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To Change the Church

Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism



About The Book

A New York Times columnist and one of America’s leading conservative thinkers considers Pope Francis’s efforts to change the church he governs in a book that is “must reading for every Christian who cares about the fate of the West and the future of global Christianity” (Rod Dreher, author of The Benedict Option).

Born Jorge Mario Bergoglio in 1936, today Pope Francis is the 266th pope of the Roman Catholic Church. Pope Francis’s stewardship of the Church, while perceived as a revelation by many, has provoked division throughout the world. “If a conclave were to be held today,” one Roman source told The New Yorker, “Francis would be lucky to get ten votes.”

In his “concise, rhetorically agile…adroit, perceptive, gripping account (The New York Times Book Review), Ross Douthat explains why the particular debate Francis has opened—over communion for the divorced and the remarried—is so dangerous: How it cuts to the heart of the larger argument over how Christianity should respond to the sexual revolution and modernity itself, how it promises or threatens to separate the church from its own deep past, and how it divides Catholicism along geographical and cultural lines. Douthat argues that the Francis era is a crucial experiment for all of Western civilization, which is facing resurgent external enemies (from ISIS to Putin) even as it struggles with its own internal divisions, its decadence, and self-doubt. Whether Francis or his critics are right won’t just determine whether he ends up as a hero or a tragic figure for Catholics. It will determine whether he’s a hero, or a gambler who’s betraying both his church and his civilization into the hands of its enemies.

“A balanced look at the struggle for the future of Catholicism…To Change the Church is a fascinating look at the church under Pope Francis” (Kirkus Reviews). Engaging and provocative, this is “a pot-boiler of a history that examines a growing ecclesial crisis” (Washington Independent Review of Books).


At the center of earthly Catholicism, there is one man: the Bishop of Rome, the Supreme Pontiff, the Vicar of Christ, the Patriarch of the West, the Servant of the Servants of God, the 266th (give or take an antipope) successor of Saint Peter.

This has not changed in two thousand years. There was one bishop of Rome when the church was a persecuted minority in a pagan empire; one bishop of Rome when the church was barricaded into a Frankish redoubt to fend off an ascendant Islam; one bishop of Rome when the church lost half of Europe to Protestantism and gained a New World for its missionaries; one bishop of Rome when the ancien régime crumbled and the church’s privileges began to fall away; one bishop of Rome when the twentieth century ushered in a surge of growth and persecution for Christian faith around the globe.

But all the other numbers that matter in Roman Catholicism have grown somewhat larger. When Simon Peter was crucified upside down in Nero’s Rome, there were at most thousands of Christians in the Roman Empire, and only about 120 million human beings alive in the whole world. When Martin Luther nailed his theses to the Wittenberg door, there were only 50 or 60 million Christians in all of Europe. There were probably about 200 million Catholics worldwide when Pope Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors condemned modern liberalism in 1864; there were probably about 500 million a century later when the Second Vatican Council attempted a partial reconciliation with modernity.

And now—well, to start in the red-hatted inner circle, there are more than 200 cardinals, roughly 5,100 bishops, 400,000 priests, and about 700,000 sisters in the contemporary Catholic Church.1 In the United States alone, the number of people employed by the church in some form—in schools and charities and relief organizations and the various diocesan bureaucracies—tops a million.2 Worldwide, the church dwarfs other private sector and government employers, from McDonald’s to the U.S. federal government to the People’s Liberation Army.

That’s just the church as a corporation; the church as a community of believers is vastly larger. In 2014, one sixth of the world’s human beings were baptized Catholics. Those estimated numbers? More than a billion and a quarter, or 1,253,000,000.

Catholic means “here comes everybody,” wrote James Joyce in Finnegans Wake. That was in the 1920s, when there were about 300 million Catholics, two thirds of them in Europe.

Now there are more Catholics in Latin America, more in Africa and Asia, than there were in all the Joycean world.

• • •

The papacy has never been an easy job. Thirty of the first thirty-one popes are supposed to have died as martyrs. Popes were strangled, poisoned, and possibly starved during the papacy’s tenth-century crisis. Pius VI was exiled by French Revolutionary forces; his successor, Pius VII, was exiled by Napoleon. Pius XII’s Rome was occupied by Nazis. Five popes at least have seen their city sacked—by Vandals, Ostrogoths and Visigoths, Normans and a Holy Roman Emperor.

