Conservative Cardinals’ Controversial Letter Cites Church Appeal

While most reactions to the 13 conservative cardinals who sent a letter to Pope Francis complaining that the outcome of the family synod was rigged in favor of progressives focused on the intrigue over the letter’s content and (supposed) signers, another significant element has flown largely under the radar.

Rather than highlight doctrine, tradition, or more direct social harms, the dissenters couched their concerns in terms of the effect of any reforms of marriage practice on the church, warning that it risked going the way of shrinking liberal Protestant denominations if it abandoned “key elements of Christian belief and practice in the name of pastoral adaptation.”

This is a long-standing contention of conservatives, as voiced most famously by Ross Douthat, who offers as proof the Episcopal Church, which aggressively adopted a host of progressive reforms to stay relevant, “[y]et instead of attracting a younger, more open-minded demographic with these changes, the Episcopal Church’s dying has proceeded apace.”

It’s true that the Episcopal Church did go in a progressive direction, from being the first Christian church to approve the use of birth control in 1930, to consecrating women priests, to electing the first openly-gay bishop. And it’s also true that the church has seen a rapid decline in the US, but there’s no proof of cause-and-effect here. Some note that the culprit many be a “sharp decline in the birth rate among those descended from the British Isles or Northern Europe,” as well as the paucity of Episcopalians among the many immigrant groups who populate the U.S. The demographic picture for the Catholic Church wouldn’t look nearly as rosy if it weren’t for the fact that Hispanic immigrants to the U.S. are overwhelmingly Catholic.

So there’s a good chance that the “you evolve, you die” contention of Catholic conservatives is based on confirmation bias—they see what they want to see. In fact, just about all recent polling of Catholics suggests that the main reason Catholics leave the church is because it hasn’t evolved its doctrine and practice in a way that makes it relevant to the majority of Catholics. And this suggests that reforms would make the church more vibrant, not less, as it seems Pope Francis and the progressive bishops suspect.

On the subject of divorce and remarriage, the Pew Research Center’s recent large-scale poll of Catholics found that six in ten Catholics were in favor of allowing divorced and remarried Catholics to receive communion. A similar number were in favor of allowing cohabitating couples to receive communion. This isn’t surprising as one-quarter of all Catholics are divorced and 44% have cohabitated at some point.

It’s true that the numbers among Catholics who attend church weekly are lower, 42% and 46%, respectively, but this just demonstrates how many people who still call themselves Catholic have been chased from the pews.

Pew also found that a stunning 46% of Catholics support the church, not just welcoming same-sex couples, as was tentatively suggested by the synod last year, but recognizing the marriages of gay and lesbian couples.

The Pew Poll has found a shrinking Catholic population in recent years, down from 24% in 2007 to 21% today, and that’s without any change in Catholic doctrine. It also found that 43% of Catholics raised in the faith who no longer consider themselves practicing Catholics, but do consider themselves “cultural Catholics,” would consider rejoining the church. These cultural Catholics are overwhelmingly in favor of progressive reforms on contraception, divorce and remarriage, married priests, women priests and the recognition of same-sex marriage.

The evidence that a progressive change in doctrine would lead to a collapse of the church is circumstantial at best, whereas the evidence that the change in doctrine might revitalize the church is substantial.

The conservative cardinals and others in the hierarchy aren’t fighting change because it might kill the church, they’re fighting it because their hardcore orthdoxy allows them to maintain their hegemony over the church and its adherents. Maybe what they’re really afraid of is their own irrelevance and loss of control if reforms are made and the progressives they have successfully marginalized and driven out return to the fold.


  •' NancyP says:

    I suspect one of the other problems that the Episcopal Church, and other old-fashioned liturgical Protestant churches face is the American trend toward extreme informality in worship style, and increasing acceptance of members showing formerly Pentecostal-style expression. Certain people are drawn to the Episcopal Church by the relative formality – hence the old saw about (WASPy) EC congregations – the “frozen chosen”. (I resemble that comment – “Christian rock music” in church is just plain grating)

  •' Jim Reed says:

    Christian rock outside church is even worse. Maybe it would work if it was instrumental, no lyrics.

  •' EyeTee says:

    And yet…. our Episcopal parish is growing, with increasing numbers of families with children, who are attracted by its message of social justice and inclusion. Gay couples are out and happy, and the formal choral liturgy couldn’t be higher.

