A Cassandra Cry Against Pope Francis

Ross Douthat's views on the pope are intensely unpopular. But has he identified a fundamental tension in the Church?

Remo Casilli / Reuters

Across every continent, in every country, Catholics “find themselves divided against one another,” writes the New York Times columnist Ross Douthat in his new book, To Change the Church. On one side stand the orthodox, who see doctrine and tradition as the best antidote to a changing world. On the other stand the liberals, who yearn for a Church that focuses on pastoring rather than enforcing rigid rules. This “widening theological and moral gulf,” Douthat argues, is potentially “wider than the chasm that separated Catholicism from Orthodoxy, and later from Lutheranism and Calvinism.”

That’s a bold claim to make. After all, the schisms of East and West, Catholic and Protestant, were world-shaking, often bloody events. But in today’s Church—and specifically in this pope—Douthat sees the possibility that the Roman Catholic Church will once again break apart.

Ostensibly, his beef is with Pope Francis, whom Douthat paints as an unyielding and stubborn manager who has spent his five years in Rome failing to clean up the Vatican’s messes, hurling insults at conservative clerics, and pushing radical doctrinal changes without buy-in from major wings of the Catholic hierarchy. He writes skeptically about Francis’s imagery and rhetoric of mercy, from pictures of the pontiff kissing a man covered in boils to his controversial declaration, “Who am I to judge?” about gay men searching for God. But at its core, Douthat’s book is about a vast, premodern institution’s halting evolution into modern times, and whether it can sufficiently adapt to maintain unified influence over 1.3 billion adherents spanning Africa to Asia to the Americas. “This is a hinge moment in the history of Catholicism,” Douthat writes. While he is unlikely to change many minds about controversial Catholic issues or reshape people’s opinions of the pope, Douthat is digging at a question present in every aspect of contemporary culture and politics: How can those who primarily wish to preserve their culture live in community with those who cheer for inexorable change?

Douthat comes to this book with some baggage. In the U.S., he has been the most prominent lay voice of Francis opposition, rehearsing the argument for his book in the pages of this magazine and The New York Times, where he often writes about the pope with intense disdain. His focus is almost always on one topic: the pope’s efforts to address issues related to family. Early in his papacy, Pope Francis convened two meetings of Catholic bishops, called synods. The pope seemed to feel that the Church had not figured out how to serve people whose lives don’t fit the Christian ideal, from single moms to same-sex couples to those who have been civilly divorced and remarried. The format of the meetings was somewhat chaotic and very Francis, drawing on his Latin American background and the tradition of his order, the Jesuits: Small groups of bishops were assigned to meet and discuss a number of agenda items, discerning together how to answer these people’s needs with doctrinal integrity.

From the start, there was controversy. Before the first synod was even over, Vatican leaders hosted a press conference and hinted at a surprising possibility: Local parishes might be able to determine when remarried Catholics can receive communion, even in cases that previously would have been denied outright. According to Douthat—or more specifically, the reporters he relies on—many bishops were shocked at what they saw as a unilateral decision by Francis and a few of his liberal supporters. In the days that followed, the disagreements played out in the press, and prominent clergy staged private interventions with their colleagues. By the end, the initial findings had been softened significantly. But even at the conclusion of the second synod the next fall, the implications of the meetings remained unclear. Ultimately, it was up to the pope to synthesize the bishops’ findings.

Six months later, he did—sort of. Released in April 2016, Amoris laetitia, or “The Joy of Love,” includes Francis’s long reflections on familial love and a call for the Church to stay away from “a far too abstract and almost artificial theological ideal of marriage.” Once again, the pope had invited controversy: The document stipulates that “it is possible that in an objective situation of sin … a person can be living in God’s grace … while receiving the Church’s help.” In certain cases, the pope added in a footnote, this can include the “help of the sacraments,” apparently suggesting that people in sinful living arrangements might be able to take communion. While many Church leaders welcomed this pastoral flexibility, others complained that it created ambiguity—“what is sin in Poland is good in Germany,” wrote four conservative cardinals in a letter to the pope—or even directly violated the teachings of the Church.

Douthat was, and is, in the latter camp. He began tossing the word “schism” around. He published a scathing Times column accusing the pope of being the “chief plotter” in the Vatican’s Renaissance-court-style politics. A large group of prominent liberal American clergy and theologians published a response letter, pointing out that Douthat does not have theological credentials, warning him of the seriousness of accusations of heresy, and arguing that his “view of Catholicism [is] unapologetically subject to a politically partisan narrative that has very little to do with what Catholicism really is.” Although Douthat’s criticism of Francis is phrased more carefully in his book than it often is in his columns, his eye-rolling is still apparent: The columnist negatively compares Francis to President Donald Trump, dangles the word “heretic,” and looks down on the pope’s management style. One of Francis’s favorite phrases is “make a mess!,” Douthat writes. “In that much he has succeeded.”

The outcry against Douthat has only intensified with the publication of this book. Left-wing Catholic writers have already begun lining up against him, contesting his narrative of the synods and lack of original reporting, which forces him to rely on anonymous insider details from a handful of Vatican watchers with varying degrees of ideological bias and credibility. “Would you buy or recommend a book on the American president written by a journalist who does not read/speak English, and does not know firsthand the USA and Washington, D.C.?” tweeted Massimo Faggioli, a liberal Catholic professor at Villanova and inveterate Church watcher.

Despite its limitations, Douthat’s perch as conservative gadfly changes the context of the book in two important ways. Although he spends an enormous number of words describing the insider-y twists and turns around Amoris, he writes with the mind of the columnist: The bigger stakes, about the potentially devastating consequences of change in an era dedicated to progress, are always in sight.

