All Christians would do well to bear THIS in mind: Liberal Christians like President Biden and Cardinal McElroy are a dying breed. The next generation of progressives will be far more hostile to the Church even though—perhaps because—they understand it less, or not at all.

The End of Liberal Catholicism

What comes next? Something worse.

The Temptation in the Wilderness by Juan de Flandes

If you want to live a long and happy life, the first rule to follow is this:  Never read the comments.  I broke this rule the other day after finishing Ross Douthat’s latest column for The New York Times, about the civil war that’s brewing in the College of Cardinals. 

In the blue corner, you have the conservatives like George Pell.  Last month, shortly after his death, Cardinal Pell was revealed as the author of a notorious memorandum calling Francis’s papacy a “catastrophe.”  In the rec corner, you have the liberals like Robert McElroy.  Last week, Cardinal McElroy made headlines for an essay he wrote for America Magazine, in which he strongly suggested that active homosexuals (among others) should be admitted to Holy Communion

According to Mr. Douthat, there’s no hope for reconciliation between the two factions.  The worldviews represented by Pell and McElroy are mutually exclusive.  He’s right, you know.  Some are hoping that a via media—a middle way—will present itself.  But in this case, I’m afraid those who seeketh will not findeth.

Anyway.  As I got to the end of the article, I wondered what the Times’ more usual readers would make of all this.  What does the well-educated, secular, urban Democrat think of the situation in Rome? 

I expected to see lots of cheering for Cardinal McElroy.  In fact, most readers breezed right past Mr. Douthat’s careful analysis.  They were more interested in attacking the Catholic Church, and organized religion more generally.

I guess that’s not totally surprising.

Just a few years ago, it seems, progressives were still wedded to Christianity by “cultural bonds.”  Their parents made them go to church as kids.  They went to parochial school, or at least Sunday school.  They had happy memories of fish fries or bean suppers.  Their grandparents, whom they adored, were usually quite devout.  They never forgot smell of incense at High Mass, or the Angus Dei being chanted from the choir loft, or the comfort of fingering rosary beads, or the statue of Our Lady smiling down from the mantle.

Some older liberals, like Garry Wills, were formed in the Christian tradition.  All of them have at least read enough Scripture to admire Jesus.  Even if they haven’t been to Mass in years, they still see themselves—or want to be seen—as “good Catholics.”  They feel invested in the Church, even if they misunderstand how it worked (which they do, quite spectacularly).  Of course, Joe Biden is the perfect example of this type.   

But as Americans are increasingly “unchurched,” we’re also losing this ancestral memory of faith.  So, many secular progressives see the Catholic Church as nothing more than a bastion of homophobic, superstitious pedophiles.  To them, churchmen like Cardinal McElroy are quixotic at best.  More likely, these secular progressives view liberal Catholics with contempt, the way Marx viewed democratic socialists.  After all, reformists serve only to prop up reactionary institutions, thereby delaying the revolution.

Honestly, it’s kind of sad.  As the gulf between Christianity and progressivism widens, liberal Catholics are increasingly alienated from both sides.  It’s as though Pangea were breaking up:  Alaska is drifting away from Kamchatka, and folks like McElroy are stuck on an ice floe in the middle of the Behring Strait.

Still, I’m less interested in living fossils like America Magazine than in these secular, “post-Christian” liberals.  Because it’s really hard to understand just how little these folks understand religion. 

For instance, one of the most popular comments on Mr. Douthat’s column suggests that he “reread the Grand Inquisitor, assuming he has read it”:

Ivan got it right.  Christ gave us moral freedom, he abolished the law in favour of love.  But for those who could not tolerate the heavy burden of freedom, who wanted someone else to assume the burden of making moral choices, the Church was there to tell them what to do.  I know of people who converted because they needed an authority to tell them what to do.  Religion, as wished for by Douthat, is for those who would rather be slaves than free.  In short, it is for the weak and moral cowards.

Dare we point out that Dostoyevsky was a loyal son of the Russian Orthodox Church?  “The Grand Inquisitor” is a powerful meditation on the problem of pain, the burden of freedom, and the nature of faith.  I wouldn’t call it “pro-religion”; that makes it sound too polemical.  But it’s certainly not anti-religion. 

How could anyone say otherwise?  Only if they had no meaningful exposure to Christianity.  None whatsoever.

This is something I think all Christians would do well to bear in mind. Liberal Christians like President Biden and Cardinal McElroy are a dying breed. The next generation of progressives will be far more hostile to the Church even though—perhaps because—they understand it less, or not at all.

About abyssum

I am a retired Roman Catholic Bishop, Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas
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