To Change the Church: Ross Douthat on the Francis Pontificate

Pope Francis at a general audience in Saint Peter’s Square, April 25, 2018. (Max Rossi/Reuters)
The post–Vatican II conflicts in the Catholic Church have come to a head.

Because he ascended to the papacy at a time of unprecedented media saturation, Pope Francis was probably always going to get a lot of attention. But during his time as the head of one of the world’s oldest faith traditions, the man once known as Jorge Mario Bergoglio has generated an unusually large amount of controversy as he’s attempted to implement his vision for the Catholic Church. In To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism, New York Times columnist and National Review contributing editor Ross Douthat explores the Francis papacy, assesses its place in the history of Catholicism, and tries to make sense of this most prominent Jesuit.

Jack Butler: In the opening parts of the book, you tell a Rashomon-style history of Vatican II and its aftermath: the liberal version, the conservative version, and then a synthesized version of your own. Yet later in the book you decry Hegelianism. What have you done here, if not proffered your own “dialectic”?

Ross Douthat: Decry is a strong word: All things in moderation, including Hegelianism! I think seeking partial synthesis between opposing narratives, or seemingly conflicting ideas, can be a natural path to intellectual progress or political compromise or simple understanding. The question is how far the same approach can be applied to matters that, for Catholics, are supposed to involve a singular divine revelation interpreted by a divinely established church.

The Catholic view, historically, has been that certain syntheses are final: that a kind of dialectical process might have helped in the formulation of the Nicene Creed, for instance, but that once formulated the Creed has to be treated as orthodoxy, not as one theological worldview among many, to be creatively remixed with gnosticism or Arianism to make some new theological synthesis down the road.

Or again, you can have a historical-intellectual process that results in marriage being declared a sacrament, but once that’s an established part of Catholic teaching, the process can’t go in reverse. In contemporary Catholic moral-theological debates, the Hegelian move is almost always an attempt to avoid that traditional finality, to treat revelation as tacitly open and doctrine as never really settled. Which, occasional Hegelian though I am, seems like a potentially grave mistake.

Butler: The one thing your book doesn’t cover (beyond speculation or hearsay) is: What does Pope Francis actually think about all of this? We can infer a great deal from his actions, but can we be certain of his inner stance? Or, in other words: Is the pope Catholic? Is it impious even to ask?

Douthat: Probably a bit, yes. My provisional view is that the real Francis is what he appears to be — a devout, prayerful, pastoral Catholic who has a certain impatience with doctrinal niceties and who has come around to the fairly common Jesuit view that the Church’s teachings on sexual morality are a great impediment to evangelization and need to be tacitly relaxed. This is not the same thing as having a deliberate grand strategy for transforming Catholicism into Episcopalianism, and there are all kinds of ways in which Francis is not a theological liberal as the term is usually understood.

Both of the theological factions warring for control of the Church tend to end up as tacit allies (and sometimes, it seems, captives) of the West’s exhausted ideological factions — theological conservatives with political conservatives, theological liberals with political liberals.

But in practical terms he has generally been on the same page as the Church’s more thoroughgoing liberalizers (except for the recent quasi-euthanasia cases in Europe, interestingly), and he clearly thinks that the Church needs to give the liberals more space and room to act, and the conservatives and traditionalists somewhat less, than did John Paul II and Benedict before him. So then to the extent that liberal Catholicism risks heresy — and I think it does on some of the controverted issues — the pope risks becoming an enabler of that heresy, again not out of some firmly unorthodox theology but because he sees himself as a practical man looking for necessary solutions to the problem of evangelization in our time. 

Butler: If you’re right about Pope Francis, then why has so much of his maneuvering taken place behind the scenes? Is he threading a delicate needle because he knows that greater controversy — or even collapse — would result if he were bolder?

Douthat: I think the Holy Father is well aware of the limits that are placed upon his office — the extent to which he can’t just go around reversing teachings without dynamiting his own authority in the process. When he sought a specific and fraught change, on Communion for the divorced and remarried, he was careful to try to get ecclesiastical cover, through the two synods on the family, from the Church’s bishops — so that as at the Second Vatican Council, it would appear to be the Church in full making a fraught change, not the pope alone. And then having been, in part, forestalled in that quest, he has shifted to what I think is a deliberate strategy of ambiguity, in which teachings are tweaked via footnotes and local permission slips, and major theological debates are implicitly opened up in a way that makes it clear enough what the pope wants without ever putting his authority or infallibility to an explicit test.

Butler: In recent centuries, as you note, the papacy has come to be seen as the “CEO of Catholicism, Inc.” Do you think that the papacy is now at risk of falling prey to the same sort of institutional partisanship or tribalism that has infected American politics, in which competing factions within Catholicism trust each other so little that they feel the need to control the papacy to keep themselves secure and punish their enemies? Or is this more of a return to the historical norm for the papacy, with tweets and hearsay replacing Medici-style hijinks?

