Political Animal


July 15, 2012 1:59 PM NYT’s Ross Douthat Asks: Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?

By Adele Stan

The very Catholic Ross Douthat, one of the New York Times’ two conservative op-ed page columnists, thinks he knows why mainline Protestant denominations are having trouble filling their pews: They’re too darn liberal.

Take, for example, that new policy recently approved by a vote of the governing body of the Episcopal Church: the blessing of same-sex unions. Ewwww….

In an attempt to prove his point, Douthat cites a figure, writing that over the course of the last decade, Sunday attendance in Episcopalian churches has dropped by 23 percent. He fails to note, however, that between 1987 and 2011, the number of parishioners claiming weekly Sunday attendance at Roman Catholic churches has dropped by 30 percent, according to a report by the National Catholic Reporter. Must be all that Catholic liberalism.

(I had to do the math to come up with that one; the NCR report says that in 1984, 44 percent of Catholics attended Mass weekly, but by 2011, that number had slid to 31 percent of Catholics. I was not able to quickly find a survey that broke the timeline down into decades. By the measures of Catholic orthodoxy, the weekly figure is the only one that matters, since Sunday Mass is a holy day of obligation, meaning if you skip church on Sunday and die before your next confession, you’re going to spend eternity in the hot place.)

Of the liberalization of the mainline churches, Douthat writes:

Yet instead of attracting a younger, more open-minded demographic with these changes, the Episcopal Church’s dying has proceeded apace.

Yet when you look at the millennial generation, where most churches are losing ground, you find the Catholic church actually fares about the same as the mainline churches, according to a survey by the Public Religion Research Institute: From the survey (PDF):

Overall, the percentage of Millennials identifying as Catholic dropped by 8 points, from a childhood affiliation of 28%, to only 20% today.
The percentage of younger Millennials identifying as mainline Protestant dropped by 5 points, from a childhood affiliation of 18% to 13% today.

That computes as about a 30 percent decline in membership among this generation for both categories. This is where the rubber meets the road in terms of determining the future longevity of a church.

One religious description that’s expanding among this group? “Unaffiliated.”

But the most ridiculous claim in Douthat’s spurious argument is this:

Within the Catholic Church, too, the most progressive-minded religious orders have often failed to generate the vocations necessary to sustain themselves.
Both religious and secular liberals have been loath to recognize this crisis…
Liberal commentators, meanwhile, consistently hail these forms of Christianity as a model for the future without reckoning with their decline. Few of the outraged critiques of the Vatican’s investigation of progressive nuns mentioned the fact that Rome had intervened because otherwise the orders in question were likely to disappear in a generation.

Hmmmm…It could be that most highly educated Catholic women today regard the notion of submitting to the authority of less-educated all-male hierarchy — one that put its own reputation ahead of the protection of children from predators, and would rather see women die than use contraception — well, might they find that all just a little bit archaic?

Nah…must be the liberalism…

(More about the Vatican investigation of the nuns here.)

Oh, and in case you missed it, the Catholic Diocese of Virginia is demanding loyalty oaths from its Sunday school teachers. Srsly. And it’s not exactly swelling the ranks.


  • c u n d gulag on July 15, 2012 3:09 PM:

    Maybe after over 30 years of praying that something besides pee and poop trickles down, people have given up, and realized that in to too many religions, and especially their leaders, the only God is Mammon.

    But I'm sure Ross will get a stale left-over canape from David Brooks, a sniff at the brandy in his snifter, a pat on the head, and a "Good boy!."

    At which, Ross will finally climax for the first time in his life, knowing that the true meaning of love is fealty and loyalty to ones betters, and being praised for doing so.
    He will go upstairs at the club, take off his underwear, smoke a cigarette, take a cold shower, dress, and go off to evening Mass.

    The lesson for the rest of us is that lazy thinking, and insipid writing, can be passed from metaphorical father to son.

    FSM, except for excerpts at Liberal blogs, you couldn't pay me to read either Bobo or his Mini-me.
    And believe me, we could use the money!

  • mellowjohn on July 15, 2012 3:18 PM:

    when asked, i tell people i belong to the world's fastest-growing religion: ex-catholics.
    i'd like to get a card for my wallet that says "i'm an ex-catholic. in case of accident, please call an ex-priest."

