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Friday, September 6, 2019


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A Review of Ross Douthat’s To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism

Pity the public intellectual, especially a Catholic writing or speaking on Catholic Church affairs.  Even if fully cognizant of the truth of the matter on which he expatiates, often in best-selling books, the Catholic public intellectual is a prisoner of nuance.  Not the nuance necessary to present his subject carefully, but nuance employed to avoid a simple statement of position that risks fully exposing a view outside the circle of acceptable (or at least tolerable) public opinion.  Nuance, that is, for the sake of nuance.

The Catholic public intellectual must be exceedingly cautious in presenting what passes for a daringly countercultural thesis by American standards, which is not saying much in a country where insisting that abortion is murder or that sodomy is depraved or that transgenderism is a grave psychological disorder is now considered outré even by Fox Network-style conservatives. Like conservative public intellectuals generally, the conservative Catholic public intellectual must observe a convention of self-protective nuance in public discourse if he hopes to avoid the fate described by Alexis de Tocqueville as early as 1831 during his sojourn in America:

I do not know of any country where, in general, less independence of mind and genuine freedom of discussion reign than in America…. [I]n the heart of a democracy organized as that of the United States, one encounters only a single power, a single element of force and success, and nothing outside it… [T]he majority draws a formidable circle around thought. Inside those limits, the writer is free; but unhappiness awaits him if he dares to leave them. A political career is closed to him; he has offended the only power that has the capacity to open it up. Everything is refused him, even glory.

Before publishing his opinions, he  believed he had partisans; it seems to him that he no longer has any, now that he has uncovered himself to all; for those who blame him express themselves openly, and those who think like him, not having his courage, move silently awayHe yields, he finally bends, under the effort of each day and returns to silence as if he felt remorse for having spoken the truth.[1]

Ross Douthat’s book on the Bergoglian pontificate, To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism, is a case in point.  From its opening pages Douthat wishes to assure the reader that he is not explicitly declaring what any serious Catholic already knows after six years of bitter experience: that Bergoglio’s governance of the Church is an unprecedented disaster that threatens the integrity of the Faith and the Church’s very credibility as a divinely founded institution. The book is permeated with suggestions of just such a papal debacle, yet Douthat begins by hedging his every suggestion in that regard:

So where does that leave us? With uncertainty, which is also where this book will end. But my uncertainty is confined to the outcome of these Catholic conflicts: About the stakes in the Francis era, their historic importance for the church and the wider religious world that Catholicism influences, I have no doubt whatsoever. Whatever comes, whatever changes in the church, we have the blessing and the curse of living in truly interesting religious times. This is a hinge moment in the history of Catholicism, a period of theological crisis that’s larger than just the Francis pontificate but whose particular peak under this pope will be remembered, studied, and argued over for as long as the Catholic Church endures—and, if Catholics are right about their church, for as long as this world endures as well.

Notice how, according to the required conventional nuance, Douthat does not say what a knowledgeable Catholic must say: that the Bergoglian debacle is not some sort of high-stakes contest or ecclesial debate whose outcome is uncertain, but which could produce legitimate “changes in the Church.” Rather, it represents a reckless abuse of papal power of precisely the sort Bergoglio’s own predecessor rejected at the very outset of his self-truncated pontificate: “The Pope is not an absolute monarch whose thoughts and desires are law. On the contrary: the Pope's ministry is a guarantee of obedience to Christ and to his Word. He must not proclaim his own ideas, but rather constantly bind himself and the Church to obedience to God's Word, in the face of every attempt to adapt it or water it down, and every form of opportunism.”


An annoying “could-be-right-could-be wrong” circularity pervades Douthat’s often very acute analysis, which in spite of itself points unmistakably toward the conclusion that Bergoglio’s traditionalist critics have the better of the argument. Thus, he allows that traditionalists could be right about the state of the Church today; but, then again, they could be be wrong. 

