Monday, March 17, 2014

Preemptive hand-wringing over ecclesiastical ticking time bombs

I'm just going to say this: I'm starting to worry about Patrick Archbold.

No, I don't know the Archbolds personally, and I'm not engaging in any sort of armchair psychoanalysis.  But how exactly does one react to a post like Patrick's from today, titled In Case of Schism, Break GlassExcerpt:
Say, for the sake of hypothetical but plausible example, the outcome of the Synod on the Family on the question of admission of divorced and remarried to communion follows the suggestions of Papal advisers Cardinals Marx and Kasper. That the remarried are admitted to communion after some pastoral counseling and the annulment process is moved from tribunal to pastor. In this case, the Church does not change its immutable teaching on the indissolubility of marriage, but the newly implemented pastoral praxis dramatically alters the landscape. 

Let's leave the predictable liberal cheering of such moves aside for the moment and focus on those orthodox Catholics who rightly understand the dangers associated with such change in praxis. For such as these, I see three options, go along, stay silent, or speak out. [...]

The last group will choose to speak out. They recognize that such a a change in praxis is a complete contradiction. That the very idea of readmission goes against all tradition and undermines the doctrine to the point of irrelevance. Further, they recognize that moving the annulment process to pastors would defacto make for quick and easy Catholic divorce. [...]

This group would realize that this current magisterial 'praxis' is not infallible and is in direct contradiction to all the tradition that came before it that sought to uphold the critical and immutable understanding of marriage. Recognizing the danger to doctrine and souls, this group would feel compelled to speak out and actively oppose the implementation of this praxis. The also understand that if such initiatives become rooted, there is genuine danger of real and lasting schism within the Church on these issues.  I say schism because one assumes there may be Bishops, priests, and lay people who refuse to go along and as such will be seen as separate.

As such, this group will choose to speak out even though they will likely be pilloried by liberals and the magisterialists. But nevertheless, they feel compelled to support and restore the traditional understanding and praxis that support the doctrine.

So if something like this was to happen, which group would you be in? What would you choose to do? Would you agree that the latter group above are merely reactionaries and that their intransigence hurts the Church?

I would ask you to think about it. For my part, I have made my choice. In the case of schism, break glass. We can clean up the mess later.

Let me just start with this: this is mind-bendingly, breathtakingly, heart-breakingly wrong.

In the first place, this reminds me of nothing so much as the hypotheticals endlessly raised during the late great torture debate--you know, those hypotheticals where we have a terrorist mastermind in our grasp and we know he's guilty and we also know for certain that he alone knows where the ticking time bomb is planted and if we don't start sawing off his fingers NOW that bomb is going to go off and kill millions of innocents.  For the sake of argument, Patrick Archbold is creating a special Church "ticking time bomb" scenario, where despite the fact (as Patrick posits) that Church doctrine has not changed the Church somehow decides that people who are in undeniably adulterous "marriages" that are not really marriages must be readmitted to Communion without much ado at all.  In the real world, nobody really thinks that is what is coming.  Fixing what is broken in the annulment process, making, perhaps, an easier pathway for people who were married outside the Church in the first place (e.g., making it easier for annulments to be granted when there's pretty clear evidence that the couple were never validly married at all without requiring the full-scale tribunal investigation), while simultaneously refusing to rubber-stamp "Catholic" weddings of people who have wandered into a Church four times in their lives (for baptism, First Communion, Confirmation, and then for the wedding)--those are things the Church can, should, and indeed must work on.  But aside from a few dissident voices who pretty much reject Church teaching on marriage anyway, I haven't heard anyone seriously posit that the Church is going to throw up her hands and give up on her teachings on marriage completely.

But that leads you to the second problem we have here, which is that for the sake of his argument Patrick is creating a futuristic scenario where nobody in the Church seems to think that this hypothetical tension he has created between teaching and praxis on marriage is worth bothering over--which means that the Holy Spirit is totally failing to guide the Holy Father on this issue, which would pretty much mean that the Church isn't the Church.  I realize that Patrick tries to get around this by using the word "non-infallible" to describe this alleged future praxis, but I honestly can't think of a time when the teachings of the Church on some important issue and her pastoral practice were so divided from each other as this would be (perhaps some Church historian or theologian would chime in, if there is some example).  Even if there was such an example from the past, though, we are left with the reality that the Church is still the Church, and any groups that split away from her over such issues are outside of her.  That's a very serious reality for those groups--which brings me to my third point.

What Patrick seems to be saying here is this: should such a "ticking time bomb" hypothetical occur, the "schismatic" groups of bishops, priests, and laity who would reject this new "praxis" and fight to restore the traditional understanding of marriage (which pretty much undermines his earlier claim that the teaching would not have changed as a result of this new praxis)--would be in the right, and he would throw his lot in with them.  Now, he can correct me if I'm reading him wrong (and I hope he will).  But I think it's hugely serious, and a real problem, for a faithful Catholic to begin fantasizing about the scenario or scenarios under which he would feel fully justified in leaving the Church--because that is what he appears to be saying here.