  • schtick on July 15, 2012 3:24 PM:

    mellowjohn, I belong to that religion and I'd love to have that card to carry if and when I end up in the Catholic hospitals here.

  • Daryl McCullough on July 15, 2012 3:32 PM:

    I think that, compared with conservative Protestant churches, the Catholic Church IS pretty liberal. Yes, they are conservative about anything having to do with sex (abortion, female priests, homosexuality), but on social justice type issues, they are consistently pretty liberal. You know, when it comes to protesting war, protesting capital punishment, feeding the poor, that sort of thing.

    The religious groups that show the biggest increases in membership in recent years are, in fact, conservative: Jehovah's Witness, Seventh Day Adventist, and Mormon.

  • Adele M. Stan on July 15, 2012 3:47 PM:

    Actually mellowjohn and schtick, you've got lots of company. According to the Pew Forum on Religious Life and Public Life (PDF), one in 10 Americans is an ex-Catholic.

  • Kathryn on July 15, 2012 3:49 PM:

    I don't keep up with vocation statistics but my impression is that vocations are few and far between these days regardless of ideology, does anybody know?

  • Adele M. Stan on July 15, 2012 3:50 PM:

    Yes, Daryl McCullough, but if the Vatican has anything to say about it, that social justice tradition is on its way out in the Catholic church. One of the criticisms the Vatican made of the nuns whose organization it has taken over was that they focused too much on social justice causes and not enough on condemning "homosexuality" and abortion.

  • golack on July 15, 2012 3:53 PM:

    For the Catholic Church to survive, the nuns would have to be in charge.

  • Stevo on July 15, 2012 3:59 PM:

    Women can't handle statistics.

    You are comparing the total number of people attending an Anglican in any given week, to the percentage of Catholics who say they attend church every Sunday.

    Not the same thing.

    Try this: The 2008 ARIS Survey on religious affiliation shows the number of self-identified Episcopalians dropped from 3,451,000 in 2001 to 2,405,000 in 2008. At the same time, the number of self-identified Catholics rose from 50,873,000 to 57,199,000.

    See, apples to apples.


  • R on July 15, 2012 4:01 PM:

    Those nuns are the most Christian Catholics I've seen in a long time.

  • Josef K on July 15, 2012 4:02 PM:

    I'm inclined to give Senor Douthat a bit of a break here. He's caught up in a chaotic, unstable world, and all the traditional avenues of comfort and security are proving...inadequate in their offerings. The Millenials just tapped onto the fact organized religions don't have much positive to contribute to their lives much earlier than their predecessors.

    It doesn't help that one of the more memorable religion-involved events from their youth would be the 1993 Waco mess. The OK City Bombing was just a couple years later, Waco and Ruby Ridge being among the supposed 'causes' of that horror. I'm not the least surprised the 'mainline' churches are loosing influence.

    In the film adaptation of Stephen King's "The Mist", there's one line that proves appropo to this subject:

    "Human beings are fundamentally insane. Why do you think we invented war and religion?"

    I cannot help but agree.

  • Adele M. Stan on July 15, 2012 4:05 PM:

    Kathryn -- to your question on vocations, I don't know the answer, but these folks probably do: Center for Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.

  • Marvin on July 15, 2012 4:06 PM:

    Adele, I think that this post misses the point of Douthat's column, which appears to lie in the penultimate paragraph, the one that quotes Gary Dorrien. Douthat doesn't think that the problem is that "they're just too liberal," but that liberal Protestantism's liberal social ethics aren't grounded in a more robust theology and spirituality.

    It's a fair point: If participating in a mainline Protestant Church doesn't offer something more or different than a book club of like-minded progressive friends or a Democratic Party precinct meeting, why bother?

