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The Pope's conservative critics: Douthat's useful taxonomy

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Mar 13, 2015

Who Are Pope Francis’s Critics? asks Ross Douthat of the New York Times. At the start of his perceptive analysis, he points out that while the blogosphere is alive with the angry words of conservative/traditionalist Catholics who distrust or even despise the Pontiff, there is no evidence that they command any substantial following in the real world. The Pope’s popularity remains extremely high, and especially so among those Catholics who support and practice their faith.

Still there are conservative critics, and their views cannot be easily dismissed. Douthat sorts those critics into three overlapping categories: liturgical conservatives (traditionalists), economic conservatives (or libertarians), and doctrinal conservatives. Of these, Douthat argues, the first two have legitimate reasons for complaint, and will probably continue to feel uncomfortable throughout this papacy. But it is the 3rd category that is most interesting.

Unlike the liturgical and economic conservatives, doctrinal conservatives cannot point to formal papal statements or policies that offend them. They can fret about the Pope’s offhand remarks, question his appointments, and worry about his manipulation of the Synod. But they can’t claim—not plausibly at least—that he has changed any Church doctrine.

As Douthat observes, the Church can easily survive another few years of debate about liturgical forms or economic policies. But if there is a move to change doctrine, of the sort that was discussed during the Synod meeting last October, Douthat remarks that “the economic issues would become a sideshow, and the pope’s existing conflict with traditionalists would become the template for a doctrinal conflict that’s wider, global, and essentially unknowable in its results.”

Notice what Douthat is saying here: The tensions between the Pope and doctrinal conservatives could become enormously important if the Pope makes an effort to change established Church teaching. Unless and until that happens, the tensions may be real—it’s an indisputable fact that doctrinal conservatives are nervous—but it’s a gross exaggeration to say that the conflict is tearing up the Church.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: skall391825 - Mar. 17, 2015 7:42 PM ET USA

    I am astonished to see your participation in Douthat's calumny. The "conservative/traditionalist" Catholics which he says "even despise the Pontiff" ARE NOT small t traditionalists or conservatives. They may not even be authentic Catholics. Phil, why do you exacerbate the continued misuse of the terms "conservative" and "traditionalist" by liberals? Do you wonder, my friend, why this site doesn't attract more followers, or why Douthat remains employed by the anti-Catholic Times?

  • Posted by: j.fleming8019 - Mar. 17, 2015 5:43 PM ET USA

    I think this is, on the whole, very fair commentary. However, I would want to add two caveats. First, the goings on in the recent Synod were very serious indeed. There has been the unfortunate raising of expectations of doctrinal reform fuelled by Cardinal Kasper (withe apparent support of Pope Francis) and others, and promoted in the media. We saw where that sort of thing destabilised the Church in 1968. Second, the Pope's penchant for off the cuff loose talk is more than just unfortunate.

  • Posted by: shrink - Mar. 14, 2015 2:35 PM ET USA

    It bears mentioning that Douthat's cogent taxonomy is in response to an article by Bruenig, who notably, sees Francis as the pope of the great transition to create "a workable synthesis" between the teachings of Christ and the modern world. Little does Bruenig understand modernity, which is at war with the Church, and the Church with it. The word is not "synthesis" but "surrender." Hopefully Douthat will come to address this problem in Bruenig.