Even the would-be slighting term he has created for those who would go along with his hypothetical: the "magisterialists," is revealing.  All Catholics are bound to accept magisterial teachings.  The Magisterium is simply the Church's teaching authority, her authority to teach in Christ's name, which is vested in the pope and in those bishops who teach in communion with him.  To label a group of people "magisterialists" for refusing to have any problem with the ordinary magisterium of the Church is to betray a sad lack of understanding about the Church and her teaching authority.  We should all be magisterialists.  We should all stand with Peter--and yes, that means giving the pope the benefit of the doubt when we don't quite understand his goals or aims.

Because the other side of that magisterial coin is this: we trust that the Holy Spirit is guiding the Church and protecting her, and the Vicar of Christ, from falling into or teaching any serious doctrinal error.  Patrick has tried to get around this with his hypothetical by claiming that the Church will still teach that marriage is indissoluble, but will then go around winking and nodding and acting as though she understands that really, marriage can be dissolved for pastoral reasons, or something (which is, quite frankly, an untenable position to hold--when has the Church ever undermined her own doctrine in this way?).  But what I think Patrick Archbold may be failing to realize is that he's trying to have his cake and eat it too: EITHER the Church teaches some grave doctrinal error in which case she's not the Church after all and we have an absolute duty to leave her, OR the Church does not teach error in which case we would never be justified in leaving her even if we have serious problems with some area of praxis.  In other words, neither Patrick nor anybody else can have it both ways: a schismatic group forming out of anger over some hypothetical future praxis on marriage would still be committing the grave sin of schism and risking the souls of its members over their deliberate separation from Rome; it is not permitted to leave the One True Church because you think she's making some practical--but not doctrinal--error.  No, not even if you were right--but the odds are that you would be wrong, if you are a lay person with no special competence to sit in judgment on the Church's way of doing things.

Finally, what worries me the most about this is the preemptive hand-wringing and the creation of a new ecclesiastical ticking time bomb scenario.  As we often saw in the torture debate, the whole reason for a ticking time bomb scenario was to create in the minds of those positing it a justification for intrinsic evil: surely it would be okay to do this evil thing to prevent this worse evil! ran the thinking much of the time.  But the answer is always no.  It is not permitted to do evil, not to prevent worse evils nor even to achieve some actual good.  If a deliberate, willful act of schism is gravely sinful--and we must believe it to be so--then no amount of ecclesiastical ticking time bomb scenarios will ever make it justified.  And that's before we even examine the Church's record on things like this, and admit that despite people predicting various lapses in doctrine or even in practice the Church has yet to leave the path of truth--how can she, when she follows the One Who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life?  To believe that the Church is about to throw her teachings on marriage out the window is to show a surprising lack of trust in the Holy Spirit and hope in His powerful role in the direction of the People of God--for which prayer is the best remedy.


freddy said...

I used to be a daily reader of CMR. Their good humor, wit, and insight resonated with me and I found the blog refreshing and Catholic-family friendly. A few months ago I had to stop reading. Patrick's increasingly shrill and strident tone became less than that of a Catholic gentleman and more of an angry Puritan preacher. The Archbold bros. are in my prayers, but I won't read their blog, or Patrick's "Register" articles any more. Catholicism is neither a religion of doom nor a doomed religion, and there's no place in my life for such sweaty, suspicious, smug superiority.

freddy said...

I used to be a daily reader of CMR. Their good humor, wit, and insight resonated with me and I found the blog refreshing and Catholic-family friendly. A few months ago I had to stop reading. Patrick's increasingly shrill and strident tone became less than that of a Catholic gentleman and more of an angry Puritan preacher. The Archbold bros. are in my prayers, but I won't read their blog, or Patrick's "Register" articles any more. Catholicism is neither a religion of doom nor a doomed religion, and there's no place in my life for such sweaty, suspicious, smug superiority.

Daddio said...

I quit following the Archbold blog a couple of months ago. One thing after another, I'm not smart enough to ID or define specific errors, but this growing sense of hysteria and disrespect for the Holy Father coming from the "real Catholics", is irritating to me. Fr. Z has also raised an eyebrow now and then (as if anyone cares what I see on my Feedly feed...)

I used to be such a crusader! To my surprise, I'm finding myself more and more in agreement with Mark Shea on almost everything lately.
But I still refuse to watch any of his links to the Daily Show ;)

Unknown said...

Thanks for this wonderfully well-reasoned post. You have identified the problem succinctly. Perhaps it is time to being praying for Patrick Archbold so that he is preserved from being put to the test by following the temptation that underlies his erroneous course.

Chris-2-4 said...

I have to say, I really did not enjoy that article by Patrick, myself. I agree that the exercise of what you would do in such a circumstance is rather "icky" for lack of any useful term.

But I also have to disagree with you in that I DO find the scenario he laid out, VERY PLAUSIBLE. And I don't believe that it would take some sort of "abandonment by the Holy Spirit" for it to go down as such.

There ARE indeed various teachings of the Church which are "effectively abandoned" but which remain officially taught through preservation by the Holy Spirit.

Unknown said...

Chris - I think the problem is that the scenario Patrick conjures up is just that - a scenario based on purely hypothetical conjecture. The Gospel advises us to trust in God and that we are not even to prepare a defense in expectation of persecution, that the Spirit will guide us when the need comes. The danger of this kind of speculation is that it tempts us to attribute motives and supply "facts" before we actually know what the true situation is. It tempts us to rely on ourselves and the "world's wisdom" rather than trust in the protection and promises of God.

Erin Manning said...

Well said, Gerard. I couldn't agree more.