The National Catholic Review
Nov 18 2014 - 11:00am | James Martin, SJRoss Douthat
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,


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,


Show Comments (100)

Comments (hide)

William Rydberg | 1/1/2015 - 11:47am

I firmly believe that Pope Francis is a great grace received from the Blessed Trinity in our time!

He has the ability to state the difficult questions in the most clear manner. Such common sense. Let me explain...

In talking about the recent Synod on the Family he brought up Spiritual Communion - something that received some talk and was voted not to be included in the discussion document (Relatio). On excluding Spiritual Communion and to paraphrase; he said "...Is it not necessary to be in God's Grace to receive spiritual communion?.."

Unknowingly, by these words he has prompted Scholars to look at something that I thought was beyond the ken of Theologians of today for many have a great fear of being branded "Medievalists"...

Take a look at the following grace filled work coming out of the USA on it and related subjects. Its positively amazing in my opinion. First, that such detail is actually now being discussed. And that it is so very relevant to the life of the Church today.

Here are the links:

Other resources include info available at:

Positively awesome how our Lord Jesus Christ continues to work in our contemporary world.

in Christ,

Still enjoying the Octave of Christmas on this Feast of Mary, the Mother of God

Paul Ferris | 11/24/2014 - 2:09pm

Here are some final questions for thought: why are convicted murderers and pedophile priests allowed to receive communion? Arguably they have done far more damage to the church than divorced and remarried Catholics. I always bristle when I hear that pedophile priests are "reduced to the lay state." Being in the lay state should not be considered a punishment. They can still receive spiritual communion as suggested to divorced and remarried Catholics. One may argue they have not violated the indissolubility of marriage. But have they not violated their baptismal grace. Just wondering.

Tim O'Leary | 11/24/2014 - 6:15pm

Paul - is it your opinion that a convicted murderer or pedophile should be forever excluded from communion, even if he/she repented? (A form of spiritual death penalty). Or is it that adultery is bad only if not continued for a long time, or that repeated sinning makes a sin right? As Michael says below, the issue is much more complex than you seem to grasp. I hope that there can be a way for reconciliation for all those who have entered into an adulterous relationship, but it just might require ending the adultery.

As to expanding access to communion, maybe the synod should also discuss expanding it to baptized non-Catholics who are in faithful first marriages, as long as they profess belief in the Real Presence? Wouldn't a repentant Protestant be more deserving than a non-repentant Catholic?

Paul Ferris | 11/24/2014 - 5:25pm


Jesus advocated a spiritual death penalty to those who caused scandal to children. He said they should have a mill stone tied around their necks and dropped into the sea. Nothing there about repentance. I am sure you consider pedophilia a form of scandal as well as other things to children.

Tim O'Leary | 11/24/2014 - 6:32pm

Yes, causing scandal, or abusing children or even killing them (as in infanticide or abortion) might be nearly impossible to forgive, as it appears are the sins against the holy spirit which the scripture seems to indicate are not forgivable. (Mark 3:29). Then there are the four sins that "cry out to heaven." I may be wrong, but I tend to hope that all who repent can be forgiven, no matter how bad the sin may be.

Paul Ferris | 11/24/2014 - 5:16pm

I am not advocating denying confession to repentant pedophiles; I was just pointing out that these sins can be considered more grave than marrying without annulment (you call it adultery). I agree that these issues are complex but you have a way of reducing things to their most simplistic understanding. I have the same trust in God that St. Paul had when he said that Eucharist can be a two edged sword, I can be salvation for the just and condemnation for the unjust. Can't we leave a little room for God to decide. He alone knows the heart. I don't, you don't and for that matter Pope Francis doesn't and he even said so. "Who am I to judge. "

By the way, what was the going rate of interest at the bank of Jerusalem, the Galilee branch at the time of Jesus?

Tim O'Leary | 11/24/2014 - 6:31pm

I know of no Catholic doctrine that says adultery (or whatever you call it) is more grave than pedophilia or murder. The only distinction is between the admonition to repent and "go, and sin no more" or reconcile and keep on sinning. But, I am not sure what the Church should do, and leave it up to the Holy Spirit to inspire the Magisterium.

