2016 was full of electoral theatre, but it was above all the year of Amoris laetitia, which by making Kasperism apparently the official teaching of the Church has discredited the Catholic Church as an authority on matters of ethics, perhaps permanently. One can argue whether Pope Francis’ exhortation really does say that wives should not submit to their husbands but may be obliged to render the marriage debt to their adulterous partners and that personal conscience has the authority to overturn universal ethical norms. I may be a bad Catholic for finding this the natural reading of the document, but most Catholics, including bishops (who are eagerly extending the logic), seem to agree, and the pope’s own correspondence seems to reinforce this understanding.
Perhaps I should ignore the natural reading and try to read AL according to previous teaching? But this undermines the rationale for a living Magisterium, which is that we are supposed to read old documents in the light of new ones, rather than vice versa. How can I trust the natural reading of these older documents without tracing them all the way back to the oldest Magisterial documents, the Bible itself? Must every Catholic follow this chain all the way back? At the very least, we must concede that the Protestants were write all along about the “private interpretation” thing. Not only is it possible to understand the Bible without the Pope; it’s impossible to understand the Pope without the Bible.
Perhaps Francis, by teaching heresy, is not a valid pope? But if an anti-pope can rule the Church without the Church noticing it, corrupting the deposit of faith, how can we be sure this didn’t happen 100, 500, or 1500 years ago? You see the magnitude of the problem?
What’s more, the damage is irreparable. A conservative pope might someday reverse every controversial bit of AL, but that would only mean that a rival faction would have temporarily come to power. Everyone would remember that Rome had once taught the opposite with the acquiescence of the world’s bishops. The ethical teachings of Rome will henceforth always be seen–by people on all sides–as current policy rather than immutable doctrine.
Plus, I know it’s not magisterial, but having a Pope tell interviewers stuff like that communists are the real Christians and only cohabiters are really married is taking its toll, even on me.
Everything I’ve said is true even if your innocuous reading of AL is correct rather than mine and the majority’s. Assuming Catholicism survives the Francis pontificate, teaching authority will henceforth play a far smaller role for the Church than has been the case for a thousand years. For a long time, Magisterial authority has played the key role in convincing people (to the extent they were convinced) that Catholicism is a package deal, that one may not pick and choose the bits one likes. Without this assurance, it is much easier for liberalism to pick off “difficult” teachings one by one until nothing is left. Now that Peter has faltered, what can hold the pieces of the Church together?
- Tribalism. Obviously, loyalty to Catholics as a people with distinct rituals and history can’t completely substitute for the certainty of faith, but it does give a lot. It provides a will to resist liberal attacks. It is itself a principle for resisting liberalism, which rejects loyalty on principle. It gives a reason for valuing the sacraments, namely their communal binding role, even apart from their supernatural efficacy. Ironically, tribalism is the only way to make the communal focus that liberal Catholicism wants actually work.
- Reverence for the sacraments. The Eucharist is the true heart of the life of the Church, but assuming your appreciation for it is more than merely tribal (not that there’s anything wrong with tribal appreciation!), it is based on certain doctrines like Transubstantiation which you regard as assured. That is, sacramental Catholicism is no substitute for doctrinal Catholicism. We must have some core of beliefs that can’t be shaken no matter how absurd, offensive, and self-contradictory the Church’s official teachers shall henceforth be.
- The ideology of Catholicism. One could try to formulate Catholicism not as a living authority but as a fixed set of principles and the deductions from them. Catholicism would then be defined as the application of meta-principles like corporatism and sacramentalism to the historical assertion of the Incarnation. I sort of tried to build such an ideology here. The trouble is that, insofar as Catholicism has an ideology, it is an ideology that points to the inadequacy of ideology, that any finite set of axioms cannot adequately represent the truths in supra-rational sacramental acts and a living tradition.
- Nitpicking. We can continue ignoring non-Magisterial statements of popes, devising readings of hostile Magisterial documents that avoid direct contradiction with previous teaching, when that fails arguing that some older document trumps the newer one in authority according to non-arbitrary criteria. Catholic readers will tell me this is the only viable course for an orthodox Catholic. It suffers, though, from a priori improbability. People are rightly skeptical that a few scattered malcontents understand Catholicism better than the Pope and bishops. They rightly realize that our critique is self-devouring: if 2017 Catholicism can’t be taken at face value because it doesn’t match 1958 Catholicism, how do we know we can accept the latter at face value? The 2017 Church is every bit as emphatic about rejecting racism, national borders, and proselytism as the 1958 Church was about rejecting Communism, Protestantism, and Islam. We could argue, as I have, that the 1958 condemnations fit Catholicism the ideology better than the 2017 condemnations, or one could argue that the 1958 condemnations carry more authority for technical reasons. Either way, our case is complicated and non-intuitive. I’m not entirely convinced myself.
So, what else happened in 2016? Somehow, believing that a man who cuts his dick off and puts on a dress does not thereby become a woman passed out of the Overton Window. Given the magnitude of the Left’s recent victories in the culture wars, this felt much less momentous than it otherwise would have. We on the Right had gotten spoiled, expecting that it would take a full half-decade between the time the Left invents a crazy idea to the time no one is allowed to disagree. Now it happens faster. Welcome to the era of the no-limits Left.
The British are getting a lesson in the futility of democracy in the absence of rival elites.
On the bright side, LIGO detected gravitational waves. Woo-hoo! And the day after the press conferences, I got tenure. I suppose that should make me bolder for The Cause, but given what the Catholic Church has just done to herself, it’s hard to see the point anymore.
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