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To Change the Church: Ross Douthat Tackles the 21st Century

To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism
Ross Douthat
Simon & Schuster
256 pages
$17.68 Hardcover; $13.99 Kindle

Coming out in a few weeks is yet another good book criticizing Pope Francis for changing the Catholic Church. This one comes from even more prominent origins than the previous ones we have discussed at OnePeterFive: Ross Douthat, columnist at the New York Times. Douthat’s book, titled To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism, covers much of the last five controversial years and contains many insights about the deeper reasons for our current crisis and how we got there.

Douthat’s underlying thesis is that the modern Catholic Church is coming increasingly under pressure to adapt to the changes taking place in society. While Pope Francis might be the pope who tries the hardest to adapt the Church’s teachings to the modern world, there were previous popes – as well as a council – who did the same, but to smaller degrees. In light of this adaptation – which in Douthat’s eyes might well be proven to be the right path – it is Pope Francis who pushes to a breaking point the limits of what a pope may change.

It is exactly this breaking point that Douthat fears, since it will undermine the very authority of the Church, which is based on the immutability of doctrine. In effect, he says, if Pope Francis can change the Church’s teaching on marriage, which is based on Scripture itself and our Lord’s words, what, then, will hold at all?

As Douthat puts it:

But the [Catholic Church’s] teaching’s resilience [concerning marriage], its striking continuity from the first century to the twentieth, is also a study in what makes Catholicism’s claim to a unique authority seem plausible to many people, even in a disenchanted age. … Cardinal Kasper had fastened on the one reform that the church could not contemplate – at least not without falling into self-contradiction and performing an auto-demolition on its own claim of authority. (pp. 87, 92)

In light of this fine, yet always somewhat tentative and somewhat sociological and cultural, approach, it is worthwhile to consider what Douthat has to say about how the Church could come to such a point where she would actually elect someone as revolutionary as Pope Francis. While touching upon the role of the cardinals of the Sankt Gallen Group and their influence over the 2013 Conclave, let us here consider Douthat’s own words:

It was characteristic of the church’s effective truce [between conservatives and progressivists] that John Paul II himself had given most of them [the Sankt Gallen cardinals] their red hats, elevating them despite their disagreement with his restorationist approach. (p. 47)

This statement alone is worth pondering. Douthat adds another observation with regard to the conclave: “wishful thinkers in the secular press might talk up the possibility of a liberalizing pope, but this was John Paul and Benedict’s College of Cardinals” (p. 49).

It is helpful to consider what the process was of the last decades within the Catholic Church such that two “conservative” popes could put together a College of Cardinals that voted for Pope Francis. As Douthat shows, due to the desire to elect an energetic reformer, and due to the fact that none was to be found on the more conservative side, “the remains of St. Gallen found an opening” (p. 49). He continues this argument:

In the run-up to the conclave, then, a number of cardinals listened with fresh ears to figures like Murphy-O’Connor and Kasper, who canvassed the electors not on behalf of one of their own dwindling group, but on behalf of a figure whose theological views seemed to place him close to a conclave’s middle, whose personal austerity offered a sharp contrast to the mode of living common among certain Vatican insiders … and to leading a post-European church. (p. 50)

As Douthat explains, there also was much common ground between Bergoglio and the two previous popes – for example, their desire to “steer between traditionalist and radical interpretations. He adds:

Like him, both popes were men of Vatican II, liberals in the context of the council’s debates, who tried to rein in radical interpretations of its reforms and emphasize the continuity between the church before and after. (p. 57)

It seemed to have helped Bergoglio, according to this author, that he was not known to be either an outspoken progressivist (he was known for “his wars with left-wing Jesuits” in his country) or an explicit conservative. The Sankt Galleners themselves “saw hints of their own worldview in his [Bergoglio’s] focus on poverty and social justice, his seeming weariness with certain culture war battles, and his decentralizing instincts” (p. 60). An interesting little side remark by Douthat on Cardinal Burke’s role at that 2013 Conclave: “But only the most traditionalist electors, the Ratzingerian group’s right-ward flank, seemed to worry about his ideology and theology.” Burke, “an apostle for the Latin Mass, may have made some effort to rally an anti-Bergoglian front. But he was isolated on the conclave’s right.” (p. 62)

One last piercing aspect of the discussion of the election of Pope Francis: “He finished with more than ninety-five of the one hundred and fifteen votes” (p. 63). Thus, nearly the whole College of Cardinals, which was put together by Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI, voted for Pope Francis. This is a fact worth reflecting upon.

