Quick Hitter--Last Word, I Promise, on Amoris Laetitia

Over at The Week, Damon Linker has written a thoughtful and heart-felt reflection on his own evolution away from a more conservative vision of Catholicism.  All I can say is that his experience is almost perfectly aligned with mine in this area--where once I saw the Politics of Certainty as the primary attraction of Catholicism, now I see it as the primary problem.  As Linker says so beautifully:

The Catholic conservative doesn't want to live spiritually within a debating society or an ongoing, open-ended conversation. He wants matters to be definitive — done, settled, fixed for all time. Even if, considered objectively, the teachings of another authoritative Christian tradition in one area of doctrine appear more humane and less prone to alienating millions of parishioners. Because that's just not the way Catholics do it. We had that debate. It's over. End of discussion.

I once wanted that, too — the Catholic Church serving as the final, infallible guardian and guarantor of timeless, immutable Truth — though I never really believed it. Now I don't even want to believe it. (I have no wish to be taken in by a lie, no matter how beautiful.)

"I have no wish to be taken in by a lie, no matter how beautiful."  Amen.

One of the things that struck me about some of the twitter chatter between Douthat and Linker in the aftermath of this piece was how Hobbesian Douthat's vision of Christian life is.  If you read further in the piece cited by Linker, Douthat essentially makes the argument that if you are willing to question the framework regarding second marriages, it inevitably follows that you will have widespread questioning of, to use Douthat's example, the Trinity.  In other words, absent the iron rod of doctrinal clarity and enforcement provided by the Magisterium, there is no possibility that we can have any sort of unity about anything, and we will immediately spiral into a theological War of All Against All.  The Church, in this sense, functions as Hobbes's Leviathan--only it can prevent the inherent wickedness and factionalism of its members from devolving everything into chaos, and thus is justified in taking any action, no matter how stern, to prevent this reality.

Two things strike me about this vision.  First, it seems to grant to the Church a power it doesn't really have.  Ultimately, all the Church can do is persuade and suggest; it can't make anyone believe anything, and it never has been able to do so.  Insofar as people thought about these issues, there have always been people sitting in the pews who were Arians and Deists and all sorts of other theological dissenters (whether they were aware of their dissension from the official position or not).  This gets back to something I said in my series on the Creed--no matter how explicit and fined-grained you get in your official articulation of doctrine, there is an irreducibly idiosyncratic element of faith.  If you could see into the minds and hearts of the people who faithfully attend Mass every Sunday, you would see precisely the same heterodoxy that Douthat warns us about.  No amount of application of the iron rod is going to change that.

Second, this vision is grounded in a deeply pessimistic theological anthropology.  It seems to suggest that people are going to inevitably come to the wrong answers about theological questions unless they turn over their discernment to the power of the Magisterium.  It begins to look a lot like the Total Depravity understanding of Calvinism.  In fact, so much so that I think it is fair to consider whether this view is a manifestation of a renewed Jansenism, the Calvinist-inspired movement within Catholicism in the 17th and 18th Century.  Or, perhaps, a Jansenism that never really left us.  Interestingly, Douthat last week referenced on Twitter a book by Leszek Kolakowski called God Owes Us Nothing, which, in Douthat's words "argues that the Jansenists were right re: tradition but had to lose for Christianity to survive."  I have not read the book so I can't really comment on the thesis (I just ordered it, impulsively, from Amazon), but Douthat's retweeting seems to suggest a certain wistful fondness for the Jansenist project.

If the angst of the more traditionalist Catholics is indeed an outbreak of neo-Jansenism, then it is not surprising that a Jesuit pope would push their buttons, as the Jesuits were the great foil for the Jansenists historically.  As James Martin points out, Ignatian spirituality begins with a fundamental belief in the individual, Spirit-led encounter.  In fact, that's the whole point of the Spiritual Exercises, to try to facilitate that individual encounter, and to learn to trust in the experiences and feelings that come from that interaction.  That's fundamental to a Jesuit vision, and completely antithetical to the quasi-Calvinist vision of the Jansenists.  It stands to reason, then, that people like R.R. Reno in First Things turn their criticism of Amoris Laetitia into an anti-Jesuit screed.  If you don't have faith that people can exercise conscience and discernment responsibly and in good faith to get more or less the right answers, then all of Pope Francis's words are dangerous nonsense.


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