In several of his recent op-eds, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has openly criticized Pope Francis, the Catholic academy, and much more. In fact, Douthat has gone so far as to argue that, if the Church were to reposition its views and allow divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Holy Communion, the ramifications would lead to a “bitter civil war.” So who would be the two “sides” in Douthat’s hypothetical struggle over the future of the Church? Well, in his eyes, it would be “liberal Catholics” versus “conservative Catholics.”

This ideological dichotomy is not new; to be clear, Douthat did not fabricate this ambiguous and unquantifiable divide—he only cashed in on it, thanks to his provocative and controversial “stirring of the pot,” so to speak. Yet, pretty much ever since the opening of the Second Vatican Council, many would argue that there has indeed been a tangible unease with the Church, a simmering tension between the Catholic Left and the Catholic Right. Sometimes this tension has been characterized by superfluous disagreement (i.e.: is the extraordinary or ordinary form of the mass “better?”); sometimes it has been marked by real points of contention (i.e.: should the Church recognize the legitimacy of “gay marriage?”); sometimes it has seemingly led to personality clashes (i.e.: Cardinal Burke “versus” Pope Francis). Nonetheless, this oft-discussed tension, between “conservative” and “liberal” Catholics, disregards one of the four fundamental marks of our faith: Oneness.

In the Creed, we proudly profess that “we believe in one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church.” Indeed, in his letter to the Galatians, St. Paul reminds us that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” In other words, no matter the many differences of opinion, political ideology, or spiritual practice that flow from the individual members of the Church, there is only one Church. St. Paul also admonishes us on this point, writing “just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.”

I don’t mean to argue that differences of opinion aren’t valuable or that a healthy, collegial dialectic between Catholics of all colors doesn’t contribute to a flourishing, introspective Church. I also don’t want to minimize the real difficulties that arise for a Church that must balance the need to be ever-relevant to the times while also staying true to its unerring Tradition. Like any human institution, the Church naturally ebbs and flows, always challenging itself to consider new ideas while challenging the world to reconsider timeless ones. But, as only a truly divine institution could be, the Church is perpetually guided by Christ and the Holy Spirit; its dogmas remain constant in their infallibility and its doctrines develop, only insofar as the ineffable Spirit guides.

Thus, as faithful Catholic men, we are tasked with one job: to have faith. No matter the political squabbles or theological disagreements that arise time and time again, we, as Catholic men, can have faith that the Church will remain as she always has. This is the joy of the Catholic faith: that we, as humans, marked by sin and our fallen nature, are not expected to be arbiters of the faith. No individual—not Ross Douthat, not even Pope Francis—is given the impossible task of “deciding” what Catholics ought believe. Thankfully, we can leave that job to the only one up to the task: God.

Ultimately, what Ross Douthat and others miss is the deep and abiding reality that there is, in the end, no such thing as “liberal Catholicism” or “conservative Catholicism.” There is only Catholicism. In our human imperfection, we often try to erect walls of division where walls need not exist or, in fact, cannot exist. So, Mr. Douthat, I don’t think that your civil war will ever come to pass: how could a perfectly one body—the Body of Christ—ever truly divide itself, despite how loudly its members clamor for revolt? Have faith—the Spirit hasn’t led us astray yet!

  • Buck

    Glad to hear all the smart guys weighing in on this issue. I can only employ the KISS principle; sit quietly in adoration, donate what food I can to the poor, and attend my KC meetings to see what committee work I can do. Apart from that, I will let the controversies rage, because that’s what controversies do.

  • John Sterett

    I have to agree with Fr. David. Anyone who would deny that there is not a battle raging in the Church either hasn’t been around Catholicism very long or they have their head buried in the sand about waist deep. In 1979 Msgr. George A. Kelly published The Battle for the American Church in which he revealed what he called a guerrilla-type warfare going on inside the American Church. The war has intensified and what could have been seen as guerilla warfare has become better organized and more focused as evidenced by the recent Synod on the Family.
    The stirring of the pot has been going on since Vatican II and we can expect more to come. It is indeed a battle but it has been going on since the first Pentecost and will continue, in some form, until Christ returns at the end.

    • Pat_H

      I have to agree as well with Fr. Fons and to an extent with Mr. Sterett, although I’m not sure that the war is as much of a war as it may be a last gasp of the 1970s. As the boomer generation ages in everything, it yields in very little, and we have recently seen some efforts to hold on to a “liberal” drift in the Church that had influence more in some places than others, but which does not seem to have worked out well anywhere. As “conservatism”, in the form of orthodoxy slowly revives, more quickly in some places than others, this struggle has come into focus due to events under Pope Francis papacy. Where this will concretely end we do not know, but my guess is that the reassertion of orthodoxy will continue long term.

      There are, it is worth noting, always things like this going on, and have been since the early days of the Church.

  • Fr. David Fons

    I appreciate Mr. Boyden’s attempt to emphasize unity, and promote trust and faith in the Church. I assume that he and I would agree that the terms ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ are at least as harmful as they are helpful. However, I think this article is rather unprepared for the scope of the issue that it has waded into. I will try to offer a few points of why that is.