When speaking about the papacy of Francis, Douthat makes an interesting observation about the media, secular and Catholic alike. He describes their reaction to the new pope, saying some of the conservatives “marshaled for total continuity between Francis and his predecessors,” which seems to Douthat to be “a case of special pleading” (p. 69). The secular media seemed at that point to be more realistic than the Catholic media: “But overall the [secular] media were not deceived in thinking that the new pontiff differed from his predecessors in substance as well as style.” Douthat sees here “a rare case in which secular journalists grasped the significance of something happening in Rome more quickly than many pious Catholics.”

Douthat also has the right words to say when he touches upon the highly controversial 2014 speech of Cardinal Walter Kasper to the Consistory, which opened up the debate about “remarried” divorcés:

The pope intended the German cardinal’s speech as the first step in a dramatic progression, which would soon become the most important and most contested front in his crusade to change the church. (p. 83)

Let us now step back and look at the Second Vatican Council and what Ross Douthat has to say about the deeper roots of why we are where we are – to include the College of Cardinals that elected Pope Francis; the Sankt Gallen Group, whose prominent members all had received the red hat from John Paul II (interestingly, many of them in 2001); and some lingering doctrinal ambiguities dating back to the council.

In the first part of the book – over 30 pages – Douthat discusses the main lines of the Church’s history since the Second Vatican Council and her general state before Pope Francis came into office. He calls Vatican II “a partial reconciliation with modernity” (p. 2) and shows how the question of responding to the pressing changes in modern times – to include the sexual revolution – has shaken all the different Christian denominations (such as the Anglicans), which often split over how far such an adaptation should go (for example, whether or not to bless couples engaging in sodomy). Such an approach is helpful, since it puts our current struggle within the Church into a larger context, thereby making comparisons possible.

In general, Douthat sees that, in modern times, “the Catholic Church has grown much larger and much weaker at more or less the same time” (p. 6). The author explains:

There are many more Catholics than ever before, but the church’s influence over secular politics has ebbed almost everywhere since the 1960s, and consumer capitalism rather than the church sets the cultural agenda and shapes the moral landscape for many of those baptized millions. (p. 6)

This statement is worth pondering. What did the Church do wrong that, in spite of her growth in numbers, she would lose, rather than win, influence? The Church had once set out to transform the world into a Christian world, to transform the heathens into Christians and thus humanize humanity. That is how the great missionary saints came into being. However, for decades now, the salt seems to have lost its taste. It is a shame that the Church has not been able to maintain among her faithful enough of a sense of detachment from the world that they would not fall easily prey to the emptiness of consumerism.

As Douthat explains, whereas previous popes had confronted modernity and criticized it:

… in the 1960s and 1970s, during Vatican II and afterward, the popes shifted to a strategy of accommodation and adaptation, which embraced certain aspects of the modern liberal consensus and encouraged or accepted – for a while, at least – various grassroots experiments that sought to push the reconciliation with liberalism further. (p. 10)

What happened under John Paul II and Benedict XVI? They “succeeded in holding the Church together, even as many other religious bodies split, without in any way resolving the deep tensions between its factions” (pp. 11).

Douthat explains some fundamental issues related to modern popes during and after Vatican II by saying that, during the council:

… the popes were very careful to build overwhelming consensus for the most controversial reforms, the ones that lay in gray areas between semper idem and self-contradiction: The conciliar pronouncements that seemed most like developments in doctrine, on religious liberty and Judaism, passed with fewer than a hundred dissenting votes out of more than 2,300 cast. (p. 13)

While further discussing the council, Douthat shows how ambiguities were deliberately placed into its documents – “because the Council had many authors, and because many of those authors were themselves uncertain about what could be changed” (p. 23) – so that in some way, two different readings, the liberal as well as the conservative, were “in some sense intended by Vatican II.” With regard to the topic of religious liberty, for example, “there seemed to be a plainly revised teaching, but even where there wasn’t there was a new language, and the apparent retirement of older phrases and rhetoric and forms.” Importantly, the author adds: “And this linguistic shift inevitably suggested a new teaching, to those who wished to have one, even as it stopped short of offering one outright.”

