How does anyone remain a Christian in our current modern moment? The moral implosion of American Evangelicalism in the cult of Trump, the rise of casual anti-Christian bigotry in popular culture, the continuing sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church, the emergence of a movement for Christian cultural retrenchment in the church (Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option), the revolution in gay rights in the West, and the slow slide of church attendance and religious observance seem to have conspired to bring the matter to a head. And in this fevered and often ill-tempered debate, I have to say I was pleasantly surprised by much of Ross Douthat’s new book lambasting Pope Francis as a small-minded heretic.
I certainly understand his fear that in the perilous shoals of liquid modernity, the ship of the Catholic Magisterium (the authoritative teaching of the church) could run aground. I also understand his grief at what was lost as the church revamped itself in the 1960s and 1970s — the liturgy, the enchantment, the unquestioned papal authority, the reverence, the silences and the darknesses, now wiped away into too many banal ceremonies, in churches lit as if they were a branch of Target. For Ross, as for me, the church in the 1970s seemed to be abandoning the sacred and the sublime for the mundane and the modern.
[B]ut where I have to differ with him [Douthat] is in his view that Pope Francis is somehow making all this much worse — that he is, through intemperance and recklessness, risking outright schism in the church in a way that hasn’t happened for centuries. By Douthat’s account, Francis is to the church what Donald Trump is to American democracy. He’s an existential threat.
How on earth could that be? For Ross, so much seems to come down to the Pope’s willingness to contemplate allowing divorced and remarried Catholics who want to be a part of the church to receive Communion . . . . Francis’s merely airing these questions — as well as the place of homosexuals in the church — represents to him a look into the abyss of doctrinal chaos. The fact that nothing has changed in official church teaching at all is scant comfort. The elaborate, intricate edifice of Catholicism, built and repaired for two millennia, unchanging and authoritative, is endangered. To Ross, Francis’s actions threaten to send the church drifting into a kind of lame “moral therapeutic deism” that has plagued the mainline Protestant denominations — or, more likely, precipitate full-on schism.
Where to start? First off, as Paul Baumann observes in Commonweal, the church has been, er, let us say, flexible about this rule for aeons, starting with the Gospels themselves. Yes, the Gospel of Mark has Jesus barring any divorce, period; but the Gospel of Matthew adds a caveat — with Jesus saying you can divorce if your partner commits adultery. So not quite as definitive. For centuries, moreover, there was no Catholic sacrament for marriage — it was entirely a secular thing, acknowledged by the church. The Orthodox churches — not just the Protestants — have long allowed for divorce. Catholicism itself, especially in America, hands out annulments that operate as de facto divorces like confetti. . . . Indeed if the formal rules strictly applied, and communion was never allowed except after a full confession, virtually no Catholic in America would be participating in the Eucharist at all.
We’re talking here about caring for people whose marriages have failed and who want to come back to the church and its sacraments. That’s all. We’re not talking about a formal end to the existing doctrine against divorce. We’re not talking about a second marriage in church. We’re talking about pastoral adaptation to an individual’s position and sincerity in wishing to be reconciled with God. We’re talking about not rejecting people looking to follow Christ. And that means gay people as well, people who, despite so many pressures among their peers, despite widespread cultural taboos on being Christian and gay, insist on coming to the Lord’s table.
This stringency on sexual morality — combined with flexibility on so much else — is part of what has rendered the church toxic for so many, especially given its own recent, horrifying sexual standards. When you barely bat an eye at the rape of children and come down hard on someone who left a toxic marriage, you run the risk, to say the least, of seeming somewhat lacking in moral integrity. . . . . is it really worth creating a schism over a pastoral attempt to include those beached by a bad or toxic marriage?
Is a modern Christianity even possible without the enchantment, mortality, fear, and ignorance of the past? And what we do with the fact that neither Benedict’s retrenchment nor Francis’s outreach seems successful in stopping the slow slide of institutional and cultural decline, and the emptying of the pews, especially among the young?
Part of me wants the simple certainties and mysteries of the past; part of me is profoundly grateful that the world has indelibly changed. Reimagining what faith can be in the context of modernity will not be easy. But exactly the wrong tack to take, it seems to me, is an ever-more intense and bitter internal fight over the legacy of the last 50 years in the Catholic Church.
Across every continent, in every country, Catholics “find themselves divided against one another,” writes the New York Times columnist Ross Douthat in his new book, To Change the Church. On one side stand the orthodox, who see doctrine and tradition as the best antidote to a changing world. On the other stand the liberals, who yearn for a Church that focuses on pastoring rather than enforcing rigid rules. This “widening theological and moral gulf,” Douthat argues, is potentially “wider than the chasm that separated Catholicism from Orthodoxy, and later from Lutheranism and Calvinism.”
That’s a bold claim to make. After all, the schisms of East and West, Catholic and Protestant, were world-shaking, often bloody events. But in today’s Church—and specifically in this pope—Douthat sees the possibility that the Roman Catholic Church will once again break apart.
Ostensibly, his beef is with Pope Francis, whom Douthat paints as an unyielding and stubborn manager who has spent his five years in Rome failing the clean up the Vatican’s messes, hurling insults at conservative clerics, and pushing radical doctrinal changes without buy-in from major wings of the Catholic hierarchy.
His focus is almost always on one topic: the pope’s efforts to address issues related to family. Early in his papacy, Pope Francis convened two meetings of Catholic bishops, called synods. The pope seemed to feel that the Church had not figured out how to serve people whose lives don’t fit the Christian ideal, from single moms to same-sex couples to those who have been civilly divorced and remarried.
While many Church leaders welcomed this pastoral flexibility, others complained that it created ambiguity—“what is sin in Poland is good in Germany,” wrote four conservative cardinals in a letter to the pope—or even directly violated the teachings of the Church.
Douthat was, and is, in the latter camp. He began tossing the word “schism” around. He published a scathing Times column accusing the pope of being the “chief plotter” in the Vatican’s Renaissance-court-style politics. A large group of prominent liberal American clergy and theologians published a response letter, pointing out that Douthat does not have theological credentials, warning him of the seriousness of accusations of heresy, and arguing that his “view of Catholicism [is] unapologetically subject to a politically partisan narrative that has very little to do with what Catholicism really is.”
Francis’s solution is to embrace a flexible, ecumenical spirit, both within Catholicism and without: It’s no coincidence that he has put rapprochement with Roman Catholicism’s closest cousins, the Lutheran and Orthodox churches, high on his priority list over the last five years.
[U]nity matters in the Church—little c or big. Jesus calls on believers to be one flock in community together, and any loss of comity might be interpreted by some as evidence of human failure to make good on that vision. This pope will test whether it’s possible to maintain connectedness among communities of incredible diversity in a time of immense change—or whether the politics of the day inevitably lead to tribal fights among the faithful.
Personally, I believe the Church continues to do immense harm, and not only to the ever growing numbers of sex abuse victims. Fear and self-hate are not positives and not something that will attract new adherents. Throw in the hypocrisy and outright meanness of so many Christians , both Catholic and Protestant, and it is easy to see why 36% of those under 30 have walked away from Christianity. What Douthat wants will only accelerate the exodus. Francis, for all my criticisms of him, at least is trying to look for a solution.