Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Ross Douthat and the Future of Catholicism

Years ago, while studying Paulist Fathers' Founder Isaac Hecker's expectations of - and his response to - the First Vatican Council, I was struck by how consistent they were with his long-term priorities. Hecker certainly appreciated the importance of internal Church concerns. After all, most of his active, day-to-day ministry (and that of the community he founded) was about building up the Church in the U.S. But he always understood that the Church exists to evangelize, and he seems to have had little appetite for intra-mural factionalism. One of his “Rules for the Guidance of Writers, Lecturers, and Others Engaged in Public Life” was “To keep our minds and hearts free from all attachments to schools, parties, or persons in the Church, so that nothing within us may hinder the light and direction of the Holy Spirit.” 

Similarly, it has long seemed evident (to me at least) that, to the extent that the Church in the late 20th and early 21st centuries may have become less effective in its outreach to the wider world than had been hoped during and in the initial aftermath of the Second Vatican Council, this has in some measure been because so much ecclesial energy has been diverted by internal disputes and battles between factions and interest groups within the Church. 

This may be one of the larger lessons which NY Times columnist and Catholic commentator Ross Douthat explores in his latest book, To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism (Simon and Schuster, 2018). Much of the pre-publication interest has focused on the highly controversial, contemporary questions connected with divorce and remarriage. In fact, however, Douthat doesn't even get to that topic until chapter 6. 

Before that, he recalls the two standard narratives of the Second Vatican Council and its aftermath - corresponding (more or less) to Pope Benedict's famous formulation in 2005 of a hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture vs. a hermeneutic of reform. What Douthat does then is "to attempt a synthesis" in the form of an alternative "third story," which highlights the tension, vagueness, and lack of consensus from the outset on exactly how much and how far the Church could or should change (thus enabling competing interpretations to coexist). As importantly, he also highlights how, while the Council was clearest in resolving the lingering,  past problems of the 19th and 20th centuries  (e.g., "the church's relationship to democracy, to religious liberty, to Judaism"), the Council, understandably enough, offered much less clarity for facing the new, post-modern challenges that could hardly have been anticipated in the optimistic early 1960s, but which were just around the corner in the form of "the sexual revolution and the distinctive crisis that subsequently swept over the church." 

Those of us who lived through that period should easily be able to recognize the essentials of Douthat's narrative, which resulted, he argues, in an "uneasy truce," which allowed the different sides to coexist in the same Church but "also allowed both theories of Catholicism's relationship to modernity to effectively be put to the test at once, on a scale that allows for conclusions to be drawn about their viability, their ability to actually deliver on their promise of renewal for the twenty-first century church."

Like everyone, Douthat has his personal perspective on this history. But here he writes less as a partisan theologian polemically propagandizing for one of the Church's competing factions and more like the journalist that he is in secular life. His analysis of the history of the past half-century leads him to the inescapable conclusion "that the liberal path really did lead very easily to dissolution and decline." That first conclusion probably comes as no surprise. His second conclusion, however, is what makes his story so much more interesting. He argues that the "conservative" alternative has been "a preservationist enterprise more than a dynamic one. It limited decline without producing new growth. It was more successful than the church's liberal wing - but only comparatively." He notes, for example, the persistent (about 50-50) split in the West "even among regular massgoers" on divorce and later on same-sex-marriage (and about 80-20 on contraception). He faults the "conservative" side for failing sufficiently to appreciate the "persistent, entirely understandable appeal" of the possibility "of some kind of reconciliation between Catholicism and late modernity." What Douthat calls "conservative Catholicism" remained, he contends, a defensive and factional counterculture, too self-enclosed, for example, "to grasp the scope of the sexual abuse crisis." And, in the United States, "the ever-tighter link between tradition-minded Catholicism and conservative political operations was," he argues, "one reason among many that the conservative Catholicism of the John Paul II era did not turn out to be a particularly effective missionary force." 

The result was "a shared failure" in which "the church turned inward, litigating its divisions rather than preaching the gospel to the world."

Then in 2013, Pope Benedict - who, Douthat believes, "understood well the limits of the conservative-Catholic master narrative, the extent to which John Paul II Catholicism was a weaker force than some of its apostles wanted to believe" - abdicated, and an Argentine Jesuit became Pope in his place.

Douthat follows Austen Ivereigh's well-known biography - "the best and richest account of Bergoglio's life" - and situates the Pope in relation to Yves Congar's quest for "true reform" as opposed to "false reform" in the Church. He sees him as initially both similar to and different from his immediate predecessors - similar as a liberal "in the context of the council's debates," while trying "to  rein in radical interpretations of its reforms," emphasizing continuity and defending popular piety, but different in coming out of a very different social, economic, and political context as a Latin American, different too in his affinity for a Catholic culture that is "supernaturalist but not particularly doctrinal."

So the initial promise of Pope Francis' pontificate, as Douthat sees it, was his "potential to straddle, rather than worsen, some of the church's internal divides." He notes how Francis' negative attitude toward global capitalism and his progressive positions on immigration and climate change were not really novelties, nor did they threaten any "doctrinal rupture." (What they did threaten, in the U.S. context, was "a peculiarly American marriage of conservative Catholicism and free market ideology," which Douthat argues "deserved a period of papal challenge and self-critique.") 

What Pope Francis seemed at first to promise "was less a revolution than a rebalancing" and "a more explicitly welcoming church," that would be more appealing to those "alienated by a  too frequent conflation of conservative theology and conservative politics" and those "who believed that the church could change its tone even if it couldn't change its teaching."

