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To Change the Church:
Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism

by ross douthat
simon and schuster, 256 pages, $26

It is beyond question that the Roman Catholic Church is currently in the throes of one of the greatest crises in its two-millennium history. In human terms, its future might be said to be in doubt for the first time since the Reformation. The broad contours of the present crisis are the onward march of secularization in Europe and North America, the purging of Christians from the ancient heartlands of the Middle East, and the erosion of South American Catholicism by the missions of the Protestant and prosperity gospels. More specifically, the horrific and continuing revelations of the sexual and physical abuse of the vulnerable by the clergy, and of the failure of the institutional Church to identify and address the issue, have in some places turned a Catholic retreat into a rout. The dramatic and utterly unforeseen collapse of Catholicism in Ireland in little more than a generation, for example, harks back to the tectonic religious shifts of the early sixteenth century. Only in Africa is there much by way of good news, and it is not always clear how good that news is.

The crisis has come as a shock. No such prospect could have been in the mind of John XXIII in 1959 when he announced his plans for a Second Vatican Council. At that moment, the postwar triumph of liberal democracy in Western politics and of American Catholicism in the Church seemed to mark the final resolution of a dialectic that had dominated Western history since the French Revolution. For much of that era, a version of political liberalism that was often tempted to prefer freedom from religion to freedom of religion had regularly found itself in conflict with a resurgent and counterrevolutionary Roman Catholicism. The rise of totalitarianism, which was defeated in the form of Nazism but briefly triumphed in the form of Marxist Leninism, fostered the emergence of a politically liberal Catholicism that, in the aftermath of global conflict, produced the European project and Vatican II. As long as the Soviet Empire endured, Christianity and liberalism coexisted in a measure of harmony. It was an era in which popular images of the Catholic priesthood were shaped by Cardinal Mindszenty rather than Cardinal Law, by Don Camillo rather than Father Ted. John Paul II, socially conservative but politically liberal, symbolized this brief and, as it turned out, unstable synthesis. The rapid rise of social liberalism threatened this equilibrium, and with the end of the Cold War, signs could once more be seen of the return of a more resolutely anticlerical liberalism along nineteenth-century lines, though formulated in the new language of universal human rights. Social liberalism is founded upon a very different ethic from Christianity, and the increasing tension between these two bodies of doctrine is the cause of the contemporary crisis of Catholicism in the West.

In the face of this crisis, Pope Francis is seeking a rapprochement between the ideals of Catholicism and the realities of contemporary social norms by some softening of the traditionally hard lines of Catholic sexual and matrimonial morality. At the top of this agenda is the proposal, favored by Walter Cardinal Kasper and other liberal voices within the Church in Europe, that under certain conditions, Catholics who have remarried after a divorce (but without an annulment) should be allowed to receive Holy Communion. One of the most prominent and eloquent opponents of this proposal has been Ross Douthat, who has now written a provocative book on what this program means for the Church. The author’s sympathies, as he explains in the preface, are broadly but moderately conservative, though as a teenage convert rather than a cradle Catholic, he has more of a feeling than most conservatives for the appeal and merits of theological liberalism and of the frankly hedonistic secular liberalism that dominates modern consumer democracies. His analysis is framed by some historical reflections that seek to set the Francis Project both against its immediate historical background and within a deeper historical perspective. So first we are offered three rival outlines of the history of the Church from Vatican II until the present, and later we encounter comparisons between the present crisis and two previous crises: Arianism in the fourth century and Jansenism in the seventeenth. The book closes with some thoughts on Francis’s legacy, on where things might go from here.

The rival narratives that liberals and conservatives have put forward about the state of the Church since Vatican II might be labeled “the darkening of the rosy dawn” and the “trahison des clercs.” For the liberals, the blissful promise of aggiornamento was broken by the bureaucratic apparatus of the Vatican and the long pontificate of John Paul II, dedicated to turning back the tide of modernity. For the conservatives, the reasonable accommodations with modernity hammered out at Vatican II in the 1960s were turned into a program of change for change’s sake during the 1970s, inspiring apostasy on an epic scale, with the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI staunching the flow and restoring a semblance of stability. (Douthat’s third narrative, by the way, is simply the observation that the first two narratives have coexisted uneasily since Vatican II: true enough, but analytically it adds little to the first two.) These rival narratives underpin rival diagnoses of the present crisis and rival proposals for treatment. The liberal prescription is to throw open more windows. The conservative prescription is to put up the shutters. The Francis Project fits into these two perspectives in very different ways. For the liberals, it is a second spring. The winds of change, stilled for a pontificate or two, are once more swirling around curial cassocks. For the conservatives, it is a threatening summer, with the distant puff of smoke that signals brushfire.

