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Ross Douthat

What Liberal Catholicism Gets Right

An illustration of a pope erasing words from a document.
Credit...Alain Pilon

Opinion Columnist

My column on Wednesday cast a cold eye on the 10th anniversary of Pope Francis’ pontificate. But this is the Lenten season, and as a longtime critic of the present pontiff, it wouldn’t be particularly penitential for me to focus exclusively on his struggles. So in this newsletter I’m going to find some points of agreement with a school of thought I usually argue with, and talk about what liberal Catholicism, as a broad worldview that clearly influences the Francis pontificate, has gotten right.

My starting place will be an essay by Thomas Pink, a philosopher and Catholic traditionalist, that appears in a recent issue of The Lamp, the Catholic journal edited by Matthew Walther, a contributing opinion writer to The Times. Pink sets out to address a question that was primarily associated with liberal Catholics two decades and two popes ago but that has come to matter a great deal to conservatives of late: To what extent is it acceptable for Catholics to argue with the pope? Or even to find ways to resist him?

Or to cite the specific controversies of the Francis era, if a pope tries to suppress the traditional liturgy of the church or seems through his teaching to undermine settled Catholic doctrine, must faithful Catholics simply assume that he is guided by the Holy Spirit in these cases? Or can they protest, criticize, insist that these are mistakes that a future pope should abjure or overturn, or even find ways to resist him?

“A pope is not infallible in his laws, nor in his commands, nor in his acts of state, nor in his administration, nor in his public policy,” wrote John Henry Newman (now St. John Henry Newman) during the 19th-century debates over papal infallibility and its limits. One might think that the history of the medieval and Renaissance papacy would confirm this perspective — yet as Pink argues, there was a powerful school of Catholic thought that held the opposite opinion. And with some justification: Catholics are supposed to assume that the Holy Spirit protects the church, and the papacy especially, from teaching falsely when it comes to crucial matters of faith and morals. Why wouldn’t the same guarantee extend to matters of law and policy and discipline, which are, after all, intimately connected to faith and morals, since they represent the operationalization of Catholic teaching in the world?

Thus Newman’s fellow English Catholic churchman Cardinal Henry Manning argued that the pope’s infallibility covered “all legislative or judicial acts, so far as they are inseparably connected with his doctrinal authority” and similarly that “laws of discipline, canonizations of saints, approbation of religious orders, of devotions, and the like” would all “intrinsically contain the truths and principles of faith, morals and piety.” (This theory would certainly extend the blessings of infallibility to Pope Francis’ crusade against the Traditional Latin Mass.)

The Manning view, Pink argues, wasn’t an outlier: It was quite close to the views of Catholic authorities in the Counter-Reformation era, who allowed for extreme hypotheticals about heretical popes but mostly assumed that the papacy’s infallibility in doctrine extended “to a comparable infallibility as legislator” (as did many popes themselves).

So in 19th-century Catholic debates, some general principle of near-infallibility was a credible conservative position, set against Newman’s relatively liberal assertion that actually, the papacy and the institutional church could make serious mistakes. And a century and a half later, we can say that this debate has been settled in favor of the more liberal position — not through any formal ruling from the Vatican, but simply because of the obvious implications of how the church has changed since then.

Pink brings these changes to their sharpest point, citing the church’s past canonical legislation regarding Judaism — laws that sought to separate Christians from Jews, that enforced identifying dress on Jewish people, confined them to their homes on Christian feast days, forbade the construction of new synagogues and so on through a list of provisions justly considered “discrediting” and “detestable” today. This record, Pink writes, proves that settled church legislation can fail the test of basic justice, while also doing “real and discrediting damage to the church herself and her mission.” It’s therefore near-impossible to believe that such laws should not have been critiqued by Catholics at the time or that there was once an absolute obligation to obey them.

