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Catholicism, Permissiveness, & Mercy

My pal and sometime intellectual sparring partner Damon Linker makes some good points in his latest piece, which expresses frustration with conservative Catholics (and, I would suppose, fellow travelers like me). The title of the column — “The Retrograde Intransigence Of Conservative Catholics” [1] — tells you where he’s coming from. Excerpts:

A straightforward reformer of the church seeks to change its doctrines. A stealth reformer [2] like Francis, on the other hand, keeps the doctrines intact but invokes such concepts as mercy, conscience, and pastoral discernment to show priests that it’s perfectly acceptable to circumvent and disregard those doctrines in specific cases. A doctrine officially unenforced will soon lose its authority as a doctrine. Where once it was a commandment sanctioned by God, now it becomes an “ideal [3]” from which we’re expected to fall short. Before long it may be treated as a suggestion. Eventually, repealing it is no longer controversial — or perhaps even necessary.

Stealth reform ultimately achieves the same reformist goal, but without inspiring the intense opposition that would follow from attempting to change the doctrine outright.

That describes precisely what Pope Francis has done on the issue of permitting divorced and remarried Catholics whose first marriages haven’t been annulled to take part in the sacrament of communion.

Damon talks about how he was attracted to Catholicism (from secular Judaism) 16 years ago, when in the midst of a profound personal crisis. It was the Catholic Church’s solidity that made it seem like an oasis to him:

For someone who feels troubled by a culture in a constant state of instability and change, the Catholic Church can feel like a rock in a stormy, windswept sea. Finally, something is steady, permanent, unchangeable, fixed, immobile. The church’s very stability can end up looking like the strongest sign and confirmation of its divinity. Everything changes! But not God and his church.

For someone drawn to Catholicism by the promise of order and stability, any sign of change in the church will be unwelcome, threatening. The fact that social and cultural mores shift and develop around it is an argument for retrenchment and improved outreach to a world tempted by sin in new ways. It certainly isn’t a sign that the church should adjust its teachings on faith and morals, accommodating them to the latest trends. Any such adjustment would risk diluting the Truth, and (perhaps just as bad) serve as a potentially fatal concession that the church’s teachings can be fallible. Once that door has been opened, there may be no way to close it. Remove even a single brick from the foundation, and the whole edifice could come crashing down.

Damon talks at some length about conservative Catholics he respects — people like Ross Douthat and Michael Brendan Dougherty — who hold to a firmly orthodox position on marriage, re-marriage, and communion.


But I can’t do it anymore. In my own case, at least, it’s come to feel more like an expression of a personal (and unhealthy) psychological need than a genuine response to and requirement of divinely revealed Truth.

Read the whole thing.  [1]

A reader writes:

In some respects, I would say that he makes a fair point. I just wish he would have had the intellectual honesty to say that people who agree with him ought to do like he did and leave the Catholic Church. Framing it as an issue with “conservative Catholics” is unfair and wrong, because it’s really just an issue with “Catholics.” Which is fine — I am Catholic, but I am not going to demand that Damon Linker or anyone else be Catholic — but if you’re going to be Catholic, be Catholic.

That’s pretty much my view — or, if not leave the Church, then at least quit demanding that the Church change her teaching to accommodate their personal psychological needs.

This requires some explanation on my part.

In my case, one big reason I was attracted to Catholicism myself had to do with its being a solid rock in a tumultuous sea of relativism. In particular, it was Rome’s teachings on the meaning of sex and marriage that appealed to me, precisely because I was convicted of the disorder in my own pre-conversion life. Rome offered a deep and comprehensive way to understand sex and sexuality, one that was uncompromising, Biblically sound, and because of that, merciful. Chastity was the hard teaching that I did not want to accept, but I had enough intellectual honesty back then to know that it was not an option, not for Christians who were serious about faith. The Bible, and the continuous witness of the historic Christian church, was uncontestable on this point. The world does not want to hear this, and neither did I. But the Catholic Church — particularly in the person of Pope John Paul II — proclaimed this truth.

