Posted by: frroberts | November 15, 2015

[Repost] Where is the Church going under Francis?

When I was in college, I made the acquaintance of Ross Douthat in the process of co-founding Harvard Right to Life.  Mr. Douthat has since written several very successful books.  He is the conservative-in-residence at the New York Times, once our country’s paper of record.   He is also a convert to the Catholic faith.

In a recent op-ed in the Times, he has suggested that Pope Francis might  be leading the Catholic Church toward schism:

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.

Since penning these words, neo-conservatives have sought to distance themselves from Douthat’s suggestion and the Jesuit Fr, John O’Malley suggested that Catholics like Douthat are “radically un-Catholic.”

Some Catholic progressives in the Church who spoke out publicly against many of the decisions of Saint John Paul II and Benedict XVI and met with neo-conservative taunts that they were not true Catholics are gleefully turning the tables now that the successor of Peter in his own words “has never been a right-winger.”  Turnabout, it would seem, is fair play.

But Douthat did not back down, despite being rapped on the knuckles by Father O’Malley for being insufficiently Catholic.  He raised a very incisive question in his response to O’Malley:

[W]ould it be reasonable to suggest that Catholics who consider themselves orthodox should put aside any and all anxieties, refrain from public criticism of the drift of the ecclesiastical authorities, and simply prepare to submit themselves with docility to the authority of the church? I don’t think the answer can be yes, and indeed I think that to answer yes is to basically vindicate a common Protestant critique of Roman Catholicism: That it’s just a purely sola ecclesia communion, in which Rome could say that black is white tomorrow and Catholics would have to tug their forelock and start repainting crosswalks outside their churches.

In other words, do Catholics owe their final loyalty to a fixed standard of Scripture and Tradition or what the Pope teaches tomorrow?

C.S. Lewis, who could never embrace Roman Catholicism, summed up this problematic somewhat differently when he observed that “the terrible thing about Rome is the recklessness (as we hold) with which she has added to the depositum fidei – the tropical fertility, the proliferation of credenda.”

Seen from Lewis’ point of view, the only fixed point for a Roman Catholic is the teaching of the Pope, which could change tomorrow. If what is one day a probable theological opinion the next day can become a doctrine binding on all Christians by papal fiat, in what meaningful way can we refer to an individual making an act of faith in a definite creed?  The similar question could be enunciated as regards a Pope who can make what was once considered binding on all a mere point of discipline.  Are we to expect a radical re-shaping of the creed with the election of each successive pope? (While I have definite sympathies with Lewis on this point, I do not agree with his conclusions.)

Mr. Douthat raised the question as to whether a change in the Catholic teaching on divorce and remarriage, which is being publicly advocated by individuals who claim explicit approval from Pope Francis, would prove Protestant critics correct that Catholics have always effectively used sola ecclesia as a motto for discernment of Christian doctrine.  By the phrase sola ecclesia I take Douthat to mean that the teaching of the Pope and bishops at a particular point in time is the only standard for what a Christian is to believe.  In fact, Protestants are not the only ones who have leveled this allegation against the Catholic Church.  One of the stock criticisms that Orthodox Christians make against Catholics is that we give insufficient stress to the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church and instead focus too much on the Church as an institution. These complaints are not entirely without merit.

For example, at the end of the Great Western Schism the bishops at the Council of Constance genuflected during the singing of the Creed at the words, “Et in unam sanctam, catholicam et apostolicam Ecclesiam” (And [I believe] in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church), as a way celebrating the end of the sordid affair.  One can certainly understand the joy of finally settling a decades-long fight over who actually occupied the chair of Peter, but such an action smacks of making the Church an end rather than a means.

There is a sense in which a Catholic adores God through the instrumentality of the Church.  Yet one must make an important distinction between adoring God active in the Church and adoration of the Church.  Adoring the Church simpliciter opens the door to superstitious deformations in the Christian life and rank abuses in the exercise of authority.  When human aspects of the Church are confused with the divine, trouble is never far away.

Can we be surprised that the Protestant Reformation erupted only a century after the Council of Constance?

For Catholics like Douthat and myself who believe that the dogmatic principle is integral to Catholicism and part of Christ’s original plan for His Church, the possibility of a redefinition of marriage poses a conundrum.  Unlike C.S. Lewis, we do not see a stark division between the Pope’s teaching authority and the authority of the Bible and the Apostolic Tradition.  As young adults we embraced Papal authority precisely because we believed it had proven to be the best protection of the purity of doctrine that Jesus willed for His Church and was believed by the apostolic Church.

For myself, although I was raised in the Catholic Church, the steadfastness of the papacy in protecting biblical morality was one of the main reasons why I never gave a second look at the Orthodox Church’s ancient claim to be the Church that Jesus founded.  I was particularly impressed with the way in which Catholics had not bowed down to the spirit of the age when it came to the indissolubility of marriage, whereas the Orthodox had accepted divorce and remarriage.  But what if Rome were to adopt the Orthodox discipline on marriage as some prominent Cardinals are advocating?

Indeed.  What if?

I believe that it is a theological impossibility for the Catholic Church on an official level to sanction communion for remarried persons whose first spouses are still living.  Were that to happen, I would probably engage in some very intense self-searching about what it means to be a Catholic in general and a Catholic priest in particular.

But what if there were a widespread false perception that the Church had changed Her teaching on communion to the divorced and remarried after next year’s synod and the Pope’s ensuing post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation?  What if most priests and laypeople behaved as if the teaching had indeed changed?

Our experiences in the post-Humanae Vitae Church give us a clue as to what the future might happen.  A small minority of fervent laypeople and some priests might join the traditionalist Society of Pius X.  Some others could become disillusioned and change religions.  The majority of self-styled “orthodox” Catholics would likely shrug their shoulders and accept the teaching but have diminished confidence in their Church.  (Ross Douthat has indicated this would be probably be his course of action.)  Parents would be less likely to go to much trouble in order to impart counter-cultural Church teachings to their children.  Nor would priests want to put their neck on the line when there is the perception that they do not have support from above.  Zeal for souls would decrease among committed Catholics.

None of this would be good for the Church’s mission of proclaiming the Gospel because it would weaken the faith of those most likely to share their faith with others.  It would also probably mean that a majority of children raised as Catholics would stop practicing the faith for good after they leave home.

All of these things have already happened in the Catholic Church in North America and western Europe in the past two generations in the wake of doctrinal confusion in the seventies and eighties.  In the United States the Catholic Church has until recently benefited from the remains of a Protestant Christian culture and an influx of immigration from countries that have traditionally had huge Catholic majorities.  The former is almost gone and the latter is going.  Studies indicate that the children of Hispanic Catholics are leaving the Church in droves.

Some suggest that we are seeing this silent apostasy of Catholics because of Church intransigence on sexual morality.  If the Church relaxed some of her teachings, would this help reverse the trend?

Looking beyond the Catholic Church, there are several other Christian churches that have loosened their stances on doctrine or adopted an exclusively pastoral approach to unpopular teachings.  Have any of these churches become more robust as a result?  Has the commitment of their members to share their Christian faith with others deepened?

Mainline Protestant churches that have engaged in the liberalizing of morality that some advocate for the Catholic Church today are collapsing.

In the Catholic household of faith, we would do well to look at from where the impulse for a more flexible approach on marriage and the family is coming.  Is it coming from countries with a growing, vibrant Catholic population or from countries who have failed to pass the faith on to a majority of the next generation?  Why would we want to listen to the pastoral approach of pastors in countries where the Church has been moving toward extinction?

While a large-scale formal schism seems unlikely, we should hardly rest easy in this knowledge.  An acceleration of the silent apostasy in the West is a far greater threat to the Church than schism.  Moreover, it would be more injurious to the longer-term health of the Church.  Schisms can be healed in a generation.  Entire countries turning their back on Christ and His moral teachings usually takes centuries to reverse.  Sometimes it takes longer.

While this picture might seem depressing, we remember that we Catholics ultimately look to Jesus, the Crucified and Risen One.  Perhaps the apocryphal words of the original Fisherman in the midst of an intense Roman persecution can give us hope:

Peter: “Lord, Where are you going?”

Jesus: “I am going to Rome to be crucified again.”

Peter followed Jesus to be crucified in the Vatican Circus.    When it comes to the difficulties that we face, the Cross is our only hope.


  1. Thank you, Father Roberts, for your insights. This is a very trying time for the faithful.

    MJ Kurdys Soli Deo Gloria!



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