Let’s Start Calling Progressive Catholics What They Really are: ‘Mainline’

By John Zmirak Published on February 22, 2017

Last week I noted how many prominent Catholic institutions and leaders are starting to morph into liberal “Mainline” Protestantism. Look at the moral message and public witness broadcast by fashionable Jesuits, secularized Catholic universities, and bishops obsessed with “social justice” issues — like San Diego bishop Robert McElroy, who is joining the anti-Trump “disruption” campaign.

Can you really tell these Catholic groups and people apart from their functional equivalents at the Episcopal Church or Presbyterian Church, USA? Would a child growing up in the parish which Tim Kaine attends get a much different understanding of Jesus than if he grew up in Neil Gorsuch’s liberal Episcopalian parish? You could take an Uber from St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church on Park Avenue in Manhattan to the gay-friendly St. Francis of Assisi at Penn Station, and the message would be identical — although the latter parish claims communion with the bishop of Rome (the pope), and continuity with the popes and saints of 20 centuries. 

The Catholic orders and dioceses that misread Vatican II as a license to cast off their traditions, rules, spirituality, and doctrine have served as a kind of Catholic lab experiment in applied Mainline Protestantism, and the results have proved the same: plummeting vocations, empty seminaries, beautiful old churches thinly populated by handsome, elderly people, and lots of pricey real estate that can be sold off to Katy Perry.

Worst of all, such Catholics have disconnected completely from most of the doctrines and morals that St. Benedict, St. Ignatius or St. Clare would have considered crucial to salvation — just as too many Anglican, Methodist and Presbyterian churches have cast off the faith that drove Cranmer, Wesley or Calvin.

When you prove that an agnostic leftist’s argument is incoherent, he won’t trot out St. Paul on the “folly of the wise.” The chief reason progressives stay attached to religion at all may be that it gives them a righteous license to blather.

Progressive Christianity is a License to Blather

To fill in this yawning “doctrine gap” these mainline churches (Catholic and Protestant) embrace the same hysterical politics as any secular leftist, though they season it with that special brand of preening self-righteousness and proud irrationalism that only bastardized Christianity can offer.

When you argue with a secular leftist about the Muslim colonization of Europe, or a guaranteed universal income, at least he won’t whip out the Sermon on the Mount and try to beat you over the head with it. A Mainline leftist will. (He’ll ignore, of course, the fact that no generation of Christians has ever read the Sermon as demanding his policies.)

When you prove that an agnostic leftist’s argument is incoherent, he won’t trot out St. Paul on the “folly of the wise.” The chief reason progressives stay attached to religion at all may be that it gives them a righteous license to blather.

So I’m going to stop calling Catholics like Fr. James Martin, SJ, or Michael Sean Winters “progressive” or “liberal.” Let’s take the politics out of this, and call them what they are: They are Mainline, and their little corners of the Catholic church are dying just as quickly and surely as the gay-friendly Anglican parishes in suburbs of London. 

Mainline Churches: Learn from Their  Autopsy

In his new book The Triumph of Faith, historian of religion Rodney Stark offers a learned autopsy of the once-mighty mainline churches. Catholics should read it. For too long we have simply looked over at such churches and snickered, confident that the Holy See was going to purge the heretics in our ranks.

Since that’s apparently not going to happen any time soon (quite the contrary), we need to learn from the fate of our Anglican, Methodist and Church of Christ brothers in decline. Over at Juicy Ecumenism, Joseph Rossell offers seven key takeaways from Stark’s book. Points 3-7 are of crucial interest to Catholics:

(3) “Some religious institutions — but not all — fail to keep the faith. In an unconstrained religious marketplace, secularization is a self-limiting process: as some churches become secularized and decline, they are replaced by churches that continue to offer a vigorous religious message. In effect, the old Protestant Mainline denominations drove millions of their members into the more conservative denominations.”

(4) “The wreckage of the former Mainline denominations is strewn upon the shoal of a modernist theology that began to dominate the Mainline seminaries early in the nineteenth century. This theology presumed that advances in human knowledge had made faith outmoded. … Eventually, Mainline theologians discarded nearly every doctrinal aspect of traditional Christianity.”

(5) “Aware that most members reject their radical political views, the Mainline clergy claim it is their right and duty to instruct the faithful in more sophisticated and enlightened religious and political views. So every year thousands of members claim their right to leave. And, of course, in the competitive American religious marketplace, there are many appealing alternatives available.”

(6) “Even though so many have left, most of the people remaining in the former Mainline pews still regard the traditional tenets of Christianity as central to their faith. As a result, the exodus continues.”

(7) “Many liberals have attempted to make a virtue of the Mainline decline, claiming that the contrasting trends reflect the superior moral worth of the Mainline. … Meanwhile, the Mainline shrinks, and conservative churches grow.”

You could say exactly the same of Mainline Catholic parishes as well, who lost congregants to more doctrinally substantive parishes, lost vocations to more traditional orders, and lost Catholics altogether, sending good men like Vice President Mike Pence to join an evangelical church instead. Can faithful Catholics really blame him? This may be why (according to Pew) forty percent of native-born U.S. Catholics officially leave our church.

What worries me as a Catholic is the fact that our Church’s centralized structure only allows so much room for escape, especially when the pope himself seems to be siding with the Mainlines at every opportunity, and punishing the orthodox. Pope Francis keeps electrifying the corpse of Mainline Catholicism in the faint hope of reanimating it. That Frankenstein experiment won’t work, but its side effects might well kill off many vital, faithful pockets of authentic faith and Christian living.

All we can do at this point is wait, and pray.

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