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The problem of non-believing Catholics

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Jan 15, 2014

Back in September, Damon Linker wrote in the New Republic that liberal Catholics were likely to become disillusioned with Pope Francis, because the Pope was not likely to change Catholic doctrines. Now, writing in The Week, he reports that he’s even more concerned, because liberal Catholics don’t seem to care.

Linker, in case you’re wondering, is generally quite sympathetic to liberal Catholics. But he’s upset by the “gushing commentary” on the new Pope, because he sees no real prospects for the “doctrinal reforms” that are his fondest hope. There are too many “institutional obstacles,” he believes, to allow for changes in dogma.

(In case you couldn’t guess, the questions on which Linker wants “doctrinal reforms” are abortion, contraception, and the ordination of women. He also wants to see an end to priestly celibacy, but acknowledges that this is not a doctrinal issue.)

After making his argument that reform of the Roman Curia is not enough, and major doctrinal change is necessary, Linker participated in a radio call-in show, and was taken aback when one caller, “Trish from Kentucky,” took issue with his emphasis on formal Church teachings. “Doctrine for a Catholic, now, is not even an issue,” said Trish.

Linker suspects that Trish is not unusual: that many liberal Catholics take the same dismissive attitude toward dogma. And this worries him, because if liberals are not pressing for doctrinal change, change will not come about. It worries, him, too, that liberal Catholics maintain their affiliation with a Church whose doctrines they do not support. “Why do you continue to attend church and think of yourself as a Catholic?” he asks them.

Good question. The same question could be posed to Catholics who agree with Linker, however. If they are convinced that the Church must change her doctrines--if they disagree with the doctrines she now proclaims—then evidently they do not accept the teaching authority of the Church. Thus they believe that the Church is not what she claims to be: the authoritative voice of the truths passed down by Jesus Christ through his apostles. If they consider the Catholic Church a fraud, why do they continue to think of themselves as Catholics?

When the question is phrased that way, the homely pragmatism of Trish from Kentucky seems more plausible, and one understands why Linker is frightened that many other Catholics think like Trish. They are Catholics not because they profess what the Church teaches—in fact they would favor major changes—but because....Well, just because they’re Catholics. They feel an attachment to the faith. They might even enjoy attending Mass from time to time. They’re ready to talk about Pope Francis and the prospects for Vatican reform. But the truth is that they’re not terribly interested in matters of faith.

Matthew Schmitz, writing for First Things, offers an interesting response to Linker’s lament. It’s unfortunately true, he argues, that many Catholics take no interest in matters of doctrine. It has become a habit, he explains:

For the past fifty years, indifference to Church teaching has been actively encouraged by bishops, priests, and catechists. Official episcopal announcements, books from Catholic presses, winking homilies, and a culture of silence on moral matters not only gave room for dissent but made assent actively difficult. Catholics in the pews simply followed the cues.

There’s a good reason why liberal Catholics don’t care about dogma, Schmitz concludes: “it’s that the Church has taught them not to care.” That’s not quite right. It’s not “the Church”—the Body of Christ—that has taught indifference. But it’s all too true that prominent Church leaders and Church institutions have encouraged Catholics to view doctrines as optional. I tell the same sad story in my forthcoming book Countercultural Catholic.

In the early centuries of the Christian era, believing Catholics were ready to fight to the death over questions of doctrine. They cared. For them it was a question of integrity; they would not pretend to share a common faith with others who held different beliefs.

Today’s liberal Catholics, Damon Linker fears, don’t have the integrity to admit that they don’t believe what their Church teaches. They may recite the Nicene Creed, if and when they show up for Sunday Mass; but they don’t actually profess the faith. It’s not that they are heretics (although that’s a possibility); it’s rather that they don’t care.

So Linker’s question is a legitimate one. If liberal Catholics don’t believe what the Church proclaims, why do they still identify themselves as Catholics? From the opposite perspective, why does the Church not demand more of them, asking for a more credible form of assent? The closing line of Linker’s essay poses a question that should trouble us all: “When does a church without a doctrine cease to be a church at all?”

