What Douthat & Martin Miss: Reflections on the Ongoing Synod Discussion

What Douthat & Martin Miss: Reflections on the Ongoing Synod Discussion November 19, 2014

NYT columnist, Ross Douthat,  and America Editor-at-Large, Fr. Jim Martin, are having a very interesting conversation about the fallout from the Extraordinary Synod on the Family.  I applaud them ondouthat-martin their civility, but I do think they are missing some important points.

So Who Asked You, Anyway?

Although they haven’t asked my opinion, I did want to offer a few thoughts because as a full-time marriage and family minister who has written more than 20 books promoting the Catholic vision of marriage, family, and sexuality,  who directs an agency providing over 10,000 hours of ongoing pastoral counseling per year to Catholics worldwide, who talks about these topics with Catholics and other across the US on the radio every day, and who will be addressing the World Meeting of Families in 2015,  I have a lot at stake in the discussion, and maybe, I hope,  something of value to add.

Who Gets to Wear the White Hat?

I think the first point that I would like to address is Fr. Martin’s and Mr. Douthat’s points on “traditionalism” vs. “progressivism.”  Or, more specifically, what Fr. Martin points out is the trope of the “good traditionalist” versus the “bad progressive.”  While I appreciate their discussion of the topic, I think they’re both missing an important point.

Cardinal George gave an interview this past week where he said something that, I think, was very wise.  He said, for Catholics, “…the category that matters is true/false,” He said. “I reject the whole liberal/conservative deformation of the character of our lives. If you’re limited to that … then somehow or other you’ve betrayed your vocation….”

This really speaks to me and I think it presents a challenge to both Fr. Martin and Mr. Douthat. I think it is just as irresponsible to foment talk of schism as it is to give public lip-service to Church teaching while charmingly undermining it where one can.

It seems to me that the best response one can have to the Synod is to make one’s sincere questions and thoughts known, pray, and consider what is happening in one’s heart.  There is, to my taste, too much crowing among the progressives and too much Chicken-Little-reactivity among traditionalists.  There are serious issues in play, to be sure, but serious issues require sober minds, and too many progressives and traditionalists are losing theirs, albeit for different reasons.

I would like to respectfully suggest to both Fr. Martin and Mr. Douthat that the degree to which you describe yourself as a “traditionalist  Catholic,” or a “progressive Catholic,” or a “conservative Catholic,” or a “liberal Catholic,” is the degree to which you are something other than a practicing Catholic.

As Cardinal George wisely suggests, the only for Catholics are, “Is this true or is it false?” And “How do we personally struggle to live out the truth?”  And, finally, “How can we  help others in their personal struggle to live what is true?”    To my way of thinking, any labels that get in the way of these conversations are millstones around our necks and are better off .

Pastoral Practice VS. Doctrine.

The second point I’d like to address is Douthat’s and Martin’s discussion about doctrine vs. pastoral practice (or fundamentalist pharisaism vs. cheap grace).  In particular, Fr. Martin proposed an analogy that I think is very telling of the problem in the way many people are thinking about the kind of problems (like communion for divorced and remarried Catholics) discussed at the synod.  He wrote,

“Imagine a town that has posted speed limits of 35 miles an hour. Now imagine that a newly passed law has dropped the penalty for speeding from a week in jail to a fine of $100. Perhaps the voters thought that a week in jail was too severe. Perhaps they saw how across-the-board applications of that penalty were too draconian. This does not mean that the speed limit has changed: it is still 35 miles per hour. Rather, the way one deals with those who have transgressed the law has changed.”

I would suggest that there are two problems with this analogy:  

1.  Better To Ask for An Apology Than Permission?

First, as applied to the debate about what to do with people who have re-married without the benefit of an annulment, Fr. Martin is essentially championing an idea proposed by Cardinal Kasper, who’s notion was that people who had contracted a second marriage without the benefit of an annulment could simply confess the second marriage and, without making any other changes, be reconciled to communion. 

