Ross Douthat’s To Change the Church is an irenic explanation of Pope Francis and contemporary Catholicism from a conservative orthodox perspective. It will help many Roman Catholics sort out the complicated nature of the cultural moment that Francis represents. Douthat is straightforward and eloquent. He doesn’t mince words or play games with Francis’ papacy. Any progressive catholic who would come to this book open minded will find a windsome perspective and any hardline traditionalist will probably find themselves challenged as well.
Tolkien told Lewis that he didn’t speak out on theological issues because as a Catholic he believed that was not his job. He thought writing books like Mere Christianity was the job of the clergy not the laity. Thankfully Lewis was an Anglican and disagreed with this. And also thankfully so does Douthat. Because as a Protestant I benefited from reading this. Not necessarily due to an increase in intellectual knowledge but rather as a fellow impious conservative pilgrim on this stony narrow road that the earliest Christians called the Way.
Walls that don’t reach Heaven
When Francis Beckwith infamously “poped” while president of ETS (Evangelical Theological Society) Timothy George of Beeson Divinity school wrote a piece about it in First Things that ended like this:
“C. S. Lewis once corresponded with a woman who had converted to Catholicism. What Lewis wrote to her, I would like to say to Francis Beckwith: “It is a little difficult to explain how I feel that though you have taken a way which is not for me, I nevertheless can congratulate you”I suppose because of your faith and joy which are so obviously increased. Naturally, I do not draw from that the same conclusions as you”but there is no need for us to start a controversial correspondence! I believe we are very dear to one another but not because I am at all on the Rome-ward frontier of my own communion. I believe that in the present divided state of Christendom, those who are at the heart of each division are all closer to one another than those who are at the fringes.”
Douthat converted many many moons ago. But the point still stands. The disagreements between Christians do matter but those who agree that differences matter are in more agreement with each other than those who do not. Because a non negotiable concerning the faith based on Jesus is that there are objective truths. That has always been radical to a certain degree. But in our contemporary context it’s almost revolutionary. The more tribalistic and irrational the world becomes the more differences between Christians seem small. Not unimportant just smaller. And what we have in common seems to grow bigger and more important all the time.
Objective Truth Matters
That being said there is a deep and abiding problem in Douthat’s book that really cuts to the quick of the so called problem of denominational distinctions. And that is the simple fact that the Papacy doesn’t actually matter very much, at least not in terms of theological change, advancement, or even maintenance of doctrinal purity. In the past of course the Bishop of Rome wielded terrible power. Cardinals once led armies into battle. But that has nothing to do with the Catholic faith and everything to do with the elite connectedness the Papacy has occasionally enjoyed. Because the rise of Papal centrality to western Christianity is relatively recent.
Pope Benedict XVI once wrote:
“The Vatican council represents a condemnation of papalism just as much as episcopalism. Actually, it characterizes both doctrines as heresies, and in the place of one dimensional solutions on the basis of late theological ideas or those of power politics, it sets the dialectic of the reality already given, stemming from Christ, a dialectic and a reality that confirm their obedience to the truth in their very renunciation of a uniform formula satisfying to the intellect.”
This is why the term Papist is one of derision. And I reserve it for such wonderful men as the infamous Michael Knowles of the Daily Wire. Not just because Protestants and Eastern Orthodox don’t believe in the Papacy but because Roman Catholics from their own perspective are not supposed to be reliant upon the Papacy either. The early church didn’t have priests. It didn’t have celibacy. When it held a council the implications were practical and local. But over time these things changed. They initially didn’t need priests becaue Jesus was the high priest for all believers. But the priesthood and all the other things that would come to define the broadly orthodox catholic faith before the schism were developed out of Jesus’ priesthood not despite it. Having a manifest ministration of the benefits bestowed by Christ upon Christians is especially freeing to an ever growing church. Not everyone can or should be their own theologian. The apostles created the deaconate so that they could dedicate themselves to the liturgical maintenance of the early church and the preaching of the gospel. As the church spread it adapted. But those are practical adaptations not worldview shifts. Even the celibacy requirements for RC priests isn’t really about sex. It’s because of what Paul said about the goodness of remaining unmarried for ministry.
This balance is important. Because the Roman communion does not say marriage is a lesser calling. Despite what some of the church fathers said sex is good, but only in the context of marriage. Pope Benedict pointed out Episcopalianism (not Ecusa but rather that Bishops form the church) is a heresy from a Catholic perspective. Likewise so is Papalism. The essence of the church cannot be rationally located. It is accomplished and sustained by the work of the Holy Spirit continually forged upon the anvil of Jesus Christ himself.
