Do Progressive Catholics Care About Doctrine?

An intriguing back-and-forth occurred in mid-January, as columnists and Catholic thinkers responded to a central question that had been posed: do so-called liberal Catholics care about doctrine in the age of Pope Francis?

The question was prompted by Damon Linker’s pair of articles in The New Republic and The Week where he evaluates what real reform might mean for the new pope, part of which included LGBT matters. In the latter article, Linker concluded:

“Liberals would therefore have to settle for a moderation of papal rhetoric, and little else. I concluded by noting that although rhetoric matters in religion, this was far less than most liberal Catholics were hoping for…

“After reading an endless stream of gushing commentary by liberal Catholics on Pope Francis, I’m beginning to wonder if they ever really cared about reforming doctrine in the first place.”

His conclusion, premised on remarks by a woman calling into an NPR radio show where Linker was a guest, was that rather than seeking reform and renewal in the Church’s teachings, liberal Catholics simply had moved beyond doctrinal concerns. Highlighting the positive responses to Pope Francis by those advocating for equality and justice in the Church, Linker identifies the liberal Catholic response to doctrine as one of indifference.  He asks:

“But what’s the point of staying put when you’re utterly indifferent to so much of what the Catholic Church (and on contraception at least, pretty much only the Catholic Church) proclaims to be true?”

Responding at First Things blog, Matthew Schmitz wrote an article titled “Why Catholics Don’t Care” and explored the reasons why Linker perceives Catholics to be more or less apathetic to the hierarchy’s teachings. While Schmitz ends up placing blame at the bishops’ feet, his article is indicative of Linker’s view that Catholics concerned with LGBT people or women’s place in the Church simply are not concerned with doctrine.

However, more on point is David Gibson’s column at Religion News Service. He identifies the “straw people” behind Linker’s article. Responding to this back and forth, Gibson writes:

“Well, that’s actually not what progressive Catholics tend to mean — their Catholicism is about faith, above all, and social justice and caring for all, womb to tomb…

“They do tend to want optional celibacy and women priests (and by the way, so do plenty of ‘conservative’ Catholics) and equal treatment for gay Catholics. But they don’t expect such things to happen overnight, and Francis is changing the tenor of the church’s approach on these questions.

“In short, Linker seemed to be setting up the very kind of straw man argument that he rightly and effectively dismissed”

Gibson notes the phrase by Grant Gallicho, an editor at Commonweal, that most Catholics are “ecclesiastical realists,” acknowledging the glacial pace at which the hierarchy moves. Gibson continues:

“Beyond that, I’d note that Linker also seems to have ignored the pope’s own words about change in the church, like those in his landmark interview with the Rev. Antonio Spadaro in Civilta Cattolica, a Jesuit journal. In that interview Francis spoke about his affinity for Pope John XXIII and the changes he introduced, and for the process of ‘discernment’ that ‘lay(s) the foundations for real, effective change.’…

“To wit, Francis himself has repeatedly and insistently condemned a pharisaical approach to doctrine, to religion as fastidious rule-following and faith formation as a ‘police action.’ Such a doctrinaire style creates ‘little monsters’ and ‘abstract ideologists or fundamentalists,’ Francis has said.”

Pope Francis is well aware of Church history and that doctrines shift as Catholics come to know God’s truth more clearly. I would add to this discussion a note about how these changes have occurred. Lay people, supported by prophetic religious women and men, simply act according to their consciences, the voice of God within each of us. Their witness, and the changes such witness brings, foster theological reflection. Eventually, the hierarchy acknowledges a shift in doctrine.

Catholics working for reform and renewal in the Church are very much concerned with doctrinal change, even if we emphasize pastoral care first. Those supportive of justice and welcome for LGBT people are not waiting for permission, but living into this new reality where all are welcome to worship and work in the Church regardless of who they are or whom they love. Those supportive of marriage equality are pressing ahead with their commitments and celebrations, even as we wait for the Catholic bishops to catch up (and they will). Those struggling to stop anti-LGBT discrimination and violence all too common in the world are working for laws which reflect the Church’s defense of human dignity, even if the Vatican remains quiet.

What Damon Linker and others miss about doctrine is that it is not static, and it is not dictated solely by the bishops, but emerges as well from theologians and the sensus fidelum of Catholics universally. As to the question of whether progressive Catholics care about doctrine I suppose the answer, like much of theology, is sic et non — yes and no.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

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11 thoughts on “Do Progressive Catholics Care About Doctrine?

