Retrograde, Intransigent Catholics are in Good Company

Damon Linker says he no longer believes in the "lie" of the Catholic Church. His reasons are both confused and self-serving.

“Herein is the strength of the Catholic Church,” observed Blessed John Henry Newman, making a comparison to Protestantism, “She professes to be built upon facts, not opinions; on objective truths, not on variable sentiments; on immemorial testimony, not on private judgement; on convictions or perceptions, not on conclusions. None else but she can make this profession.” 

How retrograde! 

The Church, stated St. Thomas Aquinas, “is firm, solid as a house on massive foundations. The principal foundation is Christ Himself. … A building is strong when it can never be overthrown though it may be shaken. The Church can never be brought down. Indeed it grows under persecution, and those who attack it are destroyed.” 

How intransigent! 

“Therefore the Church,” insisted St. Augustine in The City of God, “even now is the kingdom of Christ, and the kingdom of heaven. Accordingly, even now His saints reign with Him though otherwise than as they shall reign hereafter; and yet, though the tares grow in the Church along with wheat, they do not reign with Him.” 

How arrogant! 

The inspiration for my sarcasm (yes, sarcasm; hide the children!) is an essay titled “The retrograde intransigence of conservative Catholics” by Damon Linker of The Week. Over the years I’ve read a number of essays by Linker, and I can honestly say that I’ve always learned something about Damon Linker in doing so, but have never learned anything about the Catholic Church. It could be, I suppose, because Linker–a convert to Catholicism from secular Judaism–doesn’t have much of value to say about the Catholic Church.

And now, it appears, he is openly renouncing his faith, or perhaps just lauding his lack of faith, wrapped in a rambling ribbon of passive-aggressive psychoanalysis and blatant projection. Linker is convinced that Pope Francis is a “stealth reformer” who has kept “the doctrines intact but invokes such concepts as mercy, conscience, and pastoral discernment to show priests that it’s perfectly acceptable to circumvent and disregard those doctrines in specific cases.” Rather than “reform” doctrine directly and abruptly, “stealth reform ultimately achieves the same reformist goal, but without inspiring the intense opposition that would follow from attempting to change the doctrine outright.” (Of course, a fair number of Catholics–including not a few “conservatives” and “traditionalists”–agree with this basic observation. It’s hardly far-fetched, based on a growing if not always clear body of evidence.) And, as Linker notes, many Catholics are distressed:

I understand why. Yet reading their intensely negative reactions shows me just how far I have come from the outlook that first led me to join the Catholic Church 16 years ago. The things that once moved me about Catholicism — the very same things that Catholic conservatives feel that Pope Francis is betraying — now stand in the way of me taking the church seriously as an institution.

Here’s where it gets a bit, well, hazy, because although Linker openly admits his loss of faith, he apparently wants to somehow, in one fashion or another, blame it on “conservative Catholics”. Or maybe he is just trying to bolster his faith in his loss of faith?

For someone who feels troubled by a culture in a constant state of instability and change, the Catholic Church can feel like a rock in a stormy, windswept sea. Finally, something is steady, permanent, unchangeable, fixed, immobile. The church’s very stability can end up looking like the strongest sign and confirmation of its divinity. Everything changes! But not God and his church. …

The Catholic conservative doesn’t want to live spiritually within a debating society or an ongoing, open-ended conversation. He wants matters to be definitive — done, settled, fixed for all time. … 

I once wanted that, too — the Catholic Church serving as the final, infallible guardian and guarantor of timeless, immutable Truth — though I never really believed it. Now I don’t even want to believe it. (I have no wish to be taken in by a lie, no matter how beautiful.)

This phrase jumps out: “though I never really believed it.” Oh. Okay. Well, what to do? Are we supposed to congratulate him for waking up after nearly two decades of fooling himself? Are we to feel sorry that he lived a lie? Or admire him for no longer living the beautiful lie and being bold enough to proclaim it far and wide? (My own sense is that Linker’s faith was mostly employed in believing that “conservatives” are cruel and stupid, as if Michael Sean Winters is some sort of ideological role model.) 

After all, in this day and age, it takes real guts and integrity to say to the world: “Have mercy on me! I became a Catholic during a time of personal crisis. I wanted ‘to find an absolute moral Truth and craved a sense of belonging with others who recognized and ordered their lives according to that Truth.’ I had ‘yearnings.’ But I reject it all now. It’s all a lie!” How bold. Perhaps Bill O’Reilly will spend a week or two in intense research and write a book titled Who Killed Damon Linker’s Faith? 

