Why the Catholic Church can (and does) change

Italian Cardinal Giuseppe Versaldi talks with the pope in this Oct. 18, 2014, file photo following the concluding session of the extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the family at the Vatican. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

In his preface to To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism, Ross Douthat describes himself as something of a Graham Greene character: the “good bad Catholic,” or the “bad good Catholic,” depending on how one uses the term. He was raised in an Episcopalian family that became Catholic when he was a teenager, but his early years were shaped by various Protestant circles: mainline, evangelical and Pentecostal. Now, despite what he calls his “spiritual sloth,” he is a deeply committed Catholic. Hence his problem with Pope Francis, who he fears may be breaking faith with Jesus.

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To Change the Churchby Ross Douthat

Simon & Schuster. 256p $26 

Presently a columnist for The New York Times, Douthat is a journalist, not a theologian. But he is also an astute, often insightful Vaticanologist. His retelling of the last two papal conclaves reads like a political drama. Central to his narrative is a group of cardinals that included Carlo Maria Martini of Milan, Walter Kasper of Rottenburg-Stuttgart, Godfried Danneels of Brussels and Cormac Murphy-O’Connor of Westminster; he calls them the St. Gallen faction, from the Swiss city where they were accustomed to meet. When it became evident that Cardinal Martini would not gain enough votes at the conclave in 2005 to challenge Joseph Ratzinger, the group turned to an emerging Latin American, Jorge Mario Bergoglio from Buenos Aires, though they recognized he was more centrist than liberal and not especially favored by his brother Jesuits. Douthat claims that Bergoglio asked his supporters to support Ratzinger on the fourth ballot, assuring Ratzinger’s succession.

But after Benedict’s surprising announcement in 2013 of his resignation, the St. Gallen group turned again to Bergoglio. For some cardinals, his concern with poverty, social justice and moving beyond the culture wars was attractive; others appreciated his opposition to Argentina’s left-wing Jesuits, his popular supernaturalism and his conflicts with the Argentine president. The Latin American and African cardinals liked his non-European perspective. The North Americans saw him as someone who could address the corruption of the Vatican Curia, while the curialists themselves thought that as a stranger to Rome and elderly at 77, his pontificate would not be a long one.

In his first year Pope Francis seemed to be trying to walk a fine line between two currents in the church, one more radical and another overly traditional.

His short speech at the consistory, calling attention to a self-referential church that keeps Jesus within herself and would not let him out, calling for a pope who would help the church go out to the peripheries, had something for all the parties. By the second ballot he had emerged as a strong contender. He was elected on the fifth ballot, with over 90 of the 115 votes.

The early images of his papacy drew the world’s attention: Francis personally paying his hotel bill, choosing the Vatican guest house for his residence rather than the papal palace, washing the feet of prisoners (including two young women) on Holy Thursday, embracing children and a man whose head was covered with boils, calling for a church that resembles a field hospital after battle, and suggesting that the church should be concerned with other issues besides abortion. In his first year Pope Francis seemed to be trying to walk a fine line between two currents in the church, one more radical and another overly traditional, as if he were seeking a rebalancing rather than a revolution. But his episcopal appointments began to show a new pattern: men who were pastors, many from what some see as the church’s more progressive wing. From Douthat’s perspective, the St. Galleners had regained influence, while the new pope saw his pontificate as a corrective to that of his two predecessors.

When Francis invited Cardinal Walter Kasper to give the keynote address at a consistory for new cardinals in February 2014, Douthat saw a red light. As early as 1993, Kasper (along with two other German cardinals) had proposed relaxing the rules prohibiting divorced Catholics who had remarried without an annulment from receiving Holy Communion. This would become the most controversial question discussed at the first of the two assemblies of the Synod of Bishops on the family called by Pope Francis, a synod Douthat repeatedly describes as “rigged” or “stage-managed” (though he admits they were not as scripted as the synods under Francis’ two predecessors). But his main concern is that Kasper’s proposal meant that the church would break faith with its own tradition. This becomes his argument for the remainder of the book.

He gives a fascinating picture of intra-ecclesial battles and less than edifying episodes in papal history. He raises significant questions. His trump card is his assertion that what is at stake is not just discipline or doctrine but the very words of Jesus. But despite his efforts to be balanced, his argument frequently overreaches.

Douthat does not call the church a communion of pastors and faithful but treats it as a political body of bishops, constantly juxtaposing liberals and conservatives, progressive factions and traditionalist cardinals.

While the church always strives to honor what Jesus said about divorce and remarriage, it has made pastoral accommodations since its earliest days. St. Paul did so for a Christian married to an unbeliever who separates from his or her spouse; in such cases, he says, the believer is not bound, as “God has called you to live in peace” (1 Cor 7:15). According to Cardinal Kasper, many of the early churches allowed those living in a second relationship to participate in Communion after a period of penance, a practice tolerated by some church fathers and apparently by the Council of Nicaea, though the patristic response was not uniform. The council fathers at Trent, after a long discussion, did not condemn the Eastern Orthodox principle of “economy,” which recognizes the possibility of remarriage after a divorce, although they objected to the practices of Luther and other Protestant reformers.