But this example is just the starkest case; the sheer scale of the changes that Catholicism underwent in the era of the Second Vatican Council compounds the argument against any kind of general infallibility. One can argue, as conservative Catholics often do, that these changes were not changes in formal doctrine, but if so, they touched everything else, such as the church’s relationship to politics, its mode of worship, the rules and disciplines governing its religious orders, its relationship to Protestants and Jews — all while vindicating, at least in part, Catholic thinkers and theologians who had been critical of official rulings in the past. So unless one believes that the older policies were perfectly suited to the world as it existed before 1962 and then radically different policies were somehow perfectly suited to the world that came into existence in 1965 — unless one is willing to effectively turn Catholicism into a kind of ideological party, turning on a dime when new instructions arrive from Comrade Peter — there is no escaping the conclusion that Vatican II vindicated Newman, not Manning.

And crucially this is true even, or especially, if you regard some of those 1960s alterations as mistaken or disastrous. Because then you yourself are in the position of the critic, the dissenter, the 19th-century liberal Catholic. For your conception of Catholic tradition to be vindicated, it would necessarily be the case that the church can get things badly wrong — because otherwise, why would it be in need of your desired traditionalist restoration?

This is why a Latin Mass Catholic like Pink finds himself elaborating the case against general infallibility. Indeed, in this sense, the legacy of Vatican II makes liberals out of members of all the Catholic factions. From whatever vantage point, we all must concede some substantial zone of legitimate argument and disagreement, some ground on which to faithfully differ with the pope.

Of course, that concession doesn’t tell you which trajectory a given argument should rightly take or how large the ground of faithful dissent might be — which is why a figure like Newman, a liberal Catholic in debates about the scope of infallibility, could also be the great enemy of theological liberalism in other Victorian debates.

But once you’ve put away Manning’s expansive definition of infallibility, his argument still has its revenge — because matters of faith and morals are still clearly connected to matters of policy and governance, which is why entire edifices of theological reasoning are raised to justify specific rules and disciplines and decisions. So you can’t just cleanly say: “Question the church’s policies and prudence, but don’t question its teaching on faith and morals!” You also have to concede some terrain of public teaching that’s subject to potential error, that’s owed respect and deference but not absolute assent.

Pink calls this kind of teaching “official theology” to distinguish it from the usual term “magisterial teaching,” which has much more authority. The merely “official” kind of teaching, he writes, is the ordinary register in which the church discusses issues, and it “is not itself protected from error … As it mutates and changes, official theology may repeat magisterial teaching, or it may go beyond it; it may pass over some magisterial teaching in silence, or even begin to contradict it.” But at the same time, it’s often the “main medium through which the Church’s teaching is represented and understood by Her members. For that reason, it is often difficult for many of them to distinguish the official theology of the age from magisterial teaching proper.”

Let me offer a concrete example of this difficulty, at one remove from the current culture war: It’s difficult for me, as a fairly well-read Catholic with strong opinions on the faith, to tell you exactly where the current teaching of the church stands on usury, the lending of money with interest charged. There is a traditional teaching, with a long pedigree, that considers almost all forms of interest-based lending to be sinful, which if taken seriously would condemn basically the entire banking system of the modern world. There’s also a widespread belief that in current Catholic teaching only excessive or predatory interest stands condemned — and not the operation of, say, my home mortgage or mutual funds. And then there’s a lively debate between the two positions at the margins of the church’s thought-world, while in the mainstream, it is taken for granted that the old understanding has been updated without there being a definite magisterial statement to that effect.

Was the old teaching merely official, overdrawn and now superseded? Or was the old teaching magisterial and the new perspective a case of official teaching gone awry or corrupted by the world? At the moment, that seems like it’s up to the conscience and intellect of the individual Catholic to discern.

And that is, of course, precisely where liberal Catholicism since Vatican II has argued that a wide range of contested issues related to the sexual revolution should be left — as open questions, basically, to which the church’s older answers, its old official teaching if you will, might no longer apply.

