To close out this week of Where Peter Is Tussling with Ross Douthat

To close out this week of Where Peter Is Tussling with Ross Douthat November 22, 2019

…I thought it would be good to take a look at Dan Amiri’s review of To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism.  It’s a fair-minded review and I encourage you to read the whole thing.  The part I want to focus on is here:

Especially in American politics, there is a tendency to break populations down into two dominant sides, in almost every respect. Conservative or progressive, Republican or Democrat, capitalist or socialist. If you’re not on one side you are on the other, like it or not. Political analyses based on this kind of polarization is nothing new, of course, but it tends to be lazy.  Ultimately, Douthat is wrong to ascribe a similar polarization to intra-Church politics today.

Why? One reason is because Francis himself has rejected the approach of both the “right” and the “left” wings of this particular debate on communion for the divorced and remarried .That’s not to say, of course, that the middle position is always the correct one, but as we’ve indicated time and time again through this website, conservatives’ overreaction to Amoris Laetitia fails to adequately account for the extent to which Francis actually rejects the more “Kasperite” of stances they commonly ascribe to him.

It is Douthat’s claim that the so-called “exception” will become the norm, driving a wedge between factions of the Church, between those who hold to its perennial teachings and those who wish to reform the Church in a drastic break with tradition.  Uncharacteristically, Douthat lacks nuance here. Yes, subjective culpability may be diminished in light of extenuating circumstances. Yes, in some cases, the Church’s help to the repentant sinner may include the help of the Sacraments. Yes, this may appear to be a exception to the norm.

In reality, Francis has applied an orthodox interpretation of the Church’s teaching to this particular question. Francis rejects Kasper insofar as he rejects the supremacy of conscience above the objective moral law. The Church must not give the impression that priests can hand out “exceptions,” says Francis. On the other hand, Francis understands that “grace does not heal all at once,” and compassion must be shown to those desiring to live in the fullness of Truth but, with respect to their consciences, find it difficult or impossible to do so because of their personal weaknesses and circumstances.

But once again, unlike Kasper (or at least Douthat’s interpretation of him), Francis has in mind a necessary progression toward the good. Priests must lead sinners toward the good, not confirm them in their objective sin. At the same time, sinners must be humble and sincerely seek to live according to the Church’s teachings. This is Francis’ position, clearly written in black and white in Amoris LaetitiaFor reasons unknown, Douthat never reaches this necessary level of theological subtlety in To Change the Church. Rather, he is content with ascribing positions to Francis that he does not hold.

And so, a better narrative would be not one in which Francis champions the wrong side of a theological war with long-lasting and potentially Church-rupturing consequences, but rather one in which a mainline orthodoxy is being influenced and developed by a holy body of Apostolic successors who have diverse ideas about how the Church ought to be led and in what direction it ought to go. In fact, this more or less describes the entire history of the Church since Peter and Paul duked it out in 1st Century AD. Providing a bulwark against the most extreme and least orthodox positions is Francis, who is also particularly passionate about ensuring that the Church’s teachings are made relevant to “everyday” Catholics.

Granted, this isn’t as exciting as Douthat’s narrative, but I do believe it is closer to the truth.

This was written back in July 2018, the palmy days when the great hope of the Francis-haters lay in the cry “Answer the dubia!”  Back then, after casting around for one reason or another to justify their visceral and growing loathing of Francis, the Right Wing Panic Machine had hit on Amoris Laetitia as the smoking gun for proving that the Holy Father was Up to No Good.  Four cardinals had demanded answers, backed by a right wing social media machine (and EWTN) and Rome had given its reply, which was instantly rejected.

Then the Right Wing Panic Machine, having made clear that it was asking questions, not to find things out, but to keep from finding things out, kept pretending it had not been answered.  Francis, as is his custom, simply ignored them and went about his business, best summarized, as ever, in the words “He has preached good news to the poor.”  That is the period in which Douthat wrote his book.

The following month, however, in a carefully coordinated attack involving Cardinals Burke and Vigano, as well as EWTN, and a gaggle of hysterical right wing social media, the “Answer the dubia” strategy was abandoned and the cry was amped up to “RESIGN!!!!!!” as Vigano, attempting to deflect from his own failure to do a damn thing about the abusive Cardinal McCarrick, tried desperately to claim that the only pope who did do something about him–Francis–was somehow guilty of ignoring a super-duper Double Secret Probation Vigano refused to document as he ran off into hiding from the press.

Since that time, the Right Wing Panic Machine has attempted more and more extreme measures, releasing letters declaring the Pope a heretic, shrieking that he is an apostate pagan idolator, trying to figure out ways to pretend he is not the pope at all, and even trying to suggest that he might be in league with Moloch. The hysteria, always emanating from the same sector of bonkers, conspiracy-theorizing, panic-driven conservatives and Reactionaries convinced that the Church begins and ends with them, has long ago slipped the tether of connection to anything approaching “good faith argument” and is now openly advocating total rejection of the Magisterium:


The descripter for this is “Protestantism”.  It is insane and lacks even the gravitas of the original Reformers, who were at least learned men and not social media pundits.  I’ll stick with the actual Magisterium, thanks.


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