Sunday, April 01, 2018

The future of Catholicism

I was not born a Roman Catholic, but neither did I join the Catholic Church as an adult. My family was Episcopalian in the beginning, and as a child I received a certain amount of religious information–distinctively strange formation, in some cases–in various Protestant circles, Mainline and evangelical and Pentecostalist. Then I became a Catholic as a teenager, along with my family, in a shift that I welcome but that was impelled more by mother's spiritual journey than my own. So in the world of cradle Catholics and adult converts, groups that are often contrasted with one another and occasionally find themselves at odds, I belong to the little-known third category in between. 

As a result I share something with each group, while lacking something each enjoys. Like other converts i did not recite Hail Marys as a child or experience the church as a deep ancestral inheritance, bound up with blood and class and ethnic patrimony. Instead, I made an intellectualized religious choice, reading the books that converts tend to read and deciding the things that they decide, choosing Catholicism because its claims were more convincing than the Protestant churches of my youth.

But I did so while I was still half a kid, under strong maternal influence. Which meant that I also had elements of the cradle Catholic experience–a devout Catholic mother, confirmation classes with other teens rather than the adult-oriented conversion program, an after-school job manning the desk in my parish's priory, a hormonal adolescence and the attendant Catholic guilt. And it meant that like all cradle Catholics I have no way of knowing for certain if I would have chosen the church simply on my initiative, independently of family influence. My intellect says yes, but my self-awareness raises an eyebrow–because I have a strong interest in religious questions but relatively little natural piety. I can imagine myself lingering in the antechamber of a conversion, hesitating to pass inside.

When I went out into the world, to college and then into journalism, where my identity as a Catholic become important to my writing, this in-between feeling took on a new cast. In the secular world, my faith made me a curiosity and sometimes an extremist: I was a real live Catholic, not the lapsed or collapsed or Christmas-and-Easter sort that populate so many campuses and newsrooms, and what's more I had actually chosen to join the faith, deliberately signed on to all the strange dogmas and strict moral rules. And even if my friends and colleagues noticed that I didn't always live by them, I at least went to mass every Sunday and spoke up for something called "orthodoxy" in my writing, which was enough to make me seem like a zealot–the friendly sort, the kind you could have a beer and enjoy an argument with, but a guy with pretty strange ideas all the same.

But then if I went among my fellow true believers, both those who had converted and those cradle Catholics who were committed theologically as well as tribally, I was always conscious that my secular friends were wrong, that I wasn't much of a zealot after all, that I lacked something required for the part that I had been assigned in my professional life. My fellow serious Catholics seemed to have sincerity and certainty where I had irony and doubt. They went on retreats and knew whose feast day it was and had special devotions and prayed novenas; I was always forgetting basic prayers and Holy Days of Obligation. They seemed to approach the dogmas and rules as a gift, a source of freedom, a ladder up to God; I wrested with them, doubted them, disobeyed them, constantly ran variations on Pascal's Wager in my head. They joined Opus Dei or attended Latin Masses; I was often at a 5PM guitar mass, hating the aesthetics but preferring the schedule because it fit my spiritual sloth.

Sometimes I felt as though my conversion was incomplete, awaiting some further grace or transformation. At others I felt that I belonged to a category of Catholics that used to be common in Catholic novels and Catholic sociology, but had been abolished somewhere in the 1970s–the good bad Catholic or the bad good Catholic, whose loyalty was stronger than his faith and whose faith was stronger than his practice, but who didn't want the church to change all the rules to make his practice easier because then what would really be the point? 

This meant that, unlike many Catholics I known who were loyal to the church as a community but doubtful of its doctrines, I did not want this tension to be smoothed away by understanding priests and broad-minded theologians; indeed, the conflict between what I professed and how badly I fell short was part of what made the profession seem plausible, because a religion that just confirmed me in my early-twenty-first-century way of life couldn't possibly be divinely revealed. No, I wanted the church to be the church, to vindicate its claim to be supernaturally founded by resisting the tides and fashions of the age–

–but at the same time I didn't want that resistance to go too far, and actually forge the smaller, purer, Benedictine-monastery church that the most traditional and countercultural sometimes envisioned as Catholicism's future. Because I wasn't sure that such a church would have room for a Catholic as doubtful and slothful and erring as myself.