    1. It’s not clear to me if Mr. Boyden is addressing the fullest and best presentation of Mr. Douthat’s argument. This, I would purpose, is found in his recent talk (and now First Things article – Jan16) entitled “The Crisis of Conservative Catholicism.” Granted it’s not as visible at the NYT, but without addressing that full argument, this article feels like it’s just picking words out of the headlines to make it’s own point. With this in mind, it seems rather unfair to Mr. Douthat to portray him as ill-willed.

    2. Yes, Catholicism is Catholicism without any adjectives qualifying it. But Catholicism is also supported by her magisterium of doctrine, which is the very thing that Mr. Douthat is claiming to be at the center of a so-called civil war. To dismiss Mr. Douthat as “stirring the pot” with his “opinions” is to seriously misunderstand what is being talked about and perhaps also confuse the Church as One in her subsistence in the Catholic Church and the doctrinal unity of her members.

    3. Finally, I can only assume that Mr. Douthat, himself a faithful Catholic lay man, is also being instructed in this line: “Thus, as faithful Catholic men, we are tasked with one job: to have faith…we, as Catholic men, can have faith that the Church will remain as she always has.” It seems that Mr. Douthat is being instructed to calm down, to not worry and to just have faith, instead of making what I think is a notable show of initiative to use his platform as a journalist and his reason as a Catholic man to help illuminate (perhaps in a flawed way) some of what the Church is experiencing. I would hope that regardless of whether or not one agrees with Mr. Douthat, he might actually be an example of courage and a manly spirit to do what he seemingly sincerely and rationally has done.

  • Isaiah

    A couple thoughts:
    1. The “oneness” of the Church remained intact even after the Eastern schism of the 12th century and the protestant revolt of the 16th. I might call that “erecting walls”—or scaling them. Apparently, some theological disagreements are not easy to ignore or reconcile.
    2. The Catholic Faith, because it is one, is not a smorgasbord of options. Divine Truths of faith and morality are taught by the Church as a unit, and non-negotiable.
    Quibbles on how best to present and explain irreformable doctrine to modern, distracted, even resistent ears are one thing; disagreements concerning the importance, relevance, or applicability of such doctrines are quite another.
    Some areas of immutable teachings experiencing unfounded and untenable surges of “public” resistance from various prelates are the infallible, Scriptual definitions of Christian marriage, its nature and indissolubility (affirmed unambiguously by Christ Himself), along with the requirements for the worthy reception of the Holy Eucharist (made clearly and cogently by the Holy Spirit through St. Paul).
    That some bishops and cardinals in the Church are unabashed in their push for allowing adulterers to receive Holy Communion cannot come as news to those paying attention. The same can be said about those in the hierarchy who advocate for homosexual unions or “marriages” and also for those living in homosexual sin to be admitted to Communion.
    These are not small, inconsequential decisions. Such activities, along with the clerical winking that minimizes (or, in some cases, even celebrates) them unquestionably attack the Word of God, both in Sacred Scripture and in Sacred Tradition.
    At this time, because of the mixed messages given by the recent synod and by the pope himself, there is consternation and confusion in the Church. This can only be by God’s permissive will, for He is not the author of confusion, but of peace (1 Cor. 14:33).
    Since this muddled predicament in the Church is a first for most of us, it’s natural for Douthat and many others to fret over the future.
    Oh yes, the One Church will endure to the end of time. Its beliefs and faithful following of its Head will abide. The issue is, who will remain in His Mystical Body?

  • Charles Culbreth

    Post-script upon second reading of your good article, Mr. Boyden-
    “In the Creed, we proudly profess that “we believe in one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church.” Indeed, in his letter to the Galatians, St. Paul reminds us that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
    Are you aware that the rationale you state here is the same one professed by history professor/author Garry Wills in his “WHY I AM STILL CATHOLIC” ? Though I am in sympathy with your assessment and continue to read Wills, I’m also sure that I’m a minority in that and that Wills remains anathema among orthodox RC’s.

  • Charles Culbreth

    “New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has openly criticized Pope Francis, the Catholic academy, and much more. ”
    It was difficult to get past the implication of this first statement. The hitch in the step for me was “openly.” It isn’t a stretch to determine that to mean open criticism of anything is inherently wrong. Criticism, per se, isn’t right or wrong. But if criticism of the Holy See or academia violates something that is not genuinely sacrosanct, it does not necessarily pose a moral danger. Sure, if I lived in the Vatican during the pontificate of Alexander III and dared utter a sneeze in deference to the pope, I’d be in danger of not living to eat my last meal. As many people have advanced, papal criticism isn’t unlawful or immoral in itself. But even at places like the Remnant there are divergent voices taking different paths with their grievances.

  • Evan Keal

    This is fine to point out Ross Douthat, as one who is stirring the pot, but in fairness, you also have to call out the folks on “the other side” too who are doing the same, such as Fr. James Martin, Mark Shea, etc.

    Divisiveness is happening on both sides. Once we realize that we can start solving the problem.

    From there, we can start to realize that it’s not so much the “conservative” or the “liberal” person is to blame, but that it is the Devil who is the great divider.