Douthat on the Pope's Critics

by Michael Sean Winters

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Ross Douthat at the New York Times has an interesting, and detailed, commentary about Pope Francis’ critics the other day. I am not sure why he started by citing a recent article in The New Republic that was, like the magazine as a whole these days, superficial. Nonetheless, Douthat invites us to distinguish the different groups that resist this pope and he is mostly on target, with a few important qualifiers.

Those who are drawn to the traditional Latin Mass and all its accoutrements, the “trads,” are indeed, as Douthat indicates, a relatively small group that was suspicious of Bergoglio when elected and nothing he has done since has relieved those suspicions. I suspect if Pope Benedict XVI had stayed on, he would have aroused suspicions too. When Benedict issued Summorum Pontificum, he was seeking to address a felt pastoral need that had been expressed to him: People missed the old Mass and wanted it back. As I have written before, I think it may have been necessary but it was very harsh to ban the old Mass when the novus ordo was introduced. But, I do not believe that Benedict intended to start a movement, still less an ideology.

You have only to read some of the traditionalists’ websites to realize that they think like a movement and have turned the old Mass into an ideology. This applies, as Douthat argues, to Rorate Caeli, which is pretty far out there, but also to more mainstream sites like Father Zuhlsdorf’s. When he compares enthusiasts of the old Mass to the Maquis, or uses the term “Church militant,” as he does this morning, you see evidence of that movement mentality that could easily turn schismatic. And, it is one thing to see older folk who miss the old Mass seeking it out: It is another to find seminarians who do not remember it adopting it as a kind of badge of conservatism. If I were a bishop and I had a young priest or a seminarian who was attracted to the celebration of the old Mass, I would be worried not comforted. And, bishops like Bishop Robert Morlino of Madison, Wisconsin, who has taken to celebrating the old rite with greater frequency in public are not helping to keep this movement in check. The trads may be few in number but they are disproportionately represented among the clergy and that should be very worrisome.

Douthat correctly notes that a larger group of critics is found among those who do not much appreciate the pope’s comments on economics and politics. Douthat is right that this group is larger, and he is right that it is not schismatic, and he is right when he notes,

it’s still mostly a new version of a very old discussion among American Catholics — one that goes back to the Eisenhower-era controversy surrounding William F. Buckley Jr.’s criticisms of the encylical [sic]Mater et Magistra” and extends through Reagan-era arguments about economic policy — about how to apply Catholic social teaching in the American context, and whether that teaching can or should be reconciled with what you might call Anglo-Saxon capitalism.

The fact that this particular form of dissent is not new is not comforting, however. It shows, instead, the deep level of secularization that has long afflicted the American Catholic right when it comes to issues of social and political obligations. They refuse to let very explicit Catholic teaching challenge, still less refute, their political and economic theories. They are quick to object to secularization in other areas, but the Gospel is not permitted to instruct those areas of life where most people spend most of their time and energy, in the marketplace of business and politics. In this sense, they are as lukewarm in the Catholicism as a casual critic of Humanae Vitae. This may never provoke a formal schism, but I fear that non-formal schisms are often just as potent. Douthat is, however, correct when he writes: “to the extent that “movement conservatism” as a whole turns explicitly anti-papal over Francis’s economic pronouncements (and I don’t expect it will) so much the worse for the movement.”

Finally, Douthat notes the critics who are doctrinal conservatives. First, the critics of the Holy Father’s teaching on economics are also challenging doctrine. The social teachings of the Church are just as rooted in the doctrines of the faith as are the teachings of marriage and family, which is what Douthat goes on to discuss here, specifically, those who got nervous at last year’s synod on the family. He writes of this group:

Many of them are also economic conservatives and likely Republican voters, but not all, and notwithstanding that overlap they mostly regard the stakes in the Kasper/divorce debates as much more theologically significant than the stakes in, say, the pope’s forthcoming environmental encyclical. As with the economic debate, the more prominent the commentator, the more circumspect they tend to be in directly criticizing Francis on these issues: The tendency, instead, is almost always to separate the pope from the Kasper faction, critiquing that faction vigorously while reassuring readers that no doctrinal change is in the offing. (My own approach here is distinctive, and perhaps imprudent.) But at the same time, the pattern in which the debate has proceeded, I think, leaves little doubt that if Francis were to adopt Kasper’s proposals or others like them there would necessarily be much more open opposition from this group.

I do not know if there will be a doctrinal change in the offing or not. Certainly, the Church has developed doctrine in the past, and development is sort of a slow-moving change. But, Douthat shares a common blind spot with his fellow conservatives: Viewed in isolation, any change regarding the admission of divorced and remarried Catholics to communion, or in taking a less harsh stance towards gay and lesbian Catholics, would be hard to square with recent developments in the Church’s teaching on marriage and the family. But, the deeper theological issue is the role of mercy in the Church’s understanding of God and, therefore, of the Church. Consider the sermon the Holy Father gave this morning at the Casa Santa Marta, in which he said:

It’s Jesus’ home and Jesus welcomes [all]. But not only does He welcome, He goes out to see people just as He went out to find this man. And if people are hurt, what does Jesus do? Scold them because they are hurt? No, He comes and He carries them on His shoulders. And this is called mercy. And when God rebukes his people - 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice!' – He’s talking about this.

Conservatives are not wrong to see the Kasper proposal as revolutionary, even disturbing, but it is the disturbance of the revolutionary who threw the money changers out of the Temple, of the God who rebuked His people for offering sacrifice and not mercy, it is the proposal of the prodigal’s father, not his brother, of the Good Samaritan, of the Good Shepherd. Viewed narrowly as applicable only to the issue of the divorced and remarried, I think the conservatives are right to think such a change as Kasper proposes is hard to swallow. Understood in the context of changing something far deeper in the life of the Church, driving stake through the heart of the various forms of pelagianism and spiritual worldliness that stalk us today, of connecting anew with the actual kerygma, which has been lost in all the rules and regulations, I think the Kasper proposal is just the beginning.



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