Second, he is not primarily writing as a Catholic authority or political pundit; he’s writing as a parishioner. This grounds the book: Douthat is mounting not dispassionate analysis, but a personal plea. He offers a bit of psychological grist at the outset, acknowledging his lack of formal theological training and identifying himself as “the good bad Catholic or the bad good one, whose loyalty was stronger than his faith and whose faith was stronger than his practice, but who didn’t want the church to change all the rules to make his practice easier because then what would really be the point?”

He is, in other words, someone who sees doctrine—the teachings, the legal system, the bedrock principles grounded in text—as the animating force of Christianity. His book “assumes the Church needs a settled core of doctrine, a clear unbroken link to the New Testament and the early Church, for Catholicism’s claims and structure and demands to make any sense at all.” This is why he focuses so intently on issues related to human sexuality and marriage: These have become the primary symbolic battlefield for “larger and more comprehensive disagreements about the purpose of the Church, the authority of the Bible, the nature of the sacraments, the definition of sin, the means of redemption, the true identity of Jesus, the very nature of God.”

While most Catholics might not disagree with Douthat’s claims about doctrine outright, some—including the pope—would likely foreground their description differently. Catholicism, like any religion, is indeed a set of principles and writings and teachings, but it is also the lived experience of the body of believers—the church, little c. Lived religion is inevitably messier than doctrine; people’s lives and human communities confound the kind of neat, logical boxes found in Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica or canon law. And Catholicism offers perhaps the richest examples of diversity within one tradition. From the folk saints of Mexico to charismatic worship in Kenya, Catholic communities often push the rigid boundaries of doctrine to find a religious expression that fits their distinctive history and tradition.

Pope Francis tends to privilege this story of lived experience and human communities when he talks about the Church. He often speaks about the need for clergy to have “the smell of the sheep,” to go out and be shepherds among the dirty, sinful flocks of believers rather than becoming “sad priests … in some sense becoming collectors of antiques or novelties,” as he said during his first Holy Thursday mass as pope. He largely favors a Vatican II-style devolution of power, giving individual pastors and bishops some room to adapt to the particular needs of their communities. As Douthat puts it, rather saltily, Francis has “an affinity for the kind of Catholic culture in which mass attendance is spotty but the local saint’s processions are packed—a style of faith that’s supernaturalist but not particularly doctrinal.”

In a roundabout way, the pope’s pastoral orientation could be read as a response to the rise of nation states, capitalism, and globalization. The sheer scale of the Church strains against the imperative of doctrinal uniformity. As Douthat writes, the Church’s influence over secular politics has declined sharply; the idea of papal states, or even a U.S. president being compromised by his loyalty to the pope, seems bizarre today. And the role of the bishop of Rome has become marketed “as the globetrotting do-gooder CEO of Catholicism, Inc.” rather than spiritual father, Douthat argues: “Each pope is treated not just as the supreme governor of the church but as its singular embodiment, the Catholic answer to Gandhi or Mandela, the Beatles or the Stones.” Francis’s solution is to embrace a flexible, ecumenical spirit, both within Catholicism and without: It’s no coincidence that he has put rapprochement with Roman Catholicism’s closest cousins, the Lutheran and Orthodox churches, high on his priority list over the last five years.

The key, in all of this, is mutual recognition—maintaining enough of the core, distinctive elements of the faith to still feel spiritual kinship across these communities of vast difference. As Douthat points out, this recognition has been historically fraught within the Church, as when Pope Francis’s own order, the Jesuits, battled the French Jansenists, who pushed a strict, ascetic interpretation of Catholic doctrine.

More recently, similar tensions over the challenges of modern life have divided non-Catholic Christian traditions, leading to tenuous truces filled with barely concealed enmity or, in some cases, outright schism: conservative Anglicans breaking with liberal Episcopalians over same-sex marriage; the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship leaving the Southern Baptist Convention over women in ministry. While the Roman Catholic Church has not gone through an analogous split, Douthat writes, “the likelihood of crisis, breakage, [and] schism [are] far too high to justify … blithe assumptions about inevitable continuity.”

Douthat admits that there is “no vast army of restive Catholics ready to march out of their parishes in protest if their bishops or pastors [interpret] the pope’s reforms in one particular fashion or another.” A small, vocal minority of conservative clergy and bloggers are deeply unsatisfied with Francis, but they are just that: a small minority.

Here again, though, the stakes are potentially larger. Douthat sees Francis’s pontificate as a missed opportunity to speak into this chaotic worldwide political moment, “to raise the Church’s banner, to offer a distinctively Catholic sort of synthesis—one that would speak to the right’s fear that the West’s civilizational roots are crumbling and to the left’s disappointment with the rule of neoliberalism.” Instead, Douthat argues, Francis “has judged his church’s conservatives harshly while confirming the fears that pushed many of them toward conservative politics in the first place—the fear that a left-wing Catholic politics is inextricably linked to revolution in theology as well.”

Ultimately, Douthat’s disagreement with the pope comes down to their competing visions for Catholic unity. Francis seems to believe the Church can best sustain its moral core by allowing flexibility around the edges of practice. But Douthat is adamant that doctrine is the moral core of the Church; too much flexibility, he says, leads not to fellowship, but fracture.

This matters, because unity matters in the Church—little c or big. Jesus calls on believers to be one flock in community together, and any loss of comity might be interpreted by some as evidence of human failure to make good on that vision. This pope will test whether it’s possible to maintain connectedness among communities of incredible diversity in a time of immense change—or whether the politics of the day inevitably lead to tribal fights among the faithful.