Robert Royal: Pope Francis, Fr. Martin, and Faith Without Reason

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By Robert Royal, The Catholic Thing, Sept. 25, 2017

Robert RoyalAs anyone who follows things Catholic knows, a “filial correction” of Pope Francis was made public yesterday. The document, initially signed by forty scholars, priests, and bishops, had been delivered privately to the pope in July. No response was forthcoming. So the signers – now numbering sixty-two – decided to make known the seven points on which they believe the pope – wittingly or not – has taught or permitted heresy.

Those seven points have been discussed in several places earlier. You can read them for yourself here – and should. The arguments are worth study. They all stem, of course, from what we’re told Amoris laetitia says about people who are divorced and remarried without an annulment.

The correctors complain that the pope has taught or failed to condemn propositions such as that God’s grace is insufficient to produce proper behavior in some circumstances; that the divorced/remarried who fully understand their actions may not be in a state of mortal sin; that, on the contrary, following the moral law in certain circumstances may itself be a sin (e.g., leaving a second marriage); that there are no absolute prohibitions in divine or natural law; that Jesus wants us to abandon the old moral disciplines with regard to the Eucharist. And so forth.

These good and faithful figures have been courageous in making their views – and their names – public. It’s unfortunate that – as with the dubia presented to the pope by four cardinals – there’s little to no chance he will respond. Because these questions cannot be avoided forever.

And there’s an even deeper problem, of which the seven false teachings are examples, that’s beginning to characterize wide swaths of the Church.

We’re witnessing a period in which the Church is trying to have Faith without the full benefits of Reason. This is odd, in a way, because it’s usually thought that the only Christians who forsake reason are impossible-to-reason-with fundamentalists. In the current moment, we have a progressive group in Rome and beyond that seems to think that Reason in any strong sense distorts or even blocks Faith.

They know the outcomes they want and aren’t about to let the logical contradictions theologians, philosophers, or ordinary believers notice, stop them.

It’s an old philosophical truth that that once you abandon the principle of non-contradiction, you can prove anything. And here is proof positive.

For example, Father Antonio Spadaro, S.J., of La Civiltà Cattolica has argued that, as a good Jesuit, the Holy Father does not take something and explore its logical consequences, but instead looks directly at it and seeks inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps so (we can’t be sure that anyone really speaks the Holy Father’s mind).

But behold the confusions this leads to in the Church:

In Amoris Laetitia, as we’ve been told by various interpreters, sexual relations between the divorced/remarried are sometimes the best that can be done in the circumstances. That ceasing sexual relations may harm the family and the good of children.

But here’s another case: an industrialist makes gobs of money polluting the local environment (real pollution, not speculations about climate change). He’s confronted by a reader of Laudato Si’. He replies, however, that to clean up his plant would cripple him, probably leading to the departure of his wife and children, to say nothing of the damage to the families of workers he would have to lay off. So the best he can do under the circumstances is to regret those circumstances, seek to do better – someday, and – in the meantime – do nothing.

We’ve seen a similar lack of logical consistency from the celebrity priest, Fr. James Martin. He’s been saying that the LGBTQ “community” has not “received” the teaching on homosexuality and therefore it’s not binding on them. There’s a technical principle in theology about the faithful “receiving” a teaching. But that is not applicable here. Or to contraception. It often made an equally invalid appearance right after Humanae Vitae.

Here’s just one reason why: if this is the principle on which progressives are now operating, millions of people, usually the most faithful and active Catholics, have not – and likely never will – receive what (again) seems to be the teaching of Amoris Laetitia. So is it non-binding on them? And if so, why are they – and not the others – being denounced as rigid, uncharitable, Pharisaical, etc.

And is any teaching universally binding and Catholic if someone hasn’t “received” it? Once we go down this path, we’re very close to some form of radical Protestantism.

I do not know whether Pope Francis or Fr. Martin wish such an outcome. I do know that beyond the short radius of their ideas lie consequences they may find unwelcome.

Because neither is a serious theologian nor even a serious thinker, they regard anyone who raises questions about consequences as an irrational enemy (rigid, homophobic, etc.) rather than – as we’ve always had in the Church – someone trying to develop a deep and consistently rational way of understanding what Our Lord asks.

Fr. Martin even responded to a call for dialogue by the New York Times columnist Ross Douthat by saying that what Douthat was proposing was a Church of “propositions.” This is an old and very feeble red herring. As if the serious developments of Christian thought over centuries have usurped the centrality of the “encounter with Jesus.”

You only have to look at a figure like Aquinas to see that all that thinking is in the service of knowing and understanding the Beloved better, and seeking to do what He wills.

The alternative to this careful, patient, loving attention to the One who revealed himself in history, Scripture, tradition, the lives of holy men and women, and great Catholic thinkers is to substitute what you or I or someone else thinks Jesus was, or should have been.

That path now has a 500-year history. It even has a certain, if truncated logic of its own. But that logic isn’t Catholicism.


Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century, published by Ignatius Press.The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, is now available in paperback from Encounter Books.