Catholic Vitalism


This article was written on 06 Oct 2016, and is filled under Uncategorized.

Ross Douthat and the Failure of the Catholic Imagination

Ross Douthat’s columns in The New York Times on Catholicism and the current pontificate are rare instances where the discussion of the profound contemporary crisis of Catholic identity rises above the usual “when’s the Church going to get on board with Modernity?” nonsense and actually engages the issues with some understanding of the genuinely counter-cultural nature of the Catholic Faith. Douthat inverts the typical media narrative by asking whether in fact the current Pope is being too quick to sell out to secular reasoning and thereby losing the essence of what Catholicism is, which in some sense can be summed up as the last remaining alternative to modernity. That is the right question to ask: if we take a look at history, we can see, for example, that mainline Protestantism is on its death-bed precisely because it failed to ask this question.

Another remarkable thing about Douthat’s columns is that they rarely veer off into the ‘straw man fallacy’-the fallacy of misrepresenting the argument that one is combatting, in order to more easily argue against it.

Douthat’s recent articles have focused on Pope Francis’ highly controversial attempts to shift the Church’s discipline on reception of the sacraments by divorced and remarried Catholics. Douthat summarizes Francis’ intellectual position:

That position, more or less, seems to be that second marriages may be technically adulterous, but it’s unreasonable to expect modern people to realize that, and even more unreasonable to expect them to leave those marriages or practice celibacy within them. So the sin involved in a second marriage is often venial not mortal, and not serious enough to justify excluding people of good intentions from the sacraments.

I think that’s a fairly balanced summary of the Pope’s view- no straw man here. The Pope is, in fact, interested in loosening the stricture of Canon Law in its application to civilly-remarried Catholics. That’s certainly not the Pope’s main point in writing this enormous treatise on marriage and human love, but I think it is correct to identify it as one of his concerns.

Douthat on Canon Law

But then Douthat proceeds with an implicit logic that betrays his fundamental ignorance of the Church’s exercise of disciplinary authority, and indeed of common sense. He assumes that because the discipline has been relaxed, that therefore the teaching, upon which the discipline is based, has also been relaxed. In his mind, by relaxing this discipline, the Pope is effectively saying, “Don’t worry, we don’t believe all that”.

But is that true? Is the relaxation of discipline a sign that the Church has lost faith in its doctrines?

It certainly could mean that. As Douthat points out, liberals are enthusiastically embracing Francis’ subtle relaxation of discipline as the first in a series of moves that will end up slowly eroding traditional Catholic teaching on marriage and fulfilling the prophecies of Catholic liberals like Tim Kaine who look forward to the day that the Catholic Church will eventually bless and perform same-sex marriages. It’s fairly easy to read it that way, and follows a narrative that we often see in our wider culture: for example, the recent spate of changes to marijuana laws do seem to imply a change in the understanding of the seriousness of the use of this drug: clearly, as a culture, we have moved away from the idea that marijuana is a dangerous drug, like heroin or cocaine, and shifted towards the understanding that marijuana is really much more like alcohol or tobacco: not great, but also not a mortal threat to health and society.

But does a relaxation in discipline always logically imply a loss of faith in the teaching being upheld by that discipline? A cursory glance at Church history might be enlightening here: In the early centuries of the Church, those who confessed serious sin went through an elaborate public ritual of penance and exclusion, often lasting for years, before they were offered reconciliation and access to the sacraments. This was gradually replaced by the practice of private confession and the imposition of much lighter burdens on penitents. Would Douthat suggest that the medieval Church had thereby lost its sense of the graveness of sin?

Another example: 1n 1983, the Code of Canon Law lifted the ban on Christian burial in the case of suicide (in most cases). Did this change imply that in 1983 the Church had weakened her stance on the sacredness of human life?

More to the point of the divorce controversy: In 1884, American bishops at the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore, becoming increasingly alarmed at the rising American divorce rate, decreed that any American Catholic who remarried after a civil divorce was automatically excommunicated from the Church. The Decree read in part:

it clearly appears that a most serious guilt attaches to those who seek to dissolve their marriages by appeal to the civil authorities, or, what is worse, obtain a civil divorce and attempt a new marriage, in spite of the lawful bond which still exists in the sight of God and His Church.To punish these crimes,we decree that an automatic excommunication be automatically incurred by those who attempt a new marriage after divorce.