When I finally wanted God more than I wanted myself and my own will, I submitted. It was a miserable time, dying to myself in that way. There is nothing in our popular culture to support doing what I had undertaken; in fact, exactly the opposite. The thing I did not really understand until I became Catholic is that there is very little within the culture of ordinary American Catholicism to support it either.

Now, if that’s not been your experience, count yourself lucky. It was my experience in a number of parishes and places. For example, my bride-to-be and I were committed to being faithful Catholics and observing Natural Family Planning. She found a teacher in Austin, Texas, where she was finishing her degree, and I looked for one in the Archdiocese of Miami, where I was then living. I had trouble finding one, and when I finally did locate a teaching couple, they told me that they had been forbidden from teaching NFP in a number of area parishes. The parishes simply did not want to deal with presenting an unpopular teaching.

On two different occasions I got into an argument in the confessional with the priest on the other side of the screen over what’s a sin regarding sexual morality. In one case, the priest and I agreed to drop it, he said the absolution, and let me go. But it wasn’t even close to being an honest dispute. The priest flat-out rejected authoritative, binding Roman Catholic teaching. In the other case, a priest in the confessional at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in NYC advised me to use contraception in my marriage. I challenged him, and he gave a sigh that said oh, one of those, absolved me, and sent me on my way.

Those are some brief examples, fairly outrageous ones, from an orthodox Catholic point of view. Mostly, Catholic priests and parishes don’t even talk about this at all. Their silence says everything. What it says to Catholics like I once was, both as a single man and as a married man, struggling with chastity (= rightly ordering the gift of sexuality): You’re on your own, pal. 

Speaking only for myself here, that was enough. I knew the Egypt that had once been my dwelling place, and I preferred the desert to returning there. Still, the desert was a dry and difficult land, a place to wander all alone. In my case, I never felt all that inclined to judge fellow sinners who attempted to live by the Church’s teachings and failed. So did I! Thank God for the sacrament of confession, which was a great mercy to me. What made me really angry — really angry — was the way so many priests and lay leaders within the Church either explicitly or implicitly denied the Church’s teachings. It was one thing to deny Catholics like me the help we needed to live out the Church’s teaching. It was another to spit in our faces and call us fools for trying to do the right thing.

I have been an Orthodox Christian for ten years, and I have come to appreciate better the Orthodox approach to matters like contraception and divorce. In fact, I think Orthodoxy has a more realistic and merciful approach — and in the case of communion after divorce, Pope Francis’s recent teaching is closer to the Orthodox understanding. So why does Pope Francis’s teaching worry me on behalf of my Catholic friends?

A couple of reasons come to mind. First, Orthodoxy and Catholicism have fundamentally different approaches to understanding how marriage is understood in the sacramental economy. An Orthodox priest explains it briefly like this: [4]

For Roman Catholics, Holy Matrimony is a binding, ostensibly an unbreakable, contract. The man and the woman marry each other with the “church” (bishop or priest) standing as a witness to it. Hence, no divorce under any conditions – no divorce but annulment of the marriage contract if some canonical defect in it may be found which renders it null and void (as if it never took place).

In Orthodoxy, Holy Matrimony is not a contract; it is the mysterious or mystical union of a man and woman – in imitation of Christ and the Church – in the presence of “the whole People of God” through her bishop or his presbyter. Divorce is likewise forbidden, but, as a concession to human weakness, it is allowed for adultery. Second and third marriages are permitted – not as a legal matter – out of mercy, a further concession to human weakness (e.g., after the death of a spouse). This Sacrament, as all Sacraments or Mysteries, is completed by the Eucharist, as St. Dionysius the Areopagite says.

There’s a lot more to it than that, obviously, but the relevant point is that within the Roman Catholic sacramental system, pastors have less room to maneuver and still stay faithful to the teaching. People say to me, “But the Catholics are becoming more like the Orthodox; why doesn’t this make you happy, as an Orthodox?” The answer is because I don’t believe in consequentialism. If the Catholics are becoming more like us for reasons that violate their self-understanding and weakens their overall strength and witness, then this is at best an ambiguous outcome.

