DOUTHAT: “a distinctive late-Marxist odor”

At the NYT (aka Hell’s Bible) Ross Douthat has a reaction to Pope Francis at the new Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Amoris laetitia.

In the first part, Douthat sets up that while in most world religions there has been a split between orthodox and progressive, in the Catholic Church the factions have remained officially together in a kind of truce: conservatives have their orthodoxy but liberals have a soft heterodoxy.

Then comes Francis.

Douthat thinks that what Francis has done is come down in favor of the truce, rather than tolerate the heterodoxy and heteropraxis.  My emphases:


But there is also now a new papal teaching: A teaching in favor of the truce itself. That is, the post-1960s separation between doctrine and pastoral practice now has a papal imprimatur, rather than being a state of affairs that popes were merely tolerating for the sake of unity. Indeed, for Pope Francis that separation is clearly a hoped-for source of renewal, [!] revival and revitalization, rather than something that renewal or revival might enable the church to gradually transcend.

Again, this is not the clear change of doctrine, the proof of concept for other changes, that many liberal bishops and cardinals sought. But it is an encouragement for innovation on the ground, for the de facto changes that more sophisticated liberal Catholics believe will eventually render certain uncomfortable doctrines as dead letters without the need for a formal repudiation from the top. [It is hard to deny.]

This means that the new truce may be even shakier than the old one. [Surely it will be.  There will be far more division among priests and among priests and bishops.] In effectively licensing innovation rather than merely tolerating it, and in transforming the papacy’s keenest defenders into wary critics, it promises to heighten the church’s contradictions rather than contain them.  [Divison.]

And while it does not undercut the pope’s authority as directly as a starker change might have, it still carries a distinctive late-Marxist odor — a sense that the church’s leadership is a little like the Soviet nomenklatura, bound to ideological precepts that they’re no longer confident can really, truly work. [Ouch.]

A slippage that follows from this lack of confidence is one of the most striking aspects of the pope’s letter. What the church considers serious sin becomes mere “irregularity.” What the church considers a commandment becomes a mere “ideal.” What the church once stated authoritatively it now proffers tentatively, in tones laced with self-effacement, self-critique. [Indeed.  When I first got the text of the Letter (before its release), one of my corespondent (who also had it) wrote: “It reeks of ‘effeminacy’.”  I suspect that this move might have a strongly negative, dampening effect on priestly vocations.  Not that that will bother liberals, of course: they have been trying to destroy the priesthood for decades.]

Francis doubtless intends this language as a bridge between the church’s factions, [doubtless!] just dogmatic enough for conservatives but perpetually open to more liberal interpretations. And such deliberate ambiguity does offer a center, of sorts, for a deeply divided church.

But not one, I fear, that’s likely to permanently hold.  [Ditto.]

This will make the libs (especially Jesuits) have a spittle-flecked nutty.   The last time Douthat commented on issues of the Synod, a passel of libs signed a letter asking Hell’s Bible to fire him… in that spirit of “liberty” for which liberals are so famous.

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  1. organistjason says:

    To paraphrase one of President Lincoln’s most famous of speeches: “The Church divided against itself cannot stand. I believe the Church cannot endure, permanently half modernist and half orthodox. I do not expect the Church to be dissolved — I do not expect the Church to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other.”

    **footnote: the “Shift key is at the bottom left of the keyboard. The “Close Parenthesis” key is on the 0.” Now, more then ever, is a time to pray for the Holy Spirit to guide the members of the Sacred College. Specifically, the Cardinal Electors.

  2. Augustine Thompson O.P. says:

    Normally, I find Ross Dothat insightful and in point. But this time, I think he is giving overestimating the perspicacity and careful planning of a man is at best a very mediocre theologian. I don’t think muddled thinking need be read as something so crafty or even intended. This not to say that his might be the effect of this document and various pressers, but I doubt he planned it to work out this way. Basically he hates theological conflict: if you are to fight about something, it should be (secular) politics and economics.

  3. benedetta says:

    I think he is kind of identifying the situation of a post-abuse scandal (among other things) clerical class which refuses to look to the “personal” or “private” lives (the spiritual state of souls) of those they give communion to — almost like a mutiny. There is a discomfort, born out of an attempt to be pure of any taint of hypocrisy as the guiding and sole modern moral norm of our times, a willful neglect of the ascertaining or consideration of how prepared people are to receive communion. The solution then becomes to give to all who approach without hesitation or any consideration whatsoever, in an official capacity. Instead of continuing the norms previously fairly established and being pastoral, treating the conditions of soul sickness which present, the clerical class refuses to pastor any longer. It’s a refusal to roll up the shirt sleeves and dirtying one’s self with the problems of the time. It’s a refusal to say that even with previous norms, that there are some actions or ongoing situations or patterns of sin in addition to that which merit a meeting with one’s pastor before he will just keep doling out communion to you day after day even if your situation is not one of those norms but something else entirely. It’s a going over in this country to the church as local big box store featuring official pronouncements from on high and programming that is ultimately impersonal and remote from the smell of the sheep and their needs.

