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REVIEW: To Change the Church by Ross Douthat

Ross Douthat is a New York Times columnist who converted ‘willingly’ to Catholicism with his family as a teenager. He begins his book on the character and mission of Pope Francis by positioning himself as a Catholic who believes ‘the Church must stand firm or it’s nothing’.

That noted, his tightly written book is a measured, balanced and informed overview of the influences and pressures that are shaping this papacy. Douthat also gives some thought to what Francis’s eventual legacy is likely to be, looking to previous embattled papacies to offer reasoned speculation on how the church’s 266th Pontiff could shape the future course of the church.

It is a book in two halves. The first part is a thorough recounting of much that is already in the public domain. This is hardly surprising, given that Francis allowed the deep, rumbling divisions of thirty five years to finally bubble to the surface, often in fractious debate. Lifting the lid revealed that ‘the divisions went all the way to the top’. The level of public interest, both inside and outside the Church, was understandably high and media reporting naturally reflected that. Added to the interest was Francis’s unconventional style of communicating off the cuff in a variety of ways. ‘Private’ phone calls to members of the faithful, inflight chats with reporters and conversations with an eighty nine year old, atheist journalist, Eugenio Scalfari, who neither took notes nor made recordings, and later attributed novel and unorthodox views to Francis. Scalfari’s articles forced the Vatican more than once to state that the journalist ‘did not give a faithful account of what was said by the Pope’.  Anything attributed to the Pope however was pored over by both conservatives and progressives to ascertain the direction of his thoughts. Interest in the new Pope, who was also a new kind of Pope, created fascination with his back story as well. Douthat recounts his chequered relationship with his Jesuit community in Argentina and his bumpy rise to Archbishop of Buenos Aires, his apparent reticence during the years of the junta’s power, his complex conservatism that was marked by an intense commitment to the poor and a ‘personal asceticism’. He follows the threads that led him to emerge clearly as papabile in the conclave that elected his predecessor, Benedict XV1 in 2005.  When Benedict resigned the papacy in 2013, Cardinal Bergoglio’s candidacy was promoted by a group of progressive cardinals including Walter Kasper that led him to an eventual landslide of ‘more than 95 out of 115 votes’ on the fifth ballot’.

Soon it was Cardinal Walter Kasper and his theological writings that the new Pope Francis was praising and promoting to the great concern of the Church’s conservatives. Kasper was greatly preoccupied with the question of opening ‘a penitential pathway’ to allow divorced and remarried Catholics to receive communion. It became a prominent theme in the synod on the family in 2014 which set the agenda for the second synod of 2015. The debates at both were acrimonious. The synod reports penned by progressives, chosen by the Pope, were contested. The final session of the synod concluded with a testy summing up by Francis whom Douthat describes as ‘a man angered in defeat’.  He continued to robustly criticize those who ‘cling to exaggerated doctrinal security’, as he put in his pre-conclave words in 2013, comparing them to the jealous labourers of the parable and the prodigal’s older brother.

By the second synod of 2015, the Kasper proposal had been subsumed into a debate on decentralization and whether to allow national episcopal conferences to issue local pastoral guidelines but this was also resisted. Francis, however, again re-visited the communion question in his post synodal apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, in 2016. Here Francis spoke of a path to ‘reintegration’ after discernment for re-married divorcés.  One footnote (329) suggested that for some couples living as ‘brother and sister’ may endanger fidelity and the second stated that ‘in certain cases’ the sacraments are helpful, noting that the Eucharist is not ‘a prize for the perfect’. He had clearly opened a door, however fumblingly.

The lack of definitiveness however led to the famous ‘dubia’ of four questions, signed by four cardinals which basically asked for clarification. As Douthat puts in a chapter heading, ‘His Holiness declined to comment’.  Efforts had been made by Cardinal Shönnbrun of Vienna to argue for continuity between Amoris Laetitia and the teaching of Francis’s two predecessors on the basis that the ‘certain cases’ cited by the Pope were somehow self-limiting as ‘situations of emotional captivity’.

It was soon clear, however, that some bishops understood the Pope’s words to offer greater latitude and proceeded to implement the new guidelines according to their understanding. This led to sharp differences of approach with some bishops also rejecting outrightly any change from the definitive position of John Paul 11 in Familiaris Consortio.