  • David Carlton on July 15, 2012 4:09 PM:

    I'd like to see closer attention paid to the *components* of decline. In particular, there's one component that's clearly tied to "liberalism," i.e. congregations leaving a denomination in protest of some "liberal" shift or other. Currently my own church, the Presbyterian Church (USA) is experiencing a slow-motion schism over its recent decision to eliminate anti-gay language from its ordination standards. The same is happening to the Episcopal Church. But the departure of the disgruntled isn't necessarily a sign of impending death; indeed, it could simply be self-removal of a canker. Put another way, what Douthat sees may not be the result of "liberalism" but the result of turmoil--turmoil which in my experience as an active Presbyterian layperson comes more from the right than the left. Removal of a divisive issue [one, furthermore, that has frequently been manipulated by self-interested outsiders] could open the way to a renewed focus on the the true essentials of the faith.

    The more serious issue has to do with the declining ability of remaining congregations to attract and retain members. Here I think the basic problem isn't "liberalism" or "conservatism," but the perception of irrelevance. Lots of millenials are put off by what they see as retrograde moralism, but that doesn't mean they're going to be attracted by inclusiveness; after all, they can be inclusive in their private lives without the obligations of belonging to an institution. I continue to be a church person not because of politics or morality [though my congregation is quite liberal] but because of faith; it's difficult to justify the commitment of time and money if the faith is lacking. I'm of multiple minds about this; after all, historically lots of people have been churchgoers for the wrong reasons--tribal identity, respectability, business contacts, a safe place to stash the kids, etc. "Conservative" churches are much better than "liberal" churches at catering to these urges [It's also easier to grow from a small sectarian base; Jehovah's Witnesses may be doing well, but the Southern Baptist Convention is stagnating], but there's much to be said for small communities that actively live their faith rather than confusing it with tribal morality or Republican politics. Membership is a worldly standard; while any believer will naturally want others to share her faith, it's not the measure of it.

  • Daryl McCullough on July 15, 2012 4:12 PM:


    Okay, so the Catholic leadership needs to be changed. When is the Pope up for re-election?

  • Adele M. Stan on July 15, 2012 4:14 PM:

    Stevo - Thanks for the correction, though it would have been nice if you could have offered it without the misogyny.

    Per your comment, I corrected my articulation of that figure. However, I'm sticking with the weekly church attendance figure as the go-to number because, according to the laws of the church, it's the only one that matters. Sunday Mass is a holy day of obligation. If you don't believe this, you're pretty much "self-excommunicated," to use the language of the bishops.

  • justbill123 on July 15, 2012 4:16 PM:

    in my household, we refer to them as "recovering catholics".

  • David Carlton on July 15, 2012 4:25 PM:

    A followup to my earlier post--Douthat makes a really good point in his penultimate paragraph about the necessity of grounding liberalism deeply in the faith tradition. But how does he know that it isn't being so grounded? Certainly the liberal leadership of my own denomination (and Episcopalians as well) are well educated and deeply grounded in theology and scripture; I know, because I talk to them a lot. That this doesn't get through to an outsider (or for that matter to a lot of those in the pews) is hardly surprising, for it never has--and in the case of the congregants, when it has they've had ways of getting back at those challenging their self-regard. It ain't easy for an institution to be rigorously faithful and also identify with the world, and the consequences can be pretty confusing for someone like Douthat whose understanding of liberal mainline protestantism comes mainly from its enemies.

  • JEA on July 15, 2012 4:57 PM:

    Don't you know, the only "real" Christians are the conservatives ones???

  • Daryl McCullough on July 15, 2012 5:06 PM:

    I can't tell what the heck those CAPTCHA letters are. Does that mean I'm a robot? My parents never told me...

  • DJ on July 15, 2012 5:55 PM:

    Sunday Mass is a holy day of obligation.

    These are the Holy Days of Obligation:


  • bad Jim on July 15, 2012 6:20 PM:

    You need to take into account Latino immigration for the period under consideration, which would reduce the retention rate for the original population of Catholics.

  • Josef K on July 15, 2012 6:43 PM:

    From Daryl McCullough @4:12 PM:


    Okay, so the Catholic leadership needs to be changed. When is the Pope up for re-election?

    I'm presuming this is meant as a joke, although it might help bump up involvement in Mother Church if its leadership were more directly accountable to its supposed flock. Certainly it couldn't get much worse, either morally or financially, if the laity were the actual leaders.

