A demographic question for Ross Douthat regarding his “A Crisis of Conservative Catholicism” (January): If liberal Catholicism is to be alive in twenty years, where will its members come from? Who will be not just self-identifying to pollsters but running its schools and its hospitals?
Are they future former conservatives (liberal Catholicism parasitic upon conservative Catholicism)? Is there a self-sustaining liberal tradition in the pews right now that’s not being noticed (liberal Catholicism not parasitic upon anything)?
Or perhaps the future members are people who wanted to teach and just happened to end up at Catholic schools, people who were a better job offer away from not being Catholic at all. If they were raised Catholic, it is the sort of anemic Catholicism that the institutional culture of their surroundings quickly takes over and redefines—but in this case, redefines into liberal Catholicism. That is to say, perhaps the liberal Catholic of the future is not an escaping Evangelical but a service-oriented, spiritually open secularist (liberal Catholicism parasitic upon secularism).
There are other options besides these, of course. But the question is important not just because it underlies Douthat’s thesis but because the answer is eminently actionable. Which shadows are to worry the conservative, and where is he to shine his light?
new haven, connecticut
Ross Douthat’s analysis of post-conciliar Catholicism in terms of “liberal” and “conservative” parties reminded me of a different analysis given by Richard John Neuhaus in his book Catholic Matters. In the chapter titled “The Center Holds,” Neuhaus rejects the labels “liberal” and “conservative,” proposing instead that we understand the Church since the council in terms of “the party of discontinuity and the party of continuity.”
For Neuhaus, “right-wing” and “left-wing” describe two different kinds of dissenters from Catholic orthodoxy, the two branches of the party of discontinuity, which are “united in their agreement that the Second Vatican Council was a decisive break in the story of the Catholic Church.” On the other side, the party of continuity is “the Catholic center,” or simply “the Catholic Church,” which “remains the continuing community to which Jesus promised he would send the Spirit, and the Spirit will lead us into, and keep us in, the truth. . . . Parties of discontinuity we will have with us always, but the center holds.”
My concern with Douthat’s analysis is that it leaves no room for a “merely Catholic” center—for the possibility that younger generations of Catholics might finally get beyond the culture wars to a real Catholic consensus on orthodoxy, one that would still allow for political disagreement on less than fundamental matters. Douthat himself points to the need for “a deeper process of discernment,” acknowledging that a form of liberalism “is fully compatible with doctrinal orthodoxy, and indeed, its flourishing should be regarded even by those who differ with its politics as a sign of a healthy Catholicism, one not imprisoned by partisanship and ideology.” But his own terms seem to stand in the way.
front royal, virginia
In his sober assessment of the current state of post-conciliar Catholicism, Ross Douthat argues that Cardinal Newman’s 1845 theory of doctrinal development should be updated to account for subsequent developments. Such an updating alone, however helpful, will not confidently reinforce the hermeneutics of continuity over against that of rupture.
Newman is aware that a certain positivism undergirds the Church’s prerogative of distinguishing authentic developments from corruptions. In other words, a development results from the judgment of the magisterium as it assesses the Scriptures and tradition in light of conflicting theologies that have arisen to interpret them. Although development is entailed by divine revelation, its actual explication does not result from a simple exercise in conceptual deduction. It involves a living discernment of historical contingencies.
As a result, the reception by the faithful of developments ensues from an exercise of moral certitude. Because Catholics trust the Church’s Spirit-inspired charism to preserve Christ’s message free from error, they can firmly believe the discernments of the magisterium to be true. Developments can be shown to stand in continuity with the tradition according to select criteria. But as Newman shows, this demonstration can only be done after their pronouncement, and then only with reasonable, not apodictic, sureness. Moral surrender, rather than syllogistic logic, lies in the heart of the Catholic principle.
Moreover, while it is true that a development is brought about by the healthy dialectic of free-ranging debate, it is also true that a magisterial decision brings this debate to a close. New discussion may refine open questions raised by the decision, just as Chalcedon, for instance, developed Nicea; but the decision stands as a permanent monument of the Spirit of truth.
For its part, liberalism, by its very nature, seeks to masquerade under the cover of “doctrinal development” what is really “doctrinal dissent.” It refuses to give its unconditional moral assent to magisterial decisions, viewing them as provisional at best, mistaken at worst. Newman supplies the reason when he reminds us of one of liberalism’s essential claims: “Christianity is necessarily modified by the growth of civilization, and the exigencies of times.” Paul Tillich calls this claim the Protestant principle.
