That’s always been the jokey answer to a dumb question, but it’s now a serious issue for Catholic intellectuals who have been criticizing, and defending, the Catholic bona fides of Pope Francis, especially since the pontiff released a landmark document on family life earlier this month that some say calls into question the church’s teachings on the permanence of marriage.
In his famous passage on love, Paul shifts our attention from the what to the how:
"If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but have not love, I gain nothing."
He’s not talking about the content of our arguments. He’s talking about the process. For Paul, it is not enough that we do “Christian” sorts of actions, no matter how great they are. We must act in a Christian style — with love.
Christian arguments, then, should reflect this style. They should be patient and kind. They should not be boastful or arrogant or rude.
But the reality of our Scriptures and the reality of our God is that love can — and in some cases, should — be tough. This love sees that there must be space for righteous anger. It recognizes that patience can too easily become a luxury for the privileged. We believe in a God who gets angry on behalf of those he loves. We believe in a Jesus who overturns tables in the temple courts.
The problem is that most readers of this article will applaud at either the thought of a kind, patient argument or at the thought of a tough, angry argument. The trick is to deeply desire both.
Many conservative Catholics have long viewed Pope Francis with suspicion thanks to his effort to shift the church’s focus away from a culture war agenda and toward a more welcoming approach and a greater emphasis on serving the poor.
But last month’s controversial Vatican summit on the modern family, with the push by Francis and his allies to translate that inclusive view into concrete policies on gays and divorced and remarried Catholics, for example, seems to have marked a tipping point, with some on the right raising the specter of a schism — a formal split that is viewed as the “nuclear option” for dissenters.
New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, a Catholic and a conservative, crystallized the peril in an Oct. 25 column warning the pope not to “break the church” to promote his goals, saying that if Francis continues to alienate conservative Catholics it could lead to “a real schism.”
Douthat had raised the possibility of “an outright schism” earlier this year, as well, and his warnings have been echoed by a number of other church leaders and commentators. The anxiety on the right has also drawn increasing media speculation about the possibility of conservatives splintering off.
So is a schism, with its echoes of medieval debates and heretics burning at the stake, a realistic possibility? And can an independent Catholic church be successful in the modern world?
Conservative commentators like Rupert Murdoch's stable and Ross Douthat of The New York Times are feasting on what they perceive as the "death" of "liberal Christianity."
They add two and two and get eight. They see decisions they don't like — such as the Episcopal Church's recent endorsement of a rite for blessing same-sex unions. They see declines in church membership. They pounce.
Such "liberal" decisions are destroying the church, they say, and alienating young adults they must reach in order to survive.
Never mind that surveys of young adults in America show attitudes toward sexuality that are far more liberal than those of older generations. Never mind that conservative denominations are also in decline.
Never mind — the most inconvenient truth — that mainline denominations began to decline in 1965, not because of liberal theology, but because the world around them changed and they refused to change with it.
In recent days, conservatives have attacked the Episcopal Church. The reason? The church has just concluded its once every three-year national meeting, and in this gathering the denomination affirmed a liturgy to bless same-sex unions. Conservatives assert that the Episcopal Church's ever-increasing social and political progressivism has led to a precipitous membership decline and ruined the denomination.
Many of the criticisms were mean-spirited or partisan, continuing a decade-long internal debate about the Episcopal Church's future. However, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat broadened the discussion, moving beyond inside-baseball ecclesial politics to ask a larger question: "Can Liberal Christianity be Saved?"
The question is a good one, for the liberal Christian tradition is an important part of American culture, from dazzling literary and intellectual achievements to great social reform movements. Mr. Douthat recognizes these contributions and rightly praises this aspect of liberal Christianity as "an immensely positive force in our national life."
Despite this history, however, Mr. Douthat insists that any denomination committed to contemporary liberalism will ultimately collapse. According to him, the Episcopal Church and its allegedly trendy faith, a faith that varies from a more worthy form of classical liberalism, is facing imminent death.
The evangelical world expands to a far-off horizon and the topographical valleys and peaks cover landscapes that are both long and wide. Many in the media seem to have little knowledge of how large of a space the evangelical map covers. So, with this said, I welcomed Ross Douthat's thoughts in Monday's New York Times. His column, "American Theocracy Revisited," places good markers on the fears that Rick Perry and Michelle Bachmann's presidential runs are nothing more than an attempt at theocracy.
In much of the coverage of these two campaigns, the evangelical world gets flatten, stereotyped, and portrayed as only coming from one narrow point. Whether or not you agree with this view, the fact remains that any group that includes Miroslav Wolf, Jim Wallis, RC Sproul, Rick Warren, Joyce Meyers, Philip Yancy, Chuck Missler, Rob Bell, Albert Mohler Jr, TD Jakes, Amy Grant, Tony Campolo, Lucy Swindoll, Debrah Joy Winans, and so many more hues and colors of evangelicalism should not be placed in one bag and shaken into one lumpy mess, while saying that any one of their diverse views politically are the one true color. I know many will view this list and say who should or should not belong, and then justify their choices. A coherent political agenda could not be drawn from such a list of people. But following Jesus and making Jesus known in the world is at the core of each of these people's identity. Many on the list may disagree as to the best way to provide for the widows and orphans, but all would agree that we must care for them.