A Different Kind of Social Justice (or African Theology)

In today’s class on religion in the U.S., students and I discussed Mary Beth Swetnam Matthews’ book Doctrine and Race. Aside from lots of evidence of how pervasive racism was among the leaders of the fundamentalist movement (William Bell Riley, John Roach Straton, and J. Frank Norris — no mention of Machen), Matthews’ book is very illuminating about how conservative and conventional African-American Baptists and Methodists were. Consider the following:

Those loose morals had many causes, including dances, movies, and gambling, all of which shared a common denominator — they were usually performed outside of churches and thus away from the moral guidance of pastors, elders, and other God-fearing people…. “What is the danger of these [non-church activities]?” Baptist J. C. Austin asked the assembled National Sunday School and Baptist Young Peoples Union Congress in Dayton, Ohio, in 1935. His response was simple: “It is cheating, lying, gambling, a loss of temper, a waste of time, being eaten up with a seal for [worldly pastimes], and the disposition to fight and murder about them. (100)

[W. J. Walls} carefully noted that “we do not hold that dancing itself sends anybody’s soul to hell, but we do know from all observation (for we have never danced), that it is one of the contributing causes to the weakness of the race, the dissipation of religious influence, and therefore the downfall of character. . . We must preach a whole gospel for the salvation of the individual: — body, mind, and soul. There is no perfect character that is not built upon this basis.” (104)

[According to Cameron C. Alleyne] divorces “rob so many children of complete parent bond. Something must be balanced in this parenthood. The mother is given to pampering. It is hers to comfort the child with tender words. The father is given to the sterner qualities of discipline now”. . . Divorce mean “substituting calories for character and vitamins for virtue,” with women supplying the calories and vitamins and men the character and virtue. (108)

[William H. Davenport wrote] “nowhere in Holy Writ is there a hint or suggestion about birth control, or regulating the size of families.” For him, the doctrine of sola scriptura had primacy. argued that to “put the imprimatur of the Church upon the immoral practice of arresting the orderly process of nature is hostile to Christian doctrine, and subversive of the welfare of society”(110)

The lesson: some social gospels are more social than others.

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How Far Will Conservatives Bend?

Ross Douthat finds the progressive fundamentalist inner-self of conservative Roman Catholics (is this what Bryan and the Jasons signed up for?):

Let’s make a partial list of the changes that most conservative Catholics have accepted — sometimes grudgingly, sometimes enthusiastically — in their church since the 1960s. A transformation in the church’s attitude toward liberal democracy and religious freedom. A transformation in the church’s attitude toward other Christian churches and non-Christian religions. A total renovation of the church’s liturgy, one with inevitable implications for sacramental life, theology, biblical interpretation, the works, that was staggering in hindsight but accepted at the time by everyone except a tiny minority. A revolution in sacred architecture, albeit one that stalled out once it became apparent that it was, you know, kind of terrible. Massive shifts in church rhetoric around issues of personal morality (sexual morality very much included) even where the formal teaching remained intact. Stark changes in the way the church talks about sin, hell and damnation, and openings (again, including among conservative Catholics) to theological perspectives once considered flatly heterodox. Clear changes, slow-moving or swift, in the Vatican’s public stance on hot-button issues like the death penalty and torture (and perhaps soon just war theory as well). The purging or diminution of a host of Catholic distinctives, from meatless Fridays to communion on the tongue to the ban on cremation to … well, like I said, it’s a partial list, so I’ll stop there.

So whatever the conservative religious psychology, however strong the conservative craving for certainty and stability, nobody looking at the changes wrought in the church over the last fifty years could possibly describe conservative Catholicism as actually committed, in any kind of rigorous or non-negotiable sense, to defending a changeless, timeless church against serious alteration. (Indeed, this is a point that traditionalist Catholics make about the mainstream Catholic right at every opportunity!)

