Douthat’s argument is at its most effective when he criticizes Francis on these political grounds. He argues that Francis’s papacy is dangerous because it puts the church, as an institution, in jeopardy. If he moves the church in a “liberalizing” direction like that shared by, say, Anglicans, he risks challenging what is distinctive about Catholicism in order to hold on to the would-be faithful. Douthat points out, fairly, that churches that have tried to “liberalize” end up hemorrhaging their members anyway, and that Mass attendance has been flat under Francis.
”Liberal Catholicism’s difficulty,” he writes, “is that it has the most appeal to Catholics with the loosest connections to the Church ... it can do well in opinion polls of all Catholics ... and still fail to generate the level of commitment that induces men and women to give their lives in service to the faith.”
Always brings me back to the same question: "What is church for?" Although perhaps the question should be: "Who is church for?" Which is a more political than ecclesiological question; but to answer the first entails asking, if not answering, the second. It's an old argument: that the Church (however identified) must not change because it will lose both its way and its congregations. However, what Church are you identifying with?
As I’ve argued before, much of our contemporary conception of the Catholic Church as this kind of historic monolith is rooted in the church of the 19th century: a time when the church was already redefining itself in opposition to so-called “modernity” precisely by becoming more conservative and codified.A time when Christianity was being challenged by the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, which put the Enlightenment on the ground and in the driver's seat as the primary source of human society, the reason for social order, and relegated God largely to something needed to keep the great unwashed in line for the factory owners and the social order they now supported. Not coincidentally, also the time when Biblical scholarship began to use the tools of textual analysis and literary criticism, themselves newly forged, to examine holy writ itself. The age that turned the Roman church into a "monolith" because it was defining itself in opposition to "modernity," also gave rise in the early 20th century to fundamentalism, which has ever after claimed a special right to being more Christian than thou based on membership. But that's probably an argument that began as soon as Protestant churches began to woo worshipper from Catholic cathedrals. Where does its validity rest, however? Why is a church with more people right? If that's the case, isn't Joel Osteen more right than Catholics and Protestants and even evangelicals and fundamentalists (Osteen fits into the prosperity Gospel camp, which is neither Catholic nor traditionally Protestant, nor evangelical nor fundamentalist).
When you define the problem, you define the solution, and Burton is accepting Douthat's definition in order to credit his argument as worth considering. But is Francis trying to hold on to the "would-be faithful"? Or is he trying to be true to the revelation of God?
The prophetic vision, summed up in Isaiah's vision of the "holy mountain," is that an Israel faithful to the covenant with God will become a place all the world is drawn to, to learn from their peace and prosperity (yes, the "prosperity gospel" preachers get that much almost right; but entirely wrong, and all of that is another discussion). There is an absolute inclusion in that vision, with the only exclusion being the Gentiles (i.e., those who are not "children of Abraham"), who do not have to become subject to the covenant in order to benefit from the blessings of the covenant. Their exclusion is only from the burden of the covenant. But the benefits of the covenant will be open to all:
"Come for water, all who are thirsty;
though you have no money, come, buy grain and eat;
come, buy wine and milk,
not for money, not for a price.
Why spend your money for what is not food,
your earnings on what fails to satisfy?
Listen to me and you will fare well,
you will enjoy the fat of the land."--Isaish 55:1-2, REB)
That is the call of Wisdom to all people, the voice of God for all humanity. It's the very model for what, in Christian ecclesiology, is called the "open table."
The "open table" is the concept of the eucharist, communion, the Lord's Supper that is open to all. Who is the table for? "Do this in remembrance of me," are the words of Jesus recalled at the eucharist. But who is allowed to remember him, and how? This is not an idle question, or a small matter. The baptized are allowed at the table; those in good standing with God and the church; those who believe. As my New Testament professor put it once, would you want someone at communion who slouches in the pew, throws a leg over the arm rest, swirls the cup of grape juice (in a pew service of the communion, obviously) and smacks as he eats the bread/cracker/whatever? I got into trouble in the UCC, with it's open table tradition, for using hot chocolate and cinnamon rolls on Christmas Day and calling it "communion." The boundary there was the label, not the elements; but it was the elements, because without them I couldn't use the label. We want, as my professor pointed out, some measure of reverence at communion. We want some boundaries. But which ones, and where do we lay them?
So my preference is for the open table, but I'm aware of the arguments, even the wisdom, of a closed table. This is not the feast on the holy mountain, this is an act of remembrance and reverence. Remembering Donald Trump describing his experience of the eucharist makes my skin crawl, because he treats it like the boor he is. On the other hand, if we exclude people from the table for their manners, why can't we exclude them for their marital history? Then again, who is so right with God, so without sin, that their presence at the altar is without blemish or stain? "Who," as Pope Francis so famously asked, "am I to judge?" Which echoes the directive of Jesus: "Don't judge, and you won't be judged." Once you enter that cycle of judgment it is very hard to step out; and there is no humility in a cycle of judgment, only an implicit insistence that you are superior to them, and so in a position to judge them. But "What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God?" Is justice judgment on others? Can you walk humbly with your God knowing at least your better than them?
And then there's the question of judging churches based on the numbers in the pews.
