Catherine M. Wallace responds to Ross Douthat

In a previous post I clipped some paragraphs from this steady, growing debate between Douthat and the Roman Catholic professors, and this makes part 4:


As I see it, Mr. Douthat makes three theological mistakes. First, he insists that the church cannot change any of its doctrines (“teachings”) or dogmas (“opinions”) without calling papal infallibility into question. That’s a misreading of papal infallibility. Here’s the backstory: in declaring the pope infallible in 1870, the First Vatican Council did not apply “infallibility” retroactively to the immense body of existing teachings on every imaginable topic. The pope is officially infallible only when he declares that a particular formal statement is being made “ex cathedra” or “from the chair of Peter.” With the exception of one peculiar proclamation by Pius XII in 1950, no pope has ever issued an infallible teaching. The heritage of Catholic teachings has genuine authority, but it is not infallible. Mr. Douthat’s sweeping construction of infallibility turns this heritage into an idol.

When Mr. Douthat flatly insists that the Church cannot change, he assumes a high Platonic construction of reality. Plato and Greek tradition generally assumed that the unchanging is morally superior to the dynamic, the developing, and so forth. Our culture no longer assumes that stasis is a “higher” moral state. An editorial in the National Catholic Reporter gestured toward this buried Platonism when it acknowledged that “An ongoing tension inherent in church life exists between the view of tradition as frozen, as if in holy amber, and the one that sees tradition as constantly renewing itself, expanding with new insights to meet new challenges.”

One of these new challenges, needless to say, is how dramatically different marriage is today than it was in the ancient world, where marriages were arranged, a divorced woman was left homeless and destitute, and the vast majority of people died before they turned thirty. The moral reality of faithful and holy gay marriages provides an even more direct challenge to those who insist that of course Christianity cannot change.

Mr. Douthat’s second mistake is portraying Catholicism as over-invested in condemning people, especially the publicly enacted judgmentalism involved in being refused Holy Communion. The Eucharist is not some special reward for the righteous–a ritual scrupulously to be denied to those who fail to meet “standards.” The larger theological and pastoral tradition understands the Eucharist as a sacred communal expression of God’s intimate supporting Presence to each of us and in each of us, no matter what, indelibly and incessantly. I’ve seen no mention anywhere of the immense spiritual harm done to faithful Catholics by proclaiming them forevermore unworthy of this sacrament. And why? Because after suffering through the legalities of a divorce, they refused to tangle with the expensive, arduous, and insanely bureaucratic process of an annulment–as if some remote Vatican committee could actually determine God’s views on their failed marriage.

There’s a third, even more subtle issue at stake in the confrontation between Mr. Douthat and a wide array of Catholic bishops and theologians. What is the role of critical thinking within Catholicism? Mr. Douthat and his allies in effect portray Catholic doctrines as simply deduced from unchanging and unquestionable absolutes laid down by God himself–and never mind the influence of cultural context and human fallibility upon the people who first formulated the teachings. That’s one option.

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