This dynamic nature of the church based primarily in God’s ministry through institutions instead of being based on the institutions is one reason that the question of whether or not the pope can be a heretic didn’t used to be controversial. Douthat brings up and deals with the infamous Pope Honorius whose teaching was condemned at the Sixth Ecumenical council. If you’d like to see my explanation of the monothelite controversy and it’s implications for contemporary Evangelicals you can find my graduate paper on it here.
Popes have been awful
The point is that yes popes have been awful. Honorious wasn’t all that bad relatively speaking, he probably helped spread one of the most complicated heresies of all time but it’s not exactly clear that he even understood the issues. But he also didn’t commit the church to heterodoxy. The church pushed back on him. The Pope cannot commit the church to heresy because the Pope is not the church. And so the question remains why is the pope important? Why does the Papacy matter?
It is not a smear on Douthat that he doesn’t really address this question. In fact it speaks to his intellectual honesty. Douthat is Catholic. But he is not a Papalist. And he isn’t trying to make a case for the Papacy to a Protestant. He’s wrestling with Francis as a Catholic. And as a Catholic he accepts the idea that the church was built upon Peter’s rock. Just because someone standing on that rock is saying some bizarre things doesn’t mean the rock can be disregarded.
So in the end the Papacy matters because it matters. It’s part of the content of the RC faith. But it’s not the only or even most importmant part.
Douthat brings up some really interesting issues about the modern problems connected to the Papacy. For instance it was the traditionalists who really pushed the Papacy to the fore and now it has backfired on them. This is similar to American leftism under Obama. Supporting executive overreach and expansion sounds great when it’s your guy who is acquiring more power. But when the tables are flipped that power turns to poison. And as we see in Benedict’s quote above Francis’ precursors weren’t interested in expanding the Papacy. They were interested in maintaining the truth of the faith in light of numerous challenges.
And ironically this is also a hard point from Douthat to the traditionalists. The church can often lack pastoral nuance. I don’t think he believes Francis is exactly a paradigm of this but he attempts to be salt and light in a radically different way from previous popes. Doing things like holding the hand of a little girl with Downs Syndrome while ministering the mass. Washing people’s feet. Francis chose St. Francis as his name sake for a reason. He wanted to be more like Christ and less like the Pharisees. St. Francis is seen almost like a second Jesus in church history. Some might call that arrogance. Others might call it giving yourself a challenge. Whatever else it may be it’s certainly unique.
In many ways this book is harder on the traditionalists. I don’t think he meant it to be that way, I just think they will listen more carefully to the criticisms. They take the faith more seriously than progressives and will probably be looking for any positives to Francis’ leadership. And it seems clear that the Papacy was far easier to check in the past especially before the claims of infallibility in Vatican I and Catholics’ increasing dependence upon Rome as a kind of CEO. Power corrupts. And the modern Popes haven’t been corrupt in the same vein as past popes. But it’s unclear whether or not the see of Peter can withstand authority it was not designed to bear. This is a hard thing for traditionalists to deal with because they are basically the ones who created that problem.
Throughout the book Douthat both intentionally and unintentionally shows repeatedly that the papacy isn’t as important as it’s made out to be. This is why I must disagree with him that the Catholic Church of today is in a significant period of change. It is not. The most significant periods of change are far behind the RC. The various strands of western Christianity that eventually coalesced into the RC did so most clearly after the Reformation, not before. The great schism was more of an admission about each church’s isolated evolution than a true breaking apart. Ultimately the Catholic communion as a whole defines Catholicism. Douthat is proof of that since he is not a priest but he speaks with great theological conviction.
And he concludes that the “Francis effect” is mostly a media creation. The new generations coming up are conservative. Watering down the faith has not helped maintain or acquire new members. In other words Francis basically gives Ted Talks instead of building any new technology. He himself is representative of the old liberal Catholics. And there aren’t as many of those left as most people think. In some ways this is a sad story because of that. Whatever danger Francis represents isn’t very real. Time will defeat it. The world may be on his side but Jesus said he had overcome the world. Douthat doesn’t paint Francis as a villain but rather in reality an underdog. From a conservative perspective this is a bit like going down stairs to check on a noise. You think to yourself what if it’s a burglar? But instead you find a raccoon rummaging through your garbage.
Francis is no raccoon but he’s also no burglar. He’s probably just doing his best and despite the doctrinal problems he poses, especially around divorce and re artists Douthat basically leaves us with that image of Francis. There are good and bad things about him, and that’s okay.