There are dangers in reading too much into an NPR caller, obviously, but Linker is putting his finger on a real tension within liberal Christianity today — or, if you prefer, a real fork in the road, with one path leading in the direction that he assumed dissenting Catholics wanted to take (which seeks to alter church teaching precisely because it still believes that teaching really matters), and the other leading toward a kind of Emersonian, therapeutic, basically post-ecclesiastical form of faith, in which “Roman Catholicism” just happens to be the name of the stage on which your purely individual spiritual drama is taking place.
He wrestles with where this discounting of doctrine comes from:
Now some of those would-be reformers would argue that Trish-ism (which as Linker describes it is basically a Catholic version of Sheila-ism, Robert Bellah’s Reagan-era gloss on individualistic spirituality) is what happens, more or less inevitably, when the church’s leaders hollow out their credibility by trying to enforce the unenforceable, and that a church that had evolved with the culture forty years ago would have actually preserved a sense that doctrine actually matters. This argument is problematic, though, because the (mostly Protestant) churches that did evolve along those lines often seem to be churches where Trish-ism is fully enthroned and all talk of traditional doctrine is a dead letter. Hence the appeal of the conservative counter-argument that actually Trish-ism is the fruit of the Catholic hierarchy’s inattention to doctrinal matters, its eagerness to soft-pedal the tough stuff, its attempt to keep everyone on board in an age of division and dissent: “It’s not that dissenting Catholics don’t care what the Church teaches,” Matthew Schmitz writes in a response to Linker’s piece, “it’s that the Church has taught them not to care. To that lesson, they’ve paid close attention.”
But I wonder if this argument doesn’t oversimplify things as well.
Even after I left the Catholic Church, I would find myself in the bizarre position of arguing with Catholics, and defending Catholic doctrine. The thing is, it was impossible to find common ground, because a) they knew nothing about doctrine, not even basics, and b) whatever the Church taught didn’t matter to them, because they didn’t see it as binding anyway; and c) they genuinely did not understand why this had anything at all to do with their status as Catholics. The freaky thing, to me, was that this wasn’t a pose; they were as sincere as they could be.