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Liberal Protestantism–A Failed Experiment

The election of a conservative pope has sent Catholic liberals into fits of outrage and anxiety. Benedict XVI–formerly Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger–is everything liberal Catholics feared. The self-styled progressives wanted a pope who would liberalize the Catholic church and make it, in essence, more secularized. Writing in The New Republic, Ross Douthat argues that this has been tried before–by liberal Protestants. His article, ‘Strict Construction,’ offers real insights for conservative evangelicals. Douthat understands the progressives’ argument. As they see it, the church must align itself with a secular postmodern culture or die. Douthat’s not buying this argument: “But in fact, exactly this experiment has already been carried out–by the mainline Protestant denominations, which have spent the last half-century moving to ordain women, accept homosexuality, endorse birth control, remarriage, and even in some cases abortion, and to permit local congregations to manage their own affairs with little or no interference from above. And over the same progressive half-century, mainline Protestantism has endured a slow-motion collapse–in influence, prestige, and membership.” He offers the Episcopal Church (USA) as evidence. In his words, “The Episcopal Church offers the most striking example of this phenomenon, since it would seem to embody everything that a Garry Wills or a Maureen Dowd would like Catholicism to be–the liturgy and tradition, that is, without the sexual prohibitions and inconvenient dogmas. Yet in an era when John Paul II supposedly alienated so many otherwise faithful Catholics, it’s Episcopalianism, not Catholicism, that’s been hemorrhaging members, dropping from over 3.5 million American communicants in 1965 to under 2.5 million today. Far from making itself more appealing and more relevant, the Episcopal Church’s reforms seemed to have decreased its ranks in the United States.” Evangelicals, on the other hand, are growing. “Tellingly, only Protestantism’s Evangelical churches, which tend to be as morally conservative as orthodox Catholicism, can claim a surplus of clergy. Only Evangelical Protestantism, too, can claim growth rates that outstrip the Catholic Church. Some of this growth is the fruit of conversions–from Catholicism itself, but largely from the dwindling mainline churches. Some, too, is simple demographics: It doesn’t help the would-be-liberalizers’ hopes of embodying the future of Christianity that they’re less likely to have large families than more conservative believers.” Interesting observations–and from an unexpected quarter.