    What can we accomplish this way, incrementally, without a personalist encounter and accompanying with, to just get our souls rubber stamped day after day week after week, or, Christmas and Easter? Are we growing in holiness? Or are we growing away, despite our official personas?

  4. Mike says:

    I also get the sense in the letter that the Rules about marriage were manufactured by the Church, and it’s not such a big deal for the Church too loosen up a bit. If that’s true, how sad for the core doctrine about marriage and the praxis logically following it come from the Lord.

  5. donato2 says:

    I have long thought a crisis within the Church over modernism is coming and Amoris laetitia may hasten its advent. Nevertheless even if viewed as license for heretical practices Amoris laetitia is a major defeat for the forces of dissent. They had an open shot at communion for the divorced and civilly remarried and gave it everything they had. All they ended up with was some virtually incoherent mumbling in a footnote. Francis’s appointments are much more likely than Amoris laetitia to hasten a crisis over modernism. Some sort of geo-political catastrophe may also supersede the Western Church’s current slide into decadence, if Christ does not return first to set things straight.

  6. Lavrans says:

    I, for one, support, argue in favor of, and teach concepts such as limbo and Christ’s threefold human knowledge which He had from the moment of the Annunciation. These ideas have their more modern detractors, including those of very high hierarchical rank and theological prowess. But since they are matters of debate, I rest comfortably. Likewise, I support, argue in favor of, and teach the concepts on marriage and family life upheld by the Catechism, Familiaris Consortio, Humanae Vitae, and Casti Connubii. These ideas may have their modern detractors as well, including those of very high hierarchical rank and [modest] theological prowess. But I rest comfortably as well, since I find it far better to err on the side of timeless teachings and truth, rather than pastoral innovations and exceptions. I am a sinful man, but I admit it and frequent Confession. Though I wish every Catholic would do the same for the sake of their souls, I cannot make it so, and it is a waste of my time to worry about it. If His Holiness gives some bishops, priests, and laymen some ideas that they will run in terrible directions with, I shall pray for them, but neither worry myself sick, or run after them seeking their approval. I’ve got the Sacraments, my Bible, my Catechism, Ott’s Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, the Summa, the City of God, and Newman’s works. If I never read another work from the Church or a pope, I’m still good, for these are how I have formed my conscience and will continue to “reform” it when needed.

    So, thanks but no no thanks. We’ll skip this letter.

  7. Mike says:

    One of the (likely unintended) consequences of this exhortation is that it has me seriously digging into Veritatis Splendor, about which I have yet to discover anything “effeminate,” any more than I would expect to with regard to its author.

    St. John Paul II, pray for us—and not least for the protection of Mr. Douthat from the “liberal” witch-hunters.

  8. Sacred1 says:

    As Douthat roughly suggests, the new approach seems to be “do not change the sinner, change the language.”

  9. Pingback: More on Amoris laetitia. | To our bodies turn we then

  10. Benedict Joseph says:

    Ross Duothat has yet to produce a piece on Roman Catholicism that is not preeminent in its courageous insight, depth, and eloquence. This particular contribution affirms me in my estimation that the intention presently in play is to provide the façade of hospitality to both perspectives in the Church, harboring the faithful orthodox in their own corral while they become extinct and have the chrysalis of Roman Catholicism commandeered by the new entity. For this to be successful it requires ambiguity, the promotion of confusion, the appeal to a tradition of obedience and loyalty. It requires deception. Do we recognize the alarm sounding?
    I recall from theological studies an obsession with a high-minded principled ecumenism utilized to undermine any expression of orthodoxy or piety, all in the cause of “…that they all may be one, as …” . Unity is fine when critical values, beliefs and practices are authentically commonly held by the parties, but unification of diametrically opposed opposites is a recipe for disaster. The heterodox within the Roman Catholicism cling to the current structure in order to claim the credibility provided by its pedigree. That is the best that can be gleaned regarding their intention. The financial security provided by the institution they debase is vital for the inauguration of their new and improved kasparian katholicism and ultimately to their personal financial security.
    The cartel driving this scenario — never for a moment think this in the hands of one man — appears to reference High-Low Anglicanism as a model for their vision, but we all know where it leads. It bespeaks the degree of groundless fantasy, wishful thinking, and ruthless confection employed in justifying the establishment of a self-comfort zone termed church, yet devoid of the governance provided by Scripture, Apostolic Tradition and the Magisterium.
    New wine. New skins. New address. Maybe even a new continent.
    God preserve us.

