James Martin and Ross Douthat on Pope Francis, the Synod and the Demands of Law and Mercy: An online conversation

Editor’s Note: The following is a conversation between Ross Douthat, a columnist for The New York Times, and author of Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, and James Martin, S.J., editor at large of America and author of Jesus: A Pilgrimage. Their wide-ranging conversation, on Pope Francis, the Synod of Bishops and the state of the Catholic church, was sparked by a column Mr. Douthat had written on the synod, and to which Father Martin had responded privately. Both decided that it might be fruitful to bring their conversation into the public square. 

The conversation, conducted via email, happened over the course of several days, beginning on November 10 and ending yesterday.

Dear Mr. Douthat,

Thanks for agreeing to enter into a dialogue, based on your New York Times op-ed "The Pope and the Precipice” (Oct. 25), in which you raised the possibility of schism in the church over some of policies of Pope Francis. As were some other Catholic observers, you were genuinely concerned by some of the Holy Father’s words and deeds, as well as with the results of the recently concluded Synod of Bishops on the Family, particularly the Synod’s considering of new pastoral approaches to divorced and remarried Catholics.

We had had some private email exchanges after your piece was published, and then decided to bring our discussions out into the open. So thank you for that invitation as well. Open and respectful dialogue is important in the church today, I believe.

Let me start by raising some concerns about your op-ed, and perhaps we can move on from there.

First of all, I was disturbed by your assertion that it was, to use your words, the “adherents,” as opposed to those you called “progressives,” who are, in a sense, the real Catholics. This “small minority” you describe as follows:

"[T]hey are the people who have done the most to keep the church vital in an age of institutional decline: who have given their energy and 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 honored as they once were. They have kept the faith amid moral betrayals by their leaders; they do not deserve a theological betrayal."

This was the part of the article with which I disagreed most strongly. Frankly, I know just as many so-called “progressives” who have done precisely the same things: given their time, energy and money; struggled to raise families and live up to demanding teachings; and joined the priesthood and religious orders. (On that last count, I live with many of them.) And, as an aside, I hardly think that what has happened under Pope Francis and during the Synod constitutes a “theological betrayal.”

It seems that this seems to give into the old stereotype: traditionalists good, progressives bad. But in fact both are needed for the life of the church. The church needs both to conserve its tradition, which is guided by the Holy Spirit; and to move ahead, under the guidance of the same Spirit. As St. John XXIII said about the church, “We are not on earth to guard a museum, but to cultivate a flowering garden of life.” The church grows, as it must. While the basics remain firm, doctrine develops over time, under the guidance of the Spirit. (As an example, just ask any Catholic whether he or she was permitted to set foot in a Protestant church before the Second Vatican Council.)

In fact, you could argue that it was those who felt their voices were not heard as clearly under the papacies of Saint John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI who have struggled more. That is, for the last few decades those Catholics who favored more reform have remained with the church, even during times of disagreement with one or another policy.

There is a great irony here. Many of the so-called “progressives” stayed in the church and have largely remained silent even when they disagreed with various directions the church was taking. In those years, disagreement was costly. As a thought exercise, imagine what would have happened to someone in my position (a Jesuit priest and writer) had I said about Popes John Paul II or Benedict what one cardinal recently said about Pope Francis: that a statement from the pope declaring his adherence to Catholic teaching was “long overdue.” I would have likely been silenced, or at the very least reprimanded.

In other words, many so-called “progressives” stayed in the pews even when they felt they were in disagreement with certain church policies, and most were largely silent. But now, with Pope Francis doing and saying things of which so-called “traditionalists” do not approve, they feel free to critique the pope in ways that would have been unacceptable—nearly unthinkable—a few years ago. Some of these same commentators, in fact, were given to labeling any critique, no matter how mild, of the pope as “dissent.” It is, at the very least, ironic.

Second, I was surprised by the idea of even mentioning schism over what are essentially pastoral, not dogmatic, questions about ministry to divorced and remarried Catholics. Schisms, which are thankfully rare in our long history, are usually over immense areas of disagreement, usually on dogma—the divinity of Christ, for example. The question of how to minister to divorced and remarried Catholics (neither the pope nor the synod was talking about changing church teaching here) is not a dogmatic issue.

Are there Catholics so opposed to the development of pastoral practice in this particular area that it is anathema even to consider it? To me, it would seem odd, even bizarre, to leave the church over something like that.

Which brings me to my final point. Debate, which seems to be a cause for fear in your op-ed, has always been part of our church. I feel that your piece did not fully recognize that even at the Second Vatican Council—especially at the Second Vatican Council—there were huge disputes among bishops about the most serious of issues, as the church historian John W. O’Malley, SJ, pointed out in his response to your column and as he detailed in much greater length in his book What Happened at Vatican II?

Debates have characterize our church from the beginning—the very beginning. Saints Peter and Paul argued—and vehemently. “When Peter came to Antioch,” Paul writes in his Letter to the Galatians (2:11), “I opposed him to his face, because he was wrong.” You can’t get more contentious than that.

Disputes are not new. Nor are they to be feared. In fact, this is one way that the Holy Spirit works in the church, and always will work: through human agency, though debates and through discussion. Which is another reason I look forward to our discussion.

James Martin, S.J.

Dear Father Martin, 

Thanks to you as well, and to your editors for giving us the space to have this conversation. Without necessarily resolving every division, hopefully at least we can shed some light on what the important disagreements really are.

I’ll start off with the first point you raise, about the burdens progressive Catholics have carried under the last two pontificates, because it’s a case where my column would have been improved by a qualification. There are, as you say, many Catholics who remained with the church over the last few decades even as it disappointed their hopes for certain kinds of change, and many of their sacrifices on behalf of the faith are as real as the sacrifices of any conservative believer.

Given that reality, I can understand a reader reacting against what might seem like an implication that only the faith of more conservative Catholics needs to be protected, only their struggles deserve solicitude, only their sacrifices really matter.

That wasn’t my intent, not least because—as you know—I share your view that the conservative/progressive binary can on many points be reductive and disastrous for the faith. I’m a conservative Catholic (by current standards) for whom some of the general points you raise—about the reality of change in church history, the different levels of authority of different teachings, and so on—seem inarguably correct. (There's a reason that limbo has passed into history...) I'm also a conservative Catholic who felt that a certain style of Catholic neo-conservatism reached a point of exhaustion in the last decade, and that Christianity and the wider culture alike may need a more vital Christian left, so that the faith and right-wing politics don’t just collapse into one another.

With all this mind, and depending how we define the terms, there are ways in which this ponitificate’s more “progressive” valence could be a healthy thing for the church’s conservatives, maybe especially in the United States. First, because many of the ideas Pope Francis has raised and emphasized—his image of a church “for the poor,” his critique of the Mammonism woven into capitalist culture—are essential Catholic ideas, as important as the tangle of issues around sex and marriage, and it’s healthy for Catholics who have ended up on the political right to be reminded that the faith calls them to something more complicated than Limbavian polemics. (The reality that Benedict and John Paul said similar things and earned less attention is, if anything, an argument in favor of the stress that Francis has laid.)

Second, because Francis’s interest in encouraging more discussion within the church should encourage conservatives to look again at why they take the positions that they take, and what distinguishes the essential from the debatable, the necessary from the doubtful. I agree with you that that the phrase “dissent” can become a crutch (even in cases where I think it’s accurate!), and that just saying “the magisterium has spoken, the case is closed” is not generally an argument that suffices to persuade, within the church or outside it. 

Then finally, to the extent that some conservatives ultimately find themselves in sincere disagreement with statements this pope makes, or experience sincere disappointment with some of his appointments, that experience might help cure them of the unhealthy papolatry that sometimes built up under John Paul II, and help them recognize the truth of a point that more liberal Catholics have often raised—that the Vatican is not the church entire, and that many worthwhile experiments in Catholic history have been undertaken without a stamp of approval (quite the reverse, indeed) from the hierarchy.

But with all of this said, on some of the issues we’re debating right now, I think there’s also an important asymmetry between the position of progressive Catholics and conservative Catholics vis-à-vis a pope who might seem at times to be on the “other team.” By this I mean that for Catholics who desire some kind change in church teaching around sex and marriage and the family, by definition the continuity and integrity of the current teaching isn’t essential to their understanding of what the church is, why it’s worth belonging to, and so on. As much as they may have been disappointed under the last two pontificates, that is, their fundamental reasons for being Catholic were not shaken by what John Paul or Benedict taught or said on divorce or same-sex marriage or other issue, because they had already decided that what any specific pope says about sex or marriage can be taken as provisional, subject to the future revision by the Holy Spirit.

Whereas doctrinal conservatives are doctrinal conservatives on these issues in part because they believe there are things the church can’t change, can’t teach, without effacing its basic claims to authority, continuity and faithfulness to Christ. And we’ve ended up with the debate we’re having right now because many people—bishops, theologians, the occasional newspaper columnist—think that the proposal to allow divorced-and-remarried Catholics to receive the Eucharist absent an annulment isn’t just “pastoral,” as so many of its supports have insisted, but essentially changes the church’s view of marriage’s indissolubility in ways that don’t just conflict with natural law but with divine law, with the words of Jesus himself.

And then further, what happened at the synod—the way the proposal was effectively packaged with a stress on the positive elements in all non-marital relationships, etc.—made it easier to suspect that some of the proposal’s backers actually agree, and that the whole point of going down this road rather than just pursuing annulment reform is to prove that the church can change even on issues where doctrine seems to be at stake, which in turn would enable a wider revolution in the future.