There is a tendency to see conservative Catholics, especially the sort who convert from more loosey-goosey faiths, as rigid people craving stability, traumatized by Protestantism's disorders or fear of modernity's pace of change. No doubt I have some touch of this condition; I am, for instance, a child and grandchild of divorce, with views on the sexual revolution colored by watching multiple layers of my family peel apart. But in many ways my experience is almost the opposite. I am temperamentally quite comfortable with the ways of modern life, and like my transcendentalist New England ancestors I think I would do pretty well at weaving together a personalized form of faith. So I have always appreciated Catholicism because it doesn't fit my personality, because it unsettles and discomfits and destabilizes the also-rigid-in-their-way patterns of secular existence, because without it I would be too self-confident in my ability to run my own life, too disinclined to pursue works of charity or mercy when there are works of ambition to pursue instead.

My temptation is not to imagine myself some perfect saint passing judgment on erring sinners and brazen heretics. Rather it's to romanticize my feelings, like a character in a Graham Greene novel, as some sort of existential wrestling match, rather than the rather ordinary and squalid sinfulness they are.

Most accounts of recent Catholic history suffer from a kind of inevitabilism. When they're written from a secular or liberal perspective, there is a sense that, of course, eventually the church will simply have to make all the reforms that recent popes have resisted, that those Catholics who believe some teachings simply cannot change are on the wrong side of religious history, that a kind of liberal Christianity is the destination to which Catholicism will sooner or later arrive. When written by conservative Catholics–and this was especially true during the heyday of John Paul II–there is a sense that wherever Rome has spoken, the argument is sound, the case is closed, and all the apparent tensions and contradictions within the global church will be resolved by the operation of the Holy Spirit, and smoothly, without the kind of chaos that has engulfed Catholicism in some of its ancient and  medieval crisis. 

This book is not inevitabilist. It is conservative, in the sense that it assumes the church needs a settled core of doctrine, a clear unbroken link to the New Testament and the early church, for Catholicism's claims and structure and demands to make any sense at all. If the church is just a religious tribe with constantly evolving views, a spiritual party in which the party line changes with the views of the  ecclesiastical nomenklatura, then for all the good works and lovely paintings and clever arguments the whole thing seems like a high-minded fraud, a trick upon the masses of believers, Philip Larkin's "Moth-eaten musical brocade". 

But at the same time, more than many conservative Catholics I think the recent history of the church should instill a certain amount of doubt about what exactly constitutes the Catholic core, where the bright lines lie and where they might be blurry, and what the church can do without touching doctrine and dogma to accommodate the modern world. And more than many, my doubts encourage me to envision scenarios–schisms and ruptures and striking transformations–that a certain kind of Catholic tends to rule out as impossible.

"To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant," wrote John Henry Newman, the nineteeth-century Catholic theologian turned Catholic convert and then cardinal, who will make further appearances in these pages. I believed this when I became Catholic, and I believe it still. But to go deep in church history, I have found, in trying to wrestle with this era of Catholic division  and debate, is to find reasons to doubt all of Francis era's competing visions for the church: the conservatives' because the church has changed in the past more than they are often ready to admit, the traditionalists' because the church has needed to change more than they seem ready to allow,  and the liberals' because it is hard to see how the church can change in the ways that they envision without cutting itself off from its own history and abandoning its claim to carry a divine message of unchanging truth. 

So where does this leave us? With uncertainty…This is a hinged moment in the history of Catholicism, a period of theological crisis that's larger than just the Francis pontificate…

Finally, there are Catholic readers who will find this book's critical portrait of a sitting pope to be in appropriate, impious, disloyal….But the major duty I assumed wasn't to the pope, it was to the truth the papacy exists to preach, to preserve, and to defend. I became Catholic because I thought that Catholicism had the most compelling claim to being the true church founded by Jesus of Nazareth…Here is a story about my church, my half-chosen and half-inherited faith, a story that has added to my always ample doubts… Ross Douthat, Changing the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism (Simon & Schuster 2018), "A Personal Preface".


  1. Dr. Scott Hahn exposed as a false teacher:

  2. ///my perish's priory///

    Interesting typo if it is in Douthat's Kindle version.

