Being uninterested in continuing to read commentary on the “rabbits” debacle and its fallout (see here and here) doesn’t mean my eyes weren’t drawn to Andrew Haine’s (Ethika Politika) critical response to Matthew Schmitz’s (First Things) reflection on the affair. Haines believes that Schmitz, and other conservative (and I’ll assume traditional, too) Catholics, are uncomfortable with Pope Francis’s various public pronouncements because they hold a “fascination with intellectual purity [which] remains unchecked” and are infected from some ill-defined “ideology that spawned from a consistent, rote repetition of talking points.” (Can we call this the ideology of “doctrinal clarity”?) It’s hard to figure out what exactly Haines is driving against except, perhaps, a certain rigidity in teaching which recognizes neither wiggle-room on the margins nor, apparently, the faithful’s “yearning for more clarity on matters of Church teaching[.]”
In a way, Haines’s remarks remind me of the moth-eaten dismissal of neo-Scholasticism and “manualism” which became all the rage during the middle of the last century. In distinct, but equally compelling, pieces, Elliot Milco and John Lamont push back against the “rigidity” (if not the falsity) of the anti-Scholastic/anti-Thomistic narrative. The primary enterprise of Catholic theology, at least until the time of the Second Vatican Council, was clarifying doctrine while providing careful, nuanced, and detailed explications of what that doctrine means to both the earthly life and supernatural end of man. Although numerous theologians continue on this time-honored trajectory, too many are caught up with their own pet intellectual projects, preferring poetic expressions, along with the delightful tension allegedly found in ambiguities and paradoxes, to rigorous demonstration. After all, according to a dominant contemporary prejudice which has not left the Church alone, “rigor” is coeval with death.
Haines is, however, right that there are many Catholics “yearning for more clarity on matters of Church teaching”; the problem is that not all of them are orthodox. The longing for “clarity” can be turned into a smokescreen for heterodoxy, just as “pastoral application” can be leveraged directly against doctrine. At the end of the day this is what concerns many, if not all, conservative Catholics when the Holy Father issues statements that appear to lack prudence. Given that extemporaneous speaking is not one of the Pope’s strengths (and certainly not a strength promised to all the Successors of St. Peter), it would perhaps be best if he saved his “clarifications” for encyclicals and exhortations or, better yet, parcel out the work to Cardinal Gerhard Mueller and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Maybe then we can all rest a bit easier the next time the Pope boards a plane and the reporters start clucking.