More important, at least to me, is that the Pope is loosening a teaching that is rarely proclaimed in the first place. I can see that I was too legalistic as a Catholic, and certainly the experience of suffering helped me to understand more fully that the law was made for man, not man for the law. This is why I sympathize with Francis’s pastoral instincts in Amoris Laetitia. That said, I know perfectly well how most American Catholic parishes are going to interpret and implement this teaching: as an excuse to ignore the teaching in the first place (as if most of them needed an excuse).

(To be fair, I don’t know how this is handled in most US Orthodox churches. I have been in only a handful of parishes over the last 10 years, all of them primarily convert parishes. It may well be the case that most Orthodox parishes are just as negligent as RC ones.)

Remember what Damon Linker said:

A doctrine officially unenforced will soon lose its authority as a doctrine. Where once it was a commandment sanctioned by God, now it becomes an “ideal [3]” from which we’re expected to fall short. Before long it may be treated as a suggestion. Eventually, repealing it is no longer controversial — or perhaps even necessary.

You can teach a lie just as effectively by declining to teach the truth. That’s what I fear is going to happen in the Roman Catholic Church in the wake of Amoris Laetitia, however well-intentioned Francis is. I don’t believe that the Roman Catholic Church has never, ever changed its doctrine, and I know, it’s no longer my church, so not really my concern. But I live in this post-Christian culture too, and it bothers me a great deal to see any Christian church weaken its standards, precisely in the area of morality where the historic Christian teaching is the greatest sign of contradiction to the age.

What is the difference between mercy and permissiveness? There is one, I’m sure. Which one is Francis preaching, in effect? I’m not sure.

106 Comments (Open | Close)

106 Comments To "Catholicism, Permissiveness, & Mercy"

#1 Comment By dominic1955 On April 17, 2016 @ 10:33 pm


“Two things about this. First, I wonder how Catholics square the claim that “Jesus said so” — yes, I’m aware of the Gospel verses about “the rock on which I will build my church” — with Galatians 2:11-14, which strongly suggests both that Paul felt very free to disagree with and criticize Peter, and that Peter himself received instructions from some higher authority in Jerusalem.

From the Haydock notes to the Douay-Rheims Bible-

“I withstood: The fault that is here noted in the conduct of St. Peter, was only a certain imprudence, in withdrawing himself from the table of the Gentiles, for fear of giving offence to the Jewish converts; but this, in such circumstances, when his so doing might be of ill consequence to the Gentiles, who might be induced thereby to think themselves obliged to conform to the Jewish way of living, to the prejudice of their Christian liberty. Neither was St. Paul’s reprehending him any argument against his supremacy; for in such cases an inferior may, and sometimes ought, with respect, to admonish his superior.”

“Protestant higher critics typically conclude from this that the Gospel passages are a later embellishment, retrojecting into Jesus’ lifetime (in order to explain and justify) a situation that had developed only some time later in the early church.”

Higher critics schmigher critics. You can slice and dice the Bible until its just a story about a man who maybe said some stuff about being good to each other.

We say the Bible, as laid down by the Councils, is the Word of God in all its parts as have been traditionally received as Canonical. Unless those Higher Critics have a time machine, all their stuff is theorizing and guesswork.

“Even granting the authenticity of the command, though, it’s still hard to tell how much of the actual papacy as we now know it is what Jesus had in mind. It’s not obvious that the rock on which He built his Church must necessarily be a quasi-monarchical office occupied by a global celebrity with an obligation to pronounce on big theological questions on a regular basis. It could, perhaps, be a personage more like the Queen of Great Britain — a technical sovereign, but basically a figurehead — or perhaps the UN Secretary-General, a mere functionary of the larger organization who mostly stays in the background, and whose opinions on things only insiders usually hear about.”

We know what Jesus had in mind because the Church, the very Mystical Body of Christ Himself, has told us.

“So perhaps I should reframe my question. It’s not “What’s the point of having a Pope?”, but “What’s the point of having this kind of Pope,” i.e. the kind we’ve grown used to in recent generations? Because it does seem like something of an open invitation to internal dissent.”

Since this is a theological question, it basically goes back to what I said-because Jesus said so through His Church. You might not find the answer you are looking for because it might not exist.

Sure, if the Church is merely one organization among many, it doesn’t really matter if its leadership structure gets changed but we don’t think that’s the case.