In sum, the problem with Christian liberalism does not concern its lack of clarity about what can and cannot change within the hierarchy of truths. The problem, far deeper, concerns whether private judgment will trump the ecclesial mediation of the Spirit.
Stephen M. Fields, S.J.
Why is there a crisis in conservative Catholicism? That’s easy to discern from Ross Douthat’s Erasmus Lecture. He presents no positive vision. Christianity initially seized the minds and souls of men and women because of its message of liberation: from fear, from hatred, from sin. Yet in Douthat’s piece, as far as I can tell, not a syllable is inspired by the Good News. Instead, we read of same-sex marriage, keeping divorced Catholics from Communion, abortion, and Humanae Vitae; of the marriage of priests, of whether there are “biological solutions” to left-right divisions in the Church, and whether stable second marriages should be called adulterous.
My sense is: If conservative Catholicism wants to grow, it cannot lose all evident relation to the Gospel in a long statement such as this one, even if the purpose is analysis and the audience fellow conservatives.
Perhaps the deeper problem lies precisely in the analysis of what constitutes successful Christianity. As I understand his biography, Douthat left Protestantism because it seemed in decline. But can one judge “success” by numbers of adherents? What about Christ’s assurance that the gates of hell shall not prevail? Thomas Merton’s idea was that a monastery’s task—one can extend this insight to the Church as a whole—was not survival but prophecy.
university of california
Ross Douthat has given us a genuine cri de coeur and an exemplary demonstration of a mind willing to rethink a cherished narrative of the Church since Vatican Council II. I am particularly taken by his lament for the lack of a center in the American Catholic polity. If conservative Catholic intellectuals like Michael Novak and George Weigel had shared that sentiment, we might still have the Common Ground Project as an opportunity for discussing differences between liberals and conservatives in the Church.
I agree with Douthat that his conservative narrative needs revising, not because Pope Francis prompts this but because I find it insufficient in the first place. That the documents of Vatican Council II prompted rival interpretations should not be surprising: It is not the first council of the Church to do so, and, like others, this one has taken fifty years to digest. Besides, the interpretive battle was largely confined to members of the theological guild to whom only lay elites paid attention. Beyond that general statement, I would like to point to a few factors Douthat fails to consider.
First is the impact of Humanae Vitae. This papal reaffirmation of the Church’s ban on contraception really did hit lay Catholics where they live. Those Catholic spouses who found from their own experience that the Church’s ban posed a serious threat to their own marriages—and often to a mother’s physical and mental health—were forced to make choices that, either way, left them embittered toward the Church, or at least toward the hierarchy. Overnight, the lines outside confessionals disappeared, confessors themselves adopted a policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell” on the subject of contraception, and eventually the very habit of examining one’s conscience disappeared. In any case, I am more inclined to identify Humanae Vitae as a source of liberal-conservative divide than I am the council itself.
Second, while it is true that “the council of the media” is the council that most Catholics got, how could it be otherwise, since participation was rather limited, the proceedings secret despite leaks to the press, and the final documents long and not exactly nighttime reading? In any case, what the laity got from the council was essentially confusion. We lay folks were accustomed to thinking that change was not something the Catholic Church did. As Michael Novak aptly put it, we were captives of a nonhistorical orthodoxy. The mere fact of change was more consequential for lay Catholics than any conflict between what the council documents and “the spirit of the council” progressives said.
As I recall, the reform of the liturgy alone was enough to confuse the average Catholic, especially since the reform was done too quickly, handled poorly, dictated by experts, and implemented from the top down. It was only a few prominent members of the theological guild—notably Hans Küng, who rather quickly called for a Vatican Council III to push reform further—who really wanted to Protestantize the Church. Once the initial euphoria created by the council subsided, confusion set in, followed by disillusion among both conservatives, who missed the certainty and rituals of the pre-conciliar Church, and liberals, who embraced change, often for the sake of change itself.
