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.