Essays on Religion, Faith and Sprituality by Michele Madigan Somerville

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

"Can 'Liberal' Christianity Be Saved? It Already Is.

In his July 15th piece in the New York Times, "Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?" Ross Douthat argues that (what he calls) "liberal Christianity" is on the decline. I think the opposite may be true. "Liberal Christianity" may even be flourishing, in an evolved state; helped along, in the industrialized world at least, by fundamentalist (so-called) "Christianity" and the psychic despotism of today's Vatican. Conspicuous consumption of religion is not a reliable means of measuring the vitality of "liberal Christianity" because the truest indication of "liberal Christianity's" strength may be its willingness to reject the corruption of clerical hierarchies in favor of "throwing down" with the Christ of the streets. If it is to survive, Douthat argues, "liberal Christianity" will have to offer what "secular liberalism" (as he calls it) cannot. A worthy enough premise. But "liberal Christianity" already does that. "Liberal Christianity" is already offering what neither today's conservative Christianity nor secular liberalism provide: Christ, without the ecclesiastical trappings.

To measure the vitality of "liberal Christianity" as one might measure the robustness of a business -- in terms of number of consumers, conversions, baptism and vocations -- is to miss the point of what a church actually is. Christians of all stripes do tend to agree that the ministry of Jesus was not focused on filling pews or increasing priestly vocations. Doing the work of Christ with Christ in mind is church. "Liberal Christianity" takes seriously the obligation to increase peace, serve the poor, love "the stranger," forgive the guilty, and protect the innocent while maintaining structure for worship and teaching. The great majority of people who do "works of mercy" in the context of religious practice (what daily mass-attending Dorothy Day called them) do have prayer lives.

The worship lives of those I know who do social justice work in the context of their religious affiliations and practices do so with God in the forefront of their thinking and feeling. I worked for several years with a group of lawyers from a Protestant church who advised indigent people on housing, food stamps and free and low-cost medical insurance. This "liberal" Christian Protestant ministryoperated out of a Roman Catholic church. The Protestants were progressive-minded but were also far more conspicuously prayerful at the site where we offered free legal advice to clients that the Roman Catholics were.
This Protestant Church had a website instead of a church building, conducted Sunday services in rented space in a local school, and their church, except on Sunday morning, was focused almost entirely on doing social justice work for people outside of their church. On the face, this church might look like the kind of church Douthat erroneously imagines to be offering little beyond "what secular liberalism" offer, but Pro forma sacrament and groupthink are not what the orthodoxy-challenging Jesus on earth was after. The goal of Jesus was not to get crosses outside the courthouse and pleats on school girls. His goal was to teach us to love the marginalized, resist the urge to wage war, bring consciousness to our worship lives and to revere the prophets and tradition of the Hebrew Bible and to look to the Resurrection. My religious truth lies in the Roman Catholic Church, yet I am Christian enough to recognize that it is quite often churches which are short on rules and gothic flourishes that most succeed in being authentically "Christian."

I visited Rome earlier this month and spent a day and a half in the Vatican with my 17 year-old daughter. As we exited the Apostolic Palace, having just spent about 30 minutes sitting amid the flashbulb din of the Sistine Chapel, my girl quipped: "Just like Disney World, the end of the tour drops you off in the store." The art of the Vatican - even despite the blundering fig-leaf campaign bastardizations - moved me to tears, but I came away feeling uneasy about the moneylenders-in-the-temple aspect of St. Peter's Basilica. Conservative Christianity may offer much that secular aspects of social and political life don't begin to provide, but at what cost? The truth is "Liberal Christianity" is redundancy. If it's not "liberal," it's probably not "Christian." If it countenances greed, the making of war, the polluting of the earth, prejudice -- it is not Christianity.
Douthat takes a few swipes the Episcopal Church in his piece. He, in effect, derides a Protestant bishop who in 2006 addressed the question of a reduction of Episcopalians in the pews by making reference to a "liberal's" disposition toward limiting family size: 
Leaders of liberal churches have alternated between a Monty Python-esque "it's just a flesh wound!" bravado and a weird self-righteousness about their looming extinction. (In a 2006 interview, the Episcopal Church's presiding bishop explained that her communion's members valued "the stewardship of the earth" too highly to reproduce themselves.)

