Who Won the Synod?

by Ross Douthat
October 26, 2015


[ Emphasis {commentary}in red type by Abyssum ]

Nobody, of course, because there weren’t two “sides” or camps or (heaven help us) factions or anything so nasty as all that. It was all a dialogue, a moment of encounter and discernment, an opening to the Holy Spirit that set the Roman Catholic Church free to be church in a new way for the third millennium. It was a beginning, an overture, the first chapter in a neverending story, the first step on a permanent journey, because we are all sojourners together. So nobody won, because really everybody won.

{Douthat is engaging in a bit of satire in the preceding paragraph !!!}

As Saint Athanasius would say, LOL. No, look, what actually happened is that conservatives won what was probably the closest thing to victory that they could have hoped for, given that 1) the pope was against them, and 2) the pope stacked the governing and writing committees and the voting ranks, and did I mention that 3) the pope was against them. (People who still argue that Pope Francis was studiously neutral, that he just wanted dialogue, or that his views are unknowable, need to sit down and read the tongue-lashing he gave to conservatives in his closing address — and contrast it with the much more evenhanded way he closed last fall’s synod, when conservative resistance to the synod’s intended direction was much more disorganized.) Which is to say they produced a document that used unfashionable words like “indissoluble” to talk about marriage, that mostly avoided the subject of homosexuality, and that offered a few dense, occasionally-ambiguous, slightly-impenetrable paragraphs on welcoming and accompanying divorced and remarried Catholics without offering either a path to communion absent an annulment or proposing to devolve that question to national bishops conferences, as the German bishops and the rest of the progressive caucus at the synod clearly wished.

So the journalists covering the synod document as a setback for the innovators (and, because he elevated them, the pontiff) are mostly correct, given their ambitions going in. But so, in a certain way, are the journalists covering it as a kind of cracked-door to innovation, because the conservatives didn’t have the votes or the power to keep every ambiguity at bay. The most straightforward reading of the synod text supports the first interpretation, for the reasons that (among others) George Weigel and Robert Royal lay out: There is no abrogation of the ancient ban on communion for the remarried, and plenty of phrasings that indicate that ban is still in force. But at the same time, as Royal also notes, the text is not as plain as the document it quotes, John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio, and it spends so much time talking about discernment and individual cases that it seems to sometimes come “right up to the edge” of communion for the remarried, as Royal puts it, without “crossing over into it in so many words.”

How you interpret that tiptoe act, in turn, depends on how you want to interpret it. If you want to read for continuity with the Catholic past, and interpret the synod document in the light of the prior teachings that it cites, you will end up with, well, a conservative, continuity-based reading. If you want to read for rupture, though, you’ll stress the direction of movement, the fact that the new text is somewhat less clear and more ambiguous than previous texts, and suggest that even such a modest change, by its nature, opens the door to further changes still. This is roughly how many of the documents of Vatican II ended up being read by liberal Catholics, as the English Latin Mass champion Joseph Shaw points out here; “spirit of Vatican II” interpretations of where the church should go after the council, he notes:

… came after the promulgation of documents which had been much tweaked in a conservative direction, documents which the more conservative bishops felt they could, after all, support, since they were quite capable of being read in a way consistent with traditional views. For example, it was quite late in the proceedings that one famous sentence of the document on liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, assumed its final form:

‘there must be no innovations unless the good of the Church genuinely and certainly requires them’

with the addition of the phrase ‘genuinely and certainly’, ‘vera et certa’. With this in the document, what more could anyone ask?

But subsequent liberal readings of the documents stressed the movement as the key to the council’s intentions, above and beyond what the text explicitly sad. So in the case of liturgical reform, liberals emphasized that:

… the Council moved the Church from being in favour (for example) of traditional religious dress with all the trimmings, or a completely Latin liturgy, to the point at which we are asked to consider if all the trimmings are appropriate to modern conditions, or to consider the use of the vernacular for some parts of the Mass. What we need to take from the Council, the liberals claimed, is not the document’s final, stated, position – habits and Latin should emphatically be retained – but the direction of movement. It is therefore a matter of ‘obedience to the Council’ to continue that movement: it is obedient to the Council, in fact, to violate the Council’s clear words, and jettison habits, and Latin, altogether. To insist on what the Council actually said is to disobey the Council.