Third, it is against this state of confusion that the conservative side of John Paul II’s pontificate must be understood. Who would have thought that the Catholic Church needed a new catechism? But it did, and the pope saw that it got a rather good one. But there was also a serious downside to his conservatism. As Jesuit Tom Reese has pointed out, the bishops and cardinals appointed by John Paul II were chosen for their loyalty to Humanae Vitae, their opposition to the ordination of women, and the like, not for their competence as proven pastors, their administrative skills, or their breadth of vision. The pope alone would supply the vision.
Overall, I think Douthat’s version of the conservative story pays too much attention to popes and bishops and ecclesiastical politics, and too little to the hows and whys and results of the collapse of the institutions and processes by which the faith had been passed on from one generation to the next. That would include families, as well as schools and universities, and ultimately the entire American Catholic subculture that disappeared less than a decade after the council closed.
That said, I hope that Douthat’s honest reexamination of “the” conservative Catholic story will be matched by a similar reexamination of the liberal Catholic story, which is also badly in need of revision. Hello to any of you who write for Commonweal, America, or the National Catholic Reporter. Any takers?
Ross Douthat replies:
Ross McCullough describes a liberal Catholicism that seems anemic and careerist, Catholic out of habit or professional obligation. Stephen Fields suggests that liberal Catholicism is essentially Protestant, because it consistently elevates private judgment over the teachings of the Church. Kenneth Woodward offers a more sympathetic account, arguing that much of what looks like dissent and disarray in the American Church can be traced to a single issue, artificial birth control, and the shock of sudden liturgical change intersecting with the post-1960s breakdown of ethnic Catholic subcultures. Andrew Beer proposes that the very term “liberal Catholicism” might be a category error, an importation of political labels into a debate that should be about continuity versus rupture, orthodoxy versus heterodoxy, not left versus right.
The problem is that all of them are right. Liberal Catholicism has many mansions, and depending on how the term is used, it can sweep in everything from worldly prep schools “in the Jesuit tradition” to passionately ascetic Catholic Worker houses, everyone from the all-but-lapsed Catholic who shows up at Mass twice a year to the devout Catholic who attends every Sunday but felt glad for his gay nephew when the Supreme Court ruled for same-sex marriage.
This capaciousness is part of why, to answer McCullough’s question, I expect more liberal forms of Catholic faith to endure, notwithstanding their weaknesses. Yes, certain strands will secularize, drift, and disappear, and as they do, conservative and traditionalist influence may very well increase. But the liberal hope of a reconciliation between the present age and Christian faith remains a powerful idea, as does the (entirely laudable) impulse to free Christian faith from the snarls of a partisan political conservatism. These may not be enough to sustain a liberal wing of Catholicism on the scale of pomp and influence to which, say, the German bishops’ conference is accustomed. But they should be enough to maintain various liberal Catholicisms as players in the struggle over the direction of Catholicism in the West.
And that variety, in turn, makes me wary of reducing all of liberal Catholicism to a single Protestantizing “nature,” as much as I agree with Fr. Fields that this tendency exists, because doing so risks collapsing important distinctions. The Catholic who feels, with Pope Francis, that the Church should speak more about poverty and less about sexuality is different from the Catholic who no longer really believes in the Resurrection or the Virgin Birth. The theologian who feels that a particular magisterial teaching seems unstable or underdeveloped is different from the theologian who thinks that Chalcedon and Nicea should be reopened for debate. Catholicism requires docility, but not only docility, since on the evidence of the last two centuries, some insights and arguments that get called “liberal” can eventually be accepted by the magisterium. Therefore reducing liberal Catholicism to dissent and dissent to Protestantization ends up assuming points that need to be actually argued in order to persuade.
This also means that while I agree with Beer that we could benefit from a better way of capturing the distinction between liberalism in theology and liberalism in (Catholic) politics, I also think that terms like “conservative” and “liberal” are a healthy way of acknowledging the obvious. Since the 1960s, and in new ways under this pope, Catholics are having an internal debate about how to adapt to liberal modernity, and in that debate there are conservatives who think we’ve had quite enough adaptation and liberals who think that more is needed. These days I associate the conservative wing with orthodoxy and the liberal wing with heterodoxy; that’s why I identify as a conservative! But if we ever reach a period of consensus about “mere Catholicism”—at, let’s say, the Council of Nairobi in 2087 ad—that consensus probably will not look exactly like the conservative vision of the last few decades, and it may need to draw some ideas from both of Richard John Neuhaus’s dissenting camps, traditionalist and liberal.
