Catholic America: Civil War

In a series of tweets, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat addresses the recent release by Wikileaks of an email in which Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta apparently claims to have been behind setting up Catholic groups with the explicit goal of changing the Church’s doctrine on certain points. Douthat begins:

Read the whole thing there. (You may have to scroll down to see the whole series of tweets.) It is essentially Douthat’s argument that the Podesta email provides a window into how Catholic “civil war” is fought.

But Douthat’s argument seems to rely on a concept of Podesta, his Center for American Progress colleagues, and the rest of the leadership of these groups, including Christopher Jolly Hale, head of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good (CACG), as essentially dissenting Catholics. That is, these Catholics disagree with settled doctrine of the Church—including, notably, the Church’s teachings on contraception and women’s ordination, doctrine that has been infallibly proclaimed by the popes—and they think they can change that doctrine. They cannot, and, indeed, it is folly to think they can. But that’s not the point; they want to. But they’re not likely to find help from within the Church, so they have to go to secular progressives for assistance. Now, there are some problems with this narrative.

Before turning to the problems, however, it is fair to note that Douthat is probably correct when he talks about a “civil war” among Catholics. Some might quail at such imagery, but given the ferocity of the conflicts throughout the 20th century and even to the present day between, broadly speaking, traditionalists and progressives (though we can be clinical and call them by their name: modernists), it is not unreasonable imagery. This conflict has taken on mostly moral dimensions. That is, people are far more concerned with the Church’s moral teaching than, for example, the implications of the metaphysics imposed by Dei Filius. We have, for the past couple of years, seen a prime example of this conflict in the ongoing debate over whether and on what terms bigamists may approach the Precious Body and Blood of Our Lord. So, when Douthat talks about a civil war, we’re inclined to agree with his assessment. However, we think Douthat’s connection between the Podesta leak and the ongoing struggles in the Church requires some clarification or nuance or whatever on a couple of points.

First, Douthat seems to assume that progressives need help in these fights. However, it is not a secret that progressives in the Church have long been able to find significant support from within the hierarchy. And the progressives in the Church, therefore, have always operated with relative impunity. While it is pleasant for them, apparently, to pretend as though they are being chased through the swamps by St. Pius X and a band of Dominicans while hounds bay in the distance, it is pure fantasy. (Indeed, if one wanted to criticize St. John Paul or Benedict XVI, one would observe that they were far too fond of promoting dissenters.) From the proceedings of the Council to the implementation of the Novus Ordo to the suppression of the traditional Latin Mass to the social agenda of the Church, the progressives have been able to achieve their will with relative ease. It is only on a few points—points upon which the intervention of the Holy Spirit may be felt especially clearly—that they have been thwarted: contraception, women’s ordination, and the like.

But this isn’t really the issue. Assume that the progressive Catholics haven’t had essentially fifty years of winning all but a handful of internal disputes. Such a suggestion might be nothing more than the bitter grousing of a traditionally minded Catholic who wants everything to return to 1954. Say it is. It does not change the fact that these organizations—CACG and Catholics United—are not really instances of Catholics running for help from secular progressives. They’re instances of secular progressives, who are incidentally Catholic, creating organizations intended to advance their secular agenda inside the Church. Furthermore, given the proximity of these individuals to state authority, both historically and prospectively, there is some cause for concern, which today Archbishop Kurtz, president of the USCCB, about state interference in Church affairs, addressed, if obliquely. This is the second, and more serious, problem with Douthat’s argument. Indeed, we think Douthat misses the mark when he says that this whole affair provides a window into a sort of civil war within the Church.

And it is the specter of state interference that is most concerning. Perhaps Podesta’s associates will refuse to take the call when President Hillary Clinton’s likely chief of staff, Neera Tanden (Podesta’s successor as head of the Center for American Progress), calls to complain about the intransigence of the Catholic Church on any number of President Clinton’s policies. Assume it’s the repeal of the lifesaving Hyde Amendment. But it could be anything. Perhaps they won’t take her call. And perhaps, if they do take her call, they’ll tell her that they won’t help her put pressure on the bishops to back down. It’s possible. Really. It is possible. Maybe. One knows, instinctively, that power doesn’t work that way, of course. Least of all in a city like Washington, D.C.