The Roman Catholic Church is a conservative institution by its very nature: it is charged with safeguarding the teachings of Jesus Christ contained in the New Testament and with handing on these teachings in their full integrity from one generation to the next. As the head of the Church, the pope is the guarantor of these teachings, known as the deposit of faith. And as much as the pope is, in earthly appearance, a sort of super-monarch who can teach infallibly and is answerable to no other human being, his authority is constrained by the Bible, by the formal declarations of Church councils, and by the official teachings of his 265 predecessors. Over its two millennia long history, the Church and the popes have guarded the deposit of faith, allowing for teachings to deepen and develop all while beating back challenge after challenge that called for radical change to these core teachings.
The Church’s fundamental conservativism is what has made the pontificate of Pope Francis, who passed the fifth anniversary of his election to the See of Rome on March 13, so intriguing, so unique, and, depending on one’s perspective, so exciting or so horrifying. In his first few years on the papal throne, a string of laudatory books cheered Francis’s innovations in style and in substance. But now that Francis has firmly stepped into the left side of the ring, two conservative heavyweights have begun punching back. In books of identical length, Ross Douthat and Philip Lawler both agree that Francis has not only sought fundamental change as a liberal, progressive pope, but he has also roiled the Church with his divisive leadership while neglecting the mandate of Vatican reforms for which he was elected.
Douthat and Lawler do not disagree on a single point in their assessment of Francis’s pontificate. Yet their books are very different, reflective of their respective journalistic roles and book titles. Lawler, who for decades has been among America’s leading reporters on Church and Vatican affairs, writes Lost Shepherd: How Pope Francis Is Misleading His Flock as an investigator: he presents all the events of the last five years in a steady narrative and provides analysis as he goes. Douthat, who often uses his weekly New York Times column to think and prod creatively, even fancifully, in the broad view (did you see his recent one on Demeny voting?), unpacks the much deeper issue that the workings of this singular Roman pontiff have exposed in To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism. Writing from the unique perspective of 2,400 years of Catholic history (he looks 2,000 years back and postulates 400 years into the future), Douthat sees Francis’s reign as a “hinge moment in the history of Catholicism” because the changes that Francis seeks are not mere modest adaptions. Rather, they cut to the heart of the Church as an institution “in the longer-lasting conflict over how much the church should accommodate to liberal modernity, how much revelation could be revised in light of new historical contingencies, and how closely Catholicism could imitate Episcopalianism while doing so.”
Both authors describe how Francis sought change from the very beginning: Francis was the first pope to choose a previously unused papal name in 1,100 years. The early changes brought by Francis were of style and emphasis: he deliberately eschewed external trappings of the papacy; he chose to live in a hotel rather than the Apostolic Palace; he implored Catholics to reach out to people on the margins of society; he expressed profound concern for the poor and a desire for a poor Church; he preached continually of God’s mercy; and in a comment that echoed worldwide, he said that “if someone is gay and is searching for the Lord and has good will, then who am I to judge him?” The world was immediately captivated by him, so much so that the term “the Francis effect” was coined to describe this newfound interest in the pope and in Catholicism itself. Lawler himself admits that he, too, was initially caught up in the excitement and in the vision of the new pope.
The media narrative was quickly and firmly established, writes Douthat: “Francis the reformer. Francis the media sensation. Francis the people’s pope. Francis, the great liberal Catholic hope.” Conservatives tried to reassure themselves that the media Francis was not the real one. Yet as the months of his first year passed, conservatives grew wary of Francis as he brushed aside liturgical protocols and issued teaching documents that strongly criticized free markets and championed environmentalism in manners reminiscent of the secular Left. “Turning off the lights, as the pope urges,” observes Lawler, “is not a work of mercy.”
Lawler deems the pope’s decision to wade deeply into issues of economics and environmentalism “imprudent,” for his positions “left loyal Catholics grasping for ways to interpret his message so that they could maintain the wholehearted support they had always given to the Roman pontiff.” Douthat adds that conservatives could have learned to live with Francis so long as his leftward forays concerned social issues and not Church doctrine. In fact, had Francis decided on this course, he could have catalyzed a beneficial, healthy shift: “in creating a new and stable Catholic center, [and] in reintegrating the best elements of liberal Catholicism into a new post-Vatican II synthesis, he might also decisively ring down the curtain on more radical ideas of where the church should go.” But rather than ring down the curtain, Francis, after his first year, moved left to give progressive Catholicism new life after thirty-four years in the doldrums under Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. This move, Douthat says more than once, is one the liberal media had foreseen right from the start, and one that conservatives, due to their papal obeisance, failed to see coming. And it was almost too late by the time conservatives realized Francis’s real intentions.
While also given detailed analysis by Lawler, Douthat is emphatic that Francis’s “crusade to change the church” began with his undermining—through his support of Cardinal Walter Kasper, the liberal German theologian and rival of Benedict XVI, through his deliberate rigging of two synods of bishops, through his intentionally vague teaching document entitled Amoris Laetitia, through his intimidation of critics and banishment of cardinals who opposed his vision, through vociferous attacks promulgated by his closest collaborators—of the Church’s perennial and New Testament-based teaching on the indissolubility of marriage. Francis’s chosen means was to propose a way whereby Catholics who divorced and remarried could be admitted to receive communion. Having been blocked initially from formal change by a galvanized group of conservative cardinals, Francis has chosen instead to muddle the formal teaching by inventing a case-by-case basis whereby the divorced and remarried individuals, with the help of a sympathetic priest, could be admitted to receive communion again. This move, Lawler writes, is not “revolutionary,” as some of Francis’s more progressive supporters maintain, including Cardinal Blaise Cupich of Chicago, who most recently used exactly this word to describe Francis’s new teaching. It is, rather, “subversive.” The pope, after all, is the Church’s chief teacher, “and a teacher should be clear on matters of principle.”
