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Francis: Being The Change He Wants

An interview with Ross Douthat about his critical new book about the Pope

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat’s new book, To Change The Church: Pope Francis And The Future of Catholicism, which is published today, is an urgent, compelling work of popular religious journalism. Douthat reads the signs of these anxious times with acute clarity and far-seeing vision. This book is must reading for every Christian who cares about the fate of the West and the future of global Christianity.

Douthat agreed to answer some questions from me by e-mail. Here is the transcript of our interview:

Rod Dreher: Let’s start with an easy one: What is the thesis of your book?

Ross Douthat: That Pope Francis, through complex maneuvers, is trying to liberalize Roman Catholicism’s approach to morality and modern life in something like the fashion that progressive Catholics have hoped for, secular observers have expected, and conservatives have insisted is impossible ever since the Second Vatican Council. That his project, and the resistance he has met from bishops and cardinals and theologians, has pitched the church into a theological crisis that will be remembered and studied alongside Jesuit-Jansenist debates and Arian-Athanasian battles. That the pope himself has taken a great gamble, one that is likely to make him remembered as either a genius or a near-heretic, and either way to leave the church profoundly changed.

Though not a Catholic, I try to follow Catholic news, because I think that as goes the Roman church, so goes the West. Why should non-Catholics care about your book?

Because half the Christian world is Catholic, and every Christian church exists in some kind of significant dialogue and/or significant rivalry with the Church of Rome. Because the Protestant and Orthodox experiences of modernity may be somewhat different, but there is a commonality to Christian dilemmas in the face of modern trends, and so the way that the biggest, oldest communion changes or doesn’t inevitably establishes a template that influences everyone else – or, alternatively, becomes the Christian world’s most important cautionary tale.

In particular, I think the Francis era in Catholicism will tell all Western Christians something important about the plausibility of the thesis you advance in The Benedict Option – that so-called “liquid modernity” will dissolve every Christian confession that doesn’t hold fast to tradition. The Vatican under Francis has been critical of your argument, and for understandable reasons: Their vision, what you might call The Francis Option, is very different, because it assumes that there are all kinds of ways that the faith might adapt and change to suit the times, and that such adaptation requires leaving the “rigidity” associated with conservatism and traditionalism behind. And if the pope’s reformation succeeds, if Catholicism adapts in the way he and his intimates envision and then thrives and evangelizes more successfully, it will supply a kind of explicit counter to your vision, and a different model for Christian flourishing in our challenging cultural matrix.

If it succeeds; if it fails or leads Catholicism deeper into division, it will offer a rather different set of lessons.

And then it isn’t just Christians who should care about the Francis era and its implications. Any religious person, indeed anyone whose life is affected by religion’s influence on human culture (which means, well, everyone), has a meaningful stake in the question of how far a theoretically tradition-bound institution can go in adapting to modernity, how comfortable a New Testament faith can become with the developed world’s present way of life, and whether in trying to push Catholicism forward (or “forward”) the pope is pushing it toward newfound influence or toward crisis, division, and some unknown post-liberal future. We talk a lot about the idea of a crisis of liberalism in our political debates these days; well, the question of whether an institution like the Catholic Church can successfully liberalize without destroying its own integrity, whether it can thrive in a form more adapted to the liberal order, is very relevant to broader political and cultural question of whether liberal society can sustain itself long term.

Then last but hardly least, everyone should care because the church of Rome is the one true church, so the fate of the entire human race is effectively at stake when Catholicism goes into crisis. But surely that goes without saying.

I kept thinking as I read “To Change The Church” about how few Catholics seem to understand what’s really at stake in what on the surface looks like a merely pastoral move by Pope Francis. One of your reviewers, the Cambridge scholar Richard Rex, says that the Roman church is facing its worst crisis since the Reformation. Yet the sense of crisis seems to be limited to a relatively small number of engaged traditionalists. What are the rest of the world’s Catholics not seeing?

I think the strongest argument against my thesis is that it can’t be a major crisis if there isn’t tumult in the pews. There was much more chaos on the ground after Vatican II than there has been under Francis. And of course there’s nothing like the dockside fistfights over the nature of Jesus’s divinity that characterized Mediterranean life during some of the Christological controversies of the fourth centuries, to say nothing of the literal wars of the Reformation.