Our pope has taught that sins against the environment should be taken seriously by Catholics. I know many Roman Catholic couples who have felt compelled for religious reasons not to "bring up" the Catholic "number" by spawning large broods. But according to Douthat, their refusal to breed like church mice is the least of what's wrong with Episcopalians:
I found the overall tone of Douthat's piece to be disrespectful toward Protestants:
As a result, today the Episcopal Church looks roughly how Roman Catholicism would look if Pope Benedict XVI suddenly adopted every reform ever urged on the Vatican by liberal pundits and theologians. It still has priests and bishops, altars and stained-glass windows. But it is flexible to the point of indifference on dogma, friendly to sexual liberation in almost every form, willing to blend Christianity with other faiths, and eager to downplay theology entirely in favor of secular political causes.
I don't know what the Roman Catholic Church would look like if Joseph Ratzinger were to suddenly "adopt every reform ever urged on the Vatican by liberal pundits." Noone does. I do know, however, that to equate the ordaining of gay people and the consecration their marriages with "being friendly to sexual liberation in almost every form," is to engage in anti LGBT bigotry in God's name.
Douthat also thinks that "liberal" Protestant churches are throwing out the baby of theology with the baptismal water. Wrong again. I occasionally worship in Protestant churches while traveling, and have never seen evidence of theology being downplayed (I do see it downplayed with abandon in white suburban Roman Catholic churches, however.) Even in predominantly gay congregations, I have never seen any sign of "sexual liberation in almost every form" promulgated. More often I see old-fashioned family values grafted onto same-sex couples.
To call the Episcopal Church ""flexible to the point of indifference on dogma," is to engage in all-out anti-Protestant bigotry of the sort that even Joseph Ratzinger condemns. Catholics are called to honor the divine aspects of all faiths. I don't much like our pope, but I do give him credit for upholding Nostra Aetate's call for Catholics to appreciate the divine light that exists within faiths other than our own.
I am often exhorted by conservative Catholic critics to defect to the Episcopal Church where anything, they suggest, goes. While I have come to enjoy being shown the door by the rabid Holy Roman Catholic Rollers, I am often offended by the suggestion that the Episcopal Church is exists to serve as a receptacle for bad Roman Catholics. When Catholics leap to disparage the beliefs of fellow Christians, they both violate papal teaching and (much more important) strip their "Christian" belief of its Christ. To speak of "blending Christianity with other faiths" as if it were a bane is to forget, somehow, that all forms of Christianity were born of such a "blend." (Douthat should check out the writing of the great poet and priest Thomas Merton in order to see how the faith-blending he so despises can bring Catholics closer to God!)

Douthat focuses chiefly on Protestant faiths in "Can Liberal Christianity be Saved?" but he does turn to the Roman Catholic for an example of how "liberal Christian" vocations are down. He reminds us that progressive Roman Catholic orders have been unable to "generate enough vocations to sustain themselves" without noting that vocations in all manners of Christian church, along with attendance, are down. Vocations are down in liberal Roman Catholic orders because the Vatican is gunning for them. Vocations are down in "liberal" orders because a corrupt pontificate is chasing psychologically healthy, intelligent men with real desire to do Christ's work away, preferring instead to scrape the barrel for young, blindly obedient "yes men" with dreams of Father Flanagan puissance. "Liberal" Catholics are disgusted by the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church (which seemed headed in another direction 25 years ago). At present, all roads to Roman Catholic male ordination lead to Rome. Many who feel called to serve as priests today are loath to pledge obedience to a pope who treats conscientious objectors more harshly in than men who have facilitated the rape of children. That men who, given a more scrupulous pontificate, might otherwise enter seminary now seek instead more Christianity-compatible Catholic vocation workarounds is a sign of "liberal' Catholicism's strength -- not evidence of its frailty.

