Ross Douthat Peers Into the Papal Murk
On February 1, the Wall Street Journal reported that Pope Francis was finalizing an agreement with the Chinese government that would regularize the Vatican’s relations with Beijing in exchange for Rome ceding massive ground to the communists regarding internal church governance. Cardinal Joseph Zen, the retired bishop of Hong Kong, denounced the deal as a sellout of the underground church. Ross Douthat, the U.S. Catholic commenter and conservative New York Times columnist, tweeted that it was “the second-biggest gamble of this pontificate.”
“One striking thing about the Francis era is that the papacy’s big-picture argument, especially in [the 2015 encyclical] Laudato Si, is a sweeping critique of the modern technocratic-capitalist paradigm,” Douthat continued.
“But then the pope’s big gambles, the divorce/remarriage push and perhaps this, both involve making major concessions to the stewards of that paradigm, in its Western-democratic and Sino-oligarchic forms, in the hopes of making new evangelization possible.”
Those lines are classic Douthat: critical of papal vision and strategy, but peering more deeply into the murk of Catholic theology, and more steadily, avoiding the sort of rhetorical rashness that (understandably) characterizes so much Francis commentary on the Catholic Right. That is what makes Douthat’s To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism (Simon & Schuster) such an important book—perhaps the most important book—for understanding this revolutionary moment in the Catholic Church’s 2,000-year history.
And it is exactly that: a revolutionary moment. Whatever one’s opinion of Francis, no reader can leave Douthat’s deeply considered book believing that the Catholic Church is living through normal times, with an ordinary pope. Catholics—conservative ones, anyway—often emphasize that the Catholic Church never changes theologically, that it is a steady rock in a turbulent sea of history.
This is contestable, to put it charitably. But even if one accepts that narrative, Jorge Bergoglio’s papacy risks turning that claim into a laughingstock. This is no minor thing, as Douthat demonstrates. The changes Francis and his supporters are pushing through stretch the flexibility within the Roman church’s theological system past the breaking point. As Douthat writes in the preface:
This is a book about the most important religious story of our time: the fate of the world’s largest religious institution under a pope who believes that Roman Catholicism can change in ways that his predecessors rejected, and who faces resistance from Catholics who believe the changes he seeks risk breaking faith with Jesus Christ.
“The most important religious story of our time”? The claim is hyperbolic at first glance, at least to non-Catholic eyes, but one finishes this unsettling book believing that Douthat sees with piercing clarity the likely consequences of Francis tearing down the doctrinal walls around marriage that have stood for time out of mind.
The world looks at Francis and sees a jovial, grandfatherly figure eager to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Douthat’s take, however, brings to mind Richard Weaver’s “encounter with witches on the heath”—the great conservative’s use of MacBeth as a metaphor for the West’s late medieval abandonment of belief in universals. This, wrote Weaver, “became the efficient and final cause of other evil decisions,” resulting in the modern world’s “feeling of alienation from all fixed truth.”
These are the stakes raised by the Francis papacy, according to Douthat—who, I am sorry to say, makes a very strong and persuasive case. Lay Catholics (and sympathetic others) absolutely must read this book to understand the radical nature of what’s happening in Rome, and how inadequate familiar categories are to making sense of it.
The debate over Francis and his program has been largely confined to clerical circles and Catholic intellectuals. The media have done a poor job reporting on it, which is not surprising. What is eye-opening about Douthat’s account is the severe fault he finds with Catholic conservatives, who, in the author’s view, have been prisoners of their own rhetoric and false certainties. More on this quietly devastating insight anon.
At the core of To Change the Church is the author’s contention that Francis’s attempts to alter Catholic teaching on sex, marriage, and communion for divorced and remarried people are far more radical than they appear on the surface. Douthat claims—persuasively, in my view—that “these issues, while superficially ‘just’ about sexuality or church discipline, actually cut very deep—to the very bones of Christianity, the very words of Jesus Christ.”
According to Douthat, the strength of the Roman Catholic system is that it is flexible enough to adapt to changing times and across cultural circumstances while maintaining a strong, resilient core. Catholic ecclesiology has a built-in conservatism that requires change to be slow. Catholic theology is a complex phenomenon in which one thing is connected to a hundred other things. Alter the wrong thing, or the right thing in the wrong way, and you put the entire system at risk in ways most people don’t easily understand.
This, according to Douthat, is what Pope Francis has done by opening the Church’s longstanding teaching on the indissolubility of marriage to question.
Despite the general assumption that the Roman pontiff is an absolute monarch wielding powers of infallibility, popes are in fact quite restrained by defined doctrine and tradition. This, says Douthat, is why popes are usually careful caretakers, not dramatic actors.
As a globetrotting media superstar and geopolitician, John Paul II was obviously an exception to this rule—but he did not attempt to change Catholic doctrine. Francis, by contrast, is attempting to make peace between the Church and the Sexual Revolution. In so doing, and by doing so in a breathtakingly reckless style, the pontiff has plunged the Catholic Church into what Douthat sees as one of the worst theological crises of the Church’s 2,000-year history.
You may be forgiven for finding this claim exaggerated at first glance. The fierce debates around the meaning of marriage sparked by Francis have been restricted primarily to Catholic elites (especially those with social media accounts). Douthat explains why these arguments matter. In that regard, reading this book is like watching drone footage of sharks in the surf circling crowds of unaware bathers.
With his measured but confident prose, Douthat gives the impression of having weighed each sentence before setting it down. Conservative Catholics coming to this book hoping for a pugnacious rhetorical assault on a liberal pontiff are going to be disappointed. Douthat is so meticulous and deliberative about giving Francis the benefit of the doubt that it gives his negative judgments real force.
