The statue of St. Peter is seen as Pope Francis leaves his general audience in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican March 14. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

A Precarious Unity?

‘To Change the Church’ by Ross Douthat

For those, like me, long smitten by Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh’s Catholic “tract,” there is a crucial scene between Julia Marchmain, the lover of the novel’s narrator and protagonist Charles Ryder, and her priggish older brother, Bridey. Julia and Charles have been living together, both in the process of divorcing their spouses. Bridey surprises them by announcing his own engagement to a widow, the mischievously named Beryl Muspratt. Julia congratulates her brother and implores him to invite his fiancée to meet them. “Oh I couldn’t do that,” Bridey responds. Pressed to explain why, Bridey lays out the moral obstacles in his oblivious, matter-of-fact way. “You must understand that Beryl is a woman of strict Catholic principle fortified by the prejudices of the middle class. I couldn’t possibly bring her here. It is a matter of indifference whether you choose to live in sin with Rex or Charles or both—I have always avoided enquiry into the details of your ménage but in no case would Beryl consent to be your guest.”

Julia rushes out of the house, engulfed in a grief she fights against and only barely understands. “Living in sin, with sin, by sin, for sin, every hour, every day, curtains drawn on sin, bathing it, dressing it, clipping diamonds to it, showing it around, giving it a good time, putting it to sleep at night with a tablet of Dial if it’s fretful,” she sobs hysterically. The soliloquy goes on for some time, and Waugh later regretted the melodramatic nature of the scene. The novel ends, of course, with Julia giving up her “adulterous” marriage to Charles and returning to the church, and with Charles’s seemingly miraculous conversion to a Catholicism he had long disdained. God’s mysterious grace triumphs over wayward human desire. If the novel’s sexual renunciations were incomprehensible to many, the heroic romanticism of the abnegations resonated powerfully with Catholics, who had long been firmly schooled in the indissolubility of marriage and the impossibility of divorce and remarriage. For my parents’ generation, the rejection of divorce was a profound marker of Catholic identity in a less demanding—or more forgiving—Protestant environment. A host of sins could be forgiven as long as the marriage remained, at least publicly, intact. Whatever one’s private failings, the public permanence of marriage upheld the church’s authority and reputation. Brideshead celebrated this heroic constancy, and, thanks to sales in America, it became Waugh’s bestselling book.

Waugh and Brideshead have remained especially popular with so-called orthodox Catholics. This was no doubt abetted by the excellent 1981 BBC adaptation of the novel, which was introduced, with patrician conviction, on American television by William F. Buckley Jr. New York Times conservative columnist Ross Douthat, a protégé of Buckley’s, shares the high romantic vision of Catholicism that suffuses Waugh’s novel. In To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism, Douthat makes a fervent case against the pope’s efforts to find some sort of pastoral solution that would allow Catholics who have divorced and remarried without an annulment to receive Communion. He argues, in thoughtful but nevertheless melodramatic terms, that the church’s “vision of marriage’s indissolubility, its one-flesh metaphysical reality, was crucial to Christianity’s development and spread. It was sociologically important, because it made such a stark contrast with the sexual landscape of ancient Rome.” He does not note that it took many centuries for this teaching to take its final form, and even then observance was often the exception rather than the rule. Child bearing, for example, often came before marriage vows (as it still does).

Douthat further claims that “in the case of marriage the 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.” It is the church’s “consistency across centuries” that most impresses him, and that motivates his sometimes shrill denunciations of Francis’s efforts (tendentiously comparing him to Trump at one point) to “soften” the discipline, dividing the church and inviting schism in doing so. Enough with Communion as a “field hospital” for the wounded. Douthat incessantly summons the specter of the Anglican Communion’s divisions and alleged doctrinal incoherence as the fate of Catholicism should it capitulate to the exorbitant demands of the “sexual revolution.” The only real way to measure orthodoxy, Douthat seems to say, is by its burdens—or at least by holding fast to those teachings that are most distinctively burdensome (he leaves room for hypocrisy in particular cases).

The only real way to measure orthodoxy, Douthat seems to say, is by its burdens—or at least by holding fast to those teachings that are most distinctively burdensome

To be sure, the Gospel has its burdens, but it also comes with the promise that its yoke will be light. What Douthat describes as the church’s “obdurance” regarding marriage came at a cost, but a cost he admires in his histrionic fashion: “It brought the church into conflict with the royal houses of Europe; in the reign of the much married Henry VIII, it helped make martyrs of Thomas More and John Fisher, and in the process lost much of the English-speaking world for the Catholic faith.”

