How Will Pope Francis Change the Church?

Pope Francis waves during a World Youth Day event in Krakow, Poland, July 30, 2016. (David W. Cerny/Reuters)
Ross Douthat’s new book on the current pontificate and contemporary Catholicism sheds light on the Church’s internal divisions.

‘Francis the reformer. Francis the media sensation. Francis the people’s pope. Francis, the great liberal Catholic hope.” These are the epithets Ross Douthat ascribes to the current pontiff in his latest book, To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism, a successful portrait of Pope Francis and his effect on the Catholic Church five years into his papacy.

In it, the New York Times columnist offers a compelling blend of history and theology to analyze the Church’s internal division in recent decades, skillfully examining how Francis’s agenda and personality might alter the Church’s course, perhaps even for generations to come.

A Catholic convert himself, Douthat acknowledges in his preface that he is not a historian, but a journalist. His book deals extensively in Church history: He outlines the landmark Second Vatican Council in the mid 1960s and dips into the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI to set the stage for Francis. But his book is largely more engaging for having been written by a columnist. Though lengthy, it reads like an engrossing newspaper report. For a particularly interested reader, it could easily be devoured in just a few sittings.

As a result, it functions well as a book not only for Catholics interested in their own institution but for anyone who wishes to understand the dynamics of a Church that has more than a 1.25 billion members around the world, and that employs well over a million people in the U.S. alone. Douthat’s book will surely be popular among Catholics troubled by the apparent direction of the Church under Francis — closer and closer to unprecedented reforms, if the author is correct. But it’s also a valuable piece of writing for Catholics of any theological bent, especially those unfamiliar with the internal politics and machinations of their Church, particularly the Vatican.

To tell his tale, Douthat draws heavily on sources reporting from within Rome. With their help, he pulls back the curtain on conflicts that have developed behind the scenes during Francis’s papacy, which began in the spring of 2013, after Benedict XVI became the first pope in over a millennium to resign his post. Francis’s subsequent election was greeted with acclaim by the mainstream international press and by lapsed Catholics. Both groups expected the new pontiff to foster an unprecedented era of open dialogue within the Church and also with non-Catholics.

By structuring his analysis primarily around the theological and pastoral debates that have defined this papacy, and tracing their origin back to Vatican II, Douthat shatters the common misunderstanding — shared by Catholics and non-Catholics alike — that the pope is necessarily and at all times a mouthpiece of God’s will. Most outside the Church view it as a political body — one that should simply update its teachings to be more in step with the modern world, and especially the sexual revolution. But many Catholics view their Church as a finely tuned vessel, always treading a steady, doctrinally accurate course, whether the Church is standing firm or forging a new theological path. Indeed, a foundational Catholic dogma is that core doctrines cannot be altered, though they can be “developed” so that their truths are fully available in every age.

Given this mindset, Francis and his reform-minded allies have been a shock to the system. If this pope were to push certain changes, altering what the faithful see as non-negotiable doctrines, would the Church cease to be? Based on Douthat’s portrayal, the answer seems to be no. For conservative Catholics, that should be comforting.

The Pope Francis that Douthat depicts is not an all-powerful man wielding his authority to bend the Church to his will. What Douthat focuses on instead is a complicated Catholic hierarchy riddled with internal division and bureaucratic error, and Francis himself as a man facing the same difficulty as every pope before him. In other words, Douthat suggests, Francis might wish to effect radical reform, but he is hemmed in by the reality that it is nearly impossible for any one man, even the pope, to reshape the Church as he sees fit.

Like anyone else, the pope can be wrong, at least when he isn’t issuing official proclamations from the Chair of Peter.

Catholics and non-Catholics alike often view the pope as always infallible — not just when he is explicitly declaring doctrine ex cathedra, as the successor of Peter and Vicar of Christ. This is a misperception of the office, which Douthat corrects. Every pope, his work illustrates, is a man with his own agenda, at least sometimes; like anyone else, the pope can be wrong, at least when he isn’t issuing official proclamations from the Chair of Peter.

Douthat’s picture of the current pope is not all critical, and some of the details he includes might reassure people who are disturbed by Francis’s method and agenda —stories about the pope’s time as the head of the Jesuits in his home country of Argentina, for example. In one such anecdote, Francis — then Jorge Bergoglio — encouraged young priests to pray each night in the chapel by touching the holy images gathered there, a practice reportedly derided by many in his order as being “too pious.”

But Douthat doesn’t ignore the copious evidence that this pontiff hopes to radically remake some aspects of the Church, especially in the realm of sexuality and marriage. In that way, the book will surely add fuel to the fire for those Catholics who are worried about the possibility of significant doctrinal alterations. Douthat suggests that Catholics who wish to see their Church resist modernizing teachings on divorce, remarriage, and same-sex relationships have plenty of reasons for concern.

Even so, and though he doesn’t make explicit projections about the future, Douthat hints at a theme that gives these same readers reason to hope. As some statistics illustrate — along with the compelling example of Catholicism’s exponential growth in Africa — the Catholics who would change doctrine to accommodate modernity also tend to frequent Mass less often and identify less strongly with their Catholic affiliation than do Catholics of a more conservative stripe. Demographics are not destiny, but this reality could be enough to sustain a conservative minority on the outs during the current papacy.

When he discusses the election of Francis and that of Benedict XVI before him, Douthat notes that the cardinals gather for the papal conclave in the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo’s artistry there is remembered primarily for the ceiling’s central image — God extending His hand to breathe life into Adam — but the entire work must be viewed as a whole to understand its significance. All of the images, from both the Old and New Testaments, depict the drama of salvation history, beginning with Creation and culminating in the Resurrection and the Last Judgment.

As these leaders convene to choose each new pope, always a flawed and fallen man just like them, they are surrounded on all sides by this tangible reminder that the Church has stood fundamentally unchanged for millennia on the truth that the battle against evil has already been fought and won. For any Catholic troubled about the future of his Church —whether for fear of plunging ahead into modernity or of standing too firmly in the past — that fact should be reassuring enough.

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