So this is why it took Ross Douthat so long to utter an opinion about the recent Synod on Family Life in Rome. He was weighing whether to call for schism! For the record: for all my questioning and concern about the direction Benedict XVI was taking the church, I never wrote a column that actually called for open revolt against him. The theo-conservative reaction to Francis reminds me a little of the wing of the GOP that simply cannot tolerate the give and take of democratic life, and as soon as a president of the other party is handily elected, and actually dares to enact a clear campaign pledge, declares the end of the republic!
But, of course, the Catholic church is not a democracy, so the analogy won’t work. But neither is it a dictatorship – least of all under this Pope who, from the very beginning, insisted that he was merely a bishop among bishops. And in Ross’s column, there is a clear assumption that his side of the debate owns the church, that any contrary views to his are an outrageous, treasonous and unprecedented attack on the institution itself, that any accommodation of mercy for those caught in the cross-hairs of the teachings on sex and marriage and family is somehow a “betrayal” of the core faith. Not a misguided idea – but a betrayal.
This is nonsense and panic, but it is a useful insight into the theo-conservative psyche. Notice the language used to describe a civil, rare and open debate of issues that the church is grappling with. This process – in which the theocons won on their core issues – is “a kind of chaos,” it’s “medieval” and “dangerous,” it sows “confusion.” It is as if these questions cannot even be debated (which was, of course, the view of John Paul II and Benedict XVI), as if faith itself is so fragile and so rooted in unquestioning blind obedience to a body of teaching that makes no distinction between central and more marginal issues, that any Pope that actually seeks to have a conversation about these questions is a threat to the church itself.
And what are these questions that are so dangerous to consider? That some divorced Catholics who sincerely want to be part of the life of the church should be allowed some participation in the sacraments; that a gay relationship should not be defined and condemned solely for its sexual nature – but can be appreciated for other virtues, such as mutual love and sacrifice; that doctrine should never be imposed without an option for mercy. These are not violations of the core teachings – that marriage is for life and must be always open to life; that non-procreative sex inside or outside marriage is always sinful – but attempts to acknowledge that human beings are involved here, and that exclusion and cruelty and contempt are not the only options for those following the teachings of Jesus.
But for Ross, it appears that mercy is an attack on inviolable truth, rather than its essential Christian complement. And it also appears that allowing the Vatican to reflect the actual debate going on among actual Catholics in our real lives is some kind of threat to the faith itself. Please. If your faith cannot admit of doubt, of debate, of conversation … then it is a white-knuckled faith in the religion of total certainty, rather than the calm faith of those who know we do not have all the answers to every pastoral question.
Ross seems to think, for example, that Francis is proposing an end to the idea that marriage should be monogamous and life-long. That’s just bizarre. What Francis is encouraging us to debate is not whether those whose marriages failed should be re-married in the church, but merely, depending on the circumstances, whether they can be allowed to participate in the full sacramental life of the church. What Francis is suggesting in another respect is that gay people’s real human lives and loves cannot be reduced to a psychological and moral “disorder.” You can see these suggestions as an attack on Jesus’ austere view that marriage is inherently life-long or it is nothing, if you really want. Or you can see this as a reflection of Jesus’ constant, persistent empathy with the sinner, love for the individual and mercy toward the flawed. I suspect most Catholics would instinctively see this as a function of the latter.
And Ross agrees that his is a minority view. Which explains a little of his rage.
For the first time in more than thirty years, the rigid traditionalists, who were always a minority of Catholics, had a Pope very much on their side. Their champion was Joseph Ratzinger who viewed even the Second Vatican Council as dangerously open to the currents of modernity and who, as John Paul’s doctrinal enforcer, ruined countless careers, and policed any error, and shut down any dissent to his understanding of orthodoxy. Many of us who disagreed did not throw a hissy fit, threaten schism, or call for open revolt. And we refused to do this even as our very identities were deemed inherently directed toward evil, as we were blamed for the violence sometimes directed against us, as we were blamed for the child abuse of pedophiles, as we had to endure the staggering hypocrisy and venality of a hierarchy that tolerated their peers’ rape of children but reserved their strongest condemnation for gay couples in committed relationships.
But we, it seems, are not the real Catholics. We are not the people who keep the church alive. We are somehow parasitical on the true believers. The real Catholics 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.
It’s an almost textbook case in which those who regard themselves as morally superior claim ownership of a church created … for sinners. There is a clear rebuke to that mindset:
So the last will be first and the first last, for the called are many and the chosen ones are few.
Let us leave such distinctions to God, shall we? And try to struggle together in a church which no faction owns and in which truth is always tempered with mercy and in which faith is always leavened with doubt.
(Photo: Pope Francis hugs a disabled man during a meeting with the UNITALSI, the Italian Union responsible for the transportation of sick people to Lourdes and the International Shrines in PaulVI hall, at the Vatican, on November 9, 2013. By Filippo Monteforte/AFP/Getty Images.)