As a traditionalist Shaw obviously takes a hostile view of this interpretative approach, but I think if you rephrased this in their preferred idiom many liberal Catholics would recognize and embrace it. Never put a period where God has put a comma, runs one of the refrains of liberal Protestantism, and in reading post-conciliar documents liberal Catholics have generally been interested in 1) finding what look like commas, and then 2) declaring that the comma implies a further clause (or several), written in their preferred form. And that’s what’s being done, already, with the documents of this synod — by Cardinal Kasper, most notably, but many others as well.

However: Having a document that can be interpreted as a permission slip by liberal bishops (and a Vatican that won’t discipline or push back on that interpretation) is still different from having a document that from conservatives’ perspective actively teaches error — or, in the case of devolution, lends doctrinal authority to such teaching at the national or local level. The former tips the post-1960s see-saw more toward liberal Catholicism, but it doesn’t promise either an immediate theological crisis for conservatives or a kind of slide (maybe slow, maybe swift) into Anglican scenarios. It winds the clock back to 1975, you might say, unwinds some gains that conservatives had thought they made, and changes the terms of what Weigel has called “the truce of 1968″ (a truce that I regard more favorably than he does, for what it’s worth) to make them more favorable to liberal Catholics … but John Paul II and Benedict had changed the terms in a conservative direction, so this swing isn’t uncharted territory for the post-Vatican II church.

What would be uncharted territory is if this pope decides to act on his irritation with conservatives and/or his vision of decentralization, and use his post-synodal exhortation to make the crack that liberals see already wider, undeniable, visible to everyone. On that question the time for predictions is over: The part of me that assumes he won’t risk such things also thought that his liberal annulment reforms would cool his ardor for change, and I honestly have no idea what he’s willing to risk anymore. For the rest of the fall, I’ll stick to making horse-race predictions; the Vicar of Christ’s plans are knowable to God alone.


Ross Douthat joined The New York Times as an Op-Ed columnist in April 2009. Previously, he was a senior editor at the Atlantic and a blogger for He is the author of “Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class” (Hyperion, 2005) and the co-author, with Reihan Salam, of “Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream” (Doubleday, 2008). He is the film critic for National Review.


Rod Dreher

The McCarthyism of Liberal Catholic Elites

And he doesn't even have a theology degree! (On Being/Flickr)

There is a  letter was drafted by Massimo Faggioli and John O’Malley, SJ, and is now being signed by a bunch of liberal Catholic academics. Here’s how it stands as I post this; names are being added to the signatory list constantly:

To the editor of the New York Times

On Sunday, October 18, the Times published Ross Douthat’s piece “The Plot to Change Catholicism.” Aside from the fact that Mr. Douthat has no professional qualifications for writing on the subject, the problem with his article and other recent statements is his view of Catholicism as unapologetically subject to a politically partisan narrative that has very little to do with what Catholicism really is. Moreover, accusing other members of the Catholic church of heresy, sometimes subtly, sometimes openly, is serious business that can have serious consequences for those so accused. This is not what we expect of the New York Times.

October 26, 2015

John O’Malley, SJ (Georgetown University)
Massimo Faggioli (University of St. Thomas, Minnesota)
Nicholas P. Cafardi (Duquesne University)
Gerard Mannion (Georgetown University)
Stephen Schloesser, SJ (Loyola University Chicago)
Katarina Schutch OSF (University of St. Thomas, Minnesota)
Leslie Tentler (Catholic University of America, emerita)