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Show 11 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: DanielT - Jan. 20, 2014 3:17 PM ET USA

    "When does a church without a doctrine cease to be a church at all?" Um...immediately?

  • Posted by: Baseballbuddy - Jan. 17, 2014 9:36 PM ET USA

    That this is an issue at all after 2,000 years of Catholic teaching and practice is deeply disturbing, and it is an indication that a smaller Church may be coming. Perhaps the ones we see now in the pews are there for the sake of appearance but they will eventually get bored and give up. The hypocrisy will be too obvious for them as they recite a creed they cannot abide. I am not sure, however, they know what it means.

  • Posted by: Ave Maria - Jan. 17, 2014 5:53 PM ET USA

    Wonder if we should just designate adherence (and/or non-adherence) to our Catholic faith as the Jews do, i.e., those who believe and follow Church doctrine and dogmas would be considered "Orthodox Catholics" and those that don't "Secular Catholics"? This is more apt I believe than "liberal" and "conservative" Catholics!

  • Posted by: dfp3234574 - Jan. 16, 2014 9:57 PM ET USA

    I like to remind people like Linker and 'Trish from Kentucky' that there is already a name for people who call themselves 'Christian,' but not believe in the Sacraments, the all-male ministerial priesthood, and the authority of Rome to speak on faith and morals. They're called PROTESTANTS. 'Liberal' (read: dissident) Catholics are really Protestants but are too chicken to admit it and do something about it.

  • Posted by: bruno.cicconi7491 - Jan. 16, 2014 8:11 PM ET USA

    There is no form of assent more credible than those that already exist. Catholics express belief by proclaiming the creed at mass, taking communion, getting married at the Church. So perhaps it is not about more credible forms of assent, but rather about the necessity of reminding or announcing that those are grave things, that false witness is a very grave thing, as is sacrilege, as is taking an oath without intending to keep it. But I can't see this happening so soon.

  • Posted by: jamesbell431857 - Jan. 16, 2014 3:10 PM ET USA

    The New Evangelization is the evangelization of Christians. The First Great Awakening in the US evangelized Protestants, turning Mainline Protestants into Evangelical Protestants. Only once a strong Evangelical base developed did international evangelization of Catholics in Latin America and pagans in Africa take off in the 2nd and 3rd Great Awakening. As a result, Protestantism has grown much faster than Catholicism last century. Catholics have not yet finished the 1st Great Awakening stage.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Jan. 16, 2014 9:32 AM ET USA

    The results of nearly 50 years of poison in small doses.

  • Posted by: chrisleb18983 - Jan. 16, 2014 9:13 AM ET USA

    Fr. Greeley answered this question about 30 years ago: because they like 'being Catholic.'

  • Posted by: jg23753479 - Jan. 16, 2014 7:27 AM ET USA

    "...why does the Church not demand more of them, asking for a more credible form of assent?" This begs the question: What would this credible form look like? Beyond that, can we really maintain that 50 years ago a fundamental change in behavior began? I am not convinced that generations of Catholics prior to Vat II really believed what we now pretend they did. Big changes in sociological and religious attitudes don't happen overnight; they fester for a long time before manifesting themselves.

  • Posted by: KL Flannery - Jan. 15, 2014 11:29 PM ET USA

    It may be true that some, like Trish of Kentucky, do not care about doctrine. But your typical dissenter stays in the Church because he wants to change the doctrine. Perhaps deep-down he hopes that this will give him peace: both the Church and the world will be teaching the same thing. But that is not the peace that Christ promises.

  • Posted by: gfdsmith9280 - Jan. 15, 2014 7:15 PM ET USA

    "If liberal Catholics don’t believe what the Church proclaims, why do they still identify themselves as Catholics?" Because in reality they belong to the Church of Nice. They are Americans who cannot bring themselves to admit that it's the culture around them that is at fault and needs to be changed, not the teaching of the Church. They do not want to be regarded as second-class citizens by their anti-Catholic peers, and so they keep the pretence of being Catholics while denying the faith.

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