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.