Some of this reflects the fact that Catholicism generally has become a weaker culture than it was five hundred years ago, and in weak cultures the stakes of every battle seem lower than in strong ones, because fewer people’s lives are fully organized around the principles at stake. (This statement applies to my own life, certainly.) Some of it reflects the fact that Catholic authority and secular power aren’t intertwined as in the past, so a theological crisis in the church doesn’t have immediate political implications that bring kings and princes and their armies rushing in. And some of it reflects the fact that the biggest specific change that Francis has pursued, a path to communion for people living in sexual relationships that aren’t Catholic marriages, has already been happening, de facto, in many parishes and dioceses around the world. So something can be a very big deal theologically even as it officially ratifies what has already been happening, and causes further on-the-ground changes on a much longer time horizon than a few years in a single pontificate.

But it’s also important to recognize that Francis knows that what he’s doing is fraught and dangerous and could potentially push the church toward schism; the resistance he faced from conservative bishops at the two synods on the family testified to that. So in part this crisis seems muted because he’s worked to keep it that way, proceeding through ambiguous formulations and footnotes and decentralizing permission slips. The theory in his inner circle seems to be that this is the way to get Catholicism where they want it to go without a Reformation-level blowup – that you can let national churches and local bishops conduct their own experiments, with a kind of soft pressure from Rome to liberalize, and with time conservatives will become sufficiently marginalized that they will lack the effective power to protest, and they’ll just have to subsist as a kind of church within the church, anachronistic in their moralism and sacramental theology just like the church’s Latin-Mass parishes are (from a progressive perspective) anachronistic in their liturgy today.

I think this plan is too clever by half, that Anglican-style decentralization in Catholicism will ultimately encourage Anglican-style division. But it’s true that at the moment the pope’s determination to make changes without admitting that they’re changes has left most of his conservative opponents flummoxed, and thereby also limited the experience of crisis for ordinary Catholics in the pews.

Early on, you claim that the particular neuralgic points within the Church — marriage, divorce, homosexuality, for example — are really symbols of much deeper questions and problems. Give an example of what you mean.

You can see this very easily in the crucial test case for the Francis agenda – his push to allow some or all divorced-and-remarried Catholics to receive communion. The existing discipline, the rule that his predecessors reaffirmed, doesn’t exist because of some generalized thing called “conservatism” or even “sexual conservatism.” It’s entirely possible to have a conservative religious perspective that allows for divorce, as Islam and Judaism both attest — and indeed a lax approach to divorce is entirely compatible with certain patriarchal norms. Rather, what conservative Catholics are trying to conserve is Jesus’s radicalism, which is apparent enough in the clear words of Scripture (his disciples are not exactly pleased to hear about marriage’s indissolubility) and which has been ratified and reaffirmed for centuries by church teaching and tradition.

So the debate over divorce and remarriage, while clearly driven by the Sexual Revolution, cannot help but become a debate about deeper issues, about Christ and the church. What does Scripture say, and how firmly does it bind? When can tradition change? How much do we trust the church’s interpretations of Jesus? How much do we trust the gospels? How much do we trust Jesus himself?

This is why these debates about sexual morality tend to blur, when pursued rigorously, into debates about ecclesiology and Christology. It’s why you get the new head of the Jesuits telling a rather surprised interviewer that after all nobody had a tape recorder when Jesus was talking, so we can’t be too literal-minded in interpreting scripture because scripture might have got it wrong. Or why prominent figures associated with liberal Catholicism like Father James Martin tend to get into esoteric-seeming Twitter debates with more conservative Catholics about the relationship between Jesus’s human and divine natures. Or why theologians making the case for changes to church teaching often end up de-emphasizing Jesus’s own foreknowledge and the reliability of his teaching – by saying things like, well, Jesus thought the world was going to end, so his sexual morality was for the end-times, and we know the apocalypse didn’t come when he thought it would, so we’re free to adapt things a bit more.

