When I heard that our website had been mentioned in the New York Times, I was overjoyed. It is always encouraging to know that one’s efforts are making a difference. However, I was extremely disappointed when I read the column. Not because it was critical of our work (in fact, I don’t think it was), but because it described our position inaccurately. What I read didn’t seem like a description of our site, but somebody else’s, as if the names of our blogs had been mixed up.
Over the weekend, the Times published a piece by Ross Douthat about the future of conservative Catholicism. In it, he explores three possible routes (short of a “schismatic plunge”) that conservative Catholicism may take in the coming years. The first is Cardinals Burke’s position, which Douthat describes as “a Catholicism that is orthodox against the Pope,” which clings to certain conservative doctrinal positions regardless of whether they are compatible with the living Magisterium of the Church. Douthat describes the second route as a “conservative Catholicism that strains more mightily than Burke to interpret all of Francis’ moves in continuity with his predecessors, while arguing that the pope’s liberalizing allies and appointees are somehow misinterpreting him.” The third route “simply resolves the apparent conflict between tradition and papal power in favor of the latter, submitting its private judgment to papal authority in 19th-century style.”
Douthat places Where Peter Is in the third group. According to him, this “would be a conservatism of structure more than doctrine,” and “would still need, for its long-term coherence, an account of how doctrine can and cannot change beyond just papal fiat.”
I think that is a straw man, and here is why.
First of all, I do not accept the label of “conservative Catholic.” Here, I speak for myself; there other writers for this site that would probably describe themselves as liberal or conservative, though I think most of them would agree with me on the argument I will lay out below.
I believe Douthat’s description of our position as a form of “conservative Catholicism” is a kind of compliment. After all, Douthat is a conservative himself, and has often described the Church’s crisis in “Conservative vs. Liberal” terms.
However, my personal opinion is that this dichotomy is the basis for many of our problems in the Church today. We do not have many conservative Catholics: we have mostly Catholic conservatives. The same with liberals: Too many Catholic liberals, too few liberal Catholics. This is the reason why most Catholics (at least the ones that populate social media and intellectual discourse) tend to accept or discard Catholic propositions based on whether they validate or challenge their conservative or liberal ideologies. Instead of taking from their politics what conforms to Catholicism and rejecting that which is incompatible with their faith, they try to shoehorn their Catholicism into their preconceived political agendas, excising or twisting every part of Catholic doctrine that may be uncomfortable for them.
This has been at the root of the suspicion against Francis’ pontificate from the outset. Many Catholics who followed John Paul II and Benedict XVI viewed them as conservative popes, and they tended to confuse Catholicism with Conservatism. When Francis came along, their logical conclusion was that if he was not as conservative as they thought he should be, he could not possibly be Catholic.
Addressing this mistaken understanding happens to be one of the central themes of the current pontificate: Catholics should not treat their religion as an ideology. In this sense, I think that Francis provides the antidote to this mindset that is creating unnecessary hurdles for many good people to achieve full orthodoxy.
As a Catholic, I must embrace the spiritual lessons that the Vicar of Christ wants to teach me. I cannot accept this way of practicing my religion. I cannot be a conservative for the same reason I cannot be a liberal: because I am a Catholic, and unconditionally accepting one of those political labels would conflict with key aspects of my faith.
I want to conserve the things that God wills to conserve and I want to progress (in the sense of “develop”) in the areas where God wills progress. How can we know which is which? A good rule of thumb is to stick with the Magisterium, the authoritative interpreter of Scripture and Tradition. And one of the most important expressions of this Magisterium is the Pope, the Successor of Peter, the one entrusted with the Keys of Heaven and Earth, with the task of binding and loosing.
This double power of Peter’s Keys contains elements of both conservatism and liberalism. The keys bind, and therefore conserve. The keys loosen, and therefore liberate. As a Catholic, I will never be more conservative than the Keys, just like I will never be more liberal than them. On those things the Keys have loosened, I will not be a conservative, because that would be, for me, a lack of faith in the promises of Jesus Christ.
Of course, now someone might argue: you are proving Douthat’s point. You believe that the Pope rules by fiat. According to you, whatever the Pope says, goes, right?
