Over the Precipice

Two years ago, Ross Douthat wrote this:

TO grasp why events this month in Rome — publicly feuding cardinals, documents floated and then disavowed — were so remarkable in the context of modern Catholic history, it helps to understand certain practical aspects of the doctrine of papal infallibility.

On paper, that doctrine seems to grant extraordinary power to the pope — since he cannot err, the First Vatican Council declared in 1870, when he “defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church.”

In practice, though, it places profound effective limits on his power.

Those limits are set, in part, by normal human modesty: “I am only infallible if I speak infallibly, but I shall never do that,” John XXIII is reported to have said. But they’re also set by the binding power of existing teaching, which a pope cannot reverse or contradict without proving his own office, well, fallible — effectively dynamiting the very claim to authority on which his decisions rest.

Not surprisingly, then, popes are usually quite careful. On the two modern occasions when a pontiff defined a doctrine of the faith, it was on a subject — the holiness of the Virgin Mary — that few devout Catholics consider controversial. In the last era of major church reform, the Second Vatican Council, the popes were not the intellectual protagonists, and the council’s debates — while vigorous — were steered toward a (pope-approved) consensus: The documents that seemed most like developments in doctrine, on religious liberty and Judaism, passed with less than a hundred dissenting votes out of more than 2,300 cast.

But something very different is happening under Pope Francis. In his public words and gestures, through the men he’s elevated and the debates he’s encouraged, this pope has repeatedly signaled a desire to rethink issues where Catholic teaching is in clear tension with Western social life — sex and marriage, divorce and homosexuality.

As I will show later in this post, there is a closer relationship than Douthat seems to realize between what “is happening under Pope Francis” and the mentioned documents on religious liberty and Judaism, but he is also right, in another way, that it remains “something very different.”

Later in the article, Douthat continues:

And on communion for the remarried, the stakes are not debatable at all. The Catholic Church was willing to lose the kingdom of England, and by extension the entire English-speaking world, over the principle that when a first marriage is valid a second is adulterous, a position rooted in the specific words of Jesus of Nazareth. To change on that issue, no matter how it was couched, would not be development; it would be contradiction and reversal.

SUCH a reversal would put the church on the brink of a precipice. Of course it would be welcomed by some progressive Catholics and hailed by the secular press. But it would leave many of the church’s bishops and theologians in an untenable position, and it would sow confusion among the church’s orthodox adherents — encouraging doubt and defections, apocalypticism and paranoia (remember there is another pope still living!) and eventually even a real schism.

Much of Douthat’s prediction has already been fulfilled. It is easy enough to find example of the “doubt and defections, apocalypticism and paranoia.” A little over a week ago, Louie Verrecchio wrote,

The time is now at hand for “cardinals and bishops to make clear that the Pope is teaching error.” Francis has been given the opportunity, by way of a public challenge issued by senior cardinals, to confirm the true Faith in the face of the heresies that he himself disseminated throughout the Universal Church in Amoris Laetitia, and he has refused.

His unwillingness to formally address the dubia directly and plainly changes nothing of the objective reality that is staring us squarely in the face.

Even if others in Catholic media are afraid to say it aloud, at least thus far, I am not:

Francis has judged himself a formal heretic. He is, therefore, an antipope.

Verrechio was not, up to this time, a sedevacantist. The sedevacantist blog Novus Ordo Watch therefore responds,

Deo gratias! Another Semi-Traditionalist has finally had enough and publicly confessed the truth that is plain for all to see who are courageous enough to look: Francis is not the Pope of the Catholic Church. Mr. Louie Verrecchio, formerly a star pundit of the conservative wing of the Novus Ordo Sect who came to embrace a recognize-but-resist type of traditionalism, has just made the following declaration on his blog, AKA Catholic: “Francis has judged himself a formal heretic. He is, therefore, an antipope.”

Douthat noted that the fact that Pope Benedict XVI is still alive would contribute to “apocalypticism and paranoia.” This is evident in the claim made by a number of people that Pope Benedict’s resignation was invalid, and thus Pope Benedict remains Pope, and Pope Francis is therefore illegitimate. Ann Barnhardt, for example, adopted this position last June.