Paul Ferris | 11/24/2014 - 8:29pm


I don't agree that people in a committed second marriage without going through annulment are in an adulterous relationship. If it was a mortal sin as I am sure you conceive it, why are they being told they can come to liturgy, be in spiritual communion with Christ through prayer alone...etc. etc. With Thanksgiving coming up in a couple of days I am reminded that one would never invite someone to Thanksgiving dinner but tell them they cannot partake of the meal which is exactly the present position of the Catholic Church in regard to communion of divorced and remarried Catholics. The magisterium is not God. I would let God do some of the work on these issues. It is Catholic doctrine that God speaks to everyone through their conscience. The Magisterium is not the replacement for conscience no matter how much some Catholics think so. You mention the Holy Spirit, The Holy Spirit cannot be confined to the Magisterium alone. We know too much of the history of the Church to believe that myth. Remember even a genius and Saint like Thomas Aquinas approved of torture and execution for unrepentant heretics.

Michael Barberi | 11/24/2014 - 9:25pm


Just to be clear. I was not disagreeing with your comments. I was only offering you some further thoughts.

The issue is more complex than Tim says. For example, the principle of gradualness in confession does not require the habitual sinner to "go and sin no more". It is understood that most so-called habitual sinners disagree with a teaching and do not believe they are sinning based on their informed consciences. It is absolving them in confession under the principle of gradualness where sacrament (Eucharist), prayer, further education and spiritual guidance that the so-called sinner will change their behavior. This seems inconsistent and contradictory when such a principle is applied to some so-called habitual sinners (those who use contraception) and not to others (those who are divorced and remarried and have loving sex). At the Synod on the Family, in its first report, there was an argument in favor of Eucharistic reception for the divorced and remarried under conditions, that was in tension with JP II's condemnation of it in Familaris Consortio. Such a distinction forms the difference between one interpretation of a pope and another's.

It is possible that the pastoral application of the teaching on marriage, et al, will allow the Eucharistic reception for the divorced and remarried under certain conditions…God willing.

Tim O'Leary | 11/24/2014 - 10:57pm

Paul and Michael - I think the issue is far more complex than both of you imagine. There is the question of the first, second or third marriage, the injury to the abandoned spouse (s), the injury to the children in the various marriages, the personal conscience, the willingness or refusal to seek an annulment, the presence/absence of a civil divorce, etc. etc. Does there need to be a certain amount of time from walking away and when does shacking up become transformed into a new marriage. Does one have to be exclusive to one partner? Is there really such a thing as an indissoluble marriage or was Jesus too hard in His teaching. What did He mean when He said "For my yoke is easy and my burden is light." (Mt 11:30)? Or, "Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it." (Mt 7:13).

Then there is the question of the beliefs of the individual. Do they need to believe in the Real Presence (on polls, 50% of self-identifying Catholics do not believe in the Real Presence)? Do they need to be Catholic? What if they believe in abortion? What if they are bisexual? Or in an non-exclusive relationship?

When it comes down to it, it sounds like both of you want to leave the final decision up to the individual's conscience and have that decision blessed somehow - like the Episcopalians. But, will that result in more marital breakdown rather than less? Certainly, all the protestant church's are not free from epidemics of divorce too.

My point is that it is more humble to avoid campaigning for a particular outcome. Let the Church's Magisterium decide, as only it has the charism of infallibility.

Michael Barberi | 11/25/2014 - 5:40pm


I was not writing a dissertation on the complexity of marriage and the issue about Holy Communion for the divorced and remarried. For that matter, neither does your description of this subject cover all the issues. There are many complex issues that must be addressed, but I believe Pope Francis and the Bishops can navigate through them and find a pastoral answer that will be pleasing to Christ.

I don't want to leave the final decision on any issue up to the individual's conscience, as you often say Tim. However, if my informed conscience is in profound tension with a teaching based on legitimate philosophical and theological reasons. then I follow a prudent process of discernment and education, prayer, spiritual guidance, sacrament, et al. I continue to have an open mind and strive to further educate myself. Thus, you can say that my judgment of conscience on certain teachings I disagree with is a temporary judgment that might change in the future or last a long time or a lifetime. My disagreements involve certain moral issues only, not issues involved with the deposit of faith.

