It’s not surprising that the New York Times has, over many decades, often run pieces critical of the Catholic Church and the Pope, especially regarding issues related to sexuality and marriage.
But the criticisms made by Times columnist Ross Douthat in To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism are unusual, for rather than dissenting from Church teaching on, say, contraception or homosexuality, Douthat argues that Francis is causing confusion, especially when it comes to Holy Communion for divorced-and-civilly-remarried Catholics. Douthat—the youngest columnist in the newspaper’s history, one of the few conservative voices at the Grey Lady, and a convert to Catholicism—insists that Francis has been creating a “mess” (Francis’ own term), undermining Church teaching and authority, and laying the groundwork for the progressive “pastoral” practices that will essentially change key Church disciplines and even doctrines.
Douthat recently spoke with Catholic World Report by telephone to discuss his book and its critics as well as the current pontificate.
CWR: How did the book come about?
Ross Douthat: Well, I’d written a large number of columns in my day job as a columnist for the New York Times, and I’m honestly not completely sure whether my publisher raised the possibility with me or the other way around! But either way, this is a very timely and interesting story, the Francis pontificate, and by virtue of being something of a critic of the Holy Father I had an interesting thesis that was maybe worth arguing out at length. But ultimately there was a sense in which the story of what’s been going on in Rome under Francis in this pontificate is just interesting. And if you have a story about an interesting topic, you can argue that it cries out to be a book.
CWR: Over the course of the research and writing, did your assessment of the Francis papacy change very much?
Douthat: I think I really started writing it after the second Synod on the Family, which was one of these interesting, one might say, crisis points in the pontificate. I think the battles around the two synods were the points at which the most important questions of the pontificate were sort of exposed, and I began writing after them. But the argument of the book I don’t think changed that much. There were, obviously, further developments, with the controversy about Amoris Laetitia, the Pope’s document on marriage and family; the dubia that the four cardinals put together; and so on. But I think that Francis’ approach to those has been a sort of deliberate ambiguity, and there hasn’t been any sort of dramatic shift in direction. So the broad picture has remained the same, I think.
Inevitably when you write a book, you finish some time before it comes out. And other things happen in the meantime. One thing I wish I could have addressed in the book is the debate about the Vatican’s attempt at opening up to China. I’ve written about that in the Times, but most of what we know about it has come out in the last few months. I don’t think that would have changed the overall thesis of the book, but it’s an important part of his pontificate, whether it succeeds or fails. And I think when the paperback edition comes out, I’ll certainly need to address it.
CWR: In that same line of thought—things that have happened since the book was written—have you had a chance to read and assess the new apostolic exhortation, Gaudete et Exsultate?
Douthat: Well, I’ve read it once, and as with all papal documents it is unwise to (if you will) “pontificate” too much on the first reading. After the first reading, though, it’s clearly a very characteristic document of the Francis pontificate. It gives a lot of broad pastoral insights, often expressed in helpfully earthy language. I think the Holy Father is at his best when he is essentially talking about the everyday Christian life, how to be a Christian within the pressures and temptations of normal life, but also in the general complex of technology and commercial capitalism, which creates particular pressures that he’s very good at teasing out. That’s sort of the broad brush of the document.
But then it also contains—as is characteristic, as well, of Francis—passages where you might raise an eyebrow at their theological implications, and then a number of sections that are clearly meant to be either responses to or counterattacks against his various conservative critics, where they are scolded for being rigid, or judgmental, with “liturgical fussiness,” and so on.
One thing that has developed, I think, in his approach (maybe it was always the intent and I just misunderstood it) is that he has this tendency to draw out critiques of two heretical temptations: Gnosticism and Pelagianism. These critiques appear in documents going all the way back to the beginning of his pontificate. In the beginning, I had the sense that, in these criticisms, he was using Pelagianism to critique conservative temptations—the temptation to just say, “We have to follow the moral law, and if we follow the moral law then all will be well,” in ways that don’t leave room for complexity and grace—and the Gnostic temptation— self-absorption, individualism—would be the more liberal temptations. At least, that was my reading originally. And, at least in this document, it seems like he’s using them both to critique conservatives. I don’t know if that’s really a change in what he’s intending, or just a change in how I am reading it. But I do think there’s been movement over the course of the pontificate—as he’s come into conflict with conservatives, there’s been a tendency to move from an even-handed, “Here are the problems with the liberals, here are the problems with the conservatives,” much more to almost exclusively critiquing conservative temptations.
CWR: At this point, how would you summarize or assess the responses to the book that you’ve encountered so far?
Douthat: I would say the critical reviews generally fall into two categories: a sort of friendly and mildly condescending style, which says, “I know you’re well-intentioned, Mr. Douthat, and you love the Church and so on, but you’re a little bit naive about past changes, and therefore how much the Church can change in the future, and you shouldn’t worry so much, because the most important thing is that Catholics just assume that the Holy Spirit is guiding everything”; and then the second category is a little more irate and slightly spittle-flecked, and attacks me for getting everything wrong and totally mischaracterizing the Pope. But I would say more have been in the first category. And I think overall, the Pope’s admirers at the moment feel reasonably confident about the direction the Church is going. They feel that Pope Francis’ reforms are the work of the Holy Spirit and they feel they can afford to be tolerant of critics like me who couch it all in fairly respectful language. And also, my book is called To Change the Church rather than The Dictator Pope! So it might be in the interest of the Pope’s defenders to engage with me while sort of attacking some of the more striking formulations in some other critical books.
CWR: The fact that you are a New York Times columnist seems to give you some degree of freedom in writing about these things. When people hear your name they think “New York Times columnist,” unlike when they hear (for example) Cardinal Burke’s name and think “virulent critic of the Pope.” Do you think your position as a writer for a major secular outlet has given you some freedom in writing about the Pope?
Douthat: I think people are quite comfortable describing me as a critic of the Pope. [Laughs] One advantage of being a columnist is that I am not employed by the Roman Catholic Church, or part of the hierarchy or bureaucracy, or anything like that. So obviously there’s a degree of professional distance, working for a secular publication. Even Catholic journalists operate in an environment that has a relationship with the institutional Church that the New York Times does not. So there is a certain freedom, for better or for worse.
I would say that the way that I write is informed by the fact that, in my day job, I am writing for a largely secular audience. So the main part of my job in looking at these controversies is, while doing that, to explain to my readers who don’t know a lot about Catholicism what the stakes are in these matters, and so on. I’m not sure if I’m always successful at this, but the goal in the book is to do something similar—make arguments in such a way that no one will come away from this book confused about what I think about, say, the controversy over the Kasper proposal and Communion for the remarried, but at the same time to embed those in a story, an account that can be usefully read by anyone who is interested in these battles, and could be read by a more liberal Catholic who disagrees with me vehemently, as well.
And this is probably a habit of secular journalism, but I try in the book to entertain scenarios where I’m wrong, to imagine what it looks like in 300 years if everyone agrees that Francis was always a wise reformer and his critics were always mistaken. I think there are probably some more zealous Catholics who would read those portions and think that I was conceding too much. And maybe I am. But I think it’s part of the habit of mind that you get in this peculiar role, as a Catholic who is deeply invested in these controversies but is also writing every week for an audience that is curious, interested, but still a little bit outside the Church in many ways.
CWR: Has there been a critique or response to the book that has been especially insightful or helpful for you personally?
Douthat: I think it’s a little too soon to say. I’m still in the frantic book-promotion phase, so I don’t think I’ve fully internalized all of the critiques. … [M]y complaint about the more “liberal” side of intra-Catholic debates is not just that I’m seen as mistaken in some general sense, but I think that liberal Catholicism doesn’t always know—or admit to itself—what it fully wants, so it sort of moves back and forth between, “These changes are minor and are in perfect continuity with everything that’s come before,” and saying, “Francis is a great reformer, and this is demonstrating that Vatican II was a complete revolution and the revolution is finally being completed.”
One of my hopes for my own book is that it helps prod liberal Catholics toward resolving the contradiction or the tension of those perspectives, settling the internally inconsistent view as far as how much the Church can change, really, and what actual limits are beyond just a sort of, “Well, we tried this, and now we’ll try that.” So as I read critiques, I’m looking for a kind of systematical rebuke of my argument, rather than an ad hoc one. Many of the responses I’ve read—maybe especially the kind and tolerant ones—still feel very ad hoc. But there are still several critical reviews out that I have barely even read yet.
My hope is that in the paperback edition, or online sometime in the next six months, I’ll be able to write a piece to really dig in to some of the responses.
One thing I try to stress in the book is that what is going on right now is really very interesting, it’s a big deal theologically, and it’s something I think will be studied and argued over by future theologians and Church documents. In that sense, I’m offering the book as a very partial and obviously somewhat biased entry into that debate. But I want the readers to know that we live in interesting times as Catholics; it’s okay to be interested in those times, because certainly our Catholic descendants will be interested in them.