A Comment on Ignoring Amoris Laetitia

During an off-the-cuff chitchat with a young evangelical in a coffee shop in Grand Rapids, the question of conversion arose and I asked why he, a student clearly interested in ecclesiastical history and medieval theology, had not converted to Catholicism. His reply: It’s too much like Episcopalianism now. My unconfirmed suspicion is that this gent will be on his way to second (or third) Rome sooner or later, just as many Protestants of all ages have tried to find solace in the arms of Orthodoxy. It doesn’t always work, but few things ever do. I can’t blame would-be Protestant converts for finding very little which is satisfying about contemporary Catholicism, what with the doctrinal confusion, disciplinary chaos, and overarching unseriousness which infects the Mystical Body of Christ. I was fruitless in my efforts to convince this aforementioned young man that Pope Francis hadn’t already revamped Catholic teaching on marriage, the family, and sexuality or that there is no dogmatic basis within Catholicism for the conclusion that any pope can simply change settled doctrine on a whim. Even if that were so, he opined, it didn’t change the reality that Francis has de facto altered the doctrinal course of the Church and that the “intellectual arguments” of theologians, canonists, and mere layfolk mean very little for how the Church functions “on the ground.” He’s right of course, and so I opted to say my goodbyes and go about my merry business.

The easiest way to deal with the present crisis in the Church is to ignore it, or so I’ve been told. I know several people who have no interest whatsoever in reading — or reading about — Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis’s pending post-synodal exhortation which will be released Friday. At 200 ponderous pages, I don’t blame them. The odds are high that the document will be so circuitous and convoluted as to be susceptible to any number of conflicting interpretations. Only the traditionalists are likely to cry foul over its contents, though conservatives will likely be pressed to express some discomfort with certain paragraphs. No one expects it to be a revolutionary document, not even the liberals. The most they can hope for at this point is that the exhortation contains enough backdoors and passageways to allow them — in conjunction with local episcopal conferences — to do an end-run around doctrine in the name of “the pastoral.” And what happens when that goes down? Will there be a schism? Will the faithful rise up in defense of the Faith? Or will things just proceed along as they largely have for the last 50 years, with the last remnants of the pre-conciliar Church continuing to crumble while some angry voices murmur in the corner? What a magnificent catastrophe.


  1. I have my own misgivings about intellectual converts to Catholicism (or Orthodoxy). It seems to be less about finding and cleaving to the “true” religion then it is about satisfying a neurotic obsession with finding an ordered and completely coherent Theory of Everything. The intellectual convert is a positivist who has deluded himself into thinking he’s a Christian.

    1. So – if an intellectual doesn’t happen to have been born Catholic (or Orthodox), he is to stay where he is? Or do you kindly permit him another type of conversion – say a leap of faith or an emotional experience? What an odd way to write off some of the greatest Catholics of the last 200 years (and before)! But then apparently intellectuals can’t even be Christians of any stripe according to your theory.

      1. I think what he may be getting at is the tendency of intellectual converts to sometimes have a destabilizing effect on the communions they enter into, particularly in Orthodoxy. Compared to Catholicism, Orthodoxy in the West is a blip on the radar. What this means in practice is that a number of intellectual converts have come in and shaken things up, perhaps for the worse, and then placed themselves at odds with their chosen communion. David Bentley Hart strikes me as a good example of such a convert.

        1. I will certainly agree that intellectuals can cause problems! But that an “intellectual convert is a positivist who has deluded himself into thinking he’s a Christian.” I doubt you’d agree with that statement, and I suspect that Aethelfrith doesn’t really either.

  2. That said, what Pope Francis is doing sounds an awful lot like the Antiochians economia-ing their way out of every difficult thing.

    1. Anthony Kaldellis’ “The Byzantine Republic” provides a very interesting new look on the ‘republican’ nature of East Roman government and law. He contends the rhetoric surrounding the quasi-divine character of the Emperor was little more than that, a rhetorical tactic used to bolster an office dependent on republican consent of the politeia a la the Roman Republic. There are any number of direct and indirect analogies to be made with the way Orthodoxy looks at canon law and economia; it was the assumed element within which the tradition developed, That is, economia was a normal part of how Romans governed themselves. Law (civil or canon) was always essential, but it could always be overruled in favor of the politeia (res publica) for which the law and the basileia was there. Economia, in this sense, was not an abridgment of the law, it was fullfilling the higher purpose to which both economia and law (and emperor) were servants of. Anyway, an interesting read with pertinent connections to ecclesiology.

      1. There is a Latin equivalent to economia: dispensation. But a dispensation can never be granted in service to sin, which — by strict Catholic lights — is what the Orthodox do when they allow second and third marriages or, arguably, for widowed clergy to remarry. Sin is never a “higher purpose.”

        1. My understanding is that economia in the Byzantine Roman sense was not an abridgment of Law, it was a suspension of written law. The politeia was the fount of the written law and the authority of its executor, the basileia, who also had the authority to abridge written law in favor of the higher law. In this sense, the equivalent is less dispensation and more like executive discretion in balancing a number of things at once: various, perhaps even competing (in this life) absolute goods, not to mention the best, good, less good, neutral, least bad, bad, worst, and evil. This isn’t as much an issue between East and West but more an acknowledgement there are multitudinous cultural contexts – within and beyond East and West, secular and religion – which inform how we assume such decisions ‘must’ or even ‘can’ be reconciled. East Romans and their neighbors had their own assumptions, West Romans and their neighbors had theirs, too. In this regard, – similar, I think to your comments elsewhere regarding a willingness to be critical (and ‘repentant’? – my word, not yours) in reestablishing and restoring things lost in problematic liturgical changes – none of us should be afraid to reflect on and repent of unintended, non-core inheritances, even when wrapped in the mantle of venerable tradition and the august written work of the learned. There’s an orthodox, catholic way of doing this that is not the same as Protestantism and post-modernism.

  3. I completely identify with your evangelical acquaintance! That was definitely me a few years ago. I never converted to Orthodoxy, ultimately, because of feeling unsatisfied with Orthodox explanations of the nature of Church authority. And maybe a small mix of the contraception and remarriage debates. But my perception of the Catholic Church as a fundamentally liberal institution did hold me back for a time. A few conservative-minded and faithful friends did change my mind, but if I wasn’t already motivated to find the “true religion” then I might not have bothered. (As an aside, I do think Aethelfrith’s broad characterization of “intellectual converts” is rash and uncharitable.)

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