Douthat is surely correct in his judgment that the liberal prescription has little to recommend it. In no historical or institutional church has an increasing alignment with modern or postmodern values and mores arrested numerical and demographic decline. The liberal path looks as though it leads out of the Church rather than into it. However, the observation that conservative institutions and movements within the Church have bucked the trend, though superficially plausible, may on further consideration offer little consolation. The evidence is more anecdotal than statistical, and it is certainly having little impact on the big picture. Moreover, as Douthat shrewdly notes in his preface, much of the liberal critique of religious conservatism strikes powerfully home. There can be a fractiousness and an impermeable complacency about much conservative discourse, especially in the new media, that is redolent not so much of traditional Catholicism as of the fissile sectarianism, rugged individualism, and downright anti-intellectualism that characterize so much of American culture, from its religious sects through conspiracy theories to the weird world of the survivalists. When one reads the rival commentaries, one comes away with the view that when things go wrong, liberals never want to admit it, while conservatives just love it.

Which brings us back to the Francis Project, which can best be seen as a crisis within a crisis, a skirmish in the broader culture wars of the late modern West. The nub of the issue is the Catholic Church’s absolute, inflexible, and perennial insistence on the indissolubility of marriage: “What God has joined together, let no man put asunder” (Matt. 19:6). It is Pope Francis’s evident wish for divorced and remarried Catholics to be admitted to Communion after some appropriate process of penitential reconciliation that has whipped up such a debate. This wish, which he shares with the liberal wing of the Church, is taken by conservatives as a de facto break with the Church’s hitherto almost unbroken stand against divorce (understood, for present purposes, as the termination of a valid marriage which leaves the parties free to contract new and equally valid marriages). Is it a gathering hurricane, or just a storm in a teacup?

Obviously, if the conservative analysis of the pope’s position is correct, then the present crisis in the Church, however small it might seem, is one of the gravest in its entire history. Here there is a certain value in Douthat’s comparisons with the Arian and Jansenist crises, though the social and political contexts of those episodes are so very different both from each other and from our time that such comparisons can hardly aspire to analytical rigor. But they make some sense on the mystical or metaphysical level. The Arian and Jansenist crises were each episodes in the two greatest crises in Christian history. The first of these was the one that gripped the Church from the Council of Nicaea to the Council of Chalcedon and beyond. This was an agonized and church-rending argument over the question, “What is God?” The second great crisis was that of the Reformation (of which Jansenism, an elite fad, was a kind of backwash or eddy within the Church); it was an agonized and church-rending argument over the question, “What is the Church?” Our crisis, at least as great as those, is all about a question that would once have been expressed as “What is man?” The fact that this wording is now itself seen as problematic is a symptom of the very condition it seeks to diagnose. What is it, in other words, to be human?

The little debate in the Catholic Church about Communion for the divorced and remarried is a microcosm, then, of a much broader argument about the nature of humanity, human life, and human sexuality. The current tensions within Catholicism reflect changes and tensions in Western culture as a whole, relating to an entire alphabet of beliefs and practices: abortion, bisexuality, contraception, divorce, euthanasia, family, gender, homosexuality, infertility treatment . . . Western society is moving in a very different direction from Catholicism on all these issues. Not from Catholics—from Catholicism. Opinion polls seem to indicate that, while lagging some way behind, opinion among those identifying as Catholic is shifting on almost all these issues in the direction set by society at large. This is a moral shift of an epochal nature. But whatever individual Catholics may think, the new moral consensus, or at least spectrum, is utterly irreconcilable with Catholicism. If Catholicism were to reconcile itself to the new moral order of Western society, then it would be abandoning its past, its tradition, and thus its identity. It would give up its claim to truth and, therefore, its claim upon our faith.

That said, as Douthat observes, Catholicism will certainly adapt, as it has always done. But its adaptation will be constrained and controlled by its divine mission and by its fidelity to the saving truth that is handed down to be handed on. It will adapt as far as it can to secure toleration or to mitigate discrimination in the emerging social order of the West. Catholics, qua Catholics, may find it increasingly hard to withstand the pressures of modernity, which have already eliminated the social model of the parish bequeathed to us from medieval Europe, just as they have corroded and dissolved so many of the other social and communal structures and institutions that used to sustain European and American ways of life.

Given the challenges posed to the moral message of Catholicism by the emerging social order, liberal Catholics from the pope downward need to be very careful what they wish for. Conditional access to Communion for the divorced and remarried might seem to them merely a question of ecclesiastical discipline. None of them imagines for a moment that they are undermining the Church’s teaching on marriage; nor have they any intention of doing so. They are motivated by a laudable desire to keep people within the ambit of sacramental grace in these spiritually troubled times. Yet if this move should turn out as conservatives fear, if it should trip over itself into some attempted revision of the fundamental Catholic doctrine of marriage, then it would be a step on the high road to schism.