If that perspective is right, then this is the kind of major debate of which schisms are sometimes made—and not only in Catholicism’s distant past, but in the present of many Protestant denominations, whose experience and debates found a disturbing echo in some of the back and forth that we saw in Rome. And that, at the simplest level, is why I wrote what I did: Not (at all!) as a call for schism, but as an attempt to explain why the stakes for conservative Catholics on some of these issues are perhaps higher than the stakes for progressives under recent pontificates, in ways that make the direction that Pope Francis may be pushing fraught with a distinctive kind of peril for the church. And further, as a reminder to conservatives of precisely the point with which you conclude: That on rare occasions, the cause of Catholic truth may need to be served by resisting Peter, perhaps even to his face.

Ross Douthat

Dear Mr. Douthat,

Thank you for clarifying some of the points raised in your original article, which, as you know, caused a little consternation among some Catholics. It’s refreshing to hear you say that you support Pope Francis when it comes to his emphasizing a church for the poor, encouraging more dialogue and reminding Catholics that the church is not simply the hierarchy. As the Second Vatican Council reminded us, it is the entire “People of God.” 

In the interests of space, let me respond to the broadest question you raised, about church teaching. I still don’t think that the issues you are concerned with warrant saying that if the church changes its practices (not teaching, but pastoral practices in individual cases) on such matters, it will efface its “basic claims to authority, continuity and faithfulness in Christ.”

At the synod, the bishops gathered to try to respond to questions about a variety of topics concerning the family, including the pastoral care of divorced and remarried Catholics. Without getting into the theological weeds, it’s important to note that several proposals were advanced that tried to maintain church teaching while being sensitive pastorally to people experiencing a great deal of pain. The question was: Can we do both? And this was merely a first attempt, a discussion about whether this was possible.

Your most recent response, however, could lead people to conclude that even discussing these matters is dangerous. What’s more, if the church changed its practices here, you seem to say, we would slide onto a slippery slope that would ultimately lead to ruin. Then you moved, again, to the idea of a “major debate” that might lead to schism.

To my mind, that kind of approach means that nothing of import could ever be discussed, which was a great problem in former synods.

Think of this in terms of the Second Vatican Council. If the council fathers, as they are usually called, had not been able to discuss the great challenges facing the church out of fear of the slippery slope, they would have not have been able to read the “signs of the times,” and none of the great documents of Vatican II would have been published. To take one example, there would be no “Nostra Aetate,” the document that utterly transformed the church’s relations to non-Christian religions, particularly to the Jewish people.

Let me just quote one passage from "Nostra Aetate." It concerns religions other than Catholicism.

"[O]ther religions found everywhere try to counter the restlessness of the human heart, each in its own manner, by proposing ‘ways,’ comprising teachings, rules of life, and sacred rites. The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions."

Needless to say, that represents an immense change in church practice—and indeed in teaching. That one statement stands in stark contrast to statements from popes and councils and other parts of the magisterium, over the centuries, too numerous to mention.

Or look at "Dignitatis Humanae,” the document that guaranteed the “right to religious freedom,” that is, to worship and believe as each person desires. This is also in stark contrast to the former church dictum, “Error has no rights.”

Before the council began, there were several documents written by preparatory commissions that essentially restated church teaching as it then stood. Once the council was convened, however, and the bishops began their discussions, and saw that they could speak freely, those original documents were heavily revised and often scrapped entirely.

Had there been no discussion, there would have been no change. And, at the time, many of these issues were almost too shocking to consider. Now they are church teaching.

John Noonan’s book A Church that Can and Cannot Change is helpful in this regard. He describes not only how various teachings have changed, but how those changes have helped the church. His most notable example is slavery, which St. John Paul II declared it “intrinsically evil.” Yet neither Jesus nor St. Paul condemned it and, later on, the early church fathers accepted it. Nor was my own religious order faultless in this regard: the Jesuits owned slaves in colonial Maryland (as did other orders in other locales). Judge Noonan’s other examples are usury, religious freedom and marriage. In all these areas the church has developed its teaching. There are others.

The “development of doctrine,” as Blessed John Henry Newman termed it, is nothing to fear. When I think of the “fundamental reasons for being Catholic,” I don’t think first of the church’s teachings on divorce and remarriage. I think of Jesus Christ. As I’m sure do you. This is not to say that law and spirit are opposed. Rather, if we can rest in the true fundamentals we can find the freedom to move ahead under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

James Martin, S.J.

Dear Father Martin,

I’ll start with your provocative question of whether some matters can be too dangerous to even discuss, where I think the answer is no and yes: Mostly no in the casual context in which you and I are debating, but absolutely yes when the person encouraging the discussion has supreme teaching authority in the church. Would it be advisable, for instance, for the pope to invite a discussion among the faithful on whether to strike ten stanzas from the Nicene Creed? Or whether to discard transubstantiation in favor of a Zwinglian understanding of communion? Or whether to strip the Gospel of John from the canon? Or—to pick some debates from the not at all distant past—whether to integrate theories of racial and eugenic hierarchy into Catholic moral teaching?

I think not; I think some issues are too fundamental, to borrow your phrase, for a responsible pontiff to open for debate. At the same time, there are also many possible discussions that I wouldn’t consider dangerous—including on hot-button issues of today. If Pope Francis wanted a debate about married priests, for instance, or ordaining women to the permanent diaconate, or (as he sometimes seems to) on the status of church teaching on the death penalty or just war, or on frontier issues in bioethics where Catholic teaching is necessarily new…well, I might end up disagreeing sharply with a proposed change (I certainly would on clerical celibacy), but I wouldn’t think of them as debates that shouldn’t be touched, because I’m not convinced that they go to self-evidently fundamental questions. (As I’ve already said, I feel the same about Francis-era debates on capitalism and Catholic social thought.)

But the indissolubility of sacramental marriages belongs in the first category, not the second, with Judge Noonan’s “cannot” rather than his “can.” Indeed, it belongs there more than other issues related to sex and family, because it’s the place where all those arguments begin; it’s the idea we’re trying to draw implications from when we debate premarital sex or homosexuality or contraception or sexual ethics in general. I think it sits as close to the heart of the things as almost any Catholic teaching—in terms of its basis in the words of Jesus, to start where you would (rightly) have us start; in terms of its persistence across many public controversies; and in terms of its inter-wovenness with theological and liturgical concepts too numerous too name.

The thing is, few people in the current debate wants to explicitly deny that. You rarely hear the argument outright that sacramental indissolubility is another example of what Noonan thinks happened with usury (where I think his argument for discontinuity is strongest) or slavery (where I think it’s somewhat weaker, for reasons previously elaborated by a wise Jesuit), where the church just needs to change its official line or let an argument disappear. The claim is always that indissolubility is not being called into question, that church teaching on marriage is not being changed, that all that’s being proposed is a rare exception to a still-completely-binding rule.

The problem is that once exceptions become part of official church teaching—as opposed to being strictly individual choices—they inevitably become part of the rule, in a way that at best effaces or at worst denies the marital ideal. (This isn’t just a matter of logic; it’s also a matter of recent historical experience, since we have numerous case studies in Protestant denominations that tend to confirm this point.) And the only way around that denial is to deny something else equally essential, or to work an even larger revolution in church teaching on sin or the sacraments.

I doubt I’ll convince you here, but maybe a couple of questions would help us avoid staleness in debate. First, I wonder if you would put yourself in shoes of those of us unsettled by this year’s events. What, if anything, belongs in Category 1 for you? What form of fidelity to Jesus do you consider so absolutely essential that if it were called into question you would see a crisis looming for the church to which you’ve vowed your life?

And second, to end where you end, discerning the Holy Spirit’s movement: It seems to me that there have been many cases in church history when the faith did need to learn from a changing culture, to read the signs of the times and to adapt. But there are just as many cases, under regimes ancien and modern, when “adaptation” meant corruption, worldiness, the partial abandonment of the gospel. And I always wonder, in our contemporary discussions about sex and marriage, how would-be reformers so confidently distinguish the Spirit from the spirit of the age. By which I suppose I mean: Does it make you feel uncomfortable at all that every power and principality of our age—every establishment, political and judicial and cultural—is on the side of change in these internal church debates? Does it ever make you worry, even a little, that these reforms are truer to a passing historical moment than to Christ?

Ross Douthat 

Dear Mr. Douthat,

Your last response was very helpful for me, and I take your points. Yes, indeed there are certain fundamentals that are absolutely essential to our faith. (More about that later.) And yes, I think that the indissolubility of marriage is something that will not change—but nor do I think that the synod bishops were, or are, planning on changing it.

And you are correct: exceptions may lead, in some cases, to an inevitable relaxing of norms, but I continue to see the synodal discussions not as a moving towards a change in rules, or even the introduction of exceptions, as much as a change in what happens when Catholics, to put it bluntly, break the rules.

Let’s put it this way. Imagine a town that has posted speed limits of 35 miles an hour. Now imagine that a newly passed law has dropped the penalty for speeding from a week in jail to a fine of $100. Perhaps the voters thought that a week in jail was too severe. Perhaps they saw how across-the-board applications of that penalty were too draconian. This does not mean that the speed limit has changed: it is still 35 miles per hour. Rather, the way one deals with those who have transgressed the law has changed.

But I think you may have overlooked something that is staring us in the face: the bishops who assembled from around the world felt the need to discuss some changes in the pastoral application of the rules for divorced and remarried Catholics. (To use the speed limit analogy, that would be a fine versus jail). They came to the synod with many years of experience on the ground, and after listening to the experiences of the faithful, where the Holy Spirit is at work. They were, then, responding to the Holy Spirit active and alive in the people. And of course the spirit is at work in the bishops as well.

So something is going on in the universal church that we cannot ignore. In other words, the spirit is at work. And for that reason, I would rather err on the side of discussion.

But I want to introduce another concept that is often overlooked, and with which I’m sure you agree: the traditional concept of the hierarchy of truths. Not everything is equally essential, nor does every church teaching carry the same weight. This itself is Catholic teaching, and is contained in the Catechism (#90). 