What is clear to me is that nothing I will say in argument with you Tim will ever persuade you. I have written much on the issue of Holy Communion and the divorced and remarried, not only here but on similar articles that covered this subject. Hence, it is not necessary to repeat them. When it comes to a definitive pastoral answer to the question about whether Holy Communion for the divorced and remarried can be changed, we will have to wait until Pope Francis publishes his Apostolate Exhortation.

Your sense of humility is not mine. If priests, theologians, bishops and the laity never disagreed with a teaching and campaigned for a better understanding of truth, think about what kind of Church we would have now. Respectful and scholarly disagreement and dialogue has benefited the Church. It has nothing to do with humility Tim. I choose to be faithful to Christ, not solely and uncritically faithful to the magisterium.

I will continue to pray for the intentions of Pope Francis, and for the guidance of the Holy Spirit for all the Bishops as they determine how best to pastorally address the many issues facing families today.

Tim O'Leary | 11/25/2014 - 7:35pm

Well, you have persuaded me that, when it comes to your search for a better understanding of truth, "it has nothing to do with humility", as you say.

Michael Barberi | 11/25/2014 - 8:12pm


It is not a lack of humility that is reflective of someone who disagrees with a moral teaching of the magisterium for good reasons. You always miss what I also say many times, and therefore you frequently ignore the large message in my arguments. I already said that my judgement of conscience is a temporary judgment and is subject to a sound process of discernment and further education, et al. This admits to a proper degree of humility my good friend. All you like to do is select certain words out of context and put them forth in your illusion that you are offering the killing blow to any argument I offer because of your sense of moral intellectual superiority.

I will let those who follow our arguments decide for themselves about the issues we have been discussing.

Tim O'Leary | 11/25/2014 - 10:44pm

Michael - I too am happy to let those who read the back-and-forth see what is really going on in some of these discussions. But, I will respond if you raise anything new.

Leo Wong | 11/25/2014 - 5:56pm

About Catholic belief, most Catholics are ignorant. They do not know to believe.


Well over 90% of students I have polled who have had twelve years of catechism classes, even Catholic high schools, say they expect to go to Heaven because they tried, or did their best, or had compassionate feelings to everyone, or were sincere. They hardly ever mention Jesus. Asked why they hope to be saved, they mention almost anything except the Savior. Who taught them? Who wrote their textbooks? These teachers have stolen from our precious children the most valuable thing in the world, the "pearl of great price," their faith. Jesus had some rather terrifying warnings about such things – something about millstones.
— Peter Kreeft, quoted in John Beaumont, The Mississippi Flows into the Tiber: A Guide to Notable American Converts to the Catholic Church, South Bend, IN, 2014, p. 504.


The aged wrinkled chiefs [of the Flathead Nation], patriarchs, wanted to be children to him – and he [Fr. Pierre-Jean De Smet, S.J.] was only thirty-six. Every word of his they remembered. Words were still a treasure to them, a wisdom. It was dangerous to speak lightly. They forced him to preach to them four times a day. The day after he arrived he translated for them into their tongue with the aid of an interpreter the prayers that it was best for them to know. Two weeks later he held up a medal of Our Lady, and promised it to the first who could recite "the Pater, the Ave, the Credo, the ten commandments and the four acts" of faith, contrition, hope, and love. An aged chief stood up. "Give it to me." He knew the prayers and acts word for word, and, wearing Our Lady's medal, was appointed the catechist of the tribe.
— Daniel Sargent, Our Land and Our Lady, NY, 1940, pp. 194–195.

Paul Ferris | 11/25/2014 - 6:14am


Your points about complexity are exactly right. This is a good argument for not expecting certitude in these questions. As Catholics who grew up with the Baltimore Catechism we were indoctrinated with the idea the Roman Catholic Church is the one true Church founded by Jesus Christ therefore all others were outside of the one true church. Vatican II gave this notion great nuance. Nuance that people who require certitude have a hard time accepting. As for your default position....the Holy Spirit will guide the Magisterium to make the final and correct decision. Does the Magisterium include Pope Francis and Cardinal Kasper or just Cardinal Scola and Cardinal Burke ? Pope Francis has made it clear that he promotes a different style of leadership than JP II and Benedict XVI. If they were still in charge we would not even be discussing these issues because both were enamored with pre Vatican II certitude in their leadership styles.

Tim O'Leary | 11/25/2014 - 10:57am

Paul - I do believe that the Roman Catholic Church is the One Holy Catholic & Apostolic church founded by Jesus. It is also the Church's understanding, pre- and post VCII. Note that the Bishops, in communion with the Pope, comprise the Magisterium. The synod is essentially advisory to the Pope and all, including Scola and Kasper, have said no doctrinal change is even being considered. But, individual bishops, including Burke and Kasper, can and do error, as of course the pope can to, especially in governance and pastoral matters.

Every synod and council in history has had divergent views. Divergent views were common in Vatican II and the result was magnificent. Divergent views were evident around Humanae Vitae, and the result was equally definitive. Same with all the discussions on homoousios (325), on transubstantiation ((1551) and on infallibility (1870) - lots of opinions and magnificent truth maintained in the outcome. I am confident the same truth will survive any discussion in Synod 2015.

Michael Barberi | 11/24/2014 - 3:57pm


The issue regarding Holy Communion for the divorced and remarried is complex. I fully understand the concept of the indissolubility of marriage but also the profound disagreement within and outside the Catholic Church on Matthew's exception clause and the interpretation of the word "porneia". Few scholars interpret this word as an immoral marriage (married to a person too close in relationship). Most scholars favor the interpretation of adultery and other serious sexual immoralities.

Nevertheless, I mostly question why a serious lack of moral judgment, selfish ends, misguided reasoning, ignorance, lack of a sincere and complete understanding of the responsibilities and obligations of a sacramental Catholic marriage….that caused one spouse to abandon the other and existing children, due to acts of adultery and other selfish reasons leading to divorce….and the extreme burdens imposed upon the innocent spouse by Catholic teaching (many of them still young with children) such as the requirement to practice of lifetime of sexual abstinence and be forbidden under any circumstances (except the death of the other spouse or marriage annulment) from entering into another permanent, faithful and loving relationship with another person…"should be denied the sacrament of reconciliation and Eucharistic reception under certain conditions".

I get the argument about habitual sin and sinners (e.g., most pedophile priests have committed rape and immoral acts to children over many years) but the pastoral application of the teachings on marriage and Eucharistic reception for the divorced and remarried can and should be responsibly changed.

Let's pray that Pope Francis and the Synod Fathers will reach such a conclusion.

Paul Ferris | 11/23/2014 - 10:53pm

Thanks Leo for your reply below. You are the best.

Paul Ferris | 11/22/2014 - 9:57pm

I have probably written too much here already but permit me to make one more comment. I think what we all need to understand better is what Vatican II called the Universal Call to Holiness. Most holiness is learned not by going to communion or not, being married or divorced or not, being gay or straight, being celibate or sexually active. Holiness is something most people learn from just living. Good things happen and some unbelievable tragedies happen. People learn and absorb these lessons. Enduring them courageously is what makes a person really holy. Being holy then is more important than being religious although that is good in itself. To me that is what Jesus is all about. He was long on love and caring for everyone and very short on judging. He even warned against judging. The church in each liturgy proclaims Christ as Savior. No need to make distinctions about who are welcomed to communion and who are not. There are many people in second marriages who have not gone through the annulment process. I believe that many of these people are just as holy if not more so than people who are in their first marriage. Only God knows it all and sees into peoples hearts. I am not saying the issues discussed here are not important. I am saying let us approach them with humility and love.

Leo Wong | 11/23/2014 - 1:55pm

"The life of these faithful [the divorced and remarried] does not cease to be a life called to holiness." Cardinal Scola

Paul Ferris | 11/24/2014 - 2:39pm


I looked up Cardinal Scola's position on this subject. He has the opposite view of Cardinal Kasper with whom I agree. He advocates married people living as brother and sister. If not they should only receive spiritual communion. Kasper thinks this is a receive Christ spiritually not sacramentally. My problem with this is why go to liturgy at all. Just stay home where one can receive Christ spiritually any time one prays.

Leo Wong | 11/26/2014 - 7:36am

Dear Paul,

I'm glad you looked up Cardinal Scola's position. I myself am not qualified to have a position. I'm waiting to obey the Church.