Sarcasm aside (quick, hide the women!), what is most striking to me about Linker’s piece is the facile sophistry (yes, that’s redundant, but I like alliteration). “The Catholic Church is like any other human institution: admirable in many ways, deeply flawed in others. Its need for reform is incontestable.” Really? Says who? What sort of reform? And why should Mr. Linker be the one demanding reform? After all, if it’s just a “lie,” shouldn’t it be done away with entirely? Or does he think a reformed lie is perfectly acceptable? At what point does he begin to employ some consistent logic and moral clarity? I suspect he holds to the sophisticated theory that a little religion is good for the masses, as long as it encourages people to be nice, pursue social justice, shelter homeless animals, and bolster self-esteem. 

Linker follows up with this quote:

As the great mathematician and Catholic philosopher Blaise Pascal put it in the mid-17th century, “It is an appalling thing that the discipline of the church today is portrayed to us as so excellent that to want to change it is treated as a crime. In former times it was infallibly excellent, and yet we find that it could be changed without committing a sin. But now, such as it is at present, can we not even want to see it changed?”

And so he goes from facile to foolish. The quote, from the Appendix (“Polemical Fragments”) of Pensées, is a reference to Pascal’s obvious frustration with the ordination of men he believes were not fit to be priests: “885. Any one is made a priest, who wants to be so, as under Jeroboam.” And then the full quote:

It is a horrible thing that they propound to us the discipline of the Church of to-day as so good that it is made a crime to desire to change it. Formerly it was infallibly good, and it was thought that it could be changed without sin; and now, such as it is, we cannot wish it changed! It has indeed been permitted to change the custom of not making priests without such great circumspection that there were hardly any who were worthy; and it is not allowed to complain of the custom which makes so many who are unworthy!

Needless to say, this runs a bit contrary to the tenor and thrust of Linker’s essay. Making matters even worse is that the entire Appendix is filled with quotes that stand Linker’s “arguments” on their head, shake their loose change on the floor, and toss them into the trash heap of weak excuses. For example:

858. The history of the Church ought properly to be called the history of truth.

So much for the “lie”. Or:

894. Those who love the Church lament to see the corruption of morals; but laws at least exist. But these corrupt the laws. The model is damaged.

895. Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.

896. It is in vain that the Church has established these words, anathemas, heresies, etc. They are used against her.

I’m reminded of Chesterton’s chapter in The Everlasting Man about the “Five Deaths of the Faith”. It is worth reading in its entirety, but here is a telling quote:

This is the final fact, and it is the most extraordinary of all. The faith has not only often died but it has often died of old age. It has not only been often killed but it has often died a natural death; in the sense of coming to a natural and necessary end. It is obvious that it has survived the most savage and the most universal persecutions from the shock of the Diocletian fury to the shock of the French Revolution. But it has a more strange and even a more weird tenacity; it has survived not only war but peace. It has not only died often but degenerated often and decayed often; it has survived its own weakness and even its own surrender.

We are all weak; we all, at various times, wish to surrender. But Chesterton, in a number of places, argues (convincingly, I think) that the foundations of modernity are not only shaky, but essentially rotten. People tend to think of modernity in terms of technological advances and material prosperity, but the core of modernity is the deification of man and the establishment of temporal beatitude as the permanent purpose of humanity. As such, despite producing many material goods (themselves the result of a pilfered Christian heritage and a cannibalized Christian culture), modernity is anti-human; it constantly dances with the devil and calls it “progress”, unaware that the road to hell is paved with good intentions (and is often accompanied by clever inventions). 

Most troubling, however, is Linker’s apparent disregard or dismissal of the supernatural character of the Church. Yes, of course the Church is full of sinners; as Chesterton also noted, the best reason to be a Catholic is to be rid of your sins. It is telling that Linker, in a short essay, refers to “the Church” over two dozen times but hardly mentions Jesus Christ. “The principal foundation” of the Church, said Aquinas, “is Christ Himself. …” 

Jesus, of course, said: “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it” (Matt 16:18).

How intransigent! 

And, later, he told the apostles that when a sinner refuses to listen to and obey the Church, he is no longer in communion with the Church (Matt 18:15-17). 

How arrogant!

And, finally, St. Paul, in his first letter to Timothy, reflects on how Christians should behave “in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15).

How retrograde! 

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About Carl E. Olson 1216 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.