This account of the church’s practice regarding marriage has an appealing idealism, but is distorted by a refusal to grapple with the complexities of history or the evolution of doctrine. The refusal of Pope Clement VII to dissolve Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon had a great deal to do with the fact that Clement was being held prisoner by the Spanish Emperor Charles V, Catherine’s favorite nephew. Clement initially responded favorably, if cautiously, to Henry’s petition. Henry was, after all, a stern opponent of Protestantism at the time, earning him the papal title “Defender of the Faith.” As the historian Eamon Duffy has written, the “case was a knotty one…and popes had accommodated princes on thinner grounds than this before.” The Vatican archives, in fact, contain a draft bull granting Henry’s request. When it came to the “metaphysical” realities of dynastic marriages, Garry Wills observes, indissolubility usually gave way to concerns of state. It was not the church’s brave consistency that lost much of the English-speaking world for Catholicism. Rather, as Wills notes, “the papacy’s political ties to governments opposed to England robbed Catholics of their presumption of loyalty [to England.] Not for the first time, the temporal power of the papacy was an enemy of its spiritual credibility. England…had been in large part driven away from Rome by popes who alternated bumbling with bombast.”

Douthat is right about Jesus’ intransigence regarding marriage in Mark’s Gospel : “What God has joined together, let no one put asunder” (10:9). Matthew, however, finds this teaching too hard, and exercising his authority as an Apostle, an authority conferred by Jesus, grants an exception for “unchastity” (5:32; 19:9). This is not just wiggle room; it is an accommodation to what might be called “pastoral reality,” an accommodation not unlike what Pope Francis has urged for the divorced and remarried. Douthat writes that Francis’s attempt to reach out to those in irregular unions “risks breaking faith with Jesus Christ.” Does he think Matthew also broke faith with Jesus? The Orthodox churches, whose traditionalist theology one imagines Douthat admires, and who have a plausible claim to having preserved Christianity’s earliest practices, have long accepted divorce and remarriage in a way that does not seem to have damaged their Trinitarian faith. True, Jesus’ teachings are uncompromising, but he is unfailingly merciful with those who have fallen short. Francis’s pastoral proposals for the divorced and remarried, although clearly a departure from the church’s current teaching (if not its practice), hardly contradict Jesus’ actions. The church needs to “grow in its own understanding of the Gospel and in discerning the path of the spirit,” Francis has written. He insists, again and again, that the church must minister to people where and as they are. In his speech to the conclave that elected him, he told the cardinals that the church “is called to come out of herself and to go to the peripheries, not only geographically, but also the existential peripheries: the mystery of sin, of pain, of injustice, of ignorance.” And of failed marriages.

In the early centuries of the church, there was no liturgical rite for marriage, which was a civil matter. This history is apparent in the fact that a priest or deacon does not marry the couple, but only witnesses the exchange of vows. It is the couple who marry each other. Although the church has valiantly insisted on the indissolubility of marriage, it has long made exceptions, if canonically convoluted ones. The Pauline and Petrine privileges allow for the dissolution of valid marriages “in favor of the faith.” In short, the church can dissolve marriages when a Catholic in a failed marriage to an unbaptized or non-Catholic spouse wants to marry again in the church. The details and logic of canon law in this area are mind-numbing, and presumably that is one reason Pope Francis is impatient with much of the debate so assiduously pressed by canon lawyers such as Cardinal Raymond Burke. But as my colleague Matthew Boudway has written, “The canons governing marriage in the Catholic Church are obviously quite different from the ‘plain meaning of Christ’s words’…. Christ said, ‘What God has joined together, let no one put asunder.’ He did not say ‘What God has joined together, let no one put asunder, unless that man is the pope and the couple in question have not had sex yet or at least one of them is unbaptized…. Perhaps the plain meaning of Christ’s words about marriage is not by itself enough to understand the church’s fairly complex teaching on this subject.”

In the early centuries of the church, there was no liturgical rite for marriage, which was a civil matter.

Boudway’s irrefutable point is not that he finds indissolubility contrary to the Gospel. He might even favor its strict observance. His point is that, despite the rhetoric, indissolubility has not been the church’s exceptionless practice, and those who pretend otherwise are using legal sophistries to avoid acknowledging that fact.  

