ROME – Should a hypothetical investigator from an alien race descend upon earth to study humanity, without any preconceptions or biases, here’s what I suspect would be the conclusion about the Catholic Church: At its core, it’s more a sociological than an ideological reality.
That is to say, Catholicism is more a family than a political party.
Yes, the church has certain core doctrines, most held in common with other Christian confessions, such as the Trinity, the divinity of Christ, and the resurrection. There’s also a few which are more distinctively Catholic, such as ardent Marian devotion and the papacy.
Catholicism is a credal tradition, meaning beliefs matter. It’s no accident that over the centuries, Catholic theology probably has produced a greater share of the most impressive thinkers in human history than virtually any other academic discipline.
Yet anyone who’s been around the Catholic Church also knows there are as many ways of interpreting and living those doctrines as there are Catholics.
That reality is clear from the bottom of the church to the very top, including the papacy. The transition from Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI to Pope Francis in 2013 is merely the latest confirmation of the point, but it was hardly the first and it certainly won’t be the last.
As a result, what holds Catholicism together over time isn’t so much ideological consistency but family ties. Catholics regard the church as their spiritual home, and whatever their frustrations might be, most can’t conceive of leaving. The great thing about this model of ecclesiology is that everybody has a family, and the vast majority are anything but perfect – which, arguably, affords Catholics an ideal template for understanding a deeply flawed church.
Put another way, anyone who walks away from the Catholic Church because it doesn’t adhere uniformly to their ideological or spiritual ideals arguably is right to do so. Catholicism will stir your heart, and then break it, in roughly equal measure. It has always been thus, and I see no evidence it’s changing anytime soon.
All this comes to mind in light of a recent essay in American Conservative about the Latin Mass controversy written by Rod Dreher, unquestionably one of the most eloquent and consistently interesting voices on religious affairs in our time.
Famously, Dreher began his spiritual journey as a Methodist, became a Catholic in 1993, and then, despairing of what he saw as Catholicism’s failure to confront the doctrinal rot exposed by the clerical abuse scandals, converted to Orthodoxy in 2006.
In his new essay, among other points, Dreher says that Francis’s assault on the Latin Mass has confirmed his decision to move on.
“Once I became a Catholic, I soon realized that the stability I expected to find within Catholicism existed more on paper than in reality, in parish life (or rather, it varied from parish to parish), but certainly the pope was as good as gold on that front,” he wrote.
“John Paul II was the pontiff then, and like many conservative converts, I became pretty much a papolator. It was unimaginable to me then that a pope like Francis would be possible. I knew that there were bad popes in the Church’s past (think of the Renaissance popes), but I took comfort in the belief that for all their personal corruption, they never messed with doctrine or liturgy.”
“By that measure, Francis has done tremendous damage to the papacy, certainly in the hearts and minds of the kinds of Catholics who are most faithful to the papacy and to the Church’s teaching authority,” Dreher writes.
First, let’s dispense with the idea that previous popes “never messed with doctrine.”
Even if we set aside ancient history, such as Pope Liberius condemning St. Athanasius in the fourth century – the saint, by the way, to whom all subsequent purported defenders of orthodoxy have compared themselves – there’s still Pope John XXII in the 14th century, who’s not technically considered a heretic only because the doctrine he denied regarding the beatific vision wasn’t formally defined until his successor made doing so more or less his first order of business.
More recently, both Popes John XXIII and Paul VI were accused of heresy in some quarters for convening and implementing the Second Vatican Council. Even Pope John Paul II, Dreher’s gold standard for orthodoxy, faced similar accusations, among other things for his inter-faith summits in Assisi.
I wasn’t there for the first Assisi gathering in 1986, but I was on hand for the second edition in 2002 when Catholic traditionalists helpfully handed me a pamphlet explaining in great detail, including citations from canon law and earlier papal teaching, why the event was a complete doctrinal abomination.
Let’s face it: One person’s development in doctrine is another’s “messing,” all the more so when it’s popes we’re talking about.
As the Italians say, you always follow a fat pope with a thin one. That is to say, one pope may be a conservative, another a liberal; one may emphasize the spiritual life and liturgy, another social action and the culture wars; one may be favorable to the Atlantic alliance and Western causes, another may be what the Italians call a terzomondista, i.e., more inclined to the views and concerns of developing nations; and on, and on, and on.
The Catholic Church simply is too big, too riotously complex, ever to be governed by a single point of view for very long. The price of admission to the Catholic experience is accepting that a place at the family table is more important than getting your own way.
If that’s not your brand of vodka, then taking your business elsewhere may be a smart move. If you’ve got the Catholic gene, however, you’ll ride it out, knowing that whatever’s bothering you today, something else will get your goat tomorrow, and then something else will drive you nuts after that, and so on until the end of time. It won’t be consistent, but it’ll never be dull.