Rather, conservative Catholicism has been on a kind of quest, ever since the crisis atmosphere of the 1960s and 1970s, to define certain essentials of the faith in a time of sweeping flux and change, while effectively conceding (to borrow Linker’s architectural image) that reformers can rearrange and remove the bricks of Catholicism so long as they don’t touch those crucial foundations. For a long time this conservative quest was lent a certain solidity and rigor and self-confidence by John Paul II and Benedict XVI. But the advent of Francis has made it clear that conservative Catholicism doesn’t have as clear a synthesis as conservatives wanted to believe, and that in some ways the conservative view of the post-Vatican II church is a theory in crisis — or the very least that it lacks a clear-enough account of itself, and of what can and cannot change in its vision of Catholicism, to navigate an era in which the pope himself does not seem to be “on side.”

The parallel here between Douthat and Carl Henry & Co. is striking. Try to preserve conservative Protestantism by identifying essentials like the National Association of Evangelicals list of doctrinal non-negotiables. The point about how to interpret history is also apt. Neo-evangelicals had to find a narrative that placed them in the mainstream of American Protestantism without offending Arminians, Calvinists, or Pentecostals. The way to do that was to read sixteenth-century Protestantism (Reformation) into the First and Second Pretty Good Awakenings. Meanwhile, like conservative Roman Catholics, Douthat has to distance himself from the SSPXers just as Henry and Billy Graham disavowed fundamentalism as mean.

That sort of spiritual and theological retrieval may have its moments, but it is hardly — as the those inclined to overstatement like to put it — “robust.”

Douthat goes on to do a pretty good impersonation of what it felt like to be an evangelical in the PCUSA who also belonged to the NAE while General Assembly after General Assembly did not perform as badly as it might:

. . . if Pope Francis was blocked from going the full Kasper, he still produced a document that if read straightforwardly seems to introduce various kinds of ambiguity into the church’s official teaching on marriage, sin and the sacraments — providing papal cover for theological liberalism, in effect, without actually endorsing the liberal position. It’s not the first time this has happened; as Joseph Shaw notes, it’s very easy to find “examples of Popes and other organs of the Church issuing documents which seemed, if not actually motivated by a rejection of traditional teaching, then are at least motivated by a desire not to be in conflict with those who reject it.” But it’s the first time it’s happened recently on a controversy of this gravity, on an issue where conservative Catholics have tried to draw a clear line and invested so much capital … and I think it’s fair to say that they (that we) don’t know exactly how to respond.

Do conservatives simply declare victory, because the worst didn’t happen, the full theological crisis didn’t come, and it’s important to maintain a basic deference to papal authority (itself a big part of the JPII-era conservative synthesis) so long as no doctrinal line is explicitly crossed? Do they acknowledge the document’s deliberate ambiguities, as my own treatment did, when doing so might give aid and comfort to liberals who are eager to make the most of any perceived shift? Do they deny that any real ambiguity exists, not out of pure deference to Francis but because given conservative premises this document should be read in the context of prior documents, not as a stand-alone, and if you read it that way there’s no issue, no rupture, everything’s fine? Do they stress the technicalities of what counts as magisterial teaching to make the document’s seeming ambiguity less important or less binding? Do they attack the document (and the pope) head-on, on the theory that conservative Catholicism’s essential problem is its vulnerability to constant end-arounds, constant winking “pastoral” moves, and that these need more forthright opposition?

Conservatives have tried all of these strategies and more. Some sincerely believe that the letter of the document is a defeat for liberals and that anxious Catholic pundits are overstating the problems with its spirit. Some think the problems with its spirit are real but also think the church will be better off if conservatives simply claim the document as their own and advance the most orthodox reading of its contents. Some think the best course is to downplay the document’s significance entirely and wait for a different pope to clarify its ambiguities. Some (mostly journalists, as opposed to priests or theologians) think it’s important to acknowledge that this pope has significantly strengthened liberal Catholicism’s hand, and to describe that reality accurately and answer his arguments head-on where they seem to cut against the essentials of the faith. Some think that this document, indeed this entire pontificate, has vindicated a traditionalist critique of post-conciliar Catholicism, and that the time has come for a complete rethinking of past concessions and compromises, past deference to Rome. Some are ambivalent, uncertain, conflicted, unsure of what comes next. Some have shifted between these various perspectives as the debate has proceeded. (And this long list excludes the many moderately-conservative Catholics who didn’t see a grave problem with the Kasper proposal to begin with, or who have simply drifted in a more liberal direction under this pontificate.)

