Monday, October 20, 2014

Conservatives who think the Church has changed its view on same-sex marriage need to get a grip

Moral ailments, like physical ones, don't respond well to panic. Yet this seems just the cure some conservatives have in mind for what they are told by the liberal media is the new liberal position of the Catholic Church on marriage.

In fact, it was serendipitous that the Ebola scare and the conservative reaction to the release of a preliminary account of discussions at an extraordinary synod in Rome written by a liberal bishop hit on the same week. They were both examples of the same impulse: to lose all perspective in the face of a threat.

The reaction of the good folks at Front Porch Republic—who referenced Rod Dreher who referenced Damon Linker—was representative of the general conservative response.

These are all among my favorite people, of course, but their responses betrayed a disturbing level of what, in his recent book Present Shock, Douglas Rushkoff has called "digiphrenia": a disordered condition of mental activity resulting from too much exposure to digital media.

This is a result of what Rushkoff calls "reality on tap," when "everything happens now." We are informed instantaneously about every news event and respond instantaneously so that we begin to think that there is no other reality than the present one. Everything is considered from a short-term perspective and the long-term begins to have no meaning for us.

The upshot is that we think in instantaneous terms and lose any historical perspective.

These are all good people, but its hard being in the same philosophical vehicle with them sometimes because a few of them have a habit of grabbing the dashboard and shouting "We're all going to die!" every time someone pulls out in front of us 1,000 yards ahead. All it took in the present case was a few news reports that a report out of a Catholic Church synod was hedging on the issue of same sex marriage and, without stopping to think how this might be being mis-portrayed and without digging deeper to see what was actually going on, conservatives went into full panic mode.

Folks, get a grip. Put down your smart phones, shut off your 4G, turn off your satellite TV, and think for a moment about what you're dealing with here.

You're talking about a 2,000 year-old institution that issues important documents in a language that hasn't been widely spoken by anybody but a few nerdy classics majors for several hundred years, that indicates who it has elected its leader by what color smoke it sends out of an old stove pipe in Vatican City, and that still worries on a daily basis about the Great Schism of 1054 AD.

This is an institution whose leader tweets. In Latin.

The Catholic Church doesn't think or operate like a modern institution, largely because it isn't one.

When changes are necessary, a committee is formed, which meets the next year. It has meetings and issues memos, which takes about another year. Then it breaks for a couple of years to think about it. Then it reconvenes again the next year to discuss a recommendation. It takes another six months to type the recommendation out on an old manual typewriter on triple-layered carbon paper, which urges that another committee be formed which will take another several years to deliberate on what it will recommend to the Pope. But by then the Pope is dead, so they have to appoint another pope and start the process all over again.

This is why I like the Catholic Church: It's so hard to get anything done that only the most important things actually get done and only the changes that are absolutely necessary ever get made.

The Presbyterian Church, USA or the Northwest Eastern Convention of Southern Independent Evangelical Baptists may decide to allow the ordination of bald lesbian Wiccans over the weekend, but this is just not the way the Catholic Church operates.

In fact, part of the problem here is that conservative protestants are reading their church paradigm, according to which these decisions can be made fairly quickly, onto the Catholic Church, where these paradigms simply don't fit.

The process the Catholic Church uses is admittedly long—and undeniably messy. But that's part of its tradition. And it's a long  tradition which is also a tradition of longness. But Peter Daniel Haworth at Front Porch Republic assures us:
Belief that the Holy Spirit invariably leads the Roman Catholic Church to what is true requires one to suspend reasonable skepticism about the typical dysfunction and fallibility of humans and human institutions.
It's a little hard to tell exactly what this sentence is saying, but I think what he means is that we're all supposed to doubt whether God works through processes of doctrinal change and formulation that involve a lot of disagreement, infighting and various other kinds of messiness, one of the things a few Catholics have advised outside observers to consider. Fr. Robert Barron, for example, warned his readers in a recent post about the "saugage-making" aspect of Church gathering like the one this last week.

"Those who love the barque of Peter," he quotes Cardinal John Henry Newman as saying, "ought to stay out of the engine room!”

Modern institutions are all supposed to operate like the George Pompidou Centre in Paris is built: with all the structure on the outside for everyone to see. So now we see the sausage-making aspect of the Church from the inside and think there must be something wrong. It would be interesting if Haworth were to apply his doubt about God working through human imperfections to other historical events in Church history. If he is a Christian, then he adheres to a creed (or the substance of it, even if he is "non-creedal") that was fashioned at the Council of Nicea, where ecclesiastical delegates not only engaged in prolific beard-pulling, but where St. Nicholas (yes, that one) allegedly slugged Arius right in the kisser.

Somebody had to do it. It might as well be Santa Claus.

The only difference between now and then is that there weren't reports on internal discussions being issued and then broadcast worldwide instantly.

And then maybe he could exercise his "reasonable skepticism" on Jesus' genealogy, which includes murderers, prostitutes, adulterers, and one person who was the product of incest. Now there's some serious dysfunction and fallibility.

And then there is this paragraph, again fashioned by Haworth:
... one can question whether mere theoretical searching for contradictions in RCC dogma is a sufficient test for the soundness of the First Vatican Council’s strong claims about papal authority–i.e., the Pope being infallible when speaking ex cathedra on faith and morals. One should be wary (if not dismissive) of a papal authority that appears to be on the brink of effectively undermining its church’s long-held doctrinal tradition (possibly through new pastoral directives), albeit without explicitly changing its parchment doctrine so as to hide the reality that such a de facto change is actually occurring. And, when an individual Christian (even one who is within the RCC) comes to this point, it is reasonable for him or her to also evaluate what to do (or where to go) next.    
Now I have applied various methods of interpretation to this paragraph--as well as to trying to figure out everything set off with an em-dash (and the parts in parentheses), and have tried to determine why he uses so, many, commas, and have concluded that Haworth would probably make more sense if, rather than simply using occasional Latin expressions, he had simply said the whole thing in Latin.

But what Haworth seems to be saying is that the doctrine of Papal infallibility makes it easier for the Pope to change Church doctrine, something I have read numerous other places.

Well, you can use all the relative clauses you want (although quite frankly, I think Haworth has exceeded the limit), but the problem is this: The doctrine of papal infallibility does not make it easier for one pope to change the doctrines of his predecessors: It makes it harder. This was one of the reasons that Pope John XXII opposed the doctrine in the 14th century and actually condemned it in a bull. The Franciscans thought he was trying to change what they believed a long-held teaching to which the Pope was in disagreement, and they appealed to the doctrine of papal infallibility to demonstrate that the pope could not change the doctrine of his predecessors.

If pope's are infallible (in regard to the limited kinds of things that that doctrine applies to), then later popes, far from having greater ability to change the doctrines of their predecessors, have far less.

Admittedly it is not easy for a Catholic like myself to suffer the indignity of a New York Times editorial praising the Church, but all we know from last week's Extraordinary Synod is this: that, a) if the Obama administration hasn't used up all the available czars, the Vatican could use one to manage its communications office; b) that there are liberals trying to influence Church doctrine; c) that they're very vocal; d) that they've got cheerleaders in the media; e) that some conservatives place too much credence in the liberal media's portrayal of Church events; and f) that using this many semicolons in one place could give Haworth ideas.

All of which is to say that the Catholic Church has not caved on the same-sex marriage issue and that conservatives—particularly conservative protestants—who are now performing last rites over the Church need not only to put reports from the liberal media in better perspective, but need to better understand how the Church operates before they jump to conclusions.


KyCobb said...


You are right. Considering that the Church still bans divorce, contraception, married priests and female priests, I don't expect it to give serious consideration to same-sex marriage for at least another century or two.

Martin Cothran said...

Gosh, I hope it doesn't happen that soon.

Art said...

Interesting. I suppose that Martin expects, and probably looks forward to, the Church's reversion to its historical, um, treatment of Jews, placing its rather recent tolerance back into the file of tried and failed diversions from long-established tradition.

KyCobb said...


As Treebeard would say, don't be hasty!

Martin Cothran said...


Are you talking about actions that were the result of the explicit teachings of the Church or actions that were deviations from that teaching?

And, just out of curiosity, where does your belief that it is bad to treat Jews poorly come from?

Art said...

Martin, are Papal edicts "explicit teachings of the Church"? If not, then why should anyone ever listen to anything any Pope says? Why should Catholics pay any attention to any of their babblings?

Martin Cothran said...


What are you referring to as a "papal edict"? This post refers to the relatio which the media blew out of proportion. It was basically a glorified memo reporting on discussions at the Extraordinary Synod.

Lee said...

In 2009, President Obama said he did not support same-sex marriage.

In 2012, President Obama reversed his position.

What I want to know is the precise moment between 2009 and 2012 when President Obama started being a bigot.