In his Sunday column, Ross Douthat expressed concern that the way the Catholic Church handles reform on the divorce-and-communion front could lead, in the worst case, to schism. In a follow-up blog entry, he explains why. I know many of you instinctively react to this kind of thing, but it’s worth reading at length to understand the logic of the position of conservative Catholics like him. Excerpt:

And one certainly can, as the Orthodox and many Protestant churches do, make reasonable theological and biblical arguments for accepting second marriages in some form. But here’s the crucial problem: The test for changes to Catholic practice isn’t just supposed to be “what practical consequences are likely to ensue?” and the bar that such changes need to clear isn’t just supposed to be “what can be reasonably defended by thoughtful Christians?” Rather, the primary test and crucial bar alike are supposed to be “what can be reasonably defended in the light of what the Roman Catholic Church has historically affirmed and taught?”

Seen in that light, it is very hard for me to understand how this kind of change wouldn’t create some pretty significant internal problems for Catholic doctrine as currently and traditionally understood.

I agree. More:

Which in turn would mean that if he actually made this kind of change — and, as I said in the column, I do not think he will, but it is being debated with his apparent encouragement, so the possibility has to be addressed — Pope Francis would be either dissolving important church teachings into what looks to me like incoherence, or else changing those same teachings in a way that many conservative Catholics believe that the pope simply cannot do.

Now I am obviously neither a theologian nor a church historian, so my judgments on an issue like this are hardly (ahem) infallible. But in following the controversy, the arguments that this sort of move would not require a doctrinal change seem fairly weak. There is the claim that it would be a strictly disciplinary change, not a dogmatic one … but unlike many other disciplinary issues (from Friday fasts to priestly celibacy), this seems like a case where the discipline is more or less required by a doctrine or doctrines, and to alter one is to at least strongly imply an alteration in the others. There is also the invocation of practices from the early centuries of the church, when some second marriages may have been handled in this manner, and the suggestion that under such a reform the church would be simply returning to an ancient practice. But the entire theory of the development of dogma, which is central to defenses of continuity in Catholic teaching, would seem to militate against the idea that the consistent witness (and to this layman, it really does look pretty consistent) of the second millennium of Catholic history, complete with martyrs and dogmatic definitions, can safely be set aside because of some highly ambiguous cases from the first millennium.

The point here is not that Catholics conservatives are a bunch of legalists who want to be mean to divorced Catholics. The point is that despite what many modern people may believe or wish to believe, the Catholic Church cannot simply decide to change its mind on this or that matter, without grounding the change strongly in what came before. Precisely the question here is whether or not the kind of change Cardinal Kasper, with Francis’s apparent blessing, proposes can be reconciled with Catholic teaching. This is not a minor matter:

And since it isn’t a small argument … since the church’s claim to a constant, non-contradicting authority lies close to the heart of why many conservative Catholics are conservative Catholics … well, that’s why the “schism” possibility seems worth raising, because hard-to-process theological shocks are where institutional fractures often start. It’s one thing for conservative Catholics to serve as a kind of loyal opposition during this pontificate — to learn to doubt a pope, or disagree with his rhetoric or decision-making, while remaining faithful to the office and the church. It’s quite another if one of those papal decisions seriously calls into question the doctrinal continuity that’s the very root of conservative-Catholic loyalty. And there just isn’t a recent model apart from the Lefebvrist schism for how that kind of more-Catholic-than-the-pope dissent would practically work.

Speaking as an outsider, I can easily understand why a more liberalized approach to handling communion and divorced Catholics is pastorally desirable. I think the Orthodox approach is more realistic and humane. All that is beside the point. Catholics like Douthat are right to point out that any change has to take place within the context of Catholic tradition and its authoritative teaching. Catholicism, rightly understood, is not whatever the Pope says it is at any moment. Popes are bound by the law of the Church too, and by its traditions. If this or any Pope made a change in church law that he was not empowered to make, that would, as Ross says, call the Church’s authority into question.

It is a fundamental theological issue, and it doesn’t go away by grinching about those nasty conservatives who won’t get on board with the new Franciscan springtime. It doesn’t seem like an issue to many American Catholics, liberals and others, because they tend to take Church teaching as advisory, not binding. Conservative and orthodox Catholics see things differently. The orthodox Catholic writer John Zmirak is surely right, to some extent, when he warns about the crankiness of his side, but it seems to me, as an outsider, that objections made by Catholics like Douthat to these new proposals are being treated only as expressions of right-wing Catholic crankiness. And that is a mistake.

Read Zmirak’s essay for a great example of the dangers of orthodox Catholics failing to understand the social and cultural context in which the case for Catholic teaching must be proclaimed. This is something that many orthodox Catholics do not sufficiently appreciate (it was true for me when I was an orthodox Catholic). But I think it’s a big, big mistake for other Catholics to overlook or to dismiss the point Catholics like Ross Douthat raise. In that vein, I would point you to this 2010 essay by Zmirak, when he was in a more Traditionalist mode of thinking, in which he explained how massive and destructive effects within the Church can come from what seem at the time to be relatively minor changes. In the current debate, if the teaching authority of the Church appears to act in a way that obviates the Church’s authority in an illicit way, then the entire argument for Rome’s exclusive authority evaporates. That doesn’t mean anything to Catholics who don’t accept Rome’s authority in the first place (think about that for a moment), but for those who do, this would bring about a very serious crisis of belief.

Even if you think they’re wrong about this, you should try to understand what it looks like to them. Douthat’s column and blog entry are a great place to start.