The entire saga, which is still far from settled four years after the first shot was fired by Francis himself, makes for fascinating reading as presented by both Lawler and Douthat. The immediate effects include a pope who publicly preaches mercy while routinely insulting his opponents; a bitterly divided episcopate; and a Twilight Zone-type situation in which a Church, whose centralized authority and perennial teachings are supposed to apply universally to all Catholics, determines the morality of an action by geography—sin now depends on whether the bishops of a particular area support or oppose the pope’s innovation.
And this innovation is of essential significance, as Douthat’s book in particular illustrates. Between the war started by Francis and the counter-movements made by the conservative cardinals, there is “no obvious precedent in the modern history of the Catholic Church” for what it happening right now. The very nature and credibility of Catholicism is at stake, for the teaching on the indissolubility of marriage has been “the basalt slab upon which every other Catholic sexual teaching rested.” This teaching was not invented by celibate curmudgeons in Rome, either, which points to a still more foundational issue at stake: “If a rule rooted in Jesus’s own words, confirmed by dogmatic definitions, and explicitly reconfirmed by the previous two popes, linked to Reformation-era martyrdom and bound up with three of the seven sacraments, could be so easily rewritten … well, then what rule or teaching could not?”
Just as he often does in his Sunday political columns, Douthat gives a chapter each to seeking precedents and speculating across party lines over future developments if the conservatives or if the liberals should eventually be victorious in this current struggle within the Church. Douthat points out that a victory for liberals is a real possibility—though this is often demurred by conservatives who believe that the Holy Spirit ultimately guides the Church and preserves it from error. The case of the heresy of Arianism in the fourth century, which was officially defeated in 325 yet lingered as a real and present danger for two hundred more years afterwards, is Douthat’s best example of the Holy Spirit not being in any hurry to steer the Church back on course. He adds that the “papacy did not turn back Arianism: Stubborn bishops and laypeople played that role, at a time when authorities both secular and sacred were on the other side.”
Douthat is at his provocative best in postulating dozens of permutations for the future, as well as in identifying the strange ironies that have manifested themselves in this incomparable pontificate: that liberals now blow the trumpet for papal fiat while conservatives find ways to resist the pope; that a pope from the Third World who preaches the Gospel of Poverty has formed an unholy alliance with wealthy German prelates; and that Francis’s ruling style and papal court hysteria resemble Donald Trump’s presidency and White House. He also has lots to say that will make conservatives squirm, including how homosexuality is most likely of biological origin, how conservatives shoulder some of the blame for the fallout after Vatican II (Douthat’s own retelling of Vatican II and its aftermath is fresh and is itself worthy of deeper treatment), how conservatives misread liberal Catholicism’s staying power, and how conservatives’ overdependence on doctrine and on the support of the two previous pontiffs made conservative Catholicism insular, stale, and unappealing to those outside its tiny cadre. Throw in analyses of how both Martin Scorsese’s Silence and HBO’s The Young Pope speak directly about Francis’s pontificate—along with Douthat’s own complete dismantlement of Francis’s faulty vision for marriage, for morality, and for a “higher Christianity”—and you have the most engaging, wide-ranging, and thought-provoking book written on the Church and the papacy in some time.
What’s motivating Francis in his crusade is difficult to decipher. Lawler theorizes that Francis decided, after some time, “to carry out the program that was favored by the [progressive] prelates who had promoted his election.” Douthat suggests two possibilities, though his sympathies lie with the latter: that Francis always intended revolution, but hid it well enough to be elected pope; or that he moved left in reaction to the conservative resistance he encountered to his early, more modest reforms, and allowed himself to be swept away by Cardinal Kasper and his band of progressive prelates.
Is the pope a heretic? Inquiring minds and eager readers will want to ask. Both authors wisely steer clear of that label. Lawler is direct: “Pope Francis has not taught heresy, but the confusion he has stirred up has destabilized the universal Church.” Douthat’s final appraisal is more damning: Having “thrown away the opportunity” to rebuild the center of Catholicism, Francis is “driving the church not toward synthesis but toward crisis.” Francis could have stepped off the accelerator at any point over the last four years, but he instead chose to press harder on the gas at every turn. In doing so, instead of creating the more outward-looking Church of and for the poor that he desired, “the theological crisis that he set in motion has made Catholicism more self-referential, more inward-facing, more defined by its abstruse internal controversies and theological civil wars.”
If the first five years of his pontificate are any indication, there are many more punches still to be thrown before the current crisis is settled, and likely many more surprises from Francis before his reign comes to an end. We can only hope that both Lawler and Douthat check back with their final appraisal when the Successor of Peter finally goes to meet St. Peter at the pearly gates. It is possible, Douthat adds, that Francis could arrive there as a hero. “But to choose a path that might have only two destinations—hero or heretic—is an act of great presumption for a pope. Especially for a pope.”
David G. Bonagura, Jr. teaches at St. Joseph’s Seminary, New York.