The Catholic Columnist: Q&A with Ross Douthat
Ross Douthat is a New York Times columnist specializing in religion and politics and author of To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism (Simon and Schuster). Mr. Douthat also serves as a film critic for National Review and contributes articles to The Wall Street Journal, GQ and Slate. On March 26, I interviewed Mr. Douthat by telephone about his work. The following transcript of has been edited for style and length.
What led you to convert to Catholicism as a teenager?
I grew up in a household that spent most of my childhood on a religious pilgrimage through American Christianity. We started out as Episcopalians and then we spent a certain amount of time loosely connected with various evangelical and Pentecostal churches. The driving force behind most of this was my mother, who had been chronically ill when I was young. She ended up being invited to a faith healing service by a friend of hers where she had an intense religious experience that redirected her own life and all of ours. She converted to Catholicism when I was 15 or 16, and then I converted a year later.
I grew up in a household that spent most of my childhood on a religious pilgrimage through American Christianity.
My own experience, though, was less mystical. I wasn’t having any kind of dramatic spiritual encounters. I had just been sort of raised and formed in a general Christian context, and it seemed to my teenage self that I found the argument for Catholicism very compelling. To the extent that there was a personal driving force, it was more on the intellectual side of things than the mystical or deeply personal. When I converted, I thought it was true.
What is one thing about your Catholic faith that might surprise people to know?
I get the sense people sort of imagine that in my personal religious life I must be an intense rigorist wearing a hair shirt under my clothes while scourging myself. And, really, I’m not a rigorist by temperament. I have a strong intellectual commitment to the idea that church teaching should be consistent and coherent, that the arguments should make sense and that the church should maintain real fidelity to its own traditions and to the words of Jesus and so on. But that’s an intellectual commitment, and I don’t think it always cashes out completely in my everyday religious life.
As a self-described “conservative Catholic,” how do you distinguish your politics from your faith?
The Trump era has made it easier. I think there’s an obvious tension, as there should be, between Catholicism and any political faction—and the odds that any political party in any given time and place sort of just happens to embody the fullness of what Jesus would want from political engagement seems very unlikely. So I’ve always tried to be a Catholic first and a conservative second, and I always try to hold up my own political commitments to critique in the light of the commitments I have as a Catholic.
I’ve always tried to be a Catholic first and a conservative second.
For me, this has manifested itself in a years-long argument that the Republican Party should move in a somewhat more populist direction on economics, toward positions that I think are more consonant with Catholic social teaching than the actual policy mix that the Republican Party has right now or has had in the past. That’s been my biggest effort to Catholicize my conservatism rather than the other way around.
When you took over Bill Kristol’s column for The New York Times in 2009, you became a young mainstream voice for political conservatives at age 30, but also a widely heard lay Catholic voice in the secular press. How have these roles affected you?
The second role has strengthened my attachment to the church, to Catholicism, although not always in completely ideal ways. But there’s a sense when you commit to a professional role, the role and your self merge more tightly as time goes by. Sometimes people will say to me, “It’s very brave of you to make Catholic arguments in the pages of a secular newspaper” or “It’s very brave of you to model Christianity for sometimes hostile readers.” But journalism, at least punditry, is not real bravery in almost any situation.
More importantly, there’s a sense in which my professional commitment to this identity as a Catholic columnist makes it harder for me to imagine ceasing to be a Catholic than it otherwise would be. If I wrote arguing for the church to change in the way many New York Times readers would prefer to see it change, that would probably have a very different effect on the relationship between my faith and vocation. As it happens, I’m aware that I’m at The Times in part because I have these views that diverge from many Times readers. So there’s a sense that I’m playing an important role for the newspaper by defending views that most of its readers don’t share.
Trump’s ascent has exposed all the ways that intellectual conservatism is totally dysfunctional.
That’s a long answer to the second part. The first part: conservatism is in such a bad way, and it’s so up for grabs, and everything is so chaotic right now, that I don’t even know what it means to be a voice for conservatism in the public square today. In the early Obama years, when I was just starting out as a columnist, I tried to make the best case for the conservative position on different things even when I wasn’t completely sure about that position—and I still do some of that, explaining to my readers why smart conservatives think the way they do. But the truth is that Trump’s ascent has exposed all the ways that intellectual conservatism is totally dysfunctional and doesn’t really map effectively onto what Republican voters necessarily want. My sense in the Trump era is that it’s better to just send your own ideas, idiosyncratic as they might be, rather than try to be a voice for an intellectual movement that’s basically run aground.
Your newest book, released last week, examines Pope Francis and current trends in Catholicism. What do you predict for the future of the Catholic Church in the United States?
Oh, continued division and strife, probably. There’s a sense that cultural Catholicism, even as it weakens, has propped up and sustained the church the last few generations. That’s just sort of going away. In its place there’s intense devotion among some Catholics, but also a kind of increasing secularism and religious indifferentism, even hostility, to the church in the culture as a whole.
And meanwhile, Catholicism has institutions that were built for an age in which Mass attendance was much higher and the Catholic population just continued growing in institutions that took for granted their own role as important political and cultural actors. That may not be true for the church in the West over the next 50, 100 even 200 years, and that creates a lot of uncertainty about the role the church should play. Which in turn feeds internal church divisions because everybody sees their own approach as the necessary way for Catholicism to thrive in this difficult new environment, and everybody on both sides, myself included, thinks that what the other side is doing—the conservatives, the traditionalists, the progressives, the liberals—will make an already difficult situation worse.
Everybody sees their own approach as the necessary way for Catholicism to thrive in this difficult new environment.
So I would expect, as Catholicism’s cultural weakness becomes more apparent over the next generation or two, the kind of debates I’m writing about in the book are only going to become more pronounced because the stakes will be perceived to be even higher.
In response to these crises facing the church, how has Pope Francis continued the efforts of St. John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI?
In a sense, there’s more continuity between John Paul and Francis than between Benedict and Francis, in their views of the church’s situation. Benedict was sort of famous for a kind of acceptance of the church’s decline in the West. Of course, he spent a lot of time, especially during his pontificate, making public arguments about how Europe in particular needs to be called back to the faith, of how Western civilization needs Christian foundations to make sense. He made all those arguments, but even as he was making them, his vision of the church, while it wasn’t exactly the Rod Dreher “Benedict Option” vision that people have been arguing about for the last couple of years, was implicitly something in that direction. It was a vision of the church as a kind of “counter-culture.”
John Paul II and Francis have had confidence that the church can effectively re-evangelize the developed world.
I think both John Paul II and Francis in different ways have had a lot more confidence that, with the right strategy and approach, the church can very effectively re-evangelize the developed world and continue to play a major role in Western culture.
As different as John Paul’s vision was about how the church can and can’t change on controversial issues, I think he shared with Francis a certain public persona on this issue. They’re both eager evangelizers and happy to play a high-profile role in the Western media, in a way Benedict wasn’t good at and wasn’t comfortable with.
How has Pope Francis departed from the styles of John Paul II and Benedict XVI?
There’s a general relaxation and deliberate casualness of expression and action that I think is both natural to Francis and strategic. I think he has a clear sense that a more demystified papacy, a more humble papacy and, frankly, a more casual papacy is better suited to reaching people in the West and around the world but especially in the developed world. He senses that the recent trappings of papal authority, although fewer under John Paul and Benedict than in the 19th century, have less credibility—even a negative credibility—than they used to have and that what’s needed instead is a perception of a pope who is accompanying society.
Francis sees himself as a corrective to the rigidity and somewhat harsh conservatism of the last two popes.
Francis clearly thinks that both of the last two popes made the lines around morality, especially sexual morality, too bright and ended up falling into or allowing other Catholics to fall into a kind of pharisaical approach to morality that needs to be unwound in certain ways for the church to be the merciful mother that Francis wants it to be. I think this is very apparent in the debates we’ve been having in the last few years about divorce and remarriage, same-sex marriage and so on, and I think Francis sees himself as a corrective to the rigidity and somewhat harsh conservatism of the last two popes.
How do you think Catholics should engage with the modern world in such areas (e.g., divorce and remarriage) where you have warned that Francis’ approach heightens the risk of schism?
I think that Francis’ vision of accompaniment is basically correct. I live in liberal environments and operate like all Catholics in a pluralistic context. I’m a convert, I don’t come from a large ancient Catholic family, my parents and grandparents are divorced. I live in an environment where Catholicism is at best an eccentricity and at worst an anachronism. My experience of that suggests that the trick is to find a means of accompaniment that doesn’t compromise or sacrifice the truth. And that’s a tough balancing act to strike because being uncompromising about the truth does lead you to be judgmental, pharisaical, smug and self-righteous, hyper-moralistic and all of the things Francis warns about. So there are clearly deep temptations in any kind of conservative approach to morals and doctrines.
But at the same time, if you aren’t offering some kind of clear commitment to the truth, then your accompaniment just ends up being a form of enablement for a society drifting further and further away from New Testament ethics.
The trick is to find a means of accompaniment that doesn’t compromise or sacrifice the truth.
With the particular case of divorce and remarriage, it’s always seemed to me that it’s reasonable—if risky—for the church to have a lenient annulment process that errs on the side of mercy for remarried couples and so on. That’s the kind of compromise you can make—to say we’re taking the indissolubility of marriage more seriously than the secular side does, but we’re also recognizing the complexity of human affairs.
My great fear about the Francis era, which is obviously apparent in the pages of my book, is that if you take a step beyond that, if you say it’s not just that we need to have a merciful annulment process but also multiple avenues so that nobody feels unable to return to Communion after a second marriage, then you don’t have a teaching of indissolubility at all. And then the Catholic position is that [the pope is] just a sort of chaplain to the world, in a way that I think is ultimately deadly to Christianity.
So should the church just hold the line, or is there some opportunity for more constructive engagement and evangelization?
I think there are lots of opportunities, but I would be lying if I told you I had a five-point blueprint for how the Catholic Church can re-engage the world. I think one lesson for conservatives from the John Paul II-era is that you can have a charismatic pope who writes brilliant encyclicals and inspires lots of people but still lose ground culturally. And that is very apparent with same-sex marriage, where you have this very intelligent and learned natural law argument that conservative Catholics trotted out, claiming it would appeal to and be understandable by all people rather than just Christians and Catholics. And it just wasn’t: People didn’t find the Catholic arguments about same-sex marriage compelling. That failure is just a basic reality that conservative Catholics have to reckon with.
You can have a charismatic pope who writes brilliant encyclicals and inspires lots of people but still lose ground culturally.
My hope for the Francis pontificate at the beginning was that he would, in effect, make the church more counter-cultural, rather than less so, through the part of his pontificate that has critiqued late modern materialism as it manifests itself in our economy and technological life—and in all those areas that conservative Catholics don’t always say as much about because they aren’t understood as culture war battlefields and there aren’t necessarily very specific points of moral teaching at stake. But they are incredibly important: The world of global capitalism and the internet and so on is hostile to serious religious faith in ways that the left is sometimes better at pointing out than the right. And I think there was and still is an opportunity to offer a vision of Catholicism that is counter-cultural when it comes to economics and technology as much as sex, marriage, suicide and everything else.
And that was what I wanted from Francis, and part of my disappointment is that by uniting these left-leaning views on ecology and economics with a return to 1970s-style liberal theology around sex and marriage, he sort of confirmed our existing political divisions rather than challenging them. Instead of presenting a Catholicism that was a deeply unpredictable fusion of left-seeming ideas on some things with real moral counter-culturalism, I feel like he’s sort of confirmed the idea that if you have a nice pope who likes the environment, he is also pretty relaxed about who you marry and so on. And that fits into the predictable patterns of Western political debate that I would rather see disrupted.
My hope for the Francis pontificate at the beginning was that he would make the church more counter-cultural.
How do you respond to critics who say there is a certain level of hypocrisy in the ways conservatives treat this pope as opposed to how they dealt with his predecessors?
Sometimes they’re right. It’s a little tricky for me because I became a Catholic in the late 1990s. I didn’t really start writing about the church in earnest until the mid-2000s, so I wasn’t present for or a participant in a lot of the John Paul II-era debates about papal authority. So in my own defense, I don’t have a long trail of writing arguments demanding liberal Catholics simply submit to the pope. But to the extent that those arguments exist, and I’m not saying I haven’t ever offered them because maybe I have, there is a sense in which conservative Catholics have been hoisted on their own petard by the Francis era. It’s exposed the extent to which there was a certain amount of papolatry among conservative Catholics under John Paul.
Neither side is going to win arguments on papal authority alone; you have to have the argument about who is ultimately right.
Historically, I think that’s a misunderstanding of the papacy’s role in Catholic life. And I think it’s totally understandable from a personal level that liberal Catholics would find the vehemence of a lot of conservative Catholics toward Francis to be frustrating or even enraging, given the way debates worked out 20 or 25 years ago. I guess my appeal to those liberal Catholics would be to try and separate those frustrations over hypocrisy and tone from the actual fundamental issues that are up for debate. To the extent that conservative Catholics are saying, “The pope is terrible because he said something about capitalism that I don’t like,” I do think that kind of criticism can be inappropriate. But to the extent that conservatives are criticizing the pope because they are loyal more to the teaching of the church than the personalities of those who offer the teaching, the conservatives are finding a real and important consistency in the Francis era.
And if liberals want to persuade them, if they want to persuade us, then just as we failed to persuade them by appealing to papal authority in the past, they’re not going to persuade us by saying, “The case is closed if Francis says it, even if he contradicts something his predecessors have said.” I think the lesson for both sides, in the way things have gone in the last few decades, is that whatever way we get out of these arguments has to involve debating the issues themselves. Neither side is going to win these arguments on papal authority alone; you have to have the argument about who is ultimately right.
If you could say one thing to Pope Francis right now, what would it be?
Just one? [Laughter.] I would ask him to show conservative Catholics some of the same fatherly sympathy that he has tried admirably to extend to groups that are more distant from and alienated from the church. There is a sense in which conservatives can fall into the elder brother’s role in the Prodigal Son parable, where conservatives feel unappreciated by a father who is so determined on outreach. But at the same time, if you read the parable, the father does not immediately turn on the elder son and start berating him for being rigid and closed-minded. I do think there’s a way in which his tone and attitude toward those conservatives who have resisted his changes has hardened them in their resistance.
And I think there is room in his leadership for greater understanding of why many of us, who thought of ourselves as professional defenders of papal authority, have felt compelled to become critics. Without necessarily agreeing with us in every particular, I would ask him to show more understanding for our perspective and position.