First, Douthat correctly identifies the trend of a growing recognition among “conservative” Catholics that traditionalists may have had a point about the ruinous effects of the post-conciliar regime of novelty that Bergoglio is now driving to its final extremity:

If his attempts at a revolution have encouraged liberal Catholicism to become more ambitious, more aggressive, more optimistic about how far the church can change, they have encouraged many conservative Catholics (again, younger ones especially) to take a darker view of the post–Vatican II era, and to reassess whether there might have always been more wisdom in the traditionalist critique than they wanted to believe.

If the conservatism of John Paul and Benedict led only to Francis, perhaps it didn’t conserve enough; if those popes’ attempted synthesis was so easily challenged and unraveled, perhaps it wasn’t a successful synthesis at all; if their project of restoration still left fertile soil for a new revolution, perhaps the entire project needed to be reassessed. Such a reassessment could be intellectually and spiritually healthy, since even before Francis’s ascension it should have been clear that John Paul II–era conservative Catholicism was neither as robust nor as theologically persuasive in all respects as its adherents wanted to believe….

Exactly so!  But then Douthat quickly retreats to the safety of rhetorical Switzerland:

But that seems too optimistic. If this reassessment is happening against the backdrop of constant progressive pressure, a constant sense that a liberal revolution backed in Rome is advancing on all fronts, it’s more likely to inspire a purely reactive sensibility, and with it the abandonment of any hope of a new center for the late-modern church.

A “new center for the late-modern Church”?  The Magisterium does not periodically re-center her immutable teaching on faith and morals to realign with some moving point of consensus.  Only purely human institutions, such as the mainline Protestant sects, have done that, thereby undergoing a moral and spiritual collapse.  And what is wrong with a “reactive sensibility” when the reaction is to remedy a disaster by restoring what has been wrecked precisely by “constant progressive pressure” over the past sixty years of ecclesial decline?

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Douthat adds that a restoration “is what traditionalists themselves believe is necessary—a simple rejection of modernism and all its pomps and works and empty promises, which would eventually carve away much of the post–Vatican II church as you would cleave a rotten branch…” In this, he admits, “They could be right, but”—quickly preserving his public intellectual cred—“the history of counterrevolutions makes this counsel seem doubtful; the genuine rigidity and cruelty that afflicted the pre–Vatican II church make it seem less than desirable.”

What cruelty, what rigidity does Douthat see in the “pre-Vatican II Church” to which he, a 39-year-old who converted in his teens, never belonged and of which he has experienced absolutely nothing? Moreover, what could be crueler and more rigid than the iron-fisted implementation of the disastrous postconciliar “reforms,” kept in place only by the exercise of raw power in structures that are collapsing like a termite-infested house?  Here Douthat unquestioningly adopts the neo-Catholic bromide that a hidebound “fortress Church” was freed from her moribund condition by the Council’s exciting new presentation of the Faith in way that now, at last, the world would surely admire. He does not trouble himself to provide any evidence for this grave accusation against the Church before the Council. Suffice it to recite the bromide as a hedge against the fatal accusation of “radical traditionalism.”

Another annoying aspect of the book is Douthat’s thematic presentation of the acute aggravation of the postconciliar crisis triggered by this pontificate as a binary conflict between “liberal and conservative believers.” First of all, there are no “liberal believers” as liberalism is radically incompatible with a Faith that does not change.   Douthat even supposes that a function of the Pope is to “preside over Catholicism’s contradictions,” meaning the debate between liberals and conservatives he seems to think is the ordinary dynamic of ecclesial existence.  But Douthat seems not to have noticed that there was no “liberal” or “conservative” constituency in the Church before the Council opened the way to unprecedented fault lines in the ecclesial commonwealth. Every member of the faithful before the Council was what is called a traditionalist today. Today’s traditionalist is just a Catholic who has declined to embrace any of the ecclesial novelties of the past 60 years because neither the Council nor any other Church authority, the conciliar Popes included, has obliged the faithful to adhere to a single one of them.  The “Church of Vatican II” is, and always has been, a Great Façade of pastoral and pseudo-doctrinal novelties (e.g., “ecumenism,” “dialogue,” “collegiality”) that have no claim on the Catholic conscience.

