Posts Tagged ‘Pope John Paul II’

Douthat: To Change the Church

May 7, 2018

To Change the Church
Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism
Ross Douthat
(Scribner, 2018)
256 p.

My interest in Church politics ranks somewhere below my interest in professional sports, and I last watched a game of professional sports about two years ago. Nonetheless, I have been aware of at least some of the controversies that have been unfolding during these past five years of the pontificate of Pope Francis. My response has been, mostly, to ignore them. For most of history Catholics have not bothered themselves with the minutiae of papal governance, and my basic attitude has been that it will sort itself out in the end, without my contrivance. I owe the Holy Father my prayers and my good will, not my anxious criticism.

This is a defensible position, but, then again, being informed about goings-on in the Church is not a bad thing either, and when the opportunity came up to read Ross Douthat’s new book about Francis’ pontificate, I took it up with curiosity. He gives an overview of the main events thus far, including those that have generated the controversy, sets them in the context of Catholic politics since Vatican II, and speculates on what the likely consequences might be for the future.

Douthat is a broadly conservative writer, but employed as columnist at the New York Times, and so accustomed to rubbing shoulders each day with liberals, and adept at seeing things from their point of view. Something to admire about his book is that, although he has a variety of concerns about what Francis has been doing, his assessment is remarkably even-handed — more even-handed than I would be, quite honestly. He is critical of liberal trends under Francis, but he is critical too of the conservative elements that have resisted them. He does not pretend to know how things will, or should, turn out, but he does raise a number of questions — questions that seem to me to be entirely reasonable.

It is conventional to frame the main disagreements that have roiled Francis’ papacy as being between “liberals” and “conservatives”. I don’t particularly like this language, borrowed from secular politics, but no other terms have gained currency. Generally speaking, it is fair to say that liberals put emphasis on the Church changing to keep up with changing times, while conservatives put emphasis on stability and continuity, and Catholics know that since Vatican II, especially, a conflict between the two sides has played out across many issues, ranging from the Church’s moral teaching to her liturgical practices.

The book begins with an overview of how Church affairs have developed across those fifty years since Vatican II, sketched first from a broadly liberal point of view (“a promising renewal betrayed by the hierarchy”), and then from a broadly conservative (“a temporarily hijacked renewal recovered by John Paul II”). He discusses the dramatic resignation of Pope Benedict XVI in 2013, not without some pointed criticism (“an implicitly secularizing act, one that undercut the traditional image of the pontiff as a spiritual father”), and then the election of Jorge Bergoglio as Pope Francis. We learn — which I did not know and am probably not supposed to know — that Bergoglio had been second in voting at the conclave that elected Benedict, and emerged quickly as the favourite at the 2013 conclave.

To Douthat’s way of thinking, the first year of Francis’ papacy was a very promising one, especially against the backdrop of Church history since Vatican II. The Pope brought a new perspective to the papal office, and this was healthy. His pontificate shifted emphasis away from certain hot-button issues (mostly pertaining to the sexual revolution and all its empty promises) toward the Church’s social teaching on solidarity with the poor, economic injustice, and stewardship of the natural world, and the hope was that in so doing he would bridge the divide between liberals and conservatives, reduce the heat on the long-simmering internal controversies, and forge a new Catholic centre. Writes Douthat:

“Part of the promise of his pontificate was that there could be once again in the developed world an orthodox Catholic liberal-left, as in the time of Dorothy Day and Catholic New Dealers and the Christian Democrats of Western Europe. The hope in Francis’s early days was that he would revive a form of Catholic engagement with modern political economy that was populist or anti-plutocratic .. but also orthodox in its theology, countercultural in its attitude toward the sexual revolution, zealous in its commitment to the essentials of the faith.”

But then — alas! — came the Synod on the Family, first in 2014 and then, a second meeting, in 2015, and on those shoals the pontificate struck; its aftermath has, in Douthat’s view, undermined most of that early promise, consumed the good will of both right and left, and ignited a high-stakes debate over Catholicism’s future.

Douthat’s basic reading of Francis’ pontificate, of which the story is the Synod is an important part, is that it is an attempt to make peace with certain aspects of the modern world, and especially with the sexual revolution. I resist that conclusion, but it is Douthat’s view. The Catholic Church has, over the past few decades, as the sexual revolution’s consequences have gradually unfolded, been the principal public institution opposed. This has cost her influence and friends, of course, and there have always been voices within the Church complaining about that, but she has held fast to her teachings in fidelity, she said, to the faith once delivered.

