A Catholic Viewpoint: Survival Requires Orthodoxy

Host Scott Simon talks with Catholic Mary Eberstadt, senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, about what she hopes to see from Pope Francis. She argues that in an increasingly secular world, orthodoxy is what will keep the church vital.

Copyright © 2013 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Mary Eberstadt is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. She writes often on religion and society. She's also a Catholic, and joins us in our studios.

Thanks very much for being with us.

MARY EBERSTADT: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: Before Pope Francis was selected, you wrote that you'd hoped to see the new pope deploy doctrinal orthodoxy. What do you mean by that?

EBERSTADT: Well, what I meant is that if you study the history of churches, over time the churches that have tried to lighten up the Christian moral code and put forth sort of kindler, gentler version of Christianity as they see it, have not done well. They haven't done well demographically and they haven't done well financially.

Churches that stick to orthodoxy do better over time, in part because it's only those kinds of churches that tend to create families that can be of size and carry on the Christian tradition. So, in saying that the pope would do best to stick to orthodoxy, I was talking in part about what it would take to strengthen the Catholic Church.

SIMON: So if I were to remind you about some of these polls we've all seen in recent days showing 66 percent of U.S. Catholics favor allowing women to become priests, 79 percent favor the use of artificial birth control measures, what does that mean to you?

EBERSTADT: Well, it means in part that you have to be careful about what you are calling Catholic. In other words, are you Catholic if you say you're Catholic? Are you Catholic if you were baptized Catholic? Are you Catholic if you haven't been in church in five years? What you tend to find is that the more observant people are, the more orthodox their opinions tend to be. That's one point.

But the other point is that for Catholics like that, for Catholics who want married priests, women priests, who want again to lighten up the Christian moral code, there is a place for people like that. The place is called mainline Protestantism. And the point is that mainline Protestantism is in serious disarray. The pews are graying, they have few children in them.

By contrast, the Protestant churches that have hewed closest to a sort of strict Christian moral code have done best. Those would be the evangelical churches and churches like the Pentecostals are thriving, and not only in the United States but around the world.

SIMON: So you don't accept the premise that part of why the Roman Catholic Church seems to be losing some strength in the United States and Western Europe is because of positions like priestly celibacy or prohibiting birth control measures.

EBERSTADT: Well, the Catholic Church is not in the best shape and I'm certainly not saying that. Obviously, we've had 10-plus years of sex scandals. We've had problems in the Curia. And I'm not saying that the church is in the best position.

What I am saying is that it will do best over time to stick to orthodoxy. And the fact is, the pope doesn't have a choice in this arena. Americans often don't understand. We tend to think because we are such a self-created people that the pope has someone like a CEO or someone who is a master of his own fate.

This isn't true and the pope sees himself as the divinely appointed custodian of the truth - capital T. Truth that's been hammered out over 2,000 years. And the kinds of teachings that modern people most dislike about the Catholic Church are actually teachings that were hammered out from the earliest church fathers on up.

SIMON: So when we take a look at changing public attitudes - acceptance of same-sex marriage - you don't think the church has any kind of obligation to reflect that.

EBERSTADT: Do you mean that the church should change its teaching because people have changed their minds in certain...

SIMON: Yeah.

EBERSTADT: ...Western countries about a particular issue? I mean, the church sees its job as standing as a sign of contradiction to all that. And if it were to make itself a bellwether of public opinion, it wouldn't be the church. And over time, it wouldn't be doing very well in the pews. Because the fact is that if you water down Christianity just to telling people to be nicer to each other, or to do what the majority seems to want to do, people pretty quickly conclude that it's easier to be nice at home. Why should they go to church?

SIMON: Is it important to you that the Catholic Church in North America grow?

EBERSTADT: I don't think anyone would want growth at the expense of truth and mission. Growth just for the sake of growth doesn't get you very far. It's not a numbers game. It's a truth game.

SIMON: Mary Eberstadt is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. She's also the author of a new book out next month, "How the West Really Lost God."

Thanks very much for being with us.

EBERSTADT: Thanks for having me.

Copyright © 2013 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.