ALL my working life as a religious journalist, one thing has been constant. Last week it changed.
Coverage of Rome has always been built on a ground bass of Vatican II bores for whom the Council and its betrayal was the most significant event since the Reformation. Francis’s visit to the United States has put an end to that. From now on, the chorus of the dispossessed will be sung by the Benedict XVI bores.
It might be unfair to single out Ross Douthat in The New York Times; so, in the best traditions of this column, I will not hesitate to do so. “Pope Francis has . . . given the religious left a new lease on life. He has offered encouragement to Catholic progressives by modestly soft-pedalling the issues dividing his church from today’s liberalism — abortion and same-sex marriage — while elevating other causes and concerns.
“His personnel decisions have confirmed that encouragement; his rhetoric has reinvigorated left-leaning Catholic punditry and thought. And his media stardom has offered provisional evidence for a proposition dear to liberal-Christian hearts — namely, that a public Christianity free from entanglements with right-wing politics could tug the disaffected back toward faith.”
But, he goes on to argue, this will all come to a juddering halt at the Synod on the Family, when the bishops will be tempted “to imitate the moribund Episcopal Church’s approach to sex, marriage, and divorce. . . After the cheering ends, the same winter that enveloped liberal Protestantism after the 1960s will claim Franciscan Catholicism as well.”
Against this, it’s worth putting the dry observation of the rather more considerable (Orthodox) conservative Rod Dreher: “Nobody can doubt that Pope Francis has had a spectacular trip here to the US. Even my Catholic friends, who tend to be skeptical of his papacy and its priorities, have been inspired by this papal pilgrimage. And why not? Francis is a rock star.
“But so was John Paul II, and that fact did not bring his flock back to the traditionalist Catholic teaching on sex and the family, which he never hesitated to preach.”
Dreher, too, invokes the Episcopal Church as an Awful Warning of what happens to Christianity when it is emptied of otherworldliness. But at least he’s noticed that there was no Golden Age under John Paul II when the Church preached the true faith and was rewarded for it with growth.
The figures are quite clear on two things. The first is that Roman Catholics have the same number of children, and of divorces, as their social peers. The second is that, if you strip out immigration, the Roman Catholic Church has not done better than anyone else in the past 30 years. Former RCs would, if they were counted as a denomination, form the second largest one in the US today. So much for the attraction of 30 years’ banging on about traditional sexual morality.
Incidentally, Dreher is always entirely worth reading: thoughtful and astringent, living proof that an American conservative need not be a dishonest windbag.
ALTHOUGH the Pope took up most of the column-inches this week, it may be that the most significant religious story will turn out to be the aftershocks of the Hajj stampede. What distinguishes these periodic catastrophes is not that they happen — there have been similar crowd panics, with fatal effects, at the great Hindu Kumbh Mela festival in India — but the untouchable indifference of the Saudi authorities.
In India, scapegoats are found at the highest level, and some of them may even be guilty. In Saudi, the politicians take full advantage of theocratic privilege to explain that disasters on their watch must be the will of God.
Up till now. Inscrutable Providence has this year decreed that the oil price is flatlining at under $50 a barrel; The Financial Times reports that the Saudis have cashed $70 billion of their investments in the past three months, partly to pay for the expenses of their war in the Yemen, partly because their budget would balance only with an oil price twice as high.
Meanwhile, The Guardian’s Cairo correspondent filed an interview with an anonymous, but senior, prince demanding a shift on the throne of the Kingdom.
“The prince, one of the grandsons of the state’s founder, Abdulaziz Ibn Saud . . . [who] is not named for security reasons, wrote two letters earlier this month calling for the king to be removed.
“‘The king is not in a stable condition, and in reality the son of the king [Mohammed bin Salman] is ruling the kingdom,’ the prince said. ‘So four or possibly five of my uncles will meet soon to discuss the letters. They are making a plan with a lot of nephews and that will open the door. A lot of the second generation is very anxious.’”
If the House of Saud does fall, there will still be people who blame it on their compromises with liberalism.