Douthat asks: “What happens when a pope decides to change the Church?”  The correct answer is that nothing happens—nothing to the supernatural Church, that is, as opposed to her human element, which can only suffer the confusion and division we have witnessed since the Council.  For that reason, nothing has happened to traditionalism, for traditionalism is simply the Faith of all time. Douthat’s often acute analysis of the Bergoglian debacle studiously avoids the conclusion that it arises precisely and only outside what has always been the traditionalist mainstream, which has maintained unbroken continuity with the past while the liberals and conservatives battle each other over how much ecclesial revolution is acceptable.  But now a growing number of conservatives, like the Mensheviks after the Revolution of 1917, are coming to recognize that the ecclesial Revolution of 1962 has gone too far under this Leninist papacy. Douthat, however, hangs back in the tall grass of nuanced assessments that end up going nowhere.

chris douthat quote

Traditionalists are relegated to outlier status in Douthat’s analysis, mere third-party intervenors at the margins of the “debate” or “civil war” between the two main factions of the conservatives and the liberals.  In Chapter 2, Douthat tells “three stories” about what happened in the Church after the Council: First, the liberals’ story of a joyous and unalloyed “springtime” for the Church. Second, the conservatives’ story of a successful “synthesis” that moderated the harmful excesses of the Sixties and Seventies to produce an outcome that was “conservative, but modern, rooted in tradition but not traditionalist.” Anything but traditionalist!

The third story—the one that Douthat’s wishes to “make true”—is that of an emergent, uneasy coexistence between liberals and conservatives in which “neither faction in the Church’s civil war can claim to have delivered Catholicism out of the crisis.” The liberals are, of course, too liberal, but the conservatives, with their “counterculture,” including “small colleges and publishing houses and start-up religious orders,” are prey to “many of the faults to which countercultures are heir.”  

The nuances are piling up here.  But what do they really mean?  What exactly are the faults the conservative counterculture is heir to? These apparently include “self-enclosure and embattlement,” which Douthat links vaguely and unpersuasively to the conservatives’ failure to “grasp the scope of the sex abuse crisis,” their unwillingness “to criticize a hierarchy that they needed on their side” and the failure promptly to “recognize the vipers and con men and false mystics in their midst.”   But these are the faults of moderate liberals who have compromised with radical liberals and thus cannot effectively oppose the radicals with whom they have signed a peace treaty and on whose good graces they depend precisely because they are not self-enclosed but rather inserted juridically and, in general, physically into the widely corrupted diocesan structures.

What, then, of the traditionalist story—the story of the Catholics who simply did not change and refused to compromise with the radicals or their revolution?  Douthat essentially buries their story in that of the conservatives, relying on John Zmirak to calumniate conservative and traditionalist communities alike as lacking “a critical mass of, well, normal people…” (p. 30) How is it that Catholics on the ecclesial “Right” are always depicted as kooks by commentators like Douthat and Zmirak while the lunatics on the ecclesial “Left,” who have attacked the Church for more than half a century while raving about a hallucinatory springtime, never have their sanity questioned?

Douthat fails (or refuses) to tell the one story that really is true, as our own senses confirm:  that in the postconciliar epoch ecclesial dissolution and loss of faith have been avoided only by holding fast to what has been handed down and by restoring that divinely bestowed patrimony whenever and wherever it is compromised, not by a “synthesis” of “liberal” and “conservative” Catholicism, neither of which existed as constituencies in the Church for the first 1,962 years of her history.  