This possibility suggests the need for conservatives to think anew, and I’m grateful that Woodward feels that my essay may have contributed effectively to this project. In response to his critique, I would only say that while I quite agree that the sociology of belief often matters more than “popes and bishops and ecclesiastical politics,” by his own admission, those politics delivered “confusion” to the laity in the wake of Vatican II, and I fear that in the age of Francis they risk doing so again. And while I agree with him, as I have said, that liberal Catholicism cannot be simply reduced to Protestantization, I would have agreed with him more strongly five years ago than I do today. The revelation of the Francis pontificate, from my vantage point, is that too many of the Church’s leading lights are not merely liberal in the sense of doubting Humanae Vitae or feeling that the Church might treat gay Catholics with more Christian charity. Their liberalism moves very swiftly from sexual ethics to sacramental theology, and thence to other foundational issues—the nature of the priesthood, the authority of the Bible, the very identity of Jesus Christ. Liberalism in the Church cannot be reduced to Hans Küng, but the liberal springtime of the last few years has revealed that there are far more Küngs than I once realized or believed.
Finally, it is challenging—the challenge of the Catholic writer in our times, perhaps—to marry a joyful Christian witness with a rigorous engagement with intra-Christian controversy, and I accept John Connelly’s rebuke for failing at that challenge. On the issue of church growth, I quite agree that numbers are not the ultimate measure of a church’s success; however, insofar as liberal theology often sells its vision as a necessary means to keeping churches relevant and vibrant, demographic decline does tend to undercut a certain kind of liberal claim.
And to close on a personal note: While my family did begin our religious peregrinations in a declining Mainline denomination, we made the leap to Catholicism after an extended period in Evangelicalism and Pentecostalism, which are the fastest-growing forms of Christian faith around the world. We did not become Catholics, in other words, in order to join the “winning side.” We converted because we believed—as I still believe, nineteen years later—that Catholicism is true.
Allen Guelzo’s article on Josiah Royce, “Dissenter for the Absolute” (January), is lucid and thought-provoking. The article reminded me, however, of my own frustrations with Royce. Guelzo writes that “Like [William] James, he began with concrete individual experience, but built up from it to a vision of a ‘Blessed Community’ aligned with God.” Yes, this is true, and Guelzo does a good job of showing it; however, Royce was so close and yet so far. Royce’s notion of community was too abstract; he became trapped in his own high thinking. The practical, epistemological foundations of community that had long been taught at Harvard were lost.
From the 1680s on past the Civil War, the Harvard curriculum included logic textbooks that taught the Aristotelian foundations of social thought. Harvard tutors and professors, from William Brattle through Levi Hedge, wrote textbooks describing the principles and methods of social epistemology. These textbooks taught from within the tradition of what Aristotle had called “non-technical” knowledge. Their textbooks, used by many generations of Harvard students, promoted foundations of social reasonableness that included both human and divine testimony.
Francis Bowen, hired into the department in 1836 and raised in 1853 to the Alford Chair of Natural Religion, Moral Philosophy, and Civil Polity, published his own Treatise on Logic (1864) that taught that we are compelled “in many of the most important concerns of our existence, to depend on the Testimony, and consequently to confide in the sincerity, of others.” For Bowen, the epistemology and logic of community had to be grounded in the social thought of Aristotle. Bowen continued to teach this into the 1880s, but the department swung away from teaching the Aristotelian foundations of community with the hiring of George Herbert Palmer (1842–1933). Palmer wanted to narrow the vision of philosophy as an academic discipline and was the architect of the department that hired Josiah Royce. Bruce Kuklick, in his Rise of American Philosophy, thinks that Palmer was key to keeping Charles Sanders Peirce out of the department—Peirce being the deepest student of the subject of social testimony at the end of the nineteenth century.
