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A Book Review . . . Can A Pope Change The Church, Just Because He Wants To?

June 2, 2018 Frontpage No Comments

By CHRISTOPHER MANION

Well, it all depends on what the meaning of “change” is, writes Ross Douthat, in a very readable account of the papacy of Pope Francis [To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism; New York: Simon and Schuster, 2018. 234 pp., $26.00].
Douthat describes himself as a conservative, which raises the cautious eyebrow, since he writes a weekly column for The New York Times. After all, his employer is notorious for refusing to review conservative books on its own best-seller list, as well as hiring “conservative” columnists who aren’t.
But Douthat gives an account of his conservatism as well as his Catholicism: “a child and grandchild of divorce,” he came into the Church in his teen years “because its claims were more convincing than the Protestant churches of my youth.” The reader has to get used to his terms — “conservative” and “liberal” abound even as they wander somewhat — but he gives a commendable account of them as he applies them to Catholics.
And then he considers a third way — which is tentative and perhaps coy. Because, when it comes to Pope Francis, one conclusion is inevitable: He won’t go there. Because any pretense of his being a “reconciler,” a “mediator between conservatives and liberals,” or a “good-faith referee” between them, is a dead letter.
Douthat asks the key question repeatedly: in his title, in his text, and in his fertile and informed imagination: “What happens when a pope decides to change the church?” Because it’s clear that this Pope has decided to do just that.
Douthat spells out the questions early on. Before one considers change in the Church, one must get a hold of just what the Church is. “[M]ore than many conservative Catholics I think the recent history of the church should instill a certain amount of doubt about what exactly constitutes the Catholic core, where the bright lines lie and where they might be blurry, and what the church can do without touching doctrine and dogma to accommodate the modern world. And more than many, my doubts encourage me to envision scenarios — schisms and ruptures and striking transformations — that a certain kind of Catholic tends to rule out as impossible.”
“A certain kind of Catholic?” Remember, this guy has to live and work in New York. Don’t invite the reader to slam the book shut even before he reaches the checkout counter. Douthat will consider what “kinds” of Catholics there are, and he does so in an inoffensive yet persuasive and ultimately concrete manner. The dissident reader will not find solace in Douthat’s account. Liberals do want change, fundamental change, even if Pope Francis won’t call it that.
Douthat will call it that.
“But to go deep into church history, I have found, in trying to wrestle with this era of Catholic division and debate, is to find reasons to doubt all of the Francis era’s competing visions for the church: the conservatives’ because the church has changed in the past more than they are often ready to admit, the traditionalists because the church has needed to change more than they seem to ready to allow, and the liberals because it is hard to see how the church can change in the ways that they envision without cutting itself off from its own history and abandoning its claim to carry a divine message, an unchanging truth.”
But why the division? Catholics are divided today “because of Christianity’s complicated relationship with liberal modernity, which is both a rebellious daughter of the Christian faith and a rival — and essentially dominant — worldview.”
Curious: Can there be a “conservative” modernity? A “Catholic” modernity? Douthat writes in simple sentences but the problem is sophisticated and so is he. Like many other Catholics, he was expecting Francis to be the Pope who confronted modernity and Catholicized it. Unfortunately, the weary passage of time, measured by endless exhortations, synods, and airplane interviews swirling in confusion and cunning, has shown that modernity has triumphed in that confrontation.

Of Course It’s Sex.
What Else Could It Be?

There were two synods on that family. Where were the celebrated “differences”? Sure, there was manipulation, coaxing, conniving, and lots of outright lies, but don’t let that distract you: It was all about sex. Once that was settled, the only issue remaining for the changers was, how to pull it off.
“How does one change an officially unchanging church? How does one alter what is not supposed to be in your power to remake? One answer: very carefully, and by overwhelming consensus.”
Douthat doesn’t say it’s the right answer; but consider: It’s a formula that is eminently “democratic,” isn’t it?
How modern!
And once the fix is in, the liturgical dance performed to make it look both careful and overwhelmingly popular is just a matter of engaging the right choreographers. Familiar names come, collide, and go. Burke is “out of step.” The Africans aren’t sufficiently modern. Kasper is crude but sly. Liberals are suddenly Ultramontanes, conservatives suddenly realize Popes can make mistakes. Manipulation is rife. Confusion and intrigue abound.
(Speaking of the dance: As we go to press, we read that the professor who chaired a Vatican study group on Humanae Vitae stresses that the Blessed Paul VI’s encyclical “needs no updating” — just “an intelligent pastoral plan” to apply it.
(“Pastoral.” Does that mean a rock-sold defense of the truth? Or “accompanying” couples living in sin to receive the sacraments without a firm purpose of amendment? Or, as Douthat puts it, trashing everything the Church has been teaching for centuries? We will address that vital question in depth as the encyclical’s fiftieth anniversary approaches.)
Follow all the bouncing balls, but in the end they all wind up falling right in your lap.
Surprise! It’s all about sex.
Douthat observes the notorious Fr. James Martin, SJ. In one of his many popular roles, Fr. Martin implies “that there are effectively two levels of Christian morality — one for ordinary circumstances and one for more complex cases, cases in which the moral law seems cruel or the consequences of persisting in the ordinary sort of virtue particularly impossible to live with. Under these circumstances, the higher law of mercy kicks in.”
Right. How handy to have that “higher law” coming to the rescue when the lower lust of carnality kicked in first. Sigh…Fr. Martin’s constant trope pops up everywhere: Love the sodomite, and don’t get all that upset about sodomy because, you know, God made you that way.
Now an “overwhelming consensus” about sodomy might not yet prevail, but guess what? Most Catholics contracept, right? These days that might be a tired cliché, but it works for Douthat’s liberals. There’s your consensus, folks! After all, active homosexuals, like contracepting heterosexuals, can rely on that same “higher law” whenever they tell the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” to step aside and let the good times roll.
But something troubles Douthat. “Whether in the pages of Waugh, Graham Greene, or Sigrid Undset, all the characters struggling with the tension between their personal lives and their Catholicism become neurotics in need of reassurance and sinners wrestling with grace. And if the Diocese of San Diego’s rhetoric on marriage [i.e., sex] eventually becomes the Catholic standard, then every papal document on marriage, family, and morality written prior to 1965, or 1981, or 2013 would become a dispatch from an alien religion, with a cruel demiurge masquerading as its God.”
Here we must sadly recognize an ever-present danger. Liberalism can no longer run from it. Humanae Vitae, ignored for 50 years, must be confronted, once and for all — and destroyed.
Humanae Vitae delenda est!
This fall, after an undoubtedly brilliant and orthodox Vatican commission delivers its verdict to Pope Francis, His Holiness will be urged to announce that he has found “very broad-based support” for bringing Humanae Vitae into the 21st century.
Why not have a public execution in Piazza San Pietro? It would be so traditional!

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