The National Catholic Review

As the occasional wag has said, The New York Times is fascinated by the Catholic Church because it cannot imagine any other institution that claims infallibility.

That came to mind October 26, when columnist Ross Douthat cavalierly suggested that Catholics help Pope Francis exercise his Petrine ministry by resisting him. Such hubris is breathtaking even for The Times.

This call for religious rebellion comes in the op-ed, "The Pope and the Precipice.” The piece is filled with presumptions about who is a loyal Catholic. The column resists ideas about revising the annulment process and steps to allow persons who have divorced and remarried to receive Holy Communion. Mr. Douthat connects the issue to an overall change in tone proposed by some bishops at the recent Synod on the Family who spoke pastorally about same-sex and other relationships, such as living together without benefit of wedlock.

Mr. Douthat seems to reject any Catholic nuance when it comes to dealing with morality. He also seems to ignore the fact that most bishops at the synod were appointed to the episcopate by St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, both known for vetting candidates for theological orthodoxy and loyalty to the magisterium. This was no renegade cabal.

The Synod Fathers recognize that their people seek pastoral language and approaches when dealing with issues of marriage, family and sexuality. Good Catholic families deal with how to welcome gay adult children and their partners and friends into their homes. None want their children spoken of or treated as pariahs. Many parents feel that to reject their children is to reject the parents as well. This is a reality pastors must deal with, as loyal parishioners seek their pastor’s help in doing so.

In the spirit of Chicken Little, Mr. Douthat opines that what he sees as a reversal on admitting to Communion those in a second marriage without an annulment “would put the church on the brink of a precipice.” He adds that it would offend “the people who have who have done the most to keep the church vital in an age of institutional decline: who have given their energy, time and money in an era when the church is stained by scandal, who have struggled to raise families and live up to demanding teachings, who have joined the priesthood and religious life in an age when those vocations are not as honored as they once were.

“They have kept the faith among moral betrayals by their leaders; they do not deserve a theological betrayal,” Mr. Douthat writes. He tosses in words like schism, apocalypticism and paranoia for good measure too.

Mr. Douthat is wrong on many counts. Even if the people he lionizes were paragons of Catholic virtue, the church does not develop doctrine on the basis on who has done the church favors over the past 30 years.

The suggestion that fidelity means inflexibility is staggering. As someone who for years did not eat meat on Friday and covered her head in church even just for a visit to the Blessed Sacrament, I can personally testify that change in the church does not portend the apocalypse. It does not mean rejection of the Trinity and other tenets of Catholicism. A lot more serious changes and developments, such as reintroducing permanent deacons into church life and the change of the Sacrament of Extreme Unction to the Sacrament of the Sick, also must be heralded as moments of healthy growth in the church.

To emphasize that the church needs to act and speak pastorally is not a dismissal of the heart of Christianity, whose founder said there is no greater love than to give up one’s life for a friend. Forgiveness, caring and allowing people the opportunity to start over are not anathema to the church.


Michael Barberi | 11/3/2014 - 3:36pm

Some have commented on the issue of divorce and remarriage and adultery.

There continues to be profound debate among Catholic and Christian scholars about Matthew's exception clause (Matt: 5:32 and 19:9). The magisterium's argument that the word 'porneia' is to be understood as an endogamous marriage (e.g., incestuous relations between two people not far enough removed from family ties, and an unlawful marriage), but this is only one interpretation. There are two others: (1) extra-marital sexual intercourse, normally considered adultery, and (2) premarital intercourse, normally considered sexual immorality committed by the woman with a man other than the one to whom she is betrothed and before the marriage. The accepted understanding of 'porneia', by Judaism and most Christian Churches, is adultery.

The moral dilemma for the magisterium is not to be minimized because the exception clause is not found in Mark and Luke. One answer that most traditionalist theologians offer, but is not compelling, is that Matthew was written later than Mark and Luke, and his Gospel was directed at Jews who allowed for divorce and remarriage for adultery. I doubt Matthew was adding something that Jesus never said. Nevertheless, such disputes may never be completely resolved. However, Cardinal Kasper's suggestion for a development of the doctrine on divorce and remarriage and access to Holy Communion, under certain circumstances like adultery and subject to specific conditions, would be a welcomed solution to this most pressing problem. It was interesting that the Cardinal mentioned that there were doctrines of the Holy Office, before Second Vatican Council, against ecumenism, yet the council found a means not to destroy or negate that doctrine but found ways to interpret it in an adequate way. Ditto for the teachings on slavery, usury and the freedom of religion.

