Is a Precipice Yawning? John W. O'Malley, S.J., Responds to Ross Douthat

Pope Francis leaves at end of the general audience at the Vatican, October 29.

Ross Douthat’s article in the New York Times on Sunday sounded the alarm: Pope Francis through his Synod on the Family has brought the church to the edge of a precipice. If the synod continues on its present trajectory, it will “sow confusion among the church’s orthodox adherents” and could lead “eventually to real schism.” This is a dire prediction. It is also call to arms.

Change is in the air at the synod. To that extent Mr. Douthat is right. Moreover, change is problematic for an institution whose very reason for existence is to preserve and proclaim unchanged a message received long ago. Yet, given our human condition, change is inevitable. Sometimes change is required precisely in order to remain faithful to the tradition. It has in that way been operative in the church from the beginning.            

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Every council in the history of the church has been an instrument of change, and the synod is in effect a mini-council. Pope Francis convoked it for an examination of conscience about a range of questions directly or indirectly affecting the Sacrament of Matrimony. What will result from this examination? We don’t know. Will it be a declaration, a decree, a simple report? We don’t know. No matter what the form, what will it say? We don’t know.

The synod has completed only part one of a two-part meeting. It has at this juncture issued no decisions, and the “final report” of last week is by no means the last word. The prelates who are participating now have a year to reflect and consult. When they return to Rome they will continue to debate the issues, and then, we presume, will issue an official document in their name and in the name of the Holy Father.

Mr. Douthat cites Vatican II favorably as an example of a council where the debates “while vigorous, were steered toward a (pope-approved) consensus.” This is true. The debates were vigorous, sometimes fierce, a phenomenon of many councils besides Vatican II. Douthat cites the documents on religious liberty and “Judaism” (that is, “Nostra Aetate,” on non-Christian religions) to make his point, They passed, as he correctly states, with “less than a hundred dissenting votes out of 2,300 cast.”

Yes, they finally passed with that degree of unanimity. But before they reached that point they were so hotly contested and seen as such radical changes in Catholic tradition that the Secretariat for Christian Unity, the body at the council responsible for them, seriously considered withdrawing them from the agenda rather than risk a vote.

The pope-approved consensus was achieved at Vatican II only after all parties were heard from and then worked together to see what they could agree upon. The bishops seized the opportunity to speak their mind on issues that until then had been off-limits. Now, at the synod, Pope Francis encouraged the bishops to do the same, to speak their minds “without fear.” They have done so on issues that for at least the past 35 years have been crying for attention.

I am Catholic enough to assume that next year the synod will move to what Douthat calls a “pope-approved consensus.” It is the Catholic way. The synod has in fact already moved in that Catholic way and given every indication that it will continue to do so. After the synod as before the synod, we will face difficult times. But we are not on the edge of a precipice.

What, then, is to be said about Ross Douthat’s arguments? I expected better from him, and he can do better. A case can be made for his concerns. Yet this is not it. Mr. Douthat’s arguments are so loaded with questionable assumptions, historical and theological short-cuts, and parti pris that it is difficult to know where to begin.

A self-professed conservative, Douthat assumes that “conservative” (as he understands it) and “orthodox” are interchangeable. In this logic, “liberal/progressive” and “heterodox” are similarly interchangeable. That is a harsh judgment, difficult to sustain. After all, at Vatican II the so-called progressives turned out to be the orthodox.

But there is a much more disturbing feature in Douthat’s analysis. He, and presumably all “conservatives,” stand unflinchingly against change on “communion for the remarried.” It is specifically this change that would “sow confusion among the church’s orthodox adherents—encouraging doubt and defections, apocalypticism and paranoia.”

What is being said here? I think we can assume that change, if it comes, would come from the synod, a body of duly ordained bishops at a meeting duly convoked by a duly elected pope. It is a body, moreover, that has at its disposal the full range of Catholic theologians and theological opinion on a world-wide basis. I think we can assume that, influential though the reigning pope always is in such situations, Francis neither wants to nor is able to force his agenda (whatever that might be!) on the members of the synod. I say that in the face of Mr. Douthat’s insinuations to the contrary about Francis.

While the synod is in session as a body of bishops working collegially with the pope to take measures for the good of the church, it is a binding and authoritative teaching organ in the church. Do not all orthodox Catholics believe that that authority is to be accepted over their own personal fears, expectations and hopes?

Do not all orthodox Catholics believe that that authority is most certainly to be accepted over the objections of “a minority—sometimes a small minority,” as Mr. Douthat describes himself and his fellow-travelers? This minority self-identifies as orthodox and, it seems, potentially more orthodox than the synod. But it is a self-identification without credentials to validate the claim.

Finally, what are we to make of this: “Remember there is another pope still living!”? “Another pope still living!” This sounds like a threat. Are Mr. Douthat and the like-minded Catholics for whom he speaks appealing to a pope more to their liking over a pope less to their liking? If so, the statement has a regrettable sinister ring. Or what? Let’s hope that Ross Douthat does not mean his reminder to be as schism-suggesting and radically un-Catholic as it sounds to my conservative ears. 

John W. O'Malley, S.J., is university professor, theology department, at Georgetown University and author of What Happened at Vatican II.

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Michael Barberi
3 years 8 months ago
Tim, As you agree, many couples who get married have not decided upon children. As we also agree, most Catholics at the time of marriage are open to children. However, if there are good reasons for not having children after marriage then this does not invalidate the marriage. Pius XII said that a couple can practice NFP for a lifetime for good reasons. If for the same good reasons, couples use of artificial birth control during a marriage then there is no sin in my opinion. At present, the use of artificial birth control is not grounds of an annulment. Nor would it be in the future, in my opinion. Such reasoning is ridiculous because it would mean that most Catholics who have divorced could have their marriages nullified on this issue alone...Witness the fact that most worldwide Catholics practice some form of contraception. Artificial birth control is an issue of an informed conscience. If the CC said that couples or agents who disagree with a teaching of the magisterium for good reasons, such as the teaching on birth control, can have their marriages annulled, then this would be unreasonably and irresponsibly stretching the grounds for an annulment. As you know, there is a profound disagreement within the CC on the issue about the use of artificial birth control in the practice of responsible parenthood inclusive of theologians, bishops, priests and the general laity. The disagreement is not merely a counting of votes or poll statistics. It is based on legitimate philosophical and theological reasons even though many Catholics may not express these reasons in a theological manner. In my opinion, the Church neglects the end and intention of married couples to ensure that all marital sexual acts are not procreative and will not result in conception, and the physical acts used in NFP that bring about this end. This violates HV 12 because they are performing voluntary human actions that separate the so-called unitive and procreative meanings of the marital act. You cannot merely say "there is an exception" to this because the Church permits NFP. The CC has not adequately addressed this inconsistency and contradiction with any moral rationale that rings true to the deepest levels of Catholic minds, hearts and souls. The Catholic Church has not "from the earliest of times" morally permitted a formal program of periodic continence where couples have the intention and goal of limiting sexual intercourse to infertile times in order to ensure that all marital sexual acts are not procreative. Such a formal program, as well as sufficient knowledge of the fertility/infertility nexus, was only known in the early 20th century. Sexual abstinence in marriage was only permitted during the time of Augustine if both agents did it for God. Both Paul and Augustine said that if one partner wanted sexual intercourse, the other partner must oblige. The Church never talks about this for good reason. Also, during the time of Paul and Augustine sexual intercourse during pregnancy and menstruation was immoral because procreation was not possible. While my argument is not based on Augustine, I seriously doubt if Augustine would have permitted a formal program of NFP. As for the claim that "some" correlation exists between the use of artificial birth control and divorce is an absurd argument because a correlation is not a cause. Few, if any, Catholics or social scientists believe that contraception causes divorce. Nor is there any credible and accepted study published by a prominent scientific organization that has concluded this. Such an argument is nonsense. Many things correlate. The increase in the use of contraception can correlate with the increase in spousal abuse, but no one is claiming that contraception causes spousal abuse.
Tim O'Leary
3 years 8 months ago
