April 22, 2005


Strict Construction (Ross Douthat, 04.21.05, New Republic)

The problem for liberals is that their preferred path to the Catholic future has already been tried, and with less-than-encouraging results. In America, the Church's decades-long slide in mass attendance and ordinations to the priesthood is at its worst not in Catholicism's more conservative precincts but in the liberal-minded dioceses and religious orders--the places where implementing the spirit of Vatican II has meant ignoring the actual Vatican on matters of liturgy, theology, and morality. The once-rigorous, now-latitudinarian Jesuits, for instance, have seen ordinations slow to a trickle, whereas self-consciously traditional orders like the Legionaries of Christ (and, of course, the notorious albino monks of Opus Dei) are growing rapidly. When a recent survey compared 15 "progressive" dioceses to 15 "orthodox" dioceses, it found that the proportion of priests to practicing Catholics in conservative dioceses actually grew slightly between 1956 and 1996, while the proportion in the more liberal dioceses steadily dropped.

It might be argued, of course, that these numbers reflect the negative impact of John Paul's traditionalism--that the liberal dioceses and liberal orders would be bursting with vocations, for instance, if only they were allowed to ordain married men and women, or if the Church took a less hard line tack on contraception or homosexuality or abortion. But in fact, exactly this experiment has already been carried out--by the mainline Protestant denominations, which have spent the last half-century moving to ordain women, accept homosexuality, endorse birth control, remarriage, and even in some cases abortion, and to permit local congregations to manage their own affairs with little or no interference from above. And over the same progressive half-century, mainline Protestantism has endured a slow-motion collapse--in influence, prestige, and membership.

The Episcopal Church offers the most striking example of this phenomenon, since it would seem to embody everything that a Garry Wills or a Maureen Dowd would like Catholicism to be--the liturgy and tradition, that is, without the sexual prohibitions and inconvenient dogmas. Yet in an era when John Paul II supposedly alienated so many otherwise faithful Catholics, it's Episcopalianism, not Catholicism, that's been hemorrhaging members, dropping from over 3.5 million American communicants in 1965 to under 2.5 million today. Far from making itself more appealing and more relevant, the Episcopal Church's reforms seemed to have decreased its ranks in the United States.

At the very least, though, one would expect the progressive Protestant denominations, with their married clergy and female pastors, to have avoided Catholicism's vocation crisis. But even here, the picture for the liberal churches is increasingly grim. In the American Catholic Church, roughly one in four parishes is without a resident priest, which is a dire situation indeed--but in the Presbyterian Church, one in three churches lacks a pastor, and there is a similar clergy shortage across nearly all the mainline denominations.

Tellingly, only Protestantism's Evangelical churches, which tend to be as morally conservative as orthodox Catholicism, can claim a surplus of clergy. Only Evangelical Protestantism, too, can claim growth rates that outstrip the Catholic Church. Some of this growth is the fruit of conversions--from Catholicism itself, but largely from the dwindling mainline churches. Some, too, is simple demographics: It doesn't help the would-be-liberalizers' hopes of embodying the future of Christianity that they're less likely to have large families than more conservative believers.

Even in Europe, where Catholicism virtually collapsed during John Paul's pontificate, liberal Protestantism is weaker still. Perhaps if the European Church were to heed its critics and drop its ban on, say, married priests and birth control, it would be rewarded by a surge in mass attendance or vocations. But it's more likely that it would quickly come to resemble the Lutherans in Scandinavia, or the Anglicans in England, both of which have seen their congregations dwindle even as their teachings have become increasingly in tune with the continental zeitgeist.

The problem for liberal Christians is that they have to choose one or the other.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 22, 2005 11:40 AM

The liberal denominations are no longer in creative tension with the world. They just bless the status quo. They have nothing to offer.

Posted by: L. Rogers at April 22, 2005 11:48 AM

One is left wondering perhaps those giving "advice" to the Catholic Church about to become "relevant" know all of this and are pushing for these changes precisely to neuter and erode away the church.

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at April 22, 2005 12:08 PM

If I remember correctly, there was this passage in some book I read that said you have to build your house on a rock, not a foundation of sand. Might have something to do with this.

