The N.Y. Times Flunks Ecclesiology 101

Published March 11, 2009

The quaint notion that the New York Times is the nation’s paper-of-record took another hit on Feb. 23, when the Grey Lady ran a commentary on Milwaukee archbishop Timothy Dolan’s appointment as the new archbishop of New York.

Written by Michael Powell and headlined, “A Genial Enforcer of Rome’s Doctrine,” the article displayed a confusion about what the Catholic Church is, and how the Catholic Church operates, that would embarrass a reasonably well-catechized eighth-grader. (And yes, Virginia, there are “reasonably well-catechized eight-graders.” But I digress.)

The headline (“Rome’s Doctrine”) blew the gaffe at the outset, as if there were Rome’s doctrine, Berkeley’s doctrine, Tubingen’s doctrine, Cuernavaca’s doctrine, and so forth, per omnia saecula saeculorum (translation for Timesmen: “for ever and ever”). In fact, there is one Catholic truth; it is safeguarded and transmitted by the Church’s magisterium; the locus of that magisterium is “Rome,” meaning the Bishop of Rome and the bishops in communion with him. That’s the teaching of the Second Vatican Council in Lumen Gentium 25, not a hoary legend from the past.

The Church does not have “doctrines” the way different administrations have policies. Policies change; the country remains the same. Doctrine can develop, but doctrinal rupture or dissent from the truth of Catholic faith means schism – the fracturing of the Church. Those who deny the truth of settled Catholic teaching on, for example, the unique salvific role of Christ, the immorality of abortion, the nature of holy orders and who is capable of receiving them, or the indissolubility of sacramental marriage put themselves outside the communion of the Church.

That some theologians (and clergy, and religious, and laity) deny these truths is obvious, but that doesn’t mean that there’s “Rome’s doctrine” and a variety of other doctrines. It means that those in dissent are mistaken.

There was also that little dig about Archbishop Dolan being an “enforcer.” When a man is ordained to the episcopate, he takes a solemn oath before God and the Church to teach the truth of Catholic faith. To honor that commitment is not being an “enforcer,” as if a bishop were knee-capping lowlifes for Sonny Corleone. To proclaim the truth of Catholic faith and to admonish those who stray from it is less a disciplinary act than an act of charity. Disciplinary acts are sometimes necessary to convey the message that someone’s communion with the Church is in peril; the purpose of those acts is far more educational than punitive.

A few paragraphs into the story, Mr. Powell wrote than Rome’s “writ” was becoming “ever more conservative.” In Times-speak, what this means is that the last several popes have declined to take instruction on human rights, human sexuality and the nature of marriage and the family from the oracles on Manhattan’s West Side, who regard dissent from their magisterium as stupid and oafish.

These days, however, the Times‘ sense of its infallibility is somewhat ironic. Indeed, Timesmen might consider whether their stultifying political correctness, displayed in the news hole and on an op-ed page that could often be labeled “Notes from the Asylum,” might have something to do with the facts that the paper is hemorrhaging red ink and recently had to mortgage its building to pay its bills.

Mr. Powell portrayed the Archdiocese of Milwaukee under Archbishop Dolan’s predecessor, Archbishop Rembert Weakland, as a “liberal Catholic outpost, where debate about doctrine was vociferous and to be gloried in.” True enough; but a serious investigation of the pre-Dolan years in Milwaukee would have explored the relationship between officially tolerated Catholic Lite and empty churches, few vocations, and clerical corruption. The dots are not that difficult to connect, once you remove the p.c. blinders.

The Times‘ editors could save themselves some grief if they recognized that the Catholic Church is not going to follow the sad trail blazed by the once-great, now dying denominations of the liberal Protestant mainline, in which belief and practice came to be determined by holding a wetted finger up to the prevailing cultural winds. That’s one precondition to the Times running interesting stories on the Catholic Church, rather than whining about the revolution that never was.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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