Why I think this view is largely mistaken — why I’m not a liberal Catholic — is a subject for a different, perhaps post-Lenten newsletter. But the history and controversy I’ve just sketched makes the liberal perspective persuasive on several fronts.

First, it’s persuasive to argue there can be a gap, sometimes a large gap, between the vehemence with which the leadership of the church in a given era takes a particular line and the certainty Catholics should have that this line is also an infallible, irreformable teaching. Whether or not the church’s core doctrines can change, whether or not there is continuity on the most fundamental issues, it’s clear some positions that appear designed for permanence do turn out to be changeable — and often that changeability becomes apparent only after people have had the debate, disagreed with the official teaching and seen what happened next.

Second, it’s persuasive to argue that in the present age especially, in which the trials of modernity already yielded a particularly significant set of Catholic changes, it’s very difficult for the church or papacy to settle certain debates authoritatively without arguing through them. That is, even if John Paul II and Benedict XVI were 100 percent correct in every particular about where the church could and couldn’t change, what teachings were magisterial and which were open for debate, the scale of change that had already happened in the church made their authority alone seem like an insufficient guide. Instead, they had to go back to the beginning and make an extended case for the legitimacy of the church’s judgments on the basis of reason and revelation, not just tradition, authority and infallibility.

To be clear, I think both of those conservative popes recognized this, which is why their style was vastly more dialogic and irenic than, say, their 19th-century predecessors. And on some fronts, I think those efforts met with true success. I agree with Michael Brendan Dougherty, for instance, that part of Benedict’s legacy was his burial of a certain style of debunking, anti-supernaturalist biblical criticism that once seemed to be finding a strong purchase in the church.

But on other fronts, the return of controversy under Francis has to be taken as evidence for the third place where liberal Catholicism now seems persuasive: that whatever process is required to restabilize Catholicism, whatever distinctions between the magisterial and merely official come out of current controversies, nothing is likely to be wrapped up by a single pope’s rulings, and the process will be working itself out for many decades yet to come.

Thomas Meaney on the survival of Ernst Jünger.

Tom Shippey on the Norman conquests.

Freddie deBoer anatomizes wokeness.

John Ganz against Silicon Valley.

Anton Jäger on how the post-political became the hyper-political.

Ben Affleck on Ben Affleck.

“How bad is the recruiting crisis? During the last fiscal year, the Army missed its recruiting goal by 15,000 active-duty soldiers, or 25 percent of its target … And the current fiscal year is likely to be even worse. Army officials project that active end strength could shrink by as much as 20,000 soldiers by September, down to 445,000. That means that the nation’s primary land force could plummet by as much as 7 percent in only two years — at a time when its missions are increasing in Europe and even in the Pacific …

“Why is this happening now? Part of it, no doubt, is that the end of the war in Afghanistan makes military service seem less compelling. For the first time in almost 20 years, American troops are no longer fighting abroad to keep insurgents and terrorists at bay. Unemployment is low, which always makes it harder to recruit — and the tight labor market has also forced many companies to increase wages and offer compelling incentives to attract the best talent. But two other sets of factors are interacting in complex ways …

“First, the number of young people who are eligible to serve in the military dropped precipitously last year — from an already low figure of 29 percent to a shocking 23 percent — largely due to the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. Levels of depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions exploded among young Americans (and many not-so-young Americans), who faced sometimes extreme levels of social isolation. School closures and remote instruction have caused test scores to decline dramatically throughout the country (and the world), and scores on the ASVAB, the military’s standardized test for potential recruits, declined by as much as 9 percent. Shuttered schools also made it extremely difficult for recruiters to meet with young people and develop the personal relationships that are so essential for their jobs. And youth obesity rates — which have long been one of the biggest reasons for military ineligibility — increased from 19 percent to 22 percent during the pandemic. Few of these statistics will rebound quickly — and some may never recover to their prepandemic levels.”

Addressing the U.S. Military Recruiting Crisis,” David Barno and Nora Bensahel, War on the Rocks (March 10)