Followers of Ross Douthat’s opinion columns in the New York Times, which often take a stand for conservative Catholicism, will know what to expect from his new book, To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism (Simon Schuster, March).

They’ll expect danger warnings. And he delivers.

In Douthat’s view, Francis, in just five years since his election in March 2013, has brought the ancient church to a pivot point in its relationship with modernity — with the pontiff moving the wrong direction. Francis could be undermining the Catholic Church’s doctrines on “the authority of Scripture, the nature of the sacraments, the definition of sin, the means of redemption, the true identity of Jesus, the very nature of God.”

PW spoke with Douthat about Francis and whether the train has left the tracks.

(This conversation with PW has been edited for clarity and length)

Are you being overdramatic? This is an ancient church that’s survived many crises.

“It is totally possible in 40 years I’ll be called on to say I radically overstated the significance of Francis’ pontificate. Still, this is a big moment, without it being necessarily the moment where the train literally goes off the track. Francis’ original goal was a less self-referential church, ready to evangelize. Instead, his message has been undercut by his moves to return the church to the culture wars. In the short run, he’s made the church more inward facing and self-obsessed.

Francis often urges people to “make a mess” — to evangelize without getting hung-up on “doctrinal correctness.” He’s not meticulously crafting consensus for change rooted in tradition. A mistake?

Francis tried to follow the change process I think is needed (with the 2014-2015 Synods of Bishops on the Family) but it didn’t work. He ran into too much opposition. Now, he’s taking a different approach: He won’t have a formal teaching on who may receive communion (which currently excludes divorced people who remarried without an annulment and Christians who don’t hold the same understanding of the Eucharist) or whether to bless same-sex marriages. He’ll leave it to the pastors and see what develops, parish-by-parish, diocese-by-diocese, country-by-country, and continent-by-continent.

It’s a permission slip for experimentation. The effect in the pews is more likely to be continued divergence in everyday practice, in the rituals, in the sermons you hear, in the organization of your parish — and more reasons for conservatives to hunker down and feel embattled until they regain the papacy and “reform the reform.” It could set the church up for wild swings — something the papacy was intended to avoid.

Is Vatican III, a global council of the church, needed to take issues of doctrine head on?

I think that’s where we are headed by the end of this century. But there are no guarantees that a Vatican III would bring stability. The Francis era has effectively revealed that for all the achievements of Vatican II, in addressing religious liberty and Jewish-Catholic relations, it didn’t provide direct answers on how the church could deal with the modern social and sexual revolutions. A Vatican III could also retreat to vagueness and generalities. And if it did directly address doctrinal propositions, you’d probably see some breakage, some splinter groups that won’t accept the conclusions.

You draw parallels between Francis and President Trump. Is it just that they are both popular and populists?

People like them for the same reason. They are both outsider figures in institutional cultures they are interested in transforming and changing. A lot of people see Rome in need of being disrupted and many see Washington as a corrupt, self-dealing place that needs to be shaken up. They are not alike in many personal respects and the substance of their agendas is radically different but their approaches are similar. Trump has his Twitter feed and Francis doesn’t have a very papal style of rhetoric. When he wants to make fun of a traditional priest, he mocks how he dresses.

The book has a mood of catastrophe looming. Do you have something good to say about Francis?

Yes. Because the book is very critical and, indeed, talks about the extreme ideas of theological crisis and rupture, I want to stress that there is a side of the Francis pontificate that is doing what the church should be doing — trying to offer a Catholic Christianity that is not just a partisan culture war cause but an integrated alternative to both conservatives and liberals and the whole secular neo-liberal architecture of the west that feels a bit exhausted at the moment.

Francis is not going to push the church off a cliff. He recognizes he can only push so far so he’s going as far as he can. But he’s a pope of surprises and I could be proven wrong.

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