Later in his book, Douthat comes back to the theme of the Second Vatican Council. When reflecting upon the question of how one could possibly “change an officially unchanging church,” he says:

That’s the answer suggested by the experience of the Second Vatican Council, which in its ambiguities did not officially touch Catholic doctrine but certainly seemed at times to tiptoe very close. Nowhere was this tiptoeing more fraught than on the issue of religious liberty, where reformers wanted to accept and bless American-style church-state relations, even though the church had long insisted that governments should grant special privileges to Catholicism, with non-Catholic religions tolerated but not granted equal status. (p. 101)

As Douthat explains, Vatican II tried to adjust some of the earlier papal “thundering denunciations of religion freedom” to the spirit of the 1960s – which took place not “without controversy.” (p. 102) The declaration Dignitatis Humanae was “pulled from the council floor” in 1964 “amid objections from conservative bishops to the substance of the text,” thus delaying a final vote on the matter (and perhaps hoping for more time to work on the spirit of the demurring bishops). According to Douthat, Pope Paul VI showed here “prudential wisdom”: “The text was massaged to include more vocal affirmations of tradition[;] it was debated and wrangled over” (p. 102) and finally voted on at the end of 1965, with an overwhelming majority (2,308 votes to 70).

It is in this depiction of some of the discussions during Vatican II that the reader might see some parallels to the two family synods that led to Amoris Laetitia, especially in light of Douthat’s own words: “Ever since, Catholics have argued over how much the document actually changed Church teaching and whether its claim to continuity was plausible.” (p. 102)

Douthat himself then draws a parallel between the Dignitatis Humanae discussion and the liberalizing efforts of Pope Francis, saying that a synodal process:

… could also provide a mechanism for changing the church’s answers to some questions, since if the bishops were perceived to be speaking together, a pope could rely upon that consensus to shield a high-stakes move from criticism – in the same way, if not through the same process, that the 2,308-70 vote protected Dignitatis Humanae from its critics. (p. 103)

A few pages later, Douthat himself draws yet another parallel between Vatican II and the Francis reform by saying that, at the family synod, there was the idea of a “lifestyle ecumenism” (John Allen), in which, “much as the post-Vatican II church had sought to recognize the virtues of non-Catholic churches [sic] and denominations, the twenty-first-century church would recognize and celebrate” the virtuous elements contained in “second marriages and second unions and cohabitation” (p. 107).

It is thus my own hope that, with his book, Ross Douthat may foster a more open and freer discussion among Catholics as to the recent history of the Catholic Church – of course, next to a clear rejection of the unworthy and quite revolutionary methods and teachings of Pope Francis.

Douthat might be especially effective in this, not only because he as a New York Times columnist comes from higher echelons, but also because he presents himself as having a detached attitude toward the whole matter.  Douthat is honest in describing himself, at the very beginning of the book, as someone who, after having converted with his family in his teenage years, sort of got stuck somewhere between the different camps in the Church. He says: “Sometimes I felt as though my conversion was incomplete, awaiting some further grace or transformation” (p. XIII). He describes himself as someone who might have

… belonged to the category of Catholics that used to be common  in Catholic novels and Catholic sociology, but had been abolished somewhere in the 1970s – the good bad Catholic or the bad good one, whose loyalty was stronger than his faith and whose faith was stronger than his practice, but who didn’t want the Church to change all the rules to make his practice easier because then what would really be the point? (p. XIII)

Douthat’s honest self-description is helpful when reading the book because, yes, indeed, it sometimes lacks that zeal and larger vigor that stems from a deep conviction. As Father John Hardon, S.J used to say: “We are only as courageous as we are convinced.” Therefore, when reading Douthat’s book, one feels a certain detachment, and a lack of a vivid sense of the supernatural is missing – i.e., the themes of grace, sacrifice, and the sometimes lost battles that so make up the material for great Catholic novels.

It is thus to be hoped that, by the discussions his book is going to stir, Douthat himself might receive an extra sparkle of grace to set him afire for God and the Catholic Faith, whole and entire. Or, to speculate here a bit, has he already received such a sparkle, and does he try to hold it under a bushel basket?

This post has been updated.

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