Chaos In The Church

Pope Francis has been continuing his campaign of liberalization within the Roman Catholic Church. At the recent synod on the family, reform-minded bishops within the Church, many installed by Francis, proposed language that, while not changing doctrine, would have liberalized the Church's stance toward homosexuals and divorced people. The paragraphs that are getting all the press are these:

Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community: are we capable of welcoming these people, guaranteeing to them a fraternal space in our communities? Often they wish to encounter a Church that offers them a welcoming home. Are our communities capable of providing that, accepting and valuing their sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony?

The question of homosexuality leads to a serious reflection on how to elaborate realistic paths of affective growth and human and evangelical maturity integrating the sexual dimension: it appears therefore as an important educative challenge. The Church furthermore affirms that unions between people of the same sex cannot be considered on the same footing as matrimony between man and woman. Nor is it acceptable that pressure be brought to bear on pastors or that international bodies make financial aid dependent on the introduction of regulations inspired by gender ideology.

Without denying the moral problems connected to homosexual unions it has to be noted that there are cases in which mutual aid to the point of sacrifice constitutes a precious support in the life of the partners. Furthermore, the Church pays special attention to the children who live with couples of the same sex, emphasizing that the needs and rights of the little ones must always be given priority.

Reading between the lines, it is not hard to see what is happening. Francis is looking at a Church that is hemorrhaging members and respect at an alarming rate. Younger Christians mostly have no interest in demonizing homosexuals and do not see divorce as anything especially worthy of condemnation. It's just good politics to take a more welcoming stance. I can think that smoking is a disgusting habit without relentlessly condemning my friends and acquaintances who smoke. Likewise, argues Francis, for the Church and homosexuality.

But this has all proved too much for more right-leaning Catholics. Have a look at this lengthy post from Edward Feser, in which he frets that if the Church is not incessantly reiterating its contempt for homosexual conduct and its utter rejection of homosexual unions, the public will take this as a sign of acquiescence to modern liberal values. Ross Douthat makes a similar point. For them, it is simply a bridge too far to suggest that homosexuals might have something valuable to contribute to the Church.

I share some of their concern, though for entirely opposite reasons. Since I find very little to admire in Roman Catholicism, I rather liked the fact that Benedict was so adept at making the Church look dogmatic and ridiculous. My fear is that a politically skillful Pope might make the Church seem attractive again, in much the same way that a political stealth candidate can get elected by hiding his true views.

Among all of the commentary, however, this column, from Ross Douthat again, strikes me as one of the hardest to believe. To those outside the Church, notions like Papal authority, let alone Papal infallibility, are often seen as so absurd that they are enough all by themselves to reject any notion that the Church is in any way guided by God. Douthat tries to make this all seem reasonable. I apologize for the lengthy quote, but this needs to be read in full:

I am a Catholic for various contingent reasons (this is as true of converts as of anyone else), but on a conscious level it's 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. A point that Cardinal George Pell, recently of Sydney and now of the Roman curia, made in a talk this week — that the search for authority in Christianity began not with pre-emptive submission to an established hierarchy, but with early Christians who “wanted to know whether the teachings of their bishops and priests were in conformity with what Christ taught” — is crucial to my own understanding of the reasons to be Catholic: I believe in papal authority, the value of the papal office, because I think that office has played a demonstrable role in maintaining the faith's continuity, coherence and fidelity across two thousand years of human history. It's that role and that record, complicated and checkered as it is, that makes the doctrine of papal infallibility plausible to me, rather than the doctrine that controls my reading of the record, and indeed if you asked me to write a long defense of “infallibility” as a concept I'm sure I’d end up caveat-ing it a lot more heavily than some Catholics of fiercer orthodoxy: The language that I think the historical record supports is more like impressive continuity on the most important questions.

One of those important questions is the nature of marriage. Unlike a lot of the issues that religious people fight about these days, and unlike many hot-button issues where the Catholic Church takes a controversial stance, the question of marriage and divorce is very specifically addressed in the red-letter portion of the New Testament -- in the words of Jesus himself. His language is very strong: Divorce as permitted in the Mosaic law is dismissed as a concession to man’s hardness of heart, which under the new covenant is no longer permissible. Thus the line often adapted for the marriage service: “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” And thus the conclusion, which appears in all three synoptic gospels: Remarriage after divorce is adultery.

