The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Sunday, November 1, 2015

The SoCon Inquisition

Yeah, I had to. Sorry. But, c'mon, Ross Douthat's pompously titled "Letter to the Catholic Academy"begs for it:
MY dear professors!
I read with interest your widely-publicized letter to my editors this week, in which you objected to my recent coverage of Roman Catholic controversies, complained that I was making unfounded accusations of heresy (both “subtly” and “openly”!), and deplored this newspaper’s willingness to let someone lacking theological credentials opine on debates within our church. I was appropriately impressed with the dozens of academic names who signed the letter on the Daily Theology site, and the distinguished institutions (Georgetown, Boston College, Villanova) represented on the list.

I have great respect for your vocation. Let me try to explain mine.

A columnist has two tasks: To explain and to provoke.


So in my columns, I’ve tried to cut through those obfuscations toward what seems like basic truth. There really is a high-stakes division, at the highest levels of the church, over whether to admit divorced and remarried Catholics to communion and what that change would mean. In this division, the pope clearly inclines toward the liberalizing view and has consistently maneuvered to advance it. At the recent synod, he was dealt a modest but genuine setback by conservatives.

And then to this description, I’ve added my own provoking view: Within the framework of Catholic tradition, the conservatives have by far the better of the argument.

First, because if the church admits the remarried to communion without an annulment — while also instituting an expedited, no-fault process for getting an annulment, as the pope is poised to do — the ancient Catholic teaching that marriage is “indissoluble” would become an empty signifier.

Second, because changing the church’s teaching on marriage in this way would unweave the larger Catholic view of sexuality, sin and the sacraments — severing confession’s relationship to communion, and giving cohabitation, same-sex unions and polygamy entirely reasonable claims to be accepted by the church.

Now this is, as you note, merely a columnist’s opinion. So I have listened carefully when credentialed theologians make the liberalizing case. What I have heard are three main claims. The first is that the changes being debated would be merely “pastoral” rather than “doctrinal,” and that so long as the church continues to say that marriage is indissoluble, nothing revolutionary will have transpired.

But this seems rather like claiming that China has not, in fact, undergone a market revolution because it’s still governed by self-described Marxists. No: In politics and religion alike, a doctrine emptied in practice is actually emptied, whatever official rhetoric suggests.

When this point is raised, reformers pivot to the idea that, well, maybe the proposed changes really are effectively doctrinal, but not every doctrinal issue is equally important, and anyway Catholic doctrine can develop over time.

But the development of doctrine is supposed to deepen church teaching, not reverse or contradict it. This distinction allows for many gray areas, admittedly. But effacing Jesus’ own words on the not-exactly-minor topics of marriage and sexuality certainly looks more like a major reversal than an organic, doctrinally-deepening shift.


So I must tell you, openly and not subtly, that this view sounds like heresy by any reasonable definition of the term.

Now it may be that today’s heretics are prophets, the church will indeed be revolutionized, and my objections will be ground under with the rest of conservative Catholicism. But if that happens, it will take hard grinding, not just soft words and academic rank-pulling. It will require a bitter civil war.

And so, my dear professors: Welcome to the battlefield.
Um, where to start? Well, let's begin with the substance, taking the high ground for once.

Douthat's claim that the allowing of divorced Catholics to reunion with the Church would strip the doctrine of the indissoluble nature of marriage of all content, and empty it doctrinally? As a threshold matter, this observation is made in ignorance of the boom in both numbers of annulments petitioned for and percentage granted after the enactment of the 1984 Code of Canon Law--according to Dr. Edward Peters, a first-rate scholar who deplores the trend, in 1996 95% of applications for annulments that reached tribunals were granted. Dr. Peters notes that, when you correct for those cases that never reach a tribunal, for one reason or another, 80% is the more globally correct figure. Dr. Peters notes that the grounds for annulments burgeoned in the 1983 Code promulgated under John Paul II in comparison to the 1917 Pio-Benedictine Code, which facilitated the expansion (which was, he notes, already under way.) Still, it seems fair to say that the "indissolubility of marriage" is not all too difficult to address in the Roman Catholic Church--good standing is a matter of using the Church's legal system, not that of secular society. (A familiar theme, no?)

And Douthat's notion that the "reformers" are "effacing Jesus’ own words on the not-exactly-minor topics of marriage and sexuality" which "certainly looks more like a major reversal than an organic, doctrinally-deepening shift," is likewise counterfactual. Let's consult the Gospel According to St. Matthew, in the Douay-Rheims American version, a Roman Catholic translation, in which Jesus says: "And I say to you, that whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and he that shall marry her that is put away, committeth adultery." Jesus's teaching in Luke is stricter tan that in Matthew, and he was, it is well understood, rebuking a tradition of allowing divorce for trivial reasons that left women vulnerable. My point is not to argue that the Roman Catholic Church has no grounds to argue that divorce is not a sin, a "missing of the mark," a failure of a commitment from which much was hoped. My point is that the Gospel's are not univocal on the subject, and that Douthat's blithe assumption that it is does not comport with either scripture or the practice of his own Church.

