“The late-Soviet Scenario”

Pope Francis made news with a sort-of-private phone call to an Argentine woman, whom he permitted to take communion despite her marriage to a divorced man.

Once again, the pope has thus committed another unauthorized act of commonsense humanity. Once again, modern-day Pharisees are disturbed by the pope’s self-authorized departure from ossified dogma. Once again, Ross Douthat is on the case, with his blend of implausibly stodgy conservatism and genuinely admirable analytic insight: 

[W]hatever 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 teaching 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.


Since the late-Soviet scenario been obvious for a while now, I myself see the pope’s recent behavior as less a peril than a hope. The Catholic Church is a great institution that has provided spiritual sustenance for billions over many centuries. It is also a deeply flawed institution, whose teachings, practices, and political interventions have caused enormous harm.

Vatican II addressed many of these harms in one of the most admirable moments of contrition and internal reform in religious history. Much work remains to be done in addressing the heavy human cost of various “ideological motions” Douthat nervously mentions.

One might cite many front-page issues support this point. But consider a smaller episode. Some years ago, I met someone who discovered that her two children carry the full mutation for fragile X syndrome, the most common heritable form of intellectual disability. (This is a common scenario. The condition is often unrecognized or misdiagnosed until it is discovered in a younger sibling.) Facing this genetic predicament, the young woman asked her local priest whether there was any way church doctrine would permit she and her husband to use artificial contraception.  The question made it to the local bishop, who responded: No, church doctrine does not permit that.

If that genuinely is church doctrine, does anyone really believe it’s justified? Is that really what an intelligent and comprehensible living faith has to offer when someone seeks consolation and help? I’m curious what was left unsaid in that bishop’s statement. Does he fully embrace what he said?

There is indeed something late-Soviet in demands for blind obedience to inscrutable doctrines that cause avoidable human pain. Watching Pope Francis, millions of Catholics are betting that their church will provide different, better answers to both mundane and profound questions of human life.

This is only a hypothesis, of course. As Douthat himself notes, those excited by Pope Francis may see their hopes bitterly disappointed. Pope Francis remains conservative on some of the most contested doctrinal matters.

How their hypothesis is resolved will determine whether an American Catholic church will survive and thrive in a modern liberal society.

And whether it deserves to.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect, tnr.com, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

5 thoughts on ““The late-Soviet Scenario””

  1. It's worth pointing out that, because of pressure from the Catholic Church and forces allied with it, Argentina didn't allow Divorce until 1988.

    (for what it's worth, Pope Francis wasn't the head of the Church in Argentina until 1998; he likely had a public position during the fight over legalization of divorce in 1987, but I don't know what that position was).

  2. I just think it's striking that Ross Douthat–Ross Cardinal Douthat, as Charles Pierce always calls him–reaches out for something to compare the Catholic Church with, and comes up with the Soviet Union. The analogy is more perfect than Ross probably meant it to be.

  3. I think that the analogy to the Late-Soviet period is fatelly flawed because the Catholic Church has so many doctrines, and hence can execute a pivot by deciding which doctrines are to be emphasized rather than by changing them. It’s more like the late-Maoist China, where so many people thought that the emphasis on allowing capitalism meant that dissent was also going to be tolerated.

    1. I think the contrast you attempt to invoke reflects your own impression of the Soviet Union more than it does the reality. The Soviet Union was more flexible than you appear to recall, and tried various things at various times – remember, Gobachev's Glasnost policies were an attempt to reform the Soviet Union while reinforcing its fundamental identity, they were not (as often portrayed in the West) a repudiation of the Soviet Union.

  4. I'm not sure why you're presenting the Pharisees at anti-divorce. One of the greatest of the Pharisees, Rabbi Hillel, thought that a man should be able to divorce his wife even for something seemingly trivial such as burning dinner. (The sauce, however, was not good for the goose.) His debate partner, Rabbi Shammai, didn't give the husband quite as much leeway. Shammai said it had to be for some serious wrong.

    Remarriage to somebody else after divorce is encouraged under Jewish law.

    It was Jesus, not the Pharisees, who was against divorce and remarriage. See Mark 10, which has Jesus absolutely against divorce, and Matthew 19, in which he gives an exception for adultery. Both versions of the story have Jesus going up against the Pharisees.

    This is from Mark 10:2-12 (NRSV)

    2 Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” 3 He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” 4 They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” 5 But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. 6 But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ 7 ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife,[b] 8 and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. 9 Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

    10 Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. 11 He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; 12 and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

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