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Francis’ Papacy: Promise or Peril for the Church?

Dallas Panel Debates the Legacy of the Current Pope

By Christopher White, The Tablet’s National Correspondent

DALLAS, Texas – Both sporting hunter green blazers and blue oxford shirts, Ross Douthat and Austen Ivereigh’s accidental clothing match marked a rare convergence during an event otherwise marked by sometimes pointed disagreement over the Francis papacy, as two of the most prominent commentators on 21st century Catholicism shared a stage for the first time Jan. 24.

“The Papacy in the 21st Century: Where Are We, and Where Are We Going?” was organized by the University of Dallas as part of its annual McDermott Lecture Series, and co-sponsored by DeSales Media Group of the Diocese of Brooklyn, in an effort to welcome civil, high-level conversation on the significance of this pontificate.

Ivereigh, who authored the 2015 biography of Pope Francis, “The Great Reformer,” made a case for a “hermeneutic of continuity,” maintaining that “the Francis papacy builds very beautifully on Benedict’s papacy, and so much of what Francis is doing was foreseen, anticipated, and enabled by Pope Benedict.”

In response to the increasing tides of secularization, the Church had grown “distant, dogmatic, more interested in itself than humanity,” argued Ivereigh, taking “refuge in ethics,” rather than discipleship.

“We were converting our faith into an ideology, and what people knew about us was what we’re against,” Ivereigh said.

Global Era

He went on to argue that the Francis papacy marks the start of a “global era,” in which the experience of the Latin American Church aims to change that narrative.

Douthat, whose opening remarks came in response to Ivereigh after losing a coin toss via a phone app, agreed that following the post-Vatican II years, there was a “very real opportunity in the ongoing crisis of the west for the Church … to offer to the world a different kind of center” that rejected both neo-liberalism, populism and other various movements.

Yet, as he has argued in his columns in The New York Times and in a forthcoming book, “To Change the Church,” Douthat urged caution over what he described as a “Catholic swing toward a more Anglican model of communion,” in the Pope Francis era, which, in his view, has also reopened a host of other connected theological questions.

“I think his (Pope Francis’) at times carelessness and dismissiveness around doctrine and doctrinal continuity – doctrinal continuity that goes all the way back to the person of Jesus Christ … has led to a situation where the Church is lurching in certain ways to not literal, but a kind of de facto, schism on certain issues,” Douthat warned.

Yet while the 90-minute conversation, moderated by Crux editor John L. Allen, Jr., was meant to cover a wide range of topics, it was debate over Pope Francis’ 2016 apostolic exhortation “Amoris Laetitia” that became representative of, in Douthat’s formulation, “the promise and peril” of the Francis era, dominating more than 60 minutes of the discussion.

Pope Francis’ cautious opening to Holy Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics as outlined in “Amoris,” following two synods on the family in 2014 and 2015, has led some critics to charge that the pope is breaking with his predecessors over the indissolubility of marriage, while others maintain that ‘Amoris’ represents merely a change in sacramental discipline, not a change in doctrine.

In an attempt to provide historical context, Ivereigh said the two synods aimed to reckon with a pastoral reality in response to the social shift over divorce.

“The Church’s sacramental discipline reflected a time when divorce was the big exception in the Catholic world, and the primary object of the sacramental discipline was to protect the Catholic community from the impact of divorce,” he said.

Ivereigh said that rather than a “surrender to modernity,” as some critics have argued, “Amoris” takes a pastoral approach of looking at each individual case of divorce and remarriage separately, in a process of discernment over whether one can receive communion.

“We’re not talking about a change in doctrine, the Catholic doctrine on marriage of indissolubility is on every single page of ‘Amoris Laetitia,’” he said.

When asked why Pope Francis has not responded to the dubia – questions submitted to him by four cardinals seeking specific “yes” or “no” answers regarding the reception of communion – Ivereigh said the pope was not allowing confusion to fester, but rather to answer the dubia would be to undermine the very process of discernment called for by Pope Francis in “Amoris.”

“It’s actually a challenge not just to his magisterial authority, but to the whole process of the Synod itself, which was a process of ecclesial discernment,” said Ivereigh, “so Francis can’t answer those dubia directly in some sort of letter without undermining the whole process of the synod.”

Meanwhile, Douthat disputed the idea that any sort of definitive interpretation has been offered.

“I would mildly dispute that the Holy Father has made clear what the precise and proper interpretation of ‘Amoris Laetitia’ is,” said Douthat.

He went on to argue that defenders of “Amoris” want to effectively defend Church teaching on marriage, while at the same time promoting new disciplinary practices that fail to adhere to the doctrinal and ontological realities of marriage.

“There is this constant insistence that we are defending indissolubility … which is well and good,” said Douthat, “but in practice you are evacuating it of all meaning.”

“This leaves the conservatives in the uncomfortable position of essentially dissenting from something that the pope is clearly teaching,” he said.

While “Amoris” was issued by Pope Francis in Rome, the battleground for its interpretation has often been social media, where Catholic pundits, theologians and effectively anyone with an opinion have often taken to Twitter to engage.

“I like the vigorousness and the openness of the disagreements on Twitter,” said Ivereigh, “and I think it’s okay to live in those tensions, but as a Church we’ve got to learn to do that better.”

Douthat agreed, saying that “Twitter makes Catholic debate appear more extreme, more polarized, and personalized.” Yet he also said that as debates over “Amoris” have evidenced, it also presents an opportunity for honesty and transparency.

“There is a tendency, because the Church is a corporation and a bureaucracy, for the people in charge of the Church to pretend that these debates don’t exist,” he said. “So if you listen to Catholic Twitter, you’d think we are literally heading for the Great Schism or the Reformation, but if you listen to our bishops, you’d think that everything is always going marvelously and great renewal is spreading over the land and so on, and that is not always the case.”

How History Will Judge

Looking to the future, Ivereigh and Douthat offered mixed predictions of how history will judge Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who daringly took the name “Francis” with a pledge to reform the Church.

“I think he will be a pope who, in many ways, restored the balance within Catholicism,” said Ivereigh, who believes the Francis papacy will be seen as “restoring the primary proclamation of the Church, which is all about this encounter with the merciful God.”

“He will not be remembered, I can be confident about this, as a pope who presided over schism. There is no schism, there is a group of people who are very unhappy, but they are a very small minority. Most of the Church is fully behind this pope and delighted with him,” Ivereigh concluded.

Douthat, however, offered reservations and at times, somewhat dire warnings, saying the Francis legacy has opened up serious questions that won’t go away, and divisions that will continue to cause further rupture will have to be settled by a future ecumenical council.

“It’s possible that that council will decide in ways that will make Francis remembered exactly along the lines as Austen suggests as kind of a heroic pope who is willing to go further than his predecessors in making necessary changes,” Douthat conceded.

“But I also think there is a live possibility that that resolution will cede a Francis legacy as one of the popes, and there have been a few, that have put the deposit of faith at risk in ways that were unfortunate to put it mildly,” he said.