These are extreme cases, but even the pleasure-loving pontiffs of the Renaissance found the office more punishing than they expected. “Since God has given us the papacy, let us enjoy it,” Giovanni di Lorenzo de’ Medici is supposed to have said upon being elected as Leo X. But his eight years as pope included a poisoning attempt, constant warfare, and the first days of the Reformation; he died at forty-five.

Huns or Visigoths no longer menace today’s popes, and their odds of being poisoned—conspiracy theories notwithstanding—are mercifully slim. But alongside the continued dangers of high office (the assassin’s bullet that struck John Paul II, the Islamic State’s dream of taking its jihad to Saint Peter’s), there are new and distinctive pressures on the papacy. The speed of mass communications, the nature of modern media, means that popes are constantly under a spotlight, their every move watched by millions or billions of eyes. Papal corruption would be an international scandal rather than a distant rumor. Papal misgovernment leads to talk of crisis in every corner of the Catholic world. Papal illness or incapacity can no longer be hidden, and aging pontiffs face a choice between essentially dying in public, like John Paul II, or taking his successor’s all-but-unprecedented step of resignation.

In an age of media exposure, the pope’s role as a public teacher is no longer confined to official letters, documents, bulls. Not just every sermon but every off-the-cuff utterance can whirl around the world before the Vatican press office has finished getting out of bed (or returned from an afternoon espresso). And theological experts are left to debate whether the magisterium of the church, that lofty-sounding word for official Catholic teaching, includes in-flight chats with reporters or “private” phone calls from the pope to members of the faithful.

In past centuries the papacy’s authority survived some of its worst occupants—from the sixteenth-century Borgias to the tenth-century villain John XII, who allegedly raped and murdered pilgrims—because their sins were out of sight and mostly out of mind for Catholics who didn’t live in Rome or its environs. And across those same centuries, the papacy’s claim to be a rock of unchanging teaching seemed more solid because casual papal utterances and speculations remained personal and private, with no iPhones to capture them, no Twitter to broadcast them to the world entire.

Now, though, the pope is a global celebrity, with all the scrutiny that entails. And the Vatican has mostly encouraged this shift toward papal stardom. From the nineteenth century onward, as the papacy lost its claim to secular power and was besieged by revolutionaries and totalitarians, a papal cult was fostered among faithful Catholics, which treated the living occupants of Peter’s see in a style usually reserved for long-departed saints. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, as mass communication and airline travel expanded the papal presence further, actual papal canonizations became more commonplace. While the popes of the early church were almost all sainted, between the fall of Rome and the twentieth century, only thirty popes out of about two hundred were canonized. But two of the last five pontiffs have been declared saints, one has been beatified, and two have been declared Servants of God, the first step toward sainthood. And there will be a clamor (albeit from different camps among the Catholic faithful) for both the current pope and his still living predecessor to join those ranks once they’ve passed to their reward.

In fairness, recent popes probably have exceeded some of their medieval and modern predecessors in sanctity. But the trend still suggests an important transformation in how the papal office is presented and perceived, both among Catholics and in the wider world. The popes of the past struck monarchical poses and claimed sweeping political as well as spiritual powers. But with those claims came an implicit acknowledgment of their worldliness, which in turn invited lay Catholics to treat them as ordinary mortals—sometimes corrupt, sometimes foolish, sometimes in need of hectoring and correction, and always at risk of eternal damnation. When Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy consigned several popes to the Inferno, or when medieval painters of the Last Judgment made sure to place a tiara-sporting pontiff in the flames of hell, they were making a theological point about the nature and limits of the papal office. No matter how much power God had entrusted to the papacy, the popes’ personal sanctity was irrelevant to the church’s central theological claims.

This is still the official teaching of the church. But it is not the implication that one would draw from the way that the papacy is—there is no other word for it—marketed today, the way that each pope is treated not just as the supreme governor of the church but as its singular embodiment, the Catholic answer to Gandhi or Mandela, the Beatles or the Stones.

