Conservative and liberal Catholics can’t escape one another

Conservative catholics

Before Pope Francis was elected, conservative Catholics had fallen into a habit of dismissing the more liberal form of Catholicism as an old and faded thing, a vision of the future that belonged to the church’s past, a relic of the 1970s that had little purchase among younger Catholics seriously practising their faith.

The last 10 years have been hard on this kind of confidence.

A college of supposedly conservative cardinals elected a surprisingly liberal pope.

Moral and theological debates supposedly settled by Pope John Paul II were conspicuously reopened.

The Latin Mass, rehabilitated under Pope Benedict XVI, was partially suppressed.

Progressive theologians found themselves back in favour; formerly conservative bishops suddenly evolved.

It seemed as though liberal Catholicism had been merely hibernating, awaiting a new pope, a new spring.

But lately, in both Rome and the United States, I’ve had conversations with well-informed Catholics in which the old conservative confidence has made a comeback.

The idea of the Francis era as a “last gasp” for the Catholicism of the boomer era has figured prominently.

The assumption that progressive Catholicism has no real long-term viability has returned.

The fear that the next pope might be another liberaliser, younger and more ambitious than Francis, has largely receded.

This new confidence reflects a specific reading of the waning years (or what are probably the waning years) of the Francis pontificate.

First, there’s a sense that the current pope’s liberalising program has reached its limits: The Vatican’s halfway-opening to blessings for same-sex couples was essentially rejected by many of the church’s bishops, and the subsequent papal document reiterating church teaching on gender identity felt like an acknowledgment that the space for innovation had (for now) run out.

Second, there’s a view that Francis’ capricious governing style has alienated even many churchmen who are not especially conservative and created little appetite for a sequel or “Francis II” successor. Continue reading

  • Ross Douthat has been an Opinion columnist for The Times since 2009. He is the author, most recently, of “The Deep Places: A Memoir of Illness and Discovery.”
Additional reading

News category: Analysis and Comment.

Tags: , ,