oss Douthat has written perhaps the most important Catholic book in the era of Pope Francis, which began in 2013. To Change the Church is thoughtful, penetrating, and graced with an ironic touch and gentle humor. It is also terribly difficult for a faithful Catholic to review, as it is acutely critical of the pope. A disclaimer, then: Pope Francis is a holy man, for Catholics his teaching authority is infallible, and nothing contained here should be taken for filial impiety or disloyalty.

Yet as Douthat notes, the principal duty of a Catholic isn’t to the pope but “to the truth the papacy exists to preach, to preserve, and to defend.” There is reason to worry that lately a spirit of relativism has entered the Roman Church that threatens to undermine its unity and catholicity. That should concern Catholics and non-Catholics, because the Church is the living bedrock of the West and one of the last bastions of the principle that moral truth is moral truth yesterday, today, a thousand years from now.

To Change the Church

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That the Church is in the throes of some sort of crisis is apparent even—Douthat would say especially—to non-Catholics and the secular media. Lately not a week goes by without some news breaking from the Vatican that jarringly calls into question the stability of Church dogmas.

The latest was an Italian journalist’s claim that the pope had told him that hell doesn’t exist. The journalist, Eugenio Scalfari, is 93 and known for impressionistic reportage; not for him are the recorders and notebooks that most reporters use to ensure the accuracy of quotations. The Holy See Press Office rushed to clarify that the purported remarks were not “a faithful transcription.” It is true that Francis has repeatedly reaffirmed Church teaching on hell and the devil. The question is why he continues to grant interviews to the atheist reporter; the “hell” interview was Scalfari’s fifth with the vicar of Christ in as many years.

For Douthat, the Scalfari interviews are typical of a papacy that thrives in ambiguity. The aim, he says, is to “keep the church together” even as Francis pursues a project of deep liberalization. The author devotes most of the book to exploring the origins of this project and then weighs its merits, prospects, and meaning at a moment of worldwide ideological ferment. The verdict: The Francis way of change is sharpening the Church’s internal antagonisms, radicalizing the conservative opposition, and undoing the great promise of his pontificate.

Douthat, best known for his columns in the New York Times, begins by sketching three histories of the past 50 years in Church life. First, he takes up the view of liberal Catholics, those who saw the Vatican II reforms first promulgated in 1965 as God’s invitation to remake the Church in the image of liberal modernity. The council, liberals hoped, would dismantle male-dominated hierarchy, shelve Latin liturgy, and do away with moral precepts about divorce, contraception, and homosexuality that ignored the “lived experience” of the faithful in the 20th century.

There was some progress in this direction in the decade after the council. But then came the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, from 1978 to 2013, long years that, in the eyes of the liberals, saw Rome betray the conciliar commitment to a broad, modern, “bottom-up” Catholicism. John Paul–era conservative Catholics begged to differ, and Douthat next takes up their view. They believed that the council had implemented essential reforms—embracing freedom of conscience and denouncing anti-Semitism, above all—but that Vatican II didn’t authorize the disruptive changes pressed by its most ardent fans. The results of those disruptions were, to the conservative mind, empty pews, collapsing vocations, and a flight from Catholic truth and beauty. That is, until John Paul reversed the worst of these trends, quashed heterodoxy, and helped defeat Soviet Communism along the way.

I subscribe to this second account, and so does Douthat mostly, though he finally tries to present a balanced third story. It goes like this: The conservative camp was right to warn of “dissolution and decline” under the liberal model. But too often the conservatives were stuck in a defensive lurch. Their reaction sufficed to halt the drift toward liberal Protestantism. Yet they couldn’t rout theological liberalism for good—not least because Vatican II texts were vague enough to accommodate liberal dreams—and the Church remained mired in its post-conciliar squabbles by the time Benedict abdicated in February 2013.

Enter Francis. The first Jesuit to take the office, he vowed to look beyond the old divide. As he told the conclave that elected him, “the self-referential Church keeps Jesus Christ within herself,” and it was time for the Church “to come out of herself.” Conservatives and liberals both heard things they liked in these words. The hope was that the Argentine pontiff would end the Vatican II wars. Five years later, however, the ecclesial culture war is more heated, more bitter, and more parlous than it ever was under John Paul or Benedict.

What happened?

It turns out that “outreach” under Francis entailed a frontal assault on conservatives. True, the pope also inveighed against a “Gnostic” form of purely private religion that sounded a lot like liberal Catholicism. But he reserved his harshest words for a supposedly “rigorist,” “legalistic,” “elitist” faith steeped in Latin ritual. Young people attracted by the splendor of the Latin Mass were “rigid.” Priests who preferred traditional vestments and regalia were effeminate. To his right, Francis saw only scribes and Pharisees.

Never mind that, as Douthat notes, conservative Catholics are largely powerless in the wider culture, while the liberals have the support of the “entire mainstream post-1960s culture.” Never mind, too, that it is conservatives who have sustained Catholic parishes and vocations in many parts of the world. No matter. Popes are allowed to part ways with their predecessors in style and emphasis. And some, though by no means all, Catholics on the traditionalist end of the spectrum could be cranky and prone to weird politics, a phenomenon that long predated the Francis papacy.

Conservatives could shrug off these insults and still cheer many things about the pope. He was (and remains) rock-solid on abortion and other dignity-of-life questions. He was (and remains) a withering critic of gender ideology and the transgender agenda. And his critique of the “throwaway culture” of capitalism was in deep continuity with Catholic social teaching.

But then came the “marriage problem,” as Douthat calls it, the controversy that has consumed the Francis papacy and plunged the Church into what may be its most serious theological crisis since the Reformation.

Douthat does yeoman’s work untangling the debate, which goes to the heart of Catholic beliefs about morality, papal authority, and Jesus himself. The question is whether remarried Catholics may receive holy communion. For two millennia, the Church answered no, based on Jesus’s clear teaching that marriage is a divine sacrament and therefore indissoluble. Rome had preferred to lose England than give in to Henry VIII over this very issue.

But in 2014, the liberal German cardinal Walter Kasper laid out his proposal, long blocked under John Paul and Benedict, to create a “penitential path” for the divorced and remarried that would allow them to be admitted to communion. He did so at a meeting of cardinals—and at the invitation of the pope. Kasper insisted that his suggestion wouldn’t change the Church’s position on divorce. The point, he said, was to find a solution for those among the divorced and remarried who are in tough or complex situations and could use a pastoral path back to the altar.

The cardinal’s protests notwithstanding, this meant radical change. The Church’s obstinacy on divorce, Douthat argues, is “a study in what makes Catholicism’s claim to a unique authority seem plausible.” Yes, in practice, many remarried Catholics receive communion. But the failure to uphold a principle is no argument against it. If the Church adopted Kasper’s view, it would in effect imply that Christ’s words had been unclear, that for two millennia Rome had been under a misapprehension. Kasper’s proposal would also telegraph that the moral law is too hard to follow in some cases, a view that the Church has consistently opposed: “God does not command what is impossible,” said Saint Augustine. Worst, it would stretch papal authority to the breaking point, since Francis would be going against his immediate predecessors.

Now, to be clear, Pope Francis has never formally endorsed communion for the divorced and remarried. What he has done is issue a long apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia (“The Joy of Love”), with a single ambiguous footnote that could be interpreted as authorizing communion for the remarried in a narrow set of cases. The narrowness and ambiguity gave conservatives hope that the more revolutionary interpretations could be, well, interpreted away.

The pope didn’t stop there, alas. He has used a number of non-magisterial forums—not least interviews with the aforementioned Signore Scalfari—to suggest that he intends to go the whole hog with Kasper. When conservative cardinals posed a series of dubia, or queries, asking him point-blank whether the prohibition still stands, the pope first ignored and then ridiculed them. Today some bishops interpret Amoris to abrogate the old teaching while others maintain the traditional position, with the disconcerting result that Catholic truth shifts depending on where the faithful live.

The most aggressive liberals are framing the single footnote as Vatican ratification for full-spectrum progressivism. Everything is suddenly up for grabs, from the Church’s rule against artificial contraception to blessing same-sex unions to offering last rites at euthanasia clinics to the veracity of the Gospels. A cadre of social-media-savvy liberal priests, meanwhile, push theology just to the line of heresy, to the glee of the secular press and with the apparent approval of their superiors. Meanwhile, conservative critics of the pope find themselves sidelined and sometimes jobless.

Where will all this lead? Douthat has no definite answers, but he engages in some fascinating speculation. The liberals simply don’t have the numbers. The European heartlands of theological liberalism are in demographic decline, and liberal orders struggle to attract vocations. Church coffers may be full, but the pews are empty. The leading lights of theological liberalism are octogenarians, and there are no successors in the wings.

Conservatives and traditionalists, meanwhile, have the numbers, the intellects, the energy. Orders that prize tradition and orthodoxy are thriving worldwide. In population terms, Africa is a beacon of hope for conservatives, a continent where weekly Mass attendance averages 70 percent (compared with just 20 percent for Europe) and where the Church wins 9 million new believers each year. African Catholicism is pungent and conservative, and African fecundity means that liberal Europeans will soon be outnumbered in the Church. Even so, the conservatives are fast losing their institutional grip, which was never all that tight even under John Paul and Benedict.

The grim upshot, then, is that the Catholic civil war is likely here to stay. More relevant to non-Catholics, it also means that what Douthat describes as the John Paul/Benedict “synthesis” between modernity and tradition might be slipping away. That synthesis more or less made the Catholic peace with liberal democracy, but it also called on liberal democracies to honor their Judeo-Christian roots and safeguard the moral culture that is the precondition for rights-based self-government.

Now some orthodox Catholics are wondering if the two conservative popes conceded too much to liberal order. “If the conservatism of John Paul and Benedict led only to Francis,” they think (in Douthat’s telling), “perhaps it didn’t conserve enough.” At its worst, such pessimism leads conservatives to defend to the hilt every ill-advised and cruel ruling of pre–Vatican II popes—especially if those rulings touched upon the sacramental life of the Church, which they perceive to be under threat from Rome today.

But the desire for ordered continuity can take other forms, and I find myself yearning with Douthat for a new Catholic center, “one that would offer a Christian alternative to the aridity of secularism, the theocratic zeal of Islamism, and the identity politics of right and left.” To my mind, Pope Francis at his best still embodies that center. When he embraces the horribly deformed, when he invites a child with Down syndrome to sit next to him, when he comforts hardened men in prison and reduces them to tears, Francis makes visible the supernatural guarantee on which his office rests. He is Peter, and the gates of Hades will not prevail.

Catholics can and must disagree with the pope when truth is at stake. They don’t have to like every pope. But they cannot afford to doubt the guarantee lest they doubt the Guarantor.

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