The Crisis Of Conservative Catholicism: Ross Douthat’s Erasmus Lecture at First Things


Ross Douthat gave the 28th Erasmus Lecture at the Union League Club (they have a complete set of books on the “Rebellion” in their library) in Manhattan. Your roving reporter was there. Here are some notes and thoughts.

After stepping (tieless) to microphone and welcoming us to the third Synod on the family, Douthat told the familiar story of the Church since Vatican II—as it is seen by conservative eyes. By conservative, Douthat means roughly orthodox and not (always) American political right.

That story is this. The sound theology of VII fought against the Spirit of VII and the spirit of the age. Two against one, and conservatives were forced to retreat from the onslaught of felt banners, pant-suited religious, guitar masses, and Jesuit education. Douthat was not shy about naming names and a quip about Jesuits trying to stealthily weaken doctrine produced both genuine and nervous laughter.

It was a rout. The precipice was reached and the Church was thisclose to full-on Episcopalianism. (What’s that? For an idea, the new dean of the Washington National Cathedral has progressed far beyond Arianism.) Then a miracle happened, of a sort. John Paul II became Pope. He had the Theology of the Body and a Rottweiler. But he also had to mop up the abuse scandal, which was caused by the ordination of too many men “oriented” toward teenage boys. The Rottweiler became Pope himself and Dogma had its champion. The succession of two sound leaders stacked the deck with conservative appointments, which would surely lead to the election of another conservative Pope and secure the future.

Then came Francis.

Well, that’s the story. But it’s flawed. VII, sound or not, fought the wrong battle. That council still thought reconciling itself to democracy and Jews was important. But the culture no longer cared about such mundane items. It had flung itself headlong into the sexual rebellion (two can play at that game), the thrills of civil rights, and the first rush of environmentalism. That guaranteed the great liberalizing “spirit” of VII was what most would see.

Progressive priests and bishops embraced leftist politics, but that led to their downfall because democratic politics are too volatile and ephemeral to cling to for long. JP-II tried to right the balance, but it was really too late. Church leaders accepted JP-II’s teachings, to varying degrees, but many were afraid to preach it. Bishops too often want to be liked by the world—and by their brother bishops.

A unhealthy dose of clericalism gave the Church its Nixon moment and taught it a valuable lesson the world already knew: it’s not the deed that gets you, it’s the cover-up. And Benedict XVI wasn’t a rottweiler after all. This most holy, erudite, humble and, let’s face it, old man did not have the musculature to clear out the Curia.

Francis does; or, at least he is trying. But how did he get elected by all those conservative Cardinals appointed by JP-II and B-XVI?

Conservatives thought the leftists were bested, or were dying out, removed by the “biological solution”. But—surprise!—there they were, lying dormant, waiting for their moment, which is now. How were they awakened? Conservatives made the same mistake progressives did: they embraced right-wing politics. To be a Christian was, in the many minds, to be George W. Bush, endorsing torture and foreign wars and being a “compassionate” conservative. It’s no wonder a theologically left Church is resurgent.

The left are still trying to weaken doctrine, by claiming to seek for “pastoral solutions” for a mortally wounded culture (the wounds are self-inflicted). Douthat openly acknowledged what all know: that the left lies often about its intent. This produced even more nervous laughter. Yet it’s true that the left’s various attempts to weaken doctrine about “remarriage” largely failed at the Synod.

Pope Francis has the final word, though. Or does he? After the long reigns of two conservative Popes, many on the theological right fell into the bad habit of pronouncing, “The Pope rules, man.” Conservatives liked what the Popes were saying, but they were saying the Popes were right because they were Pope. Oops. That fallacy had two consequences. Some on the right tried to stay consistent and agreed that Francis, as Pope, must be right even in those matters in which he is demonstrably wrong, like global warming and “remarriage”.

On the other hand, others cast off their papalotry and have openly criticized the Holy Father. And, as we have seen, Francis doesn’t like it. But he is in charge, which accounts for men like Soupy Cupich, the theological embodiment of the Peter Principle. Francis is stacking the deck with progressives, which Douthat thinks might even lead to genuine schism. The urge to Protestantism is too strong in many on the left and they will not be satisfied until the need for the transcendent Church is obviated.

That’s where Douthat left off. My thinking is that VII was wrong after all. The Church should not have sought to accommodate democracy, which is the cause of the problems we face. Any system which puts “truth” to a vote must end badly—and bloodily. The Church should not have sought to embrace all other religions as one, in some ill-thought-out ecumenicism, which in any case failed. Any system which fails to insist this is true must fall to one which does. The Church possess the truth. If it can’t bring itself to trumpet it, then, while it can’t fail entirely, it will surely be greatly diminished (B-XVI predicted this).

What will come? So-called conservatives elected Francis, so why can’t so-called progressives elect a dogma-minded Pope? Education is largely in the hands of the left, but education is everywhere crumbling as it approaches the event horizon of the left singularity. My guess is this: surprise. World events will cause, in the words of my drill Sergeant Enrico Montoya, a major attitude adjustment.

Addendum Sometimes I suspect Hollywood is scripting Church politics. The McCarthyism of Liberal Catholic Elites: “The Catholic layman Ross Douthat, according to these liberal Catholic academics, is too stupid to have an opinion about Catholicism, because he has not been trained in theology.” Truly, the left can dish it out, but they act like Lost in Space’s Dr Smith when they have to take it.