    Well, it could, we don’t use sanctus bells. But we do everything else!

  • Patricia Miller says:

    Exactly! Plus the whole narrative of the Evangelical churches is adult conversion via being “born again.” Evangelical churches lose as many adherents as the Catholic Church but more than make up for it with adult converts. The old Mainline churches just don’t attract new adherents.

  •' Amos 2014 says:

    “The conservative cardinals and others in the hierarchy aren’t fighting change because it might kill the church, they’re fighting it because their hardcore orthdoxy allows them to maintain their hegemony over the church and its adherents. Maybe what they’re really afraid of is their own irrelevance and loss of control if reforms are made and the progressives they have successfully marginalized and driven out return to the fold.” BINGO!

  •' maggie crehan says:

    A couple at least of these signatories alleged or not do not impress me with their morality, especially their visible cruelty to abuse survivors. I would not follow them to the nearest ice cream parlor, much less put my salvation in their hands.

  •' lsomers says:

    The “conservatives” are the pall bearers of Christianity – not just in the RCC but in all Christian denominations. They fight to maintain an iron age world view and belief system in the age when heaven, hell and earth in the middle is total nonsense; and the idea of a god above and devil beneath if absurd and just plain ridiculous. Yet this is fundamentalist Christianity regardless of any other adjective used on it. It is nonsense and it has absolutely nothing to do with the real good news of Jesus which is to love…….

  •' Jim Reed says:

    Yes, the idea of a god above and devil beneath has been obsolete for about 40 or 45 years. No hell below us, above us only sky. All you need is love.

  •' cranefly says:

    Typical bad science AND warped priorities feeding the Douthat narrative. There are so many variables in this experiment, it really makes no sense whatsoever to blame the retention deficit of Episcopalians on their acceptance of human rights. Episcopalians don’t teach their children that they could go to hell for missing one service. Catholics literally do. Is that supposed to make less difference than the popularity of homophobia and sexism? Even supposing it didn’t, Douthat won’t stop running with the premise that being popular (at the expense of human dignity) is more important than being right.

  •' Camera Obscura says:

    I seem to recall reading that one of the leaders of the conservatives was Cardinal Pell from Australia who was thickly involved with the most serious reason for people leaving the Catholic church in recent years, the period covered by that Pew study, the sex abuse scandal, the cover up and the attempt to avoid taking responsibility for what the bishops and cardinals did. Cardinal Dolan was another of the signers whose manipulation of funds to avoid paying compensation to victims was downright sleazy.

    The right-wing Cardinals have no credibility on the matter of a. adherence to moral teachings of Jesus (they might want to reflect on that verse about millstones tied around necks and b. retaining members of the Catholic church.

    Pope Francis should ignore them and do what is just and merciful.

  •' Camera Obscura says:

    Yeah, John Lennon really got on with that “all you need is love” “imagine no possessions” etc. as he lived in The Dakota sitting on about 800 million dollars.

    Atheists lose their faithful too. I believe the Pew numbers show about 70% of children raised to be atheists don’t stay atheists. I suspect that might have a lot to do with the general nastiness of most of the atheists I’ve encountered.

  •' Camera Obscura says:

    I doubt any of my Catholic relatives believe they will go to hell if they miss mass one Sunday. You guys are just a continuation of the old Anglican Catholic bashers.

  •' cranefly says:

    Me? I am Catholic, thank you, please take your name-calling elsewhere and tell your relatives to take a class on the teachings of their faith. As a Catholic child I was taught that skipping mass is a mortal sin, along with plenty of justifications for this classification. Surely even your relatives know that mortal sins are those that put the soul in danger of hell without reconciliation. Plenty of Catholics don’t agree with the “orthodox” delineations of sin, but conservatives like Ross Douthat don’t compromise on such points. I can hold him to the standard that he sets.

  •' Judith Maxfield says:

    It’s amusing to see my beloved Episcopal Church bashed for the lack of numbers, as if that was all that counts. So you want a mass conversion as in the good ol’ days? Church is not a business. I’d rather have practicing and thoughtful laity theologians than lots of baptized heathen. There is a difference. My parish is growing slowly and that’s fine with me. I see the practice of the Gospel all around me. What does God want? Walking humbly with God, and care for the widow, the orphan and the oppressed. You can do that quietly without proclaiming sanctimonious beliefs from the rooftops. That we do very well.

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