Few things are certain in this world, but this I believe with untroubled confidence: liberal Catholics are on the wrong side of history.
Our Lord has already assured us that the Church will stand the test of time, and “the gates of Hell will not prevail” against it. Ours isn’t the first era in which that promise has seemed distant and uncertain. We should take heart, however: over the course of the last two millennia, quite a lot of people have bet against the Church, and lost.
That might explain why liberal theologians are feeling so insecure, as they proved this last week when they denounced New York Times columnist Ross Douthat for his criticisms of Pope Francis and the Kasper proposal (to enable divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to receive Communion).
Yes, it has come to this. Liberal Catholics are looking to silence a conservative columnist in The New York Times, by arguing that laymen should not engage in public criticism of the pope. We live in interesting times, indeed.
Several commentators have already explained how ludicrous and frankly embarrassing these demands really were. Others have noted as well that desperate moves like this really demonstrate the extent to which liberal theologians are now running scared. Their moment has passed, and they know it. The argument is going so badly for them that they have now been reduced to this: wielding their secular credentials in an attempt to bludgeon dissenters into silence.
Depending on where you live and worship, this may seem strange. It sometimes appears that liberal reactionaries are still overwhelmingly in control of the Church’s strongholds. I know how this feels, because I myself converted to Catholicism in the diocese of Rochester, where it often seemed that special graces were needed to make it through a single Mass without hearing heresy preached, or the pope or Catechism maligned in some way. So depressing was the parish scene in Ithaca, NY that I drove two hours to Scranton for my Catechesis, so that I could be baptized and confirmed under the auspices of the Fraternity of St. Peter. I understand how bleak the Catholic world can appear from a certain vantage point.
Happily, I have moved on to greener pastures. But to those who still live in the wasteland (doctrinally or liturgically speaking), I would urge good cheer. It may not feel this way, but you’ve probably seen the worst of things. There is reason to hope that your children will have it better.
Liberal theologians see this too, which is why they feel unsettled. As I explained in a recent column at The Federalist, their rebellion has failed. They sense that they are now the ones haunting the turrets of outdated, reactionary Catholicism. Their “springtime of Vatican II” has yielded confusion, empty pews, and horrific scandals. Their “courageous” protest of Humanae Vitae has led countless souls astray, but far from being retracted, the document is still very much in force, with its predictions fully vindicated by modern culture. The standoff with the Obama administration over the HHS Mandate has if anything made more Catholics aware of its implications, and it seems to have gained admirers even among Protestants. The old guard of liberal champions is aging, while the Church’s young enthusiasts are too often admirers of St. John Paul II, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, or even (gasp!) the Latin Mass.
Pope Francis offered liberal heretics the tantalizing “hope” that the deadening springtime of the mid-twentieth century might be renewed. He has a charismatic personality, and seems reform-minded. I will not speculate on what the Holy Father himself really wanted from the recent Synod, but the final result was heartening. Clearly, the bishops as a group do appreciate where the Church presently stands vis-à-vis the modern world. We are counter-cultural, and that means that there will be casualties. Nevertheless, soft-pedaling the Church’s harder teachings has not (surprise!) precipitated cultural renewal. It never will.
It’s probably a little misleading to suggest that the conservatives “won” the battle of the Synod on the Family, but they didn’t lose, and that’s enough to leave liberals feeling desperate. They know that this was their moment, insofar as they still have one left. It came to nothing.
Heretics will always be on the wrong side of history. There are explicable sociological reasons for this. People who love the Church tend to have more children. Their offspring are more likely to stay in the pews, and far more likely to pursue religious vocations. Unsurprisingly, people who like being Catholic have an easier time transmitting their beliefs to the next generation.
Heretics are doomed for an even more significant reason. The Holy Spirit is out to get them. In a cosmic sense, they literally have a choice between conversion and death. We should also keep in mind that, on a broader cultural front, the reserves of the righteous (spiritually and philosophically) are literally bottomless. Heresy, by contrast, feeds on aberrant cultural trends that inevitably have an expiration date. This is why St. John Paul II regularly reminded us to “be not afraid”, although he was clearly no stranger to gathering cultural gloom.
Even Douthat (though I am in general a great admirer of his columns) does not always seem sufficiently confident of this. He often writes as though he is genuinely uncertain whether the Church will survive the onslaught of the modern world. Perhaps he writes this way for rhetorical reasons, and as a highly gifted writer, he gets good results. (His most recent column, in which he welcomes his liberal opponents to the cultural battlefield, is well worth reading.) I still worry that he may be sowing confusion.
Though we really cannot know how long this narrative will run, the final outcome of the war is not in doubt. Nations may fall, and countless souls may be lost in the interim, but Christ’s Church will finally win, and her resources will never be entirely gone from this earth (though many individual persons may die in the process of seeking them).
Living in the West, we are rarely called to die for our faith, as Christians in other countries are doing. We should also give thanks for being so well provisioned; most of us here have Mass and the Sacraments readily available to us, which should make it easier to withstand the temptations of the world. There are, to be sure, many reasons to be afraid for our culture, our nation, and even our Church. But we should not be too downcast. We have plenty to live for, and now more than at any time in the recent past, there is reason to believe that many of our shepherds are prepared to stand with us in defense of the truth.
Above all, let us always be clear on this point. Heretics are losers. Christ’s Church will prevail.
(Photo credit: HBO)