Douthat complains about the media's putative failure to report that the Vatican's investigation of convents was a part of a well-intentioned effort to ensure the survival of the religious orders under scrutiny, ones that prepare women to work in Catholic hospitals. ("RatzingerCare?") Maybe preserving an order that provides women willing to work for low wages in Catholic hospitals was part of the plan, but the more urgent reason for sending spies into convents was that convents are think tanks for women's ordination. I suppose it is not surprising that someone who believes the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (Formerly known as the Office of Inquisitions) spied on nuns for their own good might, in the course of touching on "liberal" Catholic vocations, neglect to mention women's ordination, but the women's ordination movement does tell us much about where "liberal" Catholicism is headed.
While the number of male vocations in "liberal" orders of priests and nuns is on the decline, the number of women being ordained as Roman Catholic priests is increasing rapidly. The hysteria of those who insist that Roman Catholic women priests are not "real priests" has little bearing on the fact that the Women's Ordination movement is taking hold among moderate Catholics, who recognize that even our own Saint Peter (whom Catholics view as the first priest) was not considered a "real priest" in his day.
There are not many Catholic women priests in the U.S. and Europe at present, but Roman Catholic ordinations of women are on the rise. More significant than their number is that the woman's ordination movement is built to endure. It has a low overhead, international roots, much support from Roman Catholic bishops and moderate Catholics, and is Darwinian in nature. In other words it is built to survive and has gained way too much ground to be stopped. Whatever the next phase of Roman Catholicism is -- and most Catholics appear to agree that there will be a next phase, and some kind of essential shift -- the conservative church has already lost this war. The Vatican's last round of ammo was self-excommunication. Now that self-excommunications means nothing to a majority of Roman Catholics, Rome has zero leverage. There is now nothing the Vatican can do to slow down women's ordination.
The Vatican scandals which have come to light in the course of the Benedict XVI and John Paul II pontificates have helped the women's ordination movement along. When, two years ago, the US bishops compared the gravity of the "sin" of taking part in a mass celebrated by a woman to that of sexually assaulting a child, they alienated many moderate Catholics, women especially, while showing their true colors and betraying their desperation. By putting the kibosh on even discussing women's ordination, Ratzinger let women seeking ordination know that the time to stop asking had come. The focus has since shifted. There is less asking and we can expect to observe more taking. I have come to believe that Joseph Ratzinger may be the best thing that could have happened to the women's ordination movement. It may be that the pressure of a pope who longs for a medieval church provided exactly the kind of pressure and heat needed to turn the simple dark rock of the women's ordination movement into an unbreakable gem.
Throughout the U.S., even in conservative parishes, much of the work of running parishes is done by women. No examination of the rising and falling in Roman Catholic vocations should fail to take into account that there has been a shift in the involvement of male and female laity in churches in recent years and that there is strong feeling among progressive Catholics, priests included, that parishioners do a a fine job taking on work priests alone once did. Lay Catholics bring communion to the sick, work as catechists, serve on the altar, work as liturgical ministers and handle parish business. Lat people lead Communion services, preside at gravesite rituals and run social justice ministries. Progressive priests I know report great ambivalence about counseling men on vocations while voicing enthusiasm for a church in which laity do more. This openness to laity involvement casts new light on vocations to the priesthood.
Some priests welcome increased involvement by lay people because of concern about the formation and preparation of new priests. There is worry that the unofficial "don't ask, don't tell" (as it relates gay seminarians) policy, mandatory celibacy, and the Ratzinger-era devaluation of informed conscience are threatening to turn seminaries into intellectual wastelands. If the rise and decline of Catholic vocations is to be taken as a reflection of the weakness or strength of "liberal" Catholicism, quality as well as quantity should be taken into account. Douthat makes much of the decline of genuine theology in Christian churches, but nowhere is Catholic rigorous theology vanishing more quickly than in conservative seminaries.
While I may not agree with that priest down the block on contraception, chances are he was reasonably well-educated. No more. Dioceses are rooting around for seminarians, scraping the bottom of the barrel for recruits in the U.S. and recruiting under-educated, Magisterium-conditioned priests from poor regions of the developing world, hoping to turn out a better brand of Canon Code chimps. The Vatican wants adherents not shepherds. A trend toward emphasizing obedience at the expense of inquiry, scrutiny, discernment, scholarship and pastoral talent -- is taking hold. There is great fear among many priests that the priesthood is gradually being "dumbed-down." Ironically enough, it appears that women preparing for Roman Catholic ordination, who often to begin their preparation for Roman Catholic ordination already having undertaken Divinity studies, tend to embrace the scholastic rigors of preparing for the priesthood. They have a lot to prove, and they rise to the occasion.
Douthat's piece ends on an anti-Episcopal, disparaging note: 
What should be wished for, instead, is that liberal Christianity recovers a religious reason for its own existence ...
Today, by contrast, the leaders of the Episcopal Church and similar bodies often don't seem to be offering anything you can't already get from a purely secular liberalism.
Douthat is wrong. "Liberal Christianity"is offering something we don't get from a purely secular liberalism, and something we get precious little of from the Vatican:
It's called "Christ."
Follow Indie Theology on Twitter. 
Follow Michele Somerville on Twitter.


