Conservative Catholics like Ross Douthat worry that western societies are becoming post Christian. I've been arguing here for years that we're not in a post-Christian society, but moving into a post-secular society. It's not about beliefs so much as it's about the way we experience reality. In a secular society our very way of experiencing and imagining the world filters out aspects of the Real that were important for premodern peoples. Those aspects of reality are still there, but we won't see them because our social imaginary, i.e., the consensus reality world imagination into which we are acculturated, won't let us see them, but there are signs everywhere that the imaginary is changing.
So my argument is that at least since the sixties in the US we've been moving into a post-secular social imaginary. We're living in the era of anything goes where there is a particular interest in retrieving premodern practices and beliefs--from body art, neo-paganism, to Asian martial arts. These are, I would argue, transitional phenomena until we find our feet in a new, non-secular consensus reality, which will gradually replace the secular imaginary, for good or ill. It's important that we do everything we can to avoid the latter.
Modernity and secularism go hand in hand, and clearly modernity has not been a milieu in which the Catholic Church has flourished or been at its best, but I have thought for a long time that it can flourish in a post-modern, post-secular milieu in a way, for instance, the Protestant churches probably will not. The Catholic Church's premodern practices and sacramental sensibility, its emphasis on community, it's global scope, and it's 'here-comes-everybody' transcultural universality make it well suited to deal effectively with the challenges that the world will face in the coming centuries. But it can only do it if it can find a way to be its best, expansive, world-embracing self. Pope Francis represents this best self.
Modernity is all about rationalizing and systematizing; it's about seeing the world as a vast machine and getting it to work like a well-oiled one. It's about looking for mechanical fixes for problems even when they are not mechanical. It leads to technocratic solutions where more human solutions would have a better chance of promoting human flourishing. Technocrats say they care about human flourishing, but they can think about it according to a crude utilitarian calculus insofar as it can be located on a Pareto curve or in some other way recorded, measured, and analyzed on a spread sheet.
So this materialist/secularist imaginary still lingers, and it still plays a powerful role in shaping our society, and whatever material advantages that it has brought, we have paid a steep price for them in the hundred and one ways that the secular materialist imaginary has dehumanized us. In this country we saw the first signs of pushing back against this techno/materialist aspect of modernization by young people in the sixties. Most of the people in that generation, including me, have accommodated themselves to the world as it is still dominated by this secularist materialist imaginary, but many of us have retained a sense that there is something disturbingly wrong about it, and we refuse to accept it as normative. And to a large extent we see that sense of 'wrongness' now being reflected in the attitudes of our millennial children, who I believe will have the opportunity to develop a more deeply human alternative imaginary.
I have remained a Catholic, despite its being a very difficult time to be one during the last several decades. There are many reasons I have remained in the Church, most important among them is that I believe its core teachings and am nourished by its liturgical practice. And while there are many awful things about the Church, I chose (and choose) to look at what's best, and there's plenty to see if you know where to look. But I have also remained Catholic for a reason that more directly relates to the theme of this post: The Catholic Church, often clumsily, has always stood as a sign of contradiction to the modern secular materialist imaginary. It has known all along that there was something deeply wrong about it. But the church on the whole was unable to develop an effective constructive response to modernity. Instead of confronting modernity as a challenge to expand, it saw it as a threat to its medieval institutional self understanding. It doubled down and circled the wagons rather than having looked for ways to engage and absorb the modern impulse, and in doing so if missed an opportunity to expand its sense of itself and of its mission in the world. It got smaller rather than larger, and I believe that was a tragic, avoidable mistake. But not one that is uncorrectable.
The Church in becoming smaller made the world a poorer place. It made things worse because the world needs the Church to engage with it, not to have it roll up hedgehog-like into a ball. For example, the scientist and mystic (and like Francis a Jesuit) Teilhard de Chardin was a model of the kind of expansiveness that needed to be promoted, but his books were banned until after his death in the fifties. The clamping down on Liberation Theology during the Wojtyla/Ratizinger era was similarly unnecessarily defensive rather than expansive. Because the Church withdrew like this, the secular materialist aspects of the culture went unchallenged in a way that had any real credibility for those outside the Church, and the Catholic Church through most of the 19th Century through to the 1960s and beyond, except at its fringes, became for the most part escapist and other worldly in its orientation. The social teachings developed in the late 19th and early 20th Century were an exception, but in the American church I grew up in, I never heard about that and didn't learn of the existence of someone like Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin until I went to college despite my growing up fifty miles from where they did their work.
The church I grew up in was fussy and legalistic, it was something no serious, spirited person could take seriously unless he was lucky enough to meet people who thrived as Catholics precisely because they took essential parts of the Catholic tradition and practice very seriously, while not taking all the b.s. seriously at all. The most important things in life are always mediated through relationships. I was lucky that way. Too often the b.s. is what's most visible, and it's understandably off-putting, but I was able to learn through them that it was unfortunate, that life is not neat, and in the long run the b.s. does not matter. And because they were deeply sane, humane, good-humored, lively people, I took them seriously and took what they took seriously seriously, and over time I've developed a lens through which to view the church that has helped me to distinguish what's truly core and what's peripheral.
And in looking through that lens, the one essential role that I see the church playing in the world is as defender and promoter of the human. And that has two primary aspects, the first negative the second positive. First, it must push back against the enormously powerful social forces in the world that seek to dehumanize us. Second, it must support and promote all human endeavors that lead to our becoming more deeply human. And Catholics believe that at the center of that endeavor, whether it is consciously recognized or not, is the encounter with the risen Christ. The Church is simply where people gather who consciously recognize that they've had that encounter, which occurs in so many different ways, and together they celebrate the events that made the encounter possible, and to seek to understand what that means for their own lives and for the world going forward.
And this ecclesiology leads me to believe that the Church has an essential role to play in shaping the alternative, hoped-for, positive post-secular social imaginary that I described above. I believe that one of the essential characteristics of the next post-secular cultural era will be a retrieval of ideas and practices that were rejected by modern materialistic rationality. The premodern will become increasingly a resource for living into the future in ways that were impossible for moderns. This post-secular imagination of the church was not something that could come from Eurocentrists like John Paul II or Benedict XVI who were shaped by their Cold-War concerns and fears about aggressive programs of governmental secularization. Those concerns were real; they were very much a part of the Church's experience in Europe since at least the French Revolution. They were fighting battles defined by the modern social imaginary, but going forward we are no longer moderns, and for that reason I suspect that most of the creative impetus for a healthy post-secular social imaginary will come from the global south.
It should be clear then why I think religious conservatives are fighting a war that ceases to make sense. When you realize that we are no longer moderns, it becomes clear that continuing to fight modern battles is a waste of time and that the real task is to shape the post-secular imaginary. Conservatives are missing the real story and the opportunities that are developing in front of their eyes. The modern and its secularization project is simply a spent historical impulse. The zeitgeist has moved on, and it's moving very quickly. The obsession that so many conservative Christians have to look for any little indication that somehow their right to practice their beliefs is somehow being suppressed by the state is, IMO, a complete misreading our current situation.
Spiritual leaders like Francis realize in a way that most religious conservatives don't that Christianity isn't a tribal religion. It's a universal one. That's something that was understood at least since the Council of Jerusalem in 50 AD. But conservatives like Douthat believe that the Church in "liberalizing" will become like other liberal Protestant denominations who have sold out to the decadent, secular culture. The Catholic Church at its 'catholic' best transcends particular customary cultures. It has always worked with what is humanly healthy in those cultures, while at the same time challenging the people in them to leave behind the attitudes and practices that impede the realization of more deeply human possibilities.
Conservative culture warriors don't understand that there's a difference between living in a pluralistic, post-secular society and living in an aggressively anti-Christian one. That's why their screams about being victimized whether it's the Fox New trope about the War against Christmas or their rallying around Kim Davis come across as so clueless. Nobody is infringing on Kim Davis's religious freedom, and nobody wants to, but conservatives who support Kim Davis seem completely tone deaf to how her behavior is infringing on the legal freedoms of others. If I'm Kim Davis, I must resign if I believe that having my name on the marriage licenses for gay couples is in some way deeply destructive of my humanity. She has a right to her religious views, and she has a right to persuade others of their correctness, but she does not have a right to impose them on people through the power of her office. That is not how conscientious objection works.
According to Douthat, if the Church were to give up its objections to gay marriage, it would surrender to the secular culture and diminish its identity as sign of contradiction to the secular materialist world order. I understand the concern, but it's misapplied in this instance. Yes, organizations have to stand for something if they are to maintain their identity in the sociological sense. Nobody cares about wishy-washy. If people want "anything goes," they can find that in the broader culture. And as I wrote above, it is core to the Church's mission to say No to any behavior, policy, or attitude that dehumanizes.
But Francis is so refreshing because he demonstrates that there's a difference between anything-goes wishy-washiness and a clear proclamation that the risen Christ is at the center of the Church's belief and practice. As long as one's identity as a Catholic Christian is rooted in the vitality that springs from remaining connected to that deep truth, then the church can accommodate changes like ordaining women as priests or accepting families with gay parents as real families. There is nothing to fear about institutional identity loss if you really believe that the Holy Spirit works in history, and that he will never abandon his church.
I'm not saying that's what Francis himself thinks or believes, but I am saying that what he points to as central for Catholic identity allows for developments in that direction. And that freaks conservatives out because they are conservatives precisely because they give more importance to social forms as identity markers than to any faith in the vitality of the Holy Spirit that moves in history from age to age. They see and fear what will be built on the foundation he is laying, and they see it as selling out or pandering.
I see him as laying the foundation that will allow the church to expand according to the inner logic of the gospels. There is no one absolutely correct way to be human. We are all broken and need to be made whole, and there are no right and wrong ways to be broken. We just are what we are, and there are unhealthy ways to deal with that brokenness: substance abuse, pederasty, promiscuity, control freakery, will to power, rage, greed, narcissistic self-absorption, etc. But you don't need a list from the Bible to tell you what any sane person knows to be true about the destructiveness of those behaviors. None of them are a path to healing--no compulsive behavior is. And so, if you accept this logic, conservative Christians have to come up with a better argument than the ones they have now to explain why a committed, intimate same-sex love relationship is not as much a path to healing and human flourishing as any other genuinely loving relationship.
Conservatives are right when they point to the past and remind us of the giants who have preceded us and that those giants knew important things that we have forgotten; they are right when they tell us that utopia cannot be engineered by the technocrats no matter how well intentioned. They are wrong, though, when they make idols of the past and when their thinking is dominated by a fear of the future, and they are wrong when they are too rigid to make the adaptations that anyone with common sense and common decency knows are necessary for the expansion and deepening of human flourishing.