No, don’t turn down the heat on the Amoris debate
John Allen, an honest and seasoned reporter who always tries to present a balanced perspective on Vatican affairs, is true to form in his column, Thoughts on turning down the heat in the ‘Amoris’ debate. There’s no reason to doubt his sincerity as he searches for a way to moderate an increasingly rancorous debate. His suggestion is that all Catholics should presume that others—including especially those who disagree with them—are acting in good faith. Excellent advice, that.
Then, applying that general advice to the controversy at hand, Allen makes more specific suggestions:
If conservatives troubled by some aspects of Amoris Laetitia and other aspects of the present papacy could at least concede that, in the main, those on the other side are not enemies of the faith, and that their positions are not a blatant rupture with Catholic tradition, that might be a powerful confidence-building measure.
Likewise, if supporters of Amoris Laetitia could stop insisting that everyone who raises legitimate questions, either about its content or its binding force, are therefore obstructionists suffering from assorted forms of psychological dysfunction, that would help too—as would acknowledging that there are various readings of Vatican II, and that not everyone who doesn’t quite share theirs is necessarily “rejecting the council.”
In each paragraph, Allen begins by suggesting an end to name-calling. Catholic prelates and pundits should not be rushing to categorize each other as enemies of the faith or as psychologically unfit. Fair enough. But then, again in each paragraph, he goes on to suggest that we drop the crucial point of the argument. For those of us troubled by Amoris Laetitia, the only important argument is whether the document can be read in a way compatible with the Catholic tradition. And for all Catholics, surely including those who are on the opposite side of this argument, the proper interpretation of Vatican II is—and has been for several decades now—a matter of critical importance.
In fact one could argue that the debate over Amoris Laetitia is just the latest in a long series of contentious disputes over whether Vatican II caused a break in the continuity of Church teaching—indeed, whether there can ever be a break in the continuity of Church teaching. We have been battling over that question for 50 years, without reaching a resolution, and the debate has led to dangerous divisions within the Church. Now the issue comes into focus anew with Amoris Laetitia.
Allen is right to say that the debate should be charitable. But it must also be honest. We can’t wish away the disagreement; we can’t dodge the debate. The early Church saw fiery debates on dogmatic issues, particularly Christological questions. Those questions had to be settled, and the truths of Christian doctrine firmly established, for the sake of Church unity. Today we face a similar crisis: not just the dispute over Amoris Laetitia, but the broader dispute about the authority of Catholic moral teaching. We won’t have true unity within the Church until that debate is finally resolved.
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