By Whose Authority?

Rod Dreher was the first (from where I sit) to break the news of a letter written by Roman Catholics who disagree with Ross Douthat (can’t call them liberal, I guess) to the New York Times to protest Douthat’s views on Roman Catholicism. In my estimation, this is hitting below the belt. You don’t mess with someone’s livelihood, which is how this feels — tattling to the teacher about an objectionable classmate. Here’s the letter:

To the editor of the New York Times

On Sunday, October 18, the Times published Ross Douthat’s piece “The Plot to Change Catholicism.” Aside from the fact that Mr. Douthat has no professional qualifications for writing on the subject, the problem with his article and other recent statements is his view of Catholicism as unapologetically subject to a politically partisan narrative that has very little to do with what Catholicism really is. Moreover, accusing other members of the Catholic church of heresy, sometimes subtly, sometimes openly, is serious business that can have serious consequences for those so accused. This is not what we expect of the New York Times.

Signatures followed by a number of historians whom I respect. They disappointed me because their scholarship had always suggested to me a breadth of outlook, not one that connoted the old days of parochial Roman Catholic history.

One of the letter’s authors, Massimo Faggioli, has his own perspective on what Roman Catholicism is. It is not John Paul II but it is Francis. (How you pick and choose among popes is anyone’s guess, since that would appear not to be a professor of theology’s paygrade):

The style of John Paul II was very different from a ‘conciliar’ style – consider, for example, the absence of episcopal collegiality in his style of governing the Church, especially in how he treated the synod of bishops and the national bishops conferences … Clearly John Paul II lacked interest in reforming structures of the Church’s central government, which in his 27-year pontificate became more centred on the person of the pope and the papal apartment and its far-from-transparent entourage.

[Francis’s] decision in October 2013 to celebrate an extraordinary synod in October 2014 and an ordinary synod in 2015 (both on the topic of family), signaled a change in the hierarchy of institutions of church government: pope, curia, episcopate. In the April 2014 message to Cardinal Lorenzo Baldiserri, secretary general of the synod, Francis spoke about the synod in terms of collegiality that is both ‘affective’ and ‘effective’ – with a significant shift in the use of these two adjectives referring to collegiality when compared with previous decades.

Nor is it clear why Dr. Faggioli (aside from being Italian) has any more right to his views of the papacy than Ross Douthat. Both men I believe are lay Roman Catholics, though I think the New York Times trumps St. Thomas University on the list of gatekeepers in American society. Call me a Northeast corridor snob.

One of the letter’s signers explained why she did and addressed the elitism that lurked behind the challenge to Douthat’s credenitials (or lack thereof):

I object not to the privileging of un-credentialed voices but to the Times’ inconsistent standard of credibility. When it wished to employ an editorialist about the economy, it selected a Nobel Prize winning professor. When the New York Times publishes articles about global warming, they trust the judgments of “credentialed” scientists. One wonders why the New York Times does not extend to the discipline of theology the same respect? In other words, while one does not need a PhD to perceive and to live God’s truth, one does need some sort of systematic training to pontificate (pun intended) about questions of church history and liturgical, moral, and systematic theology. These can be found outside of the theological academy, but they must be found somewhere.

So perhaps rather than calling Mr. Douthat “un-credentialed,” the letter should have asked the New York Times the following question: with what criteria did they determine Mr. Douthat competent to act as an arbiter of theological truth?

This is downright baffling. Do people who teach theology and church history have no clue about journalism? Do they not know the meaning of “op-ed”? Lots of people have access to op-ed pages and have never had training in a discipline. H. L. Mencken didn’t. Walter Lippmann was not an academic. Thomas Friedman apparently only has an M.Phil. in Middle Eastern Studies. So the New York Times is supposed to hire only Ph.D.’s as columnists? And did the letter writers and signers ever consider that the Times’ editors hired Douthat not so much for his writing on religion as his pieces on public policy, conservatism, and the Republican Party? Do Roman Catholics who oppose Douthat read anything other than his columns about Roman Catholicism? If not, how parochial.

