Pope Francis made news with a sort-of-private phone call to an Argentine woman, whom he permitted to take communion despite her marriage to a divorced man.

Once again, the pope has thus committed another unauthorized act of commonsense humanity. Once again, modern-day Pharisees are disturbed by the pope’s self-authorized departure from ossified dogma. Once again, Ross Douthat is on the case, with his blend of implausibly stodgy conservatism and genuinely admirable analytic insight: 

[W]hatever his intentions, the phone call and the coverage of it suggest two obvious perils for a papacy that leans too heavily on the distinction between the doctrinal and the pastoral, between official teaching and its applications.

One is what you might call the late-Soviet scenario, in which Catholic doctrine is officially unaltered but the impression grows that even the pope doesn’t really believe these things, and that when the church’s leaders affirm a controversial position they’re going through the ideological motions—like Brezhnev-era apparatchiks—and not actually teaching a living faith.

The other is the dashed-expectations scenario, in which the assumption that a church teaching is about to change creates widespread disaffection when it doesn’t. This happened with contraception in the 1960s, and it could easily happen with divorce and remarriage under Francis.


Since the late-Soviet scenario been obvious for a while now, I myself see the pope’s recent behavior as less a peril than a hope. The Catholic Church is a great institution that has provided spiritual sustenance for billions over many centuries. It is also a deeply flawed institution, whose teachings, practices, and political interventions have caused enormous harm.

Vatican II addressed many of these harms in one of the most admirable moments of contrition and internal reform in religious history. Much work remains to be done in addressing the heavy human cost of various “ideological motions” Douthat nervously mentions.

One might cite many front-page issues support this point. But consider a smaller episode. Some years ago, I met someone who discovered that her two children carry the full mutation for fragile X syndrome, the most common heritable form of intellectual disability. (This is a common scenario. The condition is often unrecognized or misdiagnosed until it is discovered in a younger sibling.) Facing this genetic predicament, the young woman asked her local priest whether there was any way church doctrine would permit she and her husband to use artificial contraception.  The question made it to the local bishop, who responded: No, church doctrine does not permit that.

If that genuinely is church doctrine, does anyone really believe it’s justified? Is that really what an intelligent and comprehensible living faith has to offer when someone seeks consolation and help? I’m curious what was left unsaid in that bishop’s statement. Does he fully embrace what he said?

There is indeed something late-Soviet in demands for blind obedience to inscrutable doctrines that cause avoidable human pain. Watching Pope Francis, millions of Catholics are betting that their church will provide different, better answers to both mundane and profound questions of human life.

This is only a hypothesis, of course. As Douthat himself notes, those excited by Pope Francis may see their hopes bitterly disappointed. Pope Francis remains conservative on some of the most contested doctrinal matters.

How their hypothesis is resolved will determine whether an American Catholic church will survive and thrive in a modern liberal society.

And whether it deserves to.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

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Harold Pollack is the Helen Ross Professor at the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago.