More Discussion on the “Catholic Moment”

Ross Douthat’s weekend column, in which he asserted that the sex abuse scandal and the Church’s poor handling of it effectively ended a unique period of Catholic influence in American politics, has generated quite a lot of discussion. Most of the responses agreed with Douthat that this Catholic moment had indeed ended, but argued that he placed too much blame on the shoulders of the clergy and the  decline of the Church’s reputation in the wake of the scandal. These folks, such as Peter Lawler,  contended that it’s instead the case that the decrease in salience of Catholic ideas about society is primarily due to the fact that both parties are more polarized than they were in 2000, more deeply entrenched in their own extreme forms of liberalism (economically on the right, socially on the left).

Rod Dreher of The American Conservative took this line one step further, not only arguing that this particular Catholic moment was the victim of the extremes of the American political spectrum, but that any Catholic moment would inevitably be living on borrowed time, given the deep incongruities of Catholicism and liberalism. In fact, Dreher questions that such a Catholic moment could ever really exist with any real vitality in a liberal society such as America:

The fact of the matter is that Roman Catholic Christianity (also Orthodox Christianity, and some forms of Protestantism) cannot be reconciled with the expressive individualism that is the hallmark of late modern civilization … there never was a possibility for a Catholic moment in America. Not even American Catholics agree on what it means to be Catholic, and what is required of them as Catholics … Catholicism in this country has lost its distinctives, because many, probably most, actual Catholics have no sense that the faith they profess calls them to accept and to live by a set of theological and moral precepts that they may struggle to accept, but must accept because God revealed them authoritatively through His church.

One may say this is a good thing, this Protestantization of Catholicism, or one may decry it as a bad thing. But I don’t see how one can credibly say that it doesn’t exist. Catholicism, understood on its own terms, is radically opposed to American culture, and to the essence of modernity. Catholicism, as understood by most American Catholics, is not. There’s the problem with the Catholic moment, and why it was never going to happen. Of course, the behavior of the bishops in the abuse crisis didn’t help, but ultimately it was beside the point.

Based on what I wrote about the topic yesterday, it’s clear that I’m in Dreher’s camp. I am extremely skeptical of anything like a comprehensively Catholic understanding of society every really gaining any traction in American politics, a product of deep structural issues embedded in our national ethos instead of temporal falls from grace.  While I will acknowledge that the scandal certainly dealt a blow to Catholicism’s legitimacy in America, it’s not for the reason that Douthat thinks.  The scandal simply served to exacerbate the real issue, which, as Dreher correctly notes, is the “Protestantizaton of Catholicism” in America, a process that Fr. Richard John Neuhaus called the “gradual but certain sociological accommodation to a Protestant ethos” and I described in the following way:

…Catholics are acting more like Protestants. Religion is increasingly viewed by Catholics as something that can and should be confined to their homes and churches, a process helped along by a federal government all too eager to create what Neuhaus terms “the naked public square.” As the Church and its influence are sequestered from the public sphere as an “illegitimate” and “non-consented” authority, what one’s Catholicism consists of is entirely up to the individual adherent; not only is one’s association with the Church completely voluntary, but so is his or her acceptance of particular Church teachings. The individual is free to create God and His Church in his or her own self-interested image.

In other words, the scandal challenged many Catholics’ willingness to acquiesce to the authority to the Church hierarchy,  effectively giving them license to dissent from doctrine on the grounds that the Church’s integrity had been compromised (a silly notion, considering that the Church’s teaching authority, in actuality, has nothing to do with the sanctity of the men who serve as its leaders).  I’m actually somewhat surprised that Douthat doesn’t more readily acknowledge the extent to which this effect is in play, considering that the decline of orthodox Christianity is a pet topic of his, the subject of his recent book, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (I’m reading this book now and hope to finish and review it in short order).

Nonetheless, the boys were back at it again today. First, Douthat responded to Dreher’s critique:

I share Dreher’s doubts about the essential compatibility of Catholicism and liberal modernity, but I think this is much too absolute a line. A kind of “Catholic moment” in our politics and culture need not require perfect unity within the church, nor a sweeping renunciation of individualism on the part of those outside it. It only requires that distinctively Catholic ideas about the common good enjoy more influence and prestige than they do at present — and even in an age of institutional Christian weakness, this seems to me an attainable goal. America can remain a minority Catholic country, and orthodox believers can remain a minority within the larger group of self-identified Catholics, without Catholic influence on American society necessarily tracing an arc of permanent decline.

