Halloween is just around the corner, and the pundits are setting the stage with a sizzling conversation about heresy. Grab your pitchfork and take a seat.
The explosion started when a group of liberal Catholic theologians got upset with Ross Douthat for criticizing the Catholic hierarchy. They hit up The New York Times with this preposterous letter (signatories linked here):
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.
I see a lot of names from my own institution here in St. Paul. Anyone up for a Heretics Club? I’ll bring the marshmallows if you furnish the flaming hot coals.
To Hell With Heretics!
On first skim, I found this missive exciting. Stylistically, it reads more like com-box quackery than a serious critique. But how refreshing to see it stated, in the pages of The New York Times no less, that heresy has serious consequences! Might the authors be thinking of the sixth circle of Dante’s “Inferno,” in which the stench of burning tombs fills the valley of the heretics? This is what America needs to hear! Preach it, Fr. O’Malley!
As my enthusiasm built to fever pitch, I suddenly realized my mistake. The signatories weren’t suggesting that heresy “can have serious consequences.” It’s the allegations that they hope to quash. How dispiriting.
Heretics Sure Can Get Touchy
How many kinds of ridiculous is this? Let me count the ways. First of all, Douthat never called anyone a heretic in The New York Times. Yes, he implied that Pope Francis was trying to change Catholic doctrine. But search his column for “heretic,” “heresy,” or “heretical,” and you’ll be disappointed.
The foundation for the “heresy” charge comes from a Twitter exchange with historian Massimo Faggioli. In the midst of a hammer-and-tongs exchange about authoritative dogma, Douthat advised him to “own your heresy.” The liberal theologians went berserk.
It’s quite amusing to read Fr. James Martin’s sanctimonious explanation of how very serious these allegations really are. But—reality check!—Douthat is a journalist. He has no ecclesial authority. Calling out heretics from The New York Times isn’t going to inspire a new Inquisition, or even threaten anyone’s job. Find me a single case in which a conservative pundit’s tweet has put a professional theologian in the hot seat with his employer.
To be sure, there is something charmingly medieval about demanding that Douthat attain qualifications before publicly denouncing heretics. It’s as though liberals are replacing the clericalism of yesteryear with a different kind of class distinction. Now academic theologians get to be the gatekeepers of orthodoxy. Do they know a heretic when they see one? Let’s call another synod to work it out.
Finally, as a lowly philosopher I hate to mention it, but this list includes doctoral candidates. Are they really qualified to sign this? I’m concerned.
When ‘Heresy’ Becomes Heretical
It’s pretty delicious when liberal academics try to muzzle a conservative writer for implying in the pages of The New York Times that the Roman Pontiff might be a heretic. Just savor that for awhile.
The true irony, though, is that we’ve reached the point where the only real heresy is to call heresy heretical. This actually reveals a lot about the controversial column that started the whole fracas.
Douthat and his critics have been sparring about the recently-concluded Synod on the Family, in which certain ecclesial authorities (possibly including Pope Francis) were hoping to generate a consensus that divorced and civilly remarried Catholics should be permitted to receive Communion. The bishops overwhelmingly rejected the plan, and liberal Catholics are now disappointed and bitter.
It’s a sad situation, which illustrates why we should really discuss heresy more often. The divorced-and-remarried problem is a circle that cannot be squared. For centuries, the Catholic Church has taught, consistently and authoritatively, that the sacrament of matrimony creates an exclusive bond that is indissoluble except by death. For a married person, any new sexual relationship is considered adulterous, regardless of its civil status.
Adultery can be forgiven, but as with every other sin, contrition is required. If the civilly remarried have no intention of changing their situation, the church cannot regularize them. As a penitent, when seeking absolution for your sins, you must verbally resolve “to confess my sins, to do penance, and to amend my life.” If you have to cross your fingers for the final phrase, you can’t expect it to work.
Adding the word “pastoral” to a document will not get us around this problem. The bishops understand this, as does Douthat. It’s one of those dogma that’s hard to live, but fairly easy to comprehend.
Here’s the more puzzling question: why are there so many divorced and civilly remarried Catholics? In light of the dire consequences, you might expect Catholics to make stringent efforts to avoid this unhappy situation. They should. Unfortunately, Catholic intellectuals and the clergy have much to answer for here, because they’ve been disgracefully complicit in muddying dogma, leaving far too many Catholics in irregular situations.
The Roots of Heresy
Further context may help explain how this happened. Fifty years ago, in the wake of Vatican II, Pope Paul VI assembled a commission in preparation for an encyclical dealing especially with the controversial topic of birth control. Pope Pius XI had condemned artificial contraceptives 30 years previously, but the intelligentsia was eagerly anticipating a change. Pope Paul VI seemed sympathetic to the pro-contraceptive argument and, as in this most recent Synod, appeared to be “stacking the deck” with advisers sympathetic to reform.
Then, in 1968, “Humanae Vitae” was released. It sent shock waves through the Catholic world, from which we still have not recovered. The encyclical did not liberalize. It re-affirmed every important Catholic teaching with respect to marriage and sex, and unequivocally affirmed that “each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life.” To the liberal intelligentsia (and reform-minded clergy), “Humanae Vitae” was a reactionary nightmare. They rebelled.
It’s hardly surprising that rank-and-file Catholics today go on telling pollsters how desperately their church needs to liberalize. For decades this has been preached, not only from the liberal press, but also from the pulpit. Liberal Catholics still mourn July 25, 1968, as a day of infamy. I have friends in theology departments who assure me that Catholic universities are still haunted by theologians for whom the most important, defining moral principle appears to be that “Humanae Vitae” cannot be right.
The effect on the laity has been fairly predictable. When a significant portion of the clergy and intelligentsia openly defy the church’s authority, widespread confusion follows. Now we have a world in which 30-something remarried Catholics try to return to their childhood faith, only to discover that, wow, you were serious about this no-divorce stuff? How did I miss that when I was growing up in the ’80s?
How indeed? Might heretics have something to do with it?
This dynamic should be familiar to political conservatives, because we see similar trends among political liberals discussing the welfare state. Fifty years ago they made bad choices, and now the chickens are coming home to roost. So, yes, they’re a little touchy.
But as in the welfare conversation, kid gloves are not the solution. In a healthy world, we would be talking about heresy a whole lot more. Calling attention to each other’s errors is an act of charity, and Catholics should be discussing the doctrinal ramifications of their views. When “heresy” is heretical, that’s probably a good sign that the heretics are winning.