Don’t Know Much About Theology

The greatest irony of progressivism is its dogmatic non-dogmatism.

A bronze statue of St. Junípero Serra, located at the entrance to the Old Mission Santa Inés, is surrounded by a chain link fence to protect it on Nov. 2, 2020, in Solvang, California.
A bronze statue of St. Junípero Serra, located at the entrance to the Old Mission Santa Inés, is surrounded by a chain link fence to protect it on Nov. 2, 2020, in Solvang, California. (photo: George Rose / Getty Images)

Several years ago, I was touring the Stanford Chapel in Palo Alto, California, with some family members. The tour guide noted in distress that most tourists were not only ignorant about the saints and biblical people depicted in the chapel, but they were totally uninterested.

But lack of religious interest that breeds illiteracy is not just an art history problem: It leaves people vulnerable to manipulation by those who consider religion the ultimate threat. Religion places God above the social order. St. Thomas More, who considered himself “the King’s best servant but God’s first,” was deemed a threat to King Henry VIII’s “progress” to divorce. Religion was seen as superstition, holding back the civilization that King Henry protested he was trying to save.

There is the same news centuries later: Last summer, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) criticized the statue of St. Damien of Molokai in Statuary Hall as a representation of white supremacist colonialism. She wrote:

“We have 100+ statues and portraits in the Capitol. Almost all of them are of white men. Every single statue there could be of a canonized saint and that still doesn’t change the fact that the erasure of women and BIPOC from American history is a feature of white supremacy. It is ironic that many claiming to ‘’defend’ a saint no one attacked approached this matter with such lack of grace or generosity. Instead of examining for truth, many jumped to irrational conclusions and sprung to cast judgment and condescension without engaging the actual idea presented.”

She claimed that she had been misunderstood, that she wasn’t “attacking” St. Damien at all, but commenting on the lack of representation of women and BIPOC in Statuary Hall. Ocasio-Cortez dismissed her critics as uncharitable and patronizing. Her own criticism of St. Damien was uncharitable, since the only “colonialism” he engaged in was ministering at a leper colony in Molokai.

On Aug. 11, a statue of Fray Angélico Chavez in Santa Fe, New Mexico, was vandalized with the words “1680 Land Back” despite the fact the Franciscan did not live during New Mexico’s Spanish colonial period. Fray Chávez was a historian who passed away in a Santa Fe nursing home in 1996. Some claimed his “revisionist history” of the 1680 Pueblo Revolt precipitated the attack. Fray Chávez, who longed to emulate St. Junípero Serra, would be posthumously trashed like Serra has been, for “colonialism.”  Chavez did not live in the Spanish colonial era and was falsely accused of taking indigenous land. This attack was an example of historical ignorance, though Chavez, himself a historian, would not have made a similar blunder — especially if another’s reputation were on the line.

More troubling still, many Catholics are unfamiliar with their own beliefs. In the 2019 Pew Research poll which showed that 55% of Catholics believe the Eucharist is merely symbolic, it also showed that 54% of Americans are unfamiliar with Purgatory and that 23% thought Purgatory is a place of eternal punishment.

So a large part of Catholicism’s crisis is one of ignorance as well as apathy. When Catholics are taught that Holy Communion is merely togetherness, that annulment is “Catholic divorce” and that one can be “personally” pro-life while voting “pro-choice,” there is confusion in the pews. Evangelization is rendered impossible because you can’t share what you don’t have. To make matters worse, traditional Catholicism is considered a hindrance to societal progress, even by Church leaders.

The progressive movement has taken advantage of this ignorance, from Supreme Court Justice Amy Comey Barrett’s membership in People of Praise being condemned as the cultlike inspiration for the dystopian “Handmaid’s Tale,” to the current Supreme Court case of Fulton v. City of Philadelphia that pits Catholic adoption agencies against the state of Pennsylvania. The Catholic Church is painted as a misogynistic, homophobic, authoritarian institution that verges on tyranny.

In a sense, progressivism’s attacks on the Church are nothing new. Prior to the French Revolution, the Church had enjoyed much institutional power and material wealth. The Church became an easy target. Carmelites were martyred, Notre Dame was used for blasphemous celebrations of the Goddess “Reason,” and churches were despoiled, some remaining vacant to this day. We witnessed this recently in the arson of Mission San Gabriel, and the vandalism of churches over this past summer. When San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone performed exorcisms, he was ridiculed for caring more about statues than people, his exorcisms portrayed as superstitious nonsense.

From the progressive viewpoint, traditional religion stands athwart the goal of bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to Earth. Jane Addams, considered one of the early founders of American Progressivism, wrote in Twenty Years at Hull House (1912):

“Jesus had no set of truths labeled Religious. On the contrary, his doctrine was that all truth is one, that the appropriation of it is freedom. His teaching had no dogma to mark it off from truth and action in general… These early Roman Christians received the Gospel message, a command to love all men, with a certain joyous simplicity. … I believe that there is a distinct turning among many young men and women toward this simple acceptance of Christ’s message. They resent the assumption that Christianity is a set of ideas which belong to the religious consciousness, whatever that may be.”

So, this “progressive” idea of domesticating Catholicism has been around for a long time. The example of Addams illustrates how Christianity was a stepping-stone to humanitarianism and praises young people who resent doctrine. Doctrine is considered divisive, violent and hateful.

Progressives — and progressive Christians — envision an ideal “religion” free of problematic dogma. A notable example of this is Unitarian Universalists, who proclaim they are welcoming to all because they are a “non-creedal” religion. Other so-called “non-creedal” groups are the Churches of Christ, the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Quakers. These groups have shared beliefs, even though they have no creed.

This is where humanitarianism and politics converge: humanitarianism elevates politics to a religion. The command to love one’s neighbor replaces the command to love God with all of one’s heart, mind and soul. In progressivism, “God is love” (1 John 4:8) becomes “Love is God” or the vague “Love is Love.” The objective love for God becomes the subjective, relativistic love of neighbor.

Progressivism instrumentalizes religion for its own political ends. In the mid-2000s, several liberal and mainline churches would have “Interfaith Pride” services to celebrate “LGBT Pride” in June. The “liturgies” were centered on causes like “marriage equality.” With the Obergefell decision of 2015, these services came to an abrupt end. They had served their purpose. The appearance of religion gave credibility at the time.

While same-sex marriage is no longer as controversial, other issues have come to the forefront this year. The call to “defund the police” is now championed by the Mennonite Church USA, the United Church of Christ, and the Presbyterian Church (USA). The United Methodist and Unitarian Universalist churches have embraced the concept of “intersectionality” when it comes to competing forms of oppression.

The greatest irony of progressivism is its seeming non-dogmatism. During this past election, there were popular yard signs that stated, “We believe Black Lives Matter/ No Human is Illegal/ Love is Love/ Women’s Rights are Human Rights/ Science is Real/ Water is Life.”

These yard signs are as much a statement of faith as the Nicene Creed. But they are about current issues rather than timeless truths. The assertions are wedded to fashionable causes of the time, just as King Henry’s or Ocasio-Cortez’s. Above all, these signs are centered on humanity rather than God. As St. Paul warned (2 Timothy 4:3-4), “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths.”