Looking at the wreckage of the mainline Protestant denominations in Europe and America, the Church of England’s continuing decline, and the empty pews of lenient Catholic Germany, one has to wonder—simply as a matter of self-preservation—why would Catholic “progressives” (an imprecise but useful shorthand) persist in reforms similar to those that empirically have proven to be disastrous? What is it that drives them to seemingly overturn longstanding Church teachings when similar moves have decimated other Christian communities in the West?
Best-selling author and New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, in To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism, does not exactly explain the why, but he does seek to describe how he thinks Francis and his inner circle are trying to effect changes in the fundamental self-understanding of the Church and her teachings. Such changes would be tantamount to the most momentous revolution since the Reformation, and according to Douthat “would make Catholic Christianity open to substantial reinterpretation in every generation, and transform many of its doctrines into the equivalent of a party’s platform or a republic’s constitution – which is to say, binding for the moment but constantly open to revision based on democratic debate.”
Douthat states that now, five years after the surprise abdication of Pope Benedict XVI and the equally surprising election of Jorge Bergoglio to the papacy, “it helps to tell a story about the last fifty years of Catholic history.” And then adds: “So let’s tell three.” Each of the three hinges on a certain understanding and interpretation of Vatican II. First is the “liberal” account: the surprising Council was a watershed whose reforms need to be accelerated and which represents a clear break with a “legalistic,” “pharisaical Church.” The second story, told by “conservatives” asserts that Vatican II was “hijacked by those who favored a simple accommodation to the spirit of the 1960s,” but decline was arrested first by John Paul II and then by Benedict XVI, who affirmed the essential continuity of Catholic doctrine. Douthat, who is one of America’s most astute observers of this pontificate, proposes a third story: an uneasy truce in a time of upheaval, with neither the liberal nor conservative wings fully successful. What was needed was to transcend the old divisions in a world where the Pope was both very strong and very weak in managing a global flock of widely – some would say insurmountable – divergent understandings of the faith.
Douthat is very good at describing the strange situation in which the papacy finds itself, in a technologically connected and media-saturated world. The papacy is now marketed; “each pope is treated not just as the supreme governor of the church but its single embodiment, the Catholic answer to Gandhi or Mandela, the Beatles or the Stones.” This centralization of the papacy and its magnification is in many ways the fault of modern media, which demands simple stories defined by personalities. However, Douthat asserts, conservative Catholics bear some of the blame by their actions, especially during the pontificate of John Paul II. But such centrality—which is distinct in ways from Petrine supremacy—sits uneasily with the bulk of Church history and tradition. Douthat might also have mentioned the loss of strong confessional states, which balanced papal power with their own strong obligations to preserve the faith.
Francis was a surprise and perhaps an opportunity. Coming from the “periphery,” many hoped that he was free of the ideological presuppositions of European and American clerics and old arguments focused on the West to the neglect of the wider Catholic world. He was a pope for the global Church and while his inveighing against ecclesial legalism may have sounded unusual in the West, where excessive legalism was not the problem, perhaps it was not the West he was addressing. His views on the poor and the marginalized, combined with an obvious devotion to Mary and personal piety, might have been just what the Church needed to reach out to both non-Christians as well as Catholics hurt by the sex scandals or who had drifted away from the faith. Douthat spends some time exploring the real appeal of Francis’ message of mercy, and the very Catholic message that all of us are sinners and so must be met where we are. Francis was potentially the great mediator among the Vatican II stories to move the Church into the new age. At least that was the hope.
The book argues that Francis instead quickly became a controversial figure, in part because he clearly sided with the very liberal, largely European wing of the episcopate in a way that seemed designed not only to push that agenda but to criticize and even to shame the more orthodox segments of the faithful. His laudable condemnations of the “throwaway culture” of consumerism included an unsophisticated understanding of modern economics, and his focus on “encounter” with nonbelievers and “mercy” to those within the fold presaged doctrinal vagueness. And he moved deliberately to quell dissent, and indeed to punish those he saw as opponents—his treatment of Cardinal Burke being the most well-known example of several that Douthat recounts. More recently, Francis’ rapprochement with the Chinese Communist State, and the doctoring of a letter from Benedict to make it seem as if the pope emeritus was strongly endorsing Francis’ theology, further make it appear as if the Pope and his advisors are not so much serving as a mediators as acting as revolutionaries.
Francis, however, seemed determined to revisit and even undermine some of the Church’s teachings on sexuality, morality, marriage, and the family. The chapters on the early stages of the Francis papacy, including the chaotic and confused Synod on the Family, are a masterful retelling of this sad episode. Although not an edifying spectacle, it is worth being reminded of the conduct of some of the bishops at the synod, including the not-so-subtle racism of the German bishops toward their more traditional African brethren, the latter facing not just economic modernization and globalization but also a very real threat from Islamic incursions.
Douthat carefully analyzes the arguments for changing the Church’s position on divorce and remarriage, as indicated in Amoris Laetitia and subsequent papal remarks, though he notes that Francis never quite closes the door on any interpretation, preferring a “mess” that is open to various pastoral approaches rather than clear, consistent rules. Douthat notes, in passing, the irony of a Pope not inclined to nuanced theological defenses in his teaching to the people having to rely on what are at times attenuated interpretations of the Gospels from liberal theologians that disregard the continuity of both traditions and Tradition. But he also notes another irony: conservative Catholics with concerns and criticisms of Francis who “backed the strongest possible understanding of papal authority” now faced with constantly being told to obey “the Pope, this Pope, this present Pope…”
And so the Francis era, Douthat suggests, “has made conservative overconfidence of the John Paul II era look foolish in hindsight,” even if “it hasn’t made liberal confidence look justified, or at least not yet.” But it also indicates just how rough the waters have been in the decades following the Council, at a time when both instability and an inclination toward a cult of personality—a dubious but distinctive trait of the past century—blurred the lines between the fallible man and the infallible office.
Over time, Douthat argues, “the papal message has lost any distinctively conservative element, instead offering simply liberalism in theology and left-wing politics—German theological premises, Argentine economics, and liberal-Eurocrat assumptions on borders, nations, and migration.” He fairly and rightly notes that Catholic liberalism is not the same as its Protestant cousin, and so need not lead to the same result as it has in the West—and in a fascinating digression on Jansenism he shows how a liberalizing wing is an important component of Catholic intellectual history. But the tone here is one of lament, and Douthat observes that Francis acted with intentionality in creating what will prove to be a deep and long-lasting crisis, since “he must have known that it did not have to be this way.”
And yet, knowing it did not have to be this way, the pontiff from Argentina did not step away from causing confusion and even crisis. Why? Did he always intend to pursue “a kind of revolution” or has he acted rashly and impatiently, not understanding the consequences? It’s hard, if not impossible, to know. But Francis, Douthat sharply concludes,
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.
To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism
by Ross Douthat
Simon and Schuster, 2018
Hardcover, 234 pp.