Michael - some simple logic is needed. It is certainly not "absurd" or "nonsense" to postulate that a correlation might have a causal relation. All causes are also correlations, although not all correlations are causes. Sometimes, the reason is that the correlated events are themselves caused by a third event. So, a lack of fidelity might be the actual cause of both contraception and divorce. You are being too emotional in your defense of contraception. Long before there was a known mechanism between smoking and lung cancer, a correlation was identified. This correlation was much weaker than that seen with contraception. The tobacco industry kept saying the correlation meant nothing in terms of causation. This is called denial. Similarly, there is a correlation between drinking alcohol and car crashes, or being male and violence, etc., etc. There is a very strong inverse correlation between NFP and divorce or abortion. And there are plenty of studies and reports showing correlations between contraceptive use, STDs, premarital sex, abortion, etc. (Here is some CDC data on contraception and STDs and Abortion. http://www.issues4life.org/pdfs/20101119sexedadvocatesignoretherelationshipbetweenbirthcontrolabortionandstds.pdf ). But, we have debated this issue before. You just do not get HV at all, and you rage against it, while many others find the fullness of the faith through encountering HV. I know of no one who uses NFP for their whole marriage. Many people do use contraception (or vasectomies, etc) because they do not want any children, ever. My specific point for this posting relates to addressing the obstacles to annulments. SOME people (not you, obviously) go into a marriage with a full intention of using contraception for most of their marriage, and/or with the idea that divorce is an option if it doesn't work out. Their marriages could be annulled. Yet 85% of divorced Catholics do not even try for an annulment. We need to hear from those 85% as well.
Michael Barberi
3 years 8 months ago
Tim, Many traditionalist theologians make the argument that the increase in contraception since 1968 caused the increase in abortion, divorce, spousal abuse, adultery, etc. I find these arguments to be absurd and nonsense, not because there might be some correlation of contraception with such things, but because of common sense and what we know to be existential reality. Such arguments about the consequences of artificial birth control are unfounded. This does not mean that Western societies have not become more promiscuous, abortions have not increased, etc. However, when scientific studies prove that contraception causes such things, then I will reconsider my position. Until then, I will rely on my common sense and the evidence to the contrary. When you assert that a lack of fidelity might be the actual cause of both contraception and divorce profoundly exaggerates things. So does conflating the denial of the tobacco companies to the evidence about lung cancer with the possibility that contraception might be the cause of divorce and abortion. Do you really want to list all the articles that argue for and against contraception and such ridiculous consequences? Tim, this will take us nowhere but down a rat hole and deflect from the subject we were discussing which was annulments. You think you understand Humanae Vitae, but by your past arguments with me you don't. So, let us not go into pointing fingers at each other about our knowledge of things except by staying on-point and directly dealing with the points being made and not by a deflection into specious arguments. The majority of Catholics do not receive Humanae Vitae for good reasons and you continue to have a hard time in understanding the principles and philosophies that underpin it. Unsubstantiated arguments that try to explain the non-reception of HV do not work, such as: invincible ignorance, a diabolic cancer of the secular culture that somehow prevents Catholics from recognizing, understanding and living the truth, a lack of faith in every teaching of the magisterium, or a distorted reason. Such things are intellectually unpersuasive and are weak old-hat arguments. People are sick of hearing them because they are nonsense. Just because some things are abused, such as alcohol and drugs are abused by some people, does not mean that the responsible use of them by the rest of us must be prohibited. Ditto for the responsible use of contraceptives in the practice of responsible parenthood. I am not raging against Humanae Vitae (HV). I am arguing well and my arguments are contributory to the past 46 years of theological debate. If scholars and a Board of Review of a prominent Catholic theological journal rejected my essay, you might have a point about my lack of understanding about HV. However, others more knowledgeable than you think I have something important to say. Getting back to the subject about annulments. The few Catholics that go into marriage with the idea that divorce is an option if it does not work "distorts" the whole of reality of Catholic marriages. Many Catholics go into marriage with the intention of a lifelong relationship, one blessed by God and permanent. However, most Catholics also believe that Catholics who divorce and remarry under complex circumstances deserve a second chance. This is why Pope Francis may well allow the divorced and remarried to receive Holy Communion provided certain conditions are met. I do agree that most Catholics who are divorced don't try for an annulment. However, this has to do with the previous knowledge that such annulments are rarely given and are subject to a lengthly and complex process. I don't have any issue with revising the annulment process and educating Catholics about the process and grounds for annulment. This is something that we might agree on. However, it is my opinion that the use of artificial birth control will never be grounds for annulments.
Tim O'Leary
3 years 8 months ago
Michael - you do rage against HV, in that 90% of your posts challenge the Church to change its doctrine, which it will not do. You can describe HV as absurd and nonsense but that is not an argument, but an emotional reaction. Many self-identifying Catholics use contraception, but that doesn't mean they have studied the issue or the history of the Church's teaching at all. They just want to have sex and not get pregnant, whether they are married or single. Such is human nature. Many also believe in divorce, in a right to sterilization, in vitro fertilization, a right to an abortion, premarital sex (at least for themselves, if not their children), in a right to pornography, in gay marriage, in women priests, in a symbolic Eucharist. But, it is absurd to think most have come to these positions after careful conscientious study. Many even will admit that they know the Church is probably right, at least on some of these items. They have a false sense of freedom, a desire to postpone fidelity until they are older. That is the existential truth. Hence, when someone desires later in life to come back to the Church, to try again to follow its teachings, to be reconciled, to receive the sacraments, the Church can look with mercy and forgiveness, see what can be done regarding defective marriages, and see if legitimate cases for annulments can be found. Certain attitudes to birth control at the time of the wedding should suffice for an annulment. Maybe, not for the more studious but yes for those who didn't think through what they were committing to when they said "I do." That is the more forgiving stance, and is more merciful than your rigorist position.
Michael Barberi
3 years 8 months ago
Tim, The choice of the word "rage" you used to describe my arguments is both irresponsible and absurd. The word rage means: an intense, violent and growing anger. Do you really think my scholarly arguments are a rage against HV, Tim? I can disagree and rigorously debate you in a respectful and scholarly manner. However, my style of argument is not violent or growing in anger. I do challenge many of the sexual ethical teachings of the CC. However, when I use words such as 'nonsense or ridiculous' they pertain to your arguments Mr. O'Leary which often misinterpret and distort the meaning of teachings, or are weak and unsubstantiated, such as your many comments in our recent exchanges on HV. You are the one being emotional and exaggerating my arguments. You can not stand it when I either correct your misunderstandings or put forth a more convincing argument. You like to choose some words, here and there, or some texts here and there, and start moving the argument away from the points we were discussing to some other issue. What often is the result are exaggerated emotional arguments on your part like accusing me of "raging against HV". I think you want people like myself to go away or use your self-constructed and self-imposed criteria for debating. Sorry Tim, but I am not going to be pulled down into the gutter to debate you over who is "raging and being emotional". Think about what you just said. You conflate and compare Catholic married couples's goal of 'no more children for good reasons' and 'the prudent and responsible use of artificial birth control'…with…Catholics who believe in divorce, sterilization, in vitro fertilization, gay marriage, abortion, pre-marital sex, the right to pornography,…etc. Those type of unsubstantiated assertions are absurd, ridiculous and nonsense!!! Do you really believe that Catholic married couples who use artificial birth control in the practice of responsible parenthood believe that pre-marital sex, the right to pornography, and abortion-on-demand is morally right? These are ridiculous assertions Tim and they insult most married Catholics. I believe that there is always some truth in the Church's teachings I disagree with. My perspective and arguments are always about moving the conversation forward toward a better understanding of truth. That's it Tim, no more, no less. Can we come back to annulments Tim? I believe in mercy and forgiveness for those in irregular marriages, those who have been divorced and remarried, etc. I would applaud a revision in the annulment process and the criteria used for annulments. However, the use of artificial birth control in a marriage "by itself" will never be grounds for annulments. That is the Church's present teaching which I agree with. I will let those who follow our arguments determine for themselves who has the rigorist position, who is being emotional and who is raging. It is time to say goodbye once again Tim because our exchanges are becoming unproductive. God bless
Tim O'Leary
3 years 8 months ago
Michael - the use of all the following words repeatedly, even in just one comment: absurd, nonsense, ridiculous, irresponsible, gutter, Mr. (instead of Dr. - though I prefer Tim) seems pretty clear evidence of rage, or at least emotional distress. You use these words not only against me but against the teachings of St. John Paul, against HV (which you claim to understand and reject) and, hilariously, even against the postulate that two correlated events might also be causal! From your many posts, I know that you differ with Church teaching on gay marriage, pre/extramarital sex (which includes gay sex), in vitro fertilization, remarriage after divorce, abortion (certain cases), sterilization, women priests, ... so it is not so absurd to postulate that there is a connection between all those beliefs and your fixation on opposing the Church (Popes, Councils, synods, encyclicals, the catechism) on birth control. Your misunderstanding of the role of teaching authority and the role of conscience in settling doctrinal disputes is one common factor.
Michael Barberi
3 years 8 months ago
Tim, The terms I used, namely, absurd, nonsense, ridiculous refer to a few, not all, of your arguments. When I do use such terms I offer you some explanation, especially when you misrepresent a teaching such as HV and you insist you are correct. However, I do not demean your intentions, motivations or your character Tim. Consider the fact that In the past you have accused me of degrading the CC, defaming a pope and saint and misguiding Catholics, merely because I disagree with certain moral teachings for legitimate philosophical and theological reasons. I don't mind debating you Tim. However, when you start making unsubstantiated accusations, or misinterpreting certain teachings, such as HV, don't expect me to sit back and not respond to you especially when some of your claims, in my opinion, are ridiculous. At least I try to give you an good explanation as how a teaching or a text in HV is to be correctly understood. I don't believe I am perfect Tim. However, I try to be respectful and saying that some of your comments are nonsense is not being disrespectful. Nevertheless, I think a few of your previous understandings are nonsense especially when you misunderstand the underlying principles and philosophy and actual meaning of texts such as HV 12. Instead of focusing on the substance of arguments, you often choose to focus on a few words and get emotional and exaggerate things out of proportion. Yet, you are comfortable with every word you choose to say to me and don't think anything you say is disrespectful, unsubstantiated or incorrect, whatsoever. You really need to temper your emotions and your style of argument Tim. As I said, if you accuse me of "raging against HV" and "being emotional", then I will not enter into the gutter of a debate about such issues especially they have nothing to do with the subject we were discussing. You now erroneously assert that my opinion on pre/extramarital sex is different from Church teachings. "Nonsense", once again Mr.O'Leary!! I argue that the practice of artificial birth control IN A MARRIAGE should be the subject of a rethinking and should be responsibly changed. I have argued that the sexual expression of love between same-gender couples in a permanent, faithful and loving relationship should be the subject of a rethinking as well. But, I never argued that the Church should change its teachings about a marriage between a male and female. In this regard I have always argued that people born with a same-gender orientation/inclination should not have to practice a lifetime of sexual abstinence for their salvation. I have also said on many occasions that this particular issue is highly complex. Nevertheless, I have always argued about moral behavior in a marriage or in a permanent, faithful and loving relationship. I consider pre-marial and extra-marital sex to be immoral. How many times do I have to repeat this to you? I keep bringing this to your attention and you deliberately misrepresent my arguments. I never called for or argued that remarriage after divorce should be changed, although I do often point out Matthew's exception clause and the disagreement within and outside the Church. This continues to be a highly controversial issue in Christianity as well as in the Jewish religion. I do believe that Catholics deserve a second chance, but this refers to access to the Sacrament of Reconciliation and Holy Communion for the divorced and remarried under certain conditions. I do argue my convictions respectfully. It is not rage Mr. O'Leary. Nor am I fanatical or am I irresponsibly fixated on moving the conversation forward toward a better understanding of truth and in the changing of certain moral teachings.. Many in the Catholic Church argue similarly including clergy, theologians and laity. Most who disagree for good reasons with certain moral teachings of the magisterium are faithful Catholics, informed and knowledgable and love Christ, His Church, and strive to live morally upright lives. Respectful disagreement is good the the CC and this has been true from the beginning. Think about what kind of Church we would have if disagreeing voices were silenced? I do not misunderstand the role of the teaching authority of the CC and the role of conscience. Far from it. I have read many books of this subject, consult moral theologians in my studies, and have read many articles representing both sides of the theological divide. My arguments are different from yours and the present teachings of the magisterium, but they are legitimate, reasoned arguments. I admit I do not see the fullness of truth. I am a humble pilgrim on a life-long road where I strive to follow Christ and to understand and be faithful to His teachings. I am not so ignorant and misguided as your comments claim. Once again, our exchanges are moving into irrelevant issues that are deflecting from the subject we were discussing. I suggest we stop the finger-pointing and the accusations over "raze", "emotion" and the like because they go nowhere. Sorry Tim but I think others who follow our arguments can make up their own minds. Let's leave it there for now.
Tim O'Leary
3 years 8 months ago
Mr. Barberi. It is Dr. O'Leary, not Mr. O'Leary, if you insist on being formal about it.
Michael Barberi
3 years 8 months ago
Tim, I will honor your request and call you Tim. At least we can agree on this.
A L
3 years 8 months ago
I wish there was more of a spirit of collegiality in these discussions and much less of a spirit of suspicion. It seems to me that an attitude of suspicion cuts off the flow of the Holy Spirit.
Tim Reidy
3 years 8 months ago