The one element that stands out in this clash of professional authority — journalism vs. academics — is the letter’s appeal to Roman Catholicism. The way that most of the apologists have it, Rome’s authority rests not on the basis of academics or circulation and advertising but with the bishops and those whom they appoint. And yet, those who oppose Douthat make no reference to the authority of bishops, priests, and especially the pope.

If the papacy’s authority rested on “professional credentials” where would infallibility be?

But there’s hope for Douthat, not so much for the church’s apologists. It is that the church is wide and tolerant and in need of a conversation just like the United States:

Pope Francis represents the tiniest, most incremental steps toward shifts in doctrine that could have happened years ago, but he too is bombarded by vitriol from Catholics who see the church as a calcified, immobile monument.

Douthat is likely one of those Catholics who would prefer the altar to be turned around, the pews shoved back into rigid rows, women kicked out of the sanctuary and Latin Mass brought back to a country where Latin is rarely taught in schools. Or perhaps that’s what his supporters think he prefers. And they can defend that choice to see the church as incapable of evolution with vitriol, anger and rage. It doesn’t mean they should, and it doesn’t mean they’re right.

But the Catholic Church isn’t just the church of Douthat, Latin Mass traditionalists, or the theologians who signed the letter. It’s also the church of a billion people around the world, each experiencing it in different ways, each living out their faith individually and collectively. And each of those people is qualified to talk about how they live that faith, whether they do so in the op-ed column of the Times, at a potluck, in the middle of the desert, on CNN, or here on RD. It’s when either side tells the other to shut up that the problem starts.

The Pope has asked us to try to listen to one another. Maybe we can start there.

Americanism anyone?

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19 thoughts on “By Whose Authority?

  1. Damon Linker on Roman Catholic unity:

    . . . the reformers favor loosening the strictures against divorced Catholics receiving communion: because it’s a gesture of inclusion, healing, acceptance. Just as Jesus consorted with the outcasts of his time, so his church should offer welcoming arms to any and all who want to receive the message of mercy and love and become active members of the People of God.

    Those who oppose reform take a very different view. The church, for them, is primarily a rigorously consistent intellectual system that teaches a vision of the right way to live. Christ rejected divorce. Over the centuries, the church has developed a rich set of intellectually satisfying principles and procedures in response to this divine decree. A marriage can only be dissolved through annulment. Civil remarriage without an annulment is adulterous. Adultery is a grave sin. Communion is withheld from those living in a state of persistent grave sin. Therefore and with no possible exceptions, a Catholic who is civilly remarried cannot receive communion.

    It really is that simple. Remove any of those steps and the whole edifice falls into incoherence. You can see Douthat making that point against Fr. Martin in a blog post written in response to the latter’s Time column: The church simply has to uphold the traditional rules and procedures — not primarily because they’re traditional but because they’re systematic.

    First you convert, which means you accept the church’s fundamental teachings on morals and doctrine. If you fall short of them and sin — which you inevitably will — you must follow the rules and procedures that restore you to communion with the church. If you fail to do this — fail to make an effort to put an end to the sinful act and take part in the sacrament of reconciliation (confession) — then you are barred from receiving the sacrament of communion (the Eucharist). If you receive the Eucharist without having first put an end to your sinful act and confessed it to your priest, then your sin deepens. And so on, with one path leading to salvation and sanctification, and the other to perdition.

    When reformers hear these arguments, they don’t respond by rejecting the conclusion. Instead, they reject the premises that lead to that conclusion. Doctrine isn’t the most important thing, or even close to it. The church isn’t primarily an intellectual system. It isn’t primarily a set of rules and procedures about how to live and rightly worship God. No one is or should be policing the communion line. No one is without sin — and certainly not the clerics who empower themselves to decide who is in and who is out, who may partake of the sacraments and who may not. And besides, reforms would merely encourage a touch of pastoral sensitivity on the issue, not officially alter church teaching.

    The two camps talk right past each other. What is the church? How did Christ want his followers to live and worship in his name? How much change, and what kind of change, is acceptable? The question of annulment, divorce, and communion has raised these deeper and potentially far more divisive questions.

