Doctrine Serves Whom?

This story appears in the Amoris Laetitia feature series. View the full series.

by Ken Briggs

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Promoters of Francis' treatise on the family declare that it's meant to show that doctrine must serve people. That expression, friends, is a swampland.

It's not unusual for purposely mush terms to become slogans for religious or political causes. This one is a beauty.It is endlessly ambiguous and utilitarian like those replacement video remotes that are supposed to be "universal."

Doctrine are generally pretty clear. Jesus is the Son of God. Greed is sin. Marriage is forever (oops). It may agree with our disposition or not. If I'm informed of the medical doctrine that heaps of sugar will worsen my glucose problem, I have every reason to believe it's for my good. If I'm served the Catholic doctrine that every sex act must be open to pregnancy, I may never believe it's for my good no matter how it's couched. So making doctrine into something "good" for people can be achieved in certain cases but in no way is assured. So the promise of making family-related doctrine is full of holes to begin with.

Conservative Catholics aren't likely to fall for any strategy to make the medicine of doctrine into a sweet pill. They have maintained all along that doctrine is truth just the way it is without soft-pedaling or reinterpreting. If doctrine says the priest's act of consecration turns ordinary wafer and wine into the actual body and blood of Christ, then that's it. No fudging by suggesting that it's a remnant of Greek cosmology that no longer applies. Conservative objections to efforts to trim traditional doctrines of elements uncomfortable to modern sensibilities is perfectly understandable.

On the liberal side (a tired misnomer, I know) there is every motive to move in a direction that siphons authority away from the doctrine. As Ross Douthat, the emergent defender of traditional Catholicism and columnist for the New York Times, argues, the pope's treatise insures a weakening of doctrine by endorsing compromises that will eventually become the norm. While exceptions to the rules have existed as anomalies in the past, he contends that the pope has now made them acceptable alternatives at the disposal of particular pastors.

Meanwhile, millions of Catholics have decided these matters and don't intend to seek the blessing of church officials. The huge majority of Catholics who have remarried without annulments haven't made any efforts to annul their previous marriages. Either they reject the idea that their former marriages weren't "valid" or believe that the process conjures up all sorts of contrived reasons for granting what is really a divorce. Unless the doctrine were altered to allow that some marriages die for a variety of causes, it's all but impossible to imagine Catholics changing their minds about the doctrine as it exists is both "right" and "translatable" on terms they could accept.

Therefore, the attempt to apply existing doctrine to situations people have already deemed incompatible with their experience seems like a very leaky boat. It says, in effect, pay no attention to the silly old doctrine, or we'll use a kinder approach that appears to alter that doctrine (a seller's use of illusion) or persuade you we were right to start with. Doesn't sound like good marketing to me. 


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