liberal now that liberalism is once more in good odor in Rome.

“Liberal Catholicism,” he warns, is here to stay.

He suggests that “conservative” Catholics start relying more on the doctrinal history of the Church than the facile “Well the pope says” that we have had since 1978. What he perhaps fails to see is that in very short order, there aren’t going to be any “conservatives” left in the Church to do this.

And this is perhaps the most polite way I’ve yet seen anyone say that it’s time to make up your minds about which side you’re going to be on, since the “conservative” middle ground is so rapidly disappearing.

The unsettling of the Church’s teaching requires more of a response, more of a synthesis. In the end, conservative Catholicism might conclude that traditionalists are correct about certain errors that have crept in, or that liberals are right about certain innovations that are possible. But either way (or both ways), the Catholic faithful need a clearer sense of how the hierarchy of teaching actually works.

He gives us this by way of a personal manifesto:

“I firmly believe that the proposals to admit remarried Catholics to Communion without an annulment strike at the heart of how the Church has traditionally understood the sacraments, and threaten to unravel…the Church’s entire teaching on sexual ethics. I feel more certain about this than I am about the precise arguments in Humanae Vitae; more confident in Humanae Vitae than I am about what Catholics are currently permitted to believe about the death penalty; more confident in the state of the death penalty debate than I am about the question of female deacons . . . and I could continue, down a longer list.”

To which I feel I must respond… “Good! Goooooood…

Let the rage logic flow through you…

With every passing moment you make yourself more one of us…


4 thoughts on “Douthat reaches for the Red Pill”

  1. Matt says:

    I wrote this in 2015 to another Catholic commentator in the conservative camp. It captures the quandary Douhat finds himself in.

    ” From a purely human aspect, I am sure you are not surprised at the firing squad formed into a circle.

    What we are witnessing- and will continue to see an escalation of under the papacy of Francis- is the separation of Catholicism into distinct sub-groups.

    So-called Traditionalists will continue to be a minority but will be stable in their unity with past doctrine and disciplines. Tradition is this group’s guide.

    So too will the so-called Modernists be stable as deviation from the pre-conciliar Church will be accepted and seen as true progress within the never ending flow of man’s evolution through history. The Zeitgeist is their guide.

    It is the so-called Conservative sub-group of the Church that will see the most dramatic turmoil – for it has always strived to place one foot in the traditionalist side and one foot in the modernist side for each question confronting the Church; very often compromising for unity’s sake. Their guide since Vatican II has been the papacy.

    As the Synod process exposed, the gap is now very wide between the Modernist and Traditionalist positions within Catholicism. The members of the Conservative sub group will have to place more far weight in one camp than the other based on their own “personal choice” or conscience. They no longer have the trusted anchor of John Paul II nor Benedict’s papacy to tell them what side of the gap they need to apply the most weight to maintain that balancing act . With Pope Francis the conservative group fears that they might have lost their guide.

    Without that trusted authority, each member of the conservative group must suddenly become an independent decision maker. Naturally most will look to adopt a prelate that aligns closely to their personal conscience as a replacement of their lost guide and it is that choice where they risk most. A Burke defender will chastise a Wuerl defender, a Wuerl Defender will chastise a Chaput defender, a Chaput defender will chastise a Dolan defender, etc. The conservative person will ignore the deficits of their personally chosen guide but be quick to point out the “failure” of their fellow conservative choice of a guide – just has they do today against the Modernist and Traditionalist camps. The conservative sub-group ( the largest of the three) will dissolve into disunity just as a bickering family does over property when the patriarch dies. And that is truly ironic as “unity” was the entire rational for their balancing act of compromise.

    If I am right it will not take long to prove it. If Pope Francis opens the door in 2016 for the divorced and civilly re-married to receive the Eucharist, he will have clearly sided with the modernist camp and effectively cut the conservatives loose to find their own way. Each member of the so-called conservative camp will start their respective search for a new ecclesial guide until the next Pope is chosen. This sub-group may not survive that long.”

  2. Michael Dowd says:

    Thanks for an excellent analysis of the emerging ‘Douthat Thesis’ that conservative Catholics have been ‘played’ and now waking up to the catastrophe of Vatican II Protestantization of the Church. New step for Ross may have to be a new job. It’s one thing to be a wobbly Conservative but quite another to be a true believing Traditionalist.

  3. Brian Miles says:

    “With John Paul II having refused for nearly 30 years to govern the Church, and allowing the Vatican machine to run along its own little course so as to make it completely ungovernable by 2005, the apostates were able to take over every institution in Christendom without any serious opposition, essentially leaving the papacy itself as the last bastion, heavily besieged.”

    Mic drop. The man disciplined almost no one. Francis sacks people right and left with nothing more than “Because I said so!”

    This is what a pope can do. Would that JP2 had done it. He didn’t. He let the cancer grow and metastasize.

  4. Arthur McGowan says:

    A “conservative” bishop announces himself unable to distinguish between a pro-life candidate and an abortion fanatic.

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