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  2. Ok. Northeast corridor snob. I couldn’t resist and now all I have is Bill Bright’s breathe out sin, breathe in the holy spirit, to bail me out. I blame you.

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  3. Support for Douthat in keeping with egalitarian premises:

    But we must disagree with Douthat’s critics on whether he has standing to comment on these controversies or advocate forcefully for his view. Since the Second Vatican Council, it has been the right of lay Catholics to make their voices heard even on doctrinal and theological controversies. Indeed, it must be said that Douthat’s engagement with Catholicism is far more nuanced and better informed than that of Frank Bruni or Maureen Dowd, two more liberal Catholics who often comment on Catholicism for the Times.

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  4. Ross Douthat can’t do theology but Dr. Grimes does:

    But Butler’s capacity to allow contemporary religious scholars to use Aquinas more effectively in the pursuit of sexual truth is far from accidental. Butler’s recognition of the performative instability of sexual identity positions her to appreciate the democratically discursive and inevitably unstable character of the collective pursuit of moral truth. Depicting sexuality as a process whose revelation unfolds in history much as Aquinas believes moral truth does, Butler allows contemporary religious scholars to read Aquinas in the hermeneutic he himself established. Deploying Butler as a means of what Jeffrey Stout calls immanent critique, I show how Ratzinger’s attempt to argue Thomistically against gay and lesbian sex fails on its own terms (2009, 163). Read in light of Butler’s work, Aquinas can come out of the closet.

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  5. A priest who works for Hollywood finds Douthat scary:

    If you haven’t read Mr. Douthat’s piece, it’s worth a look—just keep a nitroglycerin pill handy, because it is a shocker, depicting the pope as a figure of “ostentatious humility” (naughty pope, rubbing his simplicity in our overfed faces) who is attempting to change that which Mr. Douthat says “the pope is supposed to have no power to change,” namely “Catholic doctrine.”

    Now, if you find yourself wondering, since when is the pope (or a synod, for that matter) unable to call for a change in church doctrine, well, that’s a good question. The pope and the synod can in fact change doctrine, but not dogma.

    Put simply, dogma is the stuff you have to accept if you’re going to call yourself Catholic. It’s the Creed we recite every Sunday—things like the incarnation, the Trinity and the communion of the saints that we hold as undeniable tenets of our faith—plus any pronouncements that popes have invoked infallibly, which has happened almost never. The Assumption of Mary was such a pronouncement; so is the Immaculate Conception.

    Doctrine, as the term is most commonly used (including here by Mr. Douthat), refers to the church’s moral teachings, which develop over time as new questions and also new insights arise. Doctrinal teachings—of which the church’s stance regarding divorce is one—do not change often or easily. They can even be mistaken for dogma by the amount of resistance made at the suggestion of any alteration. But they are certainly capable of development. In fact that was one whole point of the synod—to reflect on the various questions of family today, in light of our tradition and the lived experience of Catholics, and consider what if any comments, including potentially changes in practice, should be offered.

    Father James McDermott, S.J., studied literature at Marquette and Harvard University and Old Testament and Liturgy at the Weston Jesuit School of Theology. A former Associate Editor of America, Father McDermott recently completed his M.F.A. in Screenwriting from U.C.L.A. For the last three years he has worked in the development department of the AMC network. He recently sold his first TV pilot.

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  6. How to remember that the mitral valve is on the left side of the heart.

    A miter is a bishop’s hat,
    And a bishop is never right!

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  7. Cw il Unificatorio
    Posted October 29, 2015 at 1:26 pm | Permalink
    Father James is in LA or Hollywood? Maybe he and TVD could hang out. But would Tom’s people return calls from Fr. Jim’s people?

    A Jesuit in showbiz. Oh, well. At least he knows the difference between doctrine and dogma, a necessary distinction that continues to elude Dr. History: A Calvinism.

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  8. @tvd you are wrong about the distinction between doctrine and dogma. There are doctrines of divine faith and doctre of catholic faith. The former are described as dogma, but both are infallible and neither is optional in the RC system. So all that business about a histotical Adam, mariology, and other dox are req beliefs. To knowingly reject them is a mortal sin.

