Spare change?

Reviewed By James T. Keane
Wednesday, March 21, 2018

“Civil war.” Ross Douthat first uses the term nine lines in to his new book, “To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism.” But readers might be surprised by the identity of the primary driver of the strife that could lead to schism. His subject is Pope Francis.

In recent years, Douthat, a widely published author, has used his New York Times column and his social media presence to become something of a public scold of Pope Francis, leading to the amusing irony of a fight between the New York Times and the more progressive elements of the Catholic Church.

Because Douthat is usually careful in his parsing of complicated subjects, he outshines many commentators (of every ideological stripe) on Pope Francis who present a much more facile understanding of the issues. He is not interested in diatribe or polemics, and he is refreshing in his willingness to consider the arguments of the other side in this purported civil war. At the same time, I cannot help thinking that this book would be unintelligible to a non-American. 

Why? Because disputes within the Catholic Church are not so much about civil war as they are about internal governance and pastoral practice. Douthat is correct to argue that Pope Francis seeks to change the church. But he seeks to do so in the same way his predecessors changed it: slowly, incrementally, carefully. 

To paraphrase the Catholic apologist Hilaire Belloc, the faith is not a matter of American politics, and America is not the church. When we parse church discussions in our American political terms, we do so at our peril. 

Douthat’s central argument is that Francis’ desire to seek pastoral accommodations for Catholics who remarried without an annulment could set the church on a course of conflict that would end in its fracture. He stakes his claim on two grounds: the unchanging nature of church teachings, and the witness of Scripture. If these are not both honored, he suggests, the church may indeed find itself in a schism. 

The culture wars that many American Catholics thought were over, Douthat argues, are now at their peak. He is certainly right that Francis’ post-synodal exhortation “Amoris Laetitia” and the two synods on the family that prompted its publication have vastly increased the volume and temperature of disagreements among public Catholic commentators.

Scripture itself, contra Douthat’s argument, is not so unequivocal on marriage. St. Paul himself wrote exemptions to Jesus’ ban on divorce into his own letters (the source for the “Pauline Privilege,” which allows popes to dissolve marriages under certain conditions). The Gospel of Matthew, contrary to that of Mark (Douthat’s standard), also suggests that the marriage bond can be attenuated by circumstances. 

Nor does church history on marriage begin or end with Douthat’s test-case for annulments, Henry VIII. What would Douthat make of Eleanor of Aquitaine’s church-approved annulment (on the same grounds Henry VIII claimed, consanguinity) because her marriage to King Louis VII had not produced a male heir? Or that the Church of England’s restrictions on divorce and annulment were actually far stricter than the Catholic Church’s until this century? Similarly, the pastoral concessions of the Orthodox churches around remarriage are dismissed perfunctorily, as if Christianity began in 1011. 

Douthat uses African Catholics as his exemplars of fidelity to church teaching, but his argument can be excruciating in its superficiality and colonialist undertones: An “African Catholic participates in a religious world in which magic and witchcraft still claim cultural authority,” whereas “a European Catholic subsists in a religious landscape whose self-satisfied indifference can rival Gene Roddenberry’s ‘Star Trek.’” This is the parlance of the op-ed page, not of critical analysis, or of anyone who has actually watched “Star Trek.” 

Too much of the book reads like a pastiche of Douthat’s other writings. Chapter 4, for example, includes substantial portions of a 2015 Atlantic essay — dropped in without alteration or citation. Self-quotation is a venerable practice among scribes, of course, but this text would have benefited from a bit more shoe-leather reporting.

Douthat speaks of Francis’ attempt to “rebalance the church,” to navigate between the Scylla of laxity and the Charybdis of rigorism. That phrase might be a fair description of his own book. Douthat attempts to rebalance the discussion from an overheated rhetoric of “heresy” and “dissent” during Francis’ eventful first five years as pope, while still raising the specter of terminal strife in the Catholic Church. Even if the “dissent” these days seems to come from those shouting “heretic” the loudest.