AL, please use your full name in the future per our comments policy.

Gilberto Pena
3 years 8 months ago
Let me quote St. Agustine: To say then, that what has once been done rightly must in no respect whatever be changed, is to affirm what is not true. For if the circumstances of time which occasioned anything be changed, true reason in almost all cases demands that what had been in the former circumstances rightly done, be now so altered that, although they say that it is not rightly done if it be changed, truth, on the contrary, protests that it is not rightly done unless it be changed; because, at both times, it will be rightly done if the difference be regulated according to the difference in the times. For just as in the cases of different persons it may happen that, at the same moment, one man may do with impunity what another man may not, because of a difference not in the thing done but in the personwho does it, so in the case of one and the same person at different times, that which was duty formerly is not duty now, not because the person is different from his former self, but because the time at which he does it is different. Letter 138, C1, # 4
Tim O'Leary
3 years 8 months ago
Here are some Catholic women that the bishops should pay close attention to in the coming year. I marvel at the faith of these women. Luma Simms is a divorced Protestant (Calvinist) who's conversion to the Catholic faith was in part made through her encounter with the message of Humanae Vitae. She participates in the mass and has spiritual communion. http://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2014/11/my-plea. HV also played a central role in the conversion of atheist Jennifer Fulwiler. She had a particular cross to bear in following HV, in that she had a genetic predisposition to pregnancy-related blood clots. See here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cPO0f4Y6VSk. For a more extensive interview on her conversion, see here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sXmX8NrpaLE. Jennifer's book "Something Other Than God" has just been released. Lila Rose is another convert who has now become famous as a pro-life activist. See here her story: http://www.ncregister.com/daily-news/how-lila-rose-became-pro-life-and-catholic
Michael Barberi
3 years 8 months ago
Since the great majority of married Catholics use some form of artificial birth control, and not NFP, and are faithful followers of Christ, their voices should be heard during the World Meeting of Catholics in Philadelphia next year.
Tim O'Leary
3 years 8 months ago
Some polls of self-identifying Catholics show many do not believe in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. See this extensive poll by CARA. http://cara.georgetown.edu/sacraments.html. It is sad that so many do not attend mass regularly, and shocking that so many do not believe in the Real Presence. Of those who attend mass less than once a month, 60% believe the Eucharist is just a symbol. Of those who attend less than 1/week, 35% do not believe in the Real Presence! No wonder they think it fine to go to communion whenever they show up. The Reverence is lost! I suppose their voices need to be heard as well, if only to understand why they have drifted so far from the Catholic faith, yet still think they are Catholics? Back to annulments. I am in favor of a much more efficient annulment process that is fast, fair, free (supported by charitable contributions to the Church) and fully faithful. So, I am happy Pope Francis raised these issues earlier this week. http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/news/2014/11/06/pope-says-annulment-process-should-be-cheaper-and-more-efficient/
Michael O'Brien
3 years 8 months ago
The popular rule of thumb in science would be good to apply here : those who make big claims, must provide big proof. You posit that our two popes have two different orientations, namely "One has stated that man is an end in himself, whereas the other recognizes that man was created for communion with God." I don't see that in anything that Pope Francis has said or done. Could you please give exactly what Pope Francis has said that suggests that to you?
Michael O'Brien
3 years 8 months ago
Whoops. This was meant to be in reply to Anne Danielson at 11/2/2014 - 11:53am. Somehow I got turned around in doing my first post.

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