    Of course the rc defenders of Ms. Grimes theological virtue (inc a certain arch bishop) evidently think her characterization of the Eucharist as irredeemibly corrupted by white supremacy is okey-doke. Nothing like unity around the Eucharist! The epistemological clarity from the RCC is something to behold.

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  9. sdb
    Posted October 30, 2015 at 12:29 am | Permalink
    @tvd you are wrong about the distinction between doctrine and dogma. There are doctrines of divine faith and doctre of catholic faith. The former are described as dogma, but both are infallible and neither is optional in the RC system. So all that business about a histotical Adam, mariology, and other dox are req beliefs. To knowingly reject them is a mortal sin.

    Show us the official source documents from the Church, por favor. Without them this sort of thing is a noxious waste of time.

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  10. Tom,

    Does it trouble you that not one RC on this board has defended or agreed with your assertion that the Mariology of Rome is not a required belief?

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  11. @tvd You should do your own homework. But because I’m feeling generous this morning, I’ll pass along this helpful discussion from the Catholic Diocese of Auchi,

    According to a renowned theologian and analyst of the Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN), Colin B. Donovan, the doctrines of the Church, therefore, are those teachings which must be believed by the faithful. These include: 1) dogmas, teachings which the Church has solemnly defined as formally revealed by God, and, 2) other teachings definitively proposed by the Church because they are connected to solemnly defined teachings. The first (dogmas) can be called doctrines of divine faith, while the second can be called doctrines of catholic faith. Together they are said to be “of divine and catholic faith.” Both kinds of doctrine require the assent of faith. Both are infallibly taught by the Church. Dogmas require it because they are formally revealed by God. Doctrines definitively proposed by the Church require it, because the infallibility of the Church in matters of faith and morals is itself divinely revealed.

    If this isn’t good enough you can dig through Ott yourself.

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  12. Where did E. J. Dionne receive his theology degree (or credential to write love letters to Pope Francis)?

    IF YOU DIDN’T KNOW HE WAS the pope, you’d assume Francis was anticlerical. He has argued that “the spirit of careerism” in the Church “is a form of cancer.” He scores the “theatrical severity and sterile pessimism” and the “funereal face” of those who exercise power in the Church. He has warned against the pursuit of “an exaggerated doctrinal ‘security,’” and has criticized “those who stubbornly try to recover a past that no longer exists.” He sees the Church not as a throne from which to judge sinners but as a refuge for them, “a field hospital after battle.”

    Who ever imagined a pope would use the words “Who am I to judge?” Many of us thought that is what popes do for a living. The quickly famous line won him the broad affection of gays and lesbians even though he has yet to alter a comma in the Church’s formal teaching on homosexuality.

    He called for a Church that is “bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets.” If Francis is declared a saint someday, he might become the patron of community organizers.

    Pope Francis washes the feet of inmates at Rome’s Rebibbia prison for Holy Thursday on April 2, 2015. On Francis’s first Holy Thursday, in 2013, he washed the feet of a dozen young people at a juvenile detention center, including two women and two Muslims, an act that scandalized traditionalists.

    The pope has backed up his words with actions that point down a new path. He tossed away the trappings of piety and might, disdaining the ornate regalia that appeal to so many prelates. The joke in Rome was that as priests got on board with the new Pope’s program, many lacy surplices went on sale at steep discounts on eBay. He gave up the papal apartments and is known to treat the Vatican staff more as co-workers than employees.

    On his first Holy Thursday, Francis washed the feet not of the usual group of priests gathered at St. Peter’s or another basilica, but of a dozen young people being held at a juvenile detention center, including two women and two Muslims. In the foreword to Elisabetta Piqué’s biography of Francis, Cardinal Seán O’Malley, the Archbishop of Boston and a close Francis adviser, noted that this act scandalized many traditionalists, much as Jesus’s original washing of the Apostles’ feet stunned them. The pope, O’Malley said, “replicated the surprise and shock of the apostles even as he dismayed those who preferred the stylized liturgy in a Basilica.”

