After public disagreement in dueling op-eds, and frequent disagreements on Twitter, one could be forgiven for expecting the debate between New York Times columnist Ross Douthat and Villanova Professor Massimo Faggioli to be a little fiery.
The two met on January 31 on Fordham University’s Lincoln Center campus. The event, titled “[email protected]: Assessing the Legacy of Pope Francis Five Years After His Election,” was a 90-minute discussion some observers described as “tense.”
Though their discussion was civil, and no one was accused of heresy, the two presented sharply contrasting assessments of what the first five years of Pope Francis’ papacy have meant for the Church and its future.
The discussion was moderated by David Gibson, the director of Fordham University’s Center on Religion and Culture.
The differences centered around the roles of tradition and doctrine--and whether and how they should shape the future of the Church.
The central point of debate was the now-infamous “Footnote 351” in the post-synodal apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, which, some interpreters claim, contradicts the Church’s teaching on marriage.
On the issue of communion for divorced and remarried Catholics, Douthat had a far more alarmed take than Faggioli. While acknowledging that the debate was an “elite battle” that most ordinary Catholics don’t really know much about, he said it was part of a larger “civil war” between liberal and conservative Catholics.
Douthat he said that he feared that Francis’ perspective on communion for those who are divorced and remarried without an annulment, as he understood it, could have the potential to cause a schism, with the “losing side” of that debate simply forming their own faith.
Faggioli admitted that he had “underestimated” the resistance to some interpretations of Amoris Laetitia, adding that, in his view, resistance to the Second Vatican Council is also a “North American problem.”
Douthat said that the Church has no obligation to “evacuate teachings” (on marriage) under the guise of being “pastoral,” and that this was the “core tension” of Pope Francis’ papacy. He warned that this could potentially create a proto-Anglican model for the Church, where teachings are different in different parts of the world.
Faggioli disputed this, saying that Pope Francis was not seeking to undermine marriage, and that Jesus had spoken out against divorce. On the contrary, he said it is necessary for the Church to minister to the needs of people who are already divorced--which was the point of the 2015 Synod on the Family that preceded Amoris Laetitia.
Douthat warned that pastoral changes unchecked by doctrine have the potential to turn the Church into “liberal Protestantism in Catholic dressing,” but that it will take years before the Pope’s impact is truly understood.
Faggioli argued that “adjustments” on certain Catholics teachings were not a sign of an imminent rupture of the faith. Faggioli said that with 50 percent of marriages ending in divorce, 50 percent of children might never see their parents receive the Eucharist, which is not ideal for either evangelization or for the Gospel. This, he argued, is a reason why the Church must change her pastoral practice.
“There are different responses to the same question in different times,” Faggioli said, when asked whether withholding communion to the divorced and remarried had always been wrong.
While disagreement between the two was sharp, they found agreement on two issues: the Pope’s 2015 environmental encyclical Laudato si --both are fans of it, albeit for different reasons--and the importance of women in the Church’s life.
Faggioli said he would approve of ordaining female deacons “tomorrow,” whereas Douthat said he was “agnostic” on the issue of women in the diaconate, but did concede that putting women in positions of ecclesial responsibility is one of the “more reasonable” parts of liberal Catholicism.
Neither gave a true closing statement to finish off the night, but Faggioli perhaps summed up the dispute best when he described Catholic teaching and tradition as an “animal” capable of moving and adapting.
While he only grinned wryly in response, Douthat probably had a different take.