This unsettling state of affairs is the subject of “To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism” (Simon Schuster), a new book by the conservative Times columnist Ross Douthat. As the controversy over “Amoris Laetitia” has grown, the thirty-eight-year-old Douthat has become perhaps the most prominent lay critic of Francis’s papacy. In that unofficial capacity, he has duelled in print, in public conversations, and, often, on Twitter, with many of Francis’s defenders, including Antonio Spadaro, an Italian Jesuit priest and journalist who is thought to be one of the Pope’s closest confidants outside the Vatican. Almost uniquely among mainstream commentators, Douthat has been willing to suggest the possibility that Francis will spark a genuine schism between liberals and conservatives. His previous book, on the quirky diversity—and, in his view, the errancy—of Christianity in America, is titled “Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics.” In “To Change the Church,” one sometimes senses a barely constrained wish to apply the H-word to Francis himself—a wish suppressed only, perhaps, by a last shred or two of institutional deference.
The book opens, oddly, with an extended meditation on Douthat’s own religious history and on the mixture of sensibilities that, he admits, might color, or even compromise, his assessment of “Amoris” and the Pope. Douthat was born into Protestantism, wobbling along the seldom-travelled border between Pentecostal fire and the polite mainstream. He converted to Catholicism as a teen-ager, freely but under the influence of his spiritually itinerant mother. “So in the world of cradle Catholics and adult converts, groups that are often contrasted with one another and occasionally find themselves at odds, I belong to the little-known third category in between,” he explains. He casts his life as a Christian as similarly divided—often doubtful and ironic where others seem, to him, naturally pious and enviably prone to untroubled belief. “Sometimes I felt as though my conversion was incomplete, awaiting some further grace or transformation,” he writes. “At others I felt that I belonged to a category of Catholics that used to be common in Catholic novels . . . 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?”
The story of Francis’s papacy is in part a regional story: prelates from wealthier European countries, where ancient cathedrals increasingly sit empty, have, in their eagerness to encourage congregants to return, been more likely to support the liberal interpretations of “Amoris.” Meanwhile, representatives of the newly dynamic Church in the global South—especially Africa, where Catholicism is in a pitched battle with charismatic and, often, prosperity-promising denominations—have hewed to traditionalism. (The German Benedict and the Latin-American Francis occupy ironic positions in this divide; Benedict is something of an anomaly among his countrymen, and the brashness of Francis, the Argentine son of Italian immigrants, may stem in part from his upbringing in a place in which, at the time, Catholicism still amounted to a total culture.) Douthat notes these divisions, but refrains, amid his other confessions, from turning the geographic mirror on himself. The American Church is proportionally smaller, and more embattled, than many of its counterparts elsewhere; for years, immigration has been its sole source of consistent growth. And our country’s rapidly fragmenting political and cultural landscape casts frightening shadows when held up against a Church that continues its choppy engagement with an increasingly irreligious West.
At first blush, the Church might appear to be as plagued by splintering as so much of American life is: besides the rough liberal-conservative divide that, in its current form, has persisted since the sixties, there are also Catholic socialists, Catholic Trumpists, liberation theologians, liturgical traditionalists lamenting the loss of the old Latin Mass, and ultramontane restorationists who hint at their hopes for a return to theocracy—and who, by implication, dismiss both liberals and conservatives as modernists who have been led astray by pluralistic democracy, and by the false hope of convergence with the wider world.
But these factions are, ideally, united by a sense of eschatology via history: a hope that they are all journeying, however imperfectly, together, toward God. These days, this would seem to constitute a major point of attraction, especially to a certain kind of politically interested American spiritual seeker. In the secular realm, we carry out our arguments—and develop our politics, each of us an autodidact—without the benefit of a common moral language or the bedrock of shared premises, and we sometimes appear fated, therefore, to retreat to our various ideological corners for good. The Catholicism of a figure like Benedict, with his faith in the legibility of earthly and spiritual experience, presents a salve for this condition. Its adherents might squabble, but their differences lead them back, eventually, to a mutual inheritance: the words of Jesus in the Gospels, the lives of the saints, the rhythms of the liturgy, the catechism of the Church. This common ground might not prompt agreement, but it can result in understanding, and in something like harmony. One of my favorite genres of Catholic literature is the book-length interview: the Pope or some other high-ranking churchman sits down with a reporter or other layman, both operating on the assumption that conversation tends toward truth. (Francis has participated in more than one of these books; the most recent was just published in Italy, under the title “God Is Young.”)
In his most effective columns for the Times, Douthat, a staunch social conservative who nonetheless manages to project a tone of Gen X knowingness and mild ennui, is not so much an ideological champion or purveyor of contrarian opinion as a cunning interpreter. As the Times’ Op-Ed section has become the subject of internecine media controversy, largely over the quality and the usefulness of its conservative contributorship, Douthat stands as the cleverest and least predictable writer there. He means to persuade—or, at least, to subtly reroute the grooves of reasoning by which his wary readers arrive at their reliably liberal positions. But he usually tries to do so by breezing past the most radical implications of his ideas. In one recent column, he offered a rationale for why liberals should welcome a nativist like the White House policy staffer and speechwriter Stephen Miller at the table of the immigration debate, presenting several benign-sounding arguments for Miller’s pretty gross position on the subject without ever letting slip whether he shares it.
He isn’t so coy in “To Change the Church”—the sincerity of his alarm with respect to Francis won’t allow it. But the book’s best chapters are vehicles for his genuine understanding of more liberal co-religionists, and for his ability to parrot their most compelling arguments, skewing them nearly imperceptibly on the way to chopping them down. One of his signature rhetorical maneuvers is to render, in as plain and unmocking a manner as possible, two partisan stories about—or, as the liberal slur goes, “both sides” of—a given phenomenon or event, and then to clear a path through the middle, revealing the gulf between them to be the result of virtually irreconcilable patterns of thought. In one impressive and quietly comic section of “To Change the Church,” he recounts the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council three times, from three points of view, setting exaggerated tribal grievances next to details of undeniable truth, as if slowly turning over events in order to find an acceptably clean ground for conversation.
His third version of the Vatican II story, the one he considers to be closest to the truth, presents a dialectic. The council, which took place from 1962 to 1965, produced, under the guidance of, first, Pope John XXIII, and then Pope Paul VI, a new framework for Catholic engagement with modernity. Amity between the Church and other denominations, as well as non-Christian religions, was encouraged; the legacy of Catholic anti-Semitism was roundly denounced; it became licit, for the first time, to celebrate the liturgy in vernacular languages, instead of in Latin. Suddenly—according to liberals, who regard John XXIII as a hero—the doors of the Church were open as never before. But John Paul II and Benedict sought to dispel any notion of an ecclesial revolution, and, during their papacies, conservative Catholics largely accepted their argument that Vatican II was completely compatible with the doctrinal dispensations that had preceded it. Progressives retreated, hoping for a liberal Pontiff to arrive soon and revive the world-embracing Vatican II spirit.
The fear that Douthat expresses in “To Change the Church” is that Francis’s foray into theological innovation with “Amoris” threatens to drag these unresolved tensions into the light—and, perhaps, to aggravate them beyond repair. The book is characteristically well written, and makes impressive use of theological crises from centuries past in order to contextualize Francis in the long, often fractious sweep of Catholic history. But at Douthat’s moments of greatest alarm, he seems determined to set aside the surprises, the reversals, and the lingering irresolution that one finds in that history. Francis, he complains throughout the book, is too often ambiguous; Douthat believes that the ambiguity is strategic, a way to mask a subterranean desire to change Catholicism for good. In the Church’s past, however, uncertainty has sometimes been the rule for decades, even centuries, before its ancient teachings have groped their way into coherence with the cultures and the times at hand. Francis appears cognizant that his turn at the helm comes at such a tenuous moment—the abuse scandal and Benedict’s resignation insured as much—and he appears determined to keep his balance for as long as tension persists.
In his position at the Times, Douthat is an essentially, if covertly, evangelistic writer, and he is most convincing when his tone is irenic, funny, and self-deprecating, and when he is willing to trade small, stubborn differences for broader agreements—when, in other words, he most closely resembles Francis. Both hope to win a soul or two, and both come across as willing, given their surroundings, to make a few compromises in the winning. Sounding briefly Benedictine in the preface, Douthat says that his book “is conservative, in the sense that it assumes the church needs a settled core of doctrine, a clear unbroken link to the New Testament and the early church, for Catholicism’s claims and structure and demands to make any sense at all.” But Douthat’s proposed solutions to the crisis, like his historical analyses and his disposition, are more pragmatic than truly traditionalist. He suggests more than once, for instance, that the worldwide Church might perhaps follow the American Church’s lead in widening access to annulments and in speeding up the process for obtaining them. The functional reality would be roughly the same as that expressed by the new Franciscan paradigm—people moving from one set of marriage vows to another, receiving Communion at both the start and the end of the journey—but the surrounding forms would be stable enough to claim continuity. Douthat often sounds like a symptom of the dissonances that Francis seeks to resolve.