  1. pjnugent February 15, 2014 / 8:03 am

    Excellent piece. Thanks, Bob.

  2. Katherine February 15, 2014 / 9:29 am

    One of the problems with this piece is that you don’t understand the difference between doctrine and discipline.

  3. Leslie Beard February 15, 2014 / 9:58 am

    Very well said.

  4. Annette Magjuka February 15, 2014 / 10:03 am

    Exactly correct. Catholics must act according to conscience first and foremost. This is how institutional change will take place. Sometimes it seems impossible, that the church will never change. It is so important to realize that each kind act is powerful, and is all that is required in that moment. When a student picks an unpopular child for a team, asks him to sit with them at lunch, calls out peers who are cruelly teasing–these things change the world a little bit. When parents stand with other parents of gay children, knowing that LGBT children deserve love and care, we know it is right. When a community speaks up for a beloved gay teacher fired after many years of devoted service, we know it is right. Faith must become manifest, it involves action. The question must always be, “What is the most loving act?” This is what Jesus taught and demonstrated. As we embark on lifelong conscience formation, we start with the love of our parents. We go to school and learn doctrine (lots of rules). Later, we study theology, and shades of gray creep in. We soon realize that we must be true to the doctrine while always, always doing the most loving act. Did I do the most loving act? We must ask this over and over. Then, we must have faith that our little acts (mustard seeds) have immense power. Many Catholics think it is no use, that the church will never change. But the church has changed! It will change again. We will make it change, one loving act at a time.

  5. David February 15, 2014 / 10:03 am

    Bob, your ccomment that Catholic doctrines shift as Catholics come to know God’s truth more clearly suggest that it is a one way street. If only it were that easy.

  6. Fr. Clarence Heis February 15, 2014 / 10:13 am

    I wholly support and agree with Pope Francis’ words to us as Church. To be “the people who gather to worship God” we have to know the God we worship, and that is what Jesus’ mission is for us. The early document that came out after Vatican II, “To Teach as Jesus Did” calls us all into action for all, not just for some. Until we see Christ in each other, and in those who don’t “belong” to a “Church” we are missing the core teaching of Christ, “love one another as I have loved you.” Pope Francis’ words NOT to use the sacraments as a bartering tool for getting people into line, calls us to be far more pastoral than legalistic. My faith is “from The Lord.” It is He that I love and follow. Pope Francis shows us by example that he too has faith in Jesus “to be with us always until the end of time.”

  7. Mary Butler February 15, 2014 / 10:38 am

    Doctrine seems to get in the way of the Church’s ability to minister to the people of God. The larger church is bogged down in rules. Jesus broke the rules and saved people. The Church has forgotten the message: Love God, Love each other. Make disciples. I have hope that Pope Francis is moving the Church closer to the main message; it just takes time to make change happen.

  8. Anne Keller February 15, 2014 / 2:45 pm

    I consider myself to be a progressive Catholic. I don’t care about all the doctrine. I follow Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus made his mandates very clear in Mt 5-7. Whether you believe that He preached this as one sermon, or that He preached it it in bits and pieces, or that he didn’t preach it at all, this text is what following Jesus is all about. It is the Church which has gone off track by teaching doctrines that Jesus Himself never taught.

  9. Friends February 16, 2014 / 4:22 am

    Splendid comments here! I’ve felt for some time that there should be a liturgical option — at least — to substitute a reading of the entire Sermon On The Mount, in place of the recitation of the Nicene Creed, as our “Confession of Faith” at Mass. The Nicene is top-heavy with anthropomorphic flights of fancy — such as Jesus “sitting at the right hand of the Father”. But the Sermon on the Mount really cuts through the academic rhetoric, and goes straight to the core of what Jesus taught about the way His followers need to BE and to ACT in the world. Just saying: the alternate text should be an option. I think it would really get through to people, and remind them of their higher purpose in being alive on this planet.

  10. Chaplain Bill February 16, 2014 / 10:22 am

    The hierarchy has completely lost credibility and trust, thus eroded it’s teaching authority. And while Francis’ tone is certainly more likable that the Prada-wearing, fussy Benedict, I am beginning to really wonder if it means anything. Clearly, middle management (the bishops), haven’t got the memo. They’re as judgmental as ever. The Roman Church has drifted into a cultural tradition — nice for holidays and to mark the transitions of life (birth, marriage, death) but its relevance no longer seems important to millions.

  11. Benjamin Regotti February 18, 2014 / 12:28 pm

    Bob, another great post. Your reflections at the end are the best part. Brilliant! Thank you!

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