I wrote awhile back about two kinds of Catholics. Since then I've realized that Protestantism has the same thing -- and so, as far as I can tell, do Judaism and Islam.
It's pretty natural that religions should branch into a strict interpretation and a broad interpretation, just as nations easily divide into political parties. This is especially true considering the problems of the founding documents (the Bible, the Torah and Talmud, and the Quran). In all of these cases the scriptures were written in a cultural context very different from ours. Morally speaking, that context seems a bit primitive -- it was a time of greater violence, stricter social norms, and a strong emphasis on punishment for wrongdoing. The prevailing morality of the modern age is different -- more forgiving, more tolerant, and less violent.
There are two responses to this. You can say that the bronze-age morality of the Old Testament is the right way -- that it's objectively the best, because God is clearly seen to support it. Or you can say that modern morality is more likely to be right, and therefore whatever part of scripture seems to contradict the message of peace, love, and tolerance isn't to be taken literally.
What you can't do is be morally progressive and a biblical literalist. Some parts of the Bible are morally progressive -- some of the prophetic literature, for instance, and quite a bit of the New Testament -- but some parts are emphatically not. If God really did destroy Sodom with fire, if he punishes children for the sins of their parents, if he commanded the death penalty for worshiping the wrong religion, he is not a progressive being at all.
So the argument, among progressives, is that the scriptures aren't inspired that literally. It's the story of God's gradual revelation to men, and they got it very wrong at first.
The traditionalists have a great answer to this: if God is all-powerful, he surely should have the ability to get his message across as he intended. If there is some part of the bible that seems wrong to you, the problem is with you. Don't want to beat your children? Don't believe in slavery? Think the death penalty should be abolished? Remember, God's ways are not our ways. You need to let the scriptures form your conscience instead of trying to use your conscience to inform your reading of the bible. Maybe the modern world has corrupted you and that's why you think what God did in the bible was bad.
It's such an ironclad argument that the only response progressives can make is "but that would be a terrible way to live." And it is, as you can see by anyone who takes the traditionalist argument to its logical conclusion -- fundamentalist Protestants, ultra-trad Catholics, ISIS. Yet progressives cannot explain what their authority is, if scripture is fallible. How do they know for sure that any part of their religion is true? Do they just pick and choose, keeping the things that feel like what an all-good God would say and do, and ditch the rest?
The Catholic Church has a good solution to this problem. It replaces the fixed root of Scripture with the slightly more flexible root of the Magisterium. When modern morality changes, it has the job of figuring out what innovations are good and which are not. That's how the Catholic Church can ditch the death penalty, women's subjugation, damnation for unbaptized infants, while still sticking to the things that are worth keeping. It has a living authority rather than a dead one, so it can adapt.
However, it still has a problem. How can it explain how the same God we worship today was in charge and actively revealing things way back in the bad old days, if He revealed different things at different times? If the death penalty is so bad, why did God mandate it in Biblical times? If torture is intrinsically evil, why did God not reveal that until after the Inquisition was over? It's not nearly as useful a revelation now as it would have been then.
This little point is the main job of theologians and professional Catholics, as far as I can see. They spend their time explaining, point by point, each specific problem and how it can be resolved. There is no single over-arching explanation for these problems, so if you raise them (as I so often do) you get a lot of "which particular passage are you talking about?" Sometimes they claim it was never meant that way, sometimes they say that a certain statement wasn't infallible, and sometimes they just go back to the old "God's ways are not our ways" argument. Maybe these things could be good for God to do even if they'd be bad for us, or maybe they would be good for us too and it just doesn't feel right because our consciences are badly formed.
And within the Church there are many different factions based on the specific answers they give to specific problems. On the question of the mutating teaching of "no salvation outside the Church," for instance, a regular conservative Catholic will answer, "The original teachings either weren't infallible or can be interpreted as not in contradiction with the new ones." An ultratraditionalist will say, "Vatican II contradicted a previous teaching, so it is not infallible or is proof that the smoke of Satan has entered the Church." And a progressive Catholic will say, "The fact that the teaching has changed is proof that Church teaching is mutable, and surely the next thing to change is my pet issue."
Still, from where I'm standing it looks suspiciously like denial. No one wants to admit that an all-powerful, unchanging God, who should be able to get the same moral truths across from age to age, has somehow not been entirely consistent. It's like that country song where the girl admits that sure, it looks an awful lot like her guy is cheating on her, but she swears it's not what it looks like.
Between progressive and traditionalist religion there's a constant two-way current, some traditionalists becoming more progressive as they realize that's an awful way to live, and some progressives becoming more traditionalist as they realize that if you want to be serious about surrendering yourself to God, you have to take seriously the things that he said.
I am stuck, myself. I have a strong moral impulse against traditional religion (whether Catholic or any other kind) because so much of the Old Testament is morally objectionable. But I don't find progressive religion (whether Catholic or otherwise) stands up intellectually, because it's never come up with a good argument for why people can pick and choose what to believe, or why God didn't reveal better moral codes at the outset. If you don't acknowledge the authority of the magisterium or of scripture, how do you know God is out there in the first place?
The conversations I tend to get in with people often go like this: I espouse a progressive idea. The other person will prove my idea isn't Catholic, and that I'm a heretic if I believe it. I say, "True enough, but the conclusions you get with your viewpoint are awful, and that's why I'm not sure about being Catholic in the first place." At that point they immediately about-face and say that I should please keep up with believing what I am, because, well, cafeteria Catholic beats not at all Catholic. But I think their initial argument was convincing. Catholicism is the religion of the bronze age, of the patristic age, of the middle ages. It is not my own peace, love, and tolerance religion, no matter how much I would like it to be.
But I can't blame them for trying, because in a way I'm trying to do the same thing back to them. "X belief is really harmful," I say. "Maybe it's bad to be in a religion that teaches that." They'll insist that they love their religion (whether Catholicism or some other one) and they get so much good out of it. So I'll say, "Maybe a more progressive one, without belief X but with all the things you like about religion?"
Ultimately, the compromise that is progressive religion seems doomed to fail. On an individual level, it works for awhile, mainly because people aren't that concerned with truth. They're looking for something that feels good to believe, and a community that they like worshipping with. But if you're going to confront progressive religion on a factual level, you're going to have to face the reality that every single source that could be a proof of the parts of religion that you like, is also bound to be a proof of the parts of religion that you don't like. That's how more secular Muslims get radicalized, and how evangelicals set up their megachurches.
So I hardly know how to treat progressive religion. Do I encourage it as a less-harmful version of the same thing, something that has all the good stuff and none of the bad stuff? Or do I point out the internal contradictions, even though it will force people to make a choice between two bad options, atheism (which many people fear won't fulfill them emotionally) or traditionalist religion (which can be harsh and harmful)? I fear too many would choose the latter, because the former is so unthinkable.
And that's why I don't go around saying "radical Islam is the real Islam" or "bible Christians who don't support slavery are dishonest." I fear people would pick terrorism and slavery over abandoning a religion that they're attached to. Yet again, Catholicism seems the only possible compromise -- because it has a firmer intellectual foundation than progressive religion and has arguments for why we don't have to support slavery or stonings or whatever. But even there, the same problem echoes .... why are these compromises necessary? Why does an all-powerful, all-good, unchanging God keep looking as though he's changing?
That's what I would like to know.