To a conservative, there is nothing particularly troublesome about this state of affairs. Prevailing moral norms vary from time to time, and from place to place, and the Church teaches what she teaches in season and out. Those who have ears will hear. Of course the conflicts between her moral vision and that of whatever culture she finds herself confronting should not be artificially exaggerated, and searching for common ground is good and healthy, but neither should the mere fact of a conflict occasion any serious doubts about her teachings, and certainly it would be foolhardy, in a short-sighted vein, for her to abandon those teachings in order to make herself more appealing. “He who marries the spirit of the age soon makes himself a widower,” said Chesterton; the Church is married to Christ.

And so, in the face of the sexual revolution, with its legacy of broken families, dead children, casual intimacy, and loneliness, the Church would seem to have all the more reason to hold fast in confidence to her teachings, presenting them as winsomely as possible, patiently, against the day when people will, once again, begin to listen. In the meantime, she does her best to treat the wounded and welcome home prodigals. And there might indeed be certain measures she could take to make that treatment more widely available, and make that welcome more fulsome. A variety of reforms, such as a relaxing of the conditions for annulment, have been proposed.

But at the Synod on the Family, an influential group of Cardinals, seemingly but not certainly supported by the Holy Father,

“fastened on the one reform that the Church could not contemplate — at least not without falling into self-contradiction and performing an auto-demolition on its own claim to authority.”

The reform in question was, of course, admitting the divorced and re-married to Holy Communion. This reform seemed (but see below) to contradict Catholic teaching on the indissolubility of marriage, a teaching founded directly on the still-shocking words of Christ (in Mark 10 and Matthew 19). This reform, first put forward by Walter Cardinal Kasper (at the invitation of the Pope), was supported by a group hand-picked by the Pope to manage the Synod. But they were opposed by a considerable conservative block; liberalizing language did not garner enough support to qualify for inclusion in the final report. Whereupon the Holy Father ordered its inclusion anyway, and concluded the Synod with a memorable speech berating the opposition.

All of this was remarkable enough. Then came the post-Synodal exhortation Amoris laetitia (which, I confess, I have not read). The many different readings of this document that have proliferated in the meantime testify to its ambiguity. Some claim it is fully consistent with what the Church has always taught about marriage, family, and sacramental life; others say that it introduces a “new paradigm” in Catholic moral theology. Some have claimed to discover, in a footnote — a footnote the Holy Father has claimed not to remember writing — warrant to change the Church’s practice about admitting the re-married to Communion, and several bishops’ conferences have acted on that alleged discovery. These liberal readings of the document follow a pattern familiar from the aftermath of Vatican II: “whatever was novel was taken to control the text’s meaning and implications; whatever was conservative was assumed to be vestigial.” It’s a tactic that seems to have duped the conservative Cardinals now as then.

To these liberalizing changes there has been little resistance from Rome, and some encouragement. Douthat’s interpretation is that, having lost the battle at the Synod, the fall-back position for the liberals has been to decentralize, pushing decisions out to local bodies of bishops, and letting a thousand roses bloom, as it were. (A recent instance.) The problem, of course, is that what is a sin in one diocese can now, apparently, be acceptable in another. This is irrational.

In all of this, my inclination has been to give the Holy Father the benefit of the doubt. When the Synod was happening, my hopeful reading of the turmoil was that he was gentle and cunning; perhaps by seeming to give support to Kasper, he was actually giving the most liberal Cardinals enough rope with which to hang themselves — and this may yet prove to be the final result, but not, Douthat has convinced me, during this pontificate. In the meantime, it is hard to understand the Pope’s actions as anything other than favourable to the liberal faction.

As Douthat said in the citation above, this is troubling for two main reasons: it seems to endorse a position at odds with basic Catholic teaching on marriage and sacramental life, teaching founded unusually firmly on the words of Jesus; and it seems to be at odds with clear papal teaching, both remote and proximate, and if the Pope can teach something contrary to his predecessors, then presumably his successors can likewise teach something contrary to him, and papal authority puts itself at risk of becoming transient and partisan. This, too, is irrational. Popes may not contradict one another on matters of faith and morals.


It is perhaps worth pausing for a moment, leaving Douthat and his furrowed brow, to think about the main contested issue — that of admitting to Communion those who have divorced and re-married.

The Church’s withholding of Holy Communion from Catholics in this state does not rest, unsupported, in the air, but is a conclusion from premises, and some of those premises are:

1. A valid Christian marriage is indissoluble.
2. A Catholic may be married to not more than one person at any one time.
3. Married spouses can reasonably be presumed to have an ongoing sexual relationship.
4. Adultery is a grave sin.
5. Marriage is a public commitment.
6. A public commitment to commit a sin makes that sin manifest.
7. A Catholic presumably in a state of grave, manifest sin cannot be presumed to be in a state of grace.
8. A Catholic must be in a state of grace to receive Holy Communion.

