Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

Of Douthat and Kasper, divorce and schism

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Apr 29, 2014

On his New York Times blog, Ross Douthat has an excellent summary of the debate among Church leaders about admitting divorced and remarried Catholics to Communion. If by chance you haven’t been paying attention to this discussion, or if (more likely) you know someone who wants to be brought up to speed quickly, this is a good, balanced presentation of the issues.

Douthat understands, and explains to his readers, the crucial distinctions between doctrine and discipline, between annulment and divorce. (It might have helped if he had also drawn the distinction between sinning (as we all do) and “living in sin”—that is, in this case, persisting in an adulterous relationship.) He explains why the rules governing annulments could be changed without any major rupture, but the teaching on the indissolubility of marriage cannot.

Against that background, Douthat appraises Cardinal Kasper’s proposal for allowing some divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion after some sort of penitential process. Proposals of that sort, the Times columnist fears, “might lead to schism if the pope were to adopt and implement them.”

And so they might—IF they were adopted. But they won’t be. My one real complaint about Douthat’s analysis is that he has teased out a hypothetical possibility too far. Is there any real purpose in talking about the possibility of schism, at a point when the doctrinal debate is only just getting underway?

Pope Francis has encouraged discussion of the Kapser proposal, but Douthat makes it clear that he doesn’t think that the Pope will ultimately adopt it. Nevertheless, after saying that it won’t happen, he goes on to speculate about the fallout that would occur if it did happen, and he concludes:

Pope Francis would be either dissolving important church teachings into what looks to me like incoherence, or else changing those same teachings in a way that many conservative Catholics believe that the pope simply cannot do.

Here Douthat is a bit too modest. He needn’t have said that a change in Church doctrine “looks to me like incoherence;” it would be incoherence. And when he says that “many conservative Catholics” (himself included) believe that the Pope cannot make such a radical change, he seems to concede the possibility that other Catholics could legitimately think otherwise.

Now I realize that many Catholics do think otherwise, and would welcome a sharp break from clearly defined Church teaching on this and other topics. So Douthat is acknowledging that there are differences of opinion here, thus inviting those who disagree with him to join in the discussion. But in doing so I’m afraid he saps the force of his own argument.

Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that by failing to drive home his point, Douthat allows for an even broader debate about Catholic teaching. He opens with a discussion of the Kasper proposal, but by the end of this very interesting column, he is allowing for a discussion of whether or not “conservative Catholics” are wrong to believe that the Pope cannot unilaterally change the established teachings of the Church.

And here I wonder whether Douthat is overly influenced by the small minority of conservative Catholics—more conservative than he is, and more conservative than I—who are openly fanning the flames of fear that Pope Francis intends revolutionary changes in the Church.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Bernadette - May. 08, 2014 1:19 PM ET USA

    Amen to what Koinonia wrote! Even before the synod on the family, as with "the pill," it will be thought that the Church will change regarding divorce and remarriage. And the outcome may very well be that there will be some "pastoral" privileges, penances, certain circumstances whereby some couples will be able to receive Holy Communion and this will create grave scandal and confusion and very possibly schism. The SSPX may see a swelling of its ranks.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Apr. 29, 2014 4:20 PM ET USA

    It's not unreasonable to hypothesize that what is generally considered mainstream in Catholic churches, schools, universities, seminaries, cloisters etc would have been incredible for Catholics just 100 years ago. Having had a parent who had lived for more than 4 decades as a practicing Catholic by 1965 I can claim anecdotally that the hypothesis is a slam dunk. We do not know what will happen, but experience demonstrateds that more than what we bargained for is not out of the question.