An intriguing back-and-forth occurred in mid-January, as columnists and Catholic thinkers responded to a central question that had been posed: do so-called liberal Catholics care about doctrine in the age of Pope Francis?
The question was prompted by Damon Linker’s pair of articles in The New Republic and The Week where he evaluates what real reform might mean for the new pope, part of which included LGBT matters. In the latter article, Linker concluded:
“Liberals would therefore have to settle for a moderation of papal rhetoric, and little else. I concluded by noting that although rhetoric matters in religion, this was far less than most liberal Catholics were hoping for…
“After reading an endless stream of gushing commentary by liberal Catholics on Pope Francis, I’m beginning to wonder if they ever really cared about reforming doctrine in the first place.”
His conclusion, premised on remarks by a woman calling into an NPR radio show where Linker was a guest, was that rather than seeking reform and renewal in the Church’s teachings, liberal Catholics simply had moved beyond doctrinal concerns. Highlighting the positive responses to Pope Francis by those advocating for equality and justice in the Church, Linker identifies the liberal Catholic response to doctrine as one of indifference. He asks:
“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?”
Responding at First Things‘ blog, Matthew Schmitz wrote an article titled “Why Catholics Don’t Care” and explored the reasons why Linker perceives Catholics to be more or less apathetic to the hierarchy’s teachings. While Schmitz ends up placing blame at the bishops’ feet, his article is indicative of Linker’s view that Catholics concerned with LGBT people or women’s place in the Church simply are not concerned with doctrine.
However, more on point is David Gibson’s column at Religion News Service. He identifies the “straw people” behind Linker’s article. Responding to this back and forth, Gibson writes:
“Well, that’s actually not what progressive Catholics tend to mean — their Catholicism is about faith, above all, and social justice and caring for all, womb to tomb…
“They do tend to want optional celibacy and women priests (and by the way, so do plenty of ‘conservative’ Catholics) and equal treatment for gay Catholics. But they don’t expect such things to happen overnight, and Francis is changing the tenor of the church’s approach on these questions.
“In short, Linker seemed to be setting up the very kind of straw man argument that he rightly and effectively dismissed”
Gibson notes the phrase by Grant Gallicho, an editor at Commonweal, that most Catholics are “ecclesiastical realists,” acknowledging the glacial pace at which the hierarchy moves. Gibson continues:
“Beyond that, I’d note that Linker also seems to have ignored the pope’s own words about change in the church, like those in his landmark interview with the Rev. Antonio Spadaro in Civilta Cattolica, a Jesuit journal. In that interview Francis spoke about his affinity for Pope John XXIII and the changes he introduced, and for the process of ‘discernment’ that ‘lay(s) the foundations for real, effective change.’…
“To wit, Francis himself has repeatedly and insistently condemned a pharisaical approach to doctrine, to religion as fastidious rule-following and faith formation as a ‘police action.’ Such a doctrinaire style creates ‘little monsters’ and ‘abstract ideologists or fundamentalists,’ Francis has said.”
Pope Francis is well aware of Church history and that doctrines shift as Catholics come to know God’s truth more clearly. I would add to this discussion a note about how these changes have occurred. Lay people, supported by prophetic religious women and men, simply act according to their consciences, the voice of God within each of us. Their witness, and the changes such witness brings, foster theological reflection. Eventually, the hierarchy acknowledges a shift in doctrine.
Catholics working for reform and renewal in the Church are very much concerned with doctrinal change, even if we emphasize pastoral care first. Those supportive of justice and welcome for LGBT people are not waiting for permission, but living into this new reality where all are welcome to worship and work in the Church regardless of who they are or whom they love. Those supportive of marriage equality are pressing ahead with their commitments and celebrations, even as we wait for the Catholic bishops to catch up (and they will). Those struggling to stop anti-LGBT discrimination and violence all too common in the world are working for laws which reflect the Church’s defense of human dignity, even if the Vatican remains quiet.
What Damon Linker and others miss about doctrine is that it is not static, and it is not dictated solely by the bishops, but emerges as well from theologians and the sensus fidelum of Catholics universally. As to the question of whether progressive Catholics care about doctrine I suppose the answer, like much of theology, is sic et non — yes and no.
–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry