I have a love/hate relationship with Ross Douthat.

Ok, love and hate are too strong to accurately reflect the ways I feel amid the ebb and flow of my agreement and disagreement cycle with this New York Times columnist. There is much to appreciate about Douthat’s context and perspective. For one, he and I are roughly the same age (he’s a few years older than me, but we would otherwise be considered contemporaries). He is a skilled writer, something for which I have tremendous respect. He is an unapologetic Roman Catholic, something that comes across often in his Times column — and that is something to which I can also relate, if I wasn’t so committed to the church then I wouldn’t have committed my life to serve the people of God in a Roman Catholic Religious Order nor be ordained a Roman Catholic priest.

Yet, there are things about Douthat’s particular take on current ecclesiastical and social situations that do not sit well with me. Some might be quick to label both of us as representative of different camps. Douthat, I imagine, would be categorized by some as “conservative” (whatever that means), while the same givers of names might want to categorize me as “liberal” (whatever that means). As much as it will inevitably upset all those quick to demarcate us and fit all people into their social or ecclesial taxonomy, I think he and I share more in common than what we don’t.

For example, I think his general thesis in the book Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (2012), is for the most part correct. It is neither “too much” nor “too little” religion in the public square that is problematic, but so-called “bad religion,” or the heterodox expression of Christianity that many people for many different reasons advocate. The biggest problem is that most so-called “Christianities” (and it is plural) are simply not reflective of what the tradition actually professes, and instead is a fabrication created in the image and likeness of its adherent and not the Gospel.

But in this Sunday’s column, “Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?” Douthat makes some points with which I have to disagree. Without getting into the complexities of the Episcopal Church of the Anglican Communion, which Douthat spends most of his column discussing, I want to simply look at what he has to say about the Roman Catholic Church, especially concerning the women religious. Douthat writes:

Liberal commentators, meanwhile, consistently hail these forms of Christianity as a model for the future without reckoning with their decline. Few of the outraged critiques of the Vatican’s investigation of progressive nuns mentioned the fact that Rome had intervened because otherwise the orders in question were likely to disappear in a generation. Fewer still noted the consequences of this eclipse: Because progressive Catholicism has failed to inspire a new generation of sisters, Catholic hospitals across the country are passing into the hands of more bottom-line-focused administrators, with inevitable consequences for how they serve the poor.

But if liberals need to come to terms with these failures, religious conservatives should not be smug about them. The defining idea of liberal Christianity — that faith should spur social reform as well as personal conversion — has been an immensely positive force in our national life. No one should wish for its extinction, or for a world where Christianity becomes the exclusive property of the political right.

There are presuppositions held that necessarily shape Douthat’s perception and conclusions. One unnamed presupposition is that the reason communities of women religious aren’t attracting “a new generation of sisters” has to do with the vast majority of these committed and selfless women’s appropriation of so-called “progressive Catholicism.”

As one religious sister reminded me so eloquently not too long ago, the sisters who are frequently labeled “progressive” because they don’t wear the old habits and the like are actually the more “loyal to the magisterium” by virtue of their obedience to the call of both the Second Vatican Council and Pope Paul VI. Over the last half-century women and men religious were called to return to their origins and foundations to be more true to their charism. What they discovered was that they were all usually founded (a) to do evangelical work and charitable service such as education, healthcare ministries, and the like; and (b) their habits were often the simple outfits of the working class or poor of their day. This last point is certainly true with my community, for example. Francis of Assisi would only have worn a tunic and hood of the cheapest cloth, just as the poor workers of his time would have, and tied a belt with a rope instead of expensive leather.

It is not “progressive Catholicism” (whatever that means) that is the culprit, if that is the correct word, for the decline in religious women and men in the United States. It is, instead, a number of very complex and subtle social, ecclesiastical and cultural factors that come together to create the conditions we see today.

Take for example the empowerment of women in our North American context in the last century. As one older sister said to me a few years ago, what young woman who wanted to be in a position of authority or professional competence would become a nun today? The point, odd as it may sound, is that this was at one point a major factor. In the 1940s, for example, if a young, intelligent, creative woman had something to contribute to the world and may not want to be a wife or homemaker, religious life afforded her an opportunity that society was by and large not yet willing to offer. Even in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, women religious were effectively CEOs and significant public figures that were running hospitals, schools, universities and other ministries.

However, in the intervening years, the social-ecclesial contexts have reversed. The opportunities are manifold for women in the workplace (albeit not yet where they should be in terms of gender equality and the like), whereas the motivation to apply those skills and energies to the Church has decreased.

Women who respond to the call to religious life today are not seeking the same things that some of their older sisters in community might have in some senses. Therefore, from a purely sociological vantage point, there is less of a drive to pursue that way of life, even if a young woman did feel called by the Holy Spirit to a life of community, prayer and ministry.

But I know many young woman (and men, for the matter) who do feel the call, the intuition, the drive to live in religious life and minister in the Church — what it is they are looking for, however, is not offered to them. There are concerns about the priorities of those who have a more public voice and face representing the Church and legitimate questions about how those priorities align with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. There is significant pain centering on issues of ministerial equality and the role that gender and sexual orientation factor into who can and cannot serve the People of God. There are reasons to be skeptical of the use of power and authority, something that affects every human structure, even the church.

I, for one, do not think that there will be a sudden boom in women religious, nor will I suddenly find myself accompanied by a boom of male religious or diocesan priests, anytime soon. And this is not because of the failure or success of “progressive Catholicism” as Douthat posits. I’m not entirely sure what all the reasons are, but I do know that the more exclusive a community becomes, the less it resembles the Church of Jesus Christ who welcomed all to the table, especially the sinner.

Douthat should stick to the original thesis of Bad Religion instead of the partisan ecclesiastical politics that eerily reflect his dreaded “too much” or “too little religion in the public square” binary. It’s not a matter of “progressive” or “conservative” Catholicism, but rather what it means to live according to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

The women religions I know, a bit older perhaps and a bit fewer in number than previous generations, are focused on their baptismal vocation to live the Gospel. Perhaps if the rest of us followed their example a little more closely, we wouldn’t be so concerned or fearful of a change in their numbers — we’d be taking care of others and doing what they’ve taught us to do by their lives.

Photo: CNS

6 Comments

  1. One key element which I do see in the websites and vocational publications separating more traditionalist religious orders from those labeled progressive is the degree of emphatic centeredness on Christ.

    In image,word and mission statement Christ seems,to me, displaced in more progressive congregations.I have read phrases such as “the call of God in the Gospel”. And descriptions such as transformation,spirituality and justice to name a community`s apostolate.All of urgent value,but not necessarily Christian. Nor rooted in a decisive commitment to meeting these noble aspirations by the power of the Living Christ vibrant in the Catholic Church .
    Our Evangelical brothers and sisters leave no doubt nor nuance to Whom they belong.I wonder why do some of our Catholic congregations fail to do so.

    My experience of groups such as the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal,which is growing in numbers,is their unmistakable focus on conversion in Christ,intense personal and communal prayer and
    service to the poor. Their habit marks their identity in a sign which speaks to many.

    While it is diminishing to flatten persons and groups with labels,I believe Mr.Douthat draws the contours of this polarized Catholic terrain with significant insight.
    Friar Daniel also makes many worthy contributions here regarding the social contexts and dynamics of religious life past and present.

    May the Holy Spirit draw into respectful presence and dialogue
    all members of the Mystical Body of Christ.

    Peace and Good,

    Patrick Timothy Caughy SFO

    1. Three thoughts: 1) There’s a huge difference between Evangelical Christology and Roman Catholic Christology; 2) The congregations you label progressive probably come from a long tradition where their Christology is better integrated and hence not so visible; 3) the congregations you label traditionalist are probably younger, hence the need for a more explicit christological focus. Paul solved this dilemma years ago when writing to the Philippians about differing styles: “The important thing is that Christ be proclaimed.”

  2. I agree completely, Fr. Dan, with your analysis of the major sociological reasons behind the decline of religious orders—and, for that matter, decline in vocations to the priesthood. “Entering the Church” was once a very desirable career option—in secular terms—for many people, women most especially, who now have many more opportunities. There are similar sociological shifts that account for the drop-off in church attendance in many areas of the U.S. that are seldom taken into account in the discussion of the relative “success” or “decline” of liberal or conservative wings of the Christian churches.

  3. Hi Dan,
    You make me proud to be a friar and a member of Holy Name Province. A wonderful and focused reflection on the life and growth of the sisters of the US and the world. I have read and heard much that supports what you have said, especially in the writings of Sandra Schneiders, IHM (Prophets in their Own Country). Your words about the labels “liberal” and “conservative” resonate with me as well. I refuse to accept them for myself, and in my preaching ministry I am very direct about the call of the Gospel to social justice, while being as passionate about Jesus as the center of my life and prayer. I have even been called “Old School” by the oldest members of a parish where I am presiding at Eucharist. My favorite reflection on the uselessness of the labels liberal & conservative is a book by Timothy Radcliffe, OP – What is the Point of Being a Christian. It is worth reading.
    Friar Peter

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