Douthat: To some extent it has always been thus: Both internal factionalism and the effective capture of the papacy by larger political forces are pretty normal historical phenomena. Still, I think there is a distinctive mix of promise and peril for the Church right now. On the one hand, the mix of rigid partisanship and ideological exhaustion in the West these days has created an opportunity for the Church to be what it’s actually supposed to be — a genuinely transpartisan force, offering a worldview at odds with where both Right and Left tend to end up, a distinctively Catholic center for a polarized society.

You can’t just judge a theology based on its sociological effects, you have to judge it on whether it’s true.

But at the same time, both of the theological factions warring for control of the Church tend to end up as tacit allies (and sometimes, it seems, captives) of the West’s exhausted ideological factions — theological conservatives with political conservatives, theological liberals with political liberals. The disappointment of the Francis era, for me, has been that this seems to have largely happened again: Instead of what was promised at the outset, a pontificate that challenges Right and Left equally, Francis has spent a lot of capital seeking an effective truce with social and cultural liberalism, even as he directs frequent criticism rightward. In a way that’s not surprising — the left–right division in Western politics is hard to transcend — but it represents a large missed opportunity for this pontificate, and for the Church.

Butler: It was a bizarre moment of our age when a reporter asked Pope Francis about Trump: Francis said something about “building bridges, not walls,” and then Trump tweeted out a statement against the pope. Frankly, it seemed like Revelation was upon us. But you actually liken Francis to Trump (somewhat) in the book. How far does that comparison go? Is Francis making Catholicism great again?

Douthat: They have opposing visions, broadly speaking, but there are obviously similarities of style: They’re both outsiders impatient with the norms of the institutions they inhabit, they both owe their (very different forms of) popularity to the sense that past leadership has lost touch with and failed ordinary Americans or ordinary Catholics, they have both promised to drain swamps of corruption (without notably following through), and above all they are both representative figures for an age of populism, with Trump the most successful right-populist figure outside Eastern Europe and Francis, arguably, the most important left-populist in the European landscape. Again, none of this means that if you like one you should like the other (or vice versa), because they’re so often opposed. But to understand our era in full, it’s important to see how they reflect one another’s qualities, albeit through a cracked and somewhat distorted mirror.

Butler: Some of your argument seems to depend on the fact that religious disaffiliation tends to be connected to religious liberalization. How do your critics address this fact? And do you think it might be unfair to hang your argument on what could be only a correlational relationship and not a causational one?

Douthat: I think the obvious rejoinders are, first, theological conservatism hasn’t exactly arrested institutional religion’s decline either; second, that sociological correlation isn’t necessarily causation; and third, that you can’t just judge a theology based on its sociological effects, you have to judge it on whether it’s true. Ultimately, this last point is correct: I would still think conservatives had the better of the argument on many Catholic controversies even if post–Vatican II liberalization had been a huge success.

However, it’s also true that a big part of the case for liberalization (as I noted in our Hegelian exchange earlier) is historicist; we’re constantly being told that these changes are what the Holy Spirit wants now, what this age demands, what the signs of the times are pointing toward. And so long as that rhetorical argument is being deployed, it seems pretty reasonable to ask, if this is all the will of the Holy Spirit, etc., why an all but fully liberalized body such as the Episcopal Church isn’t showing all the fruits of the Spirit right now and instead appears to be in near-terminal decline.

Similarly, the case that correlation isn’t causation would be stronger if liberalizers could point to one clear example in historic, creedal churches where the liberal turn has been a big success. In that sense, I do think it’s fair to see the Francis era as a major test for liberal Christians, a case where some of their ideas are being put into practice (in a limited, ambiguous form) and some of their predictions can be judged — especially the widespread, early-pontificate claim that Francis was definitely bringing people back to Church! But then there’s also a sense in which conservatives need more humility about their own failures, and a recognition of the extent to which even the more resilient conservative churches in the West have been better at building bunkers than evangelizing — which is part of why liberalization, despite its repeated failures, remains persistently appealing.

Butler: Critics of this book will probably say that you are engaging in “slippery-slope-ism” by identifying Church teaching on marriage and divorce as a sort of keystone, the removal of which will cause all other Church teaching to collapse into rubble. Why is it such a keystone? Why would a Church shift on marriage and divorce be different from the Church’s prior shift on usury?

Douthat: Because the indissolubility of marriage is more central to Church teaching than the potential immorality of lending at interest — closer to the “core” than the “husk,” to borrow a resonant image that Joseph Ratzinger used to distinguish teachings that can change from those that can’t. The teaching on marriage is rooted not in natural-law theorizing but in revelation itself, and specifically the same kind of polarizing, follower-shedding gospel teaching as transubstantiation — which is why it’s reasonable to regard it as a keystone, a fundamental premise from which other teachings on sex and marriage are extrapolated. Usury just doesn’t have the same kind of importance, which is why when the ban effectively lapsed in the 19th century you didn’t see a wider reformation of Catholic moral thinking of the kind that today’s liberalizers pretty clearly seek.