We have not seen any “real schism” yet, but there are people waiting and hoping for it, as for example Hilary White, who says in a post on The Remnant’s site:

If all factors remain steady – that is, if Francis Bergoglio does not repent and the cardinals do not get cold feet – what will happen, what has to happen, is this:

– Bergoglio will continue not to respond, allowing his proxies to speak for him as always. He will continue to attack as “enemies” and “detractors” anyone who tries to recall him to his duty.

– The cardinals, after an interval in which they may issue another warning, must do their duty and denounce his heresies for the good of the Church and the salvation of souls. This must happen if for no other reason than that the faithful are being led by this pope over the cliff of mortal sin.

– After the formal denunciation, therefore, the episcopate, clergy and laity will divide into two groups. The Catholic side will be very small, and will seem weak and powerless and foolish in the eyes of the world. They will have only the truth of the Faith as their weapon and shield.

– The second will have all the material institution of the Church, all its monetary resources, the psychological asset of its material patrimony of churches, schools, universities, hospitals etc. and the political power of recognition and support by the secular world, as well as the adherence of nearly all those who continue to call themselves Catholics.

– Bergoglio will demand the acquiescence of the Catholics with his usual threats and insults. He will empower his followers at the national level to punish priests, seminarians, teachers, university professors, et al, if they do not embrace the New Paradigm.

– The standoff can only possibly be broken by what canonists call a “declaratory sentence” that Bergoglio is a formal and obdurate or pertinacious heretic and has by his own actions lost the office of the papacy.

– Their duty then will be plain. The Catholic Church cannot function without a pope, and they will be obliged to call a conclave.

What will things look like after the schism is complete? We can easily extrapolate that from what things look like now. The vast majority of the Catholic world, lay and clerical, have no problem at all with Francis or with the entire New Paradigm of Vaticantwoism. The Church will consist, as it always has, of believers, but there will be no buildings. The reality, visible to the eyes of God, will be that the larger body will be what we might call the Bergoglian sect. They will have all the appearances of legitimacy and will be respected and at last embraced by the world, who will think that the tiny group of objectors are fools and “dissenters.”

What is all the fuss about? The theological issues at play are not ultimately all that complicated, and do not signify any substantial change in the Church’s teaching. Ross Douthat, however, suggested in the article discussed above that more was at stake. And now, writing just yesterday, he says,

“This is not normal” — so say Donald Trump’s critics as he prepares to assume the presidency. But the American republic is only the second-oldest institution facing a distinctively unusual situation at the moment. Pride of place goes to the Roman Catholic Church, which with less fanfare (perhaps because the papacy lacks a nuclear arsenal) has also entered terra incognita.

Two weeks ago, four cardinals published a so-called dubia — a set of questions, posed to Pope Francis, requesting that he clarify his apostolic exhortation on the family, “Amoris Laetitia.” In particular they asked him to clarify whether the church’s ban on communion for divorced Catholics in new (and, in the church’s eyes, adulterous) marriages remained in place, and whether the church’s traditional opposition to situation ethics had been “developed” into obsolescence.

The dubia began as a private letter, as is usual with such requests for doctrinal clarity. Francis offered no reply. It became public just before last week’s consistory in Rome, when the pope meets with the College of Cardinals and presents the newly-elevated members with red hats. The pope continued to ignore it, but took the unusual step of canceling a general meeting with the cardinals (not a few of whose members are quiet supporters of the questioners).

Francis canceled because the dubia had him “boiling with rage,” it was alleged. This was not true, tweeted his close collaborator, the Jesuit father Antonio Spadaro, though he had previously tweeted and then deleted a shot of the wizard Gandalf, from “Lord of the Rings,” growling his refusal to “bandy crooked words with a witless worm.”

Meanwhile one those four alleged “worms,” the combative traditionalist, Cardinal Raymond Burke, gave an interview suggesting that papal silence might require a “formal act of correction” from the cardinals — something without obvious precedent in Catholic history. (Popes have been condemned for flirting with heresy, but only after their deaths.) That was strong language; even stronger was the response from the head of Greece’s Catholic bishops, who accused the dubia authors of “heresy” and possibly “apostasy” for questioning the pope.

