My Comment First: Ross Douthat responds in this morning's Sunday New York Times to academics who think he, because Ross isn't an academic, should NOT being making academic arguments that challenge Pope Francis' pastoral theology which Ross and many others in higher places think will damage the Catholic Church and turn her into something Christ did not and does not intend for her to be. Ross thinks that it is heresy when a pastoral vision actually changes defined doctrines and dogmas that come from natural law, Scripture and tradition and neuters these teachings on many, many different levels. He says you don't have to be an academic theologian or a bishop, to smell heresy when you smell it.
Pope Francis has a disdain for academic theologians or at least the Holy Father's rhetoric indicates this. His Holiness, of "who am I to judge" fame judges theologians, religious, priests and bishops regularly and uses a 1970's hermeneutic of interpreting the Pharisees of Jesus' time by applying their peccadilloes to cardinals, bishops and priests in particular. I know that this is 1970's thinking as I was taught this exactly by our liberal theologians at my most liberal seminary in the late 1970's. It was a way to undermine particular bishops who didn't want the liberal devolution of the Church into a NGO. It was a way to shame these bishops.
And this is what those academic theologians tried to do the Ross Douthat by asking the New York Times not to allow him to bloviate about Catholic theology or accuse them of heresy. They used the tactic of shaming him, typical of liberal academics. It is a form of violence.
In Macon, we have the reverse of Ross Douthat in a commentator who is no reporter. His liberal views of Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular are regularly ridiculed as they should be but he has every right to write it as long as his paper allows it. In the end, clarity comes from challenges and authentic change that is good evolves.
Letter to the Catholic Academy
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. The first requires giving readers a sense of the stakes in a given controversy, and why it might deserve a moment of their fragmenting attention span.
The second requires taking a clear position on that controversy, the better to induce the feelings (solidarity, stimulation, blinding rage) that persuade people to read, return, and re-subscribe.
I hope we can agree that current controversies in Roman Catholicism cry out for explanation. And not only for Catholics: The world is fascinated — as it should be — by Pope Francis’ efforts to reshape our church. But the main parties in the church’s controversies have incentives to downplay the stakes. Conservative Catholics don’t want to concede that disruptive change is even possible. Liberal Catholics don’t want to admit that the pope might be leading the church into a crisis.
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.
At which point we come to the third argument, which makes an appearance in your letter: You don’t understand, you’re not a theologian. As indeed I am not. But neither is Catholicism supposed to be an esoteric religion, its teachings accessible only to academic adepts. And the impression left by this moving target, I’m afraid, is that some reformers are downplaying their real position in the hopes of bringing conservatives gradually along.
What is that real position? That almost anything Catholic can change when the times require it, and “developing” doctrine just means keeping up with capital-H History, no matter how much of the New Testament is left behind.
As I noted earlier, the columnist’s task is to be provocative. 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.