The retrograde intransigence of conservative Catholics

Many conservative Catholics have responded with horror to Pope Francis' stealth reforms, wishing instead that the doctrines of their faith be done, settled, and fixed for all time

Pope Francis
(Image credit: Tiziana Fabi/Getty Images)

If there were any doubts that Pope Francis is a stealth reformer of the Roman Catholic Church, the apostolic exhortation he released last week (Amoris Laetitia, or the "Joy of Love") should settle the matter.

A straightforward reformer of the church seeks to change its doctrines. A stealth reformer like Francis, on the other hand, keeps the doctrines intact but invokes such concepts as mercy, conscience, and pastoral discernment to show priests that it's perfectly acceptable to circumvent and disregard those doctrines in specific cases. A doctrine officially unenforced will soon lose its authority as a doctrine. Where once it was a commandment sanctioned by God, now it becomes an "ideal" from which we're expected to fall short. Before long it may be treated as a suggestion. Eventually, repealing it is no longer controversial — or perhaps even necessary.

Stealth reform ultimately achieves the same reformist goal, but without inspiring the intense opposition that would follow from attempting to change the doctrine outright.

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That describes precisely what Pope Francis has done on the issue of permitting divorced and remarried Catholics whose first marriages haven't been annulled to take part in the sacrament of communion. Church doctrine teaches that marriage is indissoluble; that people who marry a second time without annulling their first marriages are engaging in adultery; that adultery is a mortal sin; and that someone living in a state of persistent mortal sin is forbidden from receiving the Eucharist. (Indeed, taking part in communion while in such a state is to commit an additional grave sin.) Yet Amoris Laetitia tells priests that they can use their own judgment to decide whether and under what circumstances to set aside the doctrine and allow remarried Catholics in their parishes to receive communion anyway.

For the conservative Catholic writers I most admire, this is deeply distressing.

I understand why. Yet reading their intensely negative reactions shows me just how far I have come from the outlook that first led me to join the Catholic Church 16 years ago. The things that once moved me about Catholicism — the very same things that Catholic conservatives feel that Pope Francis is betraying — now stand in the way of me taking the church seriously as an institution.

I became a Catholic (from secular Judaism) in the midst of a personal crisis. I longed to find an absolute moral Truth and craved a sense of belonging with others who recognized and ordered their lives according to that Truth. Catholicism is perfect for people with such yearnings. It tells them that the Roman Catholic Church is the church of Jesus Christ most fully and rightly ordered through time. Its magisterial authority can be traced back to St. Peter and the rest of Christ's original apostles. It publishes a 900-page Catechism filled with elaborate, absolute rules laying out in minute detail how God wants us to live. It governs itself according to an intricate code of Canon Law that first began to be formulated nearly two millennia ago.

For someone who feels troubled by a culture in a constant state of instability and change, the Catholic Church can feel like a rock in a stormy, windswept sea. Finally, something is steady, permanent, unchangeable, fixed, immobile. The church's very stability can end up looking like the strongest sign and confirmation of its divinity. Everything changes! But not God and his church.

For someone drawn to Catholicism by the promise of order and stability, any sign of change in the church will be unwelcome, threatening. The fact that social and cultural mores shift and develop around it is an argument for retrenchment and improved outreach to a world tempted by sin in new ways. It certainly isn't a sign that the church should adjust its teachings on faith and morals, accommodating them to the latest trends. Any such adjustment would risk diluting the Truth, and (perhaps just as bad) serve as a potentially fatal concession that the church's teachings can be fallible. Once that door has been opened, there may be no way to close it. Remove even a single brick from the foundation, and the whole edifice could come crashing down.

My traditionalist Catholic colleague Michael Brendan Dougherty appears to take something like this position, accurately pointing out that the pews in American churches are filled with people who have committed sins that should preclude them from taking part in the sacrament of communion unless they have first availed themselves of the sacrament of reconciliation (confession) and made a sincere attempt to amend their ways. And yet most parishioners don't do this. They show up to Sunday Mass (when they don't skip it — another transgression) and present themselves for communion in a state of persistent sin. This means that the rules are being broken, disregarded, flouted — and that the priests who go along and say nothing are complicit in it.

One response to this moral contradiction is to endorse the status quo — affirming the overarching rule but allowing priests to waive it, at least in some cases. That's what the pope has done in his apostolic exhortation on the family. The other option is to reaffirm the rules and enforce them with renewed vigor, which seems to be what Dougherty favors (even at the cost of driving away parishioners who refuse to abide by them).

I still find something admirable in that — above all, its strictness and consistency. I used to work with people who thought that way, and I once found solace in at least trying to think that way myself.

But I can’t do it anymore. In my own case, at least, it's come to feel more like an expression of a personal (and unhealthy) psychological need than a genuine response to and requirement of divinely revealed Truth.

The Eastern Orthodox churches, which also trace their authority back to Christ's apostles, permit divorce, second marriages, and even third marriages. (Only the first marriage is considered a sacrament.) Why can't the Catholic Church reform itself in the direction of Orthodoxy in this one area? Rather than an act of assimilation to a sinful secular world, such a change would actually further Christian unity, bringing the Eastern and Western churches one step closer to doctrinal reunification, while also rendering the latter somewhat less draconian and cruel.

In a January blog post, Catholic conservative Ross Douthat gave an honest and revealing answer to the question of why such a reform should be resisted. Those who favor reforming Catholic teaching about marriage in the direction of Orthodoxy seem to hold "that today’s Catholics should approach the Catholic and Orthodox positions without giving special weight or privilege to the fact that one is actually, you know, Catholic, rooted in centuries of prior debate and controversy and decision in the 'believing church' that is Roman Catholicism, while the other one is not."

Douthat went on:

To write and act as if all those centuries don’t matter very much, to brush them away in favor of interpretative moves that start again at the very beginning without regard for what the church has taught in the intervening 2,000 years, is to imply a vision of the church as a permanent debating society, an ongoing conversation in which no teaching is definitive so long as a reasonable and sincere Christian can make a case for the opposing view. [The New York Times]

The Catholic conservative doesn't want to live spiritually within a debating society or an ongoing, open-ended conversation. He wants matters to be definitive — done, settled, fixed for all time. Even if, considered objectively, the teachings of another authoritative Christian tradition in one area of doctrine appear more humane and less prone to alienating millions of parishioners. Because that's just not the way Catholics do it. We had that debate. It's over. End of discussion.

I once wanted that, too — the Catholic Church serving as the final, infallible guardian and guarantor of timeless, immutable Truth — though I never really believed it. Now I don't even want to believe it. (I have no wish to be taken in by a lie, no matter how beautiful.)

The Catholic Church is like any other human institution: admirable in many ways, deeply flawed in others. Its need for reform is incontestable. As the great mathematician and Catholic philosopher Blaise Pascal put it in the mid-17th century, "It is an appalling thing that the discipline of the church today is portrayed to us as so excellent that to want to change it is treated as a crime. In former times it was infallibly excellent, and yet we find that it could be changed without committing a sin. But now, such as it is at present, can we not even want to see it changed?"

It is a very good thing that our current pope recognizes the need for change. If stealth reforms are the most he feels he can reasonably and responsibly accomplish, we should be grateful for his efforts and hope they come to fruition in the years and decades to come.

We certainly shouldn't curse and insult him for his efforts — all in the vain hope of recovering a perfect church that never was and never will be.

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