New York Times columnist Ross Douthat's critique of the direction of Catholicism under Pope Francis has recently come under attack from some prominent American Catholic theologians. However, my concern is not on the theological credentials of Douthat or whether he should use the pages of the New York Times as a pulpit to pontificate on the hermeneutics of the leadership of Pope Francis. My goal in this essay is to engage the substance and presuppositions of his claims about Catholicism. Theologians who disagree with Douthat should enter into a healthy and robust dialogue with him and show why and how the claims of his argument lack merits. Every Christian is capable of doing theology when they reflect on their faith. I appreciate the sentiments of the theologians who signed the petition against Douthat but I do not share in some of their convictions. Douthat like every other Catholic and free American has a right to reflect on what he understands about faith, Catholic identity, doctrines and the directions of his church. In doing this, he has the right to call forth those values and virtues in American Public Square and political discourse to shed light on faith's connections and consequences for the common good of the United States. I do not agree with many of Douthat's conclusions, but I admire his desire to publicly and strongly uphold and defend his Catholic convictions through the storied pages of the New York Times.
What is problematic in Douthat's writings so far on Pope Francis is that it lacks a sense of history. Without a broader understanding of the history of the development of Catholic beliefs and practices, Douthat confuses disciplinary regulations with belief; and the cultural forms of sacramental celebrations with their essence. To give one example, his argument that changing the disciplinary regulations about reception of communion which allows divorced and remarried Catholics to receive communion will empty the indissolubility of the sacrament of matrimony is a non-sequitor. Annulment process is a regulatory protocol introduced to address the status of those whose marriages have failed. It is not an article of faith and can be changed anytime to make it a more effective process for healing and restoration of broken lives. Changing the annulment process does not change the essence of marriage, Holy communion or the sacrament of reconciliation. Thus to charge Pope Francis of clearly inclining toward 'the liberalizing view' and of consistently maneuvering the process to advance this change is not only an ad hominem argument but lacks any factual support. If one Pope introduced annulment as a response to the challenges facing Catholics in his times, why shouldn't another pope seek for new approaches to better serve the needs of Catholics in order to realize the intention of the Lord Jesus in instituting these sacraments?
Furthermore, to argue as Douthat does that the inseparable link between Holy Communion and the sacrament of reconciliation is being torn by those who propose allowing communion for divorced and remarried Catholics shows Douthat's limited understanding of the history of the sacrament and the Holy Eucharist. The sacrament of Reconciliation is not more efficacious than the Holy Eucharist in taking away sin. The penitential rite at the beginning of Mass is not meant to be a mere window dressing. Traditionally, the church has taught that this little confession does take away venial sin, but in the words of absolution said at Mass the priest asks God to 'forgive us our sins' not 'some of it', but all of it. While traditional Catholicism upholds the importance of sacramental confession for all who are conscious of any sin in their lives, and discourages 'unworthy reception' of communion, it leaves the ultimate judgment on individual conscience. The quest by Douthat for a rigorist and pure church is at the heart of his unease with Pope Francis. Also he confuses the contingent means for realizing the ends of the sacrament with the essence of the sacrament, and fails to appreciate the historical development of the sacramental practices and the limitations of these practices in mediating fully what God wishes to offer to the Church. This is a major weakness in his essays.
Finally, without an appreciation of the history of the synodal and conciliar traditions of the Church, Douthat and Catholics like him are unfortunately obsessed with a siege mentality about the future of the Church. He sees dialogue and disagreement at the Synod as a sign of confusion rather than a summons for discernment about the movement of the spirit in history. He interprets Pope Francis' openness to listening to what the Spirit says to the Church rather than impose his will on bishops and cardinals as was the case in recent papacies as a veiled stratagem for changing the church in his own image and likeness. At the heart of Douthat's unease about the papacy of Francis is his desire for an unchanging church, and his innocent romantic ideals of a transcendental ecclesiology of an ahistorical Catholicism. But Catholicism from her origin has always been a changing and reforming church. Thus the cultural bereavement of Catholics like Douthat or their public disagreement and excoriation of the pope are hewed from a certain ideological reading of a presumed synchronist and pure Catholicism, untouched by historical forces. Such Catholicism exists only in the innocent pietistic world of Douthat. So what is at stake here is not simply of a doctrinal and dogmatic fortress which may wither in Catholicism, but rather of the renewing fire of the Spirit which will be smothered if the Church does not open herself to the gift of prophecy from the Spirit whose wind blows wherever and whenever she pleases.
Pope Benedict XVI then as Cardinal Ratzinger once said in an interview that "Catholicism is fed by the whole of the history of belief, but in its characteristic form it developed in the Western Church. In that sense, much of what we today call a Catholic way of thinking is not beyond the limitations of time, nor is it unchangeable." My contention in this essay is that Catholicism is a great river with many cultural and historical tributaries all contributing in enriching this sea of love watering the city of God on earth. If this is true of Catholicism, then one should become increasingly conscious of the limitations of forms of thinking and acting within the church which could narrow the full expression of Catholicism as a world church. Every act of believing is conditioned by the historical and social context of the believer and every analysis of faith is influence in most cases by the locus of enunciation of the writer or theologian. To elevate one's thinking to a metaphysics or to apotheosize one's culturally conditioned understanding of Catholic orthodoxy as some abstracted totally packaged revelatory gift from God above is problematic and misleading. It is so easy to sustain such debates in the comfort of Times Square rather than from the dumps of history like Pope Francis. However, when you are dealing with other counter narratives of faith and of divinity, of history and the last things like some of us theologians from Africa and Asia in the encounter with Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism and African Traditional Religions; when you are dealing with a congregation relying only on prayer for answers to sickness, witchcraft and failed governments; when belief for you is a matter of life or death in the face of religious persecution the limitations of Western debates in a post-Western Christianity immediately becomes clear. The versions of Western ways of thinking about the God of Jesus Christ embraced by Douthat and the Western canons of inclusion and exclusion through religious narratives of sin and righteousness embedded in Western Christianity is coming to the end of the road. It is no longer offering valid answers to new questions here in the West nor is it satisfying the new contexts of faith outside the West. Pope Francis knows this because the Cardinals chose him from a non-Western end of the earth to challenge, reform and transform Catholicism from this form of thinking and acting so that Catholics can encounter a God of love and mercy and not simply a metaphysical and idealistic God. Pope Francis is making it possible for God to surprise us by opening our eyes to new things and asking us to step into a new future by not putting new wine into an old wine skin.