With this marketing comes both outsize expectations and outsize vulnerability. Just as in American politics the president is handed both blame and credit for events that are far outside one man’s control, so too the pope is treated like a minor deity, idolized by ultramontanists and cursed by anti-Catholics, and held responsible for good harvests and drowning floods alike.

Thus where the church seems to be growing or reviving it must be “the Francis effect” or a “John Paul II generation” bearing fruit. Where Catholicism is in crisis or decline everyone is quick to place the blame on failing leadership in Rome. When the Berlin Wall came down there was a rush to suggest that John Paul II had vanquished communism all-but-singlehandedly; when AIDS ravaged Africa there was a rush to claim that the Vatican’s line on condoms had somehow cost millions of lives. When Francis joined the fight against global warming there was a lot of implausible talk about how the papal aura would transform the difficult politics of climate; when the sex abuse scandals came to light Benedict was regularly portrayed as a spider at the center of a global criminal conspiracy.

As with the American presidency, these expectations have encouraged an ongoing centralization: If you’re going to be blamed for everything that goes wrong, after all, why wouldn’t you seek more power, more control? As in American politics, neither the church’s conservatives nor its liberals have offered consistent resistance to papal aggrandizement. Everyone wants a humbler papacy . . . right up until their man sits the papal throne.

And as in American politics, the centralization of power has not led to its effective use. Instead, in the years of Benedict XVI especially, the sheer incompetence of the Vatican, with its warring fiefdoms and Renaissance-court intrigues and speed-of-telegraph media operations, became the one issue on which the church’s feuding theological factions tended to wholeheartedly agree.

• • •

But here a certain charity is in order, because of the central dilemma facing the modern papacy—which is that the Catholic Church has grown much larger and much weaker at more or less the same time.

There are many more Catholics than ever before, but the church’s influence over secular politics has ebbed almost everywhere since the 1960s, and consumer capitalism rather than the church sets the cultural agenda and shapes the moral landscape for many of those baptized millions.

There are many more Catholics, but in the developed world they are increasingly secularized, while outside the West they’re often just a generation or two removed from animism. With a few exceptions—the Philippines, Poland—the deeply inculturated, ethnically rooted Catholicism that was the norm for centuries has all but disappeared, and with it the church’s easy, natural hold over its communicants.

There are many more Catholics, but they often inhabit not only different political and economic systems from one another but radically different moral and metaphysical landscapes. An African Catholic participates in a religious world in which magic and witchcraft still claim cultural authority, the validity of supernatural experience is taken for granted, and the miraculous is considered almost prosaic. An American Catholic, even the most fervent, lives and works and prays in a much more skeptical and disenchanted landscape. A Middle Eastern Catholic lives in a religious landscape out of the Thirty Years War, caught in the crossfire of Islam’s bloody civil wars. Just a plane flight away, a European Catholic subsists in a religious landscape whose self-satisfied indifference can rival Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek.

There are many more Catholics . . . but on every continent and country they find themselves divided against one another, standing on different sides of a widening theological and moral gulf, arguably wider than the chasm that separated Catholicism from Orthodoxy and later from Lutheranism and Calvinism.

That gulf exists because of Christianity’s complicated relationship with liberal modernity, which is both a rebellious daughter of the Christian faith and a rival—and essentially dominant—worldview. Every major Western religion, every faith tradition, has spent decades and centuries wrestling with how far to accommodate to liberalism, and when and where to resist. The lines have been drawn over scriptural interpretation and historical criticism, over Darwin’s theory of evolution, over church-state separation and religious liberty, over race and eugenics and human equality, over liturgical customs and traditions, over the role of women and the nature of marriage, over clothing and music and entertainment, over the importance of missionary work, over theological concepts too numerous to name, and in our own time over the sexual revolution and all its works.

On all these issues, religious traditions that share a common theological patrimony have often ended up deeply divided. The specific controversies vary with the denomination, but there’s an essential commonality to what separates liberal Episcopalians from conservative Anglicans, or the more liberal Evangelical Lutheran Church from the more conservative Missouri Synod Lutherans, or the liberal Alliance of Baptists from the conservative Southern Baptists, or the liberal Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) from the Presbyterian Church of America and other Calvinist formations.