  11. yatzer says:

    Maybe I’m too touchy, but this reminds me of some of the bad old days of the Episcopal Church from which I escaped.

  12. Thomistica says:

    Douthat has some of the best commentary in the business about this papacy. He’s a convert and asks the right questions, even if one does not agree with everything he says. Some of his earlier commentary dwelt on the question, what would make Catholicism distinct from functional Protestantism, given the sorts of developments we’ve been seeing? Just the right question. Anyhow, his latest article concludes by suggesting that the center between warring factions that the Pope is trying to create will not hold. He’s right about this. It may take decades for the current institutional framework to unravel, and the timetable will crucially depend on who is the next Pope, but unravel it will at some point.

    I have read AL in its entirety and am convinced that proper exegesis of the document suggests that this Pope fully intends to challenge received doctrine about Communion for the remarried. (This is a straightforward logical entailment, or rhetorical implicature, however you want to cast it.) That is *entirely* distinct from the question whether the Pope has changed doctrine. The answer to the latter is a resounding no. But the two issues have an unfortunate way of getting intermingled. True, the Pope cannot change doctrine. This should, *however*, not be an argument for inaction. There is, already, no reason why the strongest possible measures should not be taken, now, to challenge publicly this papacy, since the damage it has already done is profound. A strong challenge could perhaps deter a future wayward Pope.

    An appropriate first reply to the Pope will be for lay leaders to place pressure on the Vatican spokesman to clarify his thoughts for the benefit of persons confused by AL. Hopefully Cardinals Sarah and Burke will issue statements. The vast majority of bishops, however, and very many academics and intellectuals are far too entrenched in their positions and in their close professional ties to the Church to issue such a call. Many will rightly –or in many cases, wrongly–regard it as going against prudence, given their circumstances.

    We do have a precedent of the Vatican clarifying a papal comment recently; cf. the case of the presser comment about Zika, though the Vatican spokesman unfortunately did nothing to quell the reasonable interpretation that the Pope had affirmed eugenic use of contraception.

    What then to do next if the Pope remains intransigent? While there have been historical proposals (e.g. in later scholasticism) for challenging a Pope, it’s not clear at all clear. Does canon law have any resources to address this unfolding situation? Perhaps it is the purview of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which (if I recall correctly) critiqued a draft of AL.

    Frankly, I found it strange to go to Mass this morning, having read AL…and Cupich’s comments in the Chicago Trib. Cupich is right that AL is a game-changer. Even if it did not change doctrine.

    The Catholic world changed on Friday.

  13. Elizabeth D says:

    I feel so disinclined to get all worked up over this Amoris Laetitia. Nothing has changed. Francis is not the best living Pope that I can think of, but he is only 50% of the living Popes. If he resigns and a new one gets elected soon then he may be only 33% of the living Popes, and outnumbered 2 to 1 by more traditional Popes. Also, the generation that thinks like Francis (not that he is the worst of them, by a longshot) is on its way out. Moral of the story is, this is what can happen when Cardinals vote for someone they know too little about.

  14. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    With respect to what Benedict Joseph calls “High-Low Anglicanism” and yatzer “some of the bad old days of the Episcopal Church”, Mr. Douthat seems to suggest that something very like that has been the de facto state of the Catholic Church for decades.

    I’ve been trying to think about that distinction – ‘de facto’ vs. ‘de jure’ – for the last few days.

    Can one be ‘de facto’ heterodox without being ‘de jure’ heterodox?

    When Mr. Douthat postulates “there is also now a new papal teaching” this would seem to be ‘de facto’ (as well as “an encouragement for […] de facto changes”).

  15. Oneros says:

    In order to pastor, priests would actually have to know their charges. What percent of parishes of 8000 people does the pastor actually know? If people are approaching a priest for guidance, that’s a blessing already.

    I just don’t know what sort of world people are imagining. Priests aren’t refusing to consider the states of people’s souls…its just that “the crowd” at Mass is a crowd of strangers, a large percentage of whom might be guests or “occasionals” in an urban setting, and this idea that priests were going to somehow be micromanaging people’s spiritual lives is just unrealistic. Responsibility to discern moved to the people themselves long ago for this reason. This letter won’t change much because I know very few priests who were actively denying communion, and very few couples in these situations who actually made themselves known to their priests.