Consequently, while conservative Roman Catholics discern the best defense of Pope Francis, the claims of papal audacity by Bryan and the Jasons look all the more dubious. If the interpret in chief nurtures uncertainty, what’s the point of abandoning Protestant diversity?

I do not have an answer, alas, to all of this uncertainty. But I do think it’s important to acknowledge its existence, rather than taking a kind of comfort, as some conservative Catholics do, in being accused of Total Inflexibility in Defense of Absolute Truth by writers like Damon Linker. For good or ill (or for good in some cases, and ill in others), that has rarely been an accurate description of the conservative position in the modern church, and it clearly isn’t accurate at the moment. Conservative Catholicism isn’t standing athwart church history yelling stop; since (at least) the 1960s it’s always occupied somewhat more unstable terrain, and under Francis it’s increasingly a movement adrift, tugged at by traditionalism and liberalism alike, and well short of the synthesis that would integrate fifty years of rapid change into a coherent picture of how the church can remain the church, what fidelity and integrity require.

You mean the instability of post-Vatican II Roman Catholicism was the church Christ founded? Note to apologists: update your defense as much as your bishops updated your communion.

Evelyn Waugh Would Have to Re-Write Brideshead

Phil Lawler wonders about the pastoral implications of Pope Francis’ pastoral advice in Amoris Laetitia. Consider the plight of “regular” Roman Catholics:

In any Catholic community there will always be some devout believers who, following the Lord’s advice, “Strive to enter by the narrow door.” They will pray often and ardently, try to attend daily Mass, practice their own private devotions, and seek out spiritual direction from priests who demand a lot of them. For these people—let’s call them “high-octane” Catholics—Gresham’s Law will not apply. They are the equivalent of the folks who demand payment in doubloons.

But most Catholics, in most times and places, are not of the high-octane variety. Most “regular” parishioners will do what the Church demands of them, but will not seek out extra rigors. They will attend Sunday Mass on a regular basis, raise their children in the faith, follow the precepts of the Church as they understand them, contribute to the parish. Faithful if not zealous, they will form the backbone of the Catholic community. Nourished by the sacraments and encouraged by their pastors, they will grow in faith; some will eventually become high-octane Catholics.

Now notice how these “regular” Catholics—who sincerely intend to meet their obligations, without taking on extra burdens—are likely to choose between two hypothetical parishes:

In Parish A, Sunday Mass lasts 90 minutes or more; the liturgy is “high” and solemn; the Gregorian chant is unfamiliar. In Parish B, Mass is out in 40 minutes; the hymns sound like (and sometimes are) snappy show tunes.

In Parish A, religious-education classes are demanding, and students who do not master the basic catechism lessons do not advance. In Parish B, teachers assume that “they’re good kids” and don’t worry about details.

In Parish A, when a young couple comes to discuss marriage, and the pastor notices that they list the same home address on their registration forms, he tells them that they must live separately. In Parish B the pastor “doesn’t notice” the matching addresses, and plans for the wedding can move forward.

In Parish A, priests often preach on controversial topics, driving home the Church’s least popular messages, reminding the parishioners of their sins. In Parish B, the homily is always a gentle reminder that we should be kind to one another, and not too rough on ourselves.

Needless to say, high-octane Catholics will flock to Parish A. Regular Catholics will gravitate toward Parish B. Human nature being what it is, most people will choose the less demanding of two options.

Now notice what happens to priests in these parishes when they meet a couple that has been re-married:

In his apostolic exhortation, Pope Francis sets up the model of a pastor who will meet with these couples, help them to review and assess their lives, to repent their past failings, to bring their lives closer to the Christian ideal, and to do everything that they can in their current circumstances to grow in holiness. Exactly how this process will unfold is unclear, because, as the Pope explains, it is impossible to anticipate all the unique circumstances of any individual case. But clearly the Pope is describing a rigorous process, rather than a quick solution.

