Sunday, May 31, 2015

Douthat in the Public Square: Pope Francis and the Breaking of the Church

The Op-Ed religion writer for the NYT, Ross Douthat, is the able successor to Fr. Neuhaus in writing on the Faith in the public square, with one exception: as he writes for the Times and not Catholic print
media, his analyses are noticeably devoid of his personal witness of the  Catholic faith-- understandably so. Thus I would like to comment upon his piece for the Atlantic, having to do with the papacy of Pope Francis.


With Francis'accession Douthat correctly notes " the attention-grabbing breaks with papal protocol, the interventions in global politics, the reopening of moral issues that his predecessors had deemed settled, (here he should reconsider whether or not these have been reopened) and the blend of public humility and skillful exploitation—including the cashiering of opponents—of the papal office and its powers." One reading Douthat can only appreciate his wonderful ability to express the realities currently facing the Body of Christ: "But (Francis')moves and choices (and the media coverage thereof) have generated a revolutionary atmosphere around Catholicism. For the moment, at least, there is a sense that a new springtime has arrived for the Church’s progressives. And among some conservative Catholics, there is a feeling of uncertainty absent since the often-chaotic aftermath of the Second Vatican Council, in the 1960s and ’70s."(Italics mine).

What I take issue with in this, as readers of my book will readily discern, is Douthat's failure to assist in doing away with misleading use of the italicized labels in the media.  As Pope St. John Paul II reminds us regarding Vatican II

With the Council, the Church first had an experience of faith, as she abandoned herself to God without reserve, as one who trusts and is certain of being loved. It is precisely this act of abandonment to God which stands out from an objective examination of the Acts. Anyone who wished to approach the Council without considering this interpretive key would be unable to penetrate its depths. Only from a faith perspective can we see the Council event as a gift whose still hidden wealth we must know how to mine. 

It is this abandonment, this interpretive faith perspective that is woefully lacking in “progressives and “conservatives” (or traditionalists, if you will) who claim to explain what happened at Vatican II. But I do not find JPII’s advice lacking in Pope Francis. Nevertheless, there emerged after Vatican II a minority of “traditionalist” Catholics who never believed reform necessary (in spite of the attention the Holy Spirit, working in the Church, wished be given to it),  and more vocal “radicals” who demonstrated little to no sense of commitment to the traditional Church as she has existed since her founding by Our Lord.  As Douthat is well aware, the latter have exercised a dominant influence on many in the American hierarchy, Catholic universities, diocesan offices and religious orders and thus on at least two generations of the Faithful since the close of Vatican II. It is my contention that it is this influence which has given rise to the present crisis of faith among Catholics which Douthat references in wonderment at whether or not Francis will break the Body of Christ.

In the article’s summary of three of Francis’ biographers, Douthat prefers the findings of Austen Ivereigh in The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope. As Douthat points out, Ivereigh stresses that Francis was never a real traditionalist. As a Jesuit provincial in Argentina then Cardinal Bergoglio was attempting to regard the warning of Vatican II peritus Yves Congar that “true reform” must be protected from “false” reform. In this Bergoglio was very much in the spirit of what Cardinals Wojtyla and Ratzinger were teaching, setting a course to distinguish which changes were necessary and fruitful, and to cast-off the errors of
progressive” and “traditionalist” extremes.


What, then, are we to make of the questions raised by the article’s title? Many perhaps lukewarm, cultural Catholics (but I am not one to judge) and “conservative” Catholics are worried about the the Pope’s priorities: his stress on economic issues, the Church’s social teachings, and the trials of the unemployed, the immigrant, and the destitute. Douthat is right:

“The content here may not be different from previous papal statements on these subjects, but Francis returns to these issues much more often. His sharp, prophetic tone—the recurring references to the “throwaway culture” of modern capitalism, the condemnation of “an economy [that] kills”—seems intended to grab attention, to spotlight these issues, and to shatter the press’s image of a Church exclusively interested in sexual morality.”

Here I must disagree: the Church under the pontificates of JPII and B XVI were hardly exclusively interested in sexual morality! (One calls to mind Redemptor Hominis, Laborem exercens, Spe salvi and the Regensberg address for starters).  Rather than a “moderate corrective to the previous two,” I agree that Francis, as Douthat says,

….seems to be trying to occupy a carefully balanced center between two equally dangerous poles. At one extreme are “the ‘do-gooders’ ” and “the so-called ‘progressives and liberals,’ ” as he put it in his closing remarks to last fall’s synod on the family. At the other extreme, to be equally condemned, are “the zealous” and “the scrupulous” and “the so-called—today—‘traditionalists.’ ”

Douthat also correctly cites devotion in the Holy Father’s piety, the supernatural and sometimes apocalyptic in his discourses (with frequent mentions of the devil), and his insistence on the importance of the sacraments and saints. As I have pointed out numerous times in my blog, the Pope is aware that he hasn’t the capacity to change Church teaching on same-sex marriage. Moderate to “liberal” Catholics may want the Church to de-emphasize the culture war, but the evidence is in:  this will never happen under Pope Francis (or his successors). “Progressives” may agree with Garry Wills (the text definition of an apostate) that, in Douthat’s words, “resistance on just about any doctrinal issue can eventually be overcome, and that Catholicism will always somehow remain Catholicism no matter how many once-essential-seeming things are altered or abandoned,” but they hope in vain for Francis to press for this mindset.

Heterodox Catholics opine that doctrinal changes that “conservatives” resisting are a quid pro quo for missionary work, post-sexual-revolution. If one thinks such, one has only to examine, in Douthat’s words, “how many of the Protestant churches that have already liberalized on sexual issues—again, often dividing in the process—are presently aging toward a comfortable extinction. (As is, of course, the Catholic Church in Germany, ground zero for Walter Kasper’s vision of reform.)”On this one can do no better than read Douhatts’ Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, as I learned after completing it, which prompted my crowning Mr. Douthat as Fr. Neuhaus’ successor as a Catholic writer in the public square. (And if you want to know what I make of “liberal” and “conservative” in Catholicism, it is in chapter three of The Smoke of Satan in the Temple of God).Write on, Ross.