You don’t expect a Catholic conservative to succor his progressive co-religionists, and Douthat certainly doesn’t. But he is remarkably hard on his own side, not out of any false attempt at balance, but from an honest attempt to figure out what went wrong. The basic battle lines between the Catholic Right and Left run between rival interpretations of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). In Douthat’s telling, liberals believe the conservative John Paul II and Benedict XVI papacies stalled its full implementation, which Francis is now undertaking. Conservatives, on the other hand, believe that John Paul and Benedict rescued the Council from liberal hijackers.
What if they are both wrong? Douthat asks. He says that the Council’s 50-year aftermath is in truth “a story of shared failure and persistent crisis.” Conservative Catholicism “limited decline without producing impressive new growth. It was more successful than the church’s liberal wing—but only comparatively.”
Douthat tells a difficult truth that frankly deserves a book of its own: that neither the Catholic Left nor the Catholic Right has proven capable of preparing the Church to succeed in these times.
“Francis is powerful and popular,” he writes, “but in reviving the spirit of 1970s Catholicism he has solved none of the problems that have bedeviled liberal strains in Christianity for the last two generations.”
As for the pope’s opponents, Douthat offers this unsparing speculative judgment on the conservative version of Vatican II represented by John Paul and Benedict, whose reigns spanned nearly 34 years: “If their project of restoration still left fertile soil for a new revolution, perhaps the entire project needed to be reassessed.”
Ross Douthat is never an intemperate writer, but you can almost hear his teeth grinding as he describes the way conservative bishops and others allowed themselves to be rolled by Francis. Prisoners of their own naïve idealism, these good soldiers repeatedly deceived themselves about Francis’s intentions, desperately wanting to believe the best about the pope’s intentions, despite the evidence. Except for hardliners like Cardinal Raymond Burke, conservative prelates come off as pious patsies.
Readers who didn’t pay close attention to the machinations behind the scenes at Francis’s two recent synods on the family will be scandalized by how the pontiff and his men stacked the deck to achieve the results they wanted. Francis’s avuncular public persona conceals a political manipulator who came to play hardball.
But like Donald Trump, to whom he is sometimes compared, Francis’s lack of self-discipline risks waylaying his plans. Some see the pope’s habit of making impulsive statements that confuse everyone as amateurish. Maybe. As of this writing, Francis’s rash remarks regarding a Chilean bishop and clerical sex abuse have blown up in his face, making him appear to be a hard-hearted liar.
But Douthat gathers enough details to make Bergoglio, who in his long clerical career has never been a theologically careful thinker, seem crazy like a fox. The pope seems to understand that generating a fog of pontifical ambiguity allows progressive revolutionaries to carry out their mission of ecclesial sabotage with plausible deniability. The book’s account of the drafting and reception of Francis’s 2016 apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, with the footnote that stands to sink Catholicism’s teaching on marriage, indicates that there is method in the pope’s messiness.
In the end, Bergoglio remains an enigma. Douthat says we can’t yet say why Francis has made some of the fateful choices that he has, but we cannot deny that those choices carry massive consequences:
Francis has not just exposed conflicts; he has stoked them, encouraging sweeping ambitions among his allies and apocalyptic fears among his critics. He has not just fostered debate; he has taken sides and hurled invective in a way that has pushed friendly critics into opposition, and undercut the quest for the common ground.
The weakest section of the book comes near the end, when the author speculates widely on what is coming next for the Church. Most of his scenarios are unnerving, but none gratuitous, and all plausible. It is simply impossible to predict what Francis will do next, or where the forces he has unleashed within the Church will take it.
He has steered the leaky Barque of Peter into uncharted waters, betting on sunny skies and smooth sailing. It is a staggeringly risky gamble. As Douthat points out, in a time of immense global turmoil and uncertainty, people need to be able to regard the Catholic Church as an ark capable of riding out the storm, not a leaky scow listing toward shipwreck.
Why does this matter to non-Catholics? Douthat never really makes that clear. The answer—I say this as an ex-Catholic—is that any Christian or secular conservative who cares about the stability of Western civilization cannot be indifferent to the fate of the institution that, more than any other, created it. The Orthodox Church is alien to the West, and Protestantism has become far too fragmented and rootless to hold things together. The cultural critic Camille Paglia, a lesbian atheist who sees things more clearly than many Catholics, told the Jesuit journal America that even though she strongly supports the Sexual Revolution, if Francis’s Church “trims its doctrine for politically correct convenience, it will no longer be Catholic.”
That’s the import of the present moment. As the astute Douthat recognizes, it’s not about minor changes to canon law (or Vatican diplomacy). It’s about the future of the Church. And this is not a drill.
To Change the Church is a book only Ross Douthat could have written. He is 38, a Catholic convert, and a prominent conservative who moves comfortably within the world of intellectual Catholicism. Having chosen Catholicism, Douthat is enough of an outsider not to take Catholicism for granted. As a younger Generation Xer, he is not burdened with the ideological blinders of older Catholic conservatives. And as a gifted prose stylist who, from his position at the New York Times, has established himself as one of the most judicious and important public intellectuals of our time, Douthat writes with unparalleled authority.
The hidden power of To Change the Church comes from the fact that Douthat has skin in this game. As he reveals in the book’s preface, Douthat is a believing Catholic, a husband and father whose parents and grandparents both divorced. He knows whereof he writes. Full disclosure: I am a personal friend of Douthat’s, and can tell you that he wrote this book while suffering from a debilitating illness (which, happily, seems to have abated). He suffered intensely for this book. It is a labor of love for the Catholic faith by a son who serves her best by telling the truth.
Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative.