Republican Fears of Religious ‘Innovation’ Sure to Spike With Sanders’ Vatican Visit

Ross Douthat writes in his latest column that “Modernity has left nearly every religious tradition in the Western world divided.” Another paean of praise to the past, you might be thinking. You’d be right.

Specifically, Douthat laments,

“In each case, disagreements about the authority of tradition, the reliability of Scripture, and eventually the proper response to the Sexual Revolution have made it impossible for liberal and conservative believers to remain in community or communion.”

Douthat’s main concern is, of course, Roman Catholicism. Though he says it “remains officially united,” if it was in actuality united, he would not have sat down to write this column. He contends the “official teaching remains conservative,” but that leaves out the vast majority of Catholics who ignore the ‘official teaching’ and just use contraceptives anyway. Or get divorced. Or remarried.

It’s not just modernity that has divided religions. They have been divided since Day One. Paul of Tarsus ran across Apollos, who brought some Alexandrian flavor of early Christianity along with him to Greece to infect Paul’s congregations as early as 20 years after Jesus’ death.[1] Early Christianity grew up with so many flavors that it is difficult for modern scholars to track them.

In fact, religions have always changed and evolved and Christianity generally, or Catholicism specifically, is not the first. Conservative Romans, with a Mediterranean-spanning empire, worried about syncretism, with one upper-crust type yammering about the Orontes, a river in decadent Syria, “was emptying itself into the Tiber.”[2]

Syncretism was not only a Roman fear, but something that affected Christianity also from Day One. It is debatable who won out when Christianity came to Northern Europe. The religion of the White Christ, as Vikings called him, was much changed by contact with Germanic ideas, as was Christianity in Ireland and England, both regions now long separated from Roman Catholicism.[3]

Douthat says consistent teaching reassures conservatives that “the church is still essentially unchanging, still the faith of the church fathers, Nicaea and Trent as well as Vatican II.” That’s nice, but what about the myriad Christianities existing before Nicaea, and their repression afterward by the Pope’s version of proper belief?[4] At Nicaea, there was not even an official canon of Scripture accepted throughout the Roman Empire’s congregations.

These different forms of Christianity continued to exist after Nicaea and were regularly suppressed by the Catholic Church, much as the Religious Right wants to perform the same “public service” in the United States in the name of uniformity.

What has Douthat concerned is Pope Francis. It’s funny that the pope doesn’t worry mainstream Catholics, but only conservatives, because as Douthat frames it, things by and large functioned despite the differences between Catholic conservatives and liberals until Pope Francis came along:

“It was clear that Pope Francis…was determined to renegotiate [this arrangement] – in liberal Catholicism’s favor.”

Pope Francis has gone and done it, encouraging in his recent “Joy of Love” exhortation “the informal admission of remarried Catholics to communion by sympathetic priests.

The truce between conservatives and liberals is still there, Douthat says, but the “new papal teaching” is “in favor of the truce itself,” which is represents “a papal imprimatur” rather than tolerance of a pre-existing state of affairs. At least, according to Douthat, who forgets the repressive predecessor of Pope Francis, Benedict XVI, who abolished the doctrine of “limbo,” a part of Catholicsm since the Middle Ages.

The sin of Pope Francis? He is encouraging that very dirty word, “innovation.” That’s right. He is “licensing innovation rather than merely tolerating it.” Unsurprisingly, the mention of Marxism crops up in the discussion of Pope Francis, and not for the first time.

Douthat sees nothing but a slippery slope to ruin: “What the church considers a serious sin becomes mere ‘irregularity.’ What the church considers a commandment becomes a mere ‘ideal.’ What the church once stated authoritatively it now proffers tentatively, in tones laced with self-effacement, self-critique.”

Of course, all Christianity’s early history is one of innovation. Besides Heathen-Christian syncretism in Northern Europe, the evolving portrayal of Jesus in the gospels is a record of that innovation. The priests gathered at Douthat’s treasured Nicaea were voting on what to believe about Jesus even before a canon had been settled,[5] and it was hardly the only council. There are many more examples than can be contained here.[6]

Of course, what the Pope said was that priests must be more welcoming and less judgmental. After all, what did Jesus say about judging? Nothing good, I assure you. The Pope wrote, drawing on Jesus own words about casting stones, “A pastor cannot feel that it is enough to simply apply moral laws to those living in ‘irregular’ situations, as if they were stones to throw at people’s lives.”

But this is not how Douthat wants to hear the Pope’s words. Douthat hears only a stone cast at the conservative bulwark of Catholic doctrine, the status quo.

Douthat doesn’t like the direction – a “deliberate ambiguity” born of a lack of confidence he says – this Pope has taken, even though there is no evidence at all that Pope Francis lacks confidence. All Pope Francis asks is that people be more like Jesus and less unlike him, including his own priests, whose violent brawls at Nicaea showed Catholic figures of authority to be anything but Jesus-like.

The invitation to Bernie Sanders to visit the Vatican should be seen in this light, as Sanders bears a message so similar to the Pope’s, so similar to that of Jesus: that of blessing the poor. This is not the message conservatives want to hear, let alone send, and it is treated not like Jesus’ diktat, but like one more unwelcome innovation of this new Pope.


[1] Paul’s admission of early divisions in Christianity are found in 1 Cor. 1:10 where he appeals to the Corinthian church to settle its differences: “One of you says, ‘I follow Paul’; another, ‘I follow Apollos’; another, ‘I follow Cephas’; still another, ‘I follow Christ.’”

[2] Juvenal, Satires 3.62. First Century CE.

[3] See James C. Russell. The Germanization of Early Medieval Christianity: A Sociohistorical Approach to Religious Transformation. Oxford, 1994.

[4] See Bart D. Ehrman, Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew. Oxford, 2003. And Lost Scriptures: Books that Did Not Make It into the New Testament. Oxford, 2003.

[5] Council of Nicaea was held in 325 CE. The closing of Christian canon is dated to the end of the Fourth Century and beginning of the Fifth Century CE, almost a century later.

[6] See Ramsay MacMullen. Voting About God in Early Church Councils. Yale, 2006.

Hrafnkell Haraldsson

Hrafnkell Haraldsson, a social liberal with leanings toward centrist politics has degrees in history and philosophy. His interests include, besides history and philosophy, human rights issues, freedom of choice, religion, and the precarious dichotomy of freedom of speech and intolerance. He brings a slightly different perspective to his writing, being that he is neither a follower of an Abrahamic faith nor an atheist but a polytheist, a modern-day Heathen who follows the customs and traditions of his Norse ancestors. He maintains his own blog, A Heathen's Day, which deals with Heathen and Pagan matters, and Mos Maiorum Foundation, dedicated to ethnic religion. He has also contributed to NewsJunkiePost, GodsOwnParty and Pagan+Politics.

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