In each case disagreements over how far a faith can go accommodating itself to modernity are now the defining lines of division; those divisions have grown so deep and bitter that fellowship and communion are imperiled or broken; and liberal and conservative believers have either grown apart or gone their separate ways. And in many cases this sorting-out, this division, has been accelerated by the way globalization has brought the divergent metaphysical landscapes of America and Europe and Africa and Asia into tension with one another, hardening and accentuating the theological differences between, say, United Methodists or Episcopalians in the United States and their coreligionists in the developing world.

The case of the American Episcopalians, and the global Anglican communion to which they belong, is particularly striking, since the entire theory of Anglicanism from the Elizabethan age onward was that it was supposed to be capacious, tolerant, a house capable of containing all sorts of contradictions, with a wing whose theology was basically evangelical and a wing that considered itself Catholic in everything save submission to the pope. Yet this capaciousness failed to contain the divisions over the sexual revolution, which were heightened by the same-sex marriage debate. Instead of holding together, both the Episcopal Church in the United States and the Anglican Church in Canada simply split, with several conservative groups going their own way and seeking support from Anglican churches overseas, particularly in Africa. (The ironies of religious history have given us a world where South Carolinian Episcopalians descended from slaveholders prefer African archbishops to white liberals.) Anglicanism’s central authority, the archbishops of Canterbury, have attempted to paper over these divisions—but those attempts have mostly confirmed that the worldwide Anglican communion as a communion no longer really exists.

Yet Roman Catholicism, which is more international than Anglicanism and seemingly less well suited to contain doctrinal contradictions, remains officially undivided. There have been small splinterings, yes: When the First Vatican Council defined papal infallibility in 1870, some liberal Catholics in Germany departed for what was styled the Old Catholic Church; when the Second Vatican Council made its peace with religious liberty and rewrote the church’s liturgy, the Society of Saint Pius X went into a kind of quasi-schism on the traditionalist right. But there has been nothing sweeping and permanent, nothing to rival the Reformation or the break with Orthodoxy or the Great Schism of the Middle Ages, and, indeed, nothing that quite resembles the breakages in Anglicanism or the widening cracks in other Protestant bodies. Instead Catholicism has found a way to contain multitudes, to straddle various liberal-conservative and modernist-traditionalist divides, with a superficial similarity in formal commitments masking deep differences in fundamental belief.

These intra-Catholic differences, as in Anglicanism’s schism, tend to burn hot with controversy when they touch on sexuality and gender and bioethics—when the issue is abortion or contraception or euthanasia, same-sex marriage or transgender claims, divorce and remarriage, the possibility of a married priesthood or the ordination of women as priests. But those issues, important as they are, are not the real roots of the debate. What lies beneath are often larger and more comprehensive disagreements: about the purpose of the church, the authority of the Bible, the nature of the sacraments, the definition of sin, the means of redemption, the true identity of Jesus, the very nature of God.

Chase the debate about same-sex marriage down far enough and it becomes an argument about the authority of Scripture generally, and whether the church’s past teachings on any moral issue can be considered permanently reliable, or whether all things Catholic are subject to Holy Spirit–driven change. Pursue the debate about divorce and remarriage long enough and it becomes a discussion about whether Jesus’s words in the New Testament are definitely his words, whether the gospels are reliable, whether Jesus could have made mistakes, and other questions that are foundational to Christology, theology, the church. Chase debates about abortion and euthanasia downward and you find yourself debating the essential questions of Christian ethics—are some acts intrinsically evil, or is everything a matter of relativized, situational perspective? And beyond that—is damnation a real danger? Does hell even exist? Is the devil just a metaphor?

The liberalizing tendency in Catholicism wants most immediately and intensely to adapt to the sexual revolution. But its adaptationist, evolutionist spirit is older than today’s controversies, and its premises often point toward a more fundamental sort of change. They would make Catholic Christianity open to substantial reinterpretation in every generation, and transform many of its doctrines into the equivalent of a party’s platform or a republic’s constitution—which is to say, binding for the moment but constantly open to revision based on democratic debate.