But what sort of priest would insist on that rigor in his dealings with a remarried couple? The pastor of Parish A, probably. But that pastor would very likely tell the couple that if they wish to receive the sacraments they must live as brother and sister. And the couple, for that matter, if they were active parishioners in Parish A, would probably have reached that conclusion for themselves already. So Amoris Laetitiae would bring no change in their case.

In Parish B, on the other hand, the pastor—having long ago established the pattern of requiring only the minimum—would be far more likely to tell the couple that they should not worry about details, that they should feel free to receive the Eucharist. In all likelihood he would already have conveyed that message, and they would already be in the Communion line every Sunday. Again, the apostolic exhortation would cause no significant change.

But consider what might happen in the marginal cases, where change is most visible. What will happen to divorced/remarried couples who, after years away from the faith, are inspired by the Pope’s message to return to the fold? If they happen to meet with a priest who expects them to go through a long and difficult process, aren’t they likely to seek a second opinion, and maybe a third, until inevitably, they find a pastor who will welcome them back immediately, with no requirements and no strings attached? Hasn’t that pattern already been clearly established by the young couples who want their wedding scheduled without a demanding marriage-prep program, or want their children confirmed without a rigorous CCD requirement?

This is not exactly the church that was opposed to any trace of modernity for at least 150 years.

Now imagine the real life (fictional couple) of Rex Mottram and Julia Marchmain:

Julia manages to match Sebastian’s dissolute lifestyle through her own acts of intransigence. She eventually plans to marry Rex Mottram, a Protestant Canadian, who has managed to gain a seat in the House of Commons. It is this relationship with Rex that marks Julia’s descent into chronic sin. Julia learns that Rex may be carrying on an affair with a mistress. She thinks that if they become engaged, this can put an end to the affair. When it doesn’t, she then begins to reason that if she is going to keep Rex from being unfaithful, she will have to offer sexual gratification to her fiancé before they are married. Julia justifies this in her own mind and presents the proposition to a priest: “Surely, Father, it can’t be wrong to commit a small sin myself in order to keep him from a much worse one?” The Jesuit responds in the negative and suggests that she make her confession. It is this moment, when Julia does not receive what she wants, that she turns against the faith: “‘No, thank you,’ she said, as though refusing the offer of something in a shop. ‘I don’t think I want to today,’ and walked angrily home. From that moment she shut her mind against her religion.”

During their engagement, Rex agrees to receive instruction so that he can convert to Catholicism. However, matters are exasperated when it is revealed that Rex was previously married and divorced in Canada. Rex does not understand how this can be an impediment to a prospective marriage to Julia and he sees no difference between his divorce and the granting of an annulment. When it is obvious that nothing can be done with only a few weeks before the wedding, Julia and Rex agree to marry in a Protestant ceremony, separating themselves from Catholic society and the Marchmain family. Julia’s intransigence reaches its peak as she voices a modern refusal to recognize objective sin: “I don’t believe these priests know everything. I don’t believe in hell for things like that. I don’t know that I believe in it for anything.”

So which priest would Rex and Julia seek? Parish A or Parish B? This writer thinks Parish B’s priest is closer to Pope Francis’ instruction in his apostolic exhortation:

If they were alive today, would Julia and Charles have had to part ways? Amoris Laetitia offers alternatives: “Because of forms of conditioning and mitigating factors, it is possible that in an objective situation of sin – which may not be subjectively culpable, or fully such – a person can be living in God’s grace, can love and can also grow in the life of grace and charity, while receiving the Church’s help to this end.” Couldn’t Julia and Charles have spoken with Father MacKay in the internal forum for the sake of contributing to the “formation of a correct judgment”?

