And in a similar way, my impression is that the most popular aspect of the Francis pontificate for a lot of young people who consider themselves “left-Catholics” of some sort isn’t all the “let’s make peace with the Sexual Revolution” business; it’s this pope’s more radical critiques of modern capitalism and the whole technocratic world order, which the young see – not unreasonably – as a kind of effective enemy of Christianity. Which is why you have more overlap between younger left-Catholics and younger right-Catholics – between the would-be “Tradinistas” and the would-be integralists – than you had between the neoconservative and neoliberal Catholics who set the terms of intra-Catholic debate after the 1960s … because for the rising generation, there’s a general loss of confidence in the whole system of liberalism that manifests itself whichever end up the spectrum you swing toward.
Again, there’s selection bias at work here: These kind of right-Catholics and left-Catholics are overrepresented on Catholic Twitter and among the writerly set, and there are plenty of young Catholics and young Christians who are less discontented and disillusioned, who aren’t interested in esoteric debates about liberalism, and who either like Francis in much the same way they liked John Paul II (without necessarily paying close attention to intra-church debates), or else like him for the same reasons that the secular press likes him – because he’s a “cool pope” who doesn’t make them feel guilty about having premarital sex or supporting same-sex marriage.
But it still seems to me that there is more genuine radicalism among Catholics younger than myself than in the recent past, and as the church shrinks and their radicalism becomes more influential, it will have some very interesting and very unpredictable implications for the fights within the church that I’m writing about and the way the church relates to the secular world.
How will history judge Benedict XVI’s decision to resign? How does Ross Douthat judge that decision?
I imagine that how history judges the decision will depend entirely on how it judges the Francis pontificate. The more like Francis looks like a great reformer making necessary changes to usher in renewal, the more Benedict’s decision will folded into that narrative as the honorable, farsighted move that made it all possible. The more Francis looks – as I’m afraid he looks right now – like a reckless pope driving the church toward crisis, the more the resignation will be seen as a kind of cautionary tale for future popes, a case study in why the papacy is supposed to be for life.
My personal view, as much as I cannot begin to imagine the burdens Benedict was carrying, is that from the point of view of the papacy as an institution his decision was a grave mistake – and I wrote something along these lines at the time, so it’s not just a reaction to my unhappiness with the decisions Francis has made. Part of the problem is the peculiar role of a pope emeritus: Having an erstwhile pope around making tacit interventions would be a peculiar thing for the magisterium [the Catholic Church’s teaching authority] even if the gulf between the two papacies were less stark and there were fewer opportunities for ridiculous episodes like the recent affair of Benedict’s selectively-edited letter.
But the more important issue isn’t about official teaching; it’s about the value of the implicit teaching that’s offered by having most powerful man in the church bound to a true father’s role, a role that goes on to the end however diminished it may become, rather than that of a politician or a C.E.O. who vanishes when he can no longer carry out the job.
I understand all the problems with an incapacitated pope, but that’s a problem that ought to be addressed first through the kind of curial reform that sadly hasn’t really happened under Francis. Ultimately the Vatican should be able to run itself, day-to-day, without some sort of pope-C.E.O. necessarily managing everything – and popes should remain pope until they die.
As I strongly suspect that Francis himself will.
One great strength of To Change The Church is its tone and its approach. It is clear where you stand, but you go out of your way to be fair to Francis, and to consider things from his point of view. And you avoid the polemical tone that has characterized a lot of Catholic writing critical of him. To me, both those choices make your argument much more effective.
That’s very kind of you, but you’re already sympathetic to my argument; I can direct you to quite a few reviewers who don’t share your view of my fair-mindedness. The truth is that I’m somewhat less polemical because I’m less certain than some of the Holy Father’s critics about the best alternative to his accomodating approach. Francis’s fiercest critics are traditionalists who have a very coherent view of what’s gone wrong in the church that folds in a number of post-1950s changes that I have long thought were either good or necessary or both; his second-fiercest critics are John Paul II conservatives who firmly believe that the JPII synthesis was the only definitive interpretion of Vatican II and that all the church needs to do is return to what John Paul taught. I am not a traditionalist, though I think that the Francis era has lent more credence to traditionalist arguments, but nor am I convinced that the last two popes offered the last word on the church’s relationship to modernity, on what can and cannot change. I think the church is in search of synthesis, and will be for some time – all the way, perhaps, to another ecumenical council that actually settles the many questions that rushed in after Vatican II . So despite my sincere criticism of the pope, a spirit of uncertainty seems like a necessary part of that criticism, if I’m being honest about my own position and the rather confused position of the church.
Plus, Francis is the pope and I pretty obviously am not. So my criticism has to at least try to be fairminded, however much it might fall short, or else I am clearly failing in my duty as a member of his flock.
What is your message to liberal Catholic readers?
