Quick Hitter--When You Are Right, You're Right

1.  When two people of completely different ideological orientations and convictions come to the same conclusion on something within their shared space, it is worth taking that conclusion seriously.  Such was the case yesterday, when we saw articles form Ross Douthat (the mainstream-media endorsed voice for conservative Catholicism) and James Carroll (author of Constantine's Sword and vocal critic of the Catholic Church from the progressive end) offer essentially the same analysis of Amoris Laetitia.

The analysis goes something like this.  In the aftermath of Vatican II, Catholicism developed a kind of "two track" method of operation.  On one level there was the "official" message of Catholicism, which (particularly with regard to anything dealing with sex) held tightly to essentially the same positions that controlled prior to the Council.  On the "ground," however, many priests were covertly (or, especially in the beginning, overtly) providing individualized guidance to people that was in conflict with the official guidance from Rome.  Thus, the rule was that artificial contraception was always sinful, but many priests were telling people in the pews not to worry about it; people who had divorced and remarried without an annulment were officially prohibited from going to Communion, but they often just went up and received, often with at least the tacit approval of their priest, etc.

From where I sit, this is an accurate description of the state of play in Catholicism from, say 1969 to 2013.  I would point out something glossed over by Douthat and unspoken by Carroll, which is that official Rome spent 35 years engaged in what was, in essence, a counter-insurgency campaign against the on the ground compromise.  It is true that this campaign was at best marginally successful, and it is equally true that support for this campaign among some priests, and even some bishops, was half-hearted at best.  But, nevertheless, the campaign was real, and it needs to be acknowledged as part of the story.  I spent most of Friday evening on my long drive listening to EWTN radio, and host after host expressed confusion and shock at the source of Pope Francis's harsh assessment of the way that the Church has handled these issue in the past.  What Pope Francis was referring to, I think, is the 35 year counter-insurgency campaign waged under the direction of Popes John Paul II and Benedict.  Counter-insurgency campaigns are brutal things, and they leave victims in their wake.  That's what Pope Francis is talking about.

Be that as it may, both Carroll and Douthat see Amoris Laetitia as Pope Francis endorsing the pre-counter insurgency status quo.  The official position will still exist, but the officially approved implementation of that official position is in essence the on the ground norms that developed on an ad hoc basis.  In doing so, as Douthat accurately identifies, Pope Francis is creating a mechanism in which those who want to take the ball and run with it can create "facts on the ground," which could shift the center of gravity over time.

It also, in an important way, moves the ball back into the conservatives' court.  Nothing in Amoris Laetitia mandates anyone to do anything.  A conservative priest or bishop or lay person is free to hold as tightly as he or she wants to the old line formulas.  But he or she will have to acknowledge that other people are going to take this baton and carry it forward, and that they are doing so with the blessing of the Vatican.  In other words, is "we do our thing, you do your thing" going to be acceptable to the conservatives?  Or are they going to insist on a uniformity in line with their vision of the world?

One gets the sense that Douthat thinks that "live and let live" will not be an acceptable compromise for conservatives, nor an acceptable compromise from his point of view.  But, ultimately, that's their call.  By making this move, Pope Francis has, in a way, boxed the conservatives out.  If the Amoris Laetitia approach sticks after Francis (a significant if), there still may be a split.  But the split is now much more likely to involve the conservatives leaving that the more progressive forces walking away.

2.  On Twitter, Douthat also advanced his "Marxist" analysis of Catholic progressives.  Their argument, in Douthat's eyes, boils down to an invocation of the iron laws of cultural history, that the Catholic Church must reconcile itself to or face being marginalized and swept away.  Many on Twitter took that to be a calumny against progressive Catholics.  I, on the other hand, think he is basically right, though not for the reasons he thinks.

Douthat sees this reference to the "culture" as a capitulation to fundamentally anti-Christian secular forces.  And here is where the core disagreement between progressives and conservatives lies.  At least from my perspective, I do not favor a reconsideration of some of the positions of the Catholic Church along the lines embraced by the broader culture because of some privileged place for culture qua culture, nor because of instrumental or tactical reasons that are often grouped under the heading of "relevance" (though, those are issues worth seriously thinking through).  No, I think we need to reconsider those issues because I believe the culture has grappled with a set of truths about the human person in a better and more productive way that the Church has to this point.  It's not about capitulating to culture, but about looking for truth where it can be found.  And where ever the truth can be found, there also can God be found.

Douthat and the other conservatives have drawn a line in the sand and refuse to countenance the notion that the culture may be right and the Church may be wrong, about anything but especially about sex.  The failure to look seriously at the evidence, and to instead retreat into slogans (i.e. "The Sexual Revolution"), runs the risk of turning Catholicism into a repeat of Second Temple Judaism, as James Alison memorably put it.  If Catholicism goes down that road, it will have lost something essential about itself.  It will be a faith that no longer takes seriously the truth, and exists only in a kind of virtual reality simulacra of the world, where its truth claims will never be disturbed.  Insofar as that denuded version of the Catholic Church comes to pass, I do have serious doubts as to its survivability in the current form.

So, yes, at least the position of this progressive Catholic is that change and reform are necessary, and that this reform needs to be in reference to some of the trends in the broader culture.  Not because the culture is always right, but because the culture is not always wrong, and we must embrace it where it has something to say that we are not seeing.


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