Even the idea of living as brother and sister seems to be impossible in this modern age. While Julia explains to Charles that she plans to “[j]ust go on – alone” this is not a sad revelation because she is finally able to receive God’s mercy and to return to a right relationship with Him. However Amoris Laetitia makes it seem that “going on alone” or abstaining from sexual intercourse is impossible in 2016. Pope Francis explains that “many people, knowing and accepting the possibility of living ‘as brothers and sisters’ which the Church offers them, point out that if certain expressions of intimacy are lacking, ‘it often happens that faithfulness is endangered and the good of the children suffers.’” In the age of Brideshead, one didn’t die if they abstained from sexual intimacy. Apparently, in this sex-obsessed age, it is impossible for one to live without it.

Some will say that no dogma has changed. And sure the dogma of mortal and venial sins have not changed. But if priests’ pastoral counsel, with a green light from the magisterium, is defective by not warning the flock from sin, if it tolerates sinful practices under the guise of being pastoral, something has changed.

Evelyn Waugh knew that the Church of England had changed (even when dogma hadn’t). Do Roman Catholic apologists think Waugh wouldn’t notice this?

What If?

Fr. Dwight thinks that ecumenical talks between Anglicans and Roman Catholics are at a dead end:

Unless there is some unexpected turnaround in the Church of England and the Anglican churches of the developed world, GAFCON is the Anglican Communion of the future. If so, what does this development mean for Anglican-Roman Catholic ecumenism?

First, it should be recognized that the old form of Anglican-Roman Catholic dialogue is finished. Started during the fresh optimism of the 1960s, ecumenism between Anglicans and Roman Catholics included convergence on liturgical matters running parallel with regular discussions among theologians on both sides. The problem with this model is that the Anglican theologians were invariably from the more Anglo-Catholic wing of the Anglican Church. They were also almost exclusively drawn from the Church of England and the Episcopal Church. The Africans were scarcely included. Like Cardinal Walter Kasper, most members of the Episcopal and Anglican churches didn’t think the Africans were worth listening to.

As the Anglicans on both sides of the Atlantic proceeded with their progressive agenda, discussions with the Catholic Church became increasingly strained. Despite diplomatic noises from both sides, it is generally agreed that the Anglicans have introduced such “grave obstacles to unity” as to put any real ecumenical hopes on hold. Pope Benedict XVI did not improve matters by erecting the Anglican Ordinariate — a structure within the Catholic Church that provides disenchanted Anglicans a semi-detached home within Catholicism.

But think about what Pope Francis said recently about people who are divorced:

Speaking out on one of the most contentious issues of his papacy, Pope Francis on Wednesday told a gathering at the Vatican that the church should embrace Catholics who have divorced and remarried, and that such couples “are not excommunicated, and they absolutely must not be treated that way!”

“They always belong to the church,” he added, calling on pastors to welcome Catholics who have remarried without an annulment, even though such Catholics are currently barred in most cases from receiving the Eucharist, the central sacrament of the faith.

“The church is called to be always the open house of the Father. … No closed doors! No closed doors!” Francis told the crowd at his weekly public audience, which resumed after a monthlong summer break.

Imagine if Pope Francis had been the Bishop of Rome when Henry VIII sought an annulment. If Pope Francis had been as pastoral with the English monarch as he is with today’s marriage challenged Roman Catholics, would the Reformation have happened?

Lean and Means

Charles Pope — good for him, none of this Rodney King, CTC pose — takes issue with Protestants for separating faith from works, grace from transformation (ugh), and Scripture from church authority:

There are a lot of “solos” sung by our Protestant brethren: Sola Fide (saved by faith alone), Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone is the rule of faith), and sola gratia (grace alone). (See the Protestant logo to the right.) Generally, one ought to be suspicious and careful of claims that things work “alone.” It is our usual experience that many things work together in harmony, that things are interrelated. Very seldom is anyone or anything “alone.”

The problem of the “solos” emerges (it seems to me) in our minds, where it is possible to separate things out. But the fact is, just because we can separate something out in our mind does not mean that we can separate it out in reality.