To use a simple example, a pastor proclaiming from the pulpit his opinion on a political matter in the community (a form of church teaching at a low level) does not enjoy the same authority as a papal encyclical (a higher level of teaching) or a document from an ecumenical council (higher still) or the words of Jesus in the Gospels (the highest). While this sometimes seems like overly nuanced, and an excuse for picking and choosing, it is, in fact, traditional Catholic theology, and essential for all Catholics to ponder, lest every utterance from every church official at every time on every topic be treated as, literally, the “Gospel.”

Before I answer your question about essentials, I want to note that seemingly comparing the discussions on pastoral applications of the teaching on divorce and remarriage to the Nicene Creed muddies things. The two are different levels of teaching. Yes, Jesus spoke clearly against divorce in the Gospels; but, again, we are talking about pastoral practices in how we approach these groups, not the law itself. Again: jail time versus a fine.

So to answer your question about the essentials: In the interests of space, I will be brief.

First, I can surely understand the frustration of some who feel that what they view as essential is up for grabs. Seeing something that you deem essential being held up for debate would be disturbing indeed. But, for me, the essentials are contained, first, in in the Gospels and, second, in the Nicene Creed. So no pope—no Christian—could say, “There is no need to love your enemy, to forgive, or to care for the poor.” Nor could any Christian say, “Jesus Christ did not rise from the dead.” After the Gospels and the Creed, I look to the whole rest of our church tradition, through the lens of the hierarchy of truths, understanding what has a greater level of authority over us.

That’s a brief answer to a big question, but as for the essentials, I would—and I’m not being metaphorical here—die for them.

Surely the church must always move between tradition and progression, between, to use some Vatican II language, ressourcement (returning to the original sources) and aggorniamento (updating). It’s a healthy tension between trusting that the Holy Spirit has guided us in the past, and therefore tradition is holy; and trusting that the Holy Spirit will guide us in the future, and therefore that change can be holy too.

And, yes, to answer your second question, I do sometimes worry that we are moving too fast and acceding merely to cultural norms. That is something I think about quite a bit these days. But that is where discernment comes in—something that we Jesuits and our Jesuit brother, Pope Francis, are fond of discussing. The discerning person, or bishop, or church, can prayerfully reflect on why these questions are coming up now, what we are called to do, what our motivations are, and what the Holy Spirit is asking of us. So I trust in the Spirit.

But by way of wrapping things up for a final interchange, let me pose a question to you.

First, do you worry that we might be so enamored of tradition (not Tradition but simply tradition) that we may miss what the Holy Spirit is asking of us, and unable to read the “signs of the times,” as Christ asks? More to the point, do you worry that our church could unintentionally repeat what Jesus accused some of the Pharisees of doing, that is, laying down “heavy burdens” on people, seemingly more concerned with laws than human beings?

Let me be clear: I’m not calling either you, or anyone who agrees with you, or anyone else for that matter, a “Pharisee.” But Jesus invites us to ask ourselves if we are behaving in that manner. Thus, the church—that is, we, the entire People of God—must always be alert to the danger of relying on the law so much that we miss Christ’s call for mercy. Again, it is always balance: law and mercy. But in my mind Jesus tips the scales consistently to mercy, as when he levels his own judgment on the Pharisees, “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.”

As I say, it’s a balance, but ceteris paribus, stinginess with mercy seems like something that we would have to answer for when we finally meet Jesus Christ.

James Martin, S.J.

Dear Father Martin,

I think the question of Pharisaism is an excellent—and well chosen!—place for us to end, because I think it gets at once of the essential issues dividing the Catholic “right” and “left” (reductive, again, though those labels may be) right now.

First, I think you are absolutely correct to identify the persistent danger for Catholics who pride (danger! danger!) themselves on their own orthodoxy: There’s both the lure of pharisaical attitudes toward fellow Catholics, fellow sinners, and—more subtle, and thus perhaps more dangerous still—the lure of "elder brother syndrome,” in which efforts to welcome the prodigal, whether by Pope Francis or anyone else, are met with stony disapproval, or resentment that this welcome does not sufficiently recognize our efforts, our fidelity, our oh-so-flawless piety. (When, in reality, sinners and tax collectors and radical theologians will be entering the kingdom of heaven before us.)

But let me try to explain how the Pharisees-and-prodigals argument looks in my own—doubtless flawed, and certainly liable to judgment—reading of the signs of the times. In the New Testament, Jesus’s wrath against the religious authorities is kindled by, among other things, their overzealous insistence on the ritualistic elements of the law, by their commercialization of the divine mysteries and their implicit equation of money with piety, and by their instinct to exclude, stigmatize or even stone people they should be calling to repentance instead.

These are all clearly persistent temptations for the church—a version of the commercial temptation helped bring on the Protestant Reformation, after all—and much of what we think of today as liberal Catholicism was forged in reaction to their pre-Vatican II manifestations. The ritualistic spirit of Eat meat on Friday, go straight to hell, do not pass go, the God-as-accountant image inherent in say these seventeen different prayers to thirteen different saints and receive in return exactly 4,544 days off Purgatory, the culture of shame and silence around sexuality, the punitive visions of hell immortalized by James Joyce, the pomp and circumstance embraced by princes of the church…these are stereotypes, of course, of a richer and more complicated reality, but they are grounded in real aspects of the pre-1960s church, which were in need of correction and reform.

But as someone who came of age long, long after the battles of Vatican II, I simply don’t recognize the Catholic culture that many liberal Catholics seem to believe they’re warring against or seeking to undo or overthrow. The “traditionalist” church, the church of lace and legalisms if you will, that the current pontiff is particularly quick to critique, is simply not part of most American Catholics’ everyday experience. It may exist in some parishes and precincts, or among certain bishops or cardinals. But the dominant experience of Catholic life, Catholic liturgy, Catholic preaching, has nothing in common with the stereotype of a Pharisee lecturing people about their (mostly sexual) sins.

What it has more in common with, and I speak from experience, is certain forms of Mainline Protestantism and megachurch evangelicalism: Notwithstanding what still emanates from the Vatican, we’ve become a church of long communion and short confession lines (and you're more likely to find me in the first than the second), of Jesus-affirms-you sermons and songs, of marriage preparation retreats (like mine) where most of the couples are cohabitating and nobody particularly cares, and of widespread popular attitudes toward the divine and toward church teaching that mostly resemble H. Richard Niebuhr’s vision of a God without wrath, men without sin, and a Kingdom without judgment.

And that kind of church can be as false to the Jesus of the New Testament as a proud and pharisaical church, because even as Jesus was condemning dead ritualism, he was intensifying many of the law’s explicitly moral demands—both on issues related to money and greed, where (as I said above) I think progressive Catholics sometimes have something to teach their more conservative brethren, and on precisely the issues of sex and marriage and family that we’ve been arguing about lo these forty years. The strengthening coexists with forgiveness, absolute forgiveness…but whether it’s the woman taken in adultery, the much-married Samaritan woman, or the prodigal who has spent his inheritance on prostitutes, that forgiveness always coexists with the admonition go and sin and no more.

When that admonition is no longer given, when not only individual pastors but the church itself promises absolution irrespective of amendment, I’m not sure the word “mercy” quite fits what’s happening. As I’ve written elsewhere, if pharisaism and elder brotherism are always a temptation for dogmatists, then the temptation for progressives comes wrapped in Cardinal Kasper’s remark that certain forms of moral heroism are “not for the average Christian.” In that attitude, it seems to me, there’s a kind of Grand Inquisitorial paternalism at work—at attitude that would try to slip as many “ordinary” Christians into heaven by protecting them as much as possible from Jesus’s most rigorous demands. And theological issues aside, such paternalism comes with its own cost in this world, because cheap grace often isn’t really grace at all, and where one set of hard obligations gets lightened a different set of miseries often gets imposed.

Since I think there’s a sense sometimes that conservative Catholics inhabit a kind of sociological bubble, in which we don’t see the burdens the church imposes clearly, I’ll end this dialogue on a personal note. I’m a child and grandchild of divorce, whose immediate family manifests not only different ways of being Catholic, but just about every possible variation on contemporary lifestyle and belief. Based on that experience, I can promise you that there is pain and suffering in every dispensation, which no pastoral gesture can undo—and that as many burdens can be laid on people by a world that cares little for any moral standard as by a church that cares too much for rigor.

All teachings, all ideas, blur a little upon contact with lived experience, and in that sense I completely (indeed, very personally) understand where the “pastoral” camp is coming from in these controversies. I do not pretend to know the perfect answer to every situation or dilemma, and I wouldn’t want to inhabit a church of ruthlessly policed communion lines, or a church where parishes in San Francisco or New York were all run on exactly the same lines as parishes in rural Michigan

But I know very well (and again, very personally) what kind of answers the world gives, and what answers most Americans assume they’re basically entitled to receive. And I think the danger of a pharisaical church, while always present, is remote today compared to the clear and pressing danger of a church that no longer even tries to teach the truth.

Grace and peace to you, Father,

Ross

Dear Ross,

Many thanks for your last response and, in particular, for the personal note you ended on. I had promised you that this last response would not raise any new questions, but only briefly respond and then move to a close of our conversation.

You are correct, of course, in warning about “cheap grace,” as the German theologian (and martyr) Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it. And yes, Jesus came not only to offer compassion but to also to remind us of God’s final judgment. As one of my Jesuit brothers once put it, a God who doesn’t judge is a God who doesn’t care what we do.

Once again, though, I think we face the tension between “cheap grace,” which absolves people of personal responsibility for making moral decisions (in light of the Gospels and church tradition) and Pharisaism, where people are crushed by a legalism that prevents them from entering into a relationship with the Living God. But let’s agree on that healthy tension. Law and mercy, we could call it.

Let me end with a personal story as well. My own experience as a Jesuit for the last 26 years and a priest for 15 is that too many Catholics, at least in this country, feel not that they are absolved from moral heroism, but rather that the church no longer speaks to some important parts of their lives. So when many American Catholics (not all of course) learned that the bishops were considering issues that touch upon aspects of their lives that are the source of great pain, as in the case of divorce and remarriage, they were grateful. Not simply because the pastoral application of a certain rule may or may not be changing, but because they feel that their voices are being heard. They sense, it seems to me, a shift from a teaching church to a listening church.

Overall, as I mentioned earlier, I believe that even at the risk of giving some the impression that we are courting “cheap grace,” we must listen to the workings of the Holy Spirit among the People of God, which includes the bishops and the pope. And by trusting in that Spirit, we will not be led astray.

Thanks very much for your kind and charitable responses, Ross, and for your willingness to engage in a friendly dialogue. As I said at the outset, such dialogue is essential for our church today. And in these matters I always return to a saying that St. John XXIII liked to quote. (We could, by the way, get into another long discussion about who first said it.) “In the essentials unity, in differences dialogue, and in all things charity."

Thanks for your openness, your faith and your own ministry of the word.

May God bless you and all that you do.

Peace to you,

Jim

Tommy O'Donnell
2 years 5 months ago
I am so glad that two of my favorite Catholic writers are discussing this in a public forum! However, I will say that I think Mr. Douthat is speaking like a theologian and Fr. Martin like a pastor, and they are sometimes talking past each other in this discussion. That is to say, that Mr. Douthat is deductive, and Fr. Martin inductive, in their theological reasoning. I recognize the need for charity in discussion (and it is beautifully demonstrated here), but this discussion, however broad and very insightful in certain areas, is not yet deep enough to fully answer the pastoral and doctrinal questions at play. The Dominicans have written a readable article defending the Church's current doctrine and practice. Communio also has an interesting take. Does anyone know of similarly deep theological approaches defending "the Kasper proposal?" Mr. Douthat needs a response that is theological. Additionally, are there any pastoral defenses of the Church's current practice for Fr. Martin? This is a beautiful start on a discussion that I hope continues to deepen (and include more reaches "across the aisle") over the next year.
Mark Henrie
2 years 5 months ago
In all the talk of the pastoral dimensions of the changes being proposed, there are some pastoral situations I wonder about. I think, for example, of a woman I know, now in her late 70s. Several decades ago, her husband left her and eventually married another woman. This woman, however, never remarried, because she was certain that the marriage was valid---they had raised two children together---and she believed, with the Church, that marriage is for life. Through the long years of loneliness there were occasional opportunities for her, but she remained faithful to her vows. When the Church now shifts to a consideration of the "positive aspects" of relationships that fall short of marriage, I think of her. It is difficult to avoid the feeling that what the Church is now saying to this woman is this: All the painful sacrifices you have made are...entirely meaningless. This does not seem very pastoral to me.
John Fitzgerald
2 years 5 months ago
I can understand your feeling. Let's think of it differently. I have two sons a few years apart. In raising them, I was harder on the oldest (pretty common). I was a little easier on the younger because I had learned things and was more relaxed as a father. Should I have been harder on the second just because I was harder on the first? I was the oldest child and treated the most strictly but I do not think of this as meaningless. Parents and institutions can learn and should adjust accordingly. Do you think your friend would want others to suffer the same hardship just because she did? I hope not.
John Fitzgerald
2 years 5 months ago
Tommy -- I was very much taken by your thought about the theological/deductive approach versus the pastoral. It is consistent with my early education, experience, and natural way of thinking. However, in more recent years (I'm 66) my deductive thinking has led me to be more inductive in many circumstances. First of all, I've started to focus much more on the synoptic gospels. (I love John's gospel but it's a different kettle of fish.) After all, Christianity is about Jesus and the implications thereof. Looking at the Synoptics and remaining aware of exegetical issues, I think the core messages are primarily about the presence of the Kingdom of God, God as loving Father, and how we must love and treat one another (often contrary to our natural instincts). In the following three centuries two fundamental matters concerning Jesus had to be clarified which resulted in the dogmas of the Incarnation and the Trinity. For me, the answers to all moral issues flow from the question of "What would a Father's love require?" Answering this question requires gathering information and considering the specifics of a situation, inductive process. I think the pastoral issue is always the most important issue and that pastoral theology is the most important type of theology. This is because after answering the question "who do you say that I am?" Jesus' gospel was all about how we are to love the Father and love and treat each other. Everything else is secondary.
DON HENDERSON
2 years 5 months ago
First of all, thank you to both Jim and Ross for having this public debate. I had to struggle a bit in order to keep up, but I think I followed all of your respective arguments, and I have learned a lot! I have a minor and a major point to offer. The minor point is that the requirements for a person to commit a mortal sin, and to receive a sacrament, are far more stringent than many would assume, namely, serious matter, sufficient reflection, and full consent of the will. In our pluralistic culture and the relatively informed state of our consciences, I would question how sufficiently we have reflected on our actions, so that mortal sins - and sacraments - may be harder to "confect" than one would think. My major point is that I question how many Catholics have actually "confected" the sacrament of matrimony, i.e., have sufficiently reflected on the sacramental character of marriage - lifelong fidelity - that is necessary for a proper disposition to marry. Certainly immaturity is one reason for this insufficiency; many studies have concluded that the maturity to make lifelong decisions is delayed in the American culture until the late twenties and even early thirties. Impaired freedom is another reason for an insufficiency; many couples marry because it is "expected" of them by their parents, families, and cultures. Immaturity again comes into play when couples are really interested in having a wedding rather than entering into marriage. The bottom line is that I believe far fewer couples actually receive (confect) the sacrament of matrimony than the number who are presently entered into the church records. Yes, ex opera operato, the proper words and gestures were enacted, but, ex opera operantis, the couples were not properly disposed. How can we be sure? We can't; only God knows. So, we let God judge, and we treat the couple with mercy after due diligence, however that may be defined by the law. Surely, when one of the partners departs the marriage (with no evidence that the other partner has failed in the promise of lifelong fidelity), leaving a spouse - especially with children -- one can seriously question their maturity at the time they entered into the marriage. I would certainly be disposed to allow the "injured" party a "no-fault" annulment. In such cases, since there is no adultery if the injured party remarries, access to the sacraments would not be denied. Thank you for reading and reflecting on this with me.
John Fitzgerald
2 years 5 months ago
Very interesting point. Perhaps something like it will be considered in a simplified and expedited annulment process. My limited personal experience leads me to think that most people enter a marriage with every intention to make theirs work but well aware that many do not for a variety of reasons. They are committed to doing their best but not committed to gutting out a marriage under any and all circumstances, e. g., infidelity or abuse.
J Cabaniss
2 years 5 months ago
I think the essence of the disagreement between the two sides on this issue is captured in this comment from Fr. Martin: "The question of how to minister to divorced and remarried Catholics (neither the pope nor the synod was talking about changing church teaching here) is not a dogmatic issue." The whole disagreement between the two camps is determined by their positions on this assertion. For Fr. Martin (et al) it is a question of a change in our approach to ministering; a mere change in policies. For Mr. Douthat (et al) it is a question of reversing doctrines. So, who is right? Actually, the idea that all that is involved here are church practices - like the decision to not eat meant on Friday - seems incredible. Here are what I understand to be the doctrines involved: a second marriage after a divorce constitutes adultery; adultery is a grave sin; one cannot receive communion in a state of grave sin; sins cannot be absolved without the firm intent not to repeat them. So, how exactly are the people involved in invalid second marriages to be ministered to in such a way as not to abrogate one or more of those doctrines?
Carlos Leon
2 years 5 months ago
How wonderful both of your points of view. Very sound thoughts coming from both of your hearts. You've given me and I hope many others food for reflection and action. I love God who gave us the holy spirit and I love the church that moves with the spirit. Nothing is easy to understand and it doesn't move as fast as we like but the hand of God is on us all. Please continue your dialogue on this and other things, your gift of writing your thoughts are way beyond mine. Dios les Bediga.
Beth Cioffoletti
2 years 5 months ago
Thank you to Ross Douthat for the personal revelation of being a child and grandchild of divorce, and the inconsolable grief of the children of those broken relationships. Francis is teaching us the Sacrament of Marriage, lifting us out of the secular culture where marriage is simply a civil arrangement that can be broken as many times as one can afford. He tells us that Marriage is holy, the vows are serious and binding, and by our marriage and family life we reflect the very essence of God. He speaks to our souls. This is a much better approach, in my opinion, than by focusing on the exclusion of those who have not understood and failed.
Kenneth Wolfe
2 years 5 months ago
Father Martin wrote: "Debate, which seems to be a cause for fear in your op-ed, has always been part of our church. I feel that your piece did not fully recognize that even at the Second Vatican Council—especially at the Second Vatican Council—there were huge disputes among bishops about the most serious of issues..." Yes, but he who controls the debate hath a great advantage. At the Second Vatican Council, for instance, the left literally controlled the microphones. In fact, the head of what is now the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith wasn't even given a fair voice! As described to journalist Robert Moynihan by Monsignor Brunero Gherardini, who attended the council and lives at the Vatican, Cardinal Ottaviani was addressing the 2,000 assembled bishops in October 1962: “As he speaks, pleading for the bishops to consider the texts the curia has spent three years preparing, suddenly his microphone was shut off. He kept speaking, but no one could hear a word. Then, puzzled and flustered, he stopped speaking, in confusion. And the assembled fathers began to laugh, and then to cheer…” This was on day three. It turns out, according to Monsignor Gherardini, that it was Cardinal Achille Lienart, a leading liberal from France serving on Vatican II’s board of presidency, who cut Cardinal Ottaviani’s microphone. Ottaviani would later author a major critique of the vernacular Mass that came out of the council, a plea to Pope Paul VI that fell on deaf ears. Many observers have raised an eyebrow at how similar the recent synod was to the Second Vatican Council. When a clearly leftist pope overrides bishops and cardinals at the synod to hand-pick authors of the now-infamous midterm report, the outcomes are clearly connected to the sound system operator.
