After the Synod: The Once and Future Battlefield

Previously, I wrote a post entitled The Usual Suspicions explaining a growing public conflict among practicing Catholics who tend to be suspicious of one another, and that this conflict seems to run suspiciously closely along the ideological lines that divide Western populations with regard to controversial moral issues.  These controversial moral issues have been fought over on an old and bloody battlefield, a battlefield which is now seeing warring parties venture back on to it for a much more public debate, perhaps of the famous Hamilton-Burr variety.

While some might be forgiven for thinking that these questions were settled in the time of Thomas Aquinas, it’s clear that his decisive entry onto the field of battle all those hundreds of years ago cannot win the battle as it stands today.  The battlefield has long since been cleared of dead philosophers, especially those writing hundreds of years ago who don’t agree with the moral intuitions of contemporary culture in the West.  And so yet again the issue of the reception of Holy Communion for the divorced and remarried rears its head, though this time the head seems to be a German bishop by the name of Kasper.

As I’ve mentioned before, I understand why Kasper might think this is an important issue.  I’m the product of two divorces, and I am personally very aware that a 2nd marriage attempt without a declaration of nullity can have many good effects.  I am far better off today because my mother remarried to a very good man.  And often these situations are very difficult for a faithful Catholic to navigate once they realize the problem.  Does one just up and leave a spouse and take away the support of the 2nd partner?  Does one still have moral obligations to that person if the marriage was attempted in good faith by both parties?

And for Kasper and others, the further question is: Why would we deny Holy Communion to those who are in these situations, particularly if they are sincerely repentant and yet feel that they can’t leave their new spouse in good conscience because it is not fair to their new spouse?  To those who oppose Kasper, the answer is straightforward.  It’s because we don’t want them eating and drinking damnation upon themselves as Sacred Scripture warns, and because Roman Catholic tradition has for a very, very long time considered receiving Holy Communion in a state of grave sin to be doing exactly that.

This was yet again a big issue at the Ordinary Synod on the Family as it was at the Extraordinary Synod last year.  Unsurprisingly, many Traditionalists and some other orthodox Roman Catholics believe that the truth of the Church lost at the Synod, that the change of practice and the ambiguity of the documents not only waters down Church teaching, but puts many Catholics in serious danger with regard to the state of their souls.  I happen to disagree that it waters down Church teaching, and my assessment is that the document is largely a ratification of the status quo on the ground in most Catholic parishes.  I agree with them that the truth of the Church lost to some degree at the Synod, but not because much changed.  In truth, I would rather that we had changed some things about the practice on the ground so as to drive radical re-conversion to Christ.

Ross Douthat actually proposed in a New York Times column that the Synod marked a modest victory for conservative Catholics in the sense that they actually managed to resist the assaults of the reformers far more effectively than at the Extraordinary Synod last year.  I disagree, not only because I think that “conservative” is the wrong word (I am not a conservative), but because I think the Synod was lost by the world’s suffering families who had little of concrete value done to serve them because the Synod Fathers had to busy themselves with trying to hold fast to the plain teachings of Jesus with regard to the nature of marriage.

Douthat found himself the target of a firmly-worded letter to his editors at the Times for his commentary on the Synod on the Family.  Apparently, not all Catholic academics appreciated his suggestions that certain folks were not following the teaching of the Catholic Church.

“To the editor of the New York Times

On Sunday, October 18, the Times published Ross Douthat’s piece “The Plot to Change Catholicism.” Aside from the fact that Mr. Douthat has no professional qualifications for writing on the subject, the problem with his article and other recent statements is his view of Catholicism as unapologetically subject to a politically partisan narrative that has very little to do with what Catholicism really is. Moreover, accusing other members of the Catholic church of heresy, sometimes subtly, sometimes openly, is serious business that can have serious consequences for those so accused. This is not what we expect of the New York Times.”

I have to admit that I laughed pretty hard while reading this letter.  The “politically partisan narrative” bit was especially hilarious.  Not because I disagree that Douthat is using a political narrative (he definitely is), but because many Catholic academics are only quick to point out the lack of credentials when the person writing on Church matters is a conservative.  The numerous Catholic laypeople of a more progressive or modern liberal inclination in the media who advance a blindingly obvious political narrative, a group which frequently accuses conservative Catholics of dissenting on Church teaching with regard to the death penalty and solidarity with workers, strangely do not have stern letters to the editor written about them, no matter how much damage they have done to both our political discourse (just as conservative narratives about their opponents often do the same) and the public image of the Church and its members.

Much as I find the overbearing heresy-hunting that Traditionalists (and some Bishops) engage in to be dangerous and unhealthy for the Church, I cannot take that point seriously from a bunch of people who only get worried about charges of heresy when it affects folks to whom they happen to be sympathetic, especially when their sympathies have a lot to do with shared ideological concerns.  This is the same old battleground that appeared during the Vatican II era, with the battle lines often drawn along the lines of the political divide in American society because where progressives and conservatives dissented from Church teaching, it was (and is very much today) precisely because they subject the teachings of the Church to their particular ideology.  While I agree that subjecting the Church to one’s ideology is deeply problematic, I certainly don’t think that many in the Catholic academy who signed their names to this letter are the ones to be casting that stone at anyone else.

This is not to say that the signers have no valid points.  For example, it’s certainly important to note (as it was so noted by Michael Bayer) that we would not give Douthat’s opinions the same weight we would give to a canon lawyer, or to Cardinal Muller at the CDF.  We should certainly take his opinions with a grain of salt, because while he is a very intelligent and evidence-based thinker, theology and ecclesiology are not his specialties.  And I certainly do so.  I am not on the same page as he is, politically or theologically, as far as I can tell.

All that said, I was fairly pleased with Douthat’s response to the letter, because he openly stated his claims and his reasoning, following those things by inviting a contest.  This was pleasing to me because I recognize that we are going to be fighting the same battles once again, and I agree with Janet Smith at First Things that it will be likely be decades more of these battles.  Douthat seems to agree as well when he writes:

“Now it may be that today’s heretics are prophets, the church will indeed be revolutionized, and my objections will be ground under with the rest of conservative Catholicism. But if that happens, it will take hard grinding, not just soft words and academic rank-pulling. It will require a bitter civil war.

And so, my dear professors: Welcome to the battlefield.”

I am happy to join him in welcoming all parties to the battlefield, the battlefield upon which the fate of many souls will be at least influenced, if not decided.  I am also happy to enter the battlefield myself, as a mystic, ascetic, and Catholic philosopher.  It’s worth noting that I won’t care which side you’re on because neither the conservatives or their progressive opponents are on my side.  And so, professors, I recommend limbering up, training your minds hard, and arming yourselves with the best means of writing at your disposal.  Whether you like or not, your side started the battles at Vatican II, and you’re going to have to face them now whether you were there or not…on the once and future battlefield.

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