What Pope doesn’t seem to consider, first of all, is that the solas of the Reformation were not mere intellectual exercises but efforts to restore the supremacy of Christ and his accomplishments (both in redemption and revelation). You clutter up Christ with images and pilgrimages and stigmata and saints and the next thing you know you don’t have Christ alone. And where will you be on that great day?

But, second of all, does Pope ever wonder how sloppy Christianity gets when you don’t eliminate some of the clutter? When it comes to marriage and divorce, Pope can sound pretty sola himself. He doesn’t want divorcees to be harmonized with faithful spouses, or marriage between husband and wife cluttered with gay marriage.

So either Pope is selective in the way he separates things or is unaware of the importance of such separation. Either way, for those Christians who wanted a reform of the Western Christian Church, Pope’s desire for seeing the interrelations of things is an important reason for doubting that a reformation of Rome will ever happen. As Mike Horton said somewhere, you can’t keep adding pages to the notebook. At some point, you need to take out the page the conflicts with the one you just inserted. After Vatican 2, though, the Roman church’s mode seems to be insertionamento.

The Protestant Dilemma Writ Catholic

Devin Rose thinks he found all the dilemmas that haunt Protestants (and that led him to Rome). But has he along with Jason and the Callers really escaped the thicket of difficulties.

On the one hand, having a written basis for determining church teaching really comes in handy (as opposed to the slippery way that oral tradition or papal whim might operate. According to Gerhard Cardinal Mueller:

Not even an ecumenical council can change the doctrine of the Church, because her Founder, Jesus Christ, entrusted the faithful preservation of his teachings and doctrine to the apostles and their successors. The Gospel of Matthew says: “Go and teach all people everything that I commanded you” (cf. Mt 28:19–20), which is nothing if not a definition of the “deposit of the faith” (depositum fidei) that the Church has received and cannot change. Therefore the doctrine of the Church will never be the sum total of a few theories worked out by a handful of theologians, however ingenious they may be, but rather the profession of our faith in revelation, nothing more and nothing less than the Word of God entrusted to the heart—the interiority—and the lips—the proclamation—of his Church.

We have an elaborate, structured doctrine about marriage, all of it based on the words of Jesus himself, which must be presented in its entirety. We encounter it in the Gospels and in other places in the New Testament, especially in the words of Saint Paul in the First Letter to the Corinthians and in Romans.

On the other hand, the dilemma for all Christians is whether they will submit to religious authority. This includes Roman Catholics and Protestants:

The hallmark Protestant idea of priesthood of all believers allows the individual — whose relationship with God is unmediated — to determine his or her fitness to receive the sacrament. The Catholic Church, meanwhile, retains a few layers of priestly and catechetical scrutiny.

Last week at the synod, Cardinal Andre Vingt-Trois of Paris worried that couples “do not believe that the use of contraceptive methods is a sin and therefore they tend not to speak of them in confession and so they receive Communion untroubled.” Perhaps because married women might think it inappropriate to be questioned about contraception by a cadre of celibate men.

Either way, confessors tend not to press the issue, and no one pulls married couples out of the Communion line. Few believe a solid majority of Catholic women or their husbands will burn in hell for using artificial contraceptives.

In the case of cohabitating couples, there is little the Church can do. Marriage preparation classes acknowledge its sinfulness, but priests and bishops cannot afford to turn away half of what is already a declining number of couples seeking marriage in the Church. The US Conference of Catholic Bishops advises that priests can point couples toward a holier union by “supporting the couple’s plans for the future rather than chastising them for the past.”

Yet even for Catholics whose relationships put them in a perpetual state of mortal sin, individual conscience and church authority are often in fierce tension. In practice, LGBT Catholics often rely on their own consciences in determining whether they will go forward for Communion. In some locales, it is common enough for partnered gays and lesbians to receive Communion that it only makes news when they are turned away.

Meanwhile, Bryan Cross and company have yet to recognize a dilemma that cost a night’s sleep.

Church Membership beats W-w

Thanks to Ross Douthat who notes that “conservative Protestants who attend services rarely have slightly higher divorce rates than the religiously-unaffiliated, while nominally-Catholic young adults have divorce rates that are slightly lower than the unaffiliated but more than three times (!) as high as the rate for frequent mass-goers.” In other words, think you’re religious matters a lot less than being religious.

Douthat quotes David and Amber Lapp:

Nominally religious young adults are in a vulnerable position: they are religious enough to be pushed into early marriage, for instance, but, lacking the social support mediated by an in-the-flesh religious congregation, they don’t reap the benefits of involvement in a religious community. Instead, religion may become a source of conflict. Like Kayla and Adam, most of the working-class, divorced individuals interviewed in the Middle America Project either reported pressure from religious relatives to marry earlier than they would have liked, or reported conflict because one spouse was not on board with the other spouse’s religious involvement.

… while Kayla and Adam identify as Baptist, it’s not surprising that their religious affiliation did little to protect them from divorce. Their actual church attendance was sporadic, and both expressed ambivalence about conservative religious beliefs, particularly those concerning sex and marriage. “I believe there’s a God. I believe in the Bible. I believe in the beliefs, but I don’t exactly walk every line that you’re supposed to walk,” Kayla says.

Welcome to Protestant Land

William Oddie wonders about the state of Roman Catholicism in ways never conceived by Jason and the Callers:

What exactly is going on, when Bishops and parish priests can so radically differ about the most elementary issues of faith and morals—about teachings which are quite clearly explained in the Catechism of the Catholic Church—and when simultaneously one Cardinal describes such teachings as “crazy” and another simply expounds them as the immemorial teachings of the Church? Does nobody know what the Church believes any more?

The Call Thickens

Jason and the Callers have nothing on Ross Douthat for explaining what’s at stake in current debates about marriage and what they mean for the Call to Communion:

. . . what’s being proposed and discussed and debated among some of the church’s bishops and cardinals — with, it would seem, the blessing of the pope — is something significantly different: An official mechanism whereby a divorced and remarried Catholic could, without having their previous marriage declared invalid, do penance for any sins involved in their divorce and then receive communion without their new marriage being a moral impediment to reception of the host. In practice, this would move the church in the direction of Eastern Orthodoxy, which has traditionally allowed pastoral exceptions for second marriages, but it would so in a more ambiguous way — effectively creating a kind of second tier of marital unions for Catholics, whose existence the church would decide to “tolerate” (in the words of Cardinal Walter Kasper, the leading voice making the proposal) but “not accept.”

Now one can debate the practical effects of such a proposal (I have various thoughts, but again, I’ll save them). And one certainly can, as the Orthodox and many Protestant churches do, make reasonable theological and biblical arguments for accepting second marriages in some form. But here’s the crucial problem: The test for changes to Catholic practice isn’t just supposed to be “what practical consequences are likely to ensue?” and the bar that such changes need to clear isn’t just supposed to be “what can be reasonably defended by thoughtful Christians?” Rather, the primary test and crucial bar alike are supposed to be “what can be reasonably defended in the light of what the Roman Catholic Church has historically affirmed and taught?”

Seen in that light, it is very hard for me to understand how this kind of change wouldn’t create some pretty significant internal problems for Catholic doctrine as currently and traditionally understood. Saying, with Cardinal Kasper, that second marriages can be tolerated but not accepted implies a zone of human conduct that one might call “tolerable sinfulness,” which is an idea that church teaching does not currently support. (And which if it did support would have all kinds of moral and doctrinal implications, extending well beyond this particular debate.) And whatever individuals and pastors decide to take upon their own consciences, declaring the reception of communion licit for the remarried-but-not-annulled in any systematic way seems impossible without real changes — each with its own potential doctrinal ripples — to one or more of three theologically-important Catholic ideas: The understanding that people in grave sin should not generally receive the Eucharist, the understanding that adultery is always a grave sin, and/or the understanding that a valid sacramental marriage is indissoluble.