More to the point, the notion that unless a sin is unforgivable--that is, there is no path back to good standing within the community and reception of the sacraments--the prohibition is "emptied" of content is both spectacularly unscriptural and places marital breakdown as a sin worse than all other sins, absent any compelling justification.

To scripture first. Jesus says, in Matthew 12:31: "Therefore I say to you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven men. 32 Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man, it will be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the age to come." So, no, we have no scriptural warrant for declaring that marital breakdown is the unforgivable sin. Lots of other sinful behavior that cannot be undone is nonetheless absolved, and the offender reconciled--the Church's mercy can extend, should it choose, to the divorced, without changing the doctrine. Indeed, that's the basis for the Orthodox Church's teaching, in which remarriage after divorce is permitted. (In a rather bizarre bit of tribal over theological loyalty, here's Rod Dreher, himself a convert from Catholicism, cheering on Douthat, for vowing a civil war to prevent Dreher's former church from adapting the position of his current church. Even ecumenicism must fall before the great maxim of SoCons" Liberals must lose. Seriously--unless Dreher feels his new church is wrong on the issue, and is looking for somewhere else to go.)

I won't, having belabored the matter at such length, spend much time on the condescending tone--My dear professors," indeed. I will only allude briefly to the grandiosity--a "Letter to the Catholic Academy"--I hope he doesn't expect this to be read along with King's Letter from a Birmingham Jail, but I'm not taking any bets. No, what I'll point out is that this young Catholic convert only believes in papal authority--after all, it was the pope he named as the lead "plotter"--when he agrees with the decision at hand. He has no interest in a hierarchical church that isn't enforcing his, Ross Douthat's, personal vision of the faith. Which, effectively, boils down to a sexual purity code, with no room for mercy or the redemptive love of Christ. Note that Douthat at no time names what the heresy he deplores is--he cries "heresy" without identification of a doctrine denied, or of a creedal statement contradicted.

Douthat isn't a Catholic. He's a Puritan iconoclast, looking for a high-level heretic to hunt (and who higher than the Pope himself?), and, if he's really lucky, a witch to burn.

How perfect that his mewling little battle cry was published on Halloween.


rick allen said...

"Douthat isn't a Catholic. He's a Puritan iconoclast,"

I followed you fine until this point. Followed you, didn't of course agree with everything. But I don't see how you can criticize Douthat for making this a matter of heresy and then view his advocacy for not changing (whether it's doctrinal or disciplinary) as proving him no Catholic. That I am a bad Catholic or a stupid Catholic or a reactionary Catholic or a libertine Catholic doesn't mean I'm not a Catholic--however free you should be to call me on any of those things.

Anglocat said...

I mean his behavior is not consistent with the tenets of Roman Catholicism, in that he shows absolutely no deference to, or respect for, the Pope (whom in his earlier column he denounced as "the chief plotter" against orthodoxy) and the Magisterium when it does not support his views, but rather views it as a means, a tool, of coercing those who disagree with his vision of the Faith into silence and obedience. That odd admixture of insistence on one's own private vision while not extending a similar tolerance to others, but seeking to enforce that vision by any means available isn't consistent with Roman Catholicism, which is decidedly a hierarchical church.

rick allen said...

I have to say there's nothing new about a Catholic lacking deference to and respect for the Pope. There was little love by the Catholic left for Benedict, and though I myself hold both Benedict and Francis in high regard, it shouldn't be surprising that those for whom the papacy is just politics in another key are going to treat popes with the same contempt we show our politicians.

And at times it can be warranted--I'm thinking of Erasmus' little piece, "Iulius exclusus e coelis," which he always prudently denied responsibility for.

Douthat's anxieties about a "plotting" pope seem rather overwrought to me. Admittedly I can only view things from the cheap seats. That Francis allegedly "stacked" the synod with a disproportionate number of Kasperites just tells me that he wanted both sides strongly represented for a vigorous discussion. That says nothing to me about his own views, or what he will do with the synod's recommendations. But I suspect that the conservative's fears and the liberal's hopes of major changes will be unwarranted.

But these kinds of clashes are normal, and helpful, I think. Some months ago I put up a blog post about Rahner, trying to articulate how the give and take between theologians and the magisterium is precisely what enables Catholic theology to be novel and challenging without leading to schism. As I always like to say, from a phrase learned in Economics 101, the better your brakes, the faster you can drive your car.

So in these kinds of exchanges, where what is at stake is often precisely what people hold dearest--their "ultimate concerns," to use Tillich's old phrase--I can understand how opponents can get pretty hot under the collar. I don't approve it, and I wish it were un-Catholic, but I don't see that it really is.

Anglocat said...

I take your point, Rick, but I confess RD strikes me as thinking like a Protestant who wants authority solely when it will back him up--rather like the Puritans Richard Hooker was addressing in his Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, which I didn't make explicit in my main post but which inspired my conclusion. Ah, well, at least the result of a dramatic flourish has been this interesting exchange, which I appreciate as always.