The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Thursday, January 7, 2016

A Principled Disagreement

This entry is going to be a lot more pleasant to write (and, I hope, to read) than my last one on the same topic. I want to commend Ross Douthat for seriously upping his game in responding to Professor John W. Marten's critique and response of Douthat's "Letter to the Catholic Academy".

At a threshold level, gone is the sneering self-righteousness of Douthat's original columns on the subject. No more arrogantly denouncing those with whom he disagrees as heretics, and accusing the Pope of leading the conspiracy to destroy orthodoxy. Rather, Douthat begins on common ground, tries to fairly summarize Professor Martens's contentions, and gives his critic credit for sincerity and good faith. He just doesn't agree with him, and gives his reasons. This has the effect of making Douthat's argument much stronger--his claims are less extravagant, and his dropping of his hectoring tone is most helpful. (Indeed, Douthat sprinkles a little self-deprecating humor in the post, which I don't recall seeing in his writing before. It suits him, as does his more irenic tone.)

Now, in responding to Douthat's argument, I want to point out two things: 1) Although I was raised Catholic, and am sympathetic to Catholic sacramentalism and much theology, I'm an Episcopalian, albeit of the High Church variety. So discount for that. 2) The fact that I ultimately disagree with Douthat on the question of whether the Roman Catholic Church would fundamentally change by altering its position on the indissolubility of marriage does not mean I think his position is untenable. It means that I disagree with Douthat, just as he disagrees with Professor Martens.

As Douthat (fairly) summarizes Martens, he:
he advances two models for evaluating developments in Catholic doctrine — one drawn from the New Testament, from the Council of Jerusalem’s decision not to require Gentile converts to adhere to the full Mosaic codes (a case of legalism overcome, he implies, with clear relevance to current Catholic debates), and one drawn from the arguments of a certain Joseph Ratzinger (perhaps you’ve heard of him), who argued that a Catholic reading of the gospel message and the New Testament needed to distinguish the “core” elements from the “husk,” to determine what ideas were essential and which were more adaptable or dispensable when the times seemed to demand it.

I think that these two models are quite rich; I also think that neither one offers a strong justification for adopting the proposals on communion for the divorced and remarried tacitly supported by Pope Francis and debated rather hotly by Catholic scribblers. But the models do provide a context, at least, in which Professor Martens and I could have an argument from shared premises, even if we ultimately disagree.
However, he sees a greater divide between them in that Martens "largely leaves out what seems like the most traditionally Catholic criteria for determining what is and isn’t “fundamentalism,” what counts as “legalism” as opposed to just fidelity, and how and whether doctrine can develop, namely: What the church has already taught on the matter." (Douthat's emphasis.)

He writes:
Where matters are clearly unsettled, in other words, Martens is offering reasonable criteria to guide the church. But by only emphasizing those criteria, he seems to imply that no question is ever permanently settled, that one interpretation simply succeeds another as the church’s history unfolds.

Martens does not say this outright. The issue is one of omission: There is simply no sustained reference in his essay to the idea, running from Vincent of Lerins to John Henry Newman, that consistency of teaching and non-contradiction are important criteria for discerning when and whether doctrine can develop. Instead, the strong implication is that in every generation the Catholic Church is in roughly the same position as the nascent church of the 1st century, confronting crucial questions anew and reading the signs of the times afresh, and that the positions and teachings of the past are always up for revision when some combination of dialogue, prayer, experience and theological innovation suggests that the time has come to change.
Now, he's certainly getting Newman right here, but I think that he is unfair to Martens. Martens does not disparage continuity, nor does he start from "Year Zero." He offers a critique of the traditional position as it has been lived into that one may or may not find persuasive, but it doesn't assume that precedent has no weight.

One of Douthat's criticisms is Martens's reliance on Jesus's seeming belief that the End Times would come in the lifetimes of the disciples, and that "If Jesus based his moral teaching about marriage on his assumption that the eschaton would arrive in the 1st century A.D. — which it rather conspicuously did not — then surely that tells us something pretty important, not just about marriage and morals, but about whether we should believe that he was actually the messiah." (Douthat's emphasis.)

Douthat acknowledges that Christians can hold that position, but asks "can you be an orthodox Christian if you believe that Jesus’s teaching was shaped and stamped by all-too-human limitations? Can you be a Roman Catholic Christian?" For him, the answer is clearly no.

With respect (and I mean it), for a column that holds out Anglicanism as a negative model, Douthat reveals that he's not terribly well informed about what many Anglicans believe. Because Charles Gore's Dissertations on Subjects Concerning the Incarnation, building on his contribution to Lux Mundi addresses the question, and holds that Jesus's knowledge was circumscribed in many resects to that of people of his time, and that this was part of the kenosis--self-emptying--St. Paul describes in Phillipians Chapter 2. Gore's kenotic theology was key to his understanding of Christ, and Belief in Christ, volume 2 of Gore's emphatic defense of orthodoxy, The Reconstruction of Belief, is rooted in that kenotic Christology. Gore's view is far from unique, and many theologians have adopted it.

On the subject of marriage, I stand by my previously expressed views:
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.)


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 than that in Matthew, and he was, it is well understood, rebuking a tradition of allowing divorce for trivial reasons that left women vulnerable
I would also add that, as Douthat acknowledges, the Orthodox tradition both honors the teaching of Christ on marriage while allowing for divorce when a marriage is irreparably broken. This seems to me both merciful, and wise; the death of a relationship is a failure, but allowing this one failure to be the unforgivable one that cannot be forgiven and the sinner restored to community without inflicting more misery for life is to me hard to defend.

Finally, Douthat looks at the squabbles in Anglicanism over same-sex relationships, and shudders at the disorder. He notes that the Anglican muddle within unity has broken down. There's some truth in that, if you view Anglicanism as a denomination. But it isn't. The Anglican Communion is a Nineteenth Century creation, which allowed for the individual national churches that had their roots in the Church of England to come together and share. That may be cracking up; indeed, I think it likely is. But Anglicanism has had periods in which various national churches did not speak, or were not affiliated. It's a shame, and I don't rejoice in it, but Anglicanism is not a sect. It's a world view.

Looked at in that way, we are undergoing a time of walking apart, but I don't believe it's forever. Ultimately, truth wins, and error doesn't. If we remain calm and rooted in our faith, we will know what God is calling us to believe and how to apply that teaching. Ultimately, I suspect, both sides will have repenting and reconciliation to do.

I'm glad to read this post by Douthat. I think it's immeasurably better than his prior columns, and is worth engaging with.

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