Which in turn would mean that if he actually made this kind of change — and, as I said in the column, I do not think he will, but it is being debated with his apparent encouragement, so the possibility has to be addressed — Pope Francis would be either dissolving important church teachings into what looks to me like incoherence, or else changing those same teachings in a way that many conservative Catholics believe that the pope simply cannot do.

Now I am obviously neither a theologian nor a church historian, so my judgments on an issue like this are hardly (ahem) infallible. But in following the controversy, the arguments that this sort of move would not require a doctrinal change seem fairly weak. There is the claim that it would be a strictly disciplinary change, not a dogmatic one … but unlike many other disciplinary issues (from Friday fasts to priestly celibacy), this seems like a case where the discipline is more or less required by a doctrine or doctrines, and to alter one is to at least strongly imply an alteration in the others. There is also the invocation of practices from the early centuries of the church, when some second marriages may have been handled in this manner, and the suggestion that under such a reform the church would be simply returning to an ancient practice. But the entire theory of the development of dogma, which is central to defenses of continuity in Catholic teaching, would seem to militate against the idea that the consistent witness (and to this layman, it really does look pretty consistent) of the second millennium of Catholic history, complete with martyrs and dogmatic definitions, can safely be set aside because of some highly ambiguous cases from the first millennium.

Now these are not points that would trouble many liberal Catholics, who often reject the intertwined ideas of consistency in Catholic doctrine and papal infallibility, and for whom the idea of a pope willing to alter doctrine might be a consummation devoutly to be wished. But for conservative Catholics, many of whom have spent the John Paul and Benedict eras arguing that on a range of controversial questions the whole issue isn’t just that the church shouldn’t change, but that it can’t … well, if a change like this did happen, however hedged and with however many first millennium antecedents invoked, that conservative argument would at the very least look weaker than it did during the last two pontificates.

And since it isn’t a small argument … since the church’s claim to a constant, non-contradicting authority lies close to the heart of why many conservative Catholics are conservative Catholics … well, that’s why the “schism” possibility seems worth raising, because hard-to-process theological shocks are where institutional fractures often start. It’s one thing for conservative Catholics to serve as a kind of loyal opposition during this pontificate — to learn to doubt a pope, or disagree with his rhetoric or decision-making, while remaining faithful to the office and the church. It’s quite another if one of those papal decisions seriously calls into question the doctrinal continuity that’s the very root of conservative-Catholic loyalty. And there just isn’t a recent model apart from the Lefebvrist schism for how that kind of more-Catholic-than-the-pope dissent would practically work.

But once again, I could be completely wrong, about either the problematic nature of the shift being discussed or the likely conservative reaction to the change. All I can say for certain is that a development like this would leave me more doubtful than before about the consistency of Catholic doctrine and the nature of the church. But I’m not sure what to read into these feelings: While I obviously fall into the conservative camp in the Catholic culture wars I’m also on the less-rigorous, more-latitudinarian end of the conservative-Catholic spectrum, so I tend to expect that what unsettles me should unsettle the more rigorous even more … but it could also be that if I were more rigorous I’d be more trusting and less suspicious, and less likely to see (invent?) discontinuities where they might not actually exist. I’m not sure …

Wouldn’t it show their Protestant past if the Callers were so candid in their descriptions of the communion to which they call.

Sola Scriptura Has Its Moments

Carson Holloway explains why the Roman Catholic Church teaches what it does about marriage and divorce (and in doing so sounds like a Protestant):

It turns out, then, that the Church’s rather rigorous teaching on marriage is based not on the words of some little known celibate old man, but on the words of one very well known and important celibate young man. The teaching is based on the words of Jesus Christ, whom faithful Catholics believe to be God. Perhaps, then, Christians at least, and even all those people who claim to respect Jesus as a moral teacher, could cut the Church some slack and acknowledge that it has good reason to think that it is not just imposing some man-made morality on human beings but in fact preserving what was delivered to her by her divine founder.

And there you have the logic of Protestantism, a form of reasoning that makes sense to most Christians unless they are trying to protect the prerogatives of specific offices. Sometimes the word of God really is a lot more compelling than the word of men (even episcopal ones).