Doctrinal orthodoxy is the papal ticket

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papal seal

papal sealThat’s the proposition advanced by  conservative pundit Mary Eberstadt in her contribution to the Wall Street Journal‘s roundup of what-to look-for-in-a-new-pope essays. I have my doubts.

Here’s the nub of Eberstadt’s argument.

Christianity Lite has been tried repeatedly during the past few decades, and for Catholics and Protestants alike, the result has been graying pews, falling attendance, indifferent practice and children from “Christian” homes who do not know Easter from the Easter bunny.

Eberstadt believes it’s gospel that “Christianity Lite” weakens the family.

As the empirical record shows, where the family is strong, so are Christian communities and doctrine—and vice versa. For both Protestants and Catholics, it is orthodoxy, not heterodoxy, that galvanizes the faithful, mints new recruits and succeeds, literally, in reproducing itself.

I’m not sure what empirical record she has in mind, but the data I’m aware of hardly suggests as much. Take the Southern Baptist Convention. Its take-over by conservatives in the late 1970s didn’t change its membership trajectory at all and now, after a generation of doctrinal orthodoxy, it finds itself on a downward slide. As the SBC’s demographer-in-chief puts it, “Based on the trend of annual percent change in SBC total membership, we are catching up with the Methodists, and will match their decline rate consistently by 2018.”

Then there are the Catholics themselves. According to our ARIS surveys, those born in the immediate wake of Vatican II–the Gen-Xers who grew up during the heyday of Eberstadtian Catholicism Lite–remained highly connected to the faith. Indeed, fully 33 percent of all Gen-Xers in America identified as Catholics in 1990. But during the next two decades of doctrinal tightening-up, they fell away, such that now just 26 percent of the cohort consider themselves Catholic–23 percent, if you don’t count Latino immigrants.

Moreover, there’s no correlation between the degree of religious commitment in a given state and its marriage and divorce rates.

In short, Eberstadt’s nexus of orthodoxy (whatever that exactly means), strong families, and denominational reproduction does not exist. There are more factors at work here than are dreamt of in her philosophy.

  • Nanabedokw’môlsem

    While others may legitimately have other motivations, for me the attraction of the Catholic Church is the intellectually sound way Scripture is dealt with, and the sense of continuity from oldest times.

    This attraction is ‘valid’ despite the criminality of some acts of Church personnel, and despite a certain Church confusion of oldest times with Trent, which Trent in terms of the whole thing is merely middle aged. Trent was a response to problems of the Middle Ages including the crisis which spawned Protestantism. The reforms of Trent were in order to reign in wrongdoing, but then became rather rigid for their own sake, and became confused with ‘original church’ — which they were not.

    Along came Vatican II, concerning which there is much misinformation. Vatican II introduced certain reforms, trying to make the Church more compatible with the 20th Century in how the Church interacted with people.

    Now there is a move in some circles, including some of the powerful, to return to certain outward and visible practices seen by proponents as returning to items of great value, seen by others as undoing Vatican II. In this category is the Latin Mass, which is viewed by some as the cure-all that will bring the masses back to the Church with thousands of vocations. I believe there is no objective support for that idea.

    This conservative movement claims to restore the ancient, when it just reaches back to the middle age crisis of the Church with greed, graft, and corruption, resolved after Luther fled, by Trent.

    The ancient would the Hebrew or Aramaic liturgy, as influenced by efforts to convert Greek-speaking gentiles. Some Protestants recognize this and feel they are approximating it, yet are rigid and wrong on the question of reading Scriptures. Some Catholic lay movements try to reach for this period in our history, the family or ‘house’ Church.

    I want a Church doctrinally sound on Scripture; which is open to its own tradition right back to the original 12; is not overly fixated on Trent while remaining aware of Trent; which welcomes Vatican II’s openness to vernacular and the use of intelligence and logic at the fringes of doctrine; and which learns to meet the public where the public is, without talking over the public’s head; and meets the public without (as is too often the case today) assuming the public knows that a given pronouncement fits the overall context of the Church in a given way.

    There are those who with good cause in terms of that question have the impression the Church is entirely negative, is entirely fixated on don’t do this, don’t do that. A church which comes across as purely a disciplinarian does not attract. Those of us who know the Church see care centers, hospitals, schools, universities, couples coming out of counseling holding hands for the first time in decades.

    Those who do not know the Church see (in those spectators’ eyes) the Church as Bishops in silly old robes obsessing on abortion and contraception, old men never married and never a parent lecturing on things they know nothing about. And for them, that’s the Catholic Church.

    And then there is feminism. In at least Europe and North America, women have emerged from being de jure or de facto property of their husband, have emerged to be equal citizens, obtained the vote, got elected to public office, became management and executives in their own private work, and struggle to obtain truly equal pay for equal work. In the Church, whether by necessity of filling positions as the number of Sisters declines, or because of a given pastor, women have become employees, teach religous education, answer phones. Women have been appointed or elected to Pastoral Councils.

    However there is that little question related to in turn answering a question, why none of the 12 were female. Is it that Jesus did not believe women could be priests? Or is it that Jewish society wasn’t ready for that, and He was alert to not turning peoples ears off before He opened His mouth? Parables were his way of teaching change, a way to keep ears open until after the point was made, for the lesson to dawn when already to late to refuse to listen. One of those things I would love to be able to ask Him after I check out.