A Matter of Honesty, Part III--Why Is Ross So Mad?

As they say, sometimes you go to the mountain, and sometimes the mount comes to you.  Witness Sunday's column by Ross Douthat on his bete noir, Pope Francis.  Douthat evidently is working on a book on how Pope Francis is destroying Catholicism and maybe Western civilization as well, so perhaps this column is some sort of trial balloon for that project.  I love this column, because it is a perfect encapsulation of many of the sources of dishonesty that I want to talk about in this series, all in a nice package.

There are several things I want to hit on in Douthat's column (probably requiring a couple of posts), but I want to start in this post with the question that I am sure New York Times readers who don't follow the ins and outs of Catholic politics are asking themselves---what is Ross's deal?  Why is he so mad at Pope Francis?  Here is my theory--Douthat is singularly focused on Pope Francis because Pope Francis has exposed that conservative Catholics of the Pope John Paul II/Benedict XVI stripe (i.e., not the "traditionalist" community) like Douthat don't have a coherent understanding of Vatican II.  They say they support Vatican II and what it did and said, but they have no way to resolve the theological problems inherent in their position.  As a result, they have relied for almost 50 years on two ad hoc band-aids to cover over the theological wounds--band-aids that Pope Francis is ripping off, or at least threatening to rip-off.  Hence, Douthat's freak out.  

Before getting to Douthat and the JP II contingent, let's start with what I believe to be the most coherent and comprehensive vision of what Vatican II was and means, the one provided by the great Swiss theologian Hans Kung.  He has written about the topic is several places, but the one I read was found in his 2013 book Can We Save the Catholic Church? (an excerpt can be found here) (see also Bill Lindsey's series on the book beginning here).  In that book, Kung argues that Vatican II represents a unilateral disarmament in the 500 year theological, political, and (in the early phases) actual shooting war between the Catholic Church and its allies and the various Protestant entities.  As part of that war, both sides dug their trenches and settled into a long and mostly pointless siege, with a corresponding set of entrenched positions, talking points, and polemics.  For Kung, Vatican II was the Catholic Church's attempt to end this war by unilaterally giving up many of the key positions that formed the basis of resistance to the Protestant movement--mandatory Latin in the Liturgy, a rejection of religious freedom, complete resistance to any sort of devolution of ecclesiastical authority, total rejection of any of the insights of the Reformers, etc.  By unilaterally disarming, Vatican II opened the door to a real and substantive dialogue of equals that could be directed toward bringing Christianity back together.  It was both a gesture of good faith and the beginning of substantive compromise.

As part and parcel with this vision, Kung recognizes that Vatican II represents an affirmative repudiation of some of the positions taken by the Catholic Church prior to Vatican II.  Moreover, not only is Vatican II in conflict with previous Church positions, but that's basically the goal (if perhaps unsaid) of the Council in the first place--to clear out the fossilized and encrusted remnants of the Counter-Reformation (as well as some of the pre-Reformation detritus) in order for a new synthesis to be forged.  Seen through this lens, the criticism levied by the SSPX, as well as folks like Douthat, that Vatican II can be seen as a "Protestantization" of the Church is entirely true and precisely the point.  We will move toward them, the Protestants will come toward us (or, at least, some of them will come toward us) and we will meet in the middle.

Kung's reading of Vatican II has enormous explanatory power.
In particular, it allows one to understand why Vatican II was perceived at the time to be a radical change in the Catholic Church--for Kung, it was perceived to be a radical change because it was a radical change.  In addition, one does not need to struggle in this vision over the contradictions between, say, Nostra Aetate and the previous anti-Semitic positions of the Church, other than to accept that the old positions were wrong and the new ones' correct.  We also shouldn't worry about attempting to reconcile statements of Vatican II with claims of Papal authority--Vatican II was supposed to be the first salvo in tearing down the notion of Papal authority, at least at it had previously been understood.  Finally, you have a very clear post-Council narrative--the promise of a new day derailed by the Thermidorian reaction of Humanae Vitae and the Napoleonic counter-revolution of Pope John Paul II and Ratzinger/Benedict XVI.  Indeed, Kung argues that more or less everything that has happened post-1978 has been a step backward, a return to the trench warfare of previous generations that Vatican II tried so hard to end.

We should also take note of another internally cohesive narrative of Vatican II, and that is the one provided by the anti-Vatican II traditionalist community.  In essence, the traditionalists agree with Kung's factual description of what Vatican II was trying to do--an attempt to overthrow much of theological edifice of the Counter-Reformation in favor of a newer and different vision of Catholicism.  The difference, of course, is that the traditionalists view all of this as manifest heresy, a departure from the True Faith as expressed in its pre-Vatican II form.  As a result, everything Vatican II stands for is bad and must be rejected in toto.  What is important here is that both Kung and the traditionalists understand that Vatican II represents a theological discontinuity from what came before in several important respects.  Not in every respect, but in several respects, and in a way that creates a theological problem for a Church that claims to be passing down its teachings unchanged from the Apostles.  Kung embraces this problem as a wedge to pry open the theology of the Church's past, while the traditionalists view the problem as a sign that the Council must be rejected, but they both agree on the nature of the problem.

Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict and Ross Douthat are faced with this same problem--how do you reconcile the changes at Vatican II with the idea that the Church is constant and unchanging?  The solution they came up was to say that the problem is not really a problem at all.  Vatican II must be seen through the lens of a "hermaneutic of continuity," you see--whatever Vatican II did change, those changes are not substantive changes that limit or constrain the claim that the Church is passing on doctrine in a pristine way.  Hence, Vatican II has a fundamental continuity with what came before.  The problem, of course, is that Vatican II made a lot of changes, particularly in the areas that actually impacted the lives of regular Catholics--especially the Liturgy and the way the Church interacted with non-Catholics.  In order for the hermaneutic of continuity line to work, folks like Douthat have to hold on to some touchstones of continuity, which they can point to as the "really important" things about Catholicism that have not changed.  After all, the old touchstones--the Mass is in Latin and the Protestants and Jews are always wrong--are no longer available post-Vatican II.

In the immediate post-Vatican II period, conservative Catholics found two such touchstones.  The first was an ultramontanist vision of the Papacy.  We don't have to worry about some of the problematic passages in the Vatican II documents that suggest radical changes, because the Pope is the definitive interpreter of the Vatican II documents (and everything else).  Since the Pope says there is no conflict between Vatican II and the underlying theology of the Church, then there is no conflict, Q.E.D.  This vision also has the advantage of explaining away much of the strum und drang in the immediate post-Council period under the heading of the old Russian proverb "good tsar, bad boyars"--the Pope has kept the clear line of doctrinal purity, but the bishops and priests in the hinterlands have muddied the waters with their embrace of the crypto-heretical "spirit of Vatican II."  As annoying as the bad boyars can be from a conservative perspective, they are not a core problem because, again, the Pope is what really matters because the Pope ensures the doctrinal coherence of the Church.

The second touchstone is an unchanging line on sexual morality.  The arguments goes something like this: "we may be changing our previously unchangeable positions on the Liturgy, or Judaism, or other faiths, or a host of other issues, but so long as we continue to say that abortion and birth control and gay sex and second marriages are morally wrong, then we are in a fundamental continuity with the past."  Like many things, this train gets started at Humanae Vitae and continues through pro-life advocacy and into the current anti-same sex marriage crusade and the fight over remarriages.  And, because Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict were consistently banging the drum for the conservative line on sexuality, the two touchstones were mutually reinforcing.  The Pope says Vatican II is in continuity with the past, the Church is in fact in continuity with the past with regard to "pelvic issues," and the Pope is pushing the hard line on the pelvic issues, demonstrating that the Pope is the guarantor of the true interpretation of Vatican II and the continuity of the Church generally.  So long as the Pope was keeping the hard line on the sex issues, the two touchstones mutually reinforce the seawall keeping the tide of Vatican II at bay.

Now, I am of the view that the Catholic Church's focus on sex (at least officially) for the last 50 years has been more or less catastrophic as a practical matter and wholly unsupportable as a theological matter  [Ed: Fr. Tobias Haller has an excellent piece along those lines].  The ultramontanist vision of the Papacy is also problematic historically and practically.  But, putting the merits aside, the key thing about this set up is that it is fundamentally very fragile.  It only works so long as the Pope publicly advocates a high view of the Papacy and keeps banging the drum about the Sexual Revolution.  If you lose one or both of those touchstones, the whole thing collapses, and you are back to dealing with the fundamental discontinuity of Vatican II and the theological problems it creates.

Which brings us to Pope Francis.  While himself a conservative on sexual issues generally, Pope Francis (as Douthat intuits) seems to believe that the absolute rule that second marriages are adulterous needs to be nuanced.  That seems like a small thing, and it is a small thing.  But conservative Catholics have in effect staked their entire theology on the notion that no change, no matter how small, can be made to the sexual morality of the Church.  The moment you open the door on the sex questions a little bit, you are not only opening a space to question other bits of sexual morality, but also the more fundamental questions about the nature of the Church and its history that are raised by people like Kung.  So, Douthat is right that Pope Francis is threatening the entire foundation of his understanding of the faith (and that of similarly situated conservative but non-traditionalist Catholics) with his tentative moves in Amoris Laetitia.  Everything rests on holding the line on sex without any deviation.

Moreover, Pope Francis shakes the faith of people like Douthat in the Pope as the guarantor of  doctrinal certainty.  The long pontificate of John Paul II and the more abbreviated sequel of Benedict allowed conservative Catholics to convince themselves that the mutually reinforcing status quo of the Pope and the hard line on sex issues would be a permanent feature of the Catholic landscape.  That's gone now.  Even if, as Douthat suggests, the next Pope winds back the clock on Francis's moves, conservative Catholics will never able to be certain that the pendulum won't swing again some time in the future.  Part of the "hermaneutic of continuity" line was the idea that there was only one authentic way to understand Vatican II (i.e., John Paul II and Benedict's way) and every other way was illegitimate or disingenuous.  Pope Francis, at a minimum, has introduced the idea that there are at least two different ways to understand what Vatican II means, shattering the illusion that his predecessors works so hard to craft.  It would require true Orwellian doublethink for folks like Douthat to be able to go back to the status quo 2012, even if the next Pope is more congenial to their way of thinking.

At the end of the day, though, the conservative consensus on Vatican II forged by John Paul II and Benedict was incoherent.  Vatican II was a significant, even radical, change in the life and beliefs of the Catholic Church.  Maybe if the John Paul II/Benedict line was able to hold on until well after everyone who remembered the pre-Vatican II Church was dead, it could have managed to entrench itself so deeply that it would have crowded out its own inconsistencies.  But that obviously didn't happen, and so now the Church is forced to go back to look in a serious way at the choices offered both by Kung and by the traditionalists for understanding Vatican II.  The Emperor that was the JPII Catholic Church has been shown to have no clothes.  And the stripping away of those clothes is what Ross Douthat is so mad.


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