The annulment process itself represents a pastoral accommodation, based on the judgment that something essential for marital indissolubility was missing, while the “internal forum” solution used by many pastors today is another example of pastoral accommodation. Francis’ own views were shaped by his experiences with the poor in Argentina. As a priest from Buenos Aires was quoted in an article that appeared in Newsweek in 2014, “When you’re working in a shanty town, 90 percent of your congregation are single or divorced. You have to deal with that. Communion for the divorced and remarried is not an issue there. Everyone takes Communion.”

Perhaps where Douthat most falls short is in describing the church. He does not call it a communion of pastors and faithful but treats it as a political body of bishops, constantly juxtaposing "liberals" and "conservatives," progressive factions and traditionalist cardinals. He ignores Francis’ efforts to respect synodality in a global church and even compares him, cautiously, to President Trump, though a populist of the left instead of the right. Rarely does he refer to the sensus fidelium, with its recognition of the Spirit’s presence in all the faithful, or to Francis’ efforts to retrieve the place of conscience and discernment in the church’s life. In “The Joy of Love,” his apostolic exhortation of 2016, for example, Pope Francis refers to discernment at least 20 times.

Reception of “The Joy of Love” has been mixed. Theologians see its emphasis on conscience as foreshadowing new developments in moral theology. It has generally been welcomed by the laity. According to the Pew Research Center, 62 percent of Catholics favor allowing access to Communion for those Catholics who have remarried without an annulment, though Francis has made clear that his exhortation was not meant as a general permission for this practice. Douthat himself admits that the resistance to Francis is small, more a battle among elites than with the grassroots of Catholicism. A minority of bishops and younger priests remain critics, while many bishops in the United States, concerned about the unity of their dioceses, have remained silent. Others are positive, including Cardinal Kevin Farrell, prefect of the Vatican Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life.

As James Keenan, S.J., of Boston College, says in a forthcoming book, bishops and cardinals together with theologians in Argentina, Austria, France, Germany, Italy and South Africa have taken creative steps to share “The Joy of Love” with their people. Cardinal Schönborn of Vienna calls for patience, noting that reception usually takes years. Pope Francis himself, speaking of the efforts of the faithful to live out the Gospel, says simply, “We have been called to form consciences, not replace them.”

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
J Cosgrove
2 months ago

Are decisions being made on emotions rather than reason? Emotional decisions often have secondary and tertiary undesirable side effects as human nature reveals itself.

For example, we would all agree that we have a conscience and should let our conscience guide us. But our conscience has to be well formed to guide us correctly. Sometimes it seems that conscience means anything goes. If it is not well formed based on reason and experience, then it is easy to justify a lot of actions that lead eventually to dysfunctional consequences.

One possible outcome of all this will be the question'

Does the Church stand for anything permanent?

Or does it just try to flow with the times.

Mike Theman
2 months ago

"Should the Church change?" is the important question, the partial answer to which lies in Western Catholicism before and after Vatican II. Come see my half-empty church in which those remaining are mostly gray-haired women. Pretty ironic for a Church founded by a young man.

Luis Gutierrez
2 months ago

With regard to the ordination of women, the glacial pace of change is becoming an unbearable agony. The male-only priesthood is not based on any dogma of the faith and is in fact supported by defective doctrine that cannot be discussed because it is based on a conflation of patriarchal gender ideology and the truth revealed in Christ Jesus. Patriarchal gender ideology is an obstacle to integral human development and the mission of evangelization. Religious patriarchy is a cultural tragedy that is becoming a doctrinal travesty. It seems to me that ecclesiastical politics should give way to prayerful discernment and diligent action, because the entire body of Christ is suffering. If the male-only priesthood is really a matter of faith, the pope should infallibly define it as such, and sooner rather than later!

Nora Bolcon
1 month 3 weeks ago

Hi Luis,

No pope can define the ban against women priests an infallible dogma because there is no grounds to do so and that is why JPII didn't - he was told as much. To define this evil discrimination as an infallible dogma would be to call Jesus Christ a liar when when he commanded that the treatment of all be must be the same is second in importance as a law to God, only to the command to Love God with all of one's being. Many would leave our church if any Pope were to do this or revolt within it or demand that the Papacy be no longer considered capable of making real infallible decisions on any topic after such an announcement.

Vincent Gaglione
2 months ago

I wrote the following comment on the NY Times website in response to Mr. Douthat's Sunday column, and excerpt from his book, entitled by NY Times editors as some thing to the effect that everyone loves Pope Francis but his papacy is a disaster:

"The doctrinal, theological, disciplinary, and even political disputes of the Catholic Church have existed for its entirety. Francis proclaims the salvation that Christ accomplished and wants everyone to be in full communion around that central belief. All the rest has indeed evolved, changed, in some rare circumstances even reversed itself in the course of the church’s history. Mr. Douthat makes an easy “dime” exploiting the current variations on the themes."

