Ross Douthat is a well-known columnist at the New York Times. He is well known for many things, starting with being a conservative columnist at the flagship liberal newspaper. Adding insult to injury, or paradox to paradox, he is a Catholic, and not of the Maureen Dowd sort. The trait, however, does get us closer to the book in question, which deals with the vision and agenda of Pope Francis for the Church he currently heads. First, though, two more traits of Douthat the writer and thinker should be mentioned, both of which I admire from afar.
Douthat writes with sustained lucidity and even gracefulness. I would say that ‘he writes like an angel,’ but he is very much flesh and blood, as a cryptic allusion to an ongoing illness indicates. But he’s flesh and blood of a rare sort, exhibiting equanimity in controversy and a desire to understand, above all. He is also not given to imputing the worst motives to those he critiques. He very much takes the high road.
His high road, however, probably makes him ignore, or leave out, evidence that bolsters his case, because it casts his main subject in a (further) negative light.
Beginning with the Ending
To Change the Church has one of the best endings of a book that I have read in years. It comes as a jolt and yet serves as a perfect recap of the argument. It is a quotation from “a Latin American Jesuit, . . . on the state in which Jorge Bergoglio’s Argentine Jesuits were left after his years as their superior.” That well-informed Jesuit said of his fellow Jesuit:
As provincial he generated divided loyalties: some groups almost worshipped him, while others would have nothing to do with him, and he would hardly speak to them. He was well-trained and capable, but is surrounded by this personality cult which is extremely divisive. He has an aura of spirituality which he uses to obtain power. . . . He left the Society of Jesus in Argentina destroyed with Jesuits divided and institutions destroyed and financially broken. We have spent two decades trying to fix the chaos the man left us.
After letting that judgment sink in, Douthat quotes the pontiff himself: “Hagan lío! Francis likes to say. ‘Make a mess!’”
To which he responds: “In that much he has succeeded.”
Broadening the Picture
So the book is a description and an analysis of the mess intended and created by one man. But as it turns out, the mess antedated him, and he has allies and accomplices, so the story to be told must be considerably enlarged. In fact, as Douthat tells it, one must go back to the New Testament to comprehend its ultimate stakes, fidelity to Jesus Christ, and go forward to two great Church crises, the Arian heresy and the Jansenist movement, that shed light, as possible outcomes, on today’s turmoil.
In the first, Athanasius was the lone champion of orthodoxy against the elites of the day, both secular and ecclesial, but he finally won the great battle for right belief; while in the second, despite Pascal’s best efforts, Jansenist rigorism in the face of modern laxity was condemned by Church authorities, as they made prudent accommodations to modern mores. While suggestive, these antecedents are rather eccentric points of reference for Douthat and those he analyzes.
The proximate context is the Catholic church’s encounter and engagement with “liberal modernity,” with a crucial turning point being the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), often characterized by two foreign terms, one French, the other Italian: ressourcement and aggiornamento. The former indicates a desire to go back to the biblical and patristic sources of Catholic Christianity, while the latter indicated a desire to be more open to the modern world, after a long period of retrenchment and defensiveness before modernity.
The Catholic Split
Now, as these two terms might suggest, broadly speaking, two main interpretations of the Council and its teaching emerged. One group saw the Council in the context of the Great Tradition of the Church and in continuity with it, albeit with significant innovations. The other interpretation saw the Council as an “Event,” one inspired by no less than the Holy Spirit, calling for a much-needed updating of the Church. Nor was it simply an updating that was called for, but the unleashing of a constant updating.
Into this debate, into a divided Church, stepped, first, Pope John Paul II (1979-2005), then his right-hand theologian, Joseph Ratzinger, who became Benedict XVI (2005-2013). While each was a strongly individual thinker, it would be fair to say that they shared deep reservations about the progressive interpretation of Vatican II, as well as its broader theological vision and agenda. John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor (1993), on the foundations of moral theology, attempted to authoritatively rule out any number of defective modern approaches to Christian living, including proportionalism and situation ethics, and his encyclical Fides et Ratio (1998) reiterated the traditional Catholic teaching of the ultimate harmony of faith and reason, because both are gifts of the divine Logos. Addressing the intellectual errors of the day, it was the first encyclical to name and condemn “historicism” and it called for a reinvigoration of trust in human reason. In this optic, “2 + 2 in #Theology can make 5” would have been sacrilegious nonsense and “true for our time,” on its face, a suspect proposition.
Thus, during this long dual regnum, Catholic things presented something of a deceptive face to the unobservant. Two intellectual and dynamically orthodox pontiffs, men of deep thought and deep faith, appeared to have given one side a clear victory. Certainly their admirers and followers thought so and took heart at this thought. One of their prominent American followers, Cardinal George of Chicago, declared that “liberal Catholicism” was a spent force, a dying breed. But the truth was more complex.
