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A Book Review… The Interruption Of A Catholic Renaissance

April 17, 2018 Featured Today No Comments

By JUDE DOUGHERTY

Douthat, Ross. To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2018. xvii + 234 pp. Available at Amazon.com.

(Editor’s Note: Please also see James K. Fitzpatrick’s review of the Douthat book in The Wanderer, March 1, 2018, p. 1.)

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The Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., has recently issued a 56-page, richly illustrated booklet entitled Joy of Love in Marriage and the Family: A Pastoral Plan to Implement Amoris Laetitia. His Eminence Donald Cardinal Wuerl has made it available to all parishioners in the archdiocese. The faithful are assured that the Church’s teaching on faith and morals has not changed, and that there is an objective moral order to which one is accountable. While “one’s culpability before God follows on one’s conscience, [nevertheless] the decision of conscience to action one way or another requires guidance and spiritual formation.”
The booklet is designed to offer such guidance and does so admirably.
It is the ambiguity of Pope Francis’ 256-page Amoris Laetitia, the longest papal document in history, that provoked this unusual diocesan response on the part of Cardinal Wuerl.
Pope Francis, in discussing the Church’s teaching on marriage and sexuality, seems to have fallen into the situational trap. Speaking of Catholics in irregular marital relationships, Francis offered a list of mitigating circumstances that would allow the divorced and remarried to receive Communion, seemingly undermining the Church’s traditional teaching on the sanctity of marriage.
Francis may not have explicitly taught heresy, but there were doubts with respect to his intent. In 2016 four cardinals now known as the “dubia cardinals,” Raymond Burke, Walter Brandmüller, Carlo Caffarra, and Joachim Meisner, in a letter to the Pope asked for clarification of certain parts of Amoris Laetitia.
The cardinals were not the only ones to question the Pope’s intention. Two book-length studies appeared subsequent to the publication of Amoris Laetitia. One was The Dictator Pope by a Vatican insider, Marcantonio Colonna (the pen name for historian Henry Sire), and the other, To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism by the American journalist Ross Douthat.
Douthat ends his book with a telling passage that he takes from a work by the British writer Paul Vallely, the author of Pope Francis: Untying the Knots. Vallely tells the story of a Latin American Jesuit who served for years under Jorge Bergoglio when he was provincial of the order in Argentina.
The Jesuit is quoted as saying, “As provincial he generated divided loyalties: some groups almost worshiped him, while others would have nothing to do with him, and he would hardly speak to them. . . . He had the aura of spirituality which he used to gain power. It would be a catastrophe to have someone like him in the Holy See. He left the Society of Jesus in Argentina destroyed, with Jesuits divided and institutions destroyed and financially broken. We have spent two decades trying to fix the chaos that the man has left us.”
Douthat believes that Pope Francis by his reckless style has plunged the Church into the worst theological crisis in its history. Douthat is not a historian but an op-ed columnist for The New York Times who knows enough history to warrant his assessment of Francis’ papacy. He also knows enough theology to recognize the seriousness of the Church’s teaching on marriage. That teaching, he reminds his readers, begins with the Gospel of Mark where Christ says, “whoever divorces his wife and takes another commits adultery.” This vision of the indissolubility of marriage was crucial to Christianity’s development.
Douthat rightly adds, “If a rule rooted in Jesus’s own words, confirmed by dogmatic definitions, and explicitly reconfirmed by the previous two popes…could be so easily rewritten…then what rule or teaching could not?”
Throughout To Change the Church, Douthat addresses what he regards as the big issues facing the Church, namely, clarity with respect to the purpose of the Church itself, the authority of the Bible, the nature of the sacraments, the definition of sin, the true identity of Jesus, the nature of God, and the reality of Hell. These have all been addressed before, notably by the Second Vatican Council.
The retreat from traditional teaching on marriage and sexuality may have begun in the aftermath of Vatican II, although nothing in the Council’s deliberations and doctrines were meant to rewrite doctrine or Protestantize the Catholic faith. Yet the impact of Vatican II was noted before the Council was closed. In retrospect it is hard to deny the ambiguous nature of many of the documents released after the close of the council. Even Gaudium et Spes: The Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World, one of four constitutions, lent itself to interpretation, left and right, liberal and traditional.
Douthat recounts the consequences: “In the heartland of the ‘Spirit of Vatican II Catholicism,’ the northern European nations whose theologians contributed so much to the Council’s liberal voice, the Church’s collapse was swift, steep, and stunning. Over the course of two generations, much of German, French, Belgium, and Dutch Catholicism became Potemkin churches, rich in art and finery and historic buildings, but empty of numbers, vitality and zeal.” The subsequent promulgation of Humanae Vitae by Paul VI in 1968 stoked further dissent by liberal theologians and other intellectuals.
By 1970 the institutional collapse of the Church in the West was evident in the sudden drop in religious vocations, with many priests and nuns abandoning their vocations, and a drop in Mass attendance. Karol Wojtyla, who had played a significant role in the Council’s deliberations, recognized that reform had turned into revolution.
Within months after his election in 1978 as John Paul II, he set about clarifying the situation with his encyclical Redemptor Hominis. Thus began a resurgence now recognized as the John Paul II/Benedict XVI era. A Catholic renaissance was in the making, but that too was to come to an end.
Douthat sums up the situation: “Many of the legacy institutions of Western Catholicism, the diocesan bureaucracies and national committees and prominent universities and charitable organizations never reconciled themselves with the John Paul II era, as they went along with it half-hearted, awaiting a different era and a different pope. The liberal element now has their pope.”
In a playful supposition, Douthat suggests that the damage done may await the Council of Nairobi in 2088 to definitively clarify the ambiguity created by Pope Francis. He is particularly appreciative of the role that Cardinal Burke is playing in his defense of orthodoxy, comparing him to St. Athanasius in the fourth century, who defended the tradition against the Arians. Who knows, Douthat reasons, some future generation may pray to St. Raymond Burke, lion of orthodoxy, as we today pray to St. Athanasius for his defense of the Nicene Creed.
The recently published text The Paris Document: A Europe We Can Believe In, signed by thirteen distinguished European scholars, is a distinctly European document, but it is one that Douthat could endorse for its recognition of the Christian origins of Western civilization, for he too believes that the survival of Western culture depends on an acknowledgment of is sources.
Given what this reader regards as the accuracy of its reporting, To Change the Church is highly recommended for both the informed and the ill-informed.

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