The New York Times‘ Ross Douthat is an artful enough of a controversialist to frame his reaction to the course Pope Francis seems to have embarked on with respect to Church doctrine on family and sexual matters as an expression of concern, not a freakout. But Andrew Sullivan is persuasive in exposing the thinly veiled counter-revolutionary (and possibly even schismatic) threats Douthat is at least toying with, and it foreshadows the big fight that is likely to break out once the various Catholic factions completely look through the cosmetic efforts at the recent synod on family issues to disguise its implications:

[I]n Ross’s column, there is a clear assumption that his side of the debate owns the church, that any contrary views to his are an outrageous, treasonous and unprecedented attack on the institution itself, that any accommodation of mercy for those caught in the cross-hairs of the teachings on sex and marriage and family is somehow a “betrayal” of the core faith. Not a misguided idea – but a betrayal.

This is nonsense and panic, but it is a useful insight into the theo-conservative psyche. Notice the language used to describe a civil, rare and open debate of issues that the church is grappling with. This process – in which the theocons won on their core issues – is “a kind of chaos,” it’s “medieval” and “dangerous,” it sows “confusion.” It is as if these questions cannot even be debated (which was, of course, the view of John Paul II and Benedict XVI), as if faith itself is so fragile and so rooted in unquestioning blind obedience to a body of teaching that makes no distinction between central and more marginal issues, that any Pope that actually seeks to have a conversation about these questions is a threat to the church itself.

As a Protestant, all I’d add is that a reading of Douthat’s impressively erudite book Bad Religion shows how important it is to him that Roman Catholics along with their conservative evangelical allies remain immovable on matters of family and sexuality as a token of orthodox resistance to the “accomodationist” attitudes that have, in his view, ruined mainline Protestantism. I can imagine he fears hearing his own words of contempt hurled at his own faith community–you know, the one that infallibly absorbs pressure for change without itself ever changing. Ross understands, of course, that most Catholics, especially in this country, don’t particularly think of the Church as a cultural (much less counter-cultural) construct at all. And so it’s especially scary when the hierarchy–yea the Pope–fails to counteract the weak laity’s desire for social peace and moral self-determination.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.