Allow me to end my contributions by quoting from a recent blog:

I was examining questions of the Faith. I was trying to see whether I could accept every aspect of the Church's teaching. But my friend Dermot Quinn pointed out to me the futility of this approach. Even if I could study every detail of every teaching, he observed, and come to say honestly that I agreed with the Church, this would not make my faith truly Catholic. What made a person Catholic, Dermot insisted, was not just belief that the Church taught the truth in matters of faith and morals, but the belief that the Church is a truth-teaching thing. — Msgr. Stuart Swetland

I think this should be the position of us laity.

Paul Ferris | 11/23/2014 - 10:57pm

Thanks for the comment from Cardinal are the best.

Paul Ferris | 11/23/2014 - 10:55pm

Leo, many movies today are junk but some are works of modern art and really can teach us. Some are just escapes and some time we need an escape. Life is hard.

Leo Wong | 11/28/2014 - 11:00am

Thanks, Paul. I love and used to watched Ozu films, and my favorite actress--favorite living person--is Setsuko Hara.

Michael Barberi | 11/21/2014 - 4:58pm

The teachings on slavery and usury are well known and have been documented by many scholars. Once slavery was morally permitted, then only certain forms of slavery were condemned, then all forms of slavery was forbidden, then JP II declared slavery to be intrinsically evil. This is not a development but a reform of a teaching. Ditto for usury.

This is not the place to debate slavery, usury or the profound changes in other teachings such as the freedom of religion. The point is that many teachings that have been declared as truth for centuries were eventually changed, and the "pastoral application" of the teaching on the divorce and remarried and the reception of the Eucharist can also be changed. This is a complex issue and the outcome is not certain.

What we all should expect is a healthy and heated debate on all or most of the issues under consideration by the Synod on the Family. However, as Paul Feris pointed out, and I have also saId, we should not expect that every issue under consideration will be adequately and fully addressed by this Synod.

If Pope Francis changes the pastoral practices on the issue of Holy Communion for the divorced and remarried, then there will be hope that changes "in the future" may ensue on the other issues. If the status quo is maintained on all the issues, then the profound non-reception on the many issues facing families today will continue.

Vince Killoran | 11/22/2014 - 11:54am

You are correct Michael. The historical record confirms this and we've provided links before on IAT to scholarly books and articles on the history of Catholicism and slavery. It's a fact, sort of like the date of the Battle of Waterloo.

I'm sorry that this issue of slavery etc. keeps cropping up but it is crucial to the validity of one group of Catholics that all teachings be unchanging throughout the millennia. Without this their theological edifice collapses.

Tim O'Leary | 11/24/2014 - 4:53pm

Wow. A couple of words on slavery a few days ago has generated so much misinformed outrage. Is the claim of the pro-slavery Church proponents that Jesus and Paul were approving of chattel slavery and that it took Pope John Paul II to correct them 2000 years later?

My comment below (way down now) related in the main to usury, defined by the dictionary as "the illegal action or practice of lending money at unreasonably high rates of interest." As to conventional wisdom and the exactness of the date of Waterloo, perhaps, you could show me a dated source by a pope condemning low-interest loans vs. high-interest loans to people who are not poor? If you respond that such loans did not exist before the Middle Ages, then it would be surprising that the definition of usury at the time implied them?

Paul Ferris | 11/24/2014 - 5:22pm


Usury was condemned in the OT and there was not distinction between ordinary interest and excessive interest. Moslem still disapprove of charging interest on loans. It is all bad.

Tim O'Leary | 11/24/2014 - 6:37pm

I know usury was condemned in the OT. Yet Jesus seems to have had a different view of interest in a bank. Maybe, there is a difference between the usury of the OT and interest in a bank.

Paul Ferris | 11/21/2014 - 1:28pm

Much of this discussion fails to recognize that there is a tremendous crisis of credibility by Catholics in America as regard the hierarchy, not just in this issue, but in many others. I do not know if this is correct by I have heard that the largest religious denomination in the USA is Catholicism. The second largest denomination is ex Catholicism. If the Vatican and the clergy have lost their authority does it matter what they say, do, or teach ? ( I heard Fox news trying to be sympathetic to the Vatican said the Synod was a vacation for the Cardinals.) In the preliminary draft of the Synod I got the impression it was Jesus' words: I came for sinners not for the righteous. In the final draft I got the impression. Jesus is at the door knocking. Guess what...almost two generations of Catholics have stopped knocking at the door. guarded by the Vatican.

Leo Wong | 11/21/2014 - 1:42pm

These questions will not be decided by Americans or any other national group or groups but by the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church guided by Holy Spirit, Who, being God, may be writing straight with crooked lines. Under correction, I will say that there are no ex-Catholics, in the sense that devils are not ex-angels. No judgment implied.

Paul Ferris | 11/21/2014 - 2:38pm

R u comparing ex Catholics to devils ?? Is that the judgment of the Holy Trinity as well ??? With all due respect I think you are missing my point. Are you saying that 60 million or more American Catholics are not important to the One True God ??

Here is the exact quote from Professor Tim O'Leary: " chattel slavery that is always wrong and was consistently condemned by the popes."

Are you saying you would not mind if you were a "good slave"???

Leo Wong | 11/21/2014 - 3:32pm

No, no, no, maybe.

Paul Ferris | 11/21/2014 - 3:34pm

My translation says servant...not slave....and I doubt if you would ever want to be a slave. See the movie 12 Years a Slave...and get back to me on that....

Leo Wong | 11/21/2014 - 3:43pm

You've beaten me. I don't watch movies.

David Hopper | 11/21/2014 - 11:16am

Is there a way to address the doctrinal concerns of all involved while still meeting the pastoral needs of the divorced and remarried? Unlike divorce and remarriage, many behaviors that may potentially be gravely sinful are essentially private matters. That difference in the degree of public knowledge, however, need not produce different pastoral practices. What if the Church were to act consistent with the premise that there are probably a large number of marriages that are not true sacramental marriages and hence could be adjudicated null? What if, instead of requiring a divorced and remarried person to seek and obtain an annulment by proving that the marriage was not validly entered into, canon law were changed to shift the burden of proof to Church authorities to prove that a marriage that has ended in civil divorce was nevertheless a valid sacramental marriage? This shift would respect the Church's ability to address public scandal, but would greatly reduce the number of annulment proceedings. In the absence of such an undertaking by a Diocesan tribunal, in connection with which the Church would bear the expense, as well as the burden of proof, the matter would be left to the conscience of the individual. To make sure that such a person's conscience was properly formed, the church could perhaps require a divorced and remarried person wishing to be readmitted to communion first to receive instruction in Church doctrine about the sacramental nature of marriage and the grounds upon which an apparent marriage may be invalid. While it certainly might be the case that some people would simply return to communion without reaching a legitimate conclusion that their situation fits within the definition of a null marriage, such is the case with all kinds of potential sins, which the Church typically leaves to the individual approaching communion to search out and evaluate, seeking pastoral guidance and absolution when necessary. This approach would leave doctrine in tact while easing the burdens placed on a large number of serious, committed Catholics who have an urgent longing for full communion but are intimidated by the emotional turmoil, cost, and uncertainty of the current process. I haven't seen this idea expressed in the debates on how to handle the issue, so perhaps there are problems with the approach that ought to be apparent to me but are not.

Leo Wong | 11/21/2014 - 11:23am

This question was answered (not necessarily with finality) in the Dominican article cited by Mr. Tommy O'Donnell in a previous comment.

Paul Ferris | 11/21/2014 - 9:45am


I have decided, after your shameless exegesis on scripture and total distortion of the history of slavery (even for you) by the popes, to reprint my review of Masterless Mistresses. It shows how the Ursulines protected the indissolubility of marriage while at the same time owning slaves. The slaves were not impressed because after the Emancipation Proclamation, they all left their beloved Ursuline owners. Here is an historical question for you Tim: which of the popes wrote the Emancipation Proclamation ? Hint: his initials were A L.