  3. Douthat's personal thoughts are very interesting.

    Protestant converts to Catholicism tend to be, like Douthat, intellectuals. They "have a strong interest in religious questions but relatively little natural piety." They had doubts about their Protestantism because it didn't make sense *to them*. Their individualism and their intellect made them skeptics and doubters in their former Protestant religious community, leading them to join another, very different, community where those doubts could finally be assuaged. Once they become Catholic, their doubts don't go away but are redirected. The wonder and excitement of joining the One True Church (TM) fades away. The same old problems reappear because the religious community has changed, but not the person in the community. The problems of doubt and skepticism, the rampant individualism of the intellectual Catholic convert, are not in the final analysis a Protestant problem but a personal problem that the Catholic convert projected onto Protestant theology.

    As a result, it isn't uncommon for Catholic converts to go full atheist as their next stop. That's because it wasn't about certainty, or Sola Scriptura, faith and works, or authority. It was always about me, me, me. Protestant to Catholic conversion is individualism turned up to 11. There is no one more individualistic than the Protestant to Catholic convert. It's about their faith, what makes sense to them, what makes them feel good, which sacraments, which priests and which cathedral or which piece of sacred art scratched their particular itch.

    Having already abaondoned Sola Scriptura, the notion that Scripture can be understood and applied by those who read it unto their salvation with the help of the Holy Spirit, the Catholic convert has already taken a large step toward atheism, because God is no longer comprehensible by the Word, but rather by muh feels. Muh sacraments. Muh apostolic succession. The ledge their faith clings to is the prestige and power of the Catholic Church alone, no longer the Word. All that's necessary for them to lose their faith altogether is for the prestige and power and Epistemological Certainty (TM) of the One True Church (TM) to fade away. To be doubted. To be cross examined.

    Douthat's experience is not unusual. And keep in mind, men like Douthat are the intellectual leaders of the conservative movement. This is their faith. It helps explain why conservatives, especially social and religious conservatives, have been so ineffectual.

    1. I am a Catholic convert and find your comments disturbingly insightful - particularly with regard to 'Me, Me, Me' individualism. I have struggled with 'dark nights of the soul' (i.e. temporary atheism) since joining the Catholic Church, especially having since found that the 'One True Church' that appealed to personal heroes like Tolkien and Chesterton, no longer exists since Vatican II (as Douthat chronicles).

    2. At first, I was thinking you are off-base, but besides Stephen's comment I remember talking to a Catholic on Twitter. I don't think he's a convert but he made the comment that if Rome was wrong he would become an atheist. Jesus would still be risen from the dead so that's really weird to me as a Catholic turned Protestant.

  4. Note carefully Douthat's justifications for himself. His lack of piety. His lack of interest in Holy Days of Obligation. Intellectually, Douthat denies Sola Fide. He thinks that's Easy Believeism. Mere Intellectual Assent. He caricatures it as Catholic apologists tend to do.

    Then he lets in a bastardized form of Sola Fide in the back door. I'm secure as a Catholic because I have a general feeling of trust that the Catholic Church is right, even if I don't do the things Catholics say I must do to be saved. What is the ground of Douthat's faith? Is it Christ? It appears to not be Christ, but the Catholic Church.

    What a frightful position to be in, spiritually.

  5. ^^I ought to have said "object" of Douthat's faith, not its ground.^^

  6. ///I became Catholic because I thought that Catholicism had the most compelling claim to being the true church founded by Jesus of Nazareth…///

    Maybe if he does a bit more investigation, he'll find out that this was not the case. Maybe others, readers of his, will find it as well.

    1. Yes... I was about to post a comment quoting this line, and identifying it as the root error. It's a line that presupposes so much. "Church", apparently, means a single hierarchical denomination/organisation with a unified leadership structure, historical organisational continuity and fixed earthly head-quarters. But why? Once you've loaded the word "church" with all of that, you're half way to Rome. (Though I'd still say you shouldn't go the whole way there, because even assuming that you become convinced what the Bible explains the word "church" to mean (which would be ridiculous, on the state of the evidence....) you ought to still avoid Rome by noting the difference in their soteriology and the Scriptures).