John Slattery (University of Notre Dame)
Andrew Staron (Wheeling Jesuit University)
Megan McCabe (Boston College)
Thomas M. Bolin (St. Norbert College)
Kevin Brown (Boston College)
Alan C. Mitchell (Georgetown University)
Elizabeth Antus (John Carroll University)
Kathleen Grimes (Villanova University)
Fran Rossi Szpylczyn
Christopher Bellitto (Kean University)
Katharine Mahon (University of Notre Dame)
Tobias Winright (Saint Louis University)
Corey Harris (Alvernia University)
Kevin Ahern (Manhattan College)
John DeCostanza (Dominican University)
Daniel Cosacchi (Loyola University Chicago)
Amy Levad (University of St. Thomas, Minnesota)
Christine McCarthy (Fordham University)

What a remarkable document. Really remarkable — and damning to the writers, who ought to be ashamed of themselves.

The Catholic layman Ross Douthat, according to these liberal Catholic academics, is too stupid to have an opinion about Catholicism, because he has not been trained in theology. And his opinions are invalid because they reach offer a conclusion offensive to the letter-writers  follow a “politically partisan narrative that has very little to do with what Catholicism really is.” You will look at the October 18 column in question, and anything else Ross Douthat has written about Catholicism, and I very much doubt you will find anything contrary to the faith and morals magisterially proclaimed by the Roman Catholic Church. You will unquestionably find much contrary to the faith and morals magisterially proclaimed by the Faggioli-O’Malley crew.

Furthermore, and perhaps most embarrassingly to the letter-writers, they actually try to do the Catholic version of red-baiting Douthat, as if a newspaper columnist’s criticism of heresy (“sometimes subtly, sometimes openly”) actually stood to make a difference in the lives of those so accused. It is ridiculous. That term “sometimes subtly, sometimes openly” is downright McCarthyite. Read the actual column; the word “heresy” doesn’t appear in it, and if it did, so what? Heresy is a constant issue within Christianity, and has been since the beginning.

I must have missed the letters from this bunch complaining about the frequent columns from Douthat’s liberal Catholic colleagues Maureen Dowd and Frank Bruni complaining about Benedict XVI and anything to do with Catholic orthodoxy. George Weigel documented some of Dowd’s charges in her column here:

Six times since February, and thrice in the past three weeks, Ms. Dowd has lifted her poison pen and, serially, mocked the Church’s practice of sacramental confession and its settled conviction on the inadmissibility of women to Holy Orders; portrayed the cases of abuse recently brought to light in Philadelphia as part of an ongoing pattern of crime in the Church; deplored the beatification of John Paul II on the grounds that he failed “to protect innocent children”; charged that the Vatican “preferred denial to remorse” and was deliberately stonewalling the reform of the Church in Ireland; mocked the conversion to Catholicism of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich while suggesting that prominent churchmen, who “have a fuzzy grasp on right and wrong,” had been Gingrich’s toadies; and then committed calumny against New York archbishop Timothy Dolan in a Fathers’ Day column that took anti-Catholic-bitchery-as-commentary to a new low.

Bruni has written in a similar vein, many times over the years, with far more slashing, reckless criticism than Douthat has ever written (for example here, and here; there are many, many more examples). But where have the O’Malleys and Faggiolis and Cafardis been to defend the integrity of the Catholicism against these vulgar scribes without theology degrees? The hypocrisy is staggering.
What the Faggioli-O’Malley gang is plainly doing is accusing Ross Douthat of heresy (“This is not what we expect of The New York Times“) and trying to create negative consequences for him in his workplace, by not-so-subtly accusing Douthat of witch-hunting — which can be expected to land a precise blow with the Times’ leadership. As the very smooth Jesuit Father Jim Martin tweets, presumably with a straight face:
“A grave charge” — oh, please. These people are trying to create a “Senator, when did you stop beating your wife?” narrative, in which Douthat has to defend himself against a charge he never leveled. And even if he did, so what? He’s a newspaper columnist writing for a secular newspaper, not L’Osservatore Romano.

Listen, I wouldn’t for one second begrudge any of these letter-writers the opportunity to send a Letter to the Editor griping about Douthat or anybody else. The starched-collar pomposity of this particular group letter, and the specifics of its complaints against him, deserve a snort. It would be equally snort-worthy if Princeton’s Robbie George and a group of Catholic conservative scholars penned a similar letter making the same complaint about a Bruni or Dowd column. This does go to show, though, how rigidly intolerant some well-placed institutional figures on the Catholic Left are. They won’t even tolerate the expression of Catholic opinion with which they disagree.

Tonight in Manhattan, Ross Douthat gave the annual Erasmus Lecture at First Things, in which he addressed “The Crisis of Conservative Catholicism.” Among the points he made was that conservative Catholics needed to make better arguments. Nowhere did he say that conservative Catholic academics ought to gang up on liberal Catholic newspaper columnists, accuse them of ignorance and witch-hunting, and try to get them silenced. But that’s what these liberal Catholic scholars are doing. I don’t expect them necessarily to respect conservative Catholic opinion. But at least they ought to respect the conventions of liberalism, which includes open, robust debate.

That they do not tells us a lot about where the fight among Catholics is headed. They have revealed themselves. These liberal ultramontanists and the progressive Pope lost in the Synod, and now its gloves off. They’re not even going to keep up pretenses anymore. This is useful information to have, if you think about it. At least now conservative Catholics can know what they’re going to face, and prepare.

UPDATE: Yes, this:
At some point, conservatives within the churches will realize that when liberals call for “dialogue,” what they really mean is “we talk until you give us what we want.”

UPDATE: From reader Richao:

This is the sort of thing that drove me out of the Episcopal Church: the platitudes about dialogue, the carefully phrased public statements that use the language of traditional Christian doctrine to conceal (at best) a liturgical Unitarianism or (at worst) a complete lack of belief, and a burning desire to retreat into clericalism when challenged by the laity. As Rod says, dialogue means nothing more than “We’ll keep talking until you cave, and no longer.”

What’s remarkable to me about the letter is its utter lack of substance. I mean, it’s not surprising in light of the general intellectual decadence of contemporary academia. I have written here before about my experiences with two highly respected mainline protestant divinity schools–the muddled thinking, the inability to articulate a coherent argument, the utter unfamiliarity with and contempt for foundational texts of the tradition–and this letter is about what one would expect from scholars in that milieu: An appeal to authority, coupled with whining about the offensiveness of the term “heretic,” without (a) engaging with the substance of the charge (probably because Douthat actually did not call anybody a heretic in the column they’re complaining about) or (b) attempting to argue that the charge is misplaced.

You would think that trained theologians, of all people, would understand (as an Orthodox priest who taught a class I audited in graduate school noted when he used the term to refer to certain theologians) that “heresy” and “heretic” are technical terms, with substantive content. It is no defense – no intellectually serious defense, at any rate – to respond to it by claiming that you’re offended or hurt by the term, or that it has no place in polite discourse. Assuming that you are a believing theologian, it most certainly does have a place as an essential tool to identifying the boundaries between what is faithful to the historic Christian tradition and what is not.

Oh, and this from an Oct. 1 HuffPost column by Prof. Faggioli, one of the originators of the Anti-Douthat Letter:

The incident of Kim Davis is part of a wider scenario of struggle between the pontificate of reform with mercy and a dying clerical Leninism.

The irony here is so very, very rich.

And here is a quote from a response that the Jesuit Father O’Malley, the other originator of this letter, gave publicly to Douthat in a pre-Synod critical commentary on Douthat’s writing:

While the synod is in session as a body of bishops working collegially with the pope to take measures for the good of the church, it is a binding and authoritative teaching organ in the church. Do not all orthodox Catholics believe that that authority is to be accepted over their own personal fears, expectations and hopes?

Do not all orthodox Catholics believe that that authority is most certainly to be accepted over the objections of “a minority—sometimes a small minority,” as Mr. Douthat describes himself and his fellow-travelers?

But the Synod did not conclude as Fr. O’Malley expected it to. Those words ought to haunt him, but they won’t.

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About abyssum

I am a retired Roman Catholic Bishop, Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas
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