After all, the plain meaning of Christ’s words on a host of subjects—nonviolence, wealth, the poor, the arrival of the Kingdom—cannot explain a good deal of church teaching. There has been more diversity and discontinuity in the development of doctrine than Douthat is willing to allow. In other words, more change than he is willing to admit. “Wide shifts in the teaching of moral duties, once presented as part of Christian doctrine by the magisterium, have occurred,” the legal scholar John Noonan wrote. “In each case one can see the displacement of a principle or principles that has been taken as dispositive…. These principles were replaced by principles already part of Christian teaching: in the case of usury, that the person of the lender, not the loan, should be the focus of evaluation; in the case of marriage, that preservation of faith is more important than preservation of a human relationship; in the case of slavery, that in Christ there is ‘neither free nor slave’ (Gal 3:28); and in the case of religious liberty, that faith must be free.”

Douthat insists that, though church teaching can “develop,” it cannot “be reversed or contradicted or transcended.” But it is hard for most people to understand how the church’s traditional teaching about Judaism and religious liberty were not reversed, contradicted, and transcended—and thankfully so—by the Second Vatican Council.

So we return to the scene of the original crime. As Douthat notes, the real conflict over the divorced and remarried concerns the legacy of Vatican II and the continuing debate over its reforms. What change is legitimate and what change amounts to a betrayal of the “deposit of faith”? Douthat laments the “real radicalism” in church practice and teaching that followed the council in the 1960s and ’70s, a time he regards as an unmitigated disaster. He doesn’t bother to ask what it was about the rigidity of the pre–Vatican II Church that lent itself so readily to the excesses and often plain goofiness that followed. Nor does he seem to fully appreciate how Humanae vitae fatally undermined the church’s authority in the aftermath of the council. Instead, he argues that the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict righted a sinking ship by holding the line on Catholicism’s most contested teachings—those regarding sexual morality, contraception, the male priesthood, homosexuality, and marriage—in the face of enormous cultural pressures, especially in the West. In forestalling any further “liberalization” of the church, Francis’s two predecessors reestablished continuity with an unwavering two-thousand-year-old tradition, a tradition that had been under dire threat, according to Douthat.  

As a consequence, under John Paul II and Benedict “the post–Vatican II church experienced a kind of uneasy truce” between reformers and conservatives. Yes, theologians were disciplined or silenced, movements such as liberation theology condemned, reformers publicly chastised, reliable conservatives appointed to the episcopacy. But there was little the pope could do to root out the liberal inclinations of most academic theologians or the millions of cultural accommodationists in the rectories and pews. Neither side in this battle over how far reform had gone, or how far it should still go, could dislodge the other. On the whole, Douthat thinks this delicate equilibrium a good thing. “Liberal” Catholics rightly feel a certain ownership of the church, while disgruntled conservatives are appeased by Rome’s stubbornly traditionalist and countercultural claims. Should the liberalizing forces under Francis now triumph, Douthat argues, the church’s more “devout” will be further alienated, and a precarious church unity lost. He predicts this will happen if Francis’s agenda is not resisted and turned back. For like John Paul II and Benedict, Douthat thinks the threat to the church’s integrity and vitality comes from the secularizing influences and moral relativism of the larger culture, while Francis clearly believes the church’s problems are more internal and institutional.

What explains this ongoing Catholic “civil war”? Douthat points to the ambiguity of Vatican II’s documents themselves.

What explains this ongoing Catholic “civil war”? Douthat points to the ambiguity of Vatican II’s documents themselves. This is an observation made in these pages more than forty years ago by the late Lutheran theologian George Lindbeck. Lindbeck, an official Protestant observer at Vatican II, saw “radical and fundamental ambiguities in the most authoritative” statements promulgated by the council—including those on papal infallibility, relations with other Christians, and the challenge of reconciling Catholic tradition with the Bible. This enables those on different sides of every neuralgic issue to find ample textual support for their interpretations. “When the supreme law of the land directly authorizes rival, perhaps contradictory, positions and provides no way of settling the disputes,” Lindbeck concluded, “conflict becomes inevitable and, unless changes are made in the supreme law, irresolvable.”