Anne Danielson | 11/2/2014 - 3:30pm

No doubt, Christ is a fundamentalist when it comes to fidelity to The Will of God. This does not change the fact that God does not discriminate against sinners, but desires we overcome our disordered inclinations, so that we are not led into temptation but become transformed through Salvational Love, God's Gift of Grace and Mercy. The Sacrifice of The Cross Is The Sacrifice of The Most Holy, The Blessed Trinity.

Jim Oberschmidt | 10/31/2014 - 12:14pm

There will always be downward pressure, on higher standards, the question remains, Do we aim higher?

George Trejos | 10/30/2014 - 9:47pm

I find it amazing how often "theology" trumps the experience of merely trying to live our lives in attempting to follow Jesus but recognizing that we so often fall short. My reading of scripture has Jesus front and center embracing us, all sinners, and encouraging us to keep trying. He told the righteous of his day: let him without sin, cast the first stone. This is the compassion that Pope Francis is advocating. To read some of the comments one would think that being righteous is more important than to step back and acknowledge that we are not suppose to judge one another (that is an exclusive prerogative belonging to God) and we certainly can't appreciate the difficult plights that others find themselves in, necessitating divorce or living alternative life styles. The Lord loves them as much as the righteous.

Ashley Green | 10/30/2014 - 7:30pm

By way of qualification to my general (and enthusiastic) agreement with this editorial, I would add that it would not be a bad thing for Pope Francis to affirm that both he and the Church continue to stand with those who have routinely had to endure ridicule and charges of bigotry for their defense of Church teaching on marriage and sexuality. These Catholics should not be left hung out to dry as the Church pursues a more pastoral approach toward these issues and realities. A little more balance might be in order.

Jim Lein | 10/30/2014 - 5:30pm

The starting point of the Christian life is loving God and loving others as ourselves. Sins are sins not just because of some rule or law, but because they go against the starting point. The Gospel and epistles say that if we follow the greatest commandments (of love) we will not sin. Only in the last few of my 74 years has this Gospel and epistle message sunk in. I grew up before Vatican II, and only learned that sin was sin don't do it. Never really learned that it was wrong because it was not loving and because it hurt others. Instead, the message I got from the church as a teen was that girls were occasions of sin. This was better than the prevalent teen guy outlook that girls were sexual objects, but it could have been much better. At some point we have to transition from rule following per se to living a Christ-like life, to loving and caring and forgiving as Christ did.

We seem back at that point, a restarting point, and it is hard to let go of our rules and laws and grow up, even if we have been adults for decades.

GINO | 10/30/2014 - 5:13pm


A true follower of Jesus Christ could not have written the following words: “To say that anyone can look into the mind of the historical Jesus and say categorically that what he said once back then, he meant to be true for all times, is being naïve at best and dishonest at worse.”

I am neither naive nor dishonest when I profess that for me Jesus of Nazareth is “the way, the TRUTH, and the life,” “back then” and “for all times.” “Heaven and earth will pass away, but but my words will never pass away” (Lk 21:33).

ROSEMARI ZAGARRI PROF | 10/30/2014 - 1:54pm

Thank you, Sr. Mary Ann, for your thoughtful rebuttal to Ross Douthat's overwrought column. As you note, he is wrong on many counts. In addition, I find it odd that he makes the sacrament of marriage the central tenet of Roman Catholicism. I was under the impression that a belief in salvation through Jesus Christ and his Resurrection from the dead were the central doctrines of our faith. And I also understood Jesus to say--just last week in Gospel--that loving one another and God were the greatest of all commandments. Perhaps Mr. Douthat missed mass last week.

Tommy O'Donnell | 10/30/2014 - 12:28pm

Sr. Walsh, I don't mind your reaction to Mr. Douthat's talk of schisms and resisting the Pope. However, could you please address the substance of his argument and provide some real pastoral practices (with the doctrine behind them firmly explained?) that are in line with the Church's tradition? Because I have yet to see, in this debate, a decent outline for what this pastoral AND doctrinal change on the validity of second marriages (and the gravity of non-marital sexual intercourse) would look like.