This liberal spirit is not just confined to a few pockets within the Catholic ecosystem, or to people who are disconnected from the institutional church. It extends throughout the Catholic intelligentsia, the Catholic academy, the Catholic theologate, and up through the clerical ranks into the hierarchy. Thus the strange Janus face that contemporary Catholicism presents to the Western world. Viewed from afar it still often looks like the most antique of institutions, a last premodern bulwark in an otherwise postmodern world, a strange ark from the Middle Ages still somehow afloat in the twenty-first century’s squalls. But then viewed from the inside, from a more intimate angle, it can seem more liberal, more modernized and diverse and permissive, than many of the evangelical churches that once damned Rome as an obdurate foe of human liberty and progress. Depending on where you look, that is: If you look in other areas, it can appear as conservative or traditional as its public image would suggest.

These tensions and contradictions are not a new problem for the church or the papacy that governs it. Prior to the 1960s and long before the sexual revolution, popes sought to suppress liberalizing tendencies, launching internal purges and imposing theological loyalty oaths, treating most accommodations to modernity as heresy in the making, and insisting on an all-but-changeless vision of the Catholic faith—semper idem, “always the same,” in the motto of Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, the doctrinal watchdog of the church in the years just before Vatican II. Then in the 1960s and 1970s, during Vatican II and afterward, the popes shifted to a strategy of accommodation and adaptation, which embraced certain aspects of the modern liberal consensus and encouraged or accepted—for a while, at least—various grassroots experiments that sought to push the reconciliation with liberalism further.

What happened after that, under John Paul II and Benedict, is a story that will be told—and told, and told—from three separate perspectives in the next chapter. Suffice it to say that both men succeeded in holding the church together, even as many other religious bodies split, without in any way resolving the deep tensions between its factions. And how they might be resolved is a difficult question to answer.

The pope, given his powers and prominence, might seem like the man to answer it. But he doesn’t just preside over Catholicism’s contradictions, he’s also imprisoned by them. A conservative pope can prod, he can exhort, he can reprimand or silence the occasional dissident theologian—but he cannot actually suppress theological liberalism without breaking the church apart, forcing a series of rebellions that would leave Catholic institutions broken and bankrupt, and countless baptized Catholics shepherdless.

Indeed, even that dire scenario is hard to imagine because the pope’s authority is channeled through structures that make a purge nearly impossible to execute. The layers of Catholic bureaucracy are no less theologically divided than the wider church, and the effective liberalism of countless Catholic functionaries means that much of a conservative pope’s theoretical power is just that—a power of the bully pulpit, a power over certain high-level appointments, but not a power that can remake the church without being balked, resisted, turned aside. In an anecdote often repeated by his conservative admirers, an ally lamented to Benedict XVI how little of the church reflected the pontiff’s intentions and agenda. At which point the former Joseph Ratzinger supposedly gestured to his office door. “My power ends there,” he said.

But it is not only a conservative pope who is frustrated by the system. A liberal pope, once a hypothetical but arguably no longer, has the same dilemmas and faces the same dangers, but with this added wrinkle: Many of the changes that liberal Catholics might want a pontiff on “their side” to institute threaten to dynamite the very theological authority required to implement them, because that authority depends for its legitimacy not just on the papacy’s aura and antiquity, but on its claim to transmit the Catholic faith intact from generation to generation, rather than making sharp and controversial breaks.

Procedurally, papal powers can look near-absolute. If a pope decided tomorrow to canonize Hitler or declare Oprah the fourth person of the Trinity, there is no Catholic Supreme Court that could strike his ruling down. But substantively the pope is supposed to have no power to change Catholic doctrine in areas where it is long established and defined. He is bound to what Catholics call the “deposit of faith”—the teachings revealed in Scripture and defined by previous papacies and councils, which cannot be altered without making the pope’s own claim to authority fray and come apart. These teachings can be “developed” toward greater detail and specificity, they can be clarified where ambiguous, they can be applied to new dilemmas and debates. But they cannot be reversed or contradicted or transcended.