Lindbeck hastened to add that any rush, by those on either side, to resolve these conflicts would be a mistake. Douthat seems to be of the same mind, although he largely neglects to acknowledge the unilateral steps taken by John Paul II and Benedict in furtherance of the “reform of the reform,” while roundly condemning Francis’s actions in the other direction. The current stalemate gives “both sides incentives to live together, to remain within the fold, to avoid putting too much stress on the church’s internal contradictions, to steer clear of decisive breaks.” That is a fair description of the past forty years, but not an even-handed one. There is one side in this conflict that has long threatened to make a “decisive break,” and it is not the so-called liberal side. It is the church’s conservative wing, which ironically has long championed papal authority, that is now up in arms, loudly murmuring “heresy” about this pope’s pastoral program. Yet despite Douthat’s bill of indictment, the Synod on the Family and Francis’s subsequent exhortation, Amoris laetitia, did not change church teaching. Indeed, many of Francis’s critics judged the synod a “defeat” for the pope. But as Douthat himself admits, those outspoken critics are a tiny minority among the world’s bishops. This pope, by most measures, is popular and admired. A desire for the heavy hand of Rome to be lifted remains widespread. It is true that Francis has urged regional bishops’ conferences to experiment with pastoral solutions to local problems, including Communion for the divorced and remarried. But the devolution of authority from Rome to local churches was called for by Vatican II, and repeatedly stymied by both John Paul II and Benedict. Douthat believes regional diversity will threaten church unity. At the same time, however, he recognizes that the obsessive modern focus on the papacy has been an obstacle to the renewal the council hoped to bring about. He concedes that historically “the church in ages of crisis and torpor alike has again and again found renewal from below.” What he is unwilling to concede is that Francis’s effort to decentralize church authority, to give a real measure of decision-making to local churches, is an attempt to make space precisely for that “renewal.”  

Nor is he willing to admit that the pre–Vatican II church, the church that organized itself self-consciously around a rejection of modern secular liberalism, was uniquely a product of its time, different in significant ways from the Catholicism that preceded it. The “fortress” Catholicism constructed in reaction to the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, and the modern nation-state, theologian Joseph Komonchak has written, “differed in many ways from the Catholicism of the ancien regime, from that of the Counter-Reformation, and from that of the vaunted age of medieval Christendom.” Ironically, in resisting the centralizing, bureaucratic, rationalizing forces of modernity, the church adopted many of the same attitudes and methods. It centralized authority over church practice in the papacy, created a notorious curial bureaucracy, promulgated a universal canon law, and in an effort to control Catholic intellectual life, declared Thomism the official philosophy of the Catholic Church. “In all these ways,” Komonchak writes, “Catholicism was becoming, in senses largely unknown in previous centuries, Roman Catholicism.”

In short, there is as much discontinuity as continuity, as much change as permanence, in the two-thousand-year history of Catholicism. “What the church becomes in any age is never determined solely by the principles that constitute its distinctive life, but always by an interpretation and realization of them which actively engage the challenges of the larger society and culture,” Komonchak writes. Vatican II was an attempt to do exactly that. Building the post­­–Vatican II Church has been a difficult and tumultuous process, and there is no denying that “a certain kind of Catholicism dissolved” in the wake of the council. Neither John Paul II nor Benedict could reconstitute the pre–Vatican II Church to the satisfaction of their more fervent supporters, and with good reason. Vatican II broke decisively with “fortress” Catholicism, Komonchak reminds us. Most importantly, it adopted a positive appreciation of modernity and of liberal values, properly understood. It then reformed the church’s worship, devotion, and practice in ways that fundamentally altered the average Catholic’s understanding of what could and couldn’t change. Finally, it called for a devolution of authority from Rome to local churches, reversing the centralizing dynamic of the previous two hundred years.

Douthat believes that Francis’s actions, which are clearly guided by this understanding of Vatican II, will return the church to the chaos and uncertainties of the 1970s. A less dire prediction is possible. As an experienced pastor, Francis knows the church must come to grips with the fact that Catholic marriage and family life are in crisis. Arguably, there will be no renewal of the church without a renewal of the Catholic family. To regain its credibility, the church must forge some sort of modus vivendi. It must, at least tentatively, accept the choices made by conscientious lay men and women, and in doing so make space for the church’s wisdom about sexuality and marriage to be heard again. It is no doubt a surprise that even a pope thinks this.

The triumphalist Catholicism of Brideshead is that of a church proudly at war with a post-Christian world. Whatever its real virtues and achievements, that “fortress” is not a place Catholicism can revisit—not unless it is willing to repudiate Vatican II. Francis, whatever his shortcomings, knows that in a way his predecessors, for understandable reasons, could not. 

Published in the May 4, 2018 issue: 

Paul Baumann is Commonweal’s senior writer. He is working on a book titled Why Do I Go to Church?

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