Ross Douthat’s recent column and an interesting debate that follows

AUC 2019 poster 5-highIt’s still not too late to register for the Anglican Tradition in the Catholic Church Conference in Toronto this coming Friday and Saturday!  I look forward to seeing you there!  We will be posting a detailed itinerary soon.

Come as we celebrate our liturgical and musical patrimony—our treasures to be shared—in the beautifully-restored St. Michael’s Cathedral Basilica of the Archdiocese of Toronto in three solemn liturgies, beginning with a Votive Mass of the Holy Spirit this Friday evening at 7 pm.

Come hear great conference speakers on Saturday.

Meanwhile, Ross Douthat, a conservative Catholic columnist at the New York Times, recently interviewed Cardinal Burke, and accompanied the interview with a column analyzing the plight of conservative Catholics. 


The Burke critique is simple enough. Church teaching on questions like marriage’s indissolubility is supposed to be unchanging, and that’s what he’s upholding: “I haven’t changed. I’m still teaching the same things I always taught and they’re not my ideas.” What is unchanging certainly can’t be altered by an individual pontiff: “The pope is not a revolutionary, elected to change the church’s teaching.” And thus if Francis seems to be tacitly encouraging changes, through some sort of decentralizing process, it means “there’s a breakdown of the central teaching authority of the Roman pontiff,” and that the pope has effectively “refused to exercise [his] office.”

This is a position with some precedents in Catholic history. John Henry Newman, the Victorian convert, theologian and cardinal recently sainted by Francis, once suggested that there had been a “temporary suspense” of the church’s magisterium, its teaching authority, during eras in which the papacy failed to teach definitively or exercise discipline on controversial subjects. And the church’s saints from such periods include bishops who stood alone in defense of orthodoxy, sometimes against misguided papal pressure.

He continues:

But you can also see in my conversation with the cardinal how hard it is to sustain a Catholicism that is orthodox against the pope. For instance, Burke himself brought up a hypothetical scenario where Francis endorses a document that includes what the cardinal considers heresy. “People say if you don’t accept that, you’ll be in schism,” Burke said, when “my point would be the document is schismatic. I’m not.”

But this implies that, in effect, the pope could lead a schism, even though schism by definition involves breaking with the pope. This is an idea that several conservative Catholic theologians have brought up recently; it does not become more persuasive with elaboration. And Burke himself acknowledges as much: It would be a “total contradiction” with no precedent or explanation in church law.

Two most interesting responses to Douthat’s column have followed.

One is from the blog Where Peter Is:

Paul Fahey writes:

Our position is simply that Catholics are called to respond with docility and obedience to the ordinary Magisterium of the pope, regardless of who the pope is. Our position is that the Living Magisterium is the authentic interpreter of Scripture and Tradition in the Church. As the Catechism says:

‘The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church alone. Its authority in this matter is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ.’ This means that the task of interpretation has been entrusted to the bishops in communion with the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome (CCC #85).

Douthat suggest that in order for the Where Peter Is approach to be coherent, there needs to be “an account of how doctrine can and cannot change beyond just papal fiat.” Such an account already exists, and it is called the development of doctrine. This is what we’ve been asserting since the beginning: that the development of doctrine is sometimes more mysterious and often less predictable than the critics of Pope Francis would have you believe. Yes, there is continuity, and there are unchangeable truths, but the movement of the Holy Spirit in the Church isn’t something that we can predict or immediately comprehend.

Fahey quotes a 1976 letter of Pope Saint Paul VI  to SSPX founder Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre:

“Tradition is not a rigid and dead notion, a fact of a certain static sort which at a given moment of history blocks the life of this active organism which is the Church, that is, the mystical body of Christ. It is up to the pope and to councils to exercise judgment in order to discern in the traditions of the Church that which cannot be renounced without infidelity to the Lord and to the Holy Spirit—the deposit of faith—and that which, on the contrary, can and must be adapted to facilitate the prayer and the mission of the Church throughout a variety of times and places, in order better to translate the divine message into the language of today and better to communicate it, without an unwarranted surrender of principles.”

I remember encountering this notion of Tradition as somehow fixed at some point of history in the Anglican world as we navigated our way across the Tiber.  There were those who felt the Church’s true Tradition was back somewhere before all the “papal accretions” and the division between East and West.  They believe they were already Catholic and even more Catholic than the Pope!  Those of us who entered into the communion of the Catholic Church knew you could not be a “capital C” Catholic without being in communion with the Bishop of Rome.

