Douthat argues in a recent piece that the Pope and church synod's can't just change doctrine. It can't, for instance, just say that Christological ideas that are virtually Arian can be tolerated. And then he says:
Now you can make a case that my hypothetical is absurd or fails as an analogy because the proposed changes to church teaching around marriage right now are not at all like a springtime for Arianism, that they are in fact in essential continuity with past teaching, with the New Testament, etc. But this is my point: You have to make that case, which I would submit that Father O’Malley does not exactly do, and if you just invoke authority and docility without actually making it, you’re implicitly indicating that the Protestants were right about the nature of the Catholic position all along.
There’s a special irony to that possibility, because as I suggested in my last post, the question of divorce and remarriage is among the issues where the Catholic claim to a special authority, both contra Protestantism and in its own right, has historically been strongest, because it’s place where the binding force of tradition and ecclesiastical stewardship of the same have helped Catholicism hold a line that’s very clearly rooted in scriptural, indeed gospel authority … while in many Protestant communities, notwithstanding their official commitment to scripture’s primacy, that line has either been blurred more often or erased. Ross Douthat
I have thought for a long time that Catholic identity--and Christian identity in general--cannot be primarily located in its codes. Codes are for children, for people who haven't yet developed an awakened conscience. The grasping at Catholic identity as being rooted, for instance, in its proscription of divorce and remarriage is a form of idolatry and devolves quickly into a form of whited-sepulcher syndrome, a kind of legalistic extrinsicism that is tone deaf to the way human beings really live.
I do in fact believe that what God has joined together that no man should put asunder, but I also believe that most twenty-somethings who are infatuated with one another do not qualify for making such a commitment, and for the church or any Christian to insist on it just because it was consecrated in a church ceremony is humanly stupid.
The Church would be wiser if it looked at marriage as simlar to the way that men in women in orders take their vows, in stages, with making a final commitment that has sacramental authority until after, say, ten years. In other words Catholics should be allowed to be legally married and divorced like everyone else, there should be a church ceremony in which (aspirational) promises are exchanged, but it should not be considered a "sacrament". There should be a second and perhaps even a third level of commitment after the passage of some time before any marriage should not be sacramentally validated. We already acknowledge the need for something like this in renewal of vows ceremonies.
Rigorists like Douthat would argue that that has not been the practice of the Church for centuries. But there's a lot that has been the practice of the church for centuries that has been shaped more by the role it plays in shaping social order than by the spirit of the gospels. Is there really anthing more spiritual in the proscription of divorce in the church's practice than the proscription against it ordered by the Roman emperor Augustus?
I think the argument that I have with Douthat is that you have to find ways to affirm the deepest truths of Christian faith, which have level after level of depth without, but to do it in a way without making them into rigorously enforced rules. The faith, if it is lived at any depth, leads one to a deeper levels of rigor, but it's a rigor that has to be freely chosen; it can't be something that is demanded of people who have no idea what they are doing. And the vast majority of young people who get married could not possibly have any idea about what they are being asked to do. It's just not something that can be learned by reading a book or taking a class. It's something that only life can teach, and only life can present as an existential choice after some experience of it.