I would suggest that people are seeing something true, namely that the current situation is very unusual and has unusual implications, but they are mistaken in supposing that Pope Francis is calling into question the indissolubility of marriage or the existence of intrinsically evil actions, at least as particular claims. We can see this by considering the matter of Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia from a different point of view. Our responses to the dubia were framed as though it were a question of complex moral situations. And of course human life is complicated and there are in fact complex situations. But what is the real concern here? The four Cardinals explain:

It would seem that admitting to Communion those of the faithful who are separated or divorced from their rightful spouse and who have entered a new union in which they live with someone else as if they were husband and wife would mean for the Church to teach by her practice one of the following affirmations about marriage, human sexuality and the nature of the sacraments:

  • A divorce does not dissolve the marriage bond, and the partners to the new union are not married. However, people who are not married can under certain circumstances legitimately engage in acts of sexual intimacy.
  • A divorce dissolves the marriage bond. People who are not married cannot legitimately engage in sexual acts. The divorced and remarried are legitimate spouses and their sexual acts are lawful marital acts.
  • A divorce does not dissolve the marriage bond, and the partners to the new union are not married. People who are not married cannot legitimately engage in sexual acts, so that the divorced and civilly remarried live in a situation of habitual, public, objective and grave sin. However, admitting persons to the Eucharist does not mean for the Church to approve their public state of life; the faithful can approach the Eucharistic table even with consciousness of grave sin, and receiving absolution in the sacrament of penance does not always require the purpose of amending one’s life. The sacraments, therefore, are detached from life: Christian rites and worship are on a completely different sphere than the Christian moral life.  

But this does not exhaust the available options. We can see this by comparing another matter where the Church, not so long ago, began to admit to the Eucharist people who were formerly prohibited from receiving. Fr. Joseph Bolin compares the admission of Orthodox Christians to the Eucharist in the Catholic Church with the admission of divorced and remarried people:

Canon 844 § 3 requires that:

  • The non-Catholic members of the oriental Churches ask on their own for the sacraments
  • The non-Catholic members of the oriental Churches are properly disposed.

Since these Christians are in a public state of material schism or material heresy, why doesn’t canon 915 exclude them from Eucharistic Communion?

I’m not aware of any even semi-authoritative account, but suggest that the presumption is made that they are not culpable for their schism or heresy, and that this is a common and public presumption. Consequently:

  • they are not able at the time to cease from the public schism, as that would be contrary to their convictions in conscience
  • They are well-disposed, having confessed any grave sins they are aware of and intending to avoid them in the future, etc.
  • It is common knowledge that Orthodox are sincerely convinced of their position rather than moved by bad-will, so their receiving communion on their own request causes no great scandal with respect to the obligation to seek and adhere to the true Church.
  • There is no general invitation made to non-Catholics to receive, so it remains clear that it is not a normal, but an exception for them to receive

Would canon 915 require excluding from Eucharistic Communion a divorced and remarried Orthodox Christian who is permitted Communion in his own Church? Or would not the common and public presumption of good-will apply to them in this matter just as much as it does in regard to their schism, so that the objective disorder, the objective sin of adultery would not be an instance of “manifest grave sin” in the sense intended by canon 915?

Are there also particular circumstances in which there can be and is a de facto, common, and reasonable presumption of good-will on the part of divorced and remarried Catholics? If so, the objective disorder and sin as such would be per se no greater grounds for exclusion from Eucharistic Communion than the objective disorder and sin of the separated Orthodox Christians is.

Then, in a follow-up post, he says,

In the case of the Orthodox, it is clear enough to most people that there are reasons why an Orthodox Christian is not in a position to accept, e.g., the Church’s teaching on the authority of the pope — because he grew up learning to see the Church’s teaching as wrong, a human deviation, etc. — and that the Church’s acceptance that these persons can in good faith reject the pope’s authority does not imply any lessening of the doctrine itself. It does imply, however, this doctrine is not manifestly true to each and every person of good will.

If there are similar externally perceptible reasons why individual persons are not in a position to accept the Church’s teaching on the indissolubility and unity of marriage and/or the restriction of genital intercourse to marriage, and the Church accepts these, this similarly does not imply a lessening of the doctrine of indissolubility and unity of marriage itself. It does, however, imply, just as in the case of the Orthodox and the authority of the pope, that the Church’s doctrine on marriage is not manifestly true to all of good will, not even to all Catholics of good will.

There is, of course, a difference between the Orthodox who does not accept the Church’s teaching, and a Catholic who does not accept it, namely that the Catholic claims to be Catholic. This could be a reason to maintain a different practice in the two cases, not because of there being a difference in regard to whether one or the other is manifesting persevering in sin or not, but because one claims to be a Catholic, to be with and live with the Catholic Church, and the other does not.

