The American Catholic Church these days is suffering from the modern plight of individualization, putting it in the same boat as other religious faiths, such as evangelicalism, or the “spiritual but not religious” crowd.
What is most surprising today is the fomenting schism that comes from those Catholics who in the previous papacies of Benedict and JP II considered themselves the most loyal to the Pontiff. This group constantly excoriates their kin within the Catholic fold by designating them “Cafeteria Catholics”, an epithet that signifies an approach of individualized preferences and appropriations towards Catholic doctrines that are based on one’s own experience of conscience.
The use of contraception, or failure thereof, comes to mind as an obvious example. After the election of Pope Francis, conservative Catholics in the USA have proven to be no different than their mirrored counterparts of so-called progressive liberal Catholics, in that they resist traditional institutionalized religious authority all the same.
The recent controversy between New York Times columnist Ross Douthat and Massimo Faggioli, who is Assistant Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, demonstrates my point.
Douthat, a self-identified conservative Catholic, has been critical of the papacy of Francis since the get-go, and sounded a strong alarm last fall with his article entitled “The Pope and the Precipice”, a rallying call to “conservative Catholics” in hopes “that this pope may be preserved from error only if the church itself resists him.”
This open invitation for resistance against the Pope in the Times, something perhaps expected of the likes of progressive Catholics columnists such as Maureen Dowd or Frank Bruni, is warranted in Douthat’s opinion, since he believes Pope Francis is leading the Church towards “the brink of a precipice” through his reconsideration of the rightful place of divorced and homosexual Catholics within its doctrine and practice.
Then several weeks ago Douthat released his “The Plot to Change Catholicism”, where he raised theories of conspiracy taking place within the Vatican, with the “chief plotter” being no less than Pope Francis himself. According to Douthat, the Pope’s “ambitions” cloaked with “ostentatious humility” led him to team up with a cabal of Northern European progressive cardinals in order to change timeless Church doctrines on who has the right to participate in the Eucharist or not.
With subtle machinations and byzantine intrigue, Pope Francis had the recent synods “rigged” with appointees biased towards the Pope’s progressive reformist agenda, wrote Douthat. “I expect the plot to ultimately fail; where the pope and the historic faith seem to be in tension, my bet is on the faith”.
Francis’ deviance from the historic faith is nothing less than “heresy” in Douthat’s view, a “heresy” that will in the end require a “bitter civil war”. As with an uproarious war cry, Douthat taunts his progressive Catholic detractors: “Welcome to the Battlefield.”
Inevitably, there came push back. An open letter posted by Massimo Faggioli to the editor of the New York Times charged Douthat with not having enough “professional qualifications” to write on the subject of Catholic theology, accusing him of being “unapologetically subject to a politically partisan narrative”, and that his tossing around the word “heresy” against his opponents is “serious business” with “serious consequences”, not fitting for such an illustrious newspaper as the New York Times.
The letter was signed and endorsed by a Who’s Who cadre of academics from American Catholic Universities.
Then the Twitterfare ensued, with Douthat tweeting a volley to Massimo: “Own your heresy.” That in turn led to more tactical Twitterfare responses. The theatre of war for the very soul of American Catholicism is taking place on a hashtag and 140 characters.
The charge of “heresy” is quite telling amidst this fusillade of Twitterfare. The word “heresy”, after all, derives from the Greek word hairesis, meaning “choice”. And it is “choice” that stands at the center of contemporary individualized religiosities as a defining characteristic, which is no less true for the experience of American conservative Catholics.
Artur Rosman from Catholic Patheos traces the history of conservative Catholic “choice” in the Polish journal Pressje, arguing “that something went wrong with the Neo-Cons in the 21st century. Things started falling apart when the Neo-Cons rejected the JP2 and Benedict on the following issues: their environmentalism, their rejection of capital punishment, their opposition to the Iraq Wars, and their severe critiques of real existing capitalism.”
Artur Rosman further recalls that R.R. Reno, editor of the renown conservative Catholic journal First Things, quite simply now admits to the fact of “choice”. As Reno himself says:
I was recently interviewed about Francis by America magazine. The interviewer asked whether American conservatives were not now the ‘cafeteria Catholics.’ I answered that, in a certain sense, yes, we are. We’re all at odds with some aspect of the Church’s leadership. It’s not possible for Rome to teach in a way that entirely satisfies the social, moral, intellectual, and spiritual needs of more than one billion people.
Reno’s confession is noticeably a remarkable shift of tone taking place within the milieu of First Things since the previous two papacies.
In the wake of the controversy over Pope Francis, will conservative American Catholics go the way of Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX), the reactionary sect of traditionalist priests that parted ways after Vatican II? Will their adopted cry to arms and schism be “Hier stehe ich und ich kann nicht anders!” Are we all standing in line at the Cafeteria spiritually hungry with empty trays?
Our globalized age of individualized religiosities leaves no conscience unturned, each one becoming a Vatican to its own.
Joshua Ramos, a fellow with the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Vienna is finishing his doctoral studies at the University of Denver. His research and publications focus on religion, demography, and globalization.