Douthat: Conservatives Will Take Their Ball and Go Home if Francis Changes “Their” Church

In the New York Times, Ross Douthat cheers the conservative rebuff at the recently concluded family synod of the “implied papal position” favoring liberalization both “in the church’s attitude toward nonmarital relationships” and in “admitting the divorced-and-remarried to communion.”

Douthat says that conservatives had no choice but to block the new policies despite their backing by Pope Francis because any move to recognize nonmarital relationships—beyond a slightly more understanding attitude toward “the cross carried by gay Christians” (who, for the record, I’m pretty sure don’t see their sexuality as a “cross”)—is impossible:

[A] kind of celebration of the virtues of nonmarital relationships generally … might open a divide between formal teaching and real-world practice that’s too wide to be sustained. 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.

But the Catholic Church has in the recent past evolved its teaching to meet changes in the real world—especially on “family” issues. Pope Pius XII approved the use of family planning (albeit of the natural variety) for Catholics in the 1950s as birth control become more acceptable. Vatican II changed the church’s doctrine on marriage from emphasizing procreation as the primary purpose of marriage to recognizing that the union of the couple was equally important, which acknowledged the rise of companionate marriage in the twentieth century.

If the church had been evolving doctrine in a more gradual, holistic manner over the past several decades, the changes being proposed now wouldn’t seem so dramatic. But a pair of popes—John Paul and his long-time doctrinal henchman Benedict—conspired to freeze the natural development of Catholic teaching. They took uber-conservative readings of key issues, like the ordination of women and the “intrinsically disordered” nature of gay Catholics, and then declared them virtually infallible, so that any future evolution was by its very nature heretical.

To conservatives, Catholic doctrine has become like a game of capture the flag—if you can hold onto the flag long enough, you win, regardless of the advisability of the original teaching.

Not only is a change in the teaching on remarriage and divorce impossible theologically, says Douthat, but “[s]uch a reversal would put the church on the brink of a precipice” and “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.”

To Douthat, it is these “orthodox adherents,” who, while admitted in the minority, are the true Catholics and the ones Francis should be worrying about:

[T]hey are the people who have done the most to keep the church vital in an age of institutional decline: who have given their energy and time and money in an era when the church is stained by scandal, who have struggled to raise families and live up to demanding teachings, who have joined the priesthood and religious life in an age when those vocations are not honored as they once were. They have kept the faith amid moral betrayals by their leaders; they do not deserve a theological betrayal.

Of course, it’s the lack of doctrinal evolution that has alienated many progressive Catholics or forced them into a tenuous relationship with the institutional church, fueling its decline, but apparently they don’t merit the same consideration. It’s less sensus fidelium and more postulat a fidele, with loyalists to a particular conservative agenda demanding an outsized say in the church by dint of their orthodoxy.

It’s fine, Douthat says, for Francis to noodle around with annulment reform or to wax poetic about “social justice,” but he better not make any real changes, or else:

“[I]f he moves to reassign potential critics in the hierarchy, if he seems to be stacking the next synod’s ranks with supporters of a sweeping change — then conservative Catholics will need a cleareyed understanding of the situation.

They can certainly persist in the belief that God protects the church from self-contradiction. But they might want to consider the possibility that they have a role to play, and that this pope may be preserved from error only if the church itself resists him.

So get with the program, Francis. Don’t go all Jesus-like and seek radical change or you might find your collection plates a little empty.

And that’s the crux of Francis’ challenge. The changes he is promoting, while actually quite modest, are significant enough to alienate conservatives, but probably not radical enough to bring back progressives… which may mean more empty pews to go along with those empty plates.



  •' cranefly says:

    Because conservatives have so much faith. Get it?

  •' pennyroyal says:

    No, ordinary Catholics won’t leave the church. They are ahead of the pope and this bogus conference of all male theologians. The church has to change. It is already changing drastically. Douthat and his ilk are dinosaurs.

  •' Corey says:

    wait a minute, i thought the NYT was part of the homosexual agenda, liberal media and secularization of the USA

  •' Mikeinaz says:

    Is the word apostasy even in Miller’s lexicon? And for that matter any theological liberal’s? Would someone please define it if it is not departure from orthodox doctrine?

  •' sleepingquail says:

    Orthodox doctrine that has evolved as a response to perceived threats from society only to solidify an increasingly unChrist-like dogma. Apostasy is a slippery idea in a church that has created its own foundational truths. Assumption of Mary? Celibate priesthood or for that matter priesthood itself and the necessity of a continuing sacrifice to appease a God that sacrificed himself once, for all.

  •' Frank6548 says:

    The fact that they do not see their sinful desires as a cross is part of the problem for them. Sad.

    Supporting sinful behavior has nothing of Jesus in it. Too bad this author doesn’t know Jesus.

  •' frharry says:

    Interesting recall of history. The Roman Catholic Church lost England because it would not grant an annulment primarily because the father of the queen in question was surrounding the Vatican at the time.

