Conflicting visions of the good

In light of Pope Francis’s and Archbishop Paglia’s dissolution of John Paul the Great’s Pontifical Institute for Marriage and Family, Ross Douthat writes:

On issues large and small, Francis has decentralized authority informally while retaining all the formal powers of his office and encouraged theological envelope-pushing without changing the official boundaries of what counts as Catholic teaching and what does not. This has effectively created two different versions of that teaching — the one on the books versus the one that the pope offers in his winks and nods — to which different Catholics can appeal. …

As a result the only Catholic certainty now is uncertainty. Under Francis the church’s teaching on communion for remarried divorcees varies from country to country and diocese to diocese, and even papal admirers can’t seem to agree on what the official Vatican position entails. The church’s teaching on suicide now varies in different parts of Canada, and since the Vatican seems to accept that variation a Belgian religious order has pushed things even further, insisting that it intends to actually carry out assisted suicide at its hospitals. (This Rome seems to regard as a bridge too far — but the Belgians are not submitting quietly.) …

It is hard to know what will come of this era’s Catholic crisis. Can the church really become Anglican, with sharply different Christian theologies coexisting permanently under a latitudinarian umbrella? Is the period of dueling inquisitions and digital militias a prelude to the sweeping liberal victory that many Catholics felt that John Paul and Benedict cruelly forestalled? Will the pendulum swing back, as Francis’s nervous allies fear, leaving his legacy to be buried by young traditionalists and a reactionary pontiff in the style of HBO’s “Young Pope”?

Faith gives some observers certain answers, but natural reason counsels doubt. Regardless, firings and cancellations and self-protective censorship will not make the conflict any less painful in the end. There is no way forward save through controversy. Postpone the inquisitions; schedule arguments instead.

I think there’s promise in Amoris Laetitia, particularly on the vision of Christian accompaniment in our time, that deserves to be developed and bear fruit. But the decision to dissolve John Paul’s Pontifical Institutes and create new ones bearing John Paul’s name (but with a mission to treat Francis’s vision as the touchstone) strikes me as graceless.

As Douthat points out, it seems increasingly impossible for academics, theologians, and philosophers to have meaningful conversations surrounding the central Christian beliefs raised over the past few years without being fired, dismissed, marginalized, or called names. Pope Francis himself has engaged in name-calling and stereotyping from time to time, which has been unfortunate.

Archbishop Paglia has presented the reconstitution of John Paul’s Pontifical Institutes as an “enlargement” of their purpose and his manner suggests that these changes are in harmony with Christian teaching. Cardinal Carlo Caffarra, founding president of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute, said plainly last year that “only a blind man could deny there’s great confusion, uncertainty and insecurity in the Church.” It’s difficult to accept Archbishop Paglia’s words at face value, because the concrete result of his actions in this instance is explicitly the diminishment of John Paul’s teaching witness rather than its enlargement. As valuable as Amoris may be, a single teaching encyclical cannot credibly be understood to “fulfill” the entirely of John Paul’s witness. And in light of John Paul’s canonization, these are even stranger actions.

The fundamentals appear to be at stake concerning Jesus Christ and His Church, particularly relating to sex, family, marriage, and communion. As Douthat writes, now is the time for authentic dialogue and argument about these things. It seems to me that Archbishop Paglia’s actions invite rupture, and that Pope Francis’s refusal to treat his cardinal brothers’ questions about Amoris as worth debate does serious injury to the pontifical voice.

If Amoris is meant to result in “irreversible” changes to Christian theology and pastoral practice, it can only do so through theological engagement; power alone fades.

A far better way for Amoris to be meaningfully promulgated would have been the creation of a new and parallel Pontifical Institute, with first-rate theologians, philosophers, scientists, etc. who would bring forth Amoris’s fruits. Dissolving John Paul’s Pontifical Institutes and dismissing their faculty is the sort of action that invites exactly the sort of conflict and cultural-theological war that Pope Francis seems in other ways to transcend for the better.

Do we want to live as Christians in a world where bishops preach as good in one city what bishops preach as evil in another?

Discover more from Tom Shakely

Subscribe (free or paid) to keep reading and get full access.

Continue Reading