What you see in all of these cases is that gnostic and semi-Arian conceptions of Jesus make it easier to make the case for paradigm shifts on moral teaching than does orthodox Christology. A lower sense of scripture, a more contingent and individualistic understanding of the church’s authority, makes it easier to justify change as well — so a debate that’s “only” about sex has a way of very quickly returning us to arguments from the Arian or Reformation eras. Or, for that matter, to the heyday of Deism and Unitarianism, when the neuralgic issues weren’t yet sexual morality so it was rather easier to see the deep theological stakes in liberal/conservative divisions.

In one of the later chapters, you draw a very important distinction about the difference in the Gospels between law and mercy. Speaking of Jesus, you say that he offers mercy and forgiveness to sinners, “but he never confirms them in their sins, or makes nuanced allowances for their state of life; that sort of rhetoric is alien to the gospels. The ritual law — yes, that can and must be superseded. But the moral law — no, that is bedrock.” You go on to say that Francis challenges this paradigm, which is why his papacy is “potentially revolutionary.” Would you elaborate?

Much of the reformist rhetoric of the Francis era, from the pope himself and from his allies, has drawn an analogy between the contemporary church’s conservatives and the New Testament’s Pharisees – portraying both the former group as exactly the kind of “doctors of the law” against whom Jesus often railed, who piled on pointless legalistic burdens instead of offering healing and mercy. This is a very rhetorically powerful argument, because these are some of the most memorable conflicts in the gospel, and Jesus really was arrayed against the religious authorities of his day, really was radically forgiving, really was happy to hang out with publicans and prostitutes and so forth.

But the analogy doesn’t actually fit with the way Jesus talked about morality; he didn’t always sound precisely like a theologically-conservative Catholic, but neither did he sound at all like a certain kind of Francis-era liberal. He was a fierce critic of legalism and dead ritual, yes, but the moral law’s demands – especially everything related to money and sex — he generally made more absolute, not less. And a big part of his case against the legalism of the Jewish authorities was that it effectively offered lawlerly excuses for people to evade their moral responsibilities, to qualify the Ten Commandments, to escape the clear demands of God.

You can see that in the passages on divorce and remarriage, where it’s the doctors of the laws defending divorce, because it’s part of the Mosaic code, and Jesus goes over their heads to say, yes, but according to God’s plan and despite your legalisms a man who divorces his wife and marries another still commits adultery. And then there are other examples, less famous, where something similar is going on – I quote one, for instance, where he attacks the Pharisees for telling people that they can absolve themselves of their obligation to take care of their father and mother if they give money to the temple instead.

The bottom line is that there is no moment in the gospels that I can see where Jesus makes the kind of situational-ethics, “sometimes the law’s just impossible to follow” move that’s common to liberal Catholicism these days, and that you can find woven into Pope Francis’s big document on marriage and the family, Amoris Laetitia. In the gospels its radical forgiveness and radical moralism all the way down, not ambiguous accompaniment and “well, it’s not ideal, for now it’s okay …”

Which is not to say that the pope is wrong to see a harsh and judgmental spirit at work among some conservative Catholics. The pharisaical temptation belongs to everyone; the tendency to attack the sinner as well as the sin is a recurring problem in church history; the need to accompany people and not just separate yourself from them is an important part of Christian life in a pluralist society. And to the extent that the Francis pontificate is interested in finding or offering new gestures of inclusion within the framework of existing teaching, and his critics are worried that these gestures are somehow undermining sound morals, it’s reasonable to see his approach as closer to Jesus’s than theirs.

But the debate over communion for the remarried isn’t a debate about inclusive gestures or personal accompaniment; it’s a debate about whether the church’s teaching on indissolubility should be considered an essential truth or just a kind of notional ideal, a none-too-binding guideline. And I don’t think you have to squint very hard at the worldly European clerics with rich and mostly-empty churches who are coming up with clever theological rationales for modifying Jesus’s commandment and the church’s law in order to satisfy the demands of the post-sexual revolution bourgeoisie to see that if someone is playing the pharisaical part in this dispute, it’s not necessarily the conservatives.

I wasn’t surprised to read your criticism of liberal Catholics, but it did raise my eyebrows to read your taking on conservative Catholics, particularly for what you consider to be their complacency. Explain.