From 1 and 2 we deduce that a Catholic cannot licitly contract a second marriage without an annulment of the first, for in the eyes of the Church, and of God, he remains married to his first spouse; this is just what Christ said, and is the cornerstone of the whole argument. Adding 3 we deduce that a Catholic who contracts a second marriage without an annulment of his first can reasonably be presumed to be committing adultery. With Premise 4 we can reasonably presume that he commits a grave sin. The addition of premises 5 and 6 yields that such a Catholic can reasonably be presumed to be in a state of grave, manifest sin. Therefore, from premise 7, that person cannot presume, and should not be presumed, to be in a state of grace. And therefore, finally (premise 8), that person should not receive Holy Communion.

The peculiar position we now seem to find ourselves in is that there are highly placed churchmen, possibly including the Holy Father himself, who want to change the conclusion of this argument, but do not specify which of the premises they consider to be false. No doubt Premise 1 seems radical, but it is the most securely founded on the words of Jesus; his disciples thought it radical too, but he didn’t see fit to change it on that account. Premises 2-4 and 8 are, similarly, all based on Scripture and are declared in Catholic teaching. Premise 5 is, under normal circumstances, reasonable. Premise 6 is arguably tautological. Likewise Premise 7. The presumption of sexual union (premise 3) is of course not always accurate, and for this reason an exemption from the denial of Communion to re-married Catholics can be, and is, granted in special cases. Otherwise, an attack on any one of these premises is either going to be theologically fraught, frankly unreasonable, or both.

Yet as bad as the denial of any one of these premises would be, the denial of none of them (while denying the conclusion deduced from them) is arguably worse, for it casts doubt on all of them. It’s a difficult position to be in, not knowing which section of the roof might cave in first.

There is some evidence that it is premise 8 that is being challenged most directly. The Pope himself, in that famous, all too easily forgotten footnote, has said that the Eucharist is a “medicine for the sick”. This is true, of course, but can be read in different ways. Some of the Cardinals promoting Kasper’s proposal have taken it to mean that a person could be, objectively and knowingly, committing a serious sin (like adultery), and not to have a serious purpose of amendment (owing to some unspecified range of difficulties), but nonetheless be admitted to Communion. The Church, it is said, should “accompany” that person as he discerns what to do. This is one way to think about Communion, but it has not, heretofore, been the Catholic way.

There is also an unstated premise in the argument above: A marriage should be presumed to be valid. This too seems reasonable (and is affirmed in Canon Law) but there is evidence that Pope Francis denies it, and this might account for the decisions he makes. For if many (or even a large majority) of Catholics are in invalid marriages, those relationships are not indissoluble, and the distinction drawn between the married and re-married ceases to make demographic, and, arguably, pastoral sense. But this cure is worse than the disease, for one trades having a smaller set of adulterers seeking Communion for a larger set of fornicators seeking the same, and without sensibly mitigating the problems of the smaller set (for the re-marriages cannot be presumed to be more valid than the initial marriages). This, quite apart from the legitimate pastoral problems that such a view would create for all (putatively) married Catholics worldwide, for how could one be reasonably confident in the validity of one’s own marriage? I myself do not see a clear path out of these woods along these lines.


These considerations make reasonable, to my mind, the dubia which were submitted to Pope Francis after the Synod: several questions posed by a group of Cardinals seeking clarification on the meaning of things written in Amoris laetitia. The Pope, as is his right, declined to answer, which, however, only added to the prevailing confusion, raising afresh the possibility that the Pope actually does not want to speak clearly on these matters, and fosters uncertainty intentionally.

The whole situation has a certain strange quality to it. The papacy is, in its nature, an intrinsically conservative office. The role of the Pope is to be the guardian of Catholic doctrine, preserving it from error and maintaining continuity with the faith once delivered to the apostles. What, then, are we to make of a Pope who, possibly, is not inclined to exercise his office conservatively?

I put the question in that tentative form because the Holy Father has, himself, been quite reticent to speak, and seems more comfortable with ambiguity than clarity on these matters. Those churchmen with whom he has surrounded himself, however, have not been so reticent, and what they have said caused my eyebrows to go up on more than one occasion.