But where exactly is that papal magisterium located today?   On a plane?  In a private letter to a bishops’ conference?  In an ad libbed homily at Casa Santa Marta?  In interviews with Scalfari?   We are not required to assent to every personal opinion of a pope as if everything he says is dictated by the Holy Spirit.   And if there is ambiguity in a papal document, then interpreting it in light of what the Church has always taught is my rule of thumb.

Henry Sire, author of The Dictator Pope, responded to Douthat’s column over at Church Militant in a piece entitled Conservative Catholicism, an object lesson in intellectual dishonesty.

He writes:

Well, roast me on St. Laurence’s gridiron. Is this intellectual contortion supposed to be the Catholic truth that the Church has always stood for? Is it the jewel of truth for which martyrs shed their blood? Is it the integrity that Christ demanded when he taught, “Let your Yea be Yea and your Nay be Nay”? At its lowest, is it the position of a person with a brain in his head?



We see here how all-pervasive the intellectual dishonesty of the “conservative” Catholics has become, that they are not even able to envisage an honest answer to present problems. The position of genuine Catholics, those who stand on the doctrinal tradition of the Church, is not that “the pope is not really the pope” or that “his authority doesn’t matter anymore.” Francis is indeed the Pope, and his authority matters enormously; it matters because he is using it to destroy the Church.


The Catholic response to these facts is not to wriggle away from them but to face them and fight the evil they represent. Saint Robert Bellarmine, confronted with the theological question in the abstract, did not tie himself into the knots of today’s Catholic “conservatism.” He taught forthrightly: “It is legitimate not to obey the orders of the pope and even to prevent the execution of his will if he puts souls in danger, especially if he were to strive to destroy the Church.”

That, however, was four centuries before 1962. Conservative Catholics haven’t heard about it.

It might be instructive to read St. John Henry Cardinal Newman’s Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine because “development” is being used in some instances to justify what Newman would call deformations or corruptions.

I have written previously about the similar dilemma Catholics find themselves in regarding the interpretation of the Second Vatican Council.  I wrote:

Faithful Catholics have a Scylla and Charybdis to navigate in today’s fractious debates concerning interpretations of the Second Vatican Council.  Both dangers concern interpretations of the Council that see it as a rupture.  One one side are those who see this rupture as a good thing; on the other are those who see the rupture as a bad thing.

We Catholics of Anglican patrimony must not fall prey to either of these dangers.

It’s time to remind ourselves of Pope Benedict XVI’s Christmas greetings to the Roman Curia of 2005 in which he spoke of the proper interpretation of the Second Vatican Council.

Pray for Pope Francis.  Stay tucked in under the hierarchy of the Catholic Church as if the Successor of Peter and the Successors of the Apostles are working as God intended, as if this is the Church that Christ founded and–as He promised– the gates of hell shall not prevail against her.  Honor the offices of the pope and of our bishops and how God chooses to work through the men holding them, even if they are frail sinners.   If all this debate and the rancor among Catholics on social media upsets you, stop following it.

Avail yourself of the sacraments and acquaint yourself with the many resources available regarding the Catholic faith.  Trust God.  Keep your eyes on Jesus, invite Him into your heart, and stay close to Him. Ask our Blessed Mother to help you.  Keep it simple.  God will give you the wisdom you need in the moment so you do not go astray even if someone in the hierarchy or even your own priest is abusing his office.  Stay in the moment and avoid hypothetical questions.  Don’t let anything rob you of the fruits of the Spirit or  a front row seat on where God is moving and miracles are happening.  Cultivate a spirit of thanksgiving and gratitude.

2 thoughts on “Ross Douthat’s recent column and an interesting debate that follows

  1. Pingback: VVEDNESDAY EDITION – Big Pulpit

  2. The problem with the ordinary magisterium is that it is subject to infection with secular notions of the times in which it is promulgated. Today we can look askance at some of the proclamations over the centuries on the subjects of non-believers, treatment of natives in newly discovered lands, adherence to rulings and directives that are more appropriate to the political sphere and some remarks in passing by Church authorities that are simply wrong. This is not to condone outright rebellion but to note that more careful thought should be the order of the day in modern times rather than a monarchial attitude that historically often accompanied religious direction. Today such subjects as climate change, economic policy and social relationships often creep into theological commentary in areas where they lack competence or relevance. Little wonder that Church membership today often looks like multiple political parties duking it out.


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