Last weekend in Rome, the Catholic Church celebrated a double canonization — two popes, two sainthoods, 2,000 buses full of pilgrims — that served as a kind of capstone on Pope Francis’ first year in office, and an illustration of his agenda for the church.
The two popes are John XXIII and John Paul II, respectively the pontiff who summoned the Second Vatican Council and the pontiff who put his stamp on its interpretation. In the partially accurate cliches of Catholic punditry, they are the liberalizer and the conservative, the icon of Catholic progressives and the hero of the Catholic right. And in canonizing them together, Francis is engaging in very deliberate symbolism — signaling, not for the first time, a desire to push the church’s left and right toward a kind of synthesis, and to move Catholicism beyond its post-1960s civil war.
For now, that push has been remarkably successful: to an extent that seemed nearly impossible before his elevation, Francis has altered the church’s image among its more disaffected members (and in the secular press) without making any of the doctrinal shifts that conservative Catholics believe the church, by definition, cannot make.
For now. But there may be trouble ahead.
The source of the potential trouble lies in a place where Francis has arguably been most effective — in the distinction he’s drawn between the doctrinal and the pastoral, between how the church expounds its moral rules and how it approaches the human beings trying to live up to them.
This distinction, always part of Catholicism’s lived experience, has allowed the pope to finesse difficult issues like homosexuality and divorce, and reach out to people whose states of life have left them feeling alienated from their faith.
Now, though, it’s come up in a more specific case — an alleged papal phone call, reported on somewhat confusedly last week, to an Argentine woman who was seeking permission to take communion despite being married to a divorced man, a situation the church considers adultery unless the man’s original marriage were annulled.
According to the husband, who wrote about the phone call on Facebook, Pope Francis gave permission for the woman to do so. According to the Vatican, what Pope Francis said is nobody’s business except for the woman herself. Such conversations, a Vatican spokesman said, “do not in any way form part of the pope’s public activities,” and “consequences relating to the teaching of the church are not to be inferred.”
This formulation may be technically correct, but it’s also a little bit absurd. Even in “private” conversation, the pope is, well, the pope, and this pontiff in particular is no naif about either the media or human nature. Whatever was actually said, the idea that it never occurred to Francis that a pastoral call on such a fraught subject might get media attention seems … unlikely.
And whatever 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 trying to teach 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.
Indeed, it could happen even if there are some changes to church rules. The Vatican could relax procedures governing annulments, for instance, in ways that (depending on her circumstances) might address the Argentine woman’s situation, and a press expecting something more sweeping might treat the reform as a big nothing.
There is also a third perilous scenario, even if my own assumptions about the nature of the church tend to rule it out. Francis could actually be considering a truly major shift on remarriage and communion, in which the annulment requirement is dispensed with and (perhaps) a temporary penance is substituted.
Such a shift wouldn’t just provoke conservative grumbling; it would threaten outright schism. The church has famous martyrs to the indissolubility of Christian marriage, and its teaching on divorce and adultery is grounded not just in tradition or natural law, but in the explicit words of Jesus of Nazareth.
This means that admitting to communion people the church considers to be in permanently adulterous relationships wouldn’t just look like a modest development in doctrine. It would look like a major about-face, a doctrinal self-contradiction.
Which is why Pope Francis probably is not actually considering it.
But from small phone calls, large theological crises sometimes grow.
Ross Douthat is a syndicated columnist for The New York Times.