  • sjay on July 15, 2012 6:53 PM:

    1) "Sunday Mass is a holy day of obligation. If you don't believe this, you're pretty much 'self-excommunicated,' to use the language of the bishops."

    Not really.

    2) With regard to liberal vs. conservative orders, supposedly orders affiliated with the conservative alternative to the LCWR, the CMSWR, are growing and have an average age of 35, as compared to the LCWR's 73. They represent, however, only about 20% of the women religious in the U.S. That proportion should increase if their membership assertions are correct. Looking at the website for the Nashville Dominicans, one of the more prominent CMSWR orders, it does seem that they are receiving new postulants.

  • Adele M. Stan on July 15, 2012 6:57 PM:

    DJ -- Those are the holy days of obligation in addition to Sunday Mass. Here's the canon law (emphasis added):

    Given how precious the Mass is plus the Old Testament precedent which was rightly adapted by the Church, the Code of Canon Law (#1246) proscribes, “Sunday is the day on which the paschal mystery is celebrated in light of the apostolic tradition and is to be observed as the foremost holy day of obligation in the universal Church.” Moreover, “On Sundays and other holy days of obligation, the faithful are bound to participate in the Mass...” (#1247). Therefore, the Catechism teaches, “Those who deliberately fail in this obligation commit grave sin” (#2181), and grave sin is indeed mortal sin.
  • PTate in MN on July 15, 2012 7:49 PM:

    Douthat: "What should be wished for, instead, is that liberal Christianity recovers a religious reason for its own existence...the leaders of the Episcopal Church and similar bodies often don' seem to be offering anything you can't already get from a purely secular liberalism."

    As a life-long Episcopalian who taught Bible study and Sunday School for nearly 25 years but who has been unchurched since 2009, I think Douthat is exactly right. However, I don't think the problem has been liberal values per se, but rather a loss of conviction in the face of Fundamentalist certainty. If liberal values were involved, they were those of equality and tolerance; however, in practice, the undiscriminating claim that "all are members of this community" was fueled by a strong desire to not be like the Fundies. We were uncomfortable with the idea of excluding members who did not practice spiritual disciplines, read the bible or lead godly, righteous and sober lives. Who were we to judge, eh?

    The consequence--at least in the church to which I belonged--was a drift from the traditional Episcopal community based on the "three-legged stool" of scripture, tradition, and reason to something like a social club for business people who want to network and to do good works in their spare time ("Let's raise money for the poor children in Africa!") If there is one thing a religious community should provide, it is meaning in life, and social contacts to help you get ahead and fundraising for the poor are insufficient.

    So the young and the liberal stopped coming because the church felt out-of-touch, boring and pointless. The ones who like to pray and read scripture stopped coming because the church no longer emphasized those activities, and the social conservatives left because they thought the church was too gay-friendly. Those who remain seem to comprehend church as a business selling a product: Stimulating sermons! Good music! Terrific Sunday School! Beautiful Facility! Christmas pageants! Outreach to the poor! Everyone is welcome!

    So, can liberal Christianity be saved? Frankly, I'm not sure the Christian church can be saved, liberal or conservative.

  • Steve P on July 15, 2012 8:04 PM:

    "the Episcopal Church’s dying has proceeded apace."

    I'n afraid that twee usage self-excommunicates the writer from the 21st century.

    You're not Evelyn Waugh, Ross, but the kind of fatuous American he despised.

  • tcinaz on July 15, 2012 8:44 PM:

    Doesn't it create a severe case of cognitive dissonance in any of the rest of you to be lectured on Catholic Liberalism by Ross Douthat. This is the guy who wrote this about gay parenting: "Marriage’s purpose, in this sense, has not been just to validate the consenting adults who enter into it, but to provide support and recognition for a particular way of bearing and rearing children – one whose distinctive advantages remain apparent, even as that recognition declines and disappears." And the guy for whom Obamacare is so unpopular, that he predicts, “that it’s unlikely to survive in the long run even if Anthony Kennedy flips a coin and decides to uphold it.” Or the guy who wrote this: "A month ago, I wrote a Campaign Stops column laying out the political risks associated with a presidential “evolution” on gay marriage. That same afternoon, President Obama formally endorsed same-sex marriage. Last week, I wrote a Campaign Stops piece explaining why the politics of immigration aren’t as favorable to various forms of legalization as many elites in both parties tend to assume. Three days later, President Obama unilaterally ordered a kind of provisional legalization (an end to deportation, and with it the possibility of work permits) for under-30 illegal immigrants who were brought to America as children." It seems to me to be like going to a CPAC convention to get information on the latest news about how to expand the vote. No wonder the liberal wing of Catholicism is in trouble if the best analyses come from Ross Douthat.

  • natthedem on July 15, 2012 9:52 PM:

    Always grateful to those who read Ross Douthat's drivel so I don't have to.

  • Crissa on July 15, 2012 11:23 PM:

    Another column in which his major premise is contradicted by evidence?

    This is why we should call him Ross, Doubt-that.

  • Bonnie on July 15, 2012 11:35 PM:

    I stopped going to church because I don't need a man to intercede for me with God.

  • Tim on July 16, 2012 1:25 AM:

    Douthat is NOT a Catholic. He is an Episcopalian.

  • Greytdog on July 16, 2012 8:25 AM:

    The Catholic Church IS a mainline denomination. The Episcopal Church is a mainline PROTESTANT denomination. That is the only distinction - but they're both mainline.

  • Adele M. Stan on July 16, 2012 9:02 AM:

    Tim--Did Douthat convert once again? the New Yorker's George Packer reported in 2008 that Douthat became a Catholic during his teens, converting from Pentecostalism.

  • Adele M. Stan on July 16, 2012 9:09 AM:

    Actually, Gretdog, no -- the Catholic church is not a mainline denomination. "Mainline" is a term particular to seven Protestant denominations. The Catholic church may be part of the mainstream of American culture, but it will never be mainline.

  • biggerbox on July 16, 2012 11:08 AM:

    I think Douthat fails to properly consider those that have lost faith in churches and faith entirely. After all, what sort of benevolent God would allow an idiot like Ross Douthat to have a column in the New York Times?

  • John Petty on July 16, 2012 11:32 AM:

    Thanks for a very fine piece. I'm putting you in my John Allen category when it comes to reporting and comment on the Catholic church.

    I gave your piece a plug at my blog: www.progressiveinvolvement.com

  • Lex on July 16, 2012 4:34 PM:

    Wow, apparently you can get a job trolling other people's religions on the NYT op-ed page. Who knew?

  • cmdicely on July 16, 2012 6:41 PM:

    Actually, Gretdog, no -- the Catholic church is not a mainline denomination. "Mainline" is a term particular to seven Protestant denominations.

    No, its not. Its a term that essentially refers to all (or all those except the traditionally African-American) non-fundamentalist Protestant denominations in the US (it was coined specifically to differentiate white US Fundamentalist churches from other white US Protestant Churches.) The so-called "Seven Sisters" are the largest mainline denominations, but not the total.

    There is some inconsistency in whether non-fundamentalist traditionally African-American Churches are part of the "mainline" group or their own group -- some categorizations divide US Protestant denominations into three groups -- "evangelical" (which has generally displaced "fundamentalist" as the category label), "mainline", and "traditionally African-American" -- while some only have two -- "evangelical" and "mainline".

  • cmdicely on July 16, 2012 7:23 PM:

    Yes, Daryl McCullough, but if the Vatican has anything to say about it, that social justice tradition is on its way out in the Catholic church. One of the criticisms the Vatican made of the nuns whose organization it has taken over was that they focused too much on social justice causes and not enough on condemning "homosexuality" and abortion.

    Well, its certainly one of the criticisms Cardinal Levada's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith made shortly before Levada retired as head of the Congregation. Anyone that's been paying much attention to the Vatican recently would be careful of ascribing any single position to "the Vatican" given the level of unusually visible factional squabbling going on, and on this particular issue would notice that Cardinal Levada's replacement, Cardinal Müller, is a close associate (and endorser of the theology of) the father of liberation theology and the preferential option for the poor.

  • Kagkeedge on October 31, 2012 3:22 PM:

    Political Animal - NYT’s Ross Douthat Asks: Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?
    sac longchamp