Ross Douthat, writing in Sunday’s New York Times, saw fit to remind the pope of the limits of his office and to warn against any reversal of Church teaching on the issues raised at the recent Synod on the Family. There is so much wrong with Douthat’s essay, it is difficult to know where to begin, but as his platform is significant, his ideas must be rebutted.
The gravest problem with Douthat’s view is found in the paragraphs that constitute to core of his argument. Discussing the possibility of reversing the practice that currently prevents the divorced and remarried from receiving communion, he writes:
Such a reversal would put the church on the brink of a precipice. Of course it would be welcomed by some progressive Catholics and hailed by the secular press. But it would leave many of the church’s bishops and theologians in an untenable position, and it would sow confusion among the church’s orthodox adherents — encouraging doubt and defections, apocalypticism and paranoia (remember there is another pope still living!) and eventually even a real schism.
Those adherents are, yes, a minority — sometimes a small minority — among self-identified Catholics in the West. But they are the people who have done the most to keep the church vital in an age of institutional decline: who have given their energy and time and money in an era when the church is stained by scandal, who have struggled to raise families and live up to demanding teachings, who have joined the priesthood and religious life in an age when those vocations are not honored as they once were. They have kept the faith amid moral betrayals by their leaders; they do not deserve a theological betrayal.
I hope that Douthat will re-read these paragraphs the next time he hears the Gospel parable of the Prodigal Son proclaimed from the ambo. He casts these “adherents” in the role of the aggrieved, jealous older brother and Douthat sides with them. He seems not to grasp that if these “orthodox adherents” are truly orthodox, that cling not just to a particular practice in the Western Church, but to the proclamation of the Gospel in its full integrity, a Gospel of mercy, mercy that goes beyond justice, and they will hopefully find peace in the words of the Father: “Everything I have is yours. You are with me always.” They will not, like Douthat, be tempted to view themselves as an elite, embattled minority, pulling up the drawbridge lest God’s mercy let any “unworthy” people in to the Kingdom.
Other parts of Douthat’s essay are equally misguided. He writes, “The Catholic Church was willing to lose the kingdom of England, and by extension the entire English-speaking world, over the principle that when a first marriage is valid a second is adulterous, a position rooted in the specific words of Jesus of Nazareth.” I suppose that is one way of interpreting Henry VIII’s break with Rome, although if memory serves, the precise issue was whether or not the previous dispensation Henry received to marry Catherine of Aragon was legit, and the orthodox position was that the pope did have the power to dispense from the normal laws of the Church, a position that would buttress, not diminish, any changes in pastoral practice Pope Francis might wish to undertake. And, of course, the entire discussion of Henry’s wedding took place within a political context: The Pope was the virtual prisoner of Catherine’s nephew at the time and Henry, for his own reasons, saw value and profit in breaking with Rome. As for the “specific words of Jesus of Nazareth,” I remind Mr. Douthat of other specific words He gave to his disciples: “And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” It may be hard for moralists like Douthat to grasp, but the doctrine that Christ remains with His Church and guides it in the exercise of those keys is a more foundational doctrine than any application of moral teaching. To the point at issue, it is telling that Douthat does not once acknowledge that the discussion about readmitting the divorced and remarried to the communion table is as much a discussion about our theology of the Eucharist as it is about our theology of marriage.
In describing the “fault lines” outside the synod hall, Douthat claims there is a generational divide between “a 1970s generation that seeks cultural accommodation and a younger, John Paul II-era that seeks to be countercultural.” First, what could be more “countercultural” than relentlessly preaching the mercy of God in our hard-edged, dog-eat-dog, every man for himself world? Second, if Douthat has read and understood Cardinal Walter Kasper’s book Mercy he would know that +Kasper is emphatically not urging “accommodation” with the world but accommodation to God who reveals Himself as a God of mercy. Third, apart from George Weigel who insists on thinking John Paul II was essentially an American Catholic neo-con, and about whom Mollie Wilson O’Reilly has a splendid spoof over at Commonweal, most analysts recognize a fair amount of diversity among the “John Paul II generation.” People in the Global South were not mesmerized by a couple of sentences Weigel wiggled into Centesimus annus, but they remember that St. Pope John Paul II came to their countries, and kissed their soil, and embraced their children, all at a time when no one gave a damn about the poor in the Global South. I would also note that there was not a single synod father who was made a bishop by Pope Francis: The bishops attending the synod, a majority of whom support Pope Francis and his calls for reform, were all made bishops by either John Paul II or Benedict XVI.
Douthat’s description of papal infallibility is equally blinkered. I read it and wondered if he understands that papal infallibility is, and can only be, a sharing in the infallibility of the Church? And, while it may be true that the dogmatic proclamations of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary and of the Immaculate Conception (which happened before Vatican I’s decree on papal infallibility by the way) were not controversial, they certainly were radical. If God can be so moved with compassion that he causes a woman to be born without the stain of original sin and be spared the corruption of her physical body, who is to say He can’t find a way to throw a life preserver of mercy to the divorced and remarried.
There are other difficulties in this essay. He asserts that at the Second Vatican Council, “the popes were not the intellectual protagonists,” when, in fact, Pope John XXIII clearly set the agenda in his magnificent opening speech and Pope Paul VI was elected between the first and second session largely on the strength of his ability to integrate the various reform proposals into a cohesive whole during the first session. True, other bishops may have proven to be the leading intellectual lights in the debates in the aula, but the popes did not participate in the debates in the aula. To minimize their role as Douthat does is just ill-informed.
Lastly, Douthat raises the prospect that conservative Catholics “they might want to consider the possibility that they have a role to play, and that this pope may be preserved from error only if the church itself resists him.” Resisting the pope – there is a sure fire prognosis for building unity within the Church. No, the pope has asked something very specific of the Catholic laity, he has asked us to pray for the success of the two synods and he has requested that we share our experiences when consulted by the Church’s pastors. Most especially, he has asked us all, laity and clergy alike, to ask how our ministry to the family, to all families, the broken ones and the “adherents” advances the cause of evangelization. Alas, evangelization does not figure very much in Douthat’s worldview. He is more concerned with moralism. Thank God we have a pope who understands that it is often the moralists who impede the people of God from encountering Christ, and that it is the job of the pastor to sweep away anything that impedes that encounter.
Synods are conducted cum Petro et sub Petro – with Peter and under Peter. The Petrine ministry is the guarantor of both fidelity to the whole deposit of faith and of the unity of the Church. Synods are not conducted cum Douthat et sub Douthat. That would only guarantee that the discussions have a hideously moralistic bent. I will stick with Peter.