[Matthew 7: 24-27]

Posted by: Mikey at April 22, 2005 12:31 PM

I found an article entitled "Oh, Gods" by Toby Lester in the 2002 February Atlantic Monthly. The article deals with religious demographics and especially New Religious Movements (NRMs) and the introduction sums up the article's main theme nicely:

"Religion didn't begin to wither away during the twentieth century, as some academic experts had prophesied. Far from it. And the new century will probably see religion explode-in both intensity and variety. New religions are springing up everywhere. Old ones are mutating with Darwinian restlessness. And the big "problem religion" of the twenty-first century may not be the one you think."

So why is it declining in Europe? From the article:

"The essence of the idea is this: People act rationally in choosing their religion. If they are believers, they make a constant cost-benefit analysis, consciously or unconsciously, about what form of religion to practice.

This is a rather interesting idea: that religious belief should be categorized like any other consumer market. Believers make rational "purchases" of religious "products and services" which meet their current emotional and psychic "needs and wants". This implies that the traditional state supported religions (e.g. the Church of England) are essentially no different than the old state run economies of the former Warsaw Pact and just as lacking in choices and products to meet consumer needs. Perhaps this explains why Western Europe (especially compared to the US) is spiritually moribund. Apparently Westminister and Chartres are as bad at meeting the spiritual needs of their "consumers" as the old GUM department store in Moscow. Like the former East Block, Western Europe also has its religious equivalent of the black market newly arrived religious movements like Mormonism and Islam or locally derived non-Abrahamic religions like neo-paganism and druidism.

Assuming that state supported religion is (ironically) the last bastion of old style socialism, what would be the effect on the religious and spiritual "market" of Western Europe if state support for religion were completely discredited and ended? I believe it provides a neat explanation for the apparent paradox that America, while being more religious in belief than secular Europe, has no state support for its religion.

It's hard for Europeans to get spiritually interested in what is essentially just another government department. So if you're looking for a culprit look at socialism not secularism.

Posted by: daniel duffy at April 22, 2005 1:16 PM

"America, while being more religious in belief than secular Europe, has no state support for its religion"

Another case of using "secular" to basically mean non-(anti-?)religious, as far as I can tell, which is a perversion of the word. America is "secular" as I've always understood the definition, in that the government and religion co-exist but are separated (but not by some silly "wall"). France is not "secular" because, let's face it, religion is fully subordinate to the state.

You really should start your own blog, daniel, since you have lots of interesting things to say.

I am too young to remember Vatican II, and it's been very interesting to read this week about how JPII and BXVI were both considered "liberals" then and "conservatives" (or "arch-" or, most bizarrely, "neo-") now. It seems that the only defining characteristic of "liberal" is wanting change from the current state of things. So those who thought that Vatican II was a necessary change, but that it was sufficient, switched from being labelled "liberal" to "conservative" even though their views may not have changed one iota over time. Which seems to strongly support the "slippery slope" argument against ceding any ground on doctrine, practice, etc., except very, VERY carefully.

Posted by: b at April 22, 2005 2:22 PM

So if you're looking for a culprit look at socialism not secularism.

In the long run is there a difference? Speaking as a cold beer and Playboy Channel type of secular I'd be delighted to think that there could be, but I can't. Secularism always seems to start looking around for something to worship, and always seems to pick the same thing, and so collapses into some sort of statism or other, whether socialism or something even nastier.

Posted by: joe shropshire at April 22, 2005 2:44 PM

Except that America has massive state support for religion--the taxes avoided alone are mindboggling.

Posted by: oj at April 22, 2005 4:49 PM


You completely missed Daniel's excellent observation.

Europe provided state support for precisely one sect.

The US, to the extent that tax status constitutes support--which is correct in inverse proportion to the number of church goers--supports any sect.

A very clear difference.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at April 22, 2005 6:38 PM

Ace at Ace of Spades HQ posted the following:

Top Ten Changes the New Pope Will Enact to Make Christianity More Acceptable to Liberals

10. "Christian fish" logos will all be certified by the EPA as dolphin-safe

9. Key lyric of Norman Greenbaum's hippie-Christian anthem, Spirit in the Sky, changed from "I've got a friend named Jesus" to less-divisive "I've got a friend named Walter"

8. Good Friday officially renamed "Passable Friday;" Ash Wednesday officially renamed "the Day Before Thursday"

7. Placards displaying "John 3:16" outlawed at sporting events; spectators wishing to display their spiritual beliefs may substitute oversized foam-finger bearing the corporate slogan "Dude, You're Getting a Dell!"