  •' DHFabian says:

    I would have been happy if the pope’s message about our poor had been heard (listened to) and considered in the US. Americans (of this generation) are an odd people. On one hand, we can acknowledge that not everyone can work (health, circumstances) and that there aren’t jobs for all who need one, yet we not only turn our backs on our poor, but condemn them for being poor, writing them off as something less than people.

  •' DHFabian says:

    Words like “compassion,” or the teaching, “Judge not, let ye be judged…” And there’s the “humility and love” stuff.

  •' khughes1963 says:

    It was the queen’s nephew, Charles V.

  •' andrew123456789 says:

    Thank you for feeling sad for those of us whose desires you claim are sinful. That’s very reassuring.

  •' andrew123456789 says:

    I wonder if this is true in the Southern Hemisphere. I am not knowledgeable enough regarding that to really comment, and have only read a couple articles on the topic, which seem to suggest otherwise. Personally, I see the RCC as a peoples’ church, and many, regardless of where they live, are cultural Catholics anyway. So you’re probably right. I don’t know about the “ahead of the church” part except polling and some personal experience makes me think that’s true in the U.S. at least.

  •' frharry says:

    Thanks for the correction. Point taken. But it still had a lot less to do with fundamentals of faith than realpolitik.

  •' Frank6548 says:

    Anyone who doesn’t get sad over the sinful behavior of others has no Jesus in them.

  •' Diggitt says:

    Douthat is on weak footing if he thinks the loss of England over Henry VIII’s second marriage proves the validity of current church doctrine. If he were an honest man–and his writings leave me questioning that–he would acknowledge right out of the door that Henry’s first wife, Catherine, the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Columbus fame, was the aunt of Emperor Charles V of Spain who had beseiged Rome and basically, held the pope as his prisoner. Church doctrine had nothing to do with the church’s support of Catherine.

  •' cranefly says:

    Is the word “catholic” in yours? Look it up.

  •' cranefly says:

    They’re not wrong because they’re old-fashioned, though. They’re wrong because they’re wrong.

  •' Andre M says:

    How much Jesus does a person have in him who has smug condescension and dismissal toward those he claims are sinful?

  •' khughes1963 says:

    That is true, the Pope’s refusal to grant Henry VIII an annulment of his marriage was more politics than faith.

  •' pennyroyal says:

    South America was pretty priest ridden but now there’s an incursion of charismatic and pentecostal churches, very emotional and fervent, when what is needed is a balance between reason and emotion.
    As for US, there’s much love and hope for pope Francis, as a warmer, gentler, more traditional faith filled church gathers. Care for the poor is emphasized.
    I think the obstacle is the US Bishops, who are beholden to the popes who preceded pope Francis. They think (wrongly) that ordinary Catholics are behind them. I saw arch-conservative Cardinal Timothy Dolan of NYC paying fealty to Francis but Dolan and many in the hierarchy are very much against this pope and his statements about gays and even birth control have them eating crow. As with Dolan, it’s not a pretty sight.

    I’m a member of Catholics for Choice and a lot of those people are really liberal in terms of women’s reproductive rights.

  •' Craptacular says:

    Anyone who can’t refrain from judging others doesn’t understand jesus’ message.

  •' mikeinaz says:

    Actually, I have no argument with you. My point is what do you expect a church that thinks itself the one true church to do? If it does not defend its own orthodoxy it does not really have an orthodoxy, truth never changes.

  •' Jeffrey G. Johnson says:

    I roared with laughter over this one by Douthat: “celebration of the virtues of nonmarital relationships generally … might open a divide between formal teaching and real-world practice that’s too wide to be sustained.”

    As if that divide isn’t already too wide. Clearly Ross lives in a different “real-world” than the one I inhabit.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    Or take their beads and go home.

  •' fiona64 says:

    It’s really amusing to watch Catholic conservatives wig out of the new pope actually, you know, caring about *people* instead of doctrine.

  •' fiona64 says:

    I think you need to learn the difference between apostasy and heresy.

  •' fiona64 says:

    Jesus wouldn’t recognize his teachings in Frankie’s hate-speaking mouth.

    I don’t know what Frank has in himself, but it sure as heck isn’t Jesus.

  •' pennyjane says:

    frank would not know Jesus from a box of crackerjacks….his paycheck comes from the devil, he is paid to drive people away from the church by presenting church teaching as stupid, foul and hateful….as is frank himself.

  •' Bill Freeman says:

    Oh – we had an agenda with the NYT? I must have missed that meeting. Corey, so glad you were there and took notes. Thanks!

  •' Bill Freeman says:

    Wow – so YOU are God’s bookkeeper! I always wanted to meet you. Welcome.

  •' Bill Freeman says:

    And the bookkeeper has spoken again.

  •' Independently Yours says:

    Maybe the renewal/revitalization/revolution provoked by Pope Francis will be more grassroots, in our own hearts. We are the Church, the body of Christ, the ordinary believer in the pew, at school, at work, on the bus, at the shelter…what if we heard what he was saying and transformed our lives and it spread to all we know?

  •' Frank6548 says:

    Oh grow up. Don’t you think it’s time?

  •' Corey says:

    You’re welcome.

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