The Bergoglio Imbroglio
Into this fractured situation, characterized by overconfidence and sullen resentment, stepped Jorge Bergoglio, elected Pope in 2013, taking the name of St. Francis, friend of the poor and of God’s creation. By credible accounts, the Buenos Aires Archbishop was elected primarily to reform the Roman Curia, much in need of being reformed, but also as an acknowledgement of Catholicism in the global south, where Catholic growth is taking place, at least in parts. We are now five years into his eventful pontificate and there is an adequate body of evidence from which to judge his character and draw conclusions concerning his theological vision and agenda.
As I said earlier, Douthat takes the high road and focuses predominantly on the theology, while charitably (or tactically) largely avoiding character judgments. As I also indicated, while considering the theological vision and agenda, he primarily focuses upon intra-Catholic matters, that is, the Church’s longstanding norms and practices concerning two core institutions: marriage and the Eucharist, which were authoritatively reiterated by John Paul II and Benedict.
This focus, while vitally important, going as it does to the Church’s core identity, does not require him to focus on other essential elements of Francis’ vision and agenda, what we could call his “geopolitical vision and agenda.” The latter includes his environmentalism, his excoriation of global capitalism, his indulgence towards populist movements (and their demagogic leaders), his support for the view that open-borders are a Christian imperative, his call for federations of weaker (southern) countries, in order to resist hegemonic (northern) economic and cultural power, and his concomitant call for beefed-up global instances to bend corporate and national interests to the global common good.
This would be a fertile field for discriminating judgment on Douthat’s part, and it would add a good deal of weight to the basic characterization of Francis as a Catholic progressive. It would also be the proper context for assessing other, more traditional, Franciscan commitments, his resistance to gender ideology, his opposition to abortion, even his invocations of the devil. It is quite striking how sure the pontiff is about the devil’s works, as most are tied by him to the above-mentioned geopolitical analysis with its stark binary oppositions.
Likewise, it is quite striking how often the Holy Spirit is said to be on the side of the pontiff’s preferences and declarations. His unilateral declaration of the absolute illegitimacy of capital punishment today is but one example, although an important one, where he invokes the Spirit for a view of historical progress that runs counter to clear Catholic tradition and teaching. “True for our time,” indeed.
Similarly, being more disclosive about the pontiff’s manipulative character would contribute to his case that in the important areas of sacramental marriage, divorce, and remarriage, and the possibility of reception of Holy Communion, the Pope is deliberately ambiguous, promoting an agenda of significant change by means of hints, vagueness, nods, and surrogates. In other words, pursuing an agenda by creating a mess.
He notes and details the pontiff’s penchant for disturbing off-the-cuff remarks and second-hand-reported heterodox views (there is no hell; and (to an Argentine woman) yes, even though you are married to a divorced Catholic man, you may receive communion, just shop around) that create confusion, i.e., a mess. Subsequent “clarifying” follow-ups regularly fall short of that announced aim, leaving the mess.
At this point in the Franciscan reign, one can predict with moral certainty that these will continue. Bergoglio clearly aims to constantly disorient, but signal as well. Among “the signs of the times” that Catholics are supposed to scrutinize, he adds his own mixed signals. For the most part, though, they have the character of pushing doctrinal or practice-boundaries in progressive directions.
Staged-managed Synods and Pointed Ambiguity
Despite shying away from a good deal of evidence about the Pope’s character, there’s more than enough in what Douthat does focus on to make a very impressive case for a deliberate mess at the service of a progressive agenda. This case, though, requires some detective work on his part and attention to a number of facts that the Pope and his allies do not want scrutinized. As one would expect, they want the whole matter to become a matter of “he said, she said.” Cutting through the obfuscations, Douthat follows the Declaration of Independence’s sage saying, let facts be submitted to a candid world. Then, after putting them in a coherent narrative, he sounds their presuppositions and implications. In the final analysis, they entail a recasting of Jesus Himself and of the Church’s relationship to Him. Catholicism will no longer be Catholicism. Tantae molis erat … .
This case begins with a consideration of two synods devoted, ostensibly, to the topic of the family in contemporary life and the Church’s response to it that took place in Rome in 2014 and 2015. At the outset, progressive agenda items were introduced by a papal designate, Cardinal Kasper, then later inserted in a mid-synodal report by his hand-picked synodal managers, in violation of normal and the actual contents of the proceedings. They weren’t making a mess, but manufacturing a distorted account of the meeting. The machinations were detected by synod fathers and reported to members of the press, with the participants decrying and, to some extent, derailing them in the aula itself. The pontiff, however, exercised his sovereign prerogative when it came to the final report, adding two items that had failed to receive the requisite number of votes, both of them having to do with the controverted topics.
Throughout the proceedings, the pontiff alternated between invitations to “open dialogue” and rancorous denunciations of positions and resistance emanating from those he stigmatized as “Pharisees,” “legalists,” and worse. Still, on balance, the orthodox view won out, with progressive proposals being constantly shot down, or watered-down, so that a minimal place in the tent for the camel’s nose was left: “accompaniment” and “discernment” in the confessional regarding divorce and remarriage.
The scripted drama continued, and the cause was stealthily advanced, with the apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia (2016), that followed, and which immediately became infamous for a few of its footnotes and what it did not say. The drama continues to today, with the Pope refusing to answer straightforward questions about its meaning, and scores of allies and surrogates twisting themselves in sophistical knots to defend its purported “clear meaning,” “utter continuity with previous teaching,” and yet “paradigm shift.”
Creating a New Church
Ever since his first exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (2015) Francis has declared his aim to grant regional episcopal conferences doctrinal prerogatives. The obvious question, what happens if regions contradict one another?, was ignored. The various, and contradictory, receptions of Amoris Laetitia demonstrated what, predictably, would happen. To paraphrase Pascal, what was legitimate on one side of the Oder-Neisse (the German church), was expressly forbidden on the other (the Polish church).
However, this may not be the intended end-game. The pontiff seems to have a two-stage strategy. First, let liberal interpretations of Amoris Laetitia become the norm in certain countries, thus legitimating and “normalizing” them; then let the pressure of their example weigh upon the remaining hold-outs. In the modern world, the “compassionate” position will have the rhetorical advantage and elite-approval. Those who want to join compassion or mercy with standards that guide and limit its exercise will find themselves at a disadvantage. Cardinal Kasper involuntarily revealed this presumption when, during the first synod, he denigrated the African bishops for their retrograde moral views.
A likely example of this strategy can be found on another level, that of church discipline, not doctrine, in the pontiff’s invitation to Brazilian bishops to entertain the possibility of married clergy. First, Brazil, then who knows? Why retain a discipline of clerical celibacy here, when there and there and there it has been abandoned or made optional?
The pontiff thus proceeds on two tracks, that of doctrine and of practice or discipline, knowing that changes in practice imply and effect change in the understanding of the faith. This strategy, I confess, does not lack for a certain cunning and plausibility.
It does, however, have to encounter human freedom and conscience, that of individuals, and of the groups they may form.
Here we arrive at one of the great ironies of this intra-Catholic debate and one of its fundamental issues. Both parties invoke conscience. As one may surmise, though, they have two different understandings of this organ and its role in the economy of the Christian life.
Progressives situate conscience at the center of moral life, surrounding it with Christian “ideals” and “values” that need to be applied and lived in the various circumstances of life. Sometimes, though, and increasingly so in modern times, “circumstances” do not allow the full realization of the ideal. Christian marriage is and should be indissoluble, they acknowledge, but so many Christians today are short of that ideal! What to do? They should consult their consciences and turn to God’s mercy, as exemplified and offered by Jesus Christ.
What they will discover, say progressives, is a Mercy that understands them, that doesn’t ask the impossible of them, but that is ready, right now, to embrace them. He will not ask them to do what they cannot do: follow the absolutes of Scripture, starting with the Ten Commandments. No, even in their objectively non-ideal situation, grace is given and can be found. If they embrace this grace, then they can be warranted to approach the Lord in His holy sacrament.
The question remains, however: is He greater than Himself? That is, does He contradict Himself in sometimes approving, what He otherwise condemns? Is marriage a one-flesh union, indissoluble as long as both parties are alive, or not? If it is, it objectively disqualifies from communion those who violate its exclusive nature. If communion is granted to those in “irregular situations,” then the reality of marriage in Scripture has been effectively denied.
The traditional view takes the three elements: conscience, commands, and mercy, and combines them quite differently. All three come from the same Lord, who wishes to enter into intimate friendship with His favored creatures. Given the unity of their source, they can never be set at odds by His church. Progressives appear not to believe this teaching.
In To Change the Church, Ross Douthat has freely exercised his Catholic conscience. Remarkably, perhaps paradoxically, certainly not without doubts and reservations, he has turned his critical intelligence towards the head of his communion. Exhibiting many of the virtues that the Catholic intellect should possess, including respect for facts as well as persons, he has come to a most troubling conclusion. This is a significant contribution to an on-going intramural Catholic civil war.
 A Franciscan spokesman and surrogate, Fr. Antonio Spadaro, S.J., tweeted the first phrase. In this case, the medium matched the message.