Douthat does air the thesis that Bergoglio’s pontificate is a disaster, but always with the conventionally required avoidance of a definite position on the matter.  In his final chapter on “The Francis Legacy,” he presents a masterful and quite devastating summary of the dire implications of departing from Our Lord’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage by allowing the divorced and “remarried” to partake of the Blessed Sacrament (cf. pp. 178-180), as Bergoglio alone among all the Popes would have it.  He concludes by observing that if Bergoglio’s novelty, already adopted in such places as the Diocese of San Diego, were to become “the Catholic standard” then “every papal encyclical written prior to 1965, or 1981, or 2013, would become a dispatch from an alien religion, with a cruel demiurge masquerading as its god.” (p. 181). 

But, immediately following this powerful statement, and nearing his uncertain conclusion, Douthat hastens to avoid committing himself to the truth he so compellingly presents lest he be accused of “extremism”—the death of any public intellectual’s career if he be a conservative of any sort:

What I’m suggesting here sounds extreme, and perhaps it is. Perhaps this fear of auto-demolition is like the fears of Jansenists four hundred years ago, and eventually it will be clear that Catholic Christianity can synthesize the vision of Walter Kasper with two thousand years of Catholic history, that the liberal vision and the core of New Testament morality are far more compatible than my journalist’s analysis implies. I am sure that most of Pope Francis’s admirers sincerely believe this to be true. I am aware that they may be proven right. (p. 181)

Come off it, Mr. Douthat.  If the Church was divinely founded by a God who does not change His mind or hide the truth for centuries, there is no possibility of any “synthesis” of a Modernist German cardinal’s 21st-century heresies with “two thousand years of Catholic history,” nor any possibility that a newfangled “liberal vision” of the “core of New Testament morality” could be right and that “every papal encyclical written prior to 1965” could be wrong. 

Douthat surely knows this.  Yet he evidently feels compelled to adopt a rhetorical pose of incertitude. Or is it a pose?  Does Douthat actually doubt the divine institution of the Church and thus the impossibility of doctrinal reversals?  It seems that he does. Nothing in the book indicates that he has surpassed the “spiritual struggles [that] influence my analysis of Pope Francis’s tumultuous reign.” Quite the contrary, he admits that while he “will die a Catholic,” the course of this pontificate has “added to my always ample doubts…” Meaning that he is not willing to state plainly that Bergoglio is actually wrong about anything or that any Church teaching is definitively immune from tampering by a wayward Pope like this one.

But what does this say about Douthat’s understanding of a divinely guided depositum fidei that can never involve repeal of constant teaching or self-contradiction?  If he does not have an unshakeable confidence in that deposit’s absolute diachronic consistency, such that nothing Bergoglio (or any other Pope) says or does to the contrary could have any part in it, how can he really believe in the Church as an object of divine and Catholic faith?

Even after he lays bare the ruinous consequences of Bergoglio’s novelties in the final chapter, Douthat still refrains from taking a stand against them.  Worse, he allows that Bergoglio might be right about everything after all: “So yes, the story could end with Francis as its hero. But to choose a path that might have only two destinations—hero or heretic—is an act of great and dangerous presumption, even for a pope. Especially for a pope.”  A Catholic who doesn’t know whether a Pope who attempts to change the Church’s constant teaching on faith and morals to suit his personal opinion is a hero or a heretic is a Catholic who should not be writing books about that Pope. It would be better for Ross Douthat to keep his “spiritual struggles” and “always ample doubts” to himself until he figures out what the Church really claims to be and whether he believes that claim.


[1]Democracy in America, I.II.7..

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Last modified on Saturday, September 7, 2019
Christopher A. Ferrara

Christopher A. Ferrara: President and lead counsel for the American Catholic Lawyers Inc., Mr. Ferrara has been at the forefront of the legal defense of pro-lifers for the better part of a quarter century. Having served with the legal team for high profile victims of the culture of death such as Terri Schiavo, he has long since distinguished him a premier civil rights Catholic lawyer.  Mr. Ferrara has been a lead columnist for The Remnant since 2000 and has authored several books published by The Remnant Press, including the bestseller The Great Façade. Together with his children and wife, Wendy, he lives in Richmond, Virginia.