It's rare that I'll bother with the subject of religion, but here we go with the second religion post in the same day. For regular readers here, this may seem somewhat counter-intuitive, but I'm temperamentally inclined to side with Douthat here on principle -- either you believe the teachings of your church are divinely inspired and passed down to human ears and hearts from The Big Guy Himself, or not.
If you do believe that, then you believe in preserving those teachings verbatim, no matter how outmoded or ancient they may sound to modern ears. Anything else (in that mindset, bear with me) would be presumptuous, akin to saying (and thus somehow just knowing) that God has changed His mind about [fill in the blank -- gays, remarriage, birth control, etc.].
What the Douthats of the world are saying, sticks-in-the-mud that they may be, is that the institution is a structure of permanence, divinely endowed, and not to be altered to accommodate the lifestyle choices of the day. And again, as a devout non-believer, I can get behind that line of thinking.
The idea of a religious system, unlike an empirically observable, scientifically testable and adaptable system, is that things are what they are, not what its adherents would like them to be, and so the followers conform their lives to the belief system, not the other way around. This is what annoys me about cafeteria believers, who profess to a certain, clearly ascribed system, and then chip away at its fundamental premises with their personal preferences. Why not just become a Presbyterian or Baptist or whichever system does encompass those preferences then? Why not just have a harmless half-secular / half-syncretic personal belief system that involves no church at all, but pays things forward by, say, volunteering at the animal shelter or donating a sack of groceries to homeless families once in a while? Why insist on staying in a club whose rules you don't want to abide by?
Again, the key here to this (or any religious) belief system is that it is dictated by and from an unimpeachable, unchallengeable celestial force, by which one may only commune with in deep, meditative ritual. (And even then, not be entirely sure with whom one is communing.) If you've decided to ignore the rules you don't like, then why play that particular game? This half-assed approach to spirituality does no one any good. What Douthat is saying, to borrow from the Homer Simpson lexicon, is to use your whole ass.
So, on a principled level, I can dig where Douthat is coming from, though he does seem obsessed with original intent, as if an ancient synod of monks attempting to squelch the various heretical creeds cropping up around them didn't have any ulterior motive to federalize, if you will (and you might) a system around which their earthly vested power might begin to accrete.
A practical person would see all that Council of Nicaea stuff as the original Electoral College, smoothing out as close a compromise as possible. But a literalist, by definition takes it as verbum dei, no debate, no modernization. What is eternal does not change, by definition. Insisting that it should change is a different thing.
But as a practical matter, the church is heading toward a potential schism, as Douthat obviously knows, between literalists like himself and modernists like the current pope. Douthat is an exception to the demographic for each, as he is young, college educated, and lives in an industrialized country, all factors that trend toward modernism. The literalists tend to be either old or in the usual impoverished shitholes whose only answer to overpopulation is to keep breeding.
Any organized religion, in the end, is about two main things, if they want to remain sustainable -- numbers and money. You can see where the split is, as far as that goes; the modernists have the money but the literalists have the sheer numbers. Where a schism would occur nowadays, rather than wars or violent conflict, would simply be a drop-off in one or the other, or both.
This sort of stuff reminds a great deal of the "strict constructionist" burblings of Constitutional literalists, preservationist ideas that make sense until you start thinking about them, and realize that, for example, there is no way the Founding Fathers could have remotely conceived of machine guns that can fire dozens of rounds per second. Even more similarly, strict constructionists tend to be the type that insist that the US founding documents were divinely ordained, as if George Washington had been summoned to a burning bush on the swamp of the Potomac and given another set of sacred tablets to bring to the plebes.
The warning and the lesson here is the same, both politically and religiously. On the one hand, you don't want to change your defining documents and premises too easily or regularly, precisely because those things immediately become fair game in the deal-making process. But on the other hand, as always, one eventually encounters a premise that simply needs to be revisited, possibly revised, because the world has passed it by.
In either case, the majority of participants will continue to go about doing what they do, living their lives and flaws, If a schism -- religious or political -- takes place, one thing you can take as gospel is that there's money involved.