Two Points re: Douthat and Martin

I've talked before about Ross Douthat's recent comments about the Synod on the Family.  Recently, he and James Martin, S.J., had what I thought was a very thoughtful and interesting exchange that was reproduced in America Magazine (hat tip to Fr. Justin for sending it my way).  It is very much worth reading.  A couple of things struck me in reading this exchange--threads running through the conversation that are unspoken, but informing what is being said.

The first involves the idea that the Catholic Church holds marriage to be inviolable.  Certainly, that is the official position--marriage is for life and cannot be dissolved--and the need to protect that principle is at the heart of Douthat's objections to the Synod.  On the other hand, everyone understands that there is a way for one to "get out from underneath" a first marriage and enter into a second one with the full blessing of the Church, and that way is an annulment.  Now, I understand that an annulment technically means that the first marriage never existed in the first place, and if you hold on very tightly to this idea then there is no conflict between the theory and the practice.  But I think most people see the Catholic Church's official position on marriage (one marriage, never can be broken) to be in tension with the practice of Catholic life (one marriage, but you can break it if you go through a rather convoluted legal process).

I don't want to put words in Father Martin's mouth, but if you think that the Catholic Church has already moved off the absolute position that marriage is indissoluble, at least in a de facto sense, via the annulment process, then it is hard to get particularly excited about any of the proposed changes. It's not about big picture theological questions, as Douthat would assert, but about process.  The stakes become very low.

In other words, this argument about the divorced being allowed to take Communion is not really about divorce, but about annulments.  If the distinction between a divorce and an annulment represents some real, meaningful theological principle, then Douthat's position makes perfect sense.  If you think, as I do and I suspect Martin might, that the distinction is really more about being able to hold on formally to the idea of indissoluble marriage (if for nothing else than to justify allowing England to become Protestant) while practically moving off that position, then Douthat's objections seem silly and overly fussy.

The other thread running through this discussion is Vatican II.  In the course of discussing the pre-Vatican II church, Douthat says:

The ritualistic spirit of Eat meat on Friday, go straight to hell, do not pass go, the God-as-accountant image inherent in say these seventeen different prayers to thirteen different saints and receive in return exactly 4,544 days off Purgatory, the culture of shame and silence around sexuality, the punitive visions of hell immortalized by James Joyce, the pomp and circumstance embraced by princes of the church…these are stereotypes, of course, of a richer and more complicated reality, but they are grounded in real aspects of the pre-1960s church, which were in need of correction and reform.  (emphasis mine).

This is an amazing concession for someone who claims to be a traditionalist.  The sacrament/Purgatory economy that Douthat dismisses out of hand was a central component of the theology of the pre-Vatican II Church.  Moreover, it was precisely this sacramental economy that was at the heart of the dispute between Catholics and Protestants.  Diarmaid MacCulloch in his book The Reformation argues that it was one of the two core objections (along with the powers of the Papacy) of the Reformers.  The Council of Trent doubled-down on this sacramental economy.  If Douthat is correct (and I believe he is) that Vatican II represents a tacit rejection of this economy, what exactly were we fighting about for the last 500 years?

The core problem that Douthat, and other traditionalists, has in being a traditionalist is Vatican II itself.  By the standards of Post-Tridentine theology, Vatican II is affirmatively heretical.  The idea that other religions have some measure of truth, or modern Jews are not responsible for the death of Jesus (see Nostra Aetate), or the idea that the Mass does not represent a literal reenactment of the sacrifice on Calvary, or that "100 days in Purgatory" is not a meaningful expression, is impossible to square with the Council of Trent and what came after.  Basically, the anti-Vatican II folks, like the SSPX, are right in rejecting the idea that one can see pre- and post-Vatican II Catholicism as a continuity.  On the other hand, as Douthat recognizes, most of the big picture changes made by Vatican II are sensible, reasonable, and popular.  Douthat embraces the changes of Vatican II because "100 days in Purgatory" is a silly concept, and Douthat knows that.

That's fine, but it makes it hard to defend the idea that the "Tradition" is a fixed star that must be protected at all costs.  Said another way, admitting that Vatican II was a radical break from the past would destroy the politics of certainty.  The solution to the problem during the John Paul and Benedict years was the Pope, or rather the much discussed Magisterium.  Vatican II is in continuity with all the stuff that was really important with the past, so long as you interpret Vatican II in the particular manner I say.  Why should you interpret it that way?  Because I say so, and I am the Pope.  This argument from authority reassured the traditionally-minded, but it really only papered over the problem.

But, now, here comes Francis, with a very different take on what Vatican II means.  The problem is not so much what Francis is actually advocating for; the problem is that the notion that there can be  different takes on Vatican II brings back into focus how radical Vatican II actually was, and how uncertain things are in light of Vatican II.  Imagine that Pope Francis calls a full ecumenical council tomorrow, and in that ecumenical council, the fathers declare that women can be ordained as priests.  Obviously, that would be incredibly shocking and radical.  But, would it be more radical than throwing 1600 years of theology regarding Jews and Judaism over the side?  Would be it more radical than more or less unilaterally surrendering on many of the disputed points regarding the Mass that split Western Christianity in half and led to 500 years of conflict?   You can make a strong case that the answer is no.  Short of re-writing the Creed, there isn't much that would move the needle as compared to Vatican II.

All of this is a problem for Douthat, but it is equally a problem for folks like Martin.  With Martin, you end up with formulations like:

Surely the church must always move between tradition and progression, between, to use some Vatican II language, ressourcement (returning to the original sources) and aggorniamento (updating). It’s a healthy tension between trusting that the Holy Spirit has guided us in the past, and therefore tradition is holy; and trusting that the Holy Spirit will guide us in the future, and therefore that change can be holy too.

That's fine, and I agree with that in theory.  But how is that supposed to work?  And what do you do if you think that Church leaders are not, in fact, listening to the Holy Spirit?  Martin's method implies a measure of passivity--I guess us sheep in the pews are supposed to wait and see what winds are going to blow the hierarchy, and in what direction.  That doesn't seem to square with that other radical, and all but forgotten, idea from from Vatican II that the Church is really the People of God as a collective, and not just the visible, institutional hierarchy.

My point with all of this is that the lid that was placed on top of Vatican II for the last 30 years is coming off, and everyone is going to have to reckon with that--"progressives" and "traditionalists" alike.


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