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Masterless Mistresses, July 23, 2011
By Amazon Customer "friend of Tassc International" (Waterville, Maine United States) - See all my reviews
Edit Review

This review is from: Masterless Mistresses: The New Orleans Ursulines and the Development of a New World Society, 1727-1834 (Published for the Omohundro Institute of Early ... History and Culture, Williamsburg, Virginia) (Paperback)

This book by Tulane University Professor, Emily Clark, about the colonial history of the Ursulines in New Orleans is a wonderfully written tapestry of how only a handful of religious women became part of the complex and fascinating story of the city of New Orleans in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Clark's book is a blend of historical scholarship beginning with the spiritual founding and formation of the Ursulines in Italy and then development in France. Who were these Ursulines? Why did they come to Louisiana? What physical hardships did they undergo? (As a companion to this book I suggest Voices From An Early American Convent, edited by Emily Clark) What were their apostolic and cultural achievements? Professor Clark tells the story of the Ursulines not only in their charitable works such as teaching, running orphanages, and hospitalers, but also how they ran plantations as slave owners.

This last activity may come as a surprise to modern readers but the story is well documented with the family names of slaves. Professor Clark credits the Ursulines with keeping slave families together, unlike Spanish and British/American slave owners. They also followed the French mandate of seeing that Indian and Blacks were baptized and raised Catholics. Still Professor Clark does not fail to mention that in 1864 with the emancipation of Blacks, all the slaves were happy to leave the Ursuline plantation. And how did the Ursulines deal with borders and slaves who could not live up to their strict moral code? They sold them off.

Professor Clark devotes a large portion of her book to the thesis that the Ursulines, as unmarried self-supporting single women, (without master husbands) represented a different model of Christian womanhood than Protestant married women. In fact Professor Clark relates that the Uruslines posed a threat to leading men of New Orleans during the American Republican era which had little regard for the independence of women after its successful revolution from Britain.

Professor Clark writes that the Ursulines were hierarchical in their own Order's makeup and that they conformed to the prevailing class social structure, yet they exhibited an egalitarian spirit when ministering to the spiritual welfare of their charges; i.e. Indians, blacks, rich, poor, women.

Professor Clark scholarship never gets in the way of a very clear and entertaining writing style. Even more important, in my opinion, Professor Clark, shows enormous admiration, even love for these pioneering women without losing her professional historian's discerning judgment.

Definitely five stars.

Tim O'Leary | 11/24/2014 - 4:35pm

Paul - your "the popes all condemn slavery" as a supposed direct quote is a stretch, even for you. The statement I made related to consistency in condemning chattel slavery. Your conflation of chattel slavery with all forms of servitude is what is so wrong with the literature claiming reversals of doctrine.

As to the story of the talents. I do not disagree that the Lord rewarded those the most who created the greatest gain of their invested talents (it doesn't say how they invested them, they possibly created jobs). For the miserly non-investor, he said that the least he could have done was put the talents in a bank and gain interest - implying that that too would have been legitimate/moral). I guess you just listened to the part of the story you liked and forgot the rest.

Regarding slavery, you really have taken the ball and run with it in this comment, but you are playing the wrong game on the wrong field. I never made the quote you claim. Have you no shame when it comes to representing something as a direct quote when the comment right above it doesn't contain the quote???

If you were trying to be reasonable and honest, you would need to make the distinction between 'consistency" and "all," between "chattel slavery" and other forms of slavery, and other forms of servitude. Three excellent sources of the history of slavery and servitude and the Church can be found in "The Popes and Slavery", by Fr. Joel S. Panzer, "Holy Warriors", by James Brewer Stewart, and "Ethnic America", by Thomas Sowell.

The Popes and Slavery is particularly valuable because it contains the full text, in Latin and English, of documents of the papal magisterium against slavery (Appendix B,) Instructions of the Holy Office on Slavery (Appendix C) and John Paul The Great's address to the Church of St. Charles Borromeo on the Island of Goree on Saturday, February 22, 1992 (Appendix D.).

Leo Wong | 11/25/2014 - 9:45am

Under correction, not all left. Louis Gonzague and his wife, Constance, stayed.

Leo Wong | 12/10/2014 - 1:46pm

Even historians can mislead.

