This is not an easy time for Catholic media commentators. At least, for those media commentators who wear their Catholicism more or less on their sleeves.  For voices on the conservative end of the Catholic spectrum, there must be some discomfort with a new Pope who seems to be shaking things up and is apparently able to articulate more progressive language and ideals in ways that are publicly accessible.

There is a long tradition of Catholic commentary and some of the best–E.J. Dionne and Gary Wills, for example–have helpfully addressed contemporary cultural and political issues through the frames of their faith backgrounds.

There are others, though, who seem to see the situation as a confrontation between Catholic faith and contemporary culture, seeking to re-assert some version of Catholic faith as a balance against its dangerous trends.  Bill O’Reilly is a prominent (though conceptually trivial) example, as in his recent book on Jesus.  A far more substantive voice is Ross Douthat, a conservative columnist for the New York Times and frequent contributor elsewhere, including The Atlantic.  I have written about him before, most notably last winter during the Papal transition.

A column this week again caught my attention.  As I noted earlier, one has to read Douthat’s actual understandings of the role and place of Catholicism inferentially rather than directly, and that is obvious in this piece, titled The Promise and Peril of Pope Francis.

In it, Douthat presents an interesting provocation.  Noting that the historical trend  of the “past 40 years” has been for conservative and strict religions to flourish and progressive religions to fade.  In fact, he wants to argue that the liberal wings of all religions have simply disappeared into the broader culture, leaving little room in the middle.  What is left of the middle, he asserts, “…isn’t institutionally Judeo-Christian in the way it was in 1945. Instead, it’s defined by nondenominational ministries, ‘spiritual but not religious’ pieties and ancient heresies reinvented as self-help.”

This is where inference is necessary.  What is missing from this picture, to Douthat?  Clearly it is clerical authority, or “…organized faith…” as he calls it. And this organized faith is what constitutes religion to Douthat and to many conservatives.

I’d like to suggest that the evidence points to a different continuum than the one he proposes.  It is also possible to see that through the instruments of the culture, including the media, it is increasingly possible today to imagine and inhabit faith and spirituality without the legitimation of doctrinal authority.   That means that what Douthat fears on behalf of the new Pope is in fact the reality of modern life and modern culture: that there are ways of being religious, even Catholic, that defy traditional categories.  It also means that the indicators he uses to measure decline, attendance, etc., actually measure changing practices vis a vis clericalism and traditional authority.

Conservatives and traditionalists may lead parishes and movements that thrive and grow, but will do so in a refugium at the edge of the culture, an edge that may become smaller and smaller as time goes on.