With this new book, Ross Douthat has done a service to all those who take an interest in the life and teachings of the Catholic Church.
Douthat, a political columnist who writes for a mostly secular audience, is exquisitely careful in delineating the factional fault lines within the Church under Francis. He credits Francis with a surprising turnaround in the media’s perception of the Church, one that seemed impossible after the nadir of the child-sex scandals. But what motivates this book are not questions of politics or of media perceptions, but ones concerning theology: Does a pope have authority to change Church teaching? Can Christian doctrine develop in such a way that it has practically the opposite meaning in one age that it has in the next? Is the Church about to undergo a schism? And beneath it all, a much more personal question lurks.
Douthat’s account really takes off when he comes to narrate, and comment on, the hour-by-hour intrigue of the two-year Synod on the Family (2014–15). To much of the rest of the world, the Catholic Church looks like an inscrutable closed system, one in which the chief occasionally shows a different personality to the world but that otherwise functions like a machine according to its own internal logic, breaking down here or there, as machines do. But watching the sometimes ugly maneuvering and wheedling of the Synod’s progressives, and the alternating attempts at flattery and bold confrontation by the Synod’s conservatives, all over theological concepts, will return many readers to the palace intrigue of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.
Francis closed the proceedings of the first year’s synod with a speech that sought a middle ground between the two factions, placing himself at the center. At the close of the second year’s synod, the pope, obviously frustrated that his desired language had not received approval, thundered openly and hysterically against the conservatives.
With the subsequent papal document Amoris Laetitia (2016), Francis and his fellow progressive reformers sought to institute a legal and official way of granting Holy Communion to those who live in a state of life the Church traditionally recognizes as adultery, without calling them to repent and reconcile with their first spouse or to live “as brother and sister” in their new household. This debate has opened up rhetorical tools the Church seemed to have put away: bishops charging other bishops with heresy, or with schismatical disobedience to the Roman pontiff. Douthat sensitively navigates the generational, political, and geographical features of this conflict: In general, the older, richer, and more European parts of the Church insist on change. The younger, poorer, and African parts insist on orthodoxy.
The Church’s liberal reformers often say that if the great mass of Catholics are failing to practice one of the Church’s teachings or recognize its authority in their lives, then they have not “received” that teaching, and that the teaching itself is to be blamed. The People of God can’t be so wrong, can they? Reformers apply this to the Church’s prohibition on artificial contraception: Catholics flout the teaching. If the sheep do not recognize the voice of the shepherd, they reason, perhaps it isn’t the shepherd speaking. (For reasons I cannot grasp, they rarely apply this logic to the Beatitudes.)
The reformers, seeking to get their new policy’s nose under the tent, sought a “pastoral” change, not a doctrinal one: They claimed to be changing not the teaching but its application. But the theories undergirding their approach ultimately rewrote the moral law into a system of beautiful but unreachable moral ideals that could be only approximated in the lives of believers, not fully obeyed with the generous help and grace of God. The practical effect of this change is to seek for signs not of repentance or holiness in believers but of stability and sincerity in their purpose. Instead of reaching out to wretches begging forgiveness, and falling down before the godliness of saints, this approach hallows the respectable and the bourgeois. The Church used to make mistakes in mystifying the authority of kings and potentates; now it is reduced merely to flattering remarried stockjobbers.
The greatest strength of Douthat’s book is the way he draws out how this supposedly “merciful” reform ultimately hollows out the authority of the Church — not because it is merely inconsistent with a previous paradigm, but because it contradicts the ultimate authority. “This is where Francis-era liberal Catholicism has so often ended up,” Douthat writes: “in arguments that imply that the Church must use Jesus to go beyond Jesus, as it were, using his approach to the ritual law as a means to evade or qualify the moral law, which means essentially evading or qualifying his own explicit commandments, and declaring them a pharisaism that the late-modern Church should traffic in no more. To fulfill Jesus’s mission, to follow the Jesus of faith, even the Jesus of Scripture must be left behind.”
Francis’s men apparently thought that conservative bishops could be steamrolled on these points, believing that they were all spineless timeservers, morally compromised mediocrities, or at least sufficiently conditioned to accept and implement the documents that poured out of the Vatican. In fairness to the conservative bishops, I should point out that, for some three decades, these Roman documents had been polished like gems by the exacting Joseph Ratzinger, first as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, then as pope; and they stood out against the pious political dribble that is produced by most national conferences of Catholic bishops.
