Ross Douthat has written of Pope Francis rather rambling, folksy, and confusing new Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Amoris laetitia (AKA The Joy of
Sex Love). In doing so he notes that nearly every church body has become divided on the subject of modernity. Most Protestants have suffered serious hemorrhaging of members over the issues of sexuality that have so quickly moved from the fringes of culture to mainstream. Rome is no different. But Rome seemed to have found a means of uniting those who disagree with each because they agree to the papacy. That toleration has left Rome with distinctions that cannot be resolved -- some doctrinal ambiguity and a great deal of difference over practice. The shaky truce that escaped most denominations has found some sort of success in Rome but at the same time this true was understood to be a problem in and of itself. It was an anomaly that most believed needed to be resolved. Most folks knew where B16 landed and it has seemed rather apparent that Francis has not come down in the same place. Douthat believes that Francis has institutionalized the uneasy truce and given it papal sanction and blessing. He is rather convincing.
But there is also now a new papal teaching: A teaching in favor of the truce itself. That is, the post-1960s separation between doctrine and pastoral practice now has a papal imprimatur, rather than being a state of affairs that popes were merely tolerating for the sake of unity. Indeed, for Pope Francis that separation is clearly a hoped-for source of renewal, revival and revitalization, rather than something that renewal or revival might enable the church to gradually transcend.
Again, this is not the clear change of doctrine, the proof of concept for other changes, that many liberal bishops and cardinals sought. But it is an encouragement for innovation on the ground, for the de facto changes that more sophisticated liberal Catholics believe will eventually render certain uncomfortable doctrines as dead letters without the need for a formal repudiation from the top.
This means that the new truce may be even shakier than the old one. In effectively licensing innovation rather than merely tolerating it, and in transforming the papacy’s keenest defenders into wary critics, it promises to heighten the church’s contradictions rather than contain them.
And while it does not undercut the pope’s authority as directly as a starker change might have, it still carries a distinctive late-Marxist odor — a sense that the church’s leadership is a little like the Soviet nomenklatura, bound to ideological precepts that they’re no longer confident can really, truly work.
A slippage that follows from this lack of confidence is one of the most striking aspects of the pope’s letter. What the church considers serious sin becomes mere “irregularity.” What the church considers a commandment becomes a mere “ideal.” What the church once stated authoritatively it now proffers tentatively, in tones laced with self-effacement, self-critique.
Francis doubtless intends this language as a bridge between the church’s factions, just dogmatic enough for conservatives but perpetually open to more liberal interpretations. And such deliberate ambiguity does offer a center, of sorts, for a deeply divided church.
I think that Douthat has hit upon something that affects (afflicts) other church bodies -- even the LCMS. We have lived with a seeming truce between the missionals and the confessionals that is tested every Convention year. We have tolerated a great diversity of practice when it comes to Sunday morning (not only liturgy but who may commune) for a long time that has only marginally moved with the occupants of the Synodical President's office. But this truce is tenuous at best and the toleration we have sustained is something we cannot sustain. The time is coming when Missouri will have to decide (and most other Lutheran groups) what it means to be Lutheran in doctrine and practice and then we will see how the whole thing unfolds.
We have no means of sustaining this truce held up by a string because we have no papacy and we cannot simply go back and forth from convention to convention or from one SP to another SP. I believe that our SP knows this and is trying to prevent us from see sawing back and forth but desires us to take small but serious and lasting steps to decide what kind of church we will be. I laud him for it though I know it is a path fraught with problems and potential issues of self-destruction. Part of us wants to sustain the incongruous diversity of what a Lutheran is and does on Sunday morning if only because we fear the other side in ascendancy and the other part of us does not care who will be lost if we are more uniform and united in doctrine and practice.
What fragile truce Rome is enjoying under Francis (technically holding to the doctrine it espouses but attempting to frame it in some sense of local discretion and appearing flexible to those outside the church) is not something that we Lutherans can follow. What binds us together is not an office of a pope but we believe, teach, and confess. We must find a way around the impasse of deliberate ambiguity. Sooner rather than later.