But that doesn’t mean the shift on usury wasn’t meaningful; indeed, I think you could draw a reasonable analogy, whether as a liberalizer or a traditionalist who wants to undo the shift, between how the Church adapted itself to the interest-based economy and how it could shift on, say, contraception (an issue Jesus doesn’t mention, that’s an extrapolation rooted in natural-law theory rather than his clear words, etc.) to adapt to present marital and sexual realities. In that sense, the usury question is an example of the possible weakness of the John Paul II synthesis, which arguably accepted more changes in practice than its theory of change acknowledged were possible — leaving it vulnerable, under a less systematic pope, to both traditionalist and liberal critiques.

Butler: Are there useful analogues from Catholicism’s rich history that would help make sense of this current debate? If so, which one(s) do you think would be the most and least useful?

Douthat: The main ones I cite in the book are the Jansenist–Jesuit wars of the 17th century and the Arian–Athanasian conflict of the fourth century a.d. The former case is an example that’s friendly to the liberal side of the Francis-era argument, since the Jansenists were rigorists, and they generally lost their debate to what was understood as a “laxer” vision of Catholic morality; the latter is a case that’s friendlier to conservatives, since it’s a case where a theology with a lot of worldly appeal seemed poised to carry all before it, the papacy wavered and seemed headed toward support, and then the heresy was successfully resisted by a few heroic bishops. Both of those analogies are more useful, I think, than a straight-up Reformation analogy, because they were both primarily long contests for control within the Church, whereas though it began as an intra-Church controversy, the Reformation very quickly became a battle between rival Christian institutions. Put another way: The Reformation began with schism and then expanded into religious and political warfare between the new churches and the old one; this era’s controversy may end with schism, but the core battle is for institutional control within the Church of Rome.

Butler: How is your comparison of modern-day Kasper types to Jansenists not just a game of “you’re the real Jansenists!”?

Douthat: Oh, I think it’s probably more natural to compare Jansenists to my side of the argument; I was just doing a little jujitsu to show the possible limits of the analogy in the event that Kasper’s side is ultimately defeated.

Butler: What is the role of Africa in the Church’s current debates? Is there a sort of Dunkirkian, “the new world will come to the rescue of the old” dynamic at play? Or is it more a return to a historical norm, since Africa was one of the most important regions of the early Church?

Douthat: I think Africa’s role is uncertain, as it is in geopolitics as well. It’s the only continent with a swiftly growing Catholic population, its churchmen and Mass-goers tend to be more conservative than elsewhere, and so there’s a natural sense among conservative Catholics in the West that Africa is the future of the Church and, say, the liberal Germans are the past.

If Africa exerts a decisive influence it will be through some unexpected matrix that emerges amid northward migration and trans-Saharan interchange — a kind of Eurafrican Christianity, if you will.

But this hope can be overdrawn: For all that Christianity has, as you say, ancient roots in Africa, in the modern context the Church there is rich in faith but still limited in its ability to project influence abroad — it lacks the money, the institutions, the universities, and (again) the money that other parts of the Church take for granted, which is part of why Northern European bishops with two-thirds empty churches can still exert greater influence over the institutional life of the Church than any sub-Saharan group of bishops.

In that sense, it’s a great example of why the Church’s future is so uncertain — it’s hard to imagine Western liberal Catholicism carrying all before it, but it’s also hard to see the institutional levers that would let African Catholicism translate its growing numbers into greater clout. (And if it finds them, there’s no guarantee that with wealth and influence the African Church will remain conservative.) Which is why, ultimately, I think if Africa exerts a decisive influence it will be through some unexpected matrix that emerges amid northward migration and trans-Saharan interchange — a kind of Eurafrican Christianity, if you will, that becomes a counterweight to both European secularism and to the Muslim-influenced Eurabia that may also be emerging.

Butler: Imagine yourself, as you do in the book, as a 25th-century historian of Catholicism. Where do you think the Church’s current troubles will fit in the Church’s grand history? What is their most likely outcome? Schism? Unity? Collapse? Apocalypse?

Douthat: If we make it to the 25th century, we can rule out apocalypse. But I think that the Francis era will be studied as a moment when the post–Vatican II conflicts in the Church came to a head — and since those conflicts are wide and deep and important, I think we’re living through a period that will be remembered as analogical to the major controversies I compare it to above. The Jansenist–Jesuit battle is probably my minimalist analogy; depending on the actions of Francis’s successors, the scope of possible liberalization and the scale of conservative and traditionalist reaction, an analogy to the Arian–Athanasian controversy might be more appropriate. And ultimately, I suspect that for this era of controversy to really end it will take another ecumenical council, some decisive rulings, and probably some faction in the Church breaking off into near-permanent schism. But I could easily imagine it taking 50 or a hundred years before we reach that point.

Butler: What’s weirder: tweeting cardinals or tweeting presidents?

Douthat: If you read the polemics of the Reformation, I think it’s fair to say that a tweeting president is more unusual, since we have a much longer history of high churchmen behaving in . . . well, all sorts of different ways.

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