6. The requirement that an actual belief in Christ is required to be a Christian is deemed discriminatory and judgmental; churches will offer alternative methods of qualification, such as "celebrating the magical joy of a baby's smile" or "just sitting in the park, thinkin' about Nature and shit"

5. Christ's words are modified to make them less "harsh" and "hostile" to non-believers; "I am the Way and the Light" changed to "I am the Way and the Light, if you believe in that kind of thing, and assuming that's your bag"

4. To be more "inclusive," Christian Heaven becomes history's first open-enrollment paradise; no particular belief system is required for entry, but applicants must have either a high-school diploma or eight weeks of N.E.A.-approved adult education (in cooking, basic automotive maintenance, or modern Spanish flamenco guitar)

3. Common name "Christopher" -- from the Latin for "Christ-Bearer" -- declared intolerant and offensive; by Papal Bull, all men named Christopher have their first names immediately changed to "Mitch" (also acceptable: Walter; see Number 9 above)

2. New Testament rewritten to delete references to Caiaphas and other Jewish priests; henceforth, Christ is accused of blasphemy by Hans Gruber and the German mercenaries from Die Hard

...and the Number One Change the New Pope Will Enact to Make Christianity Acceptable to Liberals...

1. Christian Trinity officially changed from Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to Easter Bunny, Santie Clause, and the Ghost of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (a.k.a., "The Spirit of Diversity")

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at April 22, 2005 7:02 PM


Thanks for passing that along!

I don't know about liberal Catholics, but liberal Presbyterians are having problems because most churches (in the mainline demominations) don't want to call women to the pulpit. I have read that approximately half of all Presby. seminarians are women, but most can't get jobs when they graduate because churches won't call them. No call - no job.

The Methodists assign ministers through the bishop, and (here in NC) they are rotating pastors at a record clip to find spots for women to be senior pastors. And many parishioners are rotating, too - trying to stay ahead of the curve.

The Episcopalians surrendered around 1970-75; what exists today is just the reflexive action of a corpse.

Posted by: jim hamlen at April 22, 2005 10:54 PM


Except that states had their own established churches too. Establishment has no apparent effect.

Posted by: oj at April 23, 2005 12:02 AM

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints avoids the problem of trying to find religious leaders by asking different members of the local congregations to give a talk each week.

It results in some very odd sermons, but it also keeps the flock involved with their own well-being.

Posted by: J. Tiberius K. at April 23, 2005 4:39 AM

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints avoids the problem of trying to find religious leaders by asking different members of the local congregations to give a talk each week.

It results in some very odd sermons, but it also keeps the flock involved with their own well-being.

Posted by: J. Tiberius K. at April 23, 2005 4:40 AM

Had, being the operative word.

But never mind, the distinction Daniel cited is considerable (and featured prominently in an article you admiringly posted last week).

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at April 23, 2005 9:45 AM

England has had an established Church for centuries, but it was only in the age of socialism/Darwinism/etc. that the rot set in. Establishment seems not to have much effect.

The real question is the State's intentions. Secular statism can't tolerate the rival power.

Posted by: oj at April 23, 2005 9:52 AM

Mark Steyn, last Wednesday on Hewitt's show (emphasis added):

"I think [Benidict XVI] understands, for example, that Islam is the fastest growing religion in Canada, America, Britain and Europe because it's not like the Frank Griswold Episcopal Church. It doesn't say hey, man, whatever your bag is, we're cool with that. If you want a gay church, you want a lesbian church, you want an abortionist church, we'll go along with that. It's precisely because Islam is a demanding religion that it has an appeal. And no one needs a religion that merely licenses your appetites. And this is what the guys like Frank Griswold and the Episcopal Church don't seem to realize. You know, the churches that are complaining about this fellow, are the churches that the New York Times want the Catholic Churches to be like. These are the churches in decline, and frankly, I think a lot of these critics have made themselves look actually rather ridiculous in being unable to see it like this."

Posted by: Mike Morley at April 23, 2005 8:24 PM