  16. Elizabeth D says:

    Also, I really agree with Father Augustine Thompson.

  17. LeeF says:


    Your comments echo thoughts I had earlier today as I was thinking exactly of a High-Low Church divide like in the Anglican Communion. There was already a divide on liturgical practice, and now we will get an explicit divide on application of doctrine. And yes we have seen where it led the Anglicans, to open schism. But in the Catholic Church the liberals won’t leave and we conservatives can’t leave.

    This may unfortunately short-circuit the “biological solution” and spawn a new and larger generation or two of the low-church liberals. But the Church survived gnosticism and will survive this. But it will probably take decades and may well take centuries to regain clarity and orthodox practice. Of course the low-church types won’t begrudge us the same “rights” they demand and we will have to continue to fight tooth and nail to defend the Church and our own true rights. That is our cross and we cannot refuse it.

  18. iamlucky13 says:

    @ Augustine Thomspon – I suspect you may have a good description of Pope Francis there.

    Separately, a specific excerpt from the article:

    “That is, the post-1960s separation between doctrine and pastoral practice now has a papal imprimatur”

    I dislike this characterization. Imprimatur’s are not subtle, hidden in footnotes or implied by partial quotes of prior texts that state the opposite of what is being concluded. Perhaps I’m wrong and Pope Francis does have ulterior motives for the way this exhortation is written, but even then, there is no imprimatur on Communion for the divorced and remarried or any other unconventional claim people are making about Amoris Laetitia.

    I still need to wade in and read the full exhortation, but the pieces I’ve read so far and what has been quoted by various sources eager to make certain points about their meaning also do not constitute an adoption of the contradiction in terms, “separation between doctrine and pastoral practice.”

    Such a thing is not possible. Pastoral practice can not be founded on heresy. Since defying truth can not further the good of souls, by definition, it would not be pastoral.

    The interpretations of the exhortation as a wink and nod towards practices that defy doctrine will certainly happen, but when one weighs in the one hand an ambiguous (necessarily so) discussion of cases where culpability might be diminished, and on the other hand Mark 10/Matthew 19/Luke 16, the clarity of words coming from God Himself make the ordinary understanding of divorce plain, while Pope Francis’ words, since they can not legitimately contradict what Christ taught (and all three synoptic authors thought that teaching important enough to record), must be read as discussing special circumstances.

    Many are quick to point out that Jesus came “not to condemn, but to save” (Jn 3:17). That does not make the point they think they are making. The salvific nature of the Gospels means that Jesus condemning divorce and remarriage has a salvific link. Jesus’ own pastoral practice was to call us away from sin toward salvation. That’s not condemnation. That we can have our sin washed away and live new lives is the mercy we keep talking about.

    For our part, if we tell others that ambiguous parts of Pope Francis’ letter should be read as an “imprimatur” on separating doctrine from pastoral pratice, we are not really upholding doctrine, but telling others to read this exhortation out of context with the rest of Catholic teaching. And since many of them want to read it that way, us concluding it was intended to be read that way does not help matters.

  19. Christ_opher says:

    Father Z, Good morning and thank you for stating that this is a low level document. The devil is always in the detail and I know that the faith is neither an impression, an opinion or a feeling however if it comes to light that someone interfered with the document and added the little clauses before the print run it would be a joyful moment.

  20. Nicolas Bellord says:

    And what of a priest in an abusive relationship with a teenage boy? Will he be granted the same indulgence as the divorced and remarried? After all we know such behaviour is compulsive and very difficult to stop.

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  22. Sonshine135 says:

    My Dad has a saying that rings true in this situation, and our Pontiff would do himself a favor by hearing it:

    “Those that sit on the fence too long invariably get splinters.”

    Ouch! I find Douthat’s commentary to be pretty accurate. I also think that footnote 351 is having more of an impact than I may have originally thought it would. I am also under no illusion that this was simply an affirmation of what has been going on in many churches already. The worst thing for us Catholics is the gradualism. I can feel the snare tightening around the neck. First, foot washing for women with no change in doctrine. Now, Communion, our Blessed Lord, in the mouths of unrepentant sinners. One shutters to think of what’s next.

  23. Legisperitus says:

    If serious sin has been downgraded to mere irregularity, then it’s time to start inviting SSPX priests to the Chrism Masses.

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  25. Magash says:

    I am much less concerned about this than some here. I would much more think it likely that it is the liberals who are being corralled to await extinction. Orthodox diocese have vocations, heterodox ones do not. Orthodox Catholics have large families, heterodox ones contracept and have few children. Which will exist two generations from now? Orthodox Catholics tend to the education of their children, ensuring that the faith is passed down to them, heterodox ones leave the education of their children to Sister Moodbeam and Jesuit colleges. Which is likely to produce devout Catholics and which to produce future secularists or people who are “spiritual but not religious”?
    The majority of Amoris laetitia is solidly orthodox. The sections reiterating the role of parents in the education of their children is particularly good to see. As is the section of pre-Cana (though it is not called that) pointing out that a priest (or ever more likely a deacon or lay person) meeting a couple for half a dozen hours before the Sacrament is not sufficient catechetical preparation for marriage.

  26. benedetta says:

    Consider this — this week Bernie Sanders is going to the Vatican. Can’t you just picture it? To the Church, which has advocated for and protected humanity for 2000 years he says “I bring news of a great new dogma, hatched in the offices of Hustler and Cosmo, one that has made men more and not less righteously sexist and even violently so, one that has wiped out generations…in the name of Saul Alinsky…” It’s about as exciting and interesting as event as St. Jerome swatting a stray fly that comes along whilst he’s at work…

  27. Ferde Rombola says:

    “This means that the new truce may be even shakier than the old one. [Surely it will be. There will be far more division among priests and among priests and bishops.]”

    Those divisions must become wider and clearly defined so we know who’s who and the enemy within us will be clearly identified. Only then will orthodox priests end their self-imposed ban on criticizing publicly their wayward brothers. The fence sitters will be knocked off the fence to one side or the other and the conflict will come into focus and be intensified. Not being a fence-sitter, the Pope and his agenda will be flushed out and he will be forced to be specific in his remarks.

    Regarding which, it’s hard not to believe that Kasper and others have had the Pope’s ear in the production of this most unfortunate document.

  28. Traductora says:

    I think Thomistica is right, sadly; the Church changed on Friday. [Wrong.] People were worrying about the Pope’s opening the door to one or another irregular practice. Meanwhile, he was setting about tearing down the walls of the house.

    If there are no absolutes, no objective moral standards, no objective definitions – there is no Church. There is no basis for evangelization because if there is no objective truth, there is no Gospel to preach.

    I honestly don’t know what the Pope believes, but whatever it is, it’s hard to consider it Catholic. Even his citations in this sentimental, overblown document are non-Catholic. What does it matter what “Eastern sages” or the 1970s psycho-philosophical guru Erich Fromm (who was a non-practicing Jew and actually rejected the objective nature of the law revealed to the Jews) think about these matters? But of course, if doctrine really doesn’t mean anything anyway, depending on the situation or even location, and is just a symbolic aspiration, it’s all cool.

    At first I just saw this as his usual vague ramblings, but then I got to the end – en cauda venenum, the poison is in the tail, an expression used to refer to something that saves its real damage for the end (or the footnotes), like a scorpion. And then, looking back, I saw a pattern popping up here and there in this sea of 60,000 words, which was essentially that of the rejection of the objectivity and universality, not of any particular doctrine, but of truth itself, revelation and authority. This is Modernism.

  29. dowd says:

    Let’s put the matter succinctly. Pope Francis only accentuated and highlighted the divisions in the Catholic Church with his latest anti-marriage document. First he redid the annulment procedure to make it free and easy. Now with his ‘Joy of Love (sex)’ tome he has given permission (licensed) in a roundabout way those in irregular (sinful) situations to feel comforted and welcome to Communion. With these actions Francis has become the anti-marriage Pope. Divorce will surely increase, divisions will widen, the Church’s credibility will further deteriorate and become even more Protestant than it already is. What was he thinking?? Was he thinking?? God cannot be pleased

  30. Traductora says:

    You’re right, of course, Fr. Z, the Church did not change and I was sloppy both in putting it that way and not quoting the other commentator accurately. I guess it’s because I’m so upset about this that I can barely stand to think about it. The Faith, the Church, is a “stay against confusion” and instead I think the Pope has made it seem like a source of confusion – something that will no doubt lead many astray. Judging by the headlines, the message the world got was that everything is now up for grabs.

    One thing the Pope never seems to acknowledge is that people who abide by the moral law of the Church are happier in this life, as well. It’s not an onerous, unbearable burden, and “releasing” people into chaos leads them to misery in this life and the next.

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