Only two bondpeople are known to have remained with the nuns after the Civil War, Louis Gonzague and his wife, Constance. Louis's loyalty later revealed a bittersweet paradox. His will, made out in 1889 and carefully preserved in the Ursuline archives, left 12 dollars to the Ursulines for masses for his soul. Born in 1818, Louis [beautiful photo in the book] had achieved the kind of true Catholic faith the nuns of the colonial era hoped to spread among the enslaved. Yet he left the bulk of his cash legacy, 150 dollars, not to the Ursulines, but to the African American Sisters of the Holy Family founded by a free woman of color, Henriette Delille. The money was, he said, to be used to pay for the education of his two daughters. Louis signed his will with a mark.
— Emily Clark, Masterless Mistresses, Williamsburg, VA, 2007, p. 192.

This shows that the nuns were good teachers, and Louis Gonzague a good student, of Catholic beliefs. The living need more money than the dead, and one's family is more important than one's employer. Every year around this time I give my church $10 for the repose of the soul of Jacques Barzun. $10 is the amount my pastor asks for Mass intentions. I don't give $20 in hopes of improving my friend's chances. Of course I pray for him daily. That costs me nothing. The cost of my daughter's education can be imagined.

About Catholic moral teaching on slavery, please read the article by the wise Jesuit cited by Mr. Douthat.

Michael Barberi | 12/10/2014 - 6:53pm


I admire Avery Dulles but disagree with his conclusions in the article you mentioned. What shall we do, list all the books and articles pro and con about slavery? Below are two excellent books that agree with Noonan.

1. "Slavery and the Catholic Church" by John Francis Maxwell, and
2. Chapter Five "Reflections on Slavery" in Change in Official Catholic Moral Teachings, Edited by Charles Curran.

If we follow Dulles, the hierarchy magisterium and popes never erred in teachings taught as truth for centuries but in my opinion were eventually changed. To argue each point or teaching is not the purpose of my comment to you. It is to point out that merely because theologians disagree does not mean they are misleading anyone, intentionally or inadvertently, or are slanting the facts to suit their preconceived conclusions. For that matter, one could argue the same about Dulles, which I do not.

There is convincing evidence that we all, popes and laity, only see a partial view of the truth on many moral matters. I believe that many moral teachings have developed or have been reformed, and this is a good thing. The moral truth on many issues is constantly evolving and is not static, absolute and unchanging as some argue. Should we not recognize or believe that our constant progress in the sciences, scripture, theology, philosophy, anthropology, et al, move us closer toward a better understanding of moral truth? This does not mean that many moral teachings are not the truth, nor does it call into question the deposit of faith.

We can disagree for good reasons and remain faithful Catholics.

Leo Wong | 12/11/2014 - 7:16pm

Agree with the last line, and some of the previous ones. Am rereading Newman's Apologia, an impressive account of the uncertainty of certainty.

Michael Barberi | 12/12/2014 - 7:50pm


There are some excellent articles on the issue of certainty. Below is something I wrote in a recent published essay. It was part of an argument about teachings proclaimed to be "moral absolutes" (e.g., artificial birth control in the practice of responsible parenthood).

Karol Woytla/JP II had a moral imagination, however, “imagination enables theology to resist the constant temptation towards absolutizing…. And if we are to accept the priority of symbol over intellect, then theology has an important role to play in ensuring that the image does not become the only word, or the last word….” This means we must resist the temptation of proclaiming we know God’s procreative plan with moral certainty based on symbolic speculation. We also must balance assertions with existential reality when we find no evidence whatsoever that PC couples treat each other as loving subjects, while couples that use artificial birth control have a utilitarian attitude and a diabolical love grounded in concupiscence.

In truth, no one knows God's procreative plan with moral certainty.

Good luck on our spiritual journey and theological education.

Leo Wong | 12/12/2014 - 10:20pm

Thank you, Michael, though I'll need more than luck.

Tim O'Leary | 11/21/2014 - 4:42am

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 | 11/21/2014 - 9:17am


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.

Tim O'Leary | 11/24/2014 - 4:15pm

Paul - your "the popes all condemn slavery" as a supposed direct quote is a stretch, even for you. The statement I made related to consistency in condemning chattel slavery. Your conflation of chattel slavery with all forms of servitude is what is so wrong with the literature claiming reversals of doctrine.

As to the story of the talents. I do not disagree that the Lord rewarded those the most who created the greatest gain of their invested talents (it doesn't say how they invested them, they possibly created jobs). For the miserly non-investor, he said that the least he could have done was put the talents in a bank and gain interest - implying that that too would have been legitimate/moral).