Liberal Catholicism Rains On Douthat’s Leg
Ross Douthat explains why conservative/orthodox Catholics do not trust liberal Catholics when they say that Pope Francis and the liberal Synod fathers are not going to change doctrine, only pastoral practice. He says that liberal Catholics have a Catholicism problem. Using an essay by the liberal Jesuit Father Jim Martin, who favors liberalizing the Church’s practices on communion for the sake of inclusion, Douthat says that this cannot be other than a change in doctrine of the Eucharist, which is a pretty big deal. Excerpt:
So treating the eucharist as a form of outreach instead would represent a revolution, not a mere pastoral tweak, in the way the church thinks about that sacrament (and not only that one). That’s because there’s no clear way to confine Father Martin’s logic to the narrow cases at issue in this debate. If community precedes conversion in the reception of communion, why should only remarried Catholics (or gay Catholics, or polygamous Catholics) have the benefits of being welcomed at the altar? The same welcoming logic would surely apply to any unshriven sinner in need of conversion. And not just any sinner who happened to be baptized Catholic: If the template is Jesus’s meals with the unconverted, then it would apply to any human being, period, since who wouldn’t Jesus have dined with? Why should Protestants not be welcomed to communion? Why shouldn’t Jews? (We know Jesus liked to dine with Jews!) Why shouldn’t Muslims and Mormons, agnostics and atheists? If the eucharist is basically a form of food-based Christian fellowship, a means to outreach and welcome and hospitality rather than a sacred mystery for believers to approach with reverence and not a little fear, then forget the divorced and remarried; barring anyone from receiving makes no sense at all.
And indeed there are many Christian churches that take exactly this attitude toward communion. But they are also, not coincidentally, generally churches that don’t have Catholicism’s view of transsubstantiation, confession, or the sacramental economy writ large. They are always Protestant, frequently liberal, and emphatically not the Roman Catholic Church in which both myself and Father Martin were confirmed.
Which is, in the end, the crucial issue here. Of course Catholicism changes; of course Catholic teaching has altered in various ways across the centuries and millennia. But the changes that are being bruited about right now, in Rome and in the public writings of liberal Catholic writers, need to have their implications clearly stated. Their underlying logic would gradually usher in, not some sort of meatless-Friday pastoral change or a rhetorical shift toward mercy rather than condemnation, but a significant Protestantization of the church. They would open a new chapter in the post-1960s iconoclasm of Catholic memory, the very modern erasure of the Catholic Christian past.
On his Twitter feed, Douthat offers a 19-point argument about why devolving power to local synods would invite into the Roman Catholic Church the same mess now tearing global Anglicanism apart, but add some special new ones:
And unlike Canterbury, Rome will retain power to reimpose uniformity. So Vatican/papal politics will be *more* contested, not less. (13/X)
— Ross Douthat (@DouthatNYT) October 19, 2015
I think Douthat is entirely right about the ecclesial disaster that decentralization would bring. Every American Catholic who pays attention knows that there is a de facto schism in the Church in this country. People know where the liberal Catholic parishes are, and where the conservative ones are. Liberal Catholics have their favorite magazines, bishops, and figures, and so do conservatives. To talk to those engaged on both sides is to wonder how they manage to stay in the same church. To devolve power down to the national level would highlight the differences and intensify these fights and, as Douthat foresees, you will end up having orthodox Catholic parishes petitioning to go under the authority of orthodox African Catholic bishops when they lose confidence in the orthodoxy of their local ordinary, as has happened with some Episcopal churches in this country.
Is this really necessary?