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Fighting In The Francis Era

Ross Douthat, on the war between conservative and liberal factions within the Catholic Church under this pontificate:

In fact the conflicting inquisitions, liberal and conservative, are the all-but-inevitable result of the pope’s decisions to stir the church’s tensions into civil war again, and then to fight for the liberal side using ambiguous statements and unofficial interventions rather than the explicit powers of his office. Indeed, when Professor Faggioli complains about a “Catholic social media that has completely bypassed” the way the “Catholic Church has worked for centuries,” he might just as easily be describing Pope Francis, whose personalized style has made the lines of authority within the church maddeningly unclear.

On issues large and small, Francis has decentralized authority informally while retaining all the formal powers of his office and encouraged theological envelope-pushing without changing the official boundaries of what counts as Catholic teaching and what does not. This has effectively created two different versions of that teaching — the one on the books versus the one that the pope offers in his winks and nods — to which different Catholics can appeal.

In this environment, anyone who wishes to know what the pope really thinks is better off ignoring official Vatican offices and instead listening to the coterie of papal advisers who take to Twitter to snipe against his critics.

Douthat says the way institutions on both sides are conducting themselves in this disputatious era for the Church — trying to stay above it all by forestalling controversies — is “foolish”:

When the Supreme Pontiff is allowing argument to flourish and public division to increase, it does no good for institutions to pretend that none of this is happening — as though the average Catholic will somehow not notice that the leaders of the church are increasingly opposed to one another. (The poison of online debate is itself partially a reaction to this public pretense of tranquillity.)

Instead the only serious course is to invite serious argument and encourage respectful debate. Have the Dominicans and Jesuits bring their online debates into university auditoriums and parish halls; let Catholic students and laypeople understand the stakes.

He concludes by saying that there’s really no way to know if the Catholic Church is heading to an Anglican-like future, with very different theologies existing under the same umbrella, or if a reactionary backlash is brewing. Whatever the case, he says, “there is no way forward save through controversy.”

Later, on Twitter, Douthat extended his explanation for why debate, even without reasonable prospect of resolving things, is pretty much the only option the Catholic Church has right now:


I agree with that. On the Catholic Right, where I used to hang my hat, it is generally understood that the Church has been in a de facto schism for quite some time. Francis is (perhaps inadvertently) heightening the contradictions, making the pretense of theological unity within the Roman church even more unsustainable. So why not recognize reality and deal with it? I suppose the answer might be, “Because what if we do discover a schism-necessitating lack of common ground? What then? Schism?” The idea is that better to muddle through for the sake of a messy unity than to endure the severe clarity that comes with schism. That strategy, however, has not worked out well for the Anglicans.

I sometimes think to people who aren’t engaged with the goings-on in the Catholic Church — both Catholics and non-Catholics — this all must seem like so much vanity and silliness. It’s really not, though. Read Steve Skojec’s thoughts on what it means that Pope Francis has just cleaned out and refounded the institute Pope St. John Paul II established for the study of marriage and the family. I can’t help but read that in light of what Archbishop Chaput writes in First Things this month about JP2’s encyclical Veritatis splendor (“The Splendor of Truth”) as we near its 25th anniversary. The Archbishop of Philadelphia writes that the encyclical

reminds us forcefully that truth, including moral truth (what we owe our neighbor; what leads us to or away from God), has an objective dimension. It’s not purely a function of cultural and personal circumstances. Of course, throughout history, and throughout our individual lives, many things do change. But some truths do not change.

If Skojec’s fears prove out, it is hard to understand how the Catholic Church avoids a schism — a formal schism, I mean — because at stake are matters of fundamental truth and Church authority. But we’ll see.

I despair over all this (and the same things happening on the Evangelical side; I am under no illusion that the tiny world of American Orthodoxy will escape them) because there really is no way to resolve these fundamental issues in a world in which everyone thinks he is his own pope or patriarch. I think a lot about one of the most frustrating conversations I ever had. It was with a fellow Catholic (as I was at the time), and indeed a fellow Republican (ditto). We were arguing over same-sex marriage, back when it was just starting to become a political issue. He was for it, I wasn’t. We were arguing as two Catholics, but nothing I said mattered to him. I quoted the Catechism, but he didn’t accept the Catechism as authoritative. He didn’t accept any magisterial church teachings as authoritative. Yet he didn’t understand what was wrong with this, and took umbrage at the idea that he was in any sense out of order as a Catholic.

He was, in effect, Protestant — but then, many Protestants at least take the Bible seriously as the source of authority to which they must submit. I am pretty sure that my friend would not have done that either, except insofar as the Bible coincided with what he preferred to believe. And this is what Evangelicalism is dealing with now too. All Christian churches are. There’s no place to hide. Liquid modernity is the universal solvent of revealed religion.

To return to Douthat’s point, yes, I’m for debate, in favor of a full and civil airing of arguments. But as I wrote the other day (“The Dangers Of Dialogue”), one has to be very careful about how one approaches these exchanges.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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