The Consequences of Changing Church Teaching

The underlying premise of conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat’s recent book, To Change the Church, is that the Catholic Church is conservative because her claims and demands only make sense if there is 1) a core and agreed-upon set of doctrines and 2) a clear link to New Testament teachings and to the early Church. If the Church is just a religious community with beliefs and party lines that change according to circumstances and elite opinions, then despite its cultural achievements and intellectual tradition, the whole religious enterprise ends up being, in his words, “a high-minded fraud, a trick upon the masses of believers…”

While Douthat, a Catholic convert, is predisposed to defend the Church’s perennial teaching, he willingly acknowledges the divisions that exist among Catholics and discusses how these divisions have been kept from becoming disruptive and ultimately schismatic. The divisions that we read about in the press over controversial subjects reveal an underlying dispute over fundamental questions like the purpose of the Church, the authority of the Bible, or the definition of sin. Progressive Catholics stoke these fundamental divisions to create new opportunities for change beyond the current controversies; fundamental teachings are only fundamental for a time until they are revised to meet the needs of the moment.

Douthat argues that this push for change is present at all levels of the Church and has existed for centuries. Popes are responsible for preserving Church unity but it is difficult to maintain consistent teaching while suppressing this yearning for change. Despite efforts by Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI to prevent change in fundamental teaching, they felt it necessary to make concessions to placate liberal Catholics on matters not considered essential (e.g., allowing altar girls) and to promote progressive clerics who did not openly oppose their policies. The objective was to assert orthodoxy without causing schism. While John Paul and Benedict achieved a measure of success in restoring orthodoxy, proponents of theological liberalism remained in place to reassert their agenda when the opportunity next arose.

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Douthat sets the stage for the current controversies of the Francis papacy by identifying the central sources of the crisis that followed the Second Vatican Council. According to Pope John XXIII, the Council was intended to find new ways of marketing the Catholic faith to the modern world. While several changes were introduced involving religious liberty and ecumenism, a lack of consensus on what to do going forward resulted in documents too vague to prevent internal conflicts in the years after the Council. Douthat sees what he describes as an uneasy truce following the Council that forestalled any deep institutional divisions. But in the meantime, liberal initiatives had resulted in a dead end in the same way that theological revolutions in mainline Protestantism resulted in widespread decay. The data is conclusive. As religious orders and dioceses adopted worldly standards, vocations dried up and Mass attendance plummeted.

Yet, all the failures that followed the Council did not dampen liberal attitudes, writes Douthat. Progressives did what they always do: they took over institutions, such as foundations, colleges, religious orders, and publishing houses. Thus the problems remain because the efforts to renew the Church that began with John Paul II were only partially successful. Douthat is critical of conservative Catholic efforts because they are, in his mind, more defensive or preservationist than dynamic and creative. As a result, the successes were superficial. Liberals, on the other hand, are temperamentally creative; yet they did not evangelize the culture as John XXIII had envisioned because their priority after the Council was ecclesiastical deconstruction.

Douthat is seemingly unaware of the creativity associated with the revival of the extraordinary form of the liturgy as well as the revitalization of traditional church architecture and the accompanying artwork spearheaded by Duncan Stroik at Notre Dame and the promotion of sacred music by the Church Music Association of America. He further misses the mark by suggesting that Catholic participation in Republican Party politics offers a dangerous temptation to compromise religious principles by becoming cheerleaders for a party platform that does not conform in every respect to Church teaching. Douthat fails to mention that the same is true for Catholic Democrats—maybe more so. In the U.S. where Douthat thinks this weakness is particularly evident, there are only two parties to choose from and, as a minority voting block, Catholics have only so much influence and few alternatives. Even in Europe, where Catholic parties are more common, coalitions with secular parties are necessary if governments are to form, inevitably leading to compromise.

Douthat unfairly blames conservative Catholics who supported the Bush administration for undermining the evangelical efforts of John Paul II because, for many independent voters, politics eclipsed the pope’s religious message. This assumes that potential converts look to political partisans for spiritual mentoring rather than religious leaders—a highly questionable assumption. It also assumes that conservative Catholics represent a monolithic block—another dubious assumption. It is the case, however, that divisions among Catholics weakened evangelization efforts overall. Yet he does not credit successful lay efforts at evangelization while he ignores the failure of the hierarchy at the diocesan level.

Bergoglio Becomes Pope
Candidate Bergoglio had such a incoherent résumé that every faction of the College of Cardinals could find something to like. After the conclave, however, there were early indications that Francis was a man of the left: He violated Vatican protocols; his description of the Church as a field hospital was an explicit rejection of the evangelization efforts of his immediate predecessors who focused too much on a “restorationist” and “legalist”—as he described it—promotion of Catholic moral teaching; and at the same time that he fired Cardinal Burke, he was appointing liberal bishops to prominent positions and restoring theological dissenters famous for their public opposition to Church teaching. While the press noticed his leftward tilt, some speculated that he was merely moving to the center in order to establish greater balance and peace between Church factions. For many it was too early to categorize Francis. His indictment of globalization, individualism and consumer culture, for example, could theoretically complement a more traditional conservative “crunchysmall-is-beautiful philosophy.