John Corr | 10/30/2014 - 11:57am

It is wonderful that the Church has gotten to the point where bishops can publicly debate sensitive issues.
It is past time for the Church to realize that its secretive, early-Middle-Ages-Lordship-culture management structure is grossly inefficient for carrying the Christian message and in managing its daily affairs, witness the Vatican Bank. I would like to see more bishops who are capable of engaging the world in public discourse, as Pope
Francis does so well.

Sandi Sinor | 10/30/2014 - 9:03am

Sr. Walsh, I just would like to thank you for your column, which reflects the love Jesus taught.

I have been (pleasantly) surprised by your columns since you joined the America staff. Based on your work for the USCCB, I had made the assumption that you were among the Douthats of the church, but perhaps now you are free to show your "Francis" side. Mr. Douthat seems to have an incomplete understanding of church history, the hierarchy of truths, and development of doctrine, leading him to a position where he seems almost to be threatening the Pope and the bishops at the Synod who are open to listening - ...if you don't do exactly what we self-proclaimed "orthodox" want, there will be schism.

Robert Killoren | 10/30/2014 - 3:21am

I have disdain for the hypocrisy of those who preach adherence to the teachings of the Pope, except when those teachings are ones they disagree with. The Catholics who have not clung to a particular ideology are the ones who have preserved the Church not the radicals.

Walter Sandell | 10/29/2014 - 7:44pm

The next year should hold many surprises.
I wonder if I'm a heretic for believing in, and supporting, the ordination of women.
I would be a hypocrite if I kept silent about this issue.
There are some who agree with me, but 'have to be careful.'

heidi keene | 10/31/2014 - 9:18am

Hi Walter,
Just wondered if you read this: (posted yesterday by Dr. Edward Peters)
don’t know (and it doesn’t matter) who “Walter Sandell” is, but his pointed-yet-polite question (posted in a combox following Mary Ann Walsh’s recent unfocused essay in America) deserves a pointed-yet-polite (and of course, accurate) answer, so here it is: No, Walter, you are not a heretic for "believing in, and supporting, the ordination of women" but you do seem opposed to the teaching of the Church. That’s bad, to be sure, but it’s a different kind of bad.

In order to be a “heretic” one must, among other things, obstinately deny or doubt “some truth which is to be believed by divine and Catholic faith” (c. 751). Such truths are understood as being “contained in the word of God”, and as “divinely revealed”, and as pertaining “to the one deposit of faith” (c. 750 § 1). The point to grasp, though, is that heresy and the consequences of heresy (chiefly excommunication per c. 1364) arise only in the context of matters proposed for belief.

But the Church’s refusal to extend priestly ordination to women is not, at least not according to the flagship document dealing with this question, John Paul II ap. lit. Ordinatio sacerdotalis (1994), proposed as requiring that Catholics accord belief (credenda) to the assertion that “the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women", but rather, as requiring that Catholics definitively hold (tenenda) that the Church has no such authority. The difference is important.

That the Church can impose for definitive adherence by the faithful some assertions that do not demand belief does not imply that some truths are “less true” than others, but rather, that some truths, though not revealed by God, are nevertheless so important for the support of revealed truths that they, too, must be able to be known and proclaimed with certainty. This notion of a “hierarchy of truths” is reflected in Canon 750—a norm that is just the tip of a magisterial iceberg—but, fascinating as exploring that might be, to answer Walter’s specific question about whether he is a heretic, one need only realize that the assertion in Ordinatio does not require belief and so its rejection cannot be "heresy".

That said, though Walter would 'walk' on a heresy charge, he seems to reject a proposition that is “to be held definitively” and therefore he seems “opposed to the doctrine of the Catholic Church.” Thus, assuming satisfaction of some other canonical elements of the crime, Walter seems at risk of committing a delict punishable under Canon 1371, 1° not with excommunication, I grant, but still by a “just penalty”. Even in age in which one cannot imagine ecclesiastical authority taking action against him for having published his opposition to Church teaching in this area, Walter should reconsider his opposition to that teaching, and, at the very least, refrain from proclaiming it publicly.