Fr. Joseph has reached the heart of the matter here, both in explaining why such an admission to the Eucharist is consistent with Catholic doctrine, and in suggesting why it nonetheless involves a significant “precipice”, as Douthat put it.

In Amoris Laetitia itself, Pope Francis spoke of people who “may know full well the rule, yet have great difficulty in understanding its inherent values.” This is just a way of speaking of people who know that the Church forbids divorce and remarriage, but who disagree with the prohibition. This roundabout reference to doctrinal disagreement is perhaps a way of shying away from the precipice, as is also the Pope’s statement,

Naturally, if someone flaunts an objective sin as if it were part of the Christian ideal, or wants to impose something other than what the Church teaches, he or she can in no way presume to teach or preach to others; this is a case of something which separates from the community (cf. Mt 18:17). Such a person needs to listen once more to the Gospel message and its call to conversion.

This could be taken to imply that at least people who disagree with the Church about remarriage should not be admitted to the Eucharist, but this interpretation is unlikely. It is unlikely because of the above statement about people who do not understand the “inherent values” of the law, and it is also unlikely because there is no doubt about what the vast majority of divorced and remarried people believe. Questions about moral objects and about adultery and moral complexity and so on are merely academic here, because the persons involved do not believe they are having intercourse with a person with whom they are not married. They believe that they are having marital intercourse with their spouse. They believe they are married. This may be because they believe the Church is wrong about the facts, and that their first marriage was invalid. (Note that in fact according to canon law this would not be enough to make the second marriage valid, as long as invalidity of the first marriage was not a matter of public record, so they would have to believe that the Church is wrong about this as well.) Or they may believe that the Church is wrong about the possibility of divorce and a second union. Either way, they believe they are married.

What then is the Pope saying about people who flaunt an objective sin as if it were part of the Christian ideal? It seems to be something like this: if someone publicly proclaims that the Church is wrong about divorce and remarriage, and says that its teaching needs to be corrected, and so on, then this is something that “separates from the community.” But if he merely believes this personally, without demanding that the Church change its teaching, this is a different situation. And in this situation the Pope is willing for the person to be treated like the Orthodox Christians, and to be admitted to the Eucharist.

Fr. Joseph points out the essential difference from the case of the Orthodox: “one claims to be a Catholic, to be with and live with the Catholic Church, and the other does not.” What difference does this make? This is related to what Fr. Joseph calls “the presumption of good will.” Good will implies at least that a person is following his conscience and trying to do what is right. The presumption of good will in the case of the Orthodox means that we would accept that they are probably trying to do what is right to the best of their ability. Now there are people who would not accept this presumption, even in the case of the Orthodox. Pope Leo XIII, for example, as we noted elsewhere, said that Catholicism is easily seen to be true, with the consequent suggestion that those who do not recognize that it is true are guilty.

A presumption of good will in the case of a dissenting Catholic is a different matter. On the one hand, it is an objectively reasonable presumption, just as in the case of the Orthodox. The majority of those who call themselves Catholics disagree with various teachings of the Church, and the reason they call themselves Catholics is not in order to adopt a set of intellectual positions, but in order to be members of a certain community. Thus “nearly everyone calling themselves Catholic is wicked for disagreeing with the Church” is nearly as outrageous as “the Orthodox are wicked for being outside the Church.”

On the other hand, the “precipice” results from the public acknowledgement of this situation, even though the situation is real whether it is acknowledged or not. If the Church openly says, “you can disagree with the Church even about important doctrines like the indissolubility of marriage without being in sin,” then many people, perhaps most people, will take this as permission to disagree with the Church about its definitive teachings. It would not be in fact such a permission, since the Church would still be maintaining that there is an objective obligation to accept its claims, but people would take it as such a permission in practice.

Pope Francis may also have chosen a singularly bad case in which to make this point. Human beings are not very reasonable in relation to sexuality, and it likely would not be rare to find someone who at first fully accepted the teaching of the Church on all matters, but later divorces and remarries, and from that point disagrees with the Church. Douthat himself raised the example of Henry VIII. Such a case looks suspiciously like a case of bad will.