Then, along came the current controversy about divorce and remarriage. Douthat definitely espouses the view that any relaxation of the official position on the reception of Holy Communion by those divorced and remarried outside the Church contradicts the plain meaning of Christ's words and would be disastrous for the Church's mission and life. That argument - along with those of others who propose alternative arguments - are already familiar enough and so do not require repeating here.  

As I said earlier, Douthat's strength here is less as a theologian propagandizing for one side or the other than as a journalist reporting on what is happening and analyzing its implications and likely consequences. So he recognizes the complications created for any theology of marriage by the fact that what many believers do in practice may often be very different from the formulations of official theology. He recognizes what could be called the realities on the ground, both in terms of the ongoing development of annulment jurisprudence (which he seems to support) and variations in communicants' actual behavior (which he seems content to accept). At the same time, however, he also wants to emphasize the societal harm he believes might befall the already challenged institution of marriage and the implications for other contested issues. He is also particularly sensitive to the impact of the arguments for change in relation to the traditional teaching "that the grace necessary to persevere in virtue is always available to ordinary Christians." These are not negligible concerns, however they may be eventually resolved. 

Sensitive to all these concerns on both sides of the issue, his preference, so it seems, would have been that this issue of divorce and remarriage just not have come up! Indeed, it is clear that he considers it an unwelcome distraction from what he initially perceived this pontificate's agenda to be.  "Strip away the marriage controversy," Douthat believes that all the Pope's other projects - e.g. a poor church, for the poor - "would have been far easier to pursue."

Nevertheless, the issue has come up, and Douthat dutifully (if regretfully) recounts the contentious story of the two synods and their aftermath.

Again so much of that is already familiar ground. More interestingly, he turns to historical cases to examine previous disputes - starting with the prolonged 4th-century battle about Arianism, and continuing with Pope Honorius I's apparent error on monotheletism, the 14th-century controversy concerning Pope John XXII's questionable personal views on the beatific vision, and more recently the Church's condemnation of slavery and her shift away from the traditional condemnation of usury. The last seems to him especially relevant for those "traditionalists who argue that the church's shift on usury is a cautionary tale, and that properly much of modern finance capitalism should be condemned as firmly as adultery."

But it is the great 17th-century battle between the Jansenists and the Jesuits  "over how the church should respond to early modernity" that he seems to regard as most relevant for figuring out how most satisfactorily to navigate between the problematic extremes of rigorism and laxism in a way which works for the ordinary late-modern or post-modern person. 

As was already so in the 17th-century, I think that so many of the current tensions within Christian churches (Catholicism included) are responses to ongoing cultural changes within Western societies - changes that have quite consistently been moving the beliefs and opinions of more and more ordinary people in such societies in a new, post-Christian direction. How much to accommodate to secular society and its values, how much to give in to the world - whether the issue is sexuality or trying to reconcile being Christian with being part of a profit-making, commercial, capitalist economy - this is an age-old challenge for the Church, which will always experience the tension between the priorities and concerns of the committed and counter-cultural devout and the somewhat different experience of more ordinary believers who are more at home in the world and more receptive to the directions set by secular society.

Replicating our secular patterns of political polarization, however, it may be that the most committed are also likely to get more and more extreme.  Thus Douthat worries that, as "liberal Catholicism" becomes "more ambitious, more aggressive, more optimistic about how far the church can change," at the other end "many conservative Catholics (again younger ones especially)" may come "to take a darker view of the post-Vatican II era, and to reassess whether there might have always been more wisdom in the traditionalist critique than they wanted to believe." Douthat deplores this "purely reactive sensibility," Hence his somewhat strong criticism of those who he believes may provoke it - among whom he includes the Pope himself.

So Douthat's disappointment with what he has come to perceive to be the direction of the present pontificate goes well beyond disagreements about divorce, remarriage, and Holy Communion. What he is looking for is "a distinctively Catholic sort of synthesis - one that would speak to the right's fear that the West's civilizational roots are crumbling and to the left's disappointment with the rule of neoliberalism; one that would offer a Christian alternative to the aridity of secularism, the theocratic zeal of Islamism, and the identity politics of right and left." Such a unified vision, "stressing anew the church's themes of economic and social solidarity without compromising its metaphysical and moral commitments" would, he believes, make Catholicism "more attractive and influential in the wider world." 

One of the unfortunate characteristics of our contemporary, celebrity-oriented society, however, is our obsession with personalities. The papal office, the Petrine ministry, is central to the Church. It unites us across time and space, back to Peter (and Christ) and from one end of the earth to the other. The personality of any particular pope, however, is another matter. The latter preoccupation, which began in the late 19th century with widespread devotion to "the Prisoner of the Vatican," has expanded beyond all previous expectations since the second half of the 20th century, thanks to the intersection of modern media and our modern obsession with celebrity with the increasingly larger-than-life public role of charismatic contemporary popes.

Douthat does a good job setting the larger context that has contributed to the present impasse and the varied potential implications of this situation for contemporary society. His growing preoccupation with the person of the Pope himself, however, inevitably ends up subordinating all else, because his book will instead be read one way or the other depending largely on the reader's personal appreciation of Pope Francis and the Pope's perceived impact on contemporary events. Yet, if his analysis is correct. then the deeper issues at stake have been at issue for a very long time and will remain so - regardless of who is pope. Indeed, the fundamental issue of how to balance a sectarian, counter-cultural imperative with an expansive and inclusive mission and how much accommodation to ordinary life in the world that balance inevitably requires, that issue has been with the Church from the outset and has continued to manifest itself in varied ways through 20 centuries of internal and external turmoil.

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