The Papal succession has revealed much about religious authority in the media age. A series of New York Times columns by Ross Douthat have provided much evidence. In my last post, I suggested that Douthat’s efforts are significant because he aspires to be a legitimator of Catholic authority in the media frame. I also noted that he seems remarkably naïve about the role that the media play in all of this.

Douthat sees things as a kind of global battle for religious success, even supremacy. In a column assessing Benedict’s legacy, he takes a starkly conservative point of view. By “conservative” I mean both that he stands on the “right” side of the Second Vatican Council, the sadly banal ligne de démarcation of contemporary Catholicism, and that his interest seems to be in conserving the authority of the faith.

This latter project of “conserving” goes right to the question of the media because it is the authority of the church in public culture and in politics that seems to focus Douthat’s mind. Part of the problem is that he may not realize that he’s actually raising a question of the place of religious authority in public culture. But that is the logical implication of his ruminations.

That he sees this as a matter of religious competition is clear from the following paragraph:

But for all of Catholicism’s problems, the Christian denominations that did not have a Ratzinger — those churches that persisted in the spirit of the 1970s and didn’t reassert a doctrinal core — have generally fared worse. There are millions of lapsed Catholics, but the church still has a higher retention rate by far than most mainline Protestant denominations. Indeed, it is difficult to pick out a major religious body where the progressive course urged by so many of Ratzinger’s critics has increased vitality and growth.

Let’s leave aside the overbroad implication that strictness is the key to contemporary religious success, a deeply flawed assumption. Let’s look instead at the evidence: attendance at mass. This is a fundamentally Catholic view, of course, one with clear doctrinal roots. But shouldn’t we ask whether, in a non-Catholic cultural context, this should be the measure? There is a deeper issue here, one close to the heart of an old survey researcher like me. The evidence he uses for “retention” is questionable evidence. His source is data on overall attendance. An equally plausible explanation to his (that Catholicism under Ratzinger was more successful at retaining members) is that Catholicism’s U.S. attendance figures have benefitted from immigration. We’d need to parse the numbers to know.

More to follow.

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