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The confused message of a church divided

What the Roman Catholic struggle with theological liberalism means for Protestants

Pope Francis leaves at the end of an audience at the Vatican on Sept. 22. Associated Press/Photo by Alessandra Tarantino

The confused message of a church divided
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Several days ago, a cleric festooned in a collar tweeted out his celebration that Walter Brueggemann “has just published an article on Outreach, arguing that the underlying message of the Bible, especially the Gospels, is welcome and inclusion for LGBTQ people.”

Now, it is not surprising that Brueggemann would advocate for such a position. He is a product of and ordained minister in ultra-liberal mainline Protestantism. What is odd is that the collared man touting his work isn’t a mainliner himself. He is James Martin, SJ. “SJ” stands for “Society of Jesus.” Any Protestant who knows church history will remember this religious order for its dutiful—even militant—service during the Counter-Reformation and beyond. In other words, this priest rooting for sexual license is Roman Catholic. But he is far from the only major Catholic figure pushing the LGBTQ agenda. .

Martin is merely one of the most outspoken Catholic proponents for redefining Christian sexual morality. A few weeks earlier, he tweeted out praise for the deceased Archbishop Rembert Weakland, a longtime voice of Catholic liberalization. Embarrassingly, Weakland also had a long track record of covering up sexual abuse and later admitted a number of homosexual affairs. Before deleting the tweet and apologizing, Martin responded to an online critic to say, “Have your friends ever done anything sinful?” The outcry was deservedly sarcastic. That level of tone-deafness belies a committed zeal for the LGBTQ transformation of the Roman Catholic Church.

Anyone familiar with revisionism in the Christian world knows that morals aren’t the only target. Revisionists change or suppress traditional orthodox doctrine, resulting in theological disaster. For example, Franciscan priest Richard Rohr has written of the “Divine Flow.” While his contemplations of the subject mesh well with Star Wars or Dune, they almost certainly don’t with the creedal, orthodox formulation of Trinitarianism. His is popular-level work, but he is also ordained. Neither Rohr nor Martin have been defrocked for their shenanigans. This confuses those within and without the Catholic fold.

Why go into all of this? Many people conceive of the Roman Catholic Church as a traditionalist monolith, with the odd remarks of Pope Francis utterly shattering their conceptions of what Catholicism supposedly means or stands for. This monolithic picture provides a horrifying caricature for progressive anti-Catholic pundits, and, in some times and places, a recruiting mechanism for traditionalist Catholic apologists who pursue conservative Protestants. Any conservative who worked in Washington, D.C., during the reigns of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI knows this line of argument.

Anyone familiar with revisionism in the Christian world knows that morals aren’t the only target.

In particular, some evangelicals seem shocked that modernism would sprout up in Catholic sectors, and not just in the lax, disengaged “cafeteria Catholic” laity. But they shouldn’t be surprised. An institution the sheer size of the Catholic Church, in terms of numbers and geographical presence, cannot avoid coming into contact with various kinds of progressivism, which may in turn inveigle the cleric and layman alike. And the current pontiff, Pope Francis, often sends very uncertain theological and moral sounds. He seems to be a fan of James Martin, for example.

Yet some of the dynamics seem odd to American Protestant outsiders. For example, there has been no significant institutional split due to the conflict between revisionists, traditionalists, and moderates, whereas Protestant groups almost always break apart in various ways. To put it roughly, in Catholicism, the evangelicals and liberal mainliners are stuck together under one hierarchy, and conflict manifests in cloak-and-dagger ecclesiastical politicking behind closed doors.

For another thing, Roman Catholicism rejects the Protestant principle that the Bible contains all things necessary for salvation. The Catholic argument is that other things that cannot be established by Holy Writ are still required for Christian salvation, and they are found in church tradition. Depending on which theologian one reads, this could be an oral tradition claimed to be passed on from the apostles (but not recorded in the Bible), a “development of doctrine,” or some variation of these views that will involve the formation of the biblical canon.

The contemporary upshot of all this is that there are Catholics who are biblical modernists but traditionalists when it comes to doctrines and morals. In other words, the same scholar can trot out a deep skepticism with regard to the Bible’s historical or scientific accuracy while embracing the most rigid of Catholic teaching. Similarly, soteriological universalism has become rampant throughout the Catholic world, proving Catholicism cannot escape the effects of modernization.

Why does this matter for traditional Protestants? Because Catholicism has proven a long-standing, clear voice on matters of great moral and doctrinal importance. We find ourselves in the same foxhole with Catholics in the midst of today’s cultural conflicts. We must realize that they, too, face conflict within their own church body, and that, if revisionism triumphs in the Roman Catholic world, we will all be the worse for it.

Barton J. Gingerich

The Rev. Barton J. Gingerich is the rector of St. Jude’s Anglican Church (REC) in Richmond, Va. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in history from Patrick Henry College and a Master of Divinity with a concentration in historical theology from Reformed Episcopal Seminary.

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