No, this is not a post about Mardi Gras (though after a long, long day like I had, I could use some Mardi Gras). It’s a comment on Ross Douthat’s latest remarks about the current turmoil in the Roman Catholic Church. He points out that Catholics have to realize that the Church is not like a political party that can change its platform at will, when the Pope and a majority of bishops feel like it:
The issue is that Catholics are traditionally supposed to believe other things as well: In particular, that the authority of the church is not just arbitrary, not a party line that we’re supposed to adapt ourselves to à la Communists in the later 1930s, but an authority that is vindicated in its own fidelity to the New Testament, the early church, the creeds and the entire deposit of faith. Absent clear evidence of such fidelity, the argument from authority risks becoming just that and nothing more: A kind of free-floating ultramontanism, unmoored from the official reasons for its claims.
If the results of the debates within Church synods (and councils) appear to represent too much of a break from the past — that is, if they seem not simply to be a development of doctrine, but a contradiction of it — orthodox Catholics have an obligation to speak out against them. There can be such a thing as too much accommodation. Douthat offers a thought experiment:
Let me sketch a hypothetical that might help clarify this point. Suppose that a new pope were elected and immediately began elevating bishops and theologians who preached in favor of making more room for alternative Christologies within the Catholic Church, and particularly more room for Arianism, the famous fourth-century rival (periodically revived since) of the orthodox understanding of the trinity and Jesus Christ. These bishops and theologians argued that so long as the church didn’t technically change the language of the creed, there was no reason not to allow Arian ideas to be taught in seminaries, preached from the pulpit, and accepted as a kind of younger brother of orthodoxy, lesser in authority but equal in respect. They claimed (plausibly) that if you press them on theological questions about Jesus’s nature, many American Catholics are effectively Arian already, and deserve a church that’s more open to their perspective; they argued that many Christological debates now seem like theological nitpicking, and that a Catholicism that seemed a little more flexible on such points would be opening itself to fruitful ecumenical dialogue withthe Oriental Orthodox Churches; they noted that versions of the Arian position were endorsed by ecumenical councils, and surely those endorsements should carry at least some weight notwithstanding their later repudiation; they plucked out scriptural passages and post-Nicene theological speculations that seemed to incline in an Arian direction, etc. This argument led to a vigorous debate at a synod in Rome, which produced a divided vote, and a proposal to study the question further in advance of another, larger synod … in advance of which the pro-Arian party consistently insinuated, not without evidence, that the pontiff himself was on their side.
In this scenario, would 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.
His point is not that the Catholic Church can’t alter its teaching, but rather that it has to do so bounded by precedent. If you try to bend the tradition too far, it breaks. And he’s not saying that what was talked about at the recent Synod is the same thing as Arianism, but that the same principle is in play: It must be demonstrated that the proposed changes are continuous with what the Church has always taught, and represent a plausible progression, not a fundamental break.
This is what was on the mind of the conservative opposition at the recent Synod. They weren’t trying to be mean, or to resist the pope as a matter of mere ecclesial politics. There were concerned that the basic integrity of the structure of the faith was at stake. Is at stake.