Carolyn Disco
2 years 4 months ago
Unfortunately, Mr. Wolfe leaves out an important part of the story of Cardinal Ottaviani's experience that day, one due I suspect more to Ottaviani's conduct, than anything else. According to Msgr. Wilfrid Paradis (1922-2013), a peritus in attendance, Cardinal Ottaviani was warned that his ten-minute allotment of time to speak had expired. Paradis wrote in his memoir: "Cardinal Ottaviani’s first Council address ended in a great humiliation for him for all to see and hear. Apparently believing that his high position exempted him from the Council regulation that each speaker was given a maximum of ten minutes to speak and no more, he continued to talk after he had been warned to end by the presiding officer. The presidency then immediately cut the power to his microphone, and the Prefect of the Holy Office found himself talking to himself into a soundless microphone. To add to his shame, the numerous Council members burst into applause confirming the action of the presidency. After the fact, perhaps most who remembered this dramatic scene had considerable pity for this blind man talking to himself in the presence of at least two thousand other participants. Taking seriously this public rebuke, the wounded Cardinal boycotted attendance at the Council for a period of two weeks!" Part of what generated the assembly's response was perhaps what Ottaviani was stipulating in his talk: "Introduced at the Council for the first time, on the subject of the liturgy, he immediately criticized the preliminary draft for its literary style which he interpreted as ambiguous on matters of doctrine. That being the case, the draft needed to be examined, he concluded, by his own doctrinal commission. Here again, a Roman office, a bureau of the Holy See, placed itself above an Ecumenical Council as having the authority to determine whether it was doctrinally correct or not. As mentioned, centuries of consolidation by the Vatican had seriously warped the understanding that an Ecumenical Council, with the Pope, is the ultimate authority in the Catholic Church – not an office of the Holy See, no matter how powerful it sees its noble self. For many at the Council, this was an aberration beyond scriptural and theological understanding; it bewildered the mind and senses."
Michael Barberi
2 years 5 months ago
Thank you both, Fr. Martin and Ross Douthat, for an excellent and respectful debate, especially on the issue of the divorced and remarried. As some on this blog have asked: What is the theological rationale for Cardinal Kasper's position, as well as the Church's point of view, especially with regard to pastoral theology? The issue about Eucharistic reception for the divorced and remarried that the Synod on the Family is addressing is not an issue of doctrine but pastoral theology and practices. This does not mean that a doctrine or teaching should be ignored or is irrelevant. However, consider that in the sacrament of reconciliation there is the principle of graduation for habitual sinners. Putting aside for the moment the fact that most Catholics who use artificial birth control in the practice of responsible parenthood do not confess this voluntary human action as a sin, many priests grant absolution even when the issue is discussed as an issue of conscience. I can attest to discussing birth control with my confessor priest(s), once or twice, and that was the end of the need to bring it up in confession ever again. Witness the fact that in a 2002 poll of U.S. priests, 40% of both younger and older priests consider artificial birth control in a marriage as seldom or never a sin. This does not only raise issues of "pastoral practices" but of "reception". In a case of artificial birth control, even when it is discussed in confession as an issue of an informed conscience, there is no firm purpose of amendment whereby Catholics will stop using artificial birth control. This is where the principle of graduation comes into play. Now consider the divorced and remarried. Unlike contraception, where it is possible to stop using it, it is almost unreasonable to assume that most of these married couples will practice a lifetime of sexual abstinence as a firm purpose of amendment. Unlike contraception, where the principle of graduation is often applied in the sacrament of reconciliation, no such principle is applied for other habitual sinners like the divorced and remarried…regardless of the circumstances. When we consider that about 80% of worldwide Catholics practice some form of artificial birth control, and many stand in line each week to receive Holy Communion, is a case in point about pastoral practices (and not merely about non-reception). My point is this: If the Church wants to deny the sacrament of reconciliation and Eucharistic reception to the divorced and remarried "regardless of circumstances", then be true, transparent and unambiguous about denying Holy Communion to Catholics who practice contraception in a marriage. It is not sufficient to point to a teaching and turn a blind eye to pastoral practices. It is not sufficient to say "such practices by priests must be corrected". It is not sufficient to point to a "Church bulletin once a year or once every few years" that repeat the teaching on birth control. I never read any such bulletin that strictly called for Catholics not to stand in line for Holy Communion if they practiced contraception. I never heard such a pronouncement by a priest from the pulpit…and I have been going to weekly Mass most of my life. The truth is that the hierarchy does not want to adequately address inconsistencies and seeming contradictions, or controversial issues and make strong and definitive pronouncements. This is a huge problem that few talk about. Some may say, one wrong does not justify committing another wrong; or such practices by priests must be corrected. However, the issue is not a debate about what is wrong (e.g., there are strong and convincing philosophical and theological arguments for artificial birth control in a marriage; and in the interpretation of Matthew's exception clause and the word "pornea"). The issue is how to handle the issue pastorally, and this means being consistent and non-contradictory.
J Cabaniss
2 years 5 months ago
Given the church's response to those who use contraception it is at least logically consistent to treat the divorced and remarried the same way. That is, not by changing the relevant doctrines but by simply ignoring them. I'm not sure how pastoral such a practice really is; it surely does nothing more than kick the can down the road without actually solving anything. How exactly does this confessional approach get explained? If you sin once in a while you need to repent but if you do something habitually you get a pass? The more difficult a sin is to overcome the less likely you are to be held to account for it? Christ called it a grave sin but he was overruled by a vote of the priests? Everything you said about contraception is probably true; it's just not clear that the best way to repair the error made in one place is by duplicating the mistake in another.
Michael Barberi
2 years 5 months ago
J Cabaniss, Thanks for your comments. My argument was posited not as a panacea but to shed light on teachings and pastoral practices that are inconsistent and contradictory. The principle of graduation is often explained as granting absolution to habitual sinners, such as those who practice contraception in a marriage, where the Eucharist, prayer and the Holy Spirit will somehow lead people to accept the Church's teaching and stop such practices. It was something that the Church had to do in light of the fact that 80% of worldwide Catholics practice some form of contraception where many also receive Holy Communion and few ever confess artificial birth control asa sin. If you are a little confused, I can understand why. The truth is that the hierarchy will not require priests to announce from the pulpit or issue a formal bulletin stating that anyone who practices contraception must not receive Holy Communion without absolution for this would be a sacrilege. The hierarchy does not want to deal with the consequences, pure and simple. One priest in Brooklyn did this and found that a significant percent of his parishioners started to attend the nearby parish where the priest there did not say such a thing. As for the divorced and remarried, this is a highly complex issue. However, as my parish priest told me recently he always believed that married couples should be given a second chance for a host of reasons. Many young couples do not understand or are mature enough to accept the responsibilities and obligations of sacramental marriage. Some make mistakes, serious mistakes, and many spouses commit adultery and abandon the other spouse with children. The innocent young spouse should be shown mercy and not be required to practice a lifetime of sexual abstinence and be told that he/she will never be permitted to enter into a permanent, faithful, loving relationship ever again with another person (as long as the other spouse is alive). I do not minimize the teaching about marriage, but I also know that there are profound disagreements within and outside the CC about Matthew's exception clause and what the word "porniea" means. We will have to wait to see what Pope Francis will do after the Synod on the Family completes its work.
J Cabaniss
2 years 5 months ago
I get very concerned about concepts such as "the principle of graduation" since I have no idea how you mean it or how the church might mean it. I am under the impression that sin is a binary proposition: either you have or you haven't. We might not realize we have sinned and the extent of our responsibility for a sin may be doubtful, but if we have not sinned no action is necessary while if we have sinned then absolution is required (even if confession isn't). How does the principle of graduation apply to sins? In light of this citation it seems the principle is being misapplied in this area.
Pope John Paul II explains that married people must embody the values enshrined in the law of God through concrete actions. "‘And so what is known as ‘the law of gradualness’ or step-by-step advance cannot be identified with ‘gradualness of the law’, as if there were different degrees or forms of precept in God’s law for different individuals and situations. (Cardinal Stafford, President for the Pontifical Council for the Laity)
Michael Barberi
2 years 5 months ago
J Cabaniss, According to JP II, no Catholic who practices artificial birth control in the practice of responsible parenthood can receive Holy Communion unless they confess this so-called sin and receive absolution (which requires a firm purpose of amendment). This is not the held believe and pastoral practices of 40% of U.S. priests, or 80% of worldwide Catholics who practice some form of contraception. Just about every priest in the U.S. knows that most of their parishioners in child bearing years use artificial birth control and are standing in line to receive Holy Communion. Most of them do not confess these acts as sins. Yet, bishops do very little to correct this. Therefore, there is inconsistency and contradiction between the law (doctrine) and deeds (pastoral practices). The principle of graduation was constructed to try to deal with this. The so-called sinner will gradually be lead out of sin by frequent sacrament, prayer and spiritual guidance. Frankly, I am perplexed by it. The issue of birth control is an judgment of an informed conscience. The Church teaches us (and Benedict XVI affirmed this) that no one should go against their informed conscience even if it means going against a papal encyclical. A conscience can err (and so can a pope) but there is a process one must follow when one's conscience is in tension with a magisterium teaching. I will not go into detail here but 40% of U.S. priests believe that artificial birth control in a marriage is seldom or never a sin. My previous argument stands.
