Sunday, October 26, 2014


The Pope and the Precipice

Ross Douthat

TO grasp why events this month in Rome — publicly feuding cardinals, documents floated and then disavowed — were so remarkable in the context of modern Catholic history, it helps to understand certain practical aspects of the doctrine of papal infallibility.

On paper, that doctrine seems to grant extraordinary power to the pope — since he cannot err, the First Vatican Council declared in 1870, when he “defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church.”

In practice, though, it places profound effective limits on his power. 

Those limits are set, in part, by normal human modesty: “I am only infallible if I speak infallibly, but I shall never do that,” John XXIII is reported to have said. But they’re also set by the binding power of existing teaching, which a pope cannot reverse or contradict without proving his own office, well, fallible — effectively dynamiting the very claim to authority on which his decisions rest.

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.

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.

At which point there was a kind of chaos. Reports from inside the synod have a medieval feel — churchmen berating each other, accusations of manipulation flying, rebellions bubbling up. Outside Catholicism’s doors, the fault lines were laid bare: geographical (Germans versus Africans; Poles versus Italians), generational (a 1970s generation that seeks cultural accommodation and a younger, John Paul II-era that seeks to be countercultural) and theological above all. 

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.

In the week since, many Catholics have downplayed the starkness of what happened or minimized the papal role. Conservatives have implied that the synod organizers somehow went rogue, that Pope Francis’s own views were not really on the table, that orthodox believers should not be worried. More liberal Catholics have argued that there was no real chaos — this was just the kind of freewheeling, Jesuit-style debate Francis was hoping for — and that the pope certainly suffered no meaningful defeat.

Neither argument is persuasive. Yes, Francis has taken no formal position on the issues currently in play. But all his moves point in a pro-change direction — and it simply defies belief that men appointed by the pope would have proposed departures on controversial issues without a sense that Francis would approve.

If this is so, the synod has to be interpreted as a rebuke of the implied papal position. 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.

Which is why this pope has incentives to step back from the brink — as his closing remarks to the synod, which aimed for a middle way between the church’s factions, were perhaps designed to do.
Francis is charismatic, popular, widely beloved. He has, until this point, faced strong criticism only from the church’s traditionalist fringe, and managed to unite most Catholics in admiration for his ministry. There are ways that he can shape the church without calling doctrine into question, and avenues he can explore (annulment reform, in particular) that would bring more people back to the sacraments without a crisis. He can be, as he clearly wishes to be, a progressive pope, a pope of social justice — and he does not have to break the church to do it.

But if he seems to be choosing the more dangerous path — if he moves to reassign potential critics in the hierarchy, if he seems to be stacking the next synod’s ranks with supporters of a sweeping change — then conservative Catholics will need a cleareyed understanding of the situation. 

They can certainly persist in the belief that God protects the church from self-contradiction. But they 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. 

MY FINAL COMMENT: That final comment of Ross Douthat is striking, shocking and I fear true. At this synod, the bishops against the pope prevailed. Normally orthodox Catholics trust the pope and fear the bishops but in this case a reversal occurred and unprecedented for the orthodox Catholics. 

We are at a precipice and I pray the edifice of the Church is not moved to a sandy foundation where the whole thing collapses. It can't of course or can it and how will the Lord rebuild it?  If the Church is merely a man made social organization for its members to help them help people (an NGO) and nothing else and certainly not endowed with sueprnatural graces and headed by an Invisible but potent Leader, Christ Almighty, then we're in trouble folks. 

It boils down to this. Is there a crisis of faith in God or a crisis of faith in the Pope? Or both?


Gene said...


Pater Ignotus said...

Actually, there is no "crisis" at all. Only those woefully ignorant of history see this moment as a crisis. I liken it to political wags who have, over the last 40 or so years, moaned that "This is the most important election in American history!"

We've been through worse - far worse - in the Church and in our nation. The hand-wringing of the moment is so much constirpated hyperbole.

Put that in your "bombshell" pipe and smoke it...

All will be well, all things will be well, all manner of things will be well.

Anonymous said...

"this pope may be preserved from error only if the church itself resists him."

Actually, there may be nothing at all shocking about this statement. In that it merely describes the specific way in which the doctrinal infallibility of the pope is preserved. He can speak infallibly only when what he says is what the Church has everywhere and always believed (implicitly or explicitly).

The pope is not expected to be an all-knowing theology conversant with the entire deposit of faith, nor to have any special pipeline to the truth. So it is only the "restraint" of the Church and its established doctrine--conveyed by consensus of its bishops--that can restrain him from error.

Anonymous said...

I detect the scales falling from your eyes Father.

John said...

Gene's comment nails it.

The Church is, de facto, already divided. The division has been evident at least since Vatican 2. Ever since, the Popes have managed the prevailing internal contradictions hoping that God and time would work things out.