This brings up the second misconception in Douthat’s piece. No, I do not believe that the Pope rules by fiat (except if we’re talking, perhaps, by fiat voluntas Tua.) What I actually do is give my assent of mind and will to the Magisterium. So, when a Pope officially promulgates some development of doctrine, I begin (contrary to many papal detractors nowadays) with the assumption that the development is sound and legitimate. But this is very different from uncritical acceptance.
In our comments and on social media, one of the most frequent accusations we receive is that we “twist ourselves into pretzels” to “justify everything the Pope does.” In this sense, most of our critics actually place us more on the “Catholicism that strains more mightily than Burke to interpret all of Francis’ moves in continuity with his predecessors” end of the spectrum. I’m surprised that Douthat didn’t pin that “conservatism” on us, rather than the “papal fiat” one.
A person has no need to twist himself into a pretzel if he can just fall back on arguments from authority, correct? As I tweeted as soon after I read Douthat’s piece, if we simply believed the Pope can change doctrine by fiat, then our blog would just be a big white background with a single sentence: “It’s true because the Pope said so.”
Granted, we publish a lot of articles on papal authority. But we don’t do it because we think that the Pope rules by fiat. Of course, such pieces on papal authority underlie our articles on various doctrinal developments of this pontificate, because arguments from papal authority are not devoid of value. However, the main reason why we write articles on papal authority is that Francis’ detractors have been disseminating erroneous views on papal authority since the beginning of his pontificate. They have been saying, against 2,000 years of Tradition, that Catholics need not give their assent of mind and will to the Pope if he is not teaching infallibly. This is wrong, this is not Catholic. They have been saying, against 2,000 years of Tradition, that we can simply disregard the Pope on matters of prudential judgment. This is wrong, this is not Catholic. And so on. Our articles in favor of papal primacy are actually a defense, not just of the Pope himself, but of Catholic Tradition as well.
Those articles on papal authority are not the totality of our output, however. Whenever Pope Francis issues a doctrinal development, we always try to explain how and why that development is legitimate. In this sense, Douthat’s characterization of our blog is profoundly unfair to our efforts.
Let us take Amoris Laetitia, for example, and its change in Eucharistic discipline for the divorced and civilly remarried. Here is an article from Paul Fahey explaining its the teaching. Here is an essay I wrote doing the same thing. Here is a piece explaining the continuity between Amoris Laetitia and Familiaris Consortio. Here is an article explaining its continuity with the Catechism. Here is an article from Brian Killian explaining its Thomistic roots. In this piece, Brian Killian explains the harmony between Amoris Laetitia and Veritatis Splendor.
Or let us take the Catechism revision on the death penalty. Here is an article trying to prove how such a revision is a legitimate doctrinal development.
Let us also consider a matter that, though not a Magisterial pronouncement per se, has also been exploited to attack Francis as somehow against Tradition: the controversial God wills “pluralism and the diversity of religions” bit from the Abu Dhabi Joint Declaration. Here is an essay from Adam Rasmussen outlining its continuity with Nostrae Aetate. Here is a piece I wrote explaining its continuity with Dignitatis Humanae.
We have even done this in reverse: not only have we discussed Francis’ continuity with his predecessors, we have also demonstrated the continuity of his predecessors with him. This is why I wrote an essay entitled, “Pope Francis, disciple of Humanae Vitae,” and then a sequel, “Humanae Vitae, precursor of Pope Francis.”
I think it stands to reason that Douthat’s characterization of Where Peter Is as in need of “an account of how doctrine can and cannot change beyond just papal fiat” is extremely inadequate. We have been tirelessly providing such an account since day one. We do not want people to believe just because the Pope said so, but we do want people to be open to the possibility of believing what the Pope says, even if it challenges their preconceived views. In other words, even if it challenges their conservatism. As Chesterton said (as quoted by a book from Card. Poupard), the Church does not require us to take off our heads when we enter it, but it does require us to take off our hats. Unfortunately, this is not what we see today, and that is the reason why we started this website and why we are devoted to its mission.
I hope that this essay has clarified our position regarding papal teaching for any readers who might have been unclear about our purpose.
[Photo credits: America Magazine /Antonio DeLoera-Brust]