Michael Barberi
2 years 5 months ago
J Cabaniss, Below is a section of a discussion (link below) where the principle of gradualness was discussed during the Synod on the Family. Note how this principle has been reinterpreted as a possible way forward (#47) compared to JP II's definition in Familiaris Consortio (#10). Disagreement and development are part of the Catholic tradition. "On Monday, October 13, the Synod released a document called a Relatio post disceptationem (i.e., a report after discussion), which summarized the discussions held in the first week of the synod. 9) What did this document say regarding the law of gradualness? It referred to the concept in several passages: 13. From the moment that the order of creation is determined by orientation towards Christ, it becomes necessary to distinguish without separating the various levels through which God communicates the grace of the covenant to humanity. Through the law of gradualness (cf. Familiaris Consortio, 34), typical of divine pedagogy, this means interpreting the nuptial covenant in terms of continuity and novelty, in the order of creation and in that of redemption. 14. Jesus Himself, referring to the primordial plan for the human couple, reaffirms the indissoluble union between man and woman, while understanding that “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning” (Mt 19,8). In this way, He shows how divine condescension always accompanies the path of humanity, directing it towards its new beginning, not without passing through the cross. . . . 17. In considering the principle of gradualness in the divine salvific plan, one asks what possibilities are given to married couples who experience the failure of their marriage, or rather how it is possible to offer them Christ’s help through the ministry of the Church. In this respect, a significant hermeneutic key comes from the teaching of Vatican Council II, which, while it affirms that “although many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside of its visible structure ... these elements, as gifts belonging to the Church of Christ, are forces impelling toward Catholic unity” (Lumen Gentium, 8). 47. As regards the possibility of partaking of the sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist, some argued in favor of the present regulations because of their theological foundation, others were in favor of a greater opening on very precise conditions when dealing with situations that cannot be resolved without creating new injustices and suffering. For some, partaking of the sacraments might occur were it preceded by a penitential path – under the responsibility of the diocesan bishop –, and with a clear undertaking in favor of the children. This would not be a general possibility, but the fruit of a discernment applied on a case-by-case basis, according to a law of gradualness, that takes into consideration the distinction between state of sin, state of grace and the attenuating circumstances. 10) Is this same understanding of the law of gradualness present in Familiaris Consortio and the Vademecum for Confessors? It does not appear so. At least from what has been said thus far, it appears more to reflect the “gradualness of law” that was warned against in those documents, according to which a decisive break with sin is not required before receiving absolution and holy Communion, and in which a different standard of what constitutes sin would be applied to some than is applied to others. Read more: http://www.ncregister.com/blog/jimmy-akin/the-law-of-gradualness-12-things-to-know-and-share#ixzz3Je4ElqdH
Bill Mazzella
2 years 5 months ago
This interaction is a model for all of us.I expected the reasoning of Jim Martin. But I was pleasantly surprised by a well reasoned and engaged Ross Douthat. They covered the points well and both responded on point to each other. I am pleased and proud of both of them. May this type of dialogue keep us together in building up each other and the Body of Christ. Both of them were terrific.
Ed Hawkins
2 years 5 months ago
Both Fr. Martin and Mr. Douthat made me think as I read each email. Ecce quam bonum et quam jucundum est habitare fratres in unum! Fr. Martin highlights the great achievement of Pope Francis for many of us struggling Catholics: "Not simply because the pastoral application of a certain rule may or may not be changing, but because they feel that their voices are being heard. They sense, it seems to me, a shift from a teaching church to a listening church." I am certain that the Church will maintain the truth of its heritage, but I am so delighted to experience a Pope who asks that the Church listen, welcome, and treat all of us who have been wounded on the battlefields of life.
John Fitzgerald
2 years 5 months ago
This is an excellent article. Thank you America. My compliments to Father Martin and Mr. Douthat.
Leo Wong
2 years 5 months ago
Fr Martin:
As a thought exercise, imagine what would have happened to someone in my position (a Jesuit priest and writer) had I said about Popes John Paul II or Benedict what one cardinal recently said about Pope Francis: that a statement from the pope declaring his adherence to Catholic teaching was “long overdue.” I would have likely been silenced, or at the very least reprimanded.
As a thought exercise, name one element of Catholic teaching that anyone had the slightest suspicion that Pope John Paul II or Pope Benedict XVI did not adhere to? Forget about "traditionalists" and "progressives" and stick to what the Church has taught for 2,000 years. I don't say anything against Pope Francis; the question is why Cardinal Burke would have said what he did.
Beth Cioffoletti
2 years 5 months ago
What is the element of Catholic teaching that Francis is not adhering to (or that Cardinal Burke think that he is not adhering to)?
Leo Wong
2 years 5 months ago
Again, it's not an accusation but the suspicion that a pastoral change will imply a change in teaching. A survey of commentary on Pope Francis indicates that people are not sure want he wants, or even what he thinks. Cardinal Burke is not alone among the hierarchy or the laity who are asking for assurance. This question did not arise with Pope John Paul II or Pope Benedict XVI, except perhaps among groups who are not in communion with Rome.
Beth Cioffoletti
2 years 5 months ago
Isn't it the Cardinal's place to assuage the suspicions of the laity, rather than publicly challenging the Pope to do so? If the Cardinal has doubts, perhaps he could meet privately with Francis. I read the Pope's daily homilies and have no problem understanding him. He is very clear about what he wants and what he thinks.
Leo Wong
2 years 5 months ago
I don't know what the cardinal's place is in this regard. I assume that, like Cardinal Kasper, he is doing what he believes is the will of God. Cardinal Burke said in an interview that he had "heard" from Pope Francis. Whether the pope heard the cardinal is unclear. You understand the pope better than I and some others do. May we all, from cardinals to laity, understand him better and pray for his intentions.
Leo Wong
2 years 4 months ago
Francis defended the clarity of his own formulations: “Someone told me once: ‘Yes, of course, discernment is fine, but we need things that are more clear.’ I told him: ‘Look, I have written an encyclical and an apostolic exhortation, and I continually make declarations and give homilies, and this is magisterium. What is there is what I think, not what the media say I think. Go there, you'll find it, and it's very clear.’” Nonetheless the fact remains that what the pope said in this interview with regard to communion for the divorced and remarried still lends itself to interpretative doubts. One can read in it, in fact, both a rejection of the “solution” of giving them communion and an assent to this same solution, as part of a more comprehensive “integration” of these individuals.
Sandro Magister, The Synod Heads to the Second Round. A Canonist’s Summation On trying to understand Pope Francis, read also Sandro Magister, The Lenses of the Cardinal, the Sociologists, the Journalists.
Vince Killoran
2 years 5 months ago
Pastoral v. theological? I recall the story of how Cardinal Cushing's pastoral approach to his sister's marriage to her Jewish husband helped to transform the Church's view of other faiths.
James Anderson
2 years 5 months ago
Dear Father Jim, Ross and America Readers, Thank you for your work in posting this conversation. I'll make a few points, quickly, that I hope will allow for some deeper discernment: 1. The Relevance of a Sensus Fidelium assumption in the contentious Social Issues: The teachings, true-to-form developments, in Vatican II as to the ecclesiology of the laity, the "people of God," and their rightful voice in the Church is non-relevant. While the Holy Spirit, the Counsel teaches, works in and through the laity such that its faithful sense emulates the Spirit of Charity--its mode of formal, magisterial participation is found in the mystical connection within the Sacramental unity of the Church, the sacrificial wedding. Asking how millions of people respond to very short questions, never knowing the formation of their consciences, their ultimate fidelity to Christ Jesus or even who they publicly are--and then judging these as 'ex Pew-pedra' pronouncements of the Sensus Fidelium, is to treat mere newspaper surveys as Divinely-commanded moral precepts. Such gnostic reasoning wrongly suspends the only meaningful, formal criterion of discernment of the Sacramental Unity (are such people faithfully, fully breathing in the Mystical Body?), and so dangerously slams the cart on top of the horse. 2. Woefully Mistaken Claims to Subjective Conscience Consider: "I can reasonably and piously choose, in sincere conscience, to dissent and desist from ______ Catholic doctrine, because it is not infallible dogma of the Catholic Church," you are gravely mislead. Father Martin S.J. seems to assume the above proposition. It is the most common fallacy underlying these and other similiar "controversial" conversations. Firstly, the faithful are called not only to accept and practice infallible doctrine, but all public doctrines and teachings, and even some non-teachings in certain instances. The conscience may be--and often is--bound by the voice of the Church even in matters not pertaining to Ex Cathedra proclamations in the Magisterial life. To be fair, Father Martin S.J. goes further and rightly includes the teachings of Universal Counsels and Scripture. But he misses that Tradition is among these, and even when tradition is recognized from the teaching office of the Petrine Chair--this is universal recognition and binds the conscience the faithful, showing them the way to Love. Secondly, the "conscience" is not some autonomous, subjective ghost capable of being reasonably formed apart from the Charity of the Spirit with Faith and Hope in the Truth revealed. Someone cannot "reasonably, piously dissent and desist" with a "good" conscience from the Truth of Christ Jesus, even if the individual claims it's more "charitable" or "merciful." They may be formed by a Spirit, but it is not a charitable one, it shows no mercy, and it is not good. Why? Because, 3. Truth and Charity are always compatible: One cannot reasonably claim that they are "led in the conscience" to pursue "charity" and love by denying the Truth proclaimed by God. This same God (Christ Jesus) is the source (processio) of the same Holy Spirit we are here discerning; they are consubstantial. And, this same Christ Jesus (Logos) who is the Truth itself (Jn. 14); is the giver of this Spirit to the Church (Jn. 20), who is Love itself. The Universal Mission of the Church is to ensure to obedient practice of all the Truths of God (Mt. 28). Thus, the teaching and insurance of faithful practicing in the Truth of Christ Jesus, by the Church, will always be perfectly Loving, perfectly Charitable. So, when Christ or Paul solemnly command that we abstain from the Eucharist in grave states of sin, lest we condemn ourselves (e.g. 1 Cor. 11); they give us the supreme opportunity to Love, because in practicing this Truth we live in Love itself! Persons saying "personally, this offends me" are being unloving and uncharitable, using their hallow emotional caprices to trump God's most-Loving will for them. All other magisterial teachings follow the same path. You are not "loving" anyone by refusing to share the Truth. Nor do you believe the Truth if you fail to Lovingly preach and live it. No-one can claim to have "discerned the Spirit" so as to "piously, reasonably, in good conscience, have found a greater way to Love" where-by the teachings of Christ in the Church (c.f. Luke 10:16) are there-after "consciously" suspended for a later date. 4. The Gravity of Catholic Teachings were Misstated, a) The teaching on divorce and remarriage, and what is adultery, is infallible -- Scripture b) The teaching that adultery is grave sin, is infallible -- Scripture c) The teaching that the reception of the Eucharist in grave sin is prohibited, is infallible -- Scripture d) The teaching that the sexual atrocities in question are gravely sinful, is infallible -- Scripture To deny that these ought not be as Truth served and practiced in worship (i.e. the Mass), is an error, denying that: e) "true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and truth; and indeed the Father seeks such people to worship him. God is Spirit, and those who worship him must worship in Spirit and truth." (John 4:23-24). The most loving practice of worship which we all "must" abide in is that which acts in Spirit and in Truth. Christ has revealed these to us, so it makes it easy. The same is the reasoning why non-Catholics are most-loved by not being invited up to receive the Eucharist. I'll end with how Christ Jesus deals with this issue. When Christ most clearly expounds the Truth of the Real Presence to an enormous crowd of Souls in John 6:48-60, Our Blessed Lord sees their disagreement, never bends His preaching one centimeter (!) as to its absolute nature and required practice--saying instead that their Life depends on it--and allows them to walk away because they could not accept it. He then turns the Apostles and asks if they too will leave--unmoved as to whether even His closest brothers ought to leave if they too can't consciously accept or fathom the teaching. Christ did not find the essential issues of Grace, the issues of the gravity of sin and eternal life, to be ones for negotiation. And, we know that Christ was preeminently, perfectly Loving (and "pastoral"--as He Is the Perfect Pastor) to each and all of these Souls in this passage. Why won't you let your heart embrace that what is most Loving will always be humble service to the Truth? Pax Christi
Leo Wong
2 years 5 months ago
Dear Mr. Anderson, There does seem to be, as you imply, a disconnection between the importance of these questions for the salvation of souls and what Fr. Martin accurately describes as "the casual context" of his discussion with Mr. Douthat. Without commenting on your points, I'll continue to seek the "deeper discernment" you desiderate. "Even though a soul may immediately distinguish between false inspirations and those of God, it should nevertheless be careful, because many things are uncertain. God is pleased and rejoices when a soul distrusts Him for His own sake; because it loves Him." -- St. Faustina Kowalksa Pax Christi
John Fitzgerald
2 years 5 months ago
As I commented before, I appreciate the article and now many of the comments. Very thoughtful. I agree with Douthat and many of the commenters that the nub of the debate revolves around what is considered doctrine and at what level of authority. I am a highly informed progressive, quite possibly a radical, who has tended to find myself disagreeing with equally (or more) highly informed conservatives precisely on the issue of what is doctrine. I look at the history of the RCC (which I've studied a lot) and the evolution of doctrine and I see an incredible proliferation over time, including in the area of episcopal and papal authority. An awful lot has been built on "Thou art Peter ...." This troubles me. I am skeptical. It does not trouble my conservative friends. It is part of their belief system. I study the gospels, am aware of the differences, and I am familiar with the various techniques for interpreting them as well as some of the different scholarly views. Consequently, I am wary of the easy literal interpretations which are often used on both sides of an issue. Did Jesus allow for divorce in the case of adultery or perverse sexual behavior? What about the specific context of the question about divorce or some other matter? What if he had been asked about the rights of a wife married to a man who was horribly abusive both physically and mentally and to both her and her children? Does context matter? I think it does. My conservative friends tend not to think so. When I think about the essence of the faith, I think of the Incarnation, the Resurrection, the Trinity and the teachings of Jesus as best we can determine them given limitations in exegesis. The greatest commandment --love God. The second -- love your neighbor. The new commandment -- love others as I have loved you. The Father's love for the prodigal son. The Good Samaritan. The story of the young rich man -- go sell all that you have. The sermon(s) on the mount. The warnings about wealth. The injunctions about not judging others. This is not soft Christianity. It goes completely against the human grain. I feel as strongly about these things as Douthat suggests many conservatives feel about communion for remarried Catholics. When I look at the positions that the bishops and the Vatican have chosen to emphasize in the last few decades along with the pomp and circumstance and lavishness of so many "Princes of the Church," I see violations of Christ's teachings as profound as Douthat may see concerning remarriage and communion. However, I do not think of schism. I believe in the ongoing presence of the Holy Spirit. One of the things I find intellectually most interesting about the current situation is the ease with which some conservatives challenge the authority of this Pope both publicly and privately. Unlike me and others to the left, the promotion of papal authority has been a hallmark of the so-called conservative American Catholic. Pope Francis is a highly educated, highly experienced, legitimately elected Pope. Even without the protection of the HS, his views on Church teachings including what can be discussed are informed. This is true of the other bishops who say that "yes, we can discuss these things." And yet, against this people say "our understanding of Church teaching is better; our understanding of the Catechism is better; this Pope is out of line." My hypothesis is that the underlying divide is psychological. I am relatively comfortable with open questions and ambiguity. This is not a moral quality; it's neither good nor bad. Others, across the whole doctrinal spectrum, like greater specificity and clarity. They are somehow threatened by change. Few changes are ever minor or small. Fortunately, God loves us all.
Paul Ferris
2 years 5 months ago
Imagine Jesus at the well with the Samaritan woman. She has three strikes against her: 1. She is a woman and men do not speak to women alone in public; 2. She is a Samaritan which means she is a heretic and schismatic and it was considered unclean for Jesus to drink from a Samaritan cup. 3. She was married five times and living with a sixth man which really means she is in no marriage. Now Jesus chooses to reveal to her the mysteries of baptism and Eucharist and where the Father is to be worshiped in Spirit and in Truth. Now the Gospels say the disciples were amazed to see Jesus talking to her....maybe they even decided later to call a Synod for certainly Jesus was way out of the bounds of orthodoxy in his pastoral practice.. Yet He chose this women to reveal that He is the Messiah. The women drops everything and runs to the town to tell everyone about Jesus. Considering her reputation, that must have been a hard sell. Remember she was at the well in the middle of the day when it was the hottest because she was ostracized from the female community in the morning and evening. Jesus by the way did not lecture the women on the need for annulments nor did he even say "go and sin no more." Think about this. How far we have come from the message and example of Jesus! Mercy !!!
Leo Wong
2 years 5 months ago
Neither, in the same Gospel, did Jesus condemn the woman taken in adultery. He did say to her: Go and sin no more.
Jeanne Follman
2 years 5 months ago
The money quote for me was when Ross Douthat explained why he wrote what he did: "as an attempt to explain why the stakes for conservative Catholics on some of these issues are perhaps higher than the stakes for progressives under recent pontificates, in ways that make the direction that Pope Francis may be pushing fraught with a distinctive kind of peril for the church." I have to agree; it is a distinctive kind of peril for the church. But not for the truth of the faith itself. The church has been governed for centuries as a European royal court, and in many minds, especially conservative ones, I think the dogmas and doctrines and structure of the church have all become conflated into an all-or-nothing life form that cannot change, lest the whole thing implode. Change is threatening. It's an understandable fear, but it's based on an attachment to an institution and its style of governance, not to the Gospels and tradition, as understood through the hierarchy of truths (CCC #90). Francis may well create a distinctive kind of peril for the church as it is currently constituted, but that's how the church will grow. The truth of the faith itself is not at risk.
Leo Wong
2 years 5 months ago
You may well be right. The head of Religious Education and Faith Formation in my parish told me after Mass today that he does "not believe in the Catechism." I doubt, though, that love of Mother Church is based on "its style of governance," at least since Humanae Vitae when the Pope seemed almost to go it alone.
Paul Ferris
2 years 5 months ago
Very insightful and well said Jeanne. I have been a cradle Catholic and can hardly see any resemblance to what happens in Rome and to what happens in the Churches I have studied and worshiped in....Rome is so different if I ever thought to leave Rome I would not even know how...
Henry George
2 years 5 months ago
If I understand correctly neither Ross nor Fr. Martin were alive before Vatican II. It might do both of them good to be very careful about how they describe the pre-Vatican II Church. As someone who was alive before Vatican II - I can testify that there was a deep kindness in the Church and ongoing charity. We did not live and breathe rules all day long. If Pope Francis would like to allow those spouses - who stayed true to their marriage long after their spouses physically abandoned the marriage or repeatedly treated it like a sham - the opportunity to have their marriage annulled and the offended spouse to be then able to enter into a 2nd marriage - what great sin is there in that approach ? Fr. Martin - you keep saying you trust the Holy Spirit - but do you really believe that the Holy Spirit wanted the Church to adapt "Folk Music" from the 1960's as the norm for liturgical music. Be honest now - would you ever sing most of the songs sung in Church at "Folk Masses" outside of Church ?
John Fitzgerald
2 years 5 months ago
