The indissolubility of marriage is the central doctrine of the church, and to even bring up the issue at the papal level is to risk permanent destruction of both the magisterium and the authority of Catholicism. That Pope Francis has done so is a reckless gamble—playing dice with the deepest traditions of the church. So Ross Douthat’s argument goes in To Change the Church, in which the author tries to assess the changes wrought in the five years since Francis’ election. For Douthat, a conservative convert in his youth, the conclusion is simple and ominous: Francis has made a mess, though perhaps that was his aim all along. To Change the Church traces Francis’ papacy through the thickets of ecclesiastical politics and the densities of doctrine, focusing not on the economic or environmental issues for which Francis is now renowned (and reviled), but instead on the theme of Communion and reintegration for divorced and remarried Catholics that has been discussed at two separate synods without final resolution.
To that end, the book begins by tracing three narratives of Catholic life from Vatican II through to the election of Francis—one liberal, in which retrenchment dashed hopes for a contemporary, inclusive church; one conservative in which post-conciliar experimentation went too far and required rigorous correction and Douthat’s own tale, in which the Council was never as liberal as imagined and the church was woefully unprepared for the shock it was about to receive from the modern world. Douthat’s narrative here is undoubtedly correct, especially concerning the intellectual life of Catholicism in both Rome and the parish. The pill, approved by the FDA in 1960, seems to have rattled the entire institution from top to bottom, and led to papal reaction in 1968 based more on the need to preserve traditional authority rather than thoughtful theology (if the author thinks Roe v. Wade is badly argued, he should have a go at Humanae Vitae).
For a conservative like Douthat, the solution ought to have been easy. The election of John Paul II in 1978 at the age of 58 augured well for a long reign of order and reasserted authority. Following the second-longest papal reign in modern church history, during which the increasing despair of the left was more than matched by the delight of the right, John Paul made way for Joseph Ratzinger—a solid, traditional theological mind and disciplinarian—who reigned until his retirement in 2013. By then, these two conservative popes had appointed every bishop and cardinal for 35 years, ostensibly ensuring an orthodox foundation for the church in the 21st century. And it was these same cardinals who elected an Argentinian Jesuit pope—presumably with no objection from Benedict XVI, now standing on the sidelines.
Despite this, conservative prelates and commenters were suspicious, especially when, in answer to an informal question about gay priests and holiness, Francis responded, “Who am I to judge?” Liberals and conservatives both began to hold their breath—the former with renewed hope, the latter with fear and anger. Of this outsized reaction to a seemingly modest remark, Douthat makes the excellent observation that, given the instant and global reach of modern media, even the least statement of a pope gets amplified beyond its immediate audience and meaning. That was certainly true here.
Conservative worries solidified into genuine concern when Francis announced a synod to consider marriage and the possibility of giving reconciliation and Communion to divorced Catholics, based on Cardinal Walter Kasper’s proposal from the early 1990s. As the traditional position holds that the indissolubility of marriage lies at the heart of Catholic teaching—grounded firmly and explicitly in the Gospel of Mark—to undo it is to remake the church entirely. Moreover, to allow it to go unresolved is nearly as bad, shattering the unity of Catholic teaching into regional or political camps, each following a different discipline. This, though, is what Francis finally did, whether through active refusal to make a decision on the matter or a more passive neglect of the issue. The author claims that, by the time of the second synod on marriage, the vast majority of bishops regretted the Argentine’s election.
So, how is one to assess Douthat’s argument in To Change the Church? First, one must give credit where it is due. Though he derives much of his information from other sources, Douthat is a first-rate reporter of the “Byzantine” machinations of papal politics, now subject to the mayhem inherent in mass and social media. Everyone, it seems, must have their own Twitter account, even Peter’s successor and God’s representative on Earth (apparently one bird in your corner isn’t enough anymore). His observations about Vatican II and its aftermath are solid, and his concerns appear deep and heartfelt. On the other hand, some of the account is bewildering.
Douthat sputters over how it could be that conservatives ran the show with a rather explicit agenda for a third of a century, were in charge of all the major (and minor) appointments and yet were still undone by some version of an ecclesiastical deep state. If this is the case, then John Paul II—rather than Francis—is the villain of the piece. What was he doing all those years? At his accession, John Paul was 20 years younger than either of his successors, with more than enough time to realize his traditional vision for the institutional church. And while his successor Benedict XVI is clearly the pope Douthat admires most—understandable, as the author came to religious maturity with Benedict at the helm and a conservative wave seemingly cresting—his disappointment at Benedict’s retirement is palpable as he wonders how Catholics would react to learning that the pontiff is more CEO than Pontifex Maximus.
Far more significant to Douthat’s case, though, is Francis’ potential change to the church’s doctrine on marriage and divorce. To reverse it would not only go against the plain sense of the New Testament (for Douthat), but would also allow people to entertain the possibility that the Protestant and Orthodox communities might be in better possession of ecclesiastical truth, not only on marriage but on other matters as well—“that the pope might be a fine symbol of unity, but that as the last word on faith and morals his authority had been rather exaggerated for at least a thousand years.” In other words, the authority of tradition was riding on the defense of marriage. By leaving the matter unresolved, Francis leaves the Catholic world teetering on the edge of a moral and religious catastrophe—Probabilism looms! This is the mess Francis has made.
Here again, though, Douthat’s reporting is better than his analysis. The New Testament case is not as secure as he makes it out to be, and he stands on shaky ground with the assumption that marriage and divorce would be the tipping point for conservatives, rather than something less doctrinally fraught. A more significant criticism, though, is that Douthat does not explain why Francis chose this particular reform as the opening gambit of his papacy. In one way, it makes little sense. Divorced Catholics are already receiving Communion everywhere (under the table, as it were), or they have left the church for other faiths. What, then, is to be gained from questioning this orthodoxy? Douthat never offers an answer, and this cripples the book’s ability to explain rather than to simply polemicize.
Conservative Catholic politics both sacred and secular today revolve around the ability to judge and censure others.
The actual explanation, though, may be quite simple, if the real debate involves the power of mercy and the power of judgment, focused on the Eucharist. The author and conservatives like him hold that Communion is not to be taken lightly, for it comes at the end of a rigorous process of penance and functions as a capstone to—the final reward of grace for—virtue upheld or restored. Francis, however, is a Jesuit, and from their origins in the 16th century, Jesuits have consistently argued that frequent Communion was itself a source of healing grace—it is the sick, after all, who most need a doctor. Offering this medicine to more of the faithful has been a controversial Jesuit goal (and practice) for centuries.
So perhaps the author’s real concern can be found in Francis’ seemingly innocuous remark about his fitness to cast judgment that so set conservative Catholics on their heels. The possible misinterpretation of these words may have been less significant than the implication that the church should champion mercy over judgment. That is not the church of our times. Conservative Catholic politics both sacred and secular today revolve around the ability to judge and censure others. The “religious liberty” debate of the last 20 years has not been about allowing Christians to worship or practice their beliefs openly (the lunatic “war on Christmas” notwithstanding), but about keeping others from doing the same. It is politically about the freedom to discriminate—against gay people, against women, against the transgender community. In one short statement, Francis undermined that hollow argument, and now at a time when yet another very conservative Catholic is likely to join the Supreme Court and tip the US Constitution in Rome’s direction.
But maybe this is about conservative mercy after all. In that case, Douthat might want to remember Joseph Merrick’s question when faced with an act of dubious clemency: “If your mercy is so cruel, what do you have for justice?”
To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism
(Simon & Schuster, 2018, 256pp)