Ross Douthat’s book, To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism, is, as far as criticisms of Francis’ papacy go, well-written and enjoyable to read. As a conservative, I have appreciated Douthat’s writings on other topics as I have found them to be challenging, insightful, and nuanced. Sadly, this is not the case with this book.

Having just completed Phil Lawler’s Lost Shepherd for my previous book review, the similarities jump off the page. Both authors use the same news stories to paint a critical picture of Francis’ papacy. Both place the papacy in its historical context in an attempt to frame the debate. Both make the argument that Francis and Kasper form some sort of “liberal” tag-team. Both claim that Cardinals Burke and Sarah and other “conservative” prelates are doing their best to hold back an irreversible reform of the Church.  

There are some profound differences, however. Where Lawler insinuates and builds a rather damning house of cards from anonymous sources, hearsay, and rumor, Douthat’s book in comparison forgoes the foul-play and stays firmly within the realm of theory and history, punctuated by facts that even the most hardline of Francis defenders would have trouble refuting.

Douthat is less precise than Lawler about what the future has in store and certainly remains relatively more open-minded about the the direction the Church may take, even as he shares Lawler’s concerns. He also gives a more balanced treatment to both sides of the debate, allowing space for his detractors to have a voice in the book only to gently refute them, primarily through historical analogy. His seeming fairness, a paragon of the equal-time doctrine, could make one a believer in his position if not for one glaring problem: there are not two sides to the debate.

Whether it’s because Douthat is primarily a political commentator writing on the Church–a potential weakness he concedes at the very beginning of his book–or because Douthat’s conservative bent has blinded him to the distinctions that can be found in the Church anywhere to the left of himself, I cannot say. The fact is that Douthat mischaracterizes the debate over Amoris Laetitia as one between two dominant sides, a right side and a left side, a conservative side and a progressive side. In Douthat’s mind, one side is correct, the other is wrong. The winner of this debate will be determined by a political calculus that has long-reaching doctrinal ramifications for the Church, which, in turn, have the potential of tearing the Church apart.

After all, 500 years after the great collapse of early western civilization and the rise of the dark ages came the Great Schism between East and West. 500 years after that there was the Protestant Reformation. So what great civilization-shattering event will afflict us in the year 2018, 500 years later?

Unsurprisingly, in Douthat’s telling, Kasper will represent the left in this debate and perhaps even more unsurprisingly, Burke will represent the right. Having established the flag-bearers of the respective theological forces, Douthat can proceed to assign their champions. Sarah with Burke, Marx with Kasper, and so on.  Douthat is hardly as methodical as I am here but the effect is the same. The narrative of the book thus can be likened to an over-dramatization of stuffy theological debates: it is a clash of titans, a war for the heart of the Church!

The primary question Douthat is attempting to answer is, “With whom does Francis stand?” We know what Douthat would say, of course; however, he must prove it in his book. His main difficulty is that Francis hasn’t been so completely forthright about his loyalties and has provided enough evidence to suggest there isn’t an outright alliance with Kasper. Where Lawler leapt straight for the jugular without firm grounding, Douthat recognizes that he has to take a more roundabout path to justify his central claim.

Analyzing the Church in this way can be enticing, a siren call for political commentators. Especially in American politics, there is a tendency to break populations down into two dominant sides, in almost every respect. Conservative or progressive, Republican or Democrat, capitalist or socialist. If you’re not on one side you are on the other, like it or not. Political analyses based on this kind of polarization is nothing new, of course, but it tends to be lazy.  Ultimately, Douthat is wrong to ascribe a similar polarization to intra-Church politics today.

Why? One reason is because Francis himself has rejected the approach of both the “right” and the “left” wings of this particular debate on communion for the divorced and remarried .That’s not to say, of course, that the middle position is always the correct one, but as we’ve indicated time and time again through this website, conservatives’ overreaction to Amoris Laetitia fails to adequately account for the extent to which Francis actually rejects the more “Kasperite” of stances they commonly ascribe to him.

It is Douthat’s claim that the so-called “exception” will become the norm, driving a wedge between factions of the Church, between those who hold to its perennial teachings and those who wish to reform the Church in a drastic break with tradition.  Uncharacteristically, Douthat lacks nuance here. Yes, subjective culpability may be diminished in light of extenuating circumstances. Yes, in some cases, the Church’s help to the repentant sinner may include the help of the Sacraments. Yes, this may appear to be a exception to the norm.

In reality, Francis has applied an orthodox interpretation of the Church’s teaching to this particular question. Francis rejects Kasper insofar as he rejects the supremacy of conscience above the objective moral law. The Church must not give the impression that priests can hand out “exceptions,” says Francis. On the other hand, Francis understands that “grace does not heal all at once,” and compassion must be shown to those desiring to live in the fullness of Truth but, with respect to their consciences, find it difficult or impossible to do so because of their personal weaknesses and circumstances.

But once again, unlike Kasper (or at least Douthat’s interpretation of him), Francis has in mind a necessary progression toward the good. Priests must lead sinners toward the good, not confirm them in their objective sin. At the same time, sinners must be humble and sincerely seek to live according to the Church’s teachings. This is Francis’ position, clearly written in black and white in Amoris Laetitia. For reasons unknown, Douthat never reaches this necessary level of theological subtlety in To Change the Church. Rather, he is content with ascribing positions to Francis that he does not hold.

And so, a better narrative would be not one in which Francis champions the wrong side of a theological war with long-lasting and potentially Church-rupturing consequences, but rather one in which a mainline orthodoxy is being influenced and developed by a holy body of Apostolic successors who have diverse ideas about how the Church ought to be led and in what direction it ought to go. In fact, this more or less describes the entire history of the Church since Peter and Paul duked it out in 1st Century AD. Providing a bulwark against the most extreme and least orthodox positions is Francis, who is also particularly passionate about ensuring that the Church’s teachings are made relevant to “everyday” Catholics.  

Granted, this isn’t as exciting as Douthat’s narrative, but I do believe it is closer to the truth.

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Daniel Amiri is a Catholic layman and finance professional. A graduate of theology and classics from the University of Notre Dame, his studies coincided with the papacy of Benedict XVI whose vision, particularly the framework of "encounter" with Christ Jesus, has heavily influenced his thoughts.  He is a husband and a father to three beautiful children. He serves on parish council and also enjoys playing and coaching soccer.

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