The most common response, for instance, to the conservative concern that the changes proposed by Cardinal Kasper alter Church doctrine — for instance, on the indissolubility of marriage — has been to say that the doctrine remains unchanged and only Church discipline is changing. This is itself an odd reply, as though a dissonance between orthodoxy and orthopraxy could be somehow advantageous, but, anyway, it is presented as a minor matter. This, at least, is the response to conservatives, but to other audiences they sometimes answer differently. Douthat does a good job of gathering up these Jekyll-and-Hyde replies in a passage that is worth quoting at length (and which, in the book, is liberally footnoted):

“Francis’ defenders, when it suited them, … downplayed the stakes when the pope faced some sort of setback or opposition; the rest of the time, they tended to play up the significance of what he was attempting to accomplish…

“The Kaspar proposal is just a change of discipline, not doctrine … but by the way, the church should establish intercommunion with Protestants as soon as possible. Conservatives are wildly overreacting when they interpret Amoris as a kind of surrender to the sexual revolution … but by the way, the church should offer recognition to gay couples and grant last rites to suicides and revisit Humanae Vitae and for heaven’s sake stop obsessing about abortion. It is ludicrous to suggest that Francis was changing doctrine on marriage … but by the way, his casual comments on the death penalty and just war meant that he was developing church teaching on those issues too, and soon any Catholic who favored capital punishment would be out of step with the modern magisterium. It is absurd to suggest that any core Catholic teaching was at stake in the synodal debates … but by the way, Jesus’ strict teaching on marriage probably reflected his mistaken view that the world was about to end, or maybe we just don’t know what Jesus really said, because after all the Gospel writers didn’t have tape recorders. It is ludicrous to draw analogies between the Amoris controversies and the great debates over Arianism or Gnosticism or Lutheranism … but in fact, now that you mention it, some semi-Arian understandings of Jesus, some semi-Gnostic concepts of the human person, some semi-Lutheran understandings of sin and the sacraments, might actually deserve a home in the Catholic Church. It was ridiculous to say that Catholicism’s intellectual integrity and theological consistency were at stake in the remarriage debate … but in fact it’s time for the church to acknowledge that “theology is not Mathematics,” and if necessary “2+2 in theology can make 5.””

It is hard to know what to make of this sort of thing. Maybe it is just human folly run amuck on Vatican precincts, and nothing to worry overmuch about. Catholicism has survived many things, including, in living memory, a silly season that persisted through most of the 1970s and 1980s, and it will survive this too. And it will. But it is dispiriting, all the same, to contemplate the prospect of future decades contending against the zombie of liberal Catholicism that just won’t die.

And it is possible that this struggle could be a long one, for, as Douthat notes,

“The Kasper proposal pertains specifically to the divorced and remarried but there is nothing in the logic that confines it to those cases. Polygamous unions, same-sex unions, even the unmarried — the same reasoning could apply to all.

After all, if a rule rooted in Jesus’ own words, confirmed by dogmatic definitions and explicitly reconfirmed by the previous two popes, linked to Reformation-era martyrdom and bound up with three of the seven sacraments could be so easily rewritten … well, what rule or teaching could not?”

It could be that there’s a good answer to that question, but I don’t see that it’s unreasonable to ask it in good faith.


Given the uncertainty in which the Holy Father has implicitly asked us to stew, we might ask what’s to be done in the meantime. Douthat, looking for the hand of providence, argues that maybe something like this had to happen; maybe, as Eliot said, “to be restored / our sickness must grow worse”. Liberal Catholicism had been exiled from the Church’s highest office for a few decades. Conservatives thought they had established a secure interpretation of Vatican II that was beginning to bear fruit, but, at the same time, we all knew that liberals still controlled most Catholic educational and charitable institutions. Many older churchmen, and some younger, were still in thrall to the elusive “Spirit of Vatican II”. Poor catechesis has meant that many, many Catholics have been more formed by the prevailing secular culture than by Catholic culture, and would be more happy than not to see the latter conform to the former. So the stability we thought we were enjoying under Pope St John Paul II and Benedict XVI was more apparent than real, and now, with a papacy more friendly to liberals, liberals have started to flex their muscles, and the real state of affairs has announced itself. Like it or not, these are the times we live in.

What to do? When, in the summer of 2017, Cardinal Meisner, who had been among the group who submitted the dubia to Pope Francis, died, a remarkable letter was sent by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, to be read at his funeral. In this letter, Benedict said that the Cardinal lived “out of a deep conviction that the Lord does not abandon His Church, even when the boat has taken on so much water as to be on the verge of capsizing,” and he noted the Cardinal’s love of the Sacrament of Penance and of Eucharistic Adoration. Perhaps it would not be inappropriate to take from this letter implicit counsel: your anxieties are not unfounded, but trust in God and draw close to him by the means given us. It cannot be the worst course, at any rate.