  1. thank you for the thoughtful tone of this article. I am an Anglican (Episcopal) priest who studied theology at a Roman Catholic institution. I hold a pontifical biblcal degree. I was active in the RC movement for women's ordination in the early 1980s. I have served in 6 Anglican parishes and retired as an archdeacon. I am a woman, a lesbian, and a good priest. And I am a strong theological liberal. We need many more well-informed pieces like this one as all the Christian churches struggle to discern how to serve Christ today,which of our past practises have served their time and can be let go, and how best to live from the heart ofour faith. Thanks again. Karen Dukes

    1. I thank you for this comment, Reverend Dukes.and for your work as a woman called to priesthood.

  2. Hi Michele,
    I discovered your blog on HuffPost and rejoiced! I echo every word you have written in this and other posts. As a teacher in a parochial school, I can verify the important roles that women fulfill bringing Christ's kingdom to fruition.
    I will make a few predictions. The Vatican's attempt to put the good Sisters back in their "place" will fail, there will be another stab at deflecting the attention of the congregation when Finn's trial begins, Voice of The Faithful will be demonized like the good sisters, and there will be continued attacks against SNAP.
    I was sickened by the 'Fortnight for Freedom' campaign and totally agreed that it was a ploy to deflect attention from the real travesty occuring, the continued corrupt policies of the USSCB, and the Magesterium that condoned the ongoing abuse of tens of thousands of innocents. Where is the "Fortnight for Justice for Those Who Suffered Abuse?"
    We are out there Michele. Hungry for the truth and hanging on your every word.

    1. Yup, VOTF has a target on its back. Unfortunately many Catholics feel that their faith somehow depends upon exonerating bishops who looked the other way while their priests were raping children, and that is not true. I think you are right about the "good sisters." They may say what they have to in order to keep their convents open but under the radar they will continue on a progressive course. We will see SNAP discredited and macerated by men like Lori, Levada and Dolan who have lost the Christ thread. Thank you for taking the time to comment. MMS

  3. Thankyou for this excellent article. As a cradle Catholic, I have wondered for years - Where is JESUS in the Roman Catholic Church?
    As a physician who has met many who have been sexually abused by Roman Catholic clergy, and as one who was sexually assaulted myself as a young doctor, by a Carmelite priest, I wonder where is the accountability of Pope Benedict XVI, in admitting his role in allowing clergy sexual abuse of innocent children to flourish worldwide?
    Pope Benedict XVI centralized all cases of priest and bishop sexual abuse over the 24 years that he was head of the office of faith and morals in the Vatican, before he became Pope in 2005. Was he so ambitious to become Pope that he kept his mouth shut, and protected the predator clergy, at the expense of the soul-murder of so many innocent children?
    Now I have read that Pope Benedict XVI's American lawyer is claiming that the Pope has diplomatic immunity. The truth will set us free. What would Jesus want done? Where is Jesus in the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church???
    Sincerely, Dr Rosemary Eileen McHugh, Chicago, Illinois

    1. Dear Dr. McHugh,

      I thank you for taking a moment to comment on my essay. I think there is a lot of ignorance about how much long-lasting, deep-running harm the predation of RC clergy has done. The Vatican IS a sovereign state. It's pretty clear that Ratzinger was pulling strings and making policy long before he became pope. You ask where Jesus is in the leadership of RC Catholic Church? I think there are many bishops, some even in the College of Cardinals, who are very unhappy with the cabal of church leaders who put the preservation of the Vatican before all else. It depends on how one defines "leadership," but I think people like Sr. Joan Chittister, Fr. Roy Bourgeois and (Dr.) Fr. Hans Kung (I name only a few.) are the Jesus in our leadership. MMS