Perhaps, had Benedict XVI been younger and scrappier it might have worked out sooner rather than later. But as things stand now it will take longer and likely to be messier.

"The Christian Family is a communion of persons, a sign and image of the communion of the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit." (CCC #2205)

Any alteration in the definition which ignores the Trinitarian comunio image of the family seems to me to be reckless. Thank God others see this better than I and can and will teach it with the authority of the gospel of Jesus Christ. If teaching truth leads to division so be it.

rcg said...

I think it depends on who is asked. The Traditionalists would say that there is a disappointment in the Pope, never a crisis of with in God. What gives hesitation is the full meaning of resisting the Pope and the possible damage that would be done to that role.

I think this synod may have been a little premature attempt to codify the defacto change in all of the agenda listed in the article. The teachings on divorce and annulment were manipulated by the wealthy, e.g. Kennedys, and the relatively poor and uninfluential were allowed the inner dialogue. As a result almost no divorced Catholics deny themselves communion and homosexual Catholics remaining full communion and are publicly visible while maintaining their homosexual lifestyle. No wonder they are so impatient to have married priests and redefinition of marriage itself, the letter of he law will only be minutes of the synod, not confirmation of eternal law.

Anonymous said...

What if the SSPX is right? What if they are the true Catholic Church, and the post-vatican II church is a new religion?

Anonymous said...

"We are at a precipice and I pray the edifice of the Church is not moved to a sandy foundation where the whole thing collapses. "

I have been saying this all along and you Father dismissed everything. You said Francis was just like like all the popes going back to Peter, and that all he was going to do was streamline the annulment process. And now you believe we are at the "precipice"? It good that you see that your eyes are opened a little, however it makes me think that you aren't seeing reality to clearly. I saw what Francis was the moment he stepped out onto that balcony. I am not going to follow a "pope" who promotes sacralige, adultrey, divorce and sodomy.......are you?

Anonymous said...

Maybe there's a third option...a crisis in the "Institution".

Anonymous said...

Re: "...there is no crisis...all is well..."

If that is true, then why the hemorrhaging noted by so many Catholic publications, even the National Catholic Distorter, er sorry, Reporter:
"...the report of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life that appeared more than two years ago and found that one in 10 Americans has left the Catholic church.
Thus, if ex-Catholics were a denomination unto themselves, they would constitute the second largest, behind only the Catholic church itself." (NCR, Jan 2, 2912)

George said...

The same God who gave us the Beatitudes also gave us the Ten Commandments. Our God who is Love and Mercy is also One whose Justice must also be satisfied. Now to the Pharisees, obedience to the Law was the definitive and authentic focus of correct praxis. They gave deference to the first three commandments while giving less consideration to the other seven. In their false holiness and hypocrisy, there existed neither true love of God or neighbor. Jesus condensed the Decalogue into these two: "you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.' The second is this, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no other commandment greater than these." Now, whoever honors and obeys one of these but excludes the other is guilty before God. Our obligation is not only to what we should not do to our neighbour which would do him or her harm, but also what we should do to aid him or her in the necessities of life.
If however, we provide for out neighbor's necessities, but do not show or expect that person to honor and obey God's holy commandments, can we say that we are serving him or her as we should? Or God? The Holiness and Majesty of the Lord must be respected. The Justice of God must be served just as surely as the justice of gravity is served if in some way if is not respected and we end up slipping and falling or that of fire when we end up getting burned. The ultimate communio is that which describes the inseparable unity between God's Justice and His Love and Mercy. There is no conflict and contradiction within God and these Divine attributes work in harmony to the good of all. We see the synthesis of this in St Paul. No one spoke more eloquently of the love of God and neighbor, yet no one was more emphatic in condemnation of sin. We must avoid the extremes of rigorism and laxity and recognize that we are all called to repentance and conversion.

On this Priesthood Sunday (or Priesthood Appreciation Sunday), I give thanks for
Fr. Alan McDonald
Fr. Godfred Boachie-Yiadom
Fr. Vernon Knight

JusadBellum said...

Between panic and the calm of Pater Ignotus, I have to say I prefer Pater's take on this if only because panic makes for many 'false moves'. Never go on a shopping spree or make a life changing decision when in the grips of panic.

Panic is bad. But anxiety and worry...well that's inescapable for those who pay close attention to things we see in this culture.

The trick is to balance the terrifying Pilantir 'seeing stone' images with faith and hope in the unseen, the invisible workings of the Holy Spirit and the cloud of witnesses (Mary, the angels, the saints).

Our lives are more than meets the eye so all other people too are influenced by more forces than can easily be seen.

