Between Magisterium and Marketplace, by Robert C. Saler

When the Catholic Church’s Extra­ordinary Synod on the Family convened last year to discuss theologically fraught issues from divorce and cohabitation to homosexuality, an unusually public debate swirled around it. What is theological truth, people asked, and where does the authority reside to define it? In an essay called “Why I Am a Catholic,” New York Times columnist Ross Douthat argued that the “search for authority in Christianity” began with the need to know what had been taught by Jesus and the apostles, rather than with “pre-emptive submission to an established hierarchy.”

It’s a chicken-and-egg theological question: Is there a Christian truth that is prior and external to the teaching ministry that proclaims it? By briefly suggesting a shift in doctrine supported by impeccably magisterial teaching authority, the Synod on the Family brought that question to the fore.

In making his own case for doctrinal and disciplinary stability in the area of divorce, Douthat distinguished himself from a considerable body of fellow converts, mostly from Anglican and Luth­eran churches, whose explanations suggest a search for authority expressed by an established hierarchy. These authors, in­cluding Paul Griffiths, R. R. Reno, Rein­hard Hütter, and Leonard Klein, collectively suggest by their conversions that a crisis is afoot in the world of confessional, theologically catholic Protestantism.