You can get the longer version of this take in the Erasmus Lecture I gave two years ago on the crisis of conservative Catholicism, but in a nutshell I think a lot of conservative Catholics under John Paul II and Benedict convinced themselves that the arc of history was clearly on their side, that liberal Catholicism had been effectively defeated intellectually and that demographics would do the rest of the work, and that the JPII interpretation of Vatican II was solidly established as the only plausible Catholic paradigm. This was the conservative “master narrative,” if you will, that I encountered when I came into the church in the late 1990s – the answer to the liberal “master narrative” about how John Paul II and Ratzinger had supposedly choked off reform – and it doesn’t look so compelling anymore. There was just a lot more resilience in liberalizing forms of Catholicism and a lot more weakness in conservative Catholicism than the “John Paul II generation” of Catholic writers and leaders wanted to believe. And if the sex abuse scandal taught us a lot about the moral rot that persisted under Wojtylan leadership, the crisis of the Francis era has taught us a lot about the insufficiency of the conservative moral synthesis, the ways in the proposed “hermeneutic of continuity” between the church before Vatican II and after had not, in fact, settled the argument over how the church might or might not change, but only temporarily suspended it.

You’re 38 years old. I am 51. I have noticed in recent years, both here and in my travels in Europe, a big difference in the way your generation perceives the Church and its place in the world, and the way people of my generation and (especially) older, do. Am I right? If so, how does that relate to the Francis controversy?

Well, look, both you and I are getting very partial and self-selected snapshots, so a certain modesty is in order. But my impression is that Christians and Catholics younger than myself are very aware of their countercultural position, very aware of the decline or (in Europe) the nearly-complete death of cultural Christianity, and thus more skeptical of all paradigms that imagine Christianity fitting easily into the political-cultural order of the Western world right now, playing the kind of role that older Christians (liberal and conservative, in different ways) are conditioned to expect their faith or their faith leaders to play.

Thus for younger conservative Catholics, the weakness of the John Paul II-era

Ross Douthat (NYT)

conservative paradigm I was just talking about isn’t theoretical or abstract; they’re living their lives in a world created by the church’s continued institutional decline, the hangover from the sex abuse scandal, the repeated cultural-political defeats and growing isolation. So it’s not surprising that you have a lot more traditionalism or quasi-traditionalism among serious young believers, a lot more interest in looking at pre-Vatican II ideas and arguments and practices – because if the post-Vatican II synthesis brought the church to this place, maybe there were deeper flaws in it than the older John Paul II generation wanted to believe.

And in a similar way, my impression is that the most popular aspect of the Francis pontificate for a lot of young people who consider themselves “left-Catholics” of some sort isn’t all the “let’s make peace with the Sexual Revolution” business; it’s this pope’s more radical critiques of modern capitalism and the whole technocratic world order, which the young see – not unreasonably – as a kind of effective enemy of Christianity. Which is why you have more overlap between younger left-Catholics and younger right-Catholics – between the would-be “Tradinistas” and the would-be integralists – than you had between the neoconservative and neoliberal Catholics who set the terms of intra-Catholic debate after the 1960s … because for the rising generation, there’s a general loss of confidence in the whole system of liberalism that manifests itself whichever end up the spectrum you swing toward.

Again, there’s selection bias at work here: These kind of right-Catholics and left-Catholics are overrepresented on Catholic Twitter and among the writerly set, and there are plenty of young Catholics and young Christians who are less discontented and disillusioned, who aren’t interested in esoteric debates about liberalism, and who either like Francis in much the same way they liked John Paul II (without necessarily paying close attention to intra-church debates), or else like him for the same reasons that the secular press likes him – because he’s a “cool pope” who doesn’t make them feel guilty about having premarital sex or supporting same-sex marriage.

But it still seems to me that there is more genuine radicalism among Catholics younger than myself than in the recent past, and as the church shrinks and their radicalism becomes more influential, it will have some very interesting and very unpredictable implications for the fights within the church that I’m writing about and the way the church relates to the secular world.

How will history judge Benedict XVI’s decision to resign? How does Ross Douthat judge that decision?