  1. Publius NJ

    I think the heart of your argument as stated here is flawed:

    “How were they awakened? Conservatives made the same mistake progressives did: they embraced right-wing politics. To be a Christian was, in the many minds, to be George W. Bush, endorsing torture and foreign wars and being a “compassionate” conservative. It’s no wonder a theologically left Church is resurgent. ”

    This is surely the apogee of the “Damon Linker” thesis. The editorial board of FT sullied the Faith by aligning the cause with Bush. Thus, the AntiChrist becomes Pope? Come on- lets get serious. If there was an over identification with partisan politics, perhaps it gave some opening to the Left. But we have terms for this, even if the cognoscenti giggle at it: Modernism, the synthesis of all heresy has been a mortal threat to the Faith since Tyrell in the 1880s. Yes, clericalism and Papolotry have their role, but the contemporary “conservative cleric” is too timid, too anodyne, too conformed to this age and is naïve so that a conspiracy of the soixante-huitards of the Church (Daneels, Kasper, Schoenberg, etc) foisted their man upon the universal church. Bergoglio, I think, is a moderate liberal (or modernist if you will). He does not believe in sin or redemption other than social sins. Privately, he probably denies the historicity of the Resurrection or the reality of the Eucharist (his sermons are coded with things like the “the Resurrection event in the life of the community as a recognition of the meaning of the Jesus event” and the miracle of the loaves and fishes, he repeats over and over, is not about a supernature miracle or a prefiguring of transubstantiation, but is about sharing.

    And what is this world event that you end your article with? Please tell! Isis overrunning us and raping our wives and daughters and cutting our throats? Three days of darkness relayed by Mrs. Keenan? Cardinal Maridriago to succeed Bergoglio and be the dogmatic Leftist so that a new Catechism will be issued so the reality of the church today will be in black and white as well as in lived experience?

    Finally, you are so right about McCarthyism on the Left. In the center and right we have pusillanimity masquerading as civility. Maureen Mullarkey tells the truth and is thrown under the bus by your editor. Ross Douthat writes for the NYSlimes and is never as much a virtuoso as Ms. Mullarkey so he still gets invited to the Union League Club- even without a tie. What would your drill sergeant say?

  2. Briggs


    Not quite my arguments here, but Douthat’s (until the end). At least, I hope I have faithfully reproduced them, albeit in shortened and colorful form. I am not entirely unsympathetic with many of this points, however.

  3. PubliusNJ

    Oh, sorry about the misattribution! So I guess he was excoriating the Editorial Board at FT!

  4. Briggs


    This video at about 2 minutes in reiterates the point about democracy.

  5. Fr. John Rickert

    I recommend Msgr. Philip Hughes, “The Church in Crisis: A History of the General Councils,” the text of which can be found easily online (e.g., at EWTN). Chaos, intrigue, confusion, dismay, uncertain outcomes, etc. have tended to be the rule rather than the exception with Church “get-togethers” of this sort. The Church continues in spite of us and not because of us. Not that one should take the recent Synod with complete insouciance, but it’s good to keep in mind how bumpy history has been.

  6. Scotian

    I have to ask. Who or what is VII? Do you mean VI (I am not a number, I am a human being).

  7. Noncents


    I believe VII is Vatican 2 (though I could well be wrong!)

  8. I thought you were writing the Roman numeral for “7” until about halfway through. I have seen it abbreviated that way before but maybe it’s something about the typeface… when you’re writing about Benedict XVI and John Paul II and VII, then XVI and II and VII all look like numbers.

  9. I think you’re projecting far too much modern conservatism on Catholics. They were never that conservative to start with. Then came Francis? Francis has been the best thing for the church in years. In America, the church has lost millions past decade alone. For the past few generations a majority of American Catholics have shown a preference for secular governance and freedom of choice and conscience. As well, Catholic partisanship is irrelevant, with other indicators, like location, wealth or ethnicity, playing far more important roles in political affiliation. There is no crisis of conservative Catholicism, just conservative Catholics unwittingly bemoaning their utter and complete failure to do anything good.


  10. Fr. John Rickert

    “They were never that conservative to start with.” Debatable, to say the least. When you look at the churches built in 17th and 18th centuries directly or indirectly by the Spanish, and in the 19th and early 20th centuries by German Catholics fleeing the Kulturkampf, by Italians fleeing Masonic harassment in Italy, by Irish fleeing a famine, for example, you see a faith that is undeniably united with the Middle Ages. So much so that in the revolution of the 1960’s and 70’s many of these churches were gutted and stripped the way they were in Europe during the Reformation. Where I live you can still see old, ethnically German churches that have not been touched, or only somewhat. The difference between them and most modern-day churches is obvious. It’s not modern-day liberal Catholics who built the old churches.

  11. Phil Steinacker

    Fr. John Rickert –

    Thanks for your great response to Jersey McJones’ attempt to create an alternate Catholic universe. The longer he went on the more he revealed he either knows nothing of what he speaks or he intentionally tried to weave a self-serving tapestry of fiction regarding those who built and peopled the Church in America, and from whom there are conservative Catholics greater in number than the stars in the sky.

    The problem for conservative Catholics here is that as a contributor mentions above, we’ve been so well trained to be “civil and non-judgmental” by our liberal masters that we’ve ceased to speak truth to those who most need to hear it.

  12. Fr. John Rickert

    Phil Steinacker —

    Thank you for your reply. In regard to your second paragraph, have you read Donoso Cortés’ great letter to Cardinal Fornari? He sounds a very similar note. I have read this letter many times and find that it continues to explain a great deal of what is going on around us and the root of the problems. Extremely astute analysis. If you have trouble finding a copy, let me know, because I can send you one.

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