By Wesley Hill
A little over a year into the pontificate of Pope Francis but still two years away from the new pontiff’s much-discussed apostolic exhortation Amoris laetitia and its thinly veiled criticism by four of the Catholic Church’s own cardinals, the New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, himself a Catholic, wrote a long essay for the paper’s Sunday review in which he suggested that the time might have arrived for self-consciously conservative Catholics to “resist” the pope.
At that point I had been already been a longtime reader of Douthat—in my judgment and in that of many others, he’s the best columnist at work for a daily newspaper we have—but, knowing his conservative perspective as I did, even I wasn’t prepared for that charge. Had things really deteriorated to such an extent that conservative Roman Catholics felt that they had to assume such a posture of opposition to one who, only months earlier, seemed poised to revive the church at its heart: by modeling and proclaiming a renewed emphasis on the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ?
But what interested me even more than that provocative salvo in the Sunday review was the follow-up piece posted to his blog at the Times’ website a few days later. Writing in the venerable genre of “Why I Am a Catholic,” Douthat offered this explanation for his alarm over Pope Francis’ apparent softening of the church’s stance on matters of sexual morality:
I am a Catholic… because I am a mostly-faithful Christian who is mostly convinced that Roman Catholicism is the expression of Christianity that has kept faith most fully with the early church and the words of Jesus of Nazareth himself…. So if you asked me, as a secular or Protestant reader might be inclined to do, “do you believe that marriage is indissoluble because the pope is infallible and he says so?”, I might answer: “Mostly the reverse: I think the papacy might well be guided on the Holy Spirit because it has taught so consistently that marriage is indissoluble, while almost every other Christian body has succumbed to the pressures and political incentives to say otherwise.” (And those incentives were powerful long before modernity.) I respect the papacy’s authority precisely because it has kept faith with one of Jesus’s harder teachings, in other words, and shown flexibility or made compromises only in a way (through an err-on-the-side-of-the-petitioner annulment process, most recently) that I think has left the teaching’s basic integrity intact.
What strikes me about this explanation is how far removed it is from Protestant caricatures of Catholics’ unquestioning obedience to a vaunted magisterial “Tradition”: Douthat says he’s inclined to trust the magisterium because he can discern, through all of history’s twists and turns, a basic continuity between that magisterium and the teachings of the New Testament itself. Or, putting it the other way around, I’m struck by how convergent with the Protestant “Scripture principle” this sounds.
When I emailed the link to Douthat’s post to a couple of other Protestant friends, one of them replied, “The way Douthat both supports and can consider challenging papal authority on the basis on doctrinal proximity to earliest Christianity strikes me as an unavoidably protestant position,” and another said this, “His reasons for being Roman, and even his colloquial definition of papal infallibility, are pretty darn Protestant. He’s not saying anything Timothy George doesn’t say as a Baptist in Christianity Today.”
Douthat’s new book-length treatment of these matters, To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism, doesn’t back away from what is (arguably!) a Scripture-resisting-the-magisterium line. “The church has broken in the past, not once but many times over tensions and issues that did not cut as deeply as the questions that undergird today’s Catholic debates,” he writes near the end of the book. “Other communions have divided very recently over precisely the issues that the pope has pressed to the front of Catholic debates”—chiefly, over the issue of whether New Testament teaching on sexuality morality (for instance, the prohibition of divorce and remarriage, the forbidding of same-sex intercourse) is cause for church discipline or else either permissible as a moral tragedy or even sanctifiable as an expression of holiness. (The worldwide Anglican Communion, Douthat points out numerous times in the book, has fractured over these very issues.) For Douthat, these divisions, while regrettable, are perfectly understandable: “Because these issues, while superficially ‘just’ about sexuality or church discipline, actually cut very deep—to the very bones of Christianity, the very words of Jesus Christ.”
Douthat doesn’t allow his lack of formal theological education or the possibility of a facile “I trust the magisterium, so I don’t need to figure out what the Bible says” appeal to deter him from lingering over Jesus’ words on sexual morality as recorded in the Gospels. In some of the book’s most memorable passages, he expounds the New Testament’s teaching in some detail, appealing to its (one is tempted to say “perspicuous”) force: “[I]n the case of marriage the [Catholic] church has cleaved to the plain text of Mark’s gospel (and the very similar passages in Matthew and Luke), while most other Christian communions have found reasons to soften the New Testament’s demands.”
For Douthat, this is a large part of the Church’s discomfiting appeal for those who realize the bankruptcy of laissez-faire morality: “[T]he teaching’s resilience, its striking continuity from the first century to the twentieth, is… a study in what makes Catholicism’s claim to a unique authority seem plausible to many people, even in a disenchanted age.”
For those who may be unaware, the consistent teaching of the Catholic Church that Douthat references differs from almost all current Protestant understandings of marriage. In the Catholic view, marriage is “indissoluble.” The “one flesh” union of husband and wife is, strictly speaking, not just forbidden but actually ontologically or metaphysically incapable of being undone. That’s why, if a Catholic enters a second marriage, the first one must be declared to have been not a true marriage to begin with (that is, “annulled”), otherwise the supposedly “married” couple are living in a state of adultery, theologically speaking. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it, “If the divorced are remarried civilly, they find themselves in a situation that objectively contravenes God’s law. Consequently, they cannot receive Eucharistic communion as long as this situation persists.”
But this teaching, Douthat argues, is precisely what Pope Francis is in danger of allowing to be undermined. In his 2016 exhortation Amoris laetitia, the pontiff wrote this: “Because of forms of conditioning and mitigating factors, it is possible that in an objective situation of sin—which may not be subjectively culpable, or fully such—a person can be living in God’s grace, can love and can also grow in the life of grace and charity, while receiving the Church’s help to this end”—even, as a footnote makes clear, the help of the Eucharist, “a powerful medicine.”
