|Giovanni Venanzi of Pesaro, 1688: King Solomon being led into idolatry by his wives. Via Wikipedia.|
Francis’s purpose is simple: He favors the proposal, put forward by the church’s liberal cardinals, that would allow divorced and remarried Catholics to receive communion without having their first marriage declared null.
At the same time, though, the pope is supposed to have no power to change Catholic doctrine. This rule has no official enforcement mechanism (the Holy Spirit is supposed to be the crucial check and balance), but custom, modesty, fear of God and fear of schism all restrain popes who might find a doctrinal rewrite tempting.
Douthat is confusing two distinct issues: the question of what the individual sinner is supposed to do by way of taking communion, and the law regarding who may be barred from taking it.
On the first point, it is certainly correct that if you get a divorce from one spouse without an official Catholic annulment procedure, and then marry again while your ex is still alive, you are generally regarded by the Church as an adulterer, committing a grave sin, and you should not take communion without first confessing your sin and making an act of contrition and resolving not to do it any more, the same as any other sin, such as lying, Ross, or stealing, or having lustful thoughts, or favoring capital punishment (speaking of plots to change Catholicism) or refusing help to the poor or what have you.
On the second point, there are certain sins that automatically make a person excommunicate, latae sententiae, applying to exactly eight categories:
- being an apostate, heretic, or schismatic
- throwing away a consecrated species (wafer or wine) or using it for a sacrilegious purpose
- using physical force against the Pope
- using the confessional (if you are a priest) to persuade someone to commit adultery
- ordaining a bishop (if you are a bishop) without a papal mandate
- violating the seal of confession (if you are a priest)
- obtaining a completed abortion
- being an accomplice in any of the above
The "adultery" committed by a person who remarries when they are already married in the eyes of the Church is not one of these. You shouldn't take communion if you're doing it unless you confess and plan to stop, but your bishop can't stop you from taking communion without explicitly putting through the excommunication process ferendae sententiae:
Canon 2356. Bigamists, that is, those who, notwithstanding a conjugal bond, attempt to enter another marriage, even a civil one, as they say, are by that fact infamous; and if, spurning the admonition of the Ordinary, they stay in the illicit relationship, they are to be excommunicated according to the gravity of the deed or struck with personal interdict. [1917 Code; the 1983 Code lists no penalty at all, though bigamy is still a mortal sin, which may mean the 1917 rule is still in force, though if this is true the rule requiring women to cover their heads in church is also still in force]The proposal of Cardinal Marx to which young Ross objects is basically that in certain individual cases, if a proper annulment of the previous marriage is impossible for some reason, and if the person who wants to participate in the Eucharist regrets any fault of his or her own in the breakdown of the previous marriage and intends to live the second marriage and bring up any future children in the Faith, the responsible bishop (or papal legate, or vicar capitular, or vicar-general, but not a parish priest) may choose not to take the step of excommunicating the person.
Thus it seems to be not in conflict with received doctrine at all. It's simply clarifying a point of prosecutorial discretion. Ross and the conservative bishops may not like it, and it may not have been done that way over the past century or however long it's been since divorce started to be a normal legal thing in countries with important Catholic communities, but there's nothing intrinsically wrong with it.
Also, and here I'm on solider ground, he is totally wrong in this snide parenthesis:
And Francis himself, in his daily homilies, has consistently criticized Catholicism’s “doctors of the law,” its modern legalists and Pharisees — a not-even-thinly-veiled signal of his views.
The Monsignor is suggesting that it is the Pope who is being Pharisaical and the doctores legum who are Jesus-like, but this is because he has no understanding of the biblical passage he's referring to.(Though of course, in the New Testament the Pharisees allowed divorce; it was Jesus who rejected it.)
In Matthew 5, in the context of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus does something extremely shocking to his Jewish audience: he announces that he is going to alter the Mosaic law in certain respects: redefining the prohibitions against murder, adultery, and swearing, so that for a man to simply look at a woman lustfully is committing adultery, for instance; and forbidding certain things that were well established and regulated in the Torah such as the seeking of revenge (no, says Jesus, you are to turn the other cheek) or getting divorced.
What the Pharisees are asking him in Matthew 19, then, is to defend himself against the charge of contempt for the Torah: Is it true you say divorce is illicit even though Moses said it was OK? They'd like to bust him for heresy, in fact, and they're examining him on his theological weirdness, and he argues on the basis of quotations from Genesis that divorce was always sinful but God let the Jews do it anyway. (He's saying not that divorce should be illegal, therefore, only that his followers shouldn't do it because of their higher standard.)
Thus Ross seems to think the Pharisees were being "liberal", complaining that Jesus was being too strict and legalistic, but in fact they were insisting on the letter of the law, and accusing Jesus of being a dangerous radical. In calling the doctores Pharisaical, Francesco is being absolutely consistent and theologically correct, as he always is (even when he says something I think is terrible and non-Jesusy like rejecting the idea of women as priests). Douthat is just wrong again.