Further, Francis and his allies knew that the sacramental approach to the divorced and remarried, and even homosexuals, that they want to institute de jure is often the de facto way of the world even in many conservative dioceses. But it turned out, when the chips were down, that the conservatives were capable of putting up at least a little fight on behalf of the orthodoxy, at least on paper. And ever since Francis’s fulminations, conservatives seem to have stopped boosting Francis, and instead, when possible, have passively resisted these reforms with simple noncompliance or nonrecognition. But their relatively feeble, disorganized, and hesitant resistance seems to have resulted in a stalemate, and the impression now is that this pontificate has stalled out and that Francis is playing a longer game.
Douthat outlines several possibilities for the Church’s future. He correctly locates Francis’s influence in his ability to shape the College of Cardinals and to choose bishops — but he asks whether this power can possibly overcome the generational conflict within Catholicism: “The real Francis legacy might be less a swiftly unfolding progressive revolution than a new impasse. He could leave liberal Catholicism with control of the most important levers of power within the Church — but without having solved its longstanding manpower-and-enthusiasm problem. There might be fewer cardinals equipped to stop his would-be heirs — but also too few priests enthusiastic about following them.” This generational conflict is a staple of Francis’s own parables, which frequently pit young, fire-breathing priests who want to protect tradition and orthodoxy against wise old clerics who know how to be merciful.
One of Francis’s declared goals was to break the Church out of what he perceived as its self-referentiality. But Douthat believes that Francis may have inadvertently accomplished the opposite of what he intended, with the Church actually “more defined by its abstruse internal controversies and theological civil wars.” This seems correct, but there’s a deeper problem. The life of the Church is more than its winding paper trail of doctrinal development and the coherence of its teaching. The liberal reformers are correct to sense something unsustainable in Catholic life. The traditionalist slogan Lex orandi, lex credendi means that the law of prayer is the law of belief: Ultimately, how we worship God shapes what we believe about Him. This was the basis of the traditionalists’ critique of liturgical reform after 1970: They believed that defection from the liturgical traditions would lead inexorably to defection from the creed itself.
That logic is clearly at work in the modern Church in the West, which mostly has short lines for confession and long lines for Communion. Pastors constantly come up with reasons not to confront the respectable bourgeois sins of their parishioners, sins that in the traditional orthodox understanding would bar them from Communion. The United States, whose cardinals contributed to the conservative resistance at the synods, is promiscuous when it grants annulments. This experience plainly contradicts what is taught in Catholic catechisms — and all of this makes the current theological confusion in the Church inevitable.
Just as the rise of certain feasts and devotions and the persistence of liturgical rites led to doctrines about Mary and the deepened articulation of the doctrine of the Eucharist, so this persistent defection from the Church’s official sacramental discipline seems to call forth the reforming theological formulas that would justify it. The theological innovators must be credited with one thing: They are tired of deceiving themselves and others. Unlike many conservative bishops, they can no longer announce one doctrine and practice another.
If the conservative cardinals want to win this fight over what’s said in the official documents of the Church, they will first need to work up the courage to tell the truth in the pulpit and the confessional. If they cannot confront a rich parishioner, how will they stand up before the bishop of Rome? The Lord’s assurance that the gates of hell shall not prevail against the Church is the basis for their acting in hope, but they must cease using it as an excuse to chicken out of the fight of their lives, a fight with souls in the balance.
The Church wants to welcome families that are broken. Its pastors tire of the cold language of “irregularity” that greets them as they seek their way back to religion. But Douthat’s book, which begins on a personal note, speaks for all those who — like him, and like me — come from complicated family situations, and who found, in the unchanging doctrine of marriage, a credible witness of God’s mercy in our age. We want a Church that adopts into itself the children and parents of broken families, but what we fear is a Church that in its haste to make us feel “welcome” would ultimately bless the sins that estrange us from our siblings and parents. And if it can tolerate and bless these sins, whom will we call upon when faced with our own family difficulties?
There should be another question that haunts Catholic bishops, if they believe. If the Church is, as Scripture says, the Bride of Christ, how will the Bridegroom react to finding his beloved thinking so fondly of divorce and remarriage?