Not surprisingly, then, popes are usually quite careful. On the two modern occasions when a pontiff defined a doctrine of the faith, it was on a subject — the holiness of the Virgin Mary — that few devout Catholics consider controversial. In the last era of major church reform, the Second Vatican Council, the popes were not the intellectual protagonists, and the council’s debates — while vigorous — were steered toward a (pope-approved) consensus: The documents that seemed most like developments in doctrine, on religious liberty and Judaism, passed with less than a hundred dissenting votes out of more than 2,300 cast.A long series of quotes; I'm sorry. But I felt I needed to reproduce enough to make it clear that I am not caricaturing Douthat's position, which leads him to conclude that conservative Catholics "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."
But something very different is happening under Pope Francis. In his public words and gestures, through the men he’s elevated and the debates he’s encouraged, this pope has repeatedly signaled a desire to rethink issues where Catholic teaching is in clear tension with Western social life — sex and marriage, divorce and homosexuality.
And in the synod on the family, which concluded a week ago in Rome, the prelates in charge of the proceedings — men handpicked by the pontiff — formally proposed such a rethinking, issuing a document that suggested both a general shift in the church’s attitude toward nonmarital relationships and a specific change, admitting the divorced-and-remarried to communion, that conflicts sharply with the church’s historic teaching on marriage’s indissolubility.
In the end, the document’s controversial passages were substantially walked back. But even then, instead of a Vatican II-style consensus, the synod divided, with large numbers voting against even watered-down language around divorce and homosexuality. Some of those votes may have been cast by disappointed progressives. But many others were votes cast, in effect, against the pope.
The pope wishes to take these steps, the synod managers suggested. Given what the church has always taught, many of the synod’s participants replied, he and we cannot.
Over all, that conservative reply has the better of the argument. Not necessarily on every issue: The church’s attitude toward gay Catholics, for instance, has often been far more punitive and hostile than the pastoral approach to heterosexuals living in what the church considers sinful situations, and there are clearly ways that the church can be more understanding of the cross carried by gay Christians.
But going beyond such a welcome to a kind of celebration of the virtues of nonmarital relationships generally, as the synod document seemed to do, might open a divide between formal teaching and real-world practice that’s too wide to be sustained. And on communion for the remarried, the stakes are not debatable at all. 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. To change on that issue, no matter how it was couched, would not be development; it would be contradiction and reversal.
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.
Now, as a threshold matter, I would point out that Douthat should probably re-read (if indeed he has read) Newman's Development of Doctrine (New Edition, 1878). Because Douthat seems to suggest that views once held by the Church cannot ever be reversed, a notion that is not consistent with Newman, nor with, I should add, modern Catholic practice. The Church in 2007 relegated the once firmly established doctrine of Limbo to "a possible theological hypothesis," on the basis of study, experience, and the Magisterium:
The treatment of this theme must be placed within the historical development of the faith. According to Dei Verbum 8, the factors that contribute to this development are the reflection and the study of the faithful, the experience of spiritual things, and the teaching of the Magisterium. When the question of infants who die without baptism was first taken up in the history of Christian thought, it is possible that the doctrinal nature of the question or its implications were not fully understood. Only when seen in light of the historical development of theology over the course of time until Vatican II does this specific question find its proper context within Catholic doctrine. Only in this way - and observing the principle of the hierarchy of truths mentioned in the Decree of the Second Vatican Council Unitatis redintegratio (#11) – the topic can be reconsidered explicitly under the global horizon of the faith of the Church. This Document, from the point of view of speculative theology as well as from the practical and pastoral perspective, constitutes for a useful and timely mean for deepening our understanding this problem, which is not only a matter of doctrine, but also of pastoral priority in the modern era.Now, I don't fault the Church for this analysis--indeed, it's not that far off from Richard Hooker's classic (and much debated and interpreted) use of tradition and reason to understand scripture--as a means of trying to not allow past understandings that were once helpful and informative, to stay in place long after their illumination has ceased, and become a stumbling block--as W.R. Inge describes outworn metaphors in his Christian Mysticism.
No, the Catholic Church may unhelpfully raise the Magisterium overmuch, but the basic idea of the development of doctrine is sound, and Douthat is simply limiting it in a self-dealing fashion to prioritize his issues, sexual mores, as opposed to other moral issues where it has demonstrably changed, whether for weal or for woe, such as usury and abortion (permissible up to 40 days after conception until 1869, see linked article at p. 278).
Simply put, don't rely on a man who thinks he's a better Catholic than was Cardinal Newman. Odds are, he isn't.