Ross Douthat’s new book asks some important questions about Catholicism, and modernity as a whole.
Five years into his papacy, Pope Francis is a polarizing figure. To his supporters, he’s a much-needed change for the church. He’s a reformer whose willingness to model Christlike behavior (from washing the feet of Muslim migrants to asking “who am I to judge” LGBTQ people) heralds a new, more welcoming brand of Catholicism. For many — especially in the secular media — Francis’s change in tone from his predecessors has made his papacy unquestionably successful.
But over the past few years, conservative Catholic voices have emerged to criticize the pope’s approach and methods. Much of this criticism centers around Francis’s tacit approval of parish priests giving communion to divorced-and-remarried couples. It’s a controversial practice forbidden by the Catholic catechism on the grounds that divorce is not considered permissible. While Francis’s supporters defend his decision to, essentially, separate out (more rigid) church doctrine from (more lenient) parish practice, his critics argue that doing so threatens the moral consistency of the Catholic Church.
Among the most visible critics of Francis in the secular media is the New York Times columnist Ross Douthat. His pointed criticism of Francis’s papacy has been a recurring refrain of his national column, and his new book, To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism, was released last month. It’s a clear, concise, and fair summary of the conservative case against Francis. And whether or not that case is accurate, it’s worth engaging with.
Much of Douthat’s book is, for lack of a better term, very inside-baseball. It’s an extremely detailed look at the institutional machinations and political jockeying of a particularly complex bureaucracy.
But for Catholics and non-Catholics, progressives and conservatives alike, it’s vital to understand — if not necessarily to agree with — Douthat’s argument, and the argument of many of Francis’s conservative critics. The debate over Francis’s papacy is both a narrow, political debate about the future of the Catholic Church and a broader debate over the nature of ethics, modernity, and liberalism.
The Catholic view of marriage and divorce is central to Douthat’s argument
While Douthat criticizes a number of Francis’s decisions as pope, the bulk of his argument rests on Francis’s handling of the church’s approach to divorced-and-remarried couples — an issue highly representative of Francis’s approach as a whole.
Within the Catholic tradition, marriage is seen as indissoluble: the result of a sacred covenant between the couple, the church, and God. Divorce, therefore, is not permitted (although, in some cases, the church can grant an annulment: a decree that the marriage in question was never valid).
For this reason, divorced-and-remarried couples are generally not permitted to receive the Eucharist (i.e., communion) during Mass — neither are, in theory, LGBTQ couples or unmarried cohabiting couples. Unlike in Protestant traditions, Catholic doctrine states the communion wafer and wine are the transubstantiated body and blood of Jesus Christ. This makes the Eucharist particularly significant. Receiving the Eucharist for Catholics isn’t just about participating in a communal activity. It’s about becoming one with Jesus Christ.
For Douthat, Francis’s approach to divorced-and-remarried couples is at the heart of a bigger problem
This brings us to Pope Francis and the controversy at the heart of Douthat’s critique. Influenced, in part, by his friend and colleague the progressive German theologian Walter Kasper, Francis has repeatedly challenged the idea that remarried Catholics should be permanently barred from receiving communion.
Francis (or Kasper) has never suggested that the Catholic Church should allow divorce. Francis’s logic is that, as he writes in one of his apostolic exhortations, the Eucharist is “not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.”
In other words, the Eucharist should be available to those whose sexual lives put them at odds with the formal doctrines of the Catholic Church, so long as they have expressed a sincere desire to live within the Catholic faith more generally. The Francis-Kasper view is that the church should balance justice with mercy: recognize the complicated nature of sexual sin and prioritize welcoming as many Catholics as possible to the communion table.
Such a philosophy is in keeping with Francis’s wider sense of what the church should be, and of his own role as pope. Francis seems to see himself as a pastor first, a theologian second, one whose priority is to treat the church as a “field hospital” for sinners in need of spiritual succor. To his defenders, his choice to draw a distinction between Church doctrine and practice “on the ground,” so to speak, is a clever way of allowing the Church to balance its principles with its practice so that it can focus on its main mission: bringing all people to know and love Christ.
That said, Douthat characterizes Francis’s approach to divorced-and-remarried couples and the Eucharist as something of a disingenuous workaround. For Douthat, Francis is trying to have it both ways — offering conservatives “the formal teaching of the church” while giving liberals “a permission slip for pastoral experiments.”
Francis has gone through what might be called “formal channels” in terms of advocating for allowing divorced-and-remarried Catholics to receive communion: He has attempted to influence formal church synods, like the 2014-’15 synods on the family, with a moderate degree of success.
The official power a pope has to “change” church doctrine is debatable and complicated. Since 1870, the pope can unilaterally speak infallibly on matters of doctrine when invoking the right to speak “ex cathedra,” but this right has almost never been used. The pope is responsible for safeguarding Catholic doctrine and cannot directly contradict it but can interpret or expand it. More formal or sweeping codifications of change in interpretation are generally done collectively, through ecumenical councils.
Generally speaking, Catholic doctrine is understood to be unchangeable but subject to development or interpretation. There is greater room for change when it comes to ecclesiastical practice — say, the doctrine of priestly celibacy, which only dates to the 12th century — than when it comes to theology proper (say, whether marriage is indissoluble).
Generally speaking, though, Francis’s unilateral approach to advocacy has been unconventional. At times, he bypasses the church hierarchy entirely, for example by making controversial statements to secular journalists, or telling parishioners directly to go ahead and take communion in defiance of their priest’s orders (as he did with one unmarried Argentinian woman living with her boyfriend).
Among the methods Douthat objects to most is Francis’s decision to bury a proposed policy change in a single footnote. In a passage in his 2016 apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia dealing with couples in non-church-sanctioned relationships, Francis writes: “it is possible that in an objective situation of sin … a person can be living in God’s grace … while receiving the Church’s help to this end.” A footnote clarifies that this can “include the help of the sacraments.” In other words: Priests can use their own judgment when it comes to giving communion.
It was a canny, even brilliant, political move on Francis’s part. His words were technically nonbinding. Not only was he not speaking ex cathedra (the rarely used mechanism by which popes can speak “infallibly”) but he had also chosen to use an apostolic exhortation — a more informal mode of address — to get his point across. This strategy allowed him to circumvent accountability for his statement within the church’s senior teaching body, even as his controversial footnote (which was widely reported in secular media) gave local priests license to tacitly allow remarried couples to take communion.
It was, as Douthat notes, also a politically risky move, one that essentially licensed a division between formal church teaching and parish practice. “[By] issuing such an ambiguous document,” Douthat writes, “Pope Francis had pushed Catholicism toward … devolution, toward a geographical and cultural variation in what his church would teach.”
Francis’s papacy presents an institutional challenge for the church
Francis’s approach, To Change the Church argues, is problematic for two separate reasons.
First of all, Francis is, in Douthat’s view, destabilizing the very nature of the papal office. If he exercises his unilateralism in the progressive direction, what’s to stop an archconservative successor from doing likewise, until the total mood of the church becomes indistinguishable from that of its current pontiff? Douthat wonders, fairly, whether “the ease with which a rhetoric of … obeying … ‘this Pope, this present Pope’ can be used to justify reversal of prior teaching.”
Douthat’s argument is at its most effective when he criticizes Francis on these political grounds. He argues that Francis’s papacy is dangerous because it puts the church, as an institution, in jeopardy. If he moves the church in a “liberalizing” direction like that shared by, say, Anglicans, he risks challenging what is distinctive about Catholicism in order to hold on to the would-be faithful. Douthat points out, fairly, that churches that have tried to “liberalize” end up hemorrhaging their members anyway, and that Mass attendance has been flat under Francis.
”Liberal Catholicism’s difficulty,” he writes, “is that it has the most appeal to Catholics with the loosest connections to the Church … it can do well in opinion polls of all Catholics … and still fail to generate the level of commitment that induces men and women to give their lives in service to the faith.”
Douthat does, however, tend to elide the Catholic Church’s ideal of being unchanging with its historic expression. “The papacy’s claim to be a rock of unchanging teaching,” as Douthat puts it, has more often than not been just a claim.
For most of the church’s history, both doctrine and practice have been in flux. Scripture and church fathers alike have been interpreted in wildly diverging ways (the progressive Catholic magazine Commonweal has a fine detailed rundown of the varying history of major Catholic thinkers’ approach to remarriage).
The history of the church, after all, is the history of councils and controversies. The nature of grace, the nature of free will, and the nature(s) of Jesus Christ have all been codified through vigorous, sometimes violent, debate. Church doctrine may have been “unchanging,” but interpretations of that seemingly unchanging doctrine, from the 324 Council of Nicea to the 1545-’63 Council of Trent to the 1962-5 Vatican II, have differed variously.
Douthat’s characterization of the church as an unchanging, unified body, thrust into chaos by modernity, and the pope as a distinct threat to that unity, is overstated.
As I’ve argued before, much of our contemporary conception of the Catholic Church as this kind of historic monolith is rooted in the church of the 19th century: a time when the church was already redefining itself in opposition to so-called “modernity” precisely by becoming more conservative and codified.
Furthermore, there is precedent, albeit on a smaller scale, for alterations in Catholic teaching at the level of church practice (again, as distinct from change in doctrine). The first Catholic catechism, for example (which dates from 1566), demands that married couples abstain from sex before receiving the Eucharist, something not demanded by the present catechism (which only dates from 1992).
Douthat’s objection to change in the church reflects a wider distrust of situational ethics
Douthat’s wariness of a “liberalizing” church touches not just on Catholicism per se, but on a wider question of modernity and ethics. Throughout his book, a consistent strain of his critique is that Francis is moving away from the church’s objective moral standards toward suspiciously “situational ethics” (basically, the idea that the right thing to do in some circumstances may not be the right thing to do in others).
Writing sympathetically about the conservative church leaders behind the dubia, an open letter expressing objections to Amoris Laetitia, Douthat characterizes their objection as rooted in “whether the church’s traditional opposition to situation ethics still held … and whether the church now taught that … ’individual consciences could discern ‘legitimate exceptions to absolute moral norms.’”
Do “situational ethics” — the idea that, for example, there might be instances in which a priest morally should give communion to a remarried couple — lead inexorably, as Douthat implies, to moral relativism: a wholesale rejection of objective “right” and “wrong” totally incompatible with religion altogether?
As Douthat writes, “If God wills the suspension of his own law when things get particularly difficult or complicated, whenever too much emotional or physical suffering would be imposed, from the point of view of every Christian who ever suffered or even died for the sake of their hardest passages, the gospels look less like revelation than a somewhat cruel trick.”
There’s a robust Christian (if usually Protestant) tradition of defending such a situational stance on the grounds that it’s in keeping with the biblical portrayal of Christ himself. Christian Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard’s “suspension of the ethical,” for example, argued for a religious ethics based not on objective rules but on love toward’s one fellow man.
The 20th-century Catholic theologian Karl Rahner saw a “poor Church of sinners, the tent of the pilgrim people of God, pitched in the desert and shaken by all the storms of history, the Church laboriously seeking its way into the future, groping and suffering many internal afflictions … a Church of internal tensions and conflicts.” That view led him to condemn “the reactionary callousness of the institutional factor.” Rather, his views on ethics draw a distinction between essential and existential ethics.
Moral norms, for Rahner, come secondary to a personal, religious conception of God’s will — something that has led to Rahner, too, being accused of “situational ethics.” There is space within the Catholic tradition for a kind of situational ethics that doesn’t automatically collapse into moral relativism.
On a theological level, therefore, there is precedent for Francis’s stance. By dividing pastoral care from doctrine — by welcoming remarried couples to the Eucharist — priests might be said to be taking a Rahnerian approach to theological ethics.
The debate over Francis’s papacy is as much about modernity as it is about doctrine
Still, by challenging moral relativism more broadly, Douthat nonetheless raises an important point. He joins his voice with those of critics from across the political spectrum who have expressed doubts about our cultural trend toward moral relativism, and more widely, toward what Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman called “liquid modernity”: the idea that in late modernity, a person’s identity and self are, basically, fluid.
The question Douthat is asking is an important one, and one that’s itself having something of a cultural moment. Should we automatically assume that our current (post-sexual revolution, post-digital revolution, neoliberal, capitalist) cultural mores are the right ones? Is there something worthwhile in looking beyond the present, to the morals and mores of a past tradition, even if it means being out of step with modern views on divorce?
It’s the same question being asked on the right, by, for example, the increasingly popular Canadian psychiatrist Jordan Peterson, with his focus on gender essentialism and bringing back so-called “masculine virtues.” It’s also the question being asked on the left by the Washington Post’s Elizabeth Bruenig, whose Catholicism and socialism are intertwined, and who makes frequent and pointed criticisms of capitalism and the way our much-vaunted ideals of personal “freedom” are inextricably linked to oppression. (Incidentally, it’s also the question being asked by Pope Francis, who frequently castigates the “throwaway culture” of modern capitalism.)
These challenges to modernity can be found across the political and religious spectrum. (And they’re not new: Catholic criticisms of “modernity” have been around almost as long as “modernity” itself — just read the novels of Graham Greene or Evelyn Waugh, two 20th-century novelists Douthat has praised.)
In Peterson, Douthat, and Bruenig alike, we see a willingness to challenge “liquid modernity” in favor of some form of codified (and more challenging) limitations on personal freedom. In some cases, it’s fair to condemn some of these thinkers’ nostalgia (particularly Peterson’s) as intertwined with a more noxious nostalgia for the racism or sexism of an “easier” time. But the point Douthat and his cohorts are making — that “progress” shouldn’t be lauded for its own sake, and that our own “modern, liberal” cultural values should be investigated as thoroughly as the “outdated” Catholic ones — is still a valid, even vital one.
The conservative case against Francis may be overly simplistic. Douthat’s argument is stronger when it comes to the politics of the institutional church than when it comes to theology proper. The Catholic tradition — with its centuries’ worth of dynamic disagreement — is historically far more “liquid” than his book suggests.
That said, for Catholic and nonreligious reader alike, Douthat’s book asks the necessary questions. Even if it doesn’t always answer them.
via Vox http://bit.ly/2FF4XI0
April 5, 2018 at 12:34PM