Wednesday, May 14, 2014

The cold eye of realism from Ross Douthat

Ross Douthat, "A Catholic dilemma" (NYT, May 9, 2014):
Before I address myself to Cardinal Walter Kasper’s latest remarks on how he thinks Roman Catholicism might change its approach to second marriages and the sacraments, I want to engage with Philip Lawler’s thoughtful responses to some of the issues raised in my column and posts on the possibility of an alteration to Catholic teaching on this front.

Writing as a doctrinal conservative, with the confidence in the continuity of church teaching that entails, Lawler has kind words for my explanation of some of the doctrinal issues in play, but he argues that in contemplating the potential fall-out from a Kasper-esque shift I’m entertaining a hypothetical that simply can’t and therefore won’t take place. To my suggestion that such proposals “might lead to schism if the pope were to adopt and implement them,” he returns that “and so they might—IF they were adopted. But they won’t be.” Then he wonders if there’s any real purpose to ”talking about the possibility of schism, at a point when the doctrinal debate is only just getting underway,” and worries that even raising that scenario only makes Catholic teaching seem vastly more up-for-grabs than it actually is ...

... the coverage of Pope Francis’s Vatican by respected Catholic journalists of different ideological stripes, from John Allen to John Thavis to Sandro Magister, all of whom — aware of the theological issues in play — have treated the Kasper proposal or something like it as a very live possibility for the church.... [H]igh-ranking churchmen [have spoken] in either general or specific terms in support of such a change — Kasper himself, intimates of the pope like Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, and as of this week, the cardinal who will serve as secretary-general of the upcoming synod on the family. [There is also] the pope’s personal role, from his initial press conference, through his choice of Kasper to speak to the cardinals on this issue, down to his famous “private” phone call on the subject, not only in inviting debate but seemingly pushing it gently in a specific direction.

Now none of these indicators prove anything about the future, and they fit easily enough with a scenario, suggested by both Allen and Magister, in which the pope will up endorsing some kind of pastoral change around the rules for annulments (which Benedict XVI, as Joseph Ratzinger, also entertained), without following Kasper’s much more problematic suggestion of official paths to communion for the non-annulled.

But it remains the case that if you bracketed questions of continuity and infallibility and simply followed the best reporting on the Vatican and watched what high-ranking cardinals and the pope himself have said and done, you would have good reasons to think that Kasper’s proposal or something like it was receiving very strong consideration by this pontiff.

Which raises an interesting dilemma for Catholics (and especially Catholic writers) who do believe in continuity and the impossibility of certain changes: When it seems that the pope is considering what seems like a doctrinal change, what is the appropriate response? Is it to simply remain imperturbable, secure in the knowledge that the Holy Spirit is in charge? Or is there a duty of some kind to offer counsel that goes beyond simply saying “that can’t happen,” and that actually considers the consequences if it did?

Obviously I incline in the latter direction, or I wouldn’t have written what I did. But I’m not particularly confident in my answer; I think the dilemma, given Lawler’s premises (and mine, perhaps less securely held) about the church, is interesting and real.
[Hat tip to JM]