In other words, the Pope envisioned ad hoc situations in which certain cohabiting couples, operating perhaps under what Catholicism has sometimes referred to as “invincible [non-culpable] ignorance,” could be helped toward holiness better by the spiritual sustenance of the Eucharist than by being denied it until they regularize their union with a valid sacramental marriage.
To Douthat, however, this looks dangerously like Anglican wishy-washiness: “Why leave us to labor for two thousand years with the idea that taking up the cross requires accepting suffering, sometimes extraordinary suffering, if the truth is that there is no need to even abstain from communion when you break the moral law?” The Pope, Douthat fears, is in danger of altering not just pastoral practice but actually undermining the teaching of our Lord himself.
For any sort of Christian reader, I think, it’s impossible to read Douthat’s book and remain neutral in the specifically Catholic disputes it outlines. Partly this is owing to Douthat’s excellence as a writer—he makes you feel that the stakes are high—and partly it is because the matters in question are ones that affect all Christian communions in one way or another. My own response to the book is, perhaps, stereotypical for one who identifies as a member of the dwindling conservative wing of the Episcopal Church. But I’d also like to think my judgment is as informed by Scripture as it is by any denominational ties.
On the one hand, as I wrote to a friend upon finishing the book, I disagree with Douthat on the fundamental issue in question—namely, the indissolubility of marriage. I am persuaded instead by the exegesis of Richard Hays, David Instone-Brewer, and others who have argued that, in the New Testament, not all remarriage without an annulment (which the New Testament doesn’t envision as such, in any case) constitutes adultery. “Mark and Luke categorically prohibit divorce,” Hays, for instance, observes, in line with Douthat’s exegesis. But then, sounding more like Douthat’s ideological opponents, he adds, “[B]ut Matthew and Paul both entertain the necessity of exceptions to the rule, situations in which a pastoral discernment is required.” In this matter, I think Hays has the better of the exegetical dispute. Against Douthat, I would not view as a departure from the words of Jesus an even more drastic change to the Catholic Church’s teaching on marriage than what Pope Francis, in the Catholic liberals’ wildest dreams, is proposing.
On the other hand, however, my evangelical heart is warmed by Douthat’s way of prosecuting his case. His appeal to Scripture as the non-negotiable norm for discerning the validity of any purported “Holy Spirit-driven change” strikes me as nothing so much as an ecumenically promising approach. As an Episcopalian who is troubled by how my own co-religionists regularly seem to bypass Scriptural exegesis in favor of appealing to God’s doing a “new thing” that supposedly overturns old moral norms, I feel that Douthat is an ally is promoting a robustly biblical Christianity.
From another angle, as an Episcopalian who worries that some of my Catholic brothers and sisters appeal to “natural law” or “magisterial teaching” more easily and readily than they do to Holy Scripture itself, I also appreciate how Douthat’s approach may serve as a call to some of his co-religionists to become more fluent in “speaking Bible.” Borrowing a cheeky comment that the Protestant theologian Peter Leithart once made about the twentieth century’s ressourcement movement, I’d say of Douthat’s mode of argument—that is, its appeal to Scripture over against the current papal trajectory—that it “looks a lot like God speaking against a powerful tradition to purify His church. Can anyone doubt that the Catholic Church has gotten better at talking Bible over the last century? Which might make the Roman Catholic Church one of today’s most compelling proofs of Protestant convictions concerning sola scriptura.” Reading Douthat’s book made me, a Protestant, think that we share a common starting point.
Yet, for all my sympathies with conservative worries over “progressive” excesses, it may be that my disagreements with Douthat’s book outweigh, in the end, my agreements. Is it really the case that Pope Francis’ desire for those living in “an objective situation of sin” not to be (necessarily, always) denied the sacrament of Holy Communion until they have fully repaired that situation constitutes a dangerous moral laxity that threatens to undermine the entire fabric of Catholic moral teaching? I do feel the force of Douthat’s “yes” answer; it is, according to St. Paul, a dangerous thing to receive the body and blood of Christ “in an unworthy manner” (1 Corinthians 11:27). But I also wonder whether, as Alan Jacobs has suggested, making the denial of Communion the first step of church discipline, as seems often to be done in conservative churches, is to jump too quickly to the “nuclear option.”
I find myself thinking, in this connection, of a story once told to me by a godly Episcopal priest who served a small parish in a depressed, drug-riddled town. There was a woman, formerly in an abusive marriage, who began to attend church with a man with whom she was now cohabiting. Their preteen son was an eager participant in the life of the parish, and my priest friend described to me his agony over whether to withhold the Eucharist from the couple, living in a state of sin as they were, and thereby risk pushing their son into the lifestyle he was almost certain to find outside the church’s walls. “It is very difficult to make a public defense for what should be the unadvertised options of pastoral discretion,” the priest told me, and I’ve pondered that line ever since.
I have no desire to make a public defense, as Pope Francis seems at times to flirt with doing, of admitting those in a state of unrepentant sin to Communion. In this I sympathize with Douthat. But, I confess, I don’t share Douthat’s fear of “the unadvertised options of pastoral discretion” for those fragile sinners whose hearts may yet be drawn back to the path of holiness. The “mercy” that Pope Francis regularly urges his clergy to offer seems to me to be precisely what, in the messy lives of those who are being saved, is so often needed.
Wesley Hill is associate professor of biblical studies at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania.