Friday, February 15, 2013

The Catholic Divide

Andrew Brown writes at the Guardian about the temporary truce in what he describes as a "civil war" in the Catholic Church, which will end with the election of a new Pope. Brown states:
Pope Benedict's resignation has brought about a brief truce in the civil war that rages through the Catholic church worldwide, but hostilities will resume as soon as his successor is chosen. In the US, in France, in Germany, Austria, Australia and, increasingly, in England, the church is split between liberals who believe in democracy (and that they are the majority) and conservatives who believe in autocracy, providing they get to choose the bishops.

... Each side blames the errors of the other for the troubles of the church. So the sex abuse scandal is either due to authoritarian clergy and a corrupt culture of celibacy, or to liberal slackness. The fall in attendance is either due to the refusal of the church to modernise, or to its abandonment of eternal truths.

But what really divides the two sides? The obvious answer is sex, but that is not the only factor and probably not the most important one. Conservatives are implacably opposed to abortion, and in theory at least opposed to contraception too. They reject the notion of women priests .... Many take up strongly anti-environment positions: in Australia Cardinal George Pell is a noted critic of the science of human-induced climate change.

... The liberals mostly buy into the standard progressive package: they want married clergy (around 100,000 men left the priesthood to marry in the 70s and 80s, and their loss has never really been made up); they are in favour of contraception within marriage; and believe that the relief of poverty is a much more pressing and urgent issue than abortion. They believe the church should be more openly tolerant of gay people and that the protection of the environment is a Christian duty.

Most of these are also the uncontroversial attitudes of the laity in the west: polls and statistics show clearly that Catholic sexual behaviour is pretty much the same as that of non-Catholics, and if the Catholic vote inclines in any direction it is to the left. Conservative Catholicism is very much a movement of the elites in the west. Even in the US, the rightwing hostility to immigration has cost the Republican party support among socially conservative Hispanic Catholics.

... In this light, the disaffection of the laity really matters. It becomes a bid for the control of the church they pay for. The most radical element of the liberal programme for the priesthood is not so much an end to clerical celibacy as the desire for national churches to elect their own bishops rather than have them chosen from Rome. ...

The conservative programme has almost always involved the imposition of bishops from Rome, or a campaign to undermine existing bishops by intriguing directly with the Vatican. ...

Yet it would be a mistake to decide that the conservatives are doomed because they are out of step with modern society. In the 50 years since the Vatican council ended, that has become their strength. The general mockery of Catholics as weird and sexually conflicted tends to make young, committed ones feel their faith is stronger and more important. If Catholicism recedes from the mainstream, it is likely to grow in commitment even as it shrinks. In the end, the liberals might stop paying and they might stop attending church – 10% of American adults are now former Catholics – but they are behind a church that is merely shrinking, not entirely empty.
 I am not Catholic, and won't pretend that I understand the ins-and-outs of the conflict, if any, in the Catholic Church. However, according to Brown's description, it appears to mirror the larger societal conflicts in the West and United States, which I feel comfortable commenting on.

First, Brown is obviously sympathetic to the liberal position. He casts the liberals as "democratic" and "progressive," while the conservative Catholics are a "minority," autocratic, and the "elite." If the split mirrors America, it is a false dichotomy. Opposition to immigration is not the hallmark of the elite, but the middle-class. It is the elite that push immigration "reform." Environmentalism epitomizes autocratic rule, dooming the poor to their poverty while excepting the rich and powerful from its rules.

Second, looking behind Brown's cliches and code-phrases, this is really a battle of whether church and religion stand for timeless principles, or should change to match the whims and fads of the time. The "liberals" don't want traditional religious mores because they want to feel good about sinning.

But, like every other religion that begins caving, this is the long-term future. If a church begins compromising its moral principles, it will become irrelevant. It is true that holding firm may cost members to leave and stop donating. But these same people are going to leave anyway. After all, if anyone can get into Heaven, who needs a church? Compromise will, however, drive away the devoted as the church loses its moral imperative and legitimacy. So, the church that doesn't compromise may be doomed, the church that compromises is surely doomed. Over the long run, the conservative faction has more children. Eventually, the demographics will turn, and the liberals will decline; as will any surviving liberal churches.

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