This rule comes, quite obviously, with many gray areas, and a great deal of room for debate about where development ends and contradiction starts. But it still imposes some hard limits, and it has effectively restrained popes from incautious doctrinal experiments for most of the church’s history. In the Reformation era there were lively debates about whether a pope could be a heretic, and the borderline examples are all cautionary tales. Nobody wants to end up like the unfortunate Pope Honorius I, anathematized after his death for a flirtation with the Monothelite heresy (he “did not attempt to sanctify this Apostolic Church with the teaching of Apostolic tradition,” his successor witheringly declared, “but by profane treachery permitted its purity to be polluted”), or John XXII, whose heterodox speculations about the nature of the beatific vision provoked a successful theological rebellion.

The nineteenth-century definition of papal infallibility—the claim that a pope cannot err if he teaches authoritatively on faith and morals—has, if anything, tended to restrain papal experimentation even further, by reminding the pontiffs of the weight that a truly authoritative pronouncement has to bear, the requirements of consistency and continuity that it has to meet, and the limits that it would impose upon future pontiffs. (“I am only infallible if I speak infallibly, but I shall never do that,” John XXIII is reported to have said.) Since it was defined, the only explicit exercise of infallibility came in 1950, when Pius XII promulgated the dogma of the Virgin Mary’s bodily assumption into heaven—controversial with Protestants, but much less so within the church. At the Second Vatican Council, the popes were very careful to build overwhelming consensus for the most controversial reforms, the ones that lay in gray areas between semper idem and self-contradiction: The conciliar pronouncements that seemed most like developments in doctrine, on religious liberty and Judaism, passed with fewer than a hundred dissenting votes out of more than 2,300 cast. And in the years since, even when they were clearly reaffirming long-standing church teaching on controversial issues, Paul VI, John Paul, and Benedict were always careful to leave a certain ambiguity as to whether infallibility had really been invoked.

This caution reflects the core reality, obscured by papolatry and papaphobia alike, that popes have rarely been the great protagonists of Catholic dramas. For good or ill they tend to move last, after crises have percolated for decades or generations, after arguments have been thrashed away at for many years or lifespans. Circumscribed by tradition, hemmed in by bureaucracy, fearful that any too sudden move might undo their authority or shrink or break the church, they lack real power commensurate to their prominence—and never more so than in our own age of papal celebrity and Catholic civil war.

But what happens when a pope sets out to defy this reality, to slip through the bars and evade the constraints, to act in the way that a watching world—and above all a watching media—seems to want the man at the center of the earthly church to act? What happens when a pope decides that he can deal with the church’s crisis, its deep divisions, in a swift reforming march, and reshape Catholicism according to his vision?

What happens when a pope decides to change the church?

About The Author

Josh Haner/New York Times.

Ross Douthat is a columnist for the New York Times op-ed page. He is the author of To Change the ChurchBad Religion, and Privilege, and coauthor of Grand New Party. Before joining the New York Times, he was a senior editor for the Atlantic. He is the film critic for National Review, and he cohosts the New York Times’s weekly op-ed podcast, The Argument. He lives in New Haven with his wife and four children.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (March 19, 2019)
  • Length: 272 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781501146930

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Raves and Reviews

"A powerfully prophetic work whose sobriety and fairness magnifies the force of its warning. Pope Francis is leading a theological revolution whose recklessness beggars belief, and the effects of which stand to be more epochal than most Catholics realize. Ross Douthat reads the signs of these anxious times with acute clarity and far-seeing vision. To Change the Church is must reading for every Christian who cares about the fate of the West and the future of global Christianity."—Rod Dreher, author of The Benedict Option


"High-minded cultural criticism, concise, rhetorically agile, lit up by Douthat's love for the Roman Catholic adroit, perceptive, gripping account....It's strong stuff, conversationally lively and expressive."—The New York Times Book Review

"Erudite and thought-provoking....weaves a gripping account of Vatican politics into a broader history of Catholic intellectual life to explain the civil war within the church....Douthat manages in a slim volume what most doorstop-size, more academic church histories fail to achieve: He brings alive the Catholic 'thread that runs backward through time and culture, linking the experiences of believers across two thousand years.' He helps us see that Christians have wrestled repeatedly with the same questions over the past two millennia."—The Washington Post

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