I imagine that how history judges the decision will depend entirely on how it judges the Francis pontificate. The more like Francis looks like a great reformer making necessary changes to usher in renewal, the more Benedict’s decision will folded into that narrative as the honorable, farsighted move that made it all possible. The more Francis looks – as I’m afraid he looks right now – like a reckless pope driving the church toward crisis, the more the resignation will be seen as a kind of cautionary tale for future popes, a case study in why the papacy is supposed to be for life.

My personal view, as much as I cannot begin to imagine the burdens Benedict was carrying, is that from the point of view of the papacy as an institution his decision was a grave mistake – and I wrote something along these lines at the time, so it’s not just a reaction to my unhappiness with the decisions Francis has made. Part of the problem is the peculiar role of a pope emeritus: Having an erstwhile pope around making tacit interventions would be a peculiar thing for the magisterium [the Catholic Church’s teaching authority] even if the gulf between the two papacies were less stark and there were fewer opportunities for ridiculous episodes like the recent affair of Benedict’s selectively-edited letter.

But the more important issue isn’t about official teaching; it’s about the value of the implicit teaching that’s offered by having most powerful man in the church bound to a true father’s role, a role that goes on to the end however diminished it may become, rather than that of a politician or a C.E.O. who vanishes when he can no longer carry out the job.

I understand all the problems with an incapacitated pope, but that’s a problem that ought to be addressed first through the kind of curial reform that sadly hasn’t really happened under Francis. Ultimately the Vatican should be able to run itself, day-to-day, without some sort of pope-C.E.O. necessarily managing everything – and popes should remain pope until they die.

As I strongly suspect that Francis himself will.

One great strength of To Change The Church is its tone and its approach. It is clear where you stand, but you go out of your way to be fair to Francis, and to consider things from his point of view. And you avoid the polemical tone that has characterized a lot of Catholic writing critical of him. To me, both those choices make your argument much more effective.

That’s very kind of you, but you’re already sympathetic to my argument; I can direct you to quite a few reviewers who don’t share your view of my fair-mindedness. The truth is that I’m somewhat less polemical because I’m less certain than some of the Holy Father’s critics about the best alternative to his accomodating approach. Francis’s fiercest critics are traditionalists who have a very coherent view of what’s gone wrong in the church that folds in a number of post-1950s changes that I have long thought were either good or necessary or both; his second-fiercest critics are John Paul II conservatives who firmly believe that the JPII synthesis was the only definitive interpretion of Vatican II and that all the church needs to do is return to what John Paul taught. I am not a traditionalist, though I think that the Francis era has lent more credence to traditionalist arguments, but nor am I convinced that the last two popes offered the last word on the church’s relationship to modernity, on what can and cannot change. I think the church is in search of synthesis, and will be for some time – all the way, perhaps, to another ecumenical council that actually settles the many questions that rushed in after Vatican II . So despite my sincere criticism of the pope, a spirit of uncertainty seems like a necessary part of that criticism, if I’m being honest about my own position and the rather confused position of the church.

Plus, Francis is the pope and I pretty obviously am not. So my criticism has to at least try to be fairminded, however much it might fall short, or else I am clearly failing in my duty as a member of his flock.

What is your message to liberal Catholic readers?

Convince me that I’m wrong! By which I meant that if conservative Catholicism seems to me to lack a fully compelling synthesis, in my arguments with more liberal Catholics I often struggle to discern the promise of any synthesis at all, as opposed to a kind of ad hoc justification for changes whose necessity has been decided by the ambient culture, leaving would-be liberalizers to find some sufficiently Catholic fig leaf or some Catholic-seeming way of tacitly doing what the Mainline Protestants have just done explicitly and openly.

That kind of thing can bring along people who already agree with your perspective or who don’t really care one way or another, but it doesn’t tell you much about where the process might stop, what if any limits liberal Catholics see on how the church might change, and what place a Catholicism that still understands itself as conservative or traditional would have in their more liberalized church. And here it’s not enough to just say, “oh, dear boy, don’t worry so much about schism, the church always changes”; you need a vision for how the church looks after the changes that is reasonably a development out of the church’s past rather than just a pretty obvious rupture, or else you need to own the rupture and accept that yes, the church might ultimately divide and that division would be worth it to accomplish the reforms you seek.