Now in Matthew there is a possible loophole -- an exception for cases of “sexual immorality” (depending on the translation) -- that is often cited by those churches that have allowed divorce. But the present Catholic understanding, that the Matthean exception either referred to premarital behavior that would make the marriage invalid or else licensed separation but not remarriage, has the strongest claim to being the view of the early church. (The hunt for significant exceptions to that view, which has occupied some Francis-era Catholics, looks mostly like a wild goose chase or an attempt to marshal exceptions to an obvious rule.) Indeed, it was precisely this emphasis on marriage's indissolubility (and that principle's implications for gender equality, among other issues) that made one of Christianity's most striking cultural contrasts with the sexual culture of late antiquity. And it’s the view and emphasis that Roman Catholicism has maintained ever since, through varying eras and debates: Not always for pure or pristine or uncomplicated reasons (I am quite aware, though of course I'm also grateful to readers for pointing out, that politics entered into the debate over Henry VIII’s marriage, as indeed it has entered into many theological controversies in church history), but in a way that shows a remarkable degree of continuity, to the point of martyrdom, on a difficult and never-uncontroversial point. Whereas the churches that have separated from Rome — first the Orthodox, then the Protestants — have tended (with all ecumenical respect intended) to pass from making a narrow exception for adultery to making more general exceptions, until the teaching can seem to be almost effaced altogether.

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. And that sustained integrity on such an important and controversial question is itself also evidence on behalf of Catholicism’s claims on other issues -- reasons to at least respect the church’s teaching, even if you dissent from or don't live up to it, in cases where the historical record is murkier, or the extrapolation from the gospels a little bit less clear.

Douthat's a smart guy, but this all strikes me as so preposterous that it is difficult to take seriously.

In pondering whether the Roman Catholic Church is uniquely guided by God, I would note first that, when they were powerful, they were utterly ruthless in enforcing their will. They were the sole arbiters of acceptable thought and acceptable teaching, and seemed to have no moral qualms at all about using violence and torture to suppress opposing views. Scientific investigation was acceptable only to the extent that it served the ends of the Church. When the scientific evidence turned against them, as it did in the cases of Galileo and Darwin, they did what they could to suppress and reject the evidence. (They were able to do quite a lot in the case of Galileo, but had already lost much of their power by the time Darwin came along.) Contrary to Douthat's rosy view of the Church's steadfastness with regard to doctrine, the reality was that the utter corruption of the Church, most notably with regard to the sale of indulgences, was precisely why the Protestant Reformation was necessary. Nor do we have to look to the distant past to find evidence of their perfidy, as their horrible response to the child sex abuse scandal makes clear.

Moreover, so much of Catholic morality, especially with regard to sexuality, is so foolish and misguided that, when followed strictly, it greatly increases the sum total of human misery. It is hard to stomach Douthat touting the Church's strict stance on the indissolubility of marriage as a blow for gender equality. In practice, the primary effect of draconian divorce laws has been to repress and subjugate women. Likewise for their strict stance denying basic civil rights to gay couples. There is no rational justification for such a stance, and its effect in practice is to immiserate large numbers of people who have done nothing to deserve such hostility.

I look at all of that and think nothing could be more obvious than that the Church is in no way guided by a just and loving God. It is a standard-issue political organization, primarily concerned with power.

Yet somehow Douthat is able to ignore all that, point to its steadfast commitment to horrible moral principles, and use that as justification for notions of Papal infallibility. I don't get it.

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Jason, the reason you "don't get it" is that you believe Douthat is a "smart guy". A "smart guy" would understand what you understand about the church.

I disagree right here:

Pope Francis has been continuing his campaign of liberalization within the Roman Catholic Church.

IMO, he hasn't done any more than make statements, but statements that seem to be window dressing rather than aimed at attempting to begin any big change. The "old" stance of the church concerning gay men and women was, essentially, what they are doing is wrong, we need to tell them that, and then tell them that they can find a welcome place and guidance in the church.
The "new" stance seems to be: Tell them we will welcome them into the church, then we'll explain to them why what they're doing is wrong.
The stance regarding women is still, essentially, that they are valued in the church as long as they agree to be baby factories and regurgitate the usual lines, but they shouldn't think they have the right to make any substantial critiques of the actions or teachings.
I see nothing but smoke from this man, nothing of substance. (I do realize that he cannot simply decree things will be different, that is not the basis for my views. I see nothing that indicates he is actually working to convince others that his statements should be seriously considered.)

I would note first that, when they were powerful, they were utterly ruthless in enforcing their will.

I disagree...with the past tense of that sentence.

Where the RCC has power, they still use it to enforce doctrine. They have not accepted enlightenment values of freedom of expression or freedom to live the way you want at all - it merely looks like they have because in most places they do not have the power to fight against it. But whenever they gain the political power to roll back the enlightenment, they do so.

A prime example 1: the Indian RCC tries to get a skeptic thrown in jail for pointing out that a weeping statue as a mundane explanation.

There are also many other 'negative' examples (where the church doesn't do something to support enlightenment values). There are many RCC officials in Africa that come out with statements and policies about AIDS and ebola that are just plain wrong and frankly dangerous - yet Rome does not correct them. It passively allows such things to occur. That is not the action of an organization that puts health policy and truth over organizational power, it's the actions of an organization that does the reverse.

For them, it is simply a bridge too far to suggest that homosexuals might have something valuable to contribute to the Church.

Which seems completely inconsistent with standard Christian theology. The stanadrd line goes that we are all sinners; being a sinner does not prevent someone from belonging to a church or contributing to the faith. It couldn't, or there would be no members. So even accepting the church's notion that gay acts are sinful (for sake of argument), I don't see any theological justification for excluding them from the community.

Looks like personal animus to me. Rather than there being some theological reason to reject gays, religious people who have the “ick factor” use their own personal feelings to treat gays unlike other sinners. Conservatives don't like gays, so they've invented a form of double secret sin probation to get rid of them.

The rigidity of the RCC is at the heart of its reason for existence. As Douthat points out, the big J does indeed say that man and woman were created together and therefore they should be married, and not allowed to divorce. If you follow the letter of the book, you arrive at the conclusion he reaches. From that point of view, the protestants, orthodox, and all the other schismatics are merely following bits and pieces. All you have to do, to reach agreement with him, is accept that the word of the bible is the word of god. For me, that's an insurmountable obstacle; but I can see that if I believed it, I would end up with his conclusion. The bible is homophobic and misogynistic, and it should be viewed as irrelevant. But for the Church, it's everything.

I basically agree with your reading of the situation. The Church is not about to say homosexuality or remarriage-after-divorce is okay, but may change its tone.

A precedent for this would be the treatment of other religions. The RCC now has a fairly positive view of other religions. Instead of saying "they are wrong and evil", they more suggest that "they are not quite as good as we are".

I should say though, that there seems to be an even more liberal faction among the bishops. (Which has surprised me. ) Some bishops really seem to want to change the doctrine regarding homosexuality, not just the tone. An American bishop wrote an essay for example ( which praises homosexual parents and whose extent of condemnation of homosexual unions is that the church is not likely to recognize it as sacramental.


As Douthat points out, the big J does indeed say that man and woman were created together and therefore they should be married, and not allowed to divorce.

No, what Jesus says is that everyone should be celibate, but that most people can't handle that and the ones who can't live up to celibacy should get married rather than sleep around.

Matthew 19:10-12 is pretty clear. If you can accept celibacy, you should. The message is a bit confused because the "if you can't accept it, get married" exception is actually mentioned first, in verses 4-9. Nevertheless, Matt 19 taken as a whole is not Christ telling people marriage is a good thing. Its Christ telling people that celibacy is the ideal behavior, but the nonideal choice of marriage is at least better than the nonideal choice of sleeping around.

Moral of the story: never take as a given that Douthat is right. :)

Of course one has to take everything Jesus says with a grain of salt - being an apocalyptic - he actually predicted he would return within the generation. No use reproducing if the end times are at hand - boy did he get that wrong.

By Michael Fugate (not verified) on 30 Oct 2014 #permalink

When Douthat refers to the "red letter" text on divorce, he doesn't seem to understand that he is overlaying his image of marriage onto a different culture and the same is true of divorce. In addition, when there are no grounds for divorce, there is no definition of success in marriage. The RC Church's concept of annulment doesn't substitute since it is based on the notion that there are ways that a marriage could never have been rather than that it has failed.

By Don A in Penns… (not verified) on 31 Oct 2014 #permalink

Douthat's opinion that the RCC has been consistent in its stance on marriage is wrong, because the very early church (pre-RCC) had any number of viewpoints that were suppressed as the Roman Church claimed sole scriptural authority and rewrote the scriptures to support Roman views. Citing literature that you wrote as divine guidance is the same sham authority as exists in some of the more recent religions.

Has anyone caught the patronizing tone of the first sentence?
'Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community: are we capable of welcoming these people, guaranteeing to them a fraternal space in our communities?'

Let me translate: 'Faggots are very creative people who have made great contributions to the arts most especially in fashion.'

I have always thought that Christian history is a performative refutation of the Christian belief system. It is the only religion that god will indwell yo when you become a believer and change you (sanctification) into a Christ-like person. The history of the church and Christianity provides no evidence for this.

Wow. To me, the most fascinating part of this is that he cares only about whether the church has maintained the same stance as it did 1,800 years ago; but he never seems to consider the question whether the stance the church adopted 1,800 years ago is reasonable and moral.


"It is the only religion that god will indwell yo when you become a believer and change you (sanctification) into a Christ-like person."

Sanctification is being made holy. The change is not necessarily exhibited by subsequent behavior.

Sanctification is being made holy. The change is not necessarily exhibited by subsequent behavior.

so believing a god makes no difference? I thought not.

By Michael Fugate (not verified) on 02 Nov 2014 #permalink

Michael, in orthodox Christian doctrine, there are several things that fall under the umbrella of soteriology (salvation). All of them are activated by belief/faith/trust.

The point I was making was in regards to the "change you" part of Pedr's statement. Sanctification is two things. In regards to salvation, it is being the recipient of imputed perfection. We call that positional sanctification. The other part is an ongoing process of adjustment to divine viewpoint.