Conservative Catholics, however, likewise need to be careful. They may fear that the pope might undermine fundamental doctrine on marriage. But some seem almost to relish the prospect. Contrary to widespread belief, the Church is not infallible in all matters. The Church enjoys, in a very restricted context, a privilege of guidance by the Holy Spirit that protects it against defining what is false in Christian doctrine or morality as a truth to be held by all Christians. It cannot require Catholics to believe what is false, but that does not prevent it from committing countless other kinds of errors. The dreadful revelations of the abuse crisis put that beyond doubt. The definition (and hence limitation) of infallibility is most helpfully seen as a providential dispensation that has allowed the Church to admit its numerous mistakes and crimes in the vast areas of human endeavor not guaranteed by infallibility. The pope may well get what he wants. It may well be that traditional teaching on marriage will be compromised in practice by pastoral concessions that some will see as mere laxism—as was once the case with dueling among old Europe’s bloated nobility. The Church inevitably bends to some degree before the winds of change. But one must not rush to judgment or to despair.

It looks as though the position for Catholics in the West may become more difficult in the near future. There are already calls in Britain and Europe to exclude from the medical professions persons who are unwilling to perform abortions or to collaborate in their organization or provision. A number of Catholic charities in Britain found they could no longer lawfully provide adoption services on account of their incapacity, for reasons of conscience, to offer children for adoption by same-sex couples. The exclusion of Rocco Buttiglione from high public office in the European Union in 2004 on grounds tied directly to his religious beliefs is indeed unlikely to be repeated—for who would be so foolish as to propose what we might call a “public” Catholic for such a public office again? That is how discrimination works. Subaltern groups learn their allotted position in society, and a degree of complicity in it can become the condition of their continued tenure of that position. The fact that such discrimination, were it to arise, would be carried out in the name of equality and nondiscrimination would lend it not only piquancy but almost irresistible social power and legitimacy. 

In such a world, it would be for Catholics to learn from the counsel and example of Thomas More. If you cannot achieve the good, as he said in Utopia, then you can at least try to secure the least harm. For him, participation in public life was all about advising the sovereign, the king. And that could mean showing some tact and diplomacy. Today, the people are sovereign, and participation in politics therefore means advising the people. It turns out that the people en masse are as willful and prone to flattery as any Tudor monarch. In such a world, we should also remember More’s example. We don’t need to go looking for trouble. We can let it come to find us, and hope it passes us by. But if and when it does find us, then we have to look to conscience and steer by the stars of justice and truth.

What we might bear in mind, if we are disturbed by the policies of the leaders of the Church in such a situation, is that the duties of conscience apply just as much to our relationship with the Church as to our relationship with the state. If our leaders fail, then we should criticize, appropriately and helpfully. If they need to be reminded of the truths that have been entrusted to them, then it is our duty to remind them. There may well be, there certainly will be—as there certainly have been only too recently—abuses within the Church and failures by its leaders. Faith in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church requires us to soldier on, minding our consciences, upholding the truth out of love, and avoiding evil and false doctrine.

If, however, the Catholic Church were indeed to abandon or reverse the almost total opposition to divorce that it has maintained across two millennia, then its claim to be the privileged vehicle of divine revelation on moral issues would be, quite simply, shattered. The position of the Church on the indissolubility of marriage is among the most consistent of its traditions. Its scriptural basis is, frankly, stronger than that for the doctrine of the Trinity, for the observance of Sunday as the day of rest, or for the real presence in the Eucharist. To all intents and purposes, it is a mark of the Church. Nor should this claim be theologically surprising. Marriage, as Paul taught, symbolizes the union of Christ and his Church (Eph. 5:31–32). For Christians, the indissolubility of marriage is integral to its symbolic—that is, its sacramental—place in the economy of salvation. If it is terminable, then it can no longer symbolize that perfect union between the head and the body of Christ.

If, after all, marriage is not a divine union of male and female in one flesh, dissolved only by the inevitable dissolution of that flesh in death, then the Catholic Church has, in the name of Christ, needlessly tormented the consciences of untold numbers of the faithful for twenty centuries. If this teaching were to be modified in the name of mercy, then the Church would already have been outdone in mercy not only by most other religions but even by the institutions and impulses of the modern secular state. Such a conclusion would definitively explode any pretension to moral authority on the part of the Church. A church which could be so wrong, for so long, on a matter so fundamental to human welfare and happiness could hardly lay claim to decency, let alone infallibility.

Richard Rex is professor of Reformation history at the University of Cambridge and author of The Making of Martin Luther.

Photo by Chowells. License via Creative Commons. Image cropped.