On the subject of the reception of communion, the discipline of the Church on its reception has swung wildly, so to speak, during its history. My own perception is that Christ did not put any conditions, such as only the righteous or only those who haven't eaten for the past 12 hours or only those who are not divorced and remarried, on its reception when He said "take and eat." I may not be theologically or even doctrinally correct but I perceive Christ as having challenged ritualistic prescriptions and offered Himself for all, especially to and for the sinners.

Lisa Weber
2 months ago

Vincent Gaglione - Thank you for a thoughtful, positive commentary.

Wilfreda Gonzalez
2 months ago

Thank you Fr Rausch for an excellent article.

This needs to be repeated from the pulpit by all priests at Sunday liturgies until people take it to heart:

“...does not call it a communion of pastors and faithful but treats it as a political body of bishops, constantly juxtaposing "liberals" and "conservatives," progressive factions and traditionalist cardinals”

Douthat is not alone. All corporate owned “news media outlets” clobber readers with the same drumming.

At home we unplugged from all secular websites and email for Lent. We deleted social media accounts years ago. What a difference it has made to not be violated day after day with such diabolical machinations. Only in the USA do people label each other as liberals vs conservatives. Few people in Latin America even care to explore such thoughts. They are more focused on food, jobs, homes and being happy.

America has fallen into a dark place. The internet is today’s modern Roman Coliseum with bludgeoning of the other done whimsically, while others “cheer”, “tweet”, “like” and go “viral”.

Jesus Christ invited us to Communion, not separating us from each other.
It is long overdue: let down your poisonous keyboard and rage. Love is the better way

Richard Murray
2 months ago

Fr. Rausch could have been far more critical of Douthat’s serio-comical screed. For example, when Ross compares himself to Graham Greene. Wow.

But here is a far worse sin of Douthat: Comparing Pope Francis with Trump?! Is Douthat a journalist or an twisted comedian?

Michael Sean Winters at NCR has a far more accurate, and devastating, appraisal of Douthat’s idiotic book.

Recently, priest and theologians James Martin, Austen Ivereigh, and Massimo Faggioli have lined up, like good little boys, to sit with Douthat on stage. I have no idea why. My estimation of these three men of the Church has fallen for doing so. When Ross Douthat’s credibility was gone, you gave him an opportunity to promote himself. And he just tried to stab the Church and our Pope in the back. Well done, guys.
Dialogue is one thing. Pandering to the enemy is another.

Douthat is part of the small, nasty onslaught that is trying to split the Church. He and his bosses are trying to make a schism where there is none. We need more people like Michael Sean Winters to identify this clownish infiltrator – Douthat – for what he is: An enemy of the Church.

J. Calpezzo
1 month 4 weeks ago

This is a thoughtful, balanced review. That Douthat often views the church through a political lens is not a bad thing; the church is political as well as theological and, above all, the People of God are human. I take issue with the fears expressed by Douthat. But he is a product of a political and theological union that thrives on fear...fear of the Muslim, fear of the immigrant, fear of gays and lesbians, fear of taxes, fear of regulation, and now throw in fear of good Catholics seeking God receiving Communion after being remarried outside the church, or the fear of the inevitable dissolution of a corrupt and nonsensical annulment process. To me, the major problem faced by Pope Francis today is a product of the past: the failure of the universal church to implement the Vatican II reforms. The deep thinkers like Douthat do not give the people in the pews enough credit. The people in the pews, while loving the church, knew it was wrong when two Popes looked the other way during the Crimes of the Century. Indeed, unless Pope Francis takes stronger action to deal with the clergy abuse issues...past, present and future...all of his good words will be soon forgotten. Religion is important and the Church must change to remain relevant. I really believe that Jesus Himself, human and divine, looks a Douthat and Burke and others who lack common sense and courage with great disappointment. The Gospels are very clear on the healing, merciful nature of God's love, and our call to continue his work here on Earth, and oh by the way, to save His Creation for his people and their descendants.

Barry Fitzpatrick
1 month 3 weeks ago

Douthat has long harbored a sort of latent disgust for all things new, especially if they contradict his "cast in stone" approach to theological issues or those of sacramental practice. Graham Greene? And the Pope another Trump? Seriously, there is no end to the man's hubris. The book is a terribly unsophisticated and simplistic attack on someone Douthat simply does not understand because his world view is so decidedly at odds with the message of mercy, forgiveness, and love espoused by Pope Francis. The world of Douthat revolves around compliance and not around faithfulness. Once you understand that, you then understand the pettiness of his discourse and the futility of his argument regarding Pope Francis. Does it scare Douthat that divorced and re-married Catholics might be faithful followers of Christ, fully welcome at the table of His Supper? And, if so, what exactly is he afraid of? Being judged or being the judgmental one?

Pedro Henrique Quitete Barreto
1 month 3 weeks ago

I simply cannot understand all that fuss on conscience. Conscience is the last practical judgement in human action; conscience is the application of the content of synderesis, enriched by the virtue of prudence, to the specific situation. Conscience may not be guilty of its errors, but frequently it is. There is something called fallible erroneous conscience; so these persons who take communion and could know doctrine and stop committing adultery are committing mortal sins and making their path straight to hell.

I don't know how an "evolution of doctrine" would change that.

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