In 1886, papal approval was granted and this decree was in effect in the United States until 1977, when the penalty was abrogated by Paul VI in response to the request of the American bishops. Does that historical tidbit imply that the American bishops rediscovered the seriousness of Jesus’ teaching on the indissolubility of marriage in 1884, and in 1977 once again slumped into disregard for that teaching? And what would that seem to imply about the fidelity of Saint John Paul II, who, writing in Familiaris Consortio just a few years after the abrogation of the penalty of excommunication in 1981, went to remarkable lengths to reinforce this shift and emphasize that remarried Catholics were not excommunicated from the Church:

I earnestly call upon pastors and the whole community of the faithful to help the divorced, and with solicitous care to make sure that they do not consider themselves as separated from the Church, for as baptized persons they can, and indeed must, share in her life. They should be encouraged to listen to the word of God, to attend the Sacrifice of the Mass, to persevere in prayer, to contribute to works of charity and to community efforts in favor of justice, to bring up their children in the Christian faith, to cultivate the spirit and practice of penance and thus implore, day by day, God’s grace. Let the Church pray for them, encourage them and show herself a merciful mother, and thus sustain them in faith and hope. (italics mine)

It is true that, in the following paragraph, John Paul upheld the long-standing prohibition against the reception of the sacraments by the remarried, but it’s important to note that his disciplinary position was essentially emphasizing the relaxation of discipline (though not so completely as many would have liked), and not its tightening. In taking such a position, is it fair to say that he “risked evacuating the church’s teaching that sacramental marriages are indissoluble and second marriages adulterous”, as Douthat implies in Francis’ shift toward relaxing discipline? Would anyone seriously accuse John Paul II of lacking in fidelity to the Church’s teaching on marriage?

Beyond church history, doesn’t common sense suggest that, often, a change in discipline does not in fact imply a loss of faith in the belief that triggered the disciplinary rule in the first place? Take pornography, for example: back when I was a kid, most parents thought of pornography as something that should and could be simply eradicated from their households: as the Beastie Boys lamented, “My mom threw away my best porno mags”. Nowadays, we all know that pornography is so prevalent and commonplace that it would be impossible to imagine taking that same stance without living in an Amish community. Sadly, we now live in a culture in which kids are going to be exposed to pornography, and the best we can to do is to protect them as long as possible from it, but more importantly to help them to see pornography as a harmful temptation which they need to deal with: as a father, my hope is that my children, when it comes to this issue, would see me more as a trusted friend than a disciplinarian, someone who they can turn to for advice and support with this powerful temptation, and not one who is going to heap shame upon them for getting lured into what has become an almost unavoidable sin. My concern is not that they’ll be exposed to pornography, but that they’ll allow that exposure to pull them away from God’s mercy and grace. I don’t think this implies that I have lost a sense of the dangers of pornography: I hope it means that I’ve realized that the reality of pornography in our culture has changed, and that my disciplinary stance should change because of that.

This is very basic Catholic theology: yes, the core teachings of the Faith are unchanging, yet the way these teachings are articulated, and the way these teachings manifest themselves in Canon Law do change and should change, in response to changes in society.

The Danger of Douthat’s Position

In fact, it is Douthat’s mentality (which is shared by a surprising number of prominent ‘conservative’ Catholics), and not Francis’ subtle shift in discipline, that risk “teaching something other than the Catholic faith”.

And what is this ‘something other’? It is a false understanding of the nature of the Church, and this false understanding is shared by ‘conservatives’ and ‘liberals’ alike. In fact, if one looks at the ‘Comments’ to Douthat’s article (230 when I checked), almost every one of them betrays this false understanding (mostly on the extreme ‘liberal’ side, as we would expect from readers of the Times).

The false understanding is that the Catholic Church is a static institution. For conservatives like Douthat, this unchanging quality is a source of consolation: as the powerful forces of modernity keep crashing against traditional values and those who uphold them, sweeping in its path of devastation even religious bodies that have for centuries withstood the onslaught (e.g. the recent implosion of the Anglican communion), the Catholic Church has stood out as the last bulwark of hope, refusing to bend to the face of this onslaught, courageously clinging to its traditional teachings in fidelity to its Divine Founder. For liberals (both within and outside of the Church), this same unchanging nature makes the Church an object of ridicule, clinging to ‘medieval’ views and refusing to listen to the voice of ‘progress’, especially in the realm of science and the understanding of human sexuality, areas in which moderns are in conflict with traditional teaching.

The Folly of Fundamentalism

But that’s not, nor ever has been, the Church’s self-understanding: rather, that is the unofficial heresy known as fundamentalism. And Christians have been through this before, as Douthat is well aware, with our understanding of the Holy Scriptures. In the late 19th century, as a result of the popularization of Darwin’s theories of evolution, many people started questioning the veracity of the Genesis account of creation. And rightly so: Darwin’s theories called into question many traditional understandings which were derived from the Bible, such as the age of the Earth and the uniqueness of human creation. Unfortunately, many Christians (mostly conservative Protestants), out of a warped sense of fidelity, took up the gauntlet and vigorously defended the Genesis account as a scientific, literal account of the events of Creation, thus setting themselves (and non-fundamentalist Christians as well) up for a century and a half of incessant ridicule by skeptics, ridicule which has recently resurged with the advent of the ‘New Atheists’ like Christopher Hitchins, Richard Dawkins, and Bill Maher, who have simply recycled this same tired argument to great popular accolades. From a traditional, Catholic/Orthodox perspective, this whole mess, this tragic, destructive misunderstanding, could have been largely avoided by seeing Darwin’s theories as simply scientific theories. Instead of reacting with hostility and defensiveness, as fundamentalists did, Christians would have been well-served to emphasize the fact that great theologians of the Church (such as St. Augustine), well before the time of Darwin, understood that the Genesis accounts made no sense if taken literally, and are perfectly compatible with the idea of a much longer process similar to evolution. As scientific theories, of course, Darwin’s ideas can and should be criticized, but that was best left to scientists to sort out (except when these ideas extended beyond the proper realm of science and became a launchpad for amateurish forays into the realm of metaphysics or theology). Sure, these scientific debates raised legitimate questions for theology and Scriptural studies that had to be worked out, but they were hardly an existential crisis for the Christian Faith.

But Douthat can’t seem to apply the obvious lesson of the Darwin debacle to the far less serious case of Amoris Laetitia: in his understanding, hinting at a slight change in the discipline in regards to a small number of remarried Catholics in the light of massive cultural shifts is an existential threat to the faith. This is fundamentalism at its most extreme: one gets the sense that if the Vatican cafeteria suddenly changed the brand of ketchup at the cafeteria, Douthat’s eyebrows might be raised.

The Catholic Vision of the Church

So what’s the correct understanding of the Church that Douthat seems to be missing? In the modern world,as Francis has repeatedly iterated, and anyone with eyes can see, the Church must act, not like a stone wall of inflexible rigidity, pointing sneeringly at its own adamantine nature as its sinks into irrelevance, but rather, like a field hospital, trying to get the healing message of God’s love and the graces of the sacraments to people in a culture which is inundated with intellectual confusion, profound sadness, and outright hostility to the Church. A tricky task, and one which must be characterized by creativity, innovation, and flexibility. Yes, at certain times of the Church’s history, like an elite, well-funded Ivy-league affiliated hospital, she could call upon her immense prestige and demand submission like a stern doctor without needing to ‘make the case’ for the treatment. But, as we are all aware, that prestige has been lost. At other times, the Church could act like a giant, bureaucratic government-run hospital, forcing adherents through procedures without explaining them, corralling Catholics through her vast system of schools, parishes and hospitals with little emphasis on personal connection and deep understanding. But modern Americans are no longer willing to participate in this tired bureaucracy: we are in a different time now, and if we are to take the Church’s position seriously, we must be willing to shed things that aren’t working much more quickly without losing what’s essential, or we will in fact be losing it.

And in this situation, mistakes may be made- but there is no need to despair existentially, to start figuring out how to live as Catholics with an Anti-Christ in the See of Peter. Yes, Pope Francis may be making a prudential mistake in pushing for the relaxation of the canonical discipline regarding remarried Catholics receiving Communion, and I think he called the two Synods on the Family as a way to make sure he was thinking with his fellow bishops on this topic. True, he did face strong opposition, but the tone of some of this opposition only reinforced his sense that he was acting prudentially, that he would be failing as the Vicar of Christ if he gave into a blind conservatism that refused to acknowledge reality. For example, in his homily at the close of the Synods, taking his cue from the Gospel story in which a blind beggar named Bartimaeus cries out to Jesus to cure him, Francis pointed out that we must constantly reject the temptation to a knee-jerk Douthat-type conservatism in the face of modern challenges:

There are … some temptations for those who follow Jesus… None of the disciples stopped, as Jesus did. They continued to walk, going on as if nothing were happening. If Bartimaeus was blind, they were deaf: his problem was not their problem.  This can be a danger for us: in the face of constant problems, it is better to move on, instead of letting ourselves be bothered. In this way, just like the disciples, we are with Jesus but we do not think like him. We are in his group, but our hearts are not open. We lose wonder, gratitude and enthusiasm, and risk becoming habitually unmoved by grace. We are able to speak about him and work for him, but we live far from his heart, which is reaching out to those who are wounded. This is the temptation: a “spirituality of illusion”: we can walk through the deserts of humanity without seeing what is really there; instead, we see what we want to see. We are capable of developing views of the world, but we do not accept what the Lord places before our eyes. A faith that does not know how to root itself in the life of people remains arid and, rather than oases, creates other deserts.

To my ears, this are the warning, not of a borderline-heretic, but of a great Church Father, who understands that the nature of the Church is not to be overly concerned with her own illusions of prestige or ‘unchangeability’, but to meet wounded modern humanity where we are at, with love and mercy. Do we not recognize that the Pope’s concerns are legitimate? What would cause us to question, not only Francis’ prudential judgement here, but also his fidelity to the Catholic Faith?

The Conservative Culture of Suspicion

Of course, for contemporary Catholics like Douthat, this has everything to do with our understanding of the Second Vatican Council in the late 1960s and especially its subsequent implementation in the following decades. It can be easy to read this sad history as a failure by bishops to protect the ‘flock’, which in some ways dovetails with the general loss of trust in authority figures which has been one of the legacies of the 1960s, both for liberals and conservatives.

Of course, the pontificates of both John Paul II and Benedict XVI, for all but the most extreme critics, restored a great deal of trust in the papacy, since they saw their historical role as reassuring us that many of the errors following the Council were in fact errors, and that the post-Vatican II Church is essentially in continuity with the Church which preceded it.

But Francis I think recognizes that his predecessors did their job so well that those dangers have been replaced by a different danger: that we will now forget the great insights of the Council, and lose our openness to the world precisely when it needs us most. That bishops and priests will be so concerned with doctrinal clarity that they’ll lose the heart of their vocation, the exercise of pastoral charity. This was the vision of Vatican II: sure it got hijacked; sure things got out of hand; but might not it be time to give it another shot?

The Vision of Vatican II

If the implementation of the Second Vatican Council was disastrous and confusing, does that mean that the Council itself was a failure, a mistake? Douthat recognizes that “a major part of Vatican II’s mission was to equip the Church to evangelize the modern world, and that five decades is long enough to say that in this ambition the council mostly failed.”(“A Crisis of Conservative Catholicism”, First Things) If so, what are the implications?

Here we have to explore carefully the role of the Holy Spirit in the history of the Church. All Catholics believe that Councils are, like the Scriptures, both a very human endeavor (and the history of the politics employed in Councils clearly shows) and a divine endeavor. Douthat’s narrative seems to imply that the Council was, if not doctrinally in error (the Radical Traditionalist position), then at least seems to have been a prudential mistake. According to his narrative (and his emerging narrative of the current pontificate), the optimism of the Council was mistaken. Of course, he notes the very human failure to implement the Council properly, which shows the very human side of the Church. But he seems to neglect the question: what was it that the Holy Spirit was trying to communicate at the Council?

Pope Francis (and I think his predecessors before him as well) saw the Council as a visionary re-alignment of the Church, especially in her relationship with the modern world. The Council was a radical abandonment of what could be called the ‘Medieval Project’: the attempt to establish ‘Christendom’: the Church would act through the human means of power and politics. The Medieval Project contained great tensions within it from the very beginning: how could a Church whose founder was so emphatic about the need for poverty, simplicity, and humility, be comfortable with a position of worldly influence, prestige and wealth?

Is Francis right? Are we really ready for such a bold shake-up? Have we been sufficiently reassured by the previous two pontificates that we’re ready to get our hands dirty with this messy business of having to love our wounded brothers and sisters? Pope Francis thinks so; I hope so; Ross Douthat (and many others, often far less generous than Douthat) seems content to sit on the fence and complain…

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