#2 Comment By William Tighe On April 18, 2016 @ 9:41 am

Eamus Catuli,

Thank you for your thoughtful response. If you have the time and interest, you might wish to try to lay hands on, and peruse, two books on the papacy written by Anglican Church Historians. The first is, *The Church and the Papacy* by Trevor Gervase Jalland (London, 1944 [repr. 1946,1949]: SPCK) and the second *Jurisdiction in the Early Church: Episcopal and Papal* by Dom Gregory Dix (London, 1974: Church Literature Association. Jalland (1898-1975) was an academic Anglican clergyman who had a deep appreciation for the role of the papacy in the First Milennium in defending the Faith and Church, particularly against the various attempts of the Eastern Roman emperors to force their own conciliatory theological dogmatic formulations upon it, but who (as the very last pages of the book seem to indicate) demurred from the “Vatican I papal dogmas.” Dix (1901-1952) was an English Anglican Benedictine monk, and very much a papalist whose writings have a verve and sharp-edgedness which has always seemed to either beguile or repulse readers, with little middle ground. (The book itself, originally a serialized multipartite book review, was published in book form two decades after its author’s death.) I recommend them because both of them discuss the questions which you raise in the third paragraph of your response; and especially this (and also because they offer “outside views” on this issue):

“First, I wonder how Catholics square the claim that “Jesus said so” — yes, I’m aware of the Gospel verses about “the rock on which I will build my church” — with Galatians 2:11-14, which strongly suggests both that Paul felt very free to disagree with and criticize Peter, and that Peter himself received instructions from some higher authority in Jerusalem”

which seems to me to be not much of a difficulty. Peter stumbled, and on a matter on which, or where, doctrine intersected with “real life” in a particularly “inconvenient” way – and Paul called him out on it; just as some Catholics today believe that “Francis has stumbled” and are seeking, to put the best gloss upon it, to call him out on it. I am not sure that Galatians 2:11-14 necessarily, or even obviously, indicates that “Peter received instructions” from Jerusalem, and not that he decided that it would be wiser to defer to the doubts and hesitations about the total fellowship of Jewish Christians with Gentile Christians which many Jewish Christians had at the time (even assuming that the epistle was written subsequent to the “Jerusalem Council” of Acts 15, which is a point in dispute among scholars; if it was written before that council then the question would have been a genuinely open one, and Peter would then have bee hesitating between two positions whose incompatibility he did not see, or, perhaps, did not wish to see).

#3 Comment By William Tighe On April 18, 2016 @ 9:53 am

“whose incompatibility he did not see, or, perhaps, did not wish to see”

And not, perhaps, for the last time, cf. Honorius, perhaps Liberius, and perhaps more recent popes, in the history of Peter and those successors of his whose office Leo the Great in his lapidary Latinity described as “indignus heres Beati Petri” (where both “heres” [heir] and “indignus” [unworthy] have clear and specific meanings in Roman “inheritance law” – cf. “Leo the Great and the Theme of Papal Primacy,” by Walter Ullmann, *Journal of Theological Studies,* n.s., XI (1960) pp. 25-51, an article published back in the day when authors could leave untranslated long passages in both Latin and [in Ullmann’s case his native language] German).

#4 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On April 18, 2016 @ 10:34 am

Sure, if the Church is merely one organization among many, it doesn’t really matter if its leadership structure gets changed but we don’t think that’s the case.

No, you don’t, but some of the rest of us do.

#5 Comment By Eamus Catuli On April 18, 2016 @ 4:50 pm

William and dominic,

Thanks for the further replies, and especially for the citations and reading recommendations. Again, I’m caught in the toils of an unusually busy work week, with a business trip starting at dawn tomorrow, so I can’t really get into this further at the moment. But my guess is that as long as Pope Francis keeps talking, we’re going to have opportunities to discuss all this again on future threads. All best until then.

#6 Comment By Zippy On May 2, 2016 @ 12:31 pm

Spearmint wrote:

Every so often a pope will, in response to wider social change, make a pretty serious course correction, like redefining usury to permit the charging of interest.

This is an urban myth. It never happened. See [5] for a full explanation.