AS I have noted in these posts, one of the brightest stars on the Catholic front is NYT Times columnist Ross Douthat. Ross writes of late that full Catholics, those who adhere to the teachings of the Church, all of them, can maintain their faith vs. modernity “only to the extent that you separate yourself from the American and Western mainstream,” or submit to the culture at large. He sees no middle position, which in my mind describes most Catholics today, cultural “cafeteria” Catholics who attend Mass when it behooves them, have “issues with Catholic teaching,” and do not live so as to distinguish themselves all that much from what Ross styles the “mainstream.”
Ross argues that it is in this present situation that the Holy Father is relevant, as the exhilaration around his papacy is a reply to Francis’ desire to engage the “lapsed-Catholic, post-Catholic and non-Catholic world.”
In the Church the Holy Father’s desire centers around the “new evangelization,” a “new springtime” for Christianity — nothing new here. I have tried to show in my blog posts that Francis has focused his message more bellicosely to a world that, for reasons I discuss in my book having to do with a spiritual war, has not heard the sublime teachings of his predecessors. Thus, it is a transparent papacy, and one in which the most serious moral issues of our day—abortion, gay marriage among them—are put on the back burner (not taken off the stove) in favor of the new evangelization, the success of which should move the moral issues back to the front burner.
Ross further notes that noted “Vaticanwatch” man John Allen Jr. has labeled the Pope a “pope for the Catholic middle,” (again we are obsessed with using political terms to discuss the Faith) which lies between the church’s orthodox and the heterodox who wish the Episcopalianization of the Catholic faith.
I am praying for the Pope in his determination to be heard by the majority of Catholics today who are the ones the popular media has given emphasis in their coverage of the Pope (“ finally, a pope who doesn’t harsh our buzz”). As Ross notes, Francis has gotten media responsiveness, but “wonders whether the culture will simply claim him for its own without being inspired to actually consider Christianity anew.” Where I take issue with Ross is in the following:
In the uncertain reaction to Francis from many conservative Catholics, you can see the fear that the second possibility is more likely. Their anxiety is not that the new pope is about to radically change church teaching, since part of being a conservative Catholic is believing that such a change can’t happen. Rather, they fear that the center he’s trying to seize will crumble beneath him, because the chasm between the culture and orthodox faith is simply too immense.
It is not so much “conservative Catholics” and the “center” as it is those who have been evangelized, catechized and endeavor to be authentic disciples in the world, accompanied by the flesh and the Devil, and those Catholics who are sitting on the fence, who do not yet know the Lord Jesus, and so will be the target of the New Evangelization. As I discuss in my book, many of these Catholics came of age in the 1970s, with its focus on social justice, liturgical deviance and situation ethics, when bishops failed to take seriously their jobs as shepherds. The results were a Church which, until the pontificate of John Paul II failed to be heard by modernity and largely surrendered to what Ross aptly terms “’Me Decade’ manifestations — producing tacky liturgy, ugly churches, Jonathan Livingston Seagull [I would add Kahil Gahbran] theology and ultimately empty pews”.