Not for the first time in the Church’s history, the marriage question cut its way to the fundamentals of faith. It developed into ‘more comprehensive disagreements about the sufficiency of grace, the nature of the sacraments, the definition of sin, the true identity of Jesus and the very nature of God’.  Rebuffed but persistent, Francis nevertheless continued to appoint progressives, with a reputation for being pastoral, to key positions, particularly those concerned with frontline evangelization, believing them to be more effective than ‘finger wagging conservatives’

Douthat considers whether Francis is in fact advancing a ‘higher Christianity’ that transcends legalism. After all Jesus promised that his yoke was easy and burden light and denounced the legalism of the pharisees. Douthat notes that while Jesus challenges the laws relating to ritual, the commandments of men, he ‘never relativized the ten commandments’. On the contrary, he pointed out their implicit and more far reaching demands.  Regarding marriage, he aligned himself with the ‘hard teaching’ of ‘how it was in the beginning’. The mercy he preached was always linked to repentance. Nevertheless, Douthat, while raising objections from Scripture, also notes that some ‘adaptation, compromise and change’ followed the church’s expansion into polygamist cultures.

A lot depends on Francis’s successor.  Douthat takes a critical look at the relative strengths and weaknesses of both the conservative and progressive camps, finding clear strengths and weaknesses on both sides. Looking back over past periods of division and upheaval in the Church, he makes interesting comparisons with the debates around both Arianism and Jansenism, observing that any deviation from orthodoxy, if unchecked, leads to ever deepening divergence and division. Thus, the argument in favour of communion for the remarried divorced extends logically to considering intercommunion for mixed-marriages and for cohabiting and gay couples, to a point where there are so many ‘legitimate exceptions’ that the notion of absolute moral norms is little more than notional.

For Douthat, the threat of Arianism still hovers over Christianity because as Cardinal Newman observed, its formulation was ‘so faintly precise and so decently ambiguous’.  But could a Church that rejected Jansenism also reject ‘Kasperite and Bergoglian liberalism … ‘?  The tension is similarly between laxism and rigorism, except this time ‘left has become right’.  Douthat shows, however, that identifying today’s conservatives with the Jansenist rigorists fails just as identifying today’s liberal Jesuits with their 17th/18th century predecessors fails.  ‘Seventeenth century Jesuits would be strict conservatives by today’s standards’.  Unlike Catholicism’s conservatives today, the Jansenists were theological rebels as well as moral rigorists,…..going over the head of mediaeval Catholic tradition and the papacy to claim Augustine and the early Fathers as their model’. Douthat also suggests an interesting point of comparison between today’s liberals and the Jansenists.’ The Christian standard is too hard to reach in the modern world, the Jansenists suggested, therefore reject the modern world. The Christian standard is too hard to reach in the modern world, Kasper suggests, therefore we must accept that most Chrstians cannot reach it’.  The Church could then reject Kasperite and Bergoglian liberalism ‘on similar grounds; for being too pessimistic about whether Christian virtue is actually within the ordinary person’s reach’.

Francis’s liberalism may have alienated many conservatives but his handling of sex abuse allegations has alienated many others who had been enthusiastic about his reforms. Douthat devotes a chapter to the various abuse issues that surfaced during his papacy and to his outrightly dismissive treatment of credible allegations, whatever may be said about the motives of those who brought them to light. Some of those allegations later turned out to be well founded, forcing an unseemly backtrack from the Pope.

Even though it is too soon to attempt an evaluation of the legacy of this papacy, Douthat does consider how  ‘the strong historical correlation between progressive theology and institutional decline’ will play out.  He also looks at how a re-set might emerge, ‘an eventual transcending of the church’s civil war’. He is not optimistic however, because the marriage controversy has served to harden both sides and personalise differences. Francis appears to be accelerating along the path of affirming liberals and waving away the theological concerns of conservatives as ‘pharisaism’. Like his predecessors, he has stacked the college of cardinals with the like-minded.  However, that did not secure the continuity they might have envisaged or hoped for.  Could the same happen again?


To Change the Church

  • Author: Ross Douthat
  • Publisher : Simon & Schuster; 1st Edition (19 April 2018)
  • Language : English
  • Hardcover : 256 pages
  • ISBN-10 : 1501146920
  • ISBN-13 : 978-1501146923
  • Dimensions : 15.24 x 2.79 x 22.86 cm



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