If youve never heard of Ross Douthat, let us introduce you. Douthat, the lone New York Times columnist who speaks and understands the language of the Church, is the unanimous winner of the 2015 New Oxford Intellectual Prizefighter Award (NOIPA). If youve never heard of the NOIPA, its because we invented it specifically to reward Douthats ongoing parries and salvos against a geriatric bunch of bully theologians who continue mercilessly and illogically to assert a monopoly on all things theological and ecclesiological by virtue of their academic credentials.
The scuffle began in mid-October as the U.S. medias adulatory preoccupation with the Synod on the Family began to wane. Douthat, in his column The Plot to Change Catholicism (Oct. 17), asserts that Pope Franciss ostentatious humility and scoldings of high-ranking [conservative] prelates have encouraged plotters and counterplotters to work with greater vigor at the synod. Douthat then identifies the Vaticans chief plotter: Pope Francis himself. The Holy Fathers tacit approval of Walter Cardinal Kaspers proposal to allow divorced-and-remarried Catholics to receive Holy Communion without having their previous marriage(s) annulled was designed, Douthat claims, to make this issue a central controversy at the synod, one that would, if all went according to pontifical plan, pave the way for a Catholic softening on divorce all in the interest of pastoral compassion, of course.
The problem, as Douthat articulates it, is that this passive-aggressive papal strategy might also have led to a change in Catholic doctrine. Although one may pick nits about whether Pope Franciss actions would truly constitute a doctrinal alteration as opposed to a pastoral change, Douthat makes an important point: Should the Holy Father lend his authoritative support to the Kasper proposal through a strong synodal statement, Church practice and theology would certainly be affected. The Churchs teaching that marriage is indissoluble, he writes, has already been pushed close to the breaking point by this popes new expedited annulment process; going all the way to communion without annulment would just break it.
The fly in the ointment for Pope Francis at this years synod (and at last years) is an outspoken flock of conservative cardinals that understands the negative ramifications of Kaspers long-term plan. In order to deal with this bloc of red-hatted resistance, Douthat writes, the synod was rigged by the papal-appointed organizers in favor of the popes preferred outcome. He notes that Francis made appointments to the synod with this support in mind, going so far as to enlist Belgiums Godfried Cardinal Danneels, an aged cardinal tainted by the sex abuse scandal, in the cause.
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