Christianity itself proves its validity in the gospels by the numbers of people who flock to Jesus, or the numbers who believe after Pentecost because they heard the disciples speaking in their tongues. But is our faithfulness reflected by who agree with us, or by our fealty to our interpretation of what God says? Neither standard is wrong, but neither standard is right. Franklin Graham just responded to the judicial election in Wisconsin:
Christians should be aware of candidates who call themselves progressive. Progressive is generally just a code word for someone who leans toward socialism, who does not believe in God, & who will likely vote against Godly principles that are so important to our nation. 2/2— Franklin Graham (@Franklin_Graham) April 5, 2018
There is always this push-pull, in other words. If the church is not drawing people, it is probably not following God's will. But if a church is drawing people, that isn't necessarily because it is following God's will. Many a popular church has lost its popularity when it turns out the charismatic leader is not the ethical leader some thought he (it's almost always "he") was. And then there's just the novelty factor wearing off. Joel Osteen is still preaching, as is Rick Warren (I assume in the latter case; I don't know), but the spotlight has moved off of them for the most part. If their congregations decline, is it because they are no longer as faithful to the word of God? Or because they are no longer as interesting? My experience is that people attend, or stop attending, churches based on the people who are there, including the pastor, more than they do based on the theology of that congregation. It often matters more who you have to sit with in the pews or at the pot-lucks than it does what the pastor's soteriology or ecclesiology, or even posture on "open" v. "closed" communion tables, is.
To complicate this discussion further, let's just talk about the discussion itself. There is a growing interest, it seems (based on the few websites I frequent, so take everything with a grain, or a boulder, of salt, as appropriate) in matters of religion that aren't just atheist-based Christian bashing, or mere disgust with evangelicals and fundamentalists (the people Religion Dispatches still seems to think are the only Christians in America, despite the fact they host at least two UCC pastors regularly, and never post anything in the affirmative about those two groups). There are regular articles now at Vox, like this one; there was a very fair article at Daily Beast around Easter; and there's this one, just now, at Slate:
This inability to correctly read Scripture is both a political and theological problem—and one that’s intrinsic to modern American Christianity.
One of first things any theology student learns is the importance of reading the Bible for context. Verses that seemingly speak directly to a political issue can be misunderstood if not read within the bounds of the time and culture from which they emerged. In the heavily politicized theology of evangelical Christianity, however, this decontextualization seems to be a deliberate feature. White evangelical Christianity is first and foremost an individualized faith, exemplified by the imperative to have “a personal relationship with Jesus Christ” and asking forgiveness for individual sins. What’s important is how you read a Bible verse and how it speaks to your life—not the fact that the verse is actually about something completely different.
This inability to exegete properly—to place verses in their contexts and understand the whole instead of just the part—is symptomatic of the politicized national religion that evangelical Christianity has become. White evangelical Christianity is built to cherry-pick, and the politicians of the religious right are particularly adept at doing it.
First I have to note the correct usage of "exegete" without any further explanation of what the word means. That assumes a fairly knowledgeable readership on a fairly technical issue. Further, being an article about how Republican politicians abuse Scriptures by quoting them out of context (the primary reason I resist citing scripture at all, though I do it from time to time), it is remarkably free of religion-bashing. The error, in the thesis of the article, is not that politicians are citing Christian scriptures; it's that they are doing it wrong.
That's a sea-change in recent on-line discussions of both politics and religion. I want to encourage that change, not critique it. If I disagree with Tara Burton, it is a respectful disagreement. She raises excellent points about the flexibility of the Roman church throughout history; without such flexibility it would have lost its value to the world centuries ago. As the UCC is fond of saying "God is still speaking." But discerning what God is saying is the act of the community; it is part of the struggle with God (which is one translation of the word "Israel"). The root of Christian humility is not just that Jesus told us the first would be last and the last first; it is that we must be humble before each other in order to be truly open to understanding God in the world, in human history, and in our lives.
As for the change, is it historic, or merely historical? The latter, I imagine. The rabidly right-wing face of Christianity, epitomized by evangelicals and fundamentalists as identified in media (if not actually in churches), have run their string with Donald Trump, much as the earlier generation in the '70's and '80's seemed to dominate television only to fall from grace and power as people finally changed the channels (and as their scandals finally caught up with them). With them go the equally rabid atheists ready to pounce on any reference to religion on the intertoobs that was not as critical and damning as they were. It isn't that these new articles represent a change in public religious interest so much as they represent a changed attitude toward religious practice, a change pretty much as inevitable as a pendulum swing. It's too bad, though; I was looking forward to that atheistic future South Park envisioned, where atheist groups war over who is most truly atheistic. Well, it made a good cartoon, anyway.
*Because I can't resist, and because I've come to respect Notorious TIB's writings about religion:
Christian Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard’s “suspension of the ethical,” for example, argued for a religious ethics based not on objective rules but on love toward’s one fellow man.
No; just, no. The "suspension of the ethical" appears in one of the philosophical works (Fear and Trembling), discussing the act of Abraham in the akedeh, the sacrifice of Isaac. Even the argument there has nothing to do with "love toward's [sic] one fellow man [sic]," but with the incommensurability of the act of Abraham with any ethical system, religious or otherwise. The "suspension of the ethical" is an attempt to make sense, ethically, of Abraham's attempted sacrifice, in order to recognize Abraham, not as a madman, but as an avatar of faith. Even that, however, Johannes de Silentio argues, can't be done, and so one is left with the paradox of Abraham being right (to follow God's command) and wrong (to be willing to murder his son) at the same time. If anything, Abraham's act is an example of the awful nature of supreme love for God; it's hardly an example of "love [towards one's fellow] man."