So, yes, we got Josiah Royce. He took up the long Harvard tradition of teaching community, loyalty, and civility. Hiring Royce is a moment of hope for people like me interested in teaching the academic foundations of community. Royce was not just a philosopher. He had the deep practicality of a historian and wrote the best of the early histories of California. Royce Hall is the grand centerpiece of the UCLA campus! But if, as Guelzo writes, Royce built up a “vision of a ‘Blessed Community’ aligned with God,” it is an abstracted notion of community grounded in a philosophically individualized epistemology. With Palmer’s hiring of Royce, Harvard found someone interested in teaching the philosophy of community; however, much was lost. In Royce’s writings, Harvard turned away from its long-standing tradition of teaching the logic of community constructed upon an epistemology of testimony.
point loma nazarene university
san diego, california
Allen Guelzo’s article in praise of Josiah Royce aroused my interest because in my book Person and Society in American Thought, I covered the same divergence between Royce and William James. There, the author’s praise of Royce is understandable, since he maintains the primacy of principle over expediency. But there are deeper difficulties. The pragmatism of James and the instrumentalism of Dewey may have turned the American mind away from philosophy, but Royce’s theory would have called them to substitute abstract metaphysics for a living faith in revealed truth. Royce may have been called “A Defender of the Faith” by some in his time, but his Beloved Community was not a reflection of the communion of saints. It was, rather, a fully humanistic replacement of the Body of Christ and, as such, part of the general movement to make theology subordinate to the philosophy of religion.
Royce, like James, studied the major religions of East and West and formed a preference for Christianity because it established a sacred union of the one and the many. But in the post-Reformation world, Royce was convinced that none of the denominations could correct the major problem of belief and action, especially that of sinfulness. In the Roycean view, grave fault was not, as in the Christian tradition, a fall from grace; rather, it evidenced an estrangement in the relationship between the individual and the community. The individual becomes involved in a serious conflict between the demands of the social will and his own unlimited desires for personal autonomy. He sins as he gives preference to his willfulness. These antagonisms intensify as both society and the individual mature.
The modern individual does not feel that he is subject to the sanctions of an angry God, but he will not forgive himself. Nor will he look for a Savior from on high. Yet if natural human societies are to be transformed into Beloved Communities, someone must make amends for wrongdoing. In the religious philosophy of Royce, a new salvation will arise out of the purifying refinement of the virtue of loyalty. Within the group whose unity has been shattered by sin, some devoted servant will suffer on behalf of the offender.
Sacrificial human loyalty becomes the modern expression of traditional Christian charity. The results are equally universal. A sense of salvation by human agency begins to permeate the global whole, and the world at large becomes the true church. What institutional Christianity was unable to achieve through its own resources will be gradually accomplished by an inclusive and constructive idealism that realizes through abstract reason what was impossible to faith alone.
Cornelius F. Murphy Jr.
Allen Guelzo replies:
Both of these letters touch on issues that are problematic in Josiah Royce. Rick Kennedy rightly points out that philosophy at Harvard once had a strong bent toward community. The focus of its curriculum in the seventeenth century and well into the eighteenth was logic—not formal logic as we understand the subject, but the art of reasoning and living well, and even the introduction of Cartesian logic in the 1680s was seen as a simplified way of discovering certainty and praised for its “use in the affairs of life.”
But if Royce was incapable of rebuilding community on the basis of an abstraction as vague as loyalty, certainly Peirce was even less likely to have been able to construct a viable notion of community. Peirce might have believed that science was moving humanity toward evolutionary convergence, but Peirce himself seems to have been able to get along with nobody. It is ironic, in this way, that the two most pronounced promoters of community in Harvard’s life in the “Golden Age” of Harvard philosophy were both loners. James, on the other hand, was so gregarious that he could have made friends with the lampposts on Irving Street. (I disagree, however, that Palmer was chiefly responsible for Harvard’s refusal to hire Peirce; James’s correspondence in the Houghton Library shows that James was quite willing to praise Peirce in public but quite capable of planting a knife in his back in the reference letters he wrote on Peirce’s behalf.)
Cornelius Murphy also rightly finds Royce falling short of the measure that would have sustained a genuine community, for how can real communities live honestly without acknowledging sin and the need for redemption? But in recognizing how short Royce came of the full prescription, I also wanted to recognize how much further he went in that direction than James or Dewey. James, for all practical purposes, had nothing in view but the individual and thought he had found a method to enable individuals to make decisions; Dewey believed democracy would suffice to make those decisions for us. Neither has delivered on that promise. So if Royce failed to construct a genuine “community of the saints,” his Beloved Community was certainly a vast improvement on the pragmatic, Darwinian worlds which James and Dewey helped build.