It's tempting to assume that current trajectories are etched in stone, that they can't be stopped, that they are inevitable 'waves of the future'. But history shows us that this is simply not true. Often times movements or crazes hit their high water mark just as everyone fears that they're going to keep on winning forever.

Who would have suspected in 1960 that the USSR would collapse without a shot fired by 1991? Or that the KKK terrorists would all but cease to exist in the same time frame? Who among the Irish would have predicted Nigerian priests sent as missionaries to the US and the faith in Ireland almost being extinguished from self-inflicted corruption?

Yes, things look bad and seem to be getting worse. But how much of what we see is self-serving propaganda? How much of what we're afraid of is not real but hype and hyperbole?

Take the LGBTQ movement - in 1990 no survey would have pegged them as the inevitable wave of the future. Now, pretty much everyone seems to assume that movement is unstoppable and will soon seize total power culturally/politically etc. and yet they make up no more than 2% of the entire population and suffer internal issues, fractures, and decay on a far higher scale than any other similar population size. Of course they don't hype their weaknesses so we all assume they're super-men.

But are they? No. And neither are we.

They're just people. And people's crazes come and go. Certainly we need to work hard to mitigate harm and advance healing but there are no grounds to panic.

10 years from now there will be a new Pope and he might be from Africa. Any criticism of him will ipso facto be 'racist'. Imagine what would happen if he began restoring the use of Latin? I can imagine lots of heart burn and yet in 10 years lots of the clergy and religious that today would break into schism will be retired. We are on a course for a crash in the total number of priests and religious. The age of Laity is almost upon us. Great changes are coming and they're not all bad.

Gene said...

Bellum, "Panic" is another term used by the Left in order to minimize and demean the legitimate concerns of patriotic citizens and devout Catholics. Ignotus is using it as a ploy in the typically hysterical fashion of all hypocritical Leftists. No one on this blog is panicking; many are expressing outrage and real concern for our future and the future of the Church. I see that Ignotus also accuses people of being ignorant of history as another attempt to dismiss any comments he does not like. Just consider the source.

Robert Kumpel said...

Pope Benedict said this to the Roman Seminarians in 2013:

"The false optimism was that following the Council, when convents closed down, seminaries closed down, and they said: well...this is nothing, all is well...No! All is not well!"

-Pope Benedict XVI, Address to Roman seminarians,

So all is not well. We must remain alert. However, we also have clear orders from the scriptures:

"The consummation of all is close at hand. Therefore do not be perturbed; remain calm so that you will be able to pray."
—1 Peter 4:7

JusadBellum said...

Gene, I agree that 'panic' and 'reactionary' are loaded expressions designed to put down or disarm people.

But the physiological condition of genuine 'panic' is real.

So one may agree not to panic without ipso facto sitting on one's hands.

Think: "lets not be rash now"... what would being rash mean for your typical pastor?

Now what would you consider 'rash'?

What would a calm, strategic, steely-eyed game plan consist of in this unprecedented situation?

Personnel is Policy. If you want to change the diocese, then seek, find, recruit, and form the next generation of clergy, religious, and dedicated lay volunteers on all levels.

A steely-eyed, strategic plan to change things on the ground no matter what was going on nationally or globally will require 'boots on the ground' locally.

So gather as many likeminded souls as you can and get them all volunteering at the parish and local level. You'll feel better, get pro-active, and actually change the conditions on the ground.

Anonymous 2 said...

Whether or not “panic” is an appropriate term to use, one serious problem in discussing such matters is that over the last few decades, and especially over the last 13 years, we have become so hyperbolized and even paranoid as a society that so many things are now seen as a “crisis” and/or as a threat. In such a climate of hyperbole and threat it is difficult to know when we are facing a real crisis and/or threat and when we are facing a pseudo crisis and/or pseudo threat. This, too, is part of reaping what we sow or perhaps more accurately, what we allow the media, including social media, to sow in our psyches.

Gene said...

Anon 2, I agree. The media are largely responsible for the agitated state of our society, from the hysterical lies and spin of CNN, to the whore-house-on-television girls' glib pronouncements of FOX News, to the simpering absurdities of MSNBC. Then, we have Rush Limbaugh's counterpoint of everything is going to be just fine, trust me and Bill O'Reilly's pompous, self-righteous pronouncements, and Michael Savage's paranoid rants. There is nowhere to turn for actual reporting of just the the news…everything is editorializing or downright obfuscation. Left and Right are equally guilty and equally hysterical.

JusadBellum said...

Years ago I ran into a bona fide "tea party" guy who organized a breakfast at which representatives of every 'side' were invited to discuss "comprehensive immigration reform" over Waffles and coffee. There were 12 of us around a large table and we represented the whole gamut ideologically.