Douthat spends a great deal of time on the Kasper proposal because this has been the central change sought by the Vatican. At the 2014 consistory of cardinals, Francis invited Cardinal Kasper to deliver his now famous speech calling for a loosening of restrictions on who could receive the Eucharist. Those who are divorced and civilly remarried with no desire to seek an annulment would be able to receive the Eucharist under certain circumstances, but not without going through a penitential process with their parish priest. This proposal, which was formally rejected by Cardinal Ratzinger in 1993, would permit couples who live in an adulterous relationship to receive the Eucharist at Mass without living as brother and sister as John Paul II had made allowance for in Familiaris Consortio.

Douthat argues persuasively and at length why this proposal is problematic and why accepting it would weaken other Church teachings. He starts with the words of Christ. We read in Scripture that Jesus is more demanding and more restrictive than the Jewish Law when he says that what God has joined together “let not man put asunder” and anyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery. Jesus rejects the ritual legalism promoted by the Pharisaical “doctors of the law” by elevating a higher moral law. This was a counter-cultural challenge to not only Hebrew practice but also patriarchal Roman law. It emphasized the equality of the sexes and guaranteed the protection of wives and children. The Church has been consistent in this over the centuries and believes that the Gospel does not make demands which are impossible to fulfill with the aid of sufficient grace—and Kasper has made the claim that Church teachings are too demanding for modern man and in this he is contradicting the words of Christ.

Liberals argue that rigid rules portray the Church as intolerant and have the effect of keeping people away from the sacraments. This in turn prevents their children (from the second marriage) from being raised in the faith. The orthodox response is that secularization is not necessarily caused by rigid rules since liberal Protestant churches have experienced a faster decline even as they accepted divorce and looser moral standards. And what of the children from the first marriage? Would not the Church show callous disregard for their suffering if it were to approve of the second marriage? What about a couple struggling to keep their marriage together? Would seeing a remarried couple receive the Eucharist cause them to wonder if the difficulties are worth enduring if giving up was now to be made less painful?

Francis Champions the Kasper Proposal
We know now that Francis called the 2014 Synod of Bishops to get the Church to affirm the Kasper proposal. However, the bishops would not cooperate despite enormous pressure put on them by the Francis-appointed administrators of the synod. Proponents of Communion for the divorced and remarried made another attempt at the Synod on the Family the following year, but to no avail. Back when Francis opened the 2014 synod he was evenhanded toward to the liberal and conservative factions in attendance. Following the Family Synod, however, Francis behaved like a sore loser, tossing insults at bishops who, for example, used the words of Jesus as “dead stones to be hurled at others.” Francis had now become a source of division in the Church as many people came to realize—especially with the issuing of the apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia—that the Holy Father intended to change a long-settled Church teaching that had even been reaffirmed by his immediate predecessors.

For all his efforts, the Francis Effect that the press predicted in the early days of the Bergoglio papacy did not materialize. There is no evidence of a revival of enthusiasm for the Church. Lapsed Catholics are not returning. Mass attendance in the United States, for example, has not increased nor have vocations. Trends are the same in other parts of the world. Douthat admits that recent data is not yet conclusive of a long-term trend. However, he points out that if the crisis of decline in the 1970s is taken into account, a similar path today will produce the same results.

So here is the good news offered by Douthat: The reason why Francis criticizes younger priests is because they don’t approve of his program and they will invariably replace the aging progressives that Francis has promoted. History tells us that theological liberalism does not produce religious revivals; it undermines them because affirmations of religious commitment require the sort of demands that liberals oppose. Remember when Cardinal Kasper insulted the African bishops during the synod in a recorded interview with Edward Pentin? He said we should not listen to them because they are not with the liberalizing program, but African Mass attendance is close to 70 percent. France has imported many hundreds of priests from Africa in recent years and this will continue as domestic supplies run out. Meanwhile, religious orders that celebrate the extraordinary form of the liturgy will have more priests than the diocesan clergy and other religious orders by 2040 if current trends continue.

As orthodox dissent continues to be suppressed and faithful bishops are removed from office or not promoted, Francis is providing justification for a restorationist backlash using the same tactics he has employed. But the work needed to repair the damage done by Francis will take time to root out, because the damage will be widespread and dramatic reversals might threaten severe division if not open schism. For Douthat, the settlement between factions that John Paul II established turned out to be unstable after all. The divisions that were then below the surface are now being exposed by Francis. Given the limitations of the papal office to bring about ecclesiastical renewal coupled with the administrative decisions of the current pontiff, real reform will need to come from the bottom up. That’s our cue to do our part. The salvation of souls hangs in the balance.

(Photo credit: Francis in Vatican City, April 16, 2017; L’Osservatore Romano/CNA)


  • John M. Vella

    John M. Vella served as editor of Crisis Magazine from 2012 to 2019. For over a decade, he was the managing editor of Modern Age: A Quarterly Review published by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI). Before arriving at ISI, John served as publications manager at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty. His essays and reviews have appeared in a variety of secular and Catholic publications including Chronicles, Chesterton Review, Modern Age, Homiletic and Pastoral Review, New Oxford Review, and University Bookman. He earned his Master’s in history at Villanova University in 2010.

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