Nonetheless, as a whole this situation is not simply a chance result of Pope Francis’s personal behavior, but a logical working out of the truth about the Church’s place in the world. I commented at the beginning of this post on the Second Vatican Council on “religious liberty and Judaism.” Douthat says that these are areas “seemed most like developments of doctrine.” But these developments too are harshly criticized by some. Thus for example the Society of St. Pius X, on a page devoted to rejecting religious liberty, says:

The saints have never hesitated to break idols, destroy their temples, or legislate against pagan or heretical practices. The Church—without ever forcing anyone to believe or be baptized—has always recognized its right and duty to protect the faith of her children and to impede, whenever possible, the public exercise and propagation of false cults. To accept the teaching of Vatican II is to grant that, for two millennia, the popes, saints, Fathers and Doctors of the Church, bishops, and Catholic kings have constantly violated the natural rights of men without anyone in the Church noticing. Such a thesis is as absurd as it is impious.

Regardless of what someone says on a theologically technical level in terms of the development of doctrine, there is surely some truth in their account of people’s past behavior, and of its contrast with more recent opinions. I noted the same thing in my own post on religious liberty.

The problem with the behavior described, of course, is that it presumes bad will on the part of the people who disagree with your religion, and this presumption is unreasonable. This is necessarily so, given the thesis of the “hidden God,” a thesis which is maintained by all religions, and which is necessary in order to suppose them to be true.

A tension however arises because the thesis of hiddenness is in obvious conflict with the thesis that a religion is easily seen to be true, openly stated by Leo XIII. The latter thesis is at least implicit in the whole former history of religious liberty. And it is most definitely implicit in modern traditionalism on the matter, as for example P. Edmund Waldstein’s explanation of integralism:

Catholic Integralism is a tradition of thought that rejects the liberal separation of politics from concern with the end of human life, holding that political rule must order man to his final goal. Since, however, man has both a temporal and an eternal end, integralism holds that there are two powers that rule him: a temporal power and a spiritual power. And since man’s temporal end is subordinated to his eternal end the temporal power must be subordinated to the spiritual power.

The problem here is that in order for the temporal power to accept this subordination, they must know about the higher end. If the truth is hidden, they will not know, and they will not accept the subordination, nor should they. And this is why integralism is false in practice, whatever one says about it in theory. (Brief summaries allow for brief refutations!)

It is not by chance that P. Edmund basically holds that the truth of Catholicism is supremely obvious. His integralism cannot be true, unless his “Catholicism is obvious” thesis is also true. Both are false.

One way or another, the thesis of hiddenness and the thesis of obviousness are in direct conflict and cannot both be accepted. P. Edmund rejects the hiddenness. Pope Francis, and most of the Catholic Church, rejects the obviousness. And ultimately Amoris Laetitia is simply drawing out consequences of this. If the truth of Catholicism is not obvious, it is not obvious even to Catholics, nor are particular doctrines, like the Church’s doctrine on marriage, obviously true.

One interesting result of all this is the situation of the Society of St. Pius X. There was speculation that Pope Francis would regularize the Society at the end of the Year of Mercy. This did not happen, although the Pope indefinitely extended the permission of the Society to hear confessions:

For the Jubilee Year I had also granted that those faithful who, for various reasons, attend churches officiated by the priests of the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Pius X, can validly and licitly receive the sacramental absolution of their sins.[15] For the pastoral benefit of these faithful, and trusting in the good will of their priests to strive with God’s help for the recovery of full communion in the Catholic Church, I have personally decided to extend this faculty beyond the Jubilee Year, until further provisions are made, lest anyone ever be deprived of the sacramental sign of reconciliation through the Church’s pardon.

What is currently lacking for “full communion”? I do not believe that the answer lies in the acceptance of any doctrine or opinion. The problem (possibly more an impediment on the part of the CDF than on the part of Pope Francis) is that the Society maintains that the Church is wrong about religious liberty and other matters, and that the Church’s teaching should be corrected, and they maintain this publicly, as a community, as in the page linked on religious liberty. As Pope Francis said, such a position “separates from the community.” The irony is that apart from “flaunting” their views, the position they reject is the very reason Pope Francis would accept them, without having to change their view of religious liberty or anything else.

One might ask whether or not the Church can survive a fall from Douthat’s precipice. I think that it can, but we will all learn the truth of the matter from experience, because the top of the precipice is behind, not ahead.

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