Monday, April 2, 2018

Pope Francis: What's Up With the Shepherd and the Sheep?

The statue of St. Peter is seen as Pope Francis leaves his general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican March 14. (CNS/Paul Haring

Michael Dougherty’s review in the National Review of  Ross Douthtat’s To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism begins with Douthat’s recounting of the proceedings of the two-year Synod on the Family in 2014-15, characterized by Douthat  as exhibiting “ugly maneuvering and wheedling of the Synod’s progressives, and the alternating attempts at flattery and bold confrontation by the Synod’s conservatives, all over theological concepts….”  Michael Sean Winters of the heterodox National Catholic Reporter screed unsurprisingly offers another reiew of the book, claiming Douthat's "facts are nonsense, his arguments tendentious, and his thesis so absurd it is shocking, absolutely shocking, that no one over at Simon & Schuster thought to ask if what he writes is completely or only partially unhinged." 

I assume Mr. Winters was referring to Dougherty's synopsis of Douthat: 

Francis closed the proceedings of the first year’s synod with a speech that sought a middle ground between the two factions, placing himself at the center. At the close of the second year’s synod, the pope, obviously frustrated that his desired language had not received approval, thundered openly and hysterically against the conservatives.
With the subsequent papal document Amoris Laetitia (2016), Francis and his fellow progressive reformers sought to institute a legal and official way of granting Holy Communion to those who live in a state of life the Church traditionally recognizes as adultery, without calling them to repent and reconcile with their first spouse or to live “as brother and sister” in their new household. This debate has opened up rhetorical tools the Church seemed to have put away: bishops charging other bishops with heresy, or with schismatical disobedience to the Roman pontiff. 

Ah, "a legal and official way of granting Holy Communion to those who live in a state of life the Church traditionally recognizes as adultery, without calling them to repent and reconcile with their first spouse or to live “as brother and sister” in their new household." It is no surprise that many Catholics are in violation of traditional Church teaching on the sanctity of marriage- does the fault lie with these folks, or with Jesus teaching on marriage, upheld for centuries by the Bridegroom of Christ?  Many Catholics, after all, "have not received" the message of the Sermon on the Mount. If the sheep do not recognize the voice of the shepherd here, perhaps it isn’t the shepherd speaking? The heterodox on marriage, who never miss a chance to stress that Catholicism is all about the Beatitudes, would disagree. I do not think Our Lord’s teaching on either subject is any less binding on the faithful—one may not "pick and choose," cafeteria style, as do the heterodox, which of The Church's teachings bind them.

Douthat suggests that the neomodernists at the Synod sought a “pastoral” change, not a doctrinal one, and so would in their view not be changing Catholic morality, teaching but its application. Very disingenuous. Their reasoning in effect would alter the moral law into a system of lovely but impossible moral ideals that could only be approximated by the faithful, never fully practiced, even with God’s grace. The practical effect of this alteration in revealed truth is to disregard Christ’s command to “repent and believe in the Gospel,” an emasculation of the magisterium of the Church. Douthat writes:

This is where Francis-era liberal Catholicism has so often ended up in arguments that imply that the Church must use Jesus to go beyond Jesus, as it were, using his approach to the ritual law as a means to evade or qualify the moral law, which means essentially evading or qualifying his own explicit commandments, and declaring them a pharisaism that the late-modern Church should traffic in no more. To fulfill Jesus’s mission, to follow the Jesus of faith, even the Jesus of Scripture must be left behind.” Gnostic, to say the least.

My only disagreement with this is that this is hardly “Francis-era” Catholicism, but is the neomodernist heresy which has existed since the 19th century in the Body of Christ much as the weeds among the wheat. The wisdom of Pope St. John Paul II the Great in Familiaris Consortio is pertinent:

Not infrequently ideas and solutions which are very appealing but which obscure in varying degrees the truth and the dignity of the human person, are offered to the men and women of today, in their sincere and deep search for a response to the important daily problems that affect their married and family life. (FC, 4)

Remember, the Council of Trent had proclaimed the indissolubility of marriage as a dogma. Thus, entering a new union after a civil divorce, or continuing a sexual relationship in this new union, is a grave sin. This has consequences for the Eucharist: as all Catholics should know or have taught to them, whoever is aware of having committed a grave sin can only receive Communion if he has been to Confession, has confessed and has been absolved. This teaching has been reaffirmed in recent decades by Pope St John Paul II, Benedict XVI and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. However, in the aftermath of Pope Francis’s exhortation Amoris Laetitia, some bishops have said that the divorced and civilly remarried can receive Communion, on the basis of the document’s ambiguous footnote 351. At present Dougherty thinks the Church is at a stalemate on the controversy produced by Amoris Laetitia and that Pope Francis is playing a longer game in his ability to shape the College of Cardinals and to choose bishops who favor the document.

Douthat writes of a generational conflict within Catholicism:

The real Francis legacy might be less a swiftly unfolding progressive revolution than a new impasse. He could leave liberal Catholicism with control of the most important levers of power within the Church — but without having solved its longstanding manpower-and-enthusiasm problem. There might be fewer cardinals equipped to stop his would-be heirs — but also too few priests enthusiastic about following them.

 Dougherty notes that this generational conflict is a common theme of Francis’s own pronouncements, which “frequently pit young, fire-breathing priests who want to protect tradition and orthodoxy against wise old clerics who know how to be merciful”.

Should this be true and persist, wherein the Church is “more defined by its complex inner polemics and theological civil wars, the result would damage the Church’s mission.

As I observed reception of Holy Communion this Easter past, I noted that 100% of those in attendance received the Body of Christ. I am also sure that this was the case in many parishes attending Easter Masses in the U.S., and throughout the world. Are we to believe that all of these parishioners were in a state of Grace, or that some were guilty of sins that in the orthodox understanding would bar them from Communion? Could it be so that this tireless abandonment of the Church’s official sacramental discipline has prompted the shepherds to issue the reforming theological formulas that would justify it?  This would avoid the hypocrisy of announcing one doctrine all the while practicing quite another.

It is pressing upon the shepherd to work up the courage to tell the truth from the pulpit and the confessional. While we are well aware of the Lord’s assurance that the gates of hell shall not prevail against the Church, bishops must stop using it as an excuse to run from their responsibility according to Vatican II to catechize their flocks according to the tradition of the Apostles, a fight with the salvation of souls hanging in the balance.

Dougherty posits that Douthat’s book, which begins on a personal note, speaks for all Catholics who through experience have found in the unchanging doctrine of marriage a credible witness of God’s mercy in our age, but who fear that a Church obsessed with making the sheep feel “welcome” would bless the sins that alienate them from their broken families.

Dougherty closes with the most profound question for our time: “If the Church is, as Scripture says, the Bride of Christ, how will the Bridegroom react to finding his beloved thinking so fondly of divorce and remarriage?”