Henry -- You have a generous heart and make a couple of good points. I remember pre-Vatican II, although maybe not as much of it as you. I'm 66. It's interesting how so many of us (myself included) will speak authoritatively about things of which we have little, if any, real knowledge. I have a warmer place in my heart for the folk music because it was part of my formative years. I am very moved when I sing "here I am Lord." In General, however, you are correct. :-)
Henry George
2 years 5 months ago
There some lovely songs from the 60's/70's that I would be happy to sing in and out of Church. The 60's were a waterfall decade - many things that should have been washed away were washed away and many things that should not have been washed away were. Fr. Martin should be careful about how sure he is that the Holy Spirit is full informing his conscience when, in fact, it may just be his natural proclivities for things that are new. I like a simple weekday liturgy of the eucharist and a more solemn one on Sunday and great Feasts.
Beth Cioffoletti
2 years 5 months ago
Several years ago someone gave me the record album, “America is hard to find”. The cellophane is still around the record (though torn), and I have never bothered to open it since I don’t have a record player anymore. The recording is of a rock Mass, with poetry by Daniel Berrigan, held in Ithaca NY from February 27-March 2, 1970. I keep the record as a memento of the time of Vatican 2 and the Vietnam war, the 1960’s and early 70’s. The energies of both of these events were intertwined for me. At the University of Dayton (a Catholic college) we had little group Masses in the lobby of my dormitory that were a far cry from the rigid rituals of my childhood. Daniel Berrigan and his brother Phil, both priests, were risking arrest by speaking publicly against an American war. I felt much hope – for my Church and for my country. In November of 1964, at Merton’s invitation, a religiously mixed group (Catholic and Protestant) arrived at Gethsemani for a meeting on violence and non-violence. The retreat was titled, “Spiritual Roots of Protest”. Among those who came were J.H. Yoder, Jim Forest, A.J. Muste, and Dan and Phil Berrigan, and Elbert Jean (Methodist). The meeting was helpful in providing Merton with information on what was going on outside the monastery, and providing him with new friends. Merton gave a talk: “The Monastic Protest: The Voice in the Wilderness”, and quoted extensively from Franz Jägerstätter. Merton was somewhat stunned by the uncanonical Mass that Dan Berrigan said entirely in English in the novitiate chapel, calling it “way out” yet “simple and impressive”. It was the first time he had seen communion given in both species and to both Catholics and Protestants. A couple of years later (October 1966) Merton would concelebrate again with Dan. He comments in his journal: "Dan Berrigan arrived by surprise Tuesday – I was not expecting him until the end of the week. We concelebrated twice – once in the regular present rite, and today, with a new Mass he found somewhere which is very fine and simple. I don’t know how legal we were. It was a very moving simple English text (Canon and all). I think it was composed by Anglicans and has been used by them. Contrast to the Mass I said for Jacques [Maritain], old style, last week. That was very sober, austere, solemn, intense. This very open, simple, even casual, but very moving and real. Somehow I think the new is really better – and is far from anything we will be permitted here for a long time. I have nothing against the old. (Learning to Love, p. 149)"
Vince Killoran
2 years 5 months ago
You're right--some of the music was (and is) dreadful. But so are more than a few of those old 19th hymns. Thomas Day's WHY CATHOLICS CAN'T SING is worth a read.
David Smith
2 years 5 months ago
The salient subject here seems to be the sacrament of marriage. Both gentlemen agree that Church teaching on matrimony and family life has not changed and that there is no intention on almost anyone's part that it should change, but they differ on whether or not modifications proposed by progressives in the pastoral approach to widespread disobedience to doctrine is likely or not to lead to something at least closely akin to change. Why not an interim-period approach, in which it's admitted that for a half century, there's been a great deal of uncertainty and attitudinal churning in the Church that's led a great many people to perceive and take advantage of what must have felt like a large doctrinal loophole? Church teaching on matrimony could be clearly and strongly reaffirmed while, at the same time, affording those married, divorced, and remarried under the perceived de facto dispensation to be fully accepted now, with the understanding that in future such a liberal attitude is unlikely to be continued? Vatican II led to many changes, many necessary, many of questionable value, and some undesirable and almost certainly unintended. We now have fifty years - almost two generations - of experience with life in the wake of the council. Isn't it time to begin to reflect broadly on what's happened in that time and to chart an intelligent, compassionate, faithful, and, not the least important, a clear path forward? Dialogue is essential and very good, but outside the academy, in the real world of real people, dialogue must be balanced with guidance.
Michael Barberi
2 years 5 months ago
The issue in this article that is receiving the most attention is whether the divorced and remarried can, under certain circumstances and conditions, receive Holy Communion. This is a contentious issue as groups representing both sides of this argument believe they are right. However, consider that many teachings of the Church were the subject to rigorist and intransigent arguments. Usury is a good example. The writing of Clement of Alexandra (c. 150-215) are among the earliest writings condemning usury. The early fathers appealed to the Old Testament texts. Usury or the taking of interest was forbidden to clerics by the 44th Apostolic Canons, by the First Council of Areles (314), and by the First General Council of Nicea (325). The First Council of Carthage (345) forbade laity to engage in usury. Pope Leo the Great also condemned usury. This prohibition continued right up to the 16th century when in a period of 17 years, 1569-1586, three different popes issued papal bulls, the equivalent of papal encyclicals that condemned attempts to overturn the prohibition of usury. Some traditionalist argue that this was simple a development of a teaching. However, it was really a reform of the teaching. In other words, either interest is forbidden or it is not. When the teaching of usury was reformed, no one was able to explain (to date) how an explicit and unambiguous OT text, that was considered divine law, could be reformed. Of course, there are other teachings that have been reformed. However, my question is this: When it comes to the teaching about the divorced and remarried and Eucharistic reception, does anyone believe that it is impossible to construct a way forward? Clearly, for some bishops and theologians the status quo is the truth that cannot be changed. For them, the light of the Holy Spirit is clear. For others, there may be circumstances and conditions on a case-by-case basis where the light of the Holy Spirit may shine brighter. Young married people are imperfect and some make mistakes due to a variety of reasons. Mercy may be one path out of this moral dilemma that does not destroy the doctrine.
Paul Ferris
2 years 5 months ago
People seem to take it for granted that the Family on the Synod will finish its work in another year, I think this is naive. The RCC has a way of not making decisions just like the US Congress on issues where there is no agreement. I had the experience in my life. It took fifty years for the RCC to give permission to the Maronite Church to ordain married men in the United States. It allowed one married man to be ordained this year and it was an exception. I do not want to go into this now because it is a wholly different issue but just let me say....don't hold your breath on any resolution on whether or not divorced Catholics will be able to attend communion without benefit of annulment. Of course there is always the option that Catholics will just take matters into their own hands and go to communion without permission as they did on birth control.
Paul Ferris
2 years 5 months ago
Why don't the Bishops look at the causes of widespread divorce and help us to understand these causes instead of dealing with the aftermath ? The laws of marriage were made in the Middle Ages for royalty who were claiming to marry children for dynastic reasons...thus the notion that a valid marriage had to be ratum and consummatum. It is interesting that the Catholic Church puts all the weight of a marriage on the beginning. This is the reason why the Church allows annulments. They go back in a reverse time machine and say the marriage never took place from the get-go so it is really not a divorce. This is a practice that leads to cynicism on the part of many who see the practice as divorce Catholic style. One is reminded of the words of Karl Barth who said that Catholics have no theology of marriage, only a theology of the marriage ceremony.
Tim O'Leary
2 years 5 months ago
Regarding usury, I fail to see the marked change some readers of Church history claim. The Lord obviously approved of interest on savings in a bank, and a bank could only do that if it too loaned money to earn interest. In Matt 25:26-27, Jesus, in his parable on the talents, has a master (God) chide a servant: "you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest." When usury was condemned, it was always in a time when the interest rate charged by moneylenders was confiscatory and when the failure to pay back resulted in violence or prison or worse. Even today, loan sharks who prey on the poor are condemned. It is like the distinction in history between forms of servitude (prisoners, pagan slavery, or serfs in the feudal system) and chattel slavery that is always wrong and was consistently condemned by the popes.
Tim O'Leary
2 years 5 months ago
Regarding usury, I fail to see the marked change some readers of Church history claim. The Lord obviously approved of interest on savings in a bank, and a bank could only do that if it too loaned money to earn interest. In Matt 25:26-27, Jesus, in his parable on the talents, has a master (God) chide a servant: "you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest." When usury was condemned, it was always in a time when the interest rate charged by moneylenders was confiscatory and when the failure to pay back resulted in violence or prison or worse. Even today, loan sharks who prey on the poor are condemned. It is like the distinction in history between forms of servitude (prisoners, pagan slavery, or serfs in the feudal system) and chattel slavery that is always wrong and was consistently condemned by the popes.
Paul Ferris
2 years 5 months ago
Tim, Your latest comments are an historical stretch even for you. "The Lord obviously approved of interest on savings in a bank"....really?? The way I read the parable of the talents, the one who put his talent away and did not risk it in some venture was the one condemned. Second point: you write: "the popes all condemn slavery" but as Father Martin writes, slavery was practiced and permitted by the Jesuit order in the United States. I have a book review of slavery by the Ursulines of New Orleans. The book is called Masterless Mistress by Emily Clark, PHD Tulane University. Would you like me to reprint it here. Now the Popes were in control of Jesuits who were the spiritual guides of the Ursulines. If the pope wanted to condemn slavery, all he had to do was write a letter to the Jesuits and Ursulines to cease and desist from their policies.
Leo Wong
2 years 5 months ago
Mr. O'Leary did not say that "the popes all condemn slavery," but probably they did not, since Jesus had good things to say about good slaves.
Paul Ferris
2 years 5 months ago
"Jesus had good things to say about good slaves"....help me out Leo. I might have missed that...chapter and verse please.
Leo Wong
2 years 5 months ago
Matthew 25:21, among many.

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