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A Book Review . . . The Real Roots Of The Debate Over “Francis’ Style”

February 27, 2018 Featured Today No Comments

To Change the Church, by Ross Douthat, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2018. Available for preorder on

I didn’t expect to react well to Ross Douthat’s book on the papacy of Pope Francis. Douthat is an op-ed columnist for The New York Times. I assumed that he would be one of the “house Catholics” used by the Times over the years to promote their secular liberal agenda. That is not the case with his treatment of Pope Francis. The Times is a fan of Francis’ public statements. Douthat not so much.
Not that Douthat harbors an animus against the Pope. He does not see Francis as some extreme critics do, as the anti-Christ or an agent of a Masonic or Marxist conspiracy. In fact, he is sympathetic to what Francis is seeking to do, which Douthat describes as a mission “ever in search of the prodigal, the one lost sheep,” including a willingness to downplay “both liturgical rules and doctrinal correctness (on contested moral issues, but also theological questions generally)” when faced with “the imperative to go out, to encounter, to embrace.” He also favors the Pope’s position on economic and political matters.
Douthat sees “Francis’ style” as one which runs the risk of “muddying the clarity of doctrine” but which is “potentially more attuned to the complexities of the church’s relationship to the liberal, the dissenting and the lapsed,” who in many cases are “still intensely practicing their faith, still sacrificing for the church even if they have rejected various teachings and feel disappointed that Rome does not see their point of view.”
What could be wrong with seeking a way to find a middle ground that would permit these Catholics to feel at home in the Church, including receiving Communion?
Lots, says Douthat. And he makes his case well. He notes that the dispute over Francis’ policies centers on “abortion or contraception or euthanasia, same-sex marriage or transgender claims, divorce and remarriage, the possibility of a married priesthood or the ordination of women as priests.” But, he argues, “those issues, important as they are, are not the real roots of the debate.”
What lies beneath the surface “are quite often larger and more comprehensive disagreements: about the purpose of the church, the authority of Scripture, the nature of the sacraments, the definition of sin, the means of redemption, the true identity of Jesus, the very nature of God.”
Douthat observes that if you “chase the debate about same-sex marriage down far enough, it becomes an argument about the authority of Scripture generally, and whether the church’s past teachings on any moral issue can be considered permanently reliable, on whether all things Catholic are subject to Holy Spirit-driven change.”
Beyond that, if we “pursue the debate about divorce and remarriage long enough, it becomes a discussion about whether Jesus’ words in the New Testament are definitely his words, whether the gospels are reliable, whether Jesus could have made mistakes.”
The bottom line: The “liberalizing tendency in Catholicism,” specifically its “adaptationist, evolutionist spirit,” will not be satisfied with victories over same-sex marriage and permitting divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion. The goal of many of those who applaud Pope Francis, whether Francis agrees with them or not, is to “make Catholic Christianity open to substantial reinterpretation in every generation, and transform many of its doctrines into the equivalent of a party’s platform.”
At the heart of the liberal impulse, then, Douthat continues, is the “idea that God’s revelation is perpetually unfolding in history, and that therefore it is a mistake to consider Catholicism a closed system in which questions were settled permanently. The liberal Protestant line, ‘never put a period where God has put a comma,’ is the basic presupposition for liberal Catholicism: Nothing, save Christ’s divinity and not necessarily even that, should be closed to debate.”
I don’t think Douthat is overstating the case.
The liberals tell us, in Douthat’s words, that “Jesus was constantly willing to go beyond the law…in the service of human needs”; that He “acted to lift the burden and relieve the suffering — healing on the Sabbath, embracing the unclean, sweeping away dietary regulations and other rituals that made people believe themselves defiled.” The conclusion drawn by the liberals is that the “church that Jesus founded should do the same: Just as Jesus transcended Jewish legalism, Catholicism under Pope Francis must transcend its own legalities for the sake of a higher Christianity.”
Douthat sees the thumb on the scale in the above proposition: Jesus’ anger was directed “against the ritual law of first-century Judaism — the rules related to purity, diet Sabbath observance.” But “the moral law, the Ten Commandments and their corollaries, Jesus never qualifies or relativizes. He never suggests that there exists some shades-of-gray world in which apostasy or adultery (or fraud or murder or theft or gluttony or any other sin) are part of God’s complicated plan.”
Specifically, “Jesus’s mercy isn’t absolute.” He “doesn’t urge Peter to ‘go ahead betray me, I understand’.” He doesn’t tell the women taken in adultery, “go back to your lover, because your situation is complex.” Jesus “dines with sinners, he hangs out with prostitutes and publicans . . . he welcomes thieves into eternity. But he never confirms them in their sins, or makes nuanced allowances for their state of life; that sort of rhetoric is alien to the gospels.”
Douthat doesn’t stop there. He asks why Jesus, “so confident in overturning traditions and scandalizing audiences” didn’t “give us some scriptural hint that sometimes committing what seems objectively like a sin is fine, or even necessary?” Why He left “us to labor for two thousand years with the idea that taking up the cross requires accepting suffering, sometimes extraordinary suffering, if the truth is that there is no need to even abstain from communion when you break the moral law?”
If “God wills the suspension of his own law when things get particularly difficult or complicated, whenever too much emotional or physical suffering would be imposed, from the point of view of every Christian who ever suffered or even died for the sake of their hardest passages, the gospels look less like a revelation than a somewhat cruel trick.”
In the vision of those who call for a more lenient stance toward Church doctrines on divorced Catholics receiving Communion, “St. Thomas More becomes a Pharisee, the Council of Trent an exercise in misguided zealotry, the church’s ancient elevation of celibacy, a needless imposition on the ordinary Christian. The implicit logic makes much of Catholic literature incomprehensibly strange: Whether in the pages of Waugh or Graham Greene or Sigrid Undset, all the characters struggling with the tension between their private lives and their Catholicism become neurotics in need of reassurance, not sinners wrestling with grace.”
Bull’s eye! And there is much more in the same vein in To Change the Church. Take a look. You won’t be disappointed.

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