After introductions and stating our tribe's case, after the sound bites and clichés were settled we got down to the details and discovered that the situation is FAR more complex than the media or our respective political parties or think tank gurus tend to paint it.

When we were done, we didn't solve the problem but we did come to appreciate that the problem was much more convoluted and difficult to squeeze into our sides' go-to glib position statements...and that we were all "OK" fellow Americans. That we could disagree vociferously without hating the other guy across the waffles. That it's OK to disagree without being disagreeable.

I think the Church can learn from this - if more liberal/progressives broke bread with conservative/traditionalists we'd all be better off for it.

Anonymous said...

"Personnel is Policy"

A metaphor for the current papacy? Certainly the pope is not all bad, but the embarrassment and worse flowing directly from his disastrous personnel appointments are beginning to make them look pretty awful. Our mothers always warned us against associating with the wrong sorts, but the pope now seems to be surrounded by them.

Jdj said...

Anon 2, yes indeed!
I would only add a quote from Fr, Longenecker's latest Zenit article posted today:

..."These forms of paranoia have been with humanity in every age. Every form of panicked apocalypticism is individual and group paranoia. We see it in the obsession the news media has with impending natural disaster, plague, war and economic and social collapse. The apocalyptic panic may take a religious form in radical Islam or fundamentalist Christianity. It may be the paranoia of political or paranormal conspiracy theories. "
"Right wing extremists blame a vast left wing conspiracy while left wingers blame a vast right wing conspiracy. The right panics about Bildenbergers, the New World Order and shadowy forces behind the worlds’ governments while the left worry themselves about multinational capitalist cabals, global warming, nuclear disaster, overpopulation or world ecosystems collapsing."
"All these are forms of paranoia—a fear of ‘The Dark Power’ which is going to cause the end of the world and the collapse of all things. This paranoia may be mild in form, but very often it takes the form of true paranoia–in which every news item, every fact of history, every event on the world stage is interpreted as part of the paranoiac world view, and when the fact doesn’t fit the theory it is either rejected as a lie or it fits into the vast ‘cover up’ of the facts which goes along with all paranoia." ...

JusadBellum said...

Yes Jdj. All the more reason to broaden our reading sources, to take in a greater breadth of media sources and to actually meet people on "the other side" as persons face to face rather than online and anonymously.

The more you know of reality the less prone to error and spin you will be.

Consider... if your mental picture of an NRA member is some overweight, angry white male who is blue collar and uses broken English...but then you run into a young pretty mom who is college educated, involved in various charities etc. but who packs a snub nose .357 in her purse for protection, it can 'blow one's mine'.

Just as much as seeing the LGBTQ marchers at the March for Life each year. VERY FEW people know (and the media obviously won't help them) that there are gays who march in the Pro-life March for Life each year.

Or meeting at a local farmer's market and discovering half the crowd are homeschooled conservative traditionalists and half are homeschooled radical progressives but both agree that organic, local grown food is good....

You begin to discover that reality is ALOT more complicated and nuanced than the 2 dimensional good cop/bad cop caricature we're fed in the regular media.

Yes, let us argue and disagree vociferously. But remember that the other side is not the argument.

There is Jus ad Bellum and then there is Jus In Bello. A Christian knight knows both.

Anonymous 2 said...

Gene, JusadBellum, Jdj:

This is excellent. I am very encouraged by the extent of agreement among us that we should eschew the manipulative media pundits who agitate, consternate, and obfuscate, and agree with Jus that we should get back to trusting ourselves in and entrusting ourselves to more intimate face to face individual or group conversation.

By the way, Jus, I recall you recounting the breakfast story in an earlier thread, although I could not identify it now. It impressed me then, and it impresses me again now.

“There is Jus ad Bellum and then there is Jus In Bello. A Christian knight knows both.” Jus indeed! (Sorry, couldn’t resist =))

Gene said...

Anon 2, I now limit my news reading to BBC and the Wall Street Journal. Not completely satisfactory, but it beats most other venues. I never watch TV news…a complete waste of time. Internet news seems to be mostly about which actress wore the least clothes at some event or who is getting divorced, arrested, or sued in Hollywood. Sheesh!

Jdj said...

We have stopped the newspaper subscriptions here. We have had it with network and MSM news, except for huge "declaration of war" type crises. Instead of network news, we watch the new EWTN "News Nightly" @ 6 PM EST. It's a bit thin on details and somewhat soft, but adequate for the weeknight catching-up. The time is early for those just getting home from work, but we have it on DVR timer record.

I agree with Gene about WSJ, but we do not subscribe, just peruse from time to time. I realize this decision puts us out of the mainstream, but there is a lot to be said for trusting one's own instincts about what is fed into one's brain on a daily basis. I can no longer afford the anger and confusion sown in me by MSM; the world is temporal, the soul eternal.