James Martin and Ross Douthat on Pope Francis, the Synod and the Demands of Law and Mercy: An online conversation
Editor’s Note: The following is a conversation between Ross Douthat, a columnist for The New York Times, and author of Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, and James Martin, S.J., editor at large of America and author of Jesus: A Pilgrimage. Their wide-ranging conversation, on Pope Francis, the Synod of Bishops and the state of the Catholic church, was sparked by a column Mr. Douthat had written on the synod, and to which Father Martin had responded privately. Both decided that it might be fruitful to bring their conversation into the public square.
The conversation, conducted via email, happened over the course of several days, beginning on November 10 and ending yesterday.
Dear Mr. Douthat,
Thanks for agreeing to enter into a dialogue, based on your New York Times op-ed "The Pope and the Precipice” (Oct. 25), in which you raised the possibility of schism in the church over some of policies of Pope Francis. As were some other Catholic observers, you were genuinely concerned by some of the Holy Father’s words and deeds, as well as with the results of the recently concluded Synod of Bishops on the Family, particularly the Synod’s considering of new pastoral approaches to divorced and remarried Catholics.
We had had some private email exchanges after your piece was published, and then decided to bring our discussions out into the open. So thank you for that invitation as well. Open and respectful dialogue is important in the church today, I believe.
Let me start by raising some concerns about your op-ed, and perhaps we can move on from there.
First of all, I was disturbed by your assertion that it was, to use your words, the “adherents,” as opposed to those you called “progressives,” who are, in a sense, the real Catholics. This “small minority” you describe as follows:
"[T]hey are the people who have done the most to keep the church vital in an age of institutional decline: who have given their energy and time and money in an era when the church is stained by scandal, who have struggled to raise families and live up to demanding teachings, who have joined the priesthood and religious life in an age when those vocations are not honored as they once were. They have kept the faith amid moral betrayals by their leaders; they do not deserve a theological betrayal."
This was the part of the article with which I disagreed most strongly. Frankly, I know just as many so-called “progressives” who have done precisely the same things: given their time, energy and money; struggled to raise families and live up to demanding teachings; and joined the priesthood and religious orders. (On that last count, I live with many of them.) And, as an aside, I hardly think that what has happened under Pope Francis and during the Synod constitutes a “theological betrayal.”
It seems that this seems to give into the old stereotype: traditionalists good, progressives bad. But in fact both are needed for the life of the church. The church needs both to conserve its tradition, which is guided by the Holy Spirit; and to move ahead, under the guidance of the same Spirit. As St. John XXIII said about the church, “We are not on earth to guard a museum, but to cultivate a flowering garden of life.” The church grows, as it must. While the basics remain firm, doctrine develops over time, under the guidance of the Spirit. (As an example, just ask any Catholic whether he or she was permitted to set foot in a Protestant church before the Second Vatican Council.)
In fact, you could argue that it was those who felt their voices were not heard as clearly under the papacies of Saint John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI who have struggled more. That is, for the last few decades those Catholics who favored more reform have remained with the church, even during times of disagreement with one or another policy.
There is a great irony here. Many of the so-called “progressives” stayed in the church and have largely remained silent even when they disagreed with various directions the church was taking. In those years, disagreement was costly. As a thought exercise, imagine what would have happened to someone in my position (a Jesuit priest and writer) had I said about Popes John Paul II or Benedict what one cardinal recently said about Pope Francis: that a statement from the pope declaring his adherence to Catholic teaching was “long overdue.” I would have likely been silenced, or at the very least reprimanded.
In other words, many so-called “progressives” stayed in the pews even when they felt they were in disagreement with certain church policies, and most were largely silent. But now, with Pope Francis doing and saying things of which so-called “traditionalists” do not approve, they feel free to critique the pope in ways that would have been unacceptable—nearly unthinkable—a few years ago. Some of these same commentators, in fact, were given to labeling any critique, no matter how mild, of the pope as “dissent.” It is, at the very least, ironic.
Second, I was surprised by the idea of even mentioning schism over what are essentially pastoral, not dogmatic, questions about ministry to divorced and remarried Catholics. Schisms, which are thankfully rare in our long history, are usually over immense areas of disagreement, usually on dogma—the divinity of Christ, for example. The question of how to minister to divorced and remarried Catholics (neither the pope nor the synod was talking about changing church teaching here) is not a dogmatic issue.
Are there Catholics so opposed to the development of pastoral practice in this particular area that it is anathema even to consider it? To me, it would seem odd, even bizarre, to leave the church over something like that.
Which brings me to my final point. Debate, which seems to be a cause for fear in your op-ed, has always been part of our church. I feel that your piece did not fully recognize that even at the Second Vatican Council—especially at the Second Vatican Council—there were huge disputes among bishops about the most serious of issues, as the church historian John W. O’Malley, SJ, pointed out in his response to your column and as he detailed in much greater length in his book What Happened at Vatican II?
Debates have characterize our church from the beginning—the very beginning. Saints Peter and Paul argued—and vehemently. “When Peter came to Antioch,” Paul writes in his Letter to the Galatians (2:11), “I opposed him to his face, because he was wrong.” You can’t get more contentious than that.
Disputes are not new. Nor are they to be feared. In fact, this is one way that the Holy Spirit works in the church, and always will work: through human agency, though debates and through discussion. Which is another reason I look forward to our discussion.
James Martin, S.J.
Dear Father Martin,
Thanks to you as well, and to your editors for giving us the space to have this conversation. Without necessarily resolving every division, hopefully at least we can shed some light on what the important disagreements really are.
I’ll start off with the first point you raise, about the burdens progressive Catholics have carried under the last two pontificates, because it’s a case where my column would have been improved by a qualification. There are, as you say, many Catholics who remained with the church over the last few decades even as it disappointed their hopes for certain kinds of change, and many of their sacrifices on behalf of the faith are as real as the sacrifices of any conservative believer.
Given that reality, I can understand a reader reacting against what might seem like an implication that only the faith of more conservative Catholics needs to be protected, only their struggles deserve solicitude, only their sacrifices really matter.
That wasn’t my intent, not least because—as you know—I share your view that the conservative/progressive binary can on many points be reductive and disastrous for the faith. I’m a conservative Catholic (by current standards) for whom some of the general points you raise—about the reality of change in church history, the different levels of authority of different teachings, and so on—seem inarguably correct. (There's a reason that limbo has passed into history...) I'm also a conservative Catholic who felt that a certain style of Catholic neo-conservatism reached a point of exhaustion in the last decade, and that Christianity and the wider culture alike may need a more vital Christian left, so that the faith and right-wing politics don’t just collapse into one another.
With all this mind, and depending how we define the terms, there are ways in which this pon
itificate’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.
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?
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,
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,