Convince me that I’m wrong! By which I meant that if conservative Catholicism seems to me to lack a fully compelling synthesis, in my arguments with more liberal Catholics I often struggle to discern the promise of any synthesis at all, as opposed to a kind of ad hoc justification for changes whose necessity has been decided by the ambient culture, leaving would-be liberalizers to find some sufficiently Catholic fig leaf or some Catholic-seeming way of tacitly doing what the Mainline Protestants have just done explicitly and openly.
That kind of thing can bring along people who already agree with your perspective or who don’t really care one way or another, but it doesn’t tell you much about where the process might stop, what if any limits liberal Catholics see on how the church might change, and what place a Catholicism that still understands itself as conservative or traditional would have in their more liberalized church. And here it’s not enough to just say, “oh, dear boy, don’t worry so much about schism, the church always changes”; you need a vision for how the church looks after the changes that is reasonably a development out of the church’s past rather than just a pretty obvious rupture, or else you need to own the rupture and accept that yes, the church might ultimately divide and that division would be worth it to accomplish the reforms you seek.
Right now liberal Catholicism is betwixt and between: It seems to believe that it doesn’t need to choose between the options I’ve just sketched, because the mantle of papal authority and the cleverness of a pastoral/doctrinal division will suffice to bring resisters along, and prevent the kind of crisis point that, say, the Anglican Communion reached on very similar issues. But meanwhile, as I noted above, the practical effect of these changes is to push a lot of conservative Catholics rightward, toward a traditionalism that’s more skeptical of Vatican II than the conservatism of the John Paul II era. So at some point, if the liberals want to hold the church together they need arguments and ideas and narratives that will pull some of these conservatives back toward a new post-Francis center. That’s what I’d like to see offered in response to my book: Running the risk of narcissism, I think liberal Catholics need more arguments that would appeal, not to strict traditionalists, but to uncertain conservatives like me. Or if not to me – if I’m a lost cause – then to the next generation of Catholics who want the church’s patrimony to be alive in the church today, who want coherence and consistency and yes, tradition as well as perpetual reform.
Many orthodox Catholic friends and acquaintances of mine are struggling greatly right now. I was recently in Hungary and the Czech Republic, and found a lot of anxiety there among Catholics about Francis, though they tended to be more heavily focused on his promotion of mass immigration into their countries. Still, they are shaken. Where do you, in your own life as a Catholic, find hope amid this crisis?
Well, look, if Catholicism or indeed any kind of traditional Christianity is true, if it’s an accurate description of the world, then there is literally no reason to expect anything except various tests of one sort or another, from here until the eschaton. Is the test of a pope who might be tacitly surrendering important Christian doctrines, or – if he’s wrong about immigration, say, in the European context – making various mistake of prudential statesmanship, worse than the test of popes who were personally depraved? Worse than the test of the great Western schism, when you had three popes at once? Worse than the tests of the Christological controversies of the first millennium, when popes were not always the heroes of orthodoxy?
Maybe it is, you can make that case — but at the very least my point is that it’s not a novel thing in Catholic history to have the papacy fail in some important way, to even become a kind of stumbling block for faith. And likewise with the larger cultural situation: It’s certainly harder to be a serious Catholic in the West right now than in some historical dispensations, and having the papacy seem to be surrendering to liberal currents will probably make it that much harder … but we live in an age when Christians outside the West are persecuted on a dramatic scale, we know the history of what it cost to be Catholic in many times and places, and we shouldn’t use the real challenges of the Francis era as an excuse to over-dramatize our own situation. There will be plenty of time for misery if things get worse, in the church and the world; for now the practice of conservative or traditional Catholicism in the West is countercultural and challenging but not something that requires the sacrifices that saints and martyrs have made for the faith.
So we have room for a certain kind of positivity, you might say, and I think that needs to be present in any conservative criticism of the pope. One of my vices as a Christian who operates in a secular context is a tendency to hold my beliefs at a modestly ironic distance, to shy away from too much sincerity because it would freak my readers out. But in the case of the Francis era you need a little of that distance, just a little, because the alternative is an apocalyptic mindset that just feeds on itself.
The truth is that if Francis’s conservative critics are right, we can afford to proceed cheerfully because the fact that we’re right means that in God’s time (i.e. a thousand years after my book has been pulped and forgotten) we’ll be vindicated, and into the bargain all will be well and all will be well and all manner of things will be well.
And if we’re wrong and the pope’s favored theologians are correct, well, the theological picture offered by liberal Catholicism seems to suggest that God is so forgiving that even rigorists and pharisees and obstreperous undereducated newspaper columnists will find themselves, after a decent purgatoral interval having our cramped anxieties and fears of change burned away, welcomed alongside our more openminded brethren into the wedding feast of the lamb. So really it’s a win-win, and optimism at some level in the best way to pass through this highly unusual version of the test that every Christian generation that takes its faith seriously should expect to face.
The book is “To Change The Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism”, by Ross Douthat. It is published today by Simon & Schuster.