An article about Pope Francis appearing in The Week just caught my attention. By now, I’ve had my fill of the gushing stream of “Why Liberals are Crazy about Pope Francis” articles that the AP churns out with indefatigable consistency. They’re a dime a dozen and as predictable in their content as their authors are uninformed in the faith. But for some reason, I decided to check this one out. So bear with me as I unpack it.
Damon Linker, a liberal Catholic, writes about a woman, Trish, who called in during an NPR interview with him. The discussion had been about how, when, if, and, to what degree Pope Francis will start the implementation of long-overdue changes of Church teaching on X, Y, and Z. So far, nothing new, right? Tell me something I don’t know. Here’s the twist: Trish made it clear that she thought the entire discussion was irrelevant. Catholics don’t care about doctrine anymore. Doctrine, to most Catholics, is the only thing older than Carol Channing, so there’s no need to speculate about when any of it will change. Trish exposed to Linker the divide within liberal Catholicism between those who want to selectively change Church doctrine and those who completely ignore Church doctrine. According to Trish, liberals like Linker are spinning their wheels because they’re hoping that something will change when that “something” is a non-issue. “Let it go!” Trish was saying. At first, Linker was struck by the open-and-shut turn of the discussion. He wondered, “Does Trish have a point?”
It is certainly true that most Catholics, while considering themselves one-hundred percent “Catholic”, have no qualms disregarding the Church’s teaching on any number of issues, ranging from divorce and remarriage, homosexuality, the male priesthood, abortion, contraception, etc. But at this point, Linker arrives at an inescapable contradiction (he calls it a “puzzle”) that only sheer stupidity could rest content with, or not see. If you’ve aligned yourself with a body, but then proceed to reject the body’s cohesive structure and organizational makeup, can you really say that a “body” even remains? What’s left? Really, all that remains is the individual, or more accurately put, a severed, lifeless limb, not a living body with members. The lonely, isolated individual is all that stands; an individual who has the consolation of saying that he/she is the final arbiter of that which he/she has never been comfortable with in the first place: TRUTH. Okay, Linker doesn’t connect the dots that thoroughly. But here’s what he does write about the “Trish Catholics” out there:
If you attend [Catholic Mass] for the beauty of the liturgy, why not just become an Episcopalian? If it’s the sense of community you crave, why not join the Unitarian church? Either way, you could certainly continue to be spiritually moved by the pope’s public utterances, in the same way you might be stirred by an inspiring presidential speech. But what’s the point of staying put when you’re utterly indifferent to so much of what the Catholic Church (and on contraception at least, pretty much only the Catholic Church) proclaims to be true?
Upholding church doctrine and affirming it as true, in the style of conservative Catholics, is one thing. Fighting to change church doctrine, as my perhaps imaginary liberal Catholic reformers would want to do, is another. But treating doctrine as completely beside the point is something else entirely. (Emphasis added.)
If Trish is the future of American Catholicism, we appear to be left with a puzzle: When does a church without a doctrine cease to be a church at all? (Emphasis added.)