And after convincingly detailing how Catholic ideas have demonstrably had higher salience during some times than others (higher in the 1950s and 1990s than the 1920s and 1970s) and that certain Catholic figures (think JP2) have been more successful than others in substantiating the brand, Douthat concludes with the following:

Acknowledging structural forces, in other words, doesn’t mean ignoring the way that individual choices shape how those forces make themselves felt. So yes, I do think that if the American bishops had been, not “luminous saints” regarding sex abuse, but just more competent and courageous and less self-protective and corrupt, the church they shepherd would enjoy (and deserve) significantly more influence today, both over its own flock and society as a whole. (One need not undersell the forces hostile to Catholicism in our culture to recognize the sex abuse scandals as a grim turning point in the American religious story.) I also think that Catholic social thought would enjoy more bipartisan appeal today if the Bush presidency had ended in something other than disaster, that Catholic ideas would find a wider audience if Catholic pundits and intellectuals were more critical of their respective “teams” of left and right, and that the church’s media image would be less tarnished if the Vatican bureaucracy could be dragged into the 20th century, let alone the 21st. I’m sure I could come up with many more such counterfactuals, given world and time enough — and I don’t think I’m pining for an impossible Arcadia by imagining that at least some of them were plausible.

Again, I’m not denying that the Catholic faith will always be rowing against the currents of a late-modern mass democracy like ours. But boats can beat successfully against a current (and make room for more passengers on board), or they can just be carried backward toward the sea. A “Catholic moment” exists, in this sense, when the barque of Peter seems to be making some headway — and to the extent that such a moment has vanished in our own era, as much blame has to belong to the rowers who ignored obvious rocks, smashed their oars or kicked holes in the bottom as to the river of modernity itself.

To which Dreher responds: “Point taken.”

Dreher goes on to agree that receptiveness to a proposal usually goes beyond the rational merits of said proposal. Perception of the messenger often matters just as much, if not more than the message being conveyed (thus why Doestoevsky’s Prince Myshkin declares that “Beauty [rather than Truth] will save the world.”). In fact, Dreher acknowledges that the charisma of Blessed John Paul II played not an insignificant role in eventually pushing him towards the Catholic faith (he converted, but is now Orthodox). Thus, it makes sense that if the Church’s reputation suffers, so will its ideas for improving society:

I think this is what Ross is getting at, and I appreciate the correction. I wouldn’t cross the street to see Cardinal Roger Mahony or Cardinal Bernard Law, and if either man gave a sermon praising motherhood and apple pie, I would wonder if either thing was all it was cracked up to be. The US Catholic bishops, by their failures, have brought what you might consider negative charisma to their message. They hold ecclesial authority by virtue of their apostolic offices, but overall, they have little or no moral authority. And this, as Ross (an orthodox Catholic) indicates, is their own fault.

It’s always going to be hard for real, substantive Christianity, in its Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant versions, to make much headway in modern cultures. But it’s much more difficult when those given the authority to proclaim the Gospel squander their gift and responsibility. Why should the world listen to our message when our leaders (to say nothing of we, their followers) do such a terrible job of living out our beliefs?

Honestly, I think Dreher’s initial critique of Douthat’s stance and Douthat’s need to re-articulate his position are products of the fact that “Catholic moment” is such a nebulous term. It’s difficult to define and understand, and I think both men were initially working under different interpretations of it. But in the end, they’re both right. Douthat’s correct to point out that Catholic ideas can (and, in fact, do) gain traction in a modern liberal society such as our own, and that the public’s perception of the Church and its leaders plays a critical role in just how readily these ideas are received. By the same token, Dreher is accurate in his own assessment: though we can make some headway, a comprehensively Catholic idea of society will always be an impossibility in a pluarlistic, liberal nation. Still, let’s not the perfect be the enemy of the good (or at least “the better”).

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One comment

  1. Julia Smucker · · Reply

    Thanks for this helpful summary. I find it particularly helpful to see how Douthat and Dreher are getting at the tension between a Catholic influence within the society and an ultimate incompatibility of values. I would be coming from somewhere close to Dreher’s conclusion that “a comprehensively Catholic idea of soicety will always be an impossibility in a pluralistic, liberal nation.” To complicate matters further, while there is much I find problematic about the liberalism of both the left and the right, I also strongly believe that a formal separation of Church and State is necessary for religious freedom. But within these restraints, as your final sentence seems to suggest, we should be working toward (supporting organizations, laws, and all kinds of social action that move us toward) a more just society that is conducive to human flourishing and respects the dignity of all, from an understanding formed by our Catholic tradition. Maybe that can be a guiding principle for a church that is still struggling to find its public voice in this pluralistic liberal society, as it has been throughout the history of its presence within the American Experiment.

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