The following comes from a December 19 New York Times article by Ross Douthat:

Time for another intervention on matters Catholic, I’m afraid. Last week Austen Ivereigh, author of a very fine Pope Francis biography and frequent defender of the pontiff against conservative critics, wrote a piece for Crux announcing that the debate over Amoris Laetitia and communion for the remarried is essentially over, that intransigent conservatives are now as much “dissenters” from the papal magisterium as any liberal agitating for the ordination of women under John Paul II — and that long after the cardinals questioning Francis are no more “than a footnote in the history of this papacy, long after Ross Douthat’s predicted schism from the columns of the New York Times has failed to materialize, the next generation of priests will be applying the magnificent teaching of Amoris Laetitia, and the noisy, angry strains of dissent will have faded into a distant memory.”

Since my predictions in this strange year in Western history do not exactly have the finest track record, I will not offer a detailed counter-prophecy. But let me suggest a few ways in which his argument does not seem to fully fit the realities of Catholic divisions at the moment.

First, Ivereigh’s insistence on the total clarity of Amoris and the Holy Spirit-driven theological consensus it allegedly reflects seems to be shared by relatively few ecclesiastics – which is why the overwhelming episcopal response to the cardinals’ questions, their dubia, has been a circumspect silence rather than a rush to rally ‘round the pope.

It may be that Amoris means exactly what Ivereigh says it means – a “yes” to communion for the remarried confined to extremely rare circumstances, basically, if I’m reading his interpretation right. But the text (very obviously and deliberately) doesn’t just come out and say that, and, pace Ivereigh and many others in the papal inner circle, the two synods decidedly did not either. Which is why we can have equally-reasonable-seeming interpretations of the document that vary by geography and ideology, ranging from the more-liberal-than-Walter Kasper approach in San Diego to the conservative (“dissenting”?) approaches in Poland and Phoenix and Portland and Philadelphia, with more cautiously liberal approaches, à la the pope’s own Argentina, most likely in many places in between.

Now perhaps some sort of organic bottom-up process will eventually sort all these disagreements out; perhaps every bishop who takes the conservative line will pass away and be replaced by a moderate or liberal, and in fifty years perfect consensus will prevail through a purely biological solution. But more likely Rome will at some point be required to rule more clearly on precisely the issue that Ivereigh asserts is settled, finished, closed, and in need of no further commentary – because until Rome rules, not only surly, noisy lay Catholic scribblers in rich countries (as he, a lay Catholic scribbler from a rich country, describes the pope’s critics) but actual bishops of the church will probably continue treating the questions raised by the dubia as open and debatable, and the answers suggested by the two synods and the papal exhortation as ambiguous in the extreme.

Moreover: if it really is the case (I don’t think it is, but for the sake of argument let’s accept the claim) that so-called dissenters from Amoris are in roughly the same position as dissenters on various issues under John Paul II, isn’t the lesson of the Francis era for papal critics precisely the opposite of the “game over, guys” lecture that Ivereigh offers us? Namely, that despite all the official talk about how when Rome speaks the case is closed, what’s declared “over” in the church isn’t actually over if a new pope decides that the Vatican’s answer ought to change.

Ivereigh conjures up a plangent image of anti-papal dissidents, liberal then and conservative now, who “take refuge in their progressive or traditionalist liturgies and incandescent websites, firing off letters and petitions from lobbies and associations, vainly demanding, as ‘faithful Catholics’ that the pope do this, that, or the other … But even as they insist that there is a debate to be had, a case to answer, a matter to be settled, the train is leaving the station, and they are left on the platform, waving their arms.” Yet throughout the Francis era we have seen precisely the people who were seemingly “left on the platform” under John Paul II – progressive theologians, ecclesiastics, lay petitioners – suddenly ushered into the engine room and asked for their advice in steering the locomotive.

So if that can happen so easily – if a mattered “settled” by papal authority when Cardinal Kasper raised it twenty or thirty years ago can be reopened and relitigated under Francis, with a novel conclusion that leaves yesterday’s progressive dissenters plainly feeling vindicated and invigorated – then why should conservatives feel particularly concerned about the label of “dissenter” now? If you seek to make the church less of a tradition and more of a party, you can’t expect that label to carry the same sting. If yesterday’s Kasper, slapped down by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for proposing exceptions to the no-communion-for-the-remarried rule, can be today’s Robert McElroy, empowering his priests to give communion to most or eventually all of the remarried, then there is no reason for any conservative (or traditionalist for that matter) to assume that the wheel can’t turn again.