Returning to Fr. Martin’s analogy, Kasper’s idea is the equivalent of saying, “It will always be against the law to exceed the speed limit, but from now on, anyone who drag races on this strip of road will simply have to say, ‘I’m sorry’ to the police officer when stopped and then be allowed to continue on their way.”

This is an example of a “pastoral practice” that undermines “the law”–in this case marital indissolubility– in everything but name.  To be honest,  “progressive Catholics” came out of the Synod looking like they think themselves a bit cleverer than everyone else, and acting like they could “win” the debate simply by pretending that any objection to obvious attempts at doctrinal work-arounds was just a case of cold-hearted, retrograde traditionalism.

Alternatively, I would like to suggest that it is possible to want a more compassionate approach to pastoral practice that simultaneously does not throw doctrine under the bus either in spirit or in truth.  I would like to challenge reformers and traditionalists to seek those solutions instead of clinging, each to his own cause celebre,  and using this latest discussion as yet another opportunity to fight their endless, ecclesiastical, Cold War proxy battles.

2. Doctrine Is Not A “Law.” It Is The Path to Fulfillment and Divinization

Second, and much, much more importantly, is Fr. Martin’s false comparison of doctrine to a law.  Doctrine isn’t a law. It isn’t ratified by mere legislative consensus and mediated by additional legislation.  Doctrine is, ultimately, an absolute truth claim of what it means to be a fully formed human person in a rightly ordered relationship with God.  Moreover, doctrine is a truth-claim tested in the crucible of thousands of years of revelation and human experience. It is true that at some point, doctrine must be defined, but that is largely after a particular truth claim has been tested over hundreds and sometimes thousands of years of prayer, debate, discernment and lived experience.  Because of the rigor of this process, a doctrine is as close to an authentic, absolute truth as we can probably discern this side of heaven.

As such, the doctrine of marital indissolubility isn’t, as Fr. Martin’s analogy appears to suggest,  a “law” that says “don’t get divorced and remarried.”  It is a claim that there is something about lifelong marital fidelity that is essential to our ability to fulfill our destiny both as human persons and children of God. 

Any pastoral practice that doesn’t acknowledge this is too wimpy to succeed at the job it allegedly sets out to do.  Any valid pastoral practice must more effectively enable the person to fulfill his human and divine potential.  At the very least, it can’t stand in the person’s way or obscure the path to human fulfillment and divinization.

That’s why Cardinal Kasper’s proposal, especially in light of his stated position that it isn’t appropriate to expect heroic virtue from the laity is the equivalent of damning lay people with the soft clericalism of low expectations.  Kasper’s proposal is not merely wrong because it contravenes the traditionalists’ obsession with the law.  It is frankly,  despicable, because it counsels the faithful to pursue a path that is in direct opposition to their spiritual and human fulfillment as authentic persons and children of God (Mt 19:7-8; Mk 10:7-9; or Mt 5:32).

The Challenge for Each Side

I’ve already said that the challenge for traditionalists is to get over their tendency to histrionics. They truly need to stop getting their wimples in a knot over the fact that Church’s teachings are ground out like sausage and if the Holy Spirit is OK with that, they can be too.   That said, I do think progressives have the harder pill to swallow because it is impossible to be authentically pastoral in the application of a doctrine they never believed in anyway.

To be authentically pastoral, you have to be able to appreciate the beauty of the teaching you are attempting to apply.  Until progressives can learn to appreciate the truth and beauty of the Church’s teaching on marriage and, more specifically, sexuality, they will have nothing credible to add to this debate because every proposal will come off as “just how little of this do we really have to apply in order to keep up at least the illusion of adherence to these legal hoops the Church wants people to jump through.”

I would respectfully challenge both Mr. Douthat and Fr. Martin to apply their good hearts and considerable talents to fostering real solutions instead of either seeking creative ways to foment hysteria about the erstwhile end of the Church or perpetuate the liberal, clericalist tendency to damn the laity with low expectations while claiming to be merciful.

The people who are suffering under the weight of these issues deserve better treatment than either Fr. Martin or Mr Douthat’s camps are giving them.


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