Right now liberal Catholicism is betwixt and between: It seems to believe that it doesn’t need to choose between the options I’ve just sketched, because the mantle of papal authority and the cleverness of a pastoral/doctrinal division will suffice to bring resisters along, and prevent the kind of crisis point that, say, the Anglican Communion reached on very similar issues. But meanwhile, as I noted above, the practical effect of these changes is to push a lot of conservative Catholics rightward, toward a traditionalism that’s more skeptical of Vatican II than the conservatism of the John Paul II era. So at some point, if the liberals want to hold the church together they need arguments and ideas and narratives that will pull some of these conservatives back toward a new post-Francis center. That’s what I’d like to see offered in response to my book: Running the risk of narcissism, I think liberal Catholics need more arguments that would appeal, not to strict traditionalists, but to uncertain conservatives like me. Or if not to me – if I’m a lost cause – then to the next generation of Catholics who want the church’s patrimony to be alive in the church today, who want coherence and consistency and yes, tradition as well as perpetual reform.

Many orthodox Catholic friends and acquaintances of mine are struggling greatly right now. I was recently in Hungary and the Czech Republic, and found a lot of anxiety there among Catholics about Francis, though they tended to be more heavily focused on his promotion of mass immigration into their countries. Still, they are shaken. Where do you, in your own life as a Catholic, find hope amid this crisis?

Well, look, if Catholicism or indeed any kind of traditional Christianity is true, if it’s an accurate description of the world, then there is literally no reason to expect anything except various tests of one sort or another, from here until the eschaton. Is the test of a pope who might be tacitly surrendering important Christian doctrines, or – if he’s wrong about immigration, say, in the European context – making various mistake of prudential statesmanship, worse than the test of popes who were personally depraved? Worse than the test of the great Western schism, when you had three popes at once? Worse than the tests of the Christological controversies of the first millennium, when popes were not always the heroes of orthodoxy?

Maybe it is, you can make that case — but at the very least my point is that it’s not a novel thing in Catholic history to have the papacy fail in some important way, to even become a kind of stumbling block for faith. And likewise with the larger cultural situation: It’s certainly harder to be a serious Catholic in the West right now than in some historical dispensations, and having the papacy seem to be surrendering to liberal currents will probably make it that much harder … but we live in an age when Christians outside the West are persecuted on a dramatic scale, we know the history of what it cost to be Catholic in many times and places, and we shouldn’t use the real challenges of the Francis era as an excuse to over-dramatize our own situation. There will be plenty of time for misery if things get worse, in the church and the world; for now the practice of conservative or traditional Catholicism in the West is countercultural and challenging but not something that requires the sacrifices that saints and martyrs have made for the faith.

So we have room for a certain kind of positivity, you might say, and I think that needs to be present in any conservative criticism of the pope. One of my vices as a Christian who operates in a secular context is a tendency to hold my beliefs at a modestly ironic distance, to shy away from too much sincerity because it would freak my readers out. But in the case of the Francis era you need a little of that distance, just a little, because the alternative is an apocalyptic mindset that just feeds on itself.

The truth is that if Francis’s conservative critics are right, we can afford to proceed cheerfully because the fact that we’re right means that in God’s time (i.e. a thousand years after my book has been pulped and forgotten) we’ll be vindicated, and into the bargain all will be well and all will be well and all manner of things will be well.

And if we’re wrong and the pope’s favored theologians are correct, well, the theological picture offered by liberal Catholicism seems to suggest that God is so forgiving that even rigorists and pharisees and obstreperous undereducated newspaper columnists will find themselves, after a decent purgatoral interval having our cramped anxieties and fears of change burned away, welcomed alongside our more openminded brethren into the wedding feast of the lamb. So really it’s a win-win, and optimism at some level in the best way to pass through this highly unusual version of the test that every Christian generation that takes its faith seriously should expect to face.

The book is “To Change The Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism”, by Ross Douthat. It is published today by Simon & Schuster.