    And, yes, Francis also declared that Jesus Christ has redeemed everyone, “including atheists,” even if the atheists might insist they are not interested and many theological conservatives might be horrified at the suggestion of salvation without conversion.

    Francis has captured the world’s imagination. Global polling finds his popularity to be nearly universal. He is certainly loved in the United States. A recent Pew survey measured his favorable rating among Americans at 70 percent; only 15 percent had an unfavorable view. (Among Catholics, his favorability hit 90 percent.) Intriguingly, American liberals gave Francis a slightly higher favorable rating (74 percent) than conservatives (67 percent). This was certainly something new for a pope.

    The perception shared across the dividing lines of politics, philosophy, and theology is that the first Latin American and first Jesuit pope is moving the Catholic Church in a progressive direction. This is certainly true by many measures, but it is also incomplete.

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  13. Robert
    Posted October 30, 2015 at 7:04 am | Permalink
    Tom,

    Does it trouble you that not one RC on this board has defended or agreed with your assertion that the Mariology of Rome is not a required belief?

    sdb
    Posted October 30, 2015 at 8:52 am | Permalink
    @tvd You should do your own homework. But because I’m feeling generous this morning, I’ll pass along this helpful discussion from the Catholic Diocese of Auchi,

    According to a renowned theologian and analyst of the Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN), Colin B. Donovan, the doctrines of the Church, therefore, are those teachings which must be believed by the faithful. These include: 1) dogmas, teachings which the Church has solemnly defined as formally revealed by God, and, 2) other teachings definitively proposed by the Church because they are connected to solemnly defined teachings. The first (dogmas) can be called doctrines of divine faith, while the second can be called doctrines of catholic faith. Together they are said to be “of divine and catholic faith.” Both kinds of doctrine require the assent of faith. Both are infallibly taught by the Church. Dogmas require it because they are formally revealed by God. Doctrines definitively proposed by the Church require it, because the infallibility of the Church in matters of faith and morals is itself divinely revealed.

    If this isn’t good enough you can dig through Ott yourself.

    Ott is not magisterial, the official word of the Church. But you’re still not hearing my point, that any problem arises in denying the dogmas. Since none of us were there for the Immaculate Conception or Assumption, to deny them places our own personal reason and authority above the Church’s, an authority which anyone “in communion” with the Catholic Church believes is given by Christ himself.

    This puts you “out of communion” with the Church, hence anathema.

    This is just formal logic, not a truth claim. “Confessional” Protestants have the same issues when one of your own starts denying this or that portion of the WCF, yes?

    http://thewartburgwatch.com/2015/02/20/women-and-the-disabled-on-trial-in-the-orthodox-presbyterian-church-no-they-dont-get-it/

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  14. Now female seminary faculty are telling bishops what to do:

    Many resources already exist that can be used to help create, sustain community, and build communities. Most all of this is properly the work of the New Evangelization. Here are just a few specifics of what might be done:

    We need hunker down and utilize the resources already at our disposal: e.g., various Bible reading courses, marriage preparation programs based on the Theology of the body, Alpha and Courage.

    We need to develop new programs (e.g., programs for those who struggle with infertility or with pornography addiction).

    We need to work to reach every Catholic with the truths of the faith, through such means as publications, radio stations, TV stations, conferences, movements, and the Internet which undoubtedly have enormous contributions to make.

    Priests need to learn how to preach joyfully and authoritatively on the basic teachings of Christianity and of the Church, especially on controverted and complex moral issues. While the pulpit is rarely the place to do full blown explanation of moral issues, enough should be said to help parishioners know what the Church teaches and to give them direction on where to learn why the Church teaches what it teaches.

    Adult education programs need to become more appealing and Catholics need to be ignited with a burning desire to know and love their Lord and teachings of the Church he established and to learn how to use the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

    Eucharistic adoration and regular reception of the sacrament of confession and opportunities for spiritual direction must be the sustaining fuel of all efforts.

    What is papal infallibility coming to?

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