Some believe that Pope Francis is leading the Catholic Church over a cliff edge, the subject of this interesting and nuanced, if ultimately misguided, book. Douthat’s credentials as a New York Times columnist mean that this is no traditionalist diatribe against the excesses of a ‘liberal’ pope. He carefully explores many sides of the argument, managing somehow, with the skill of a seasoned journalist, to sound both apocalyptic and non-dogmatic at the same time.
His principal fear seems to be that Pope Francis’s project of a more merciful church will ultimately undermine 2,000 years of Catholic tradition because of its ambiguity and lack of theological precision. At the end of the book, Douthat quotes one of Pope Francis’s favourite sayings, Hagan lío!, ‘Make a mess!’. He also quotes an Argentinian Jesuit about Bergoglio’s time as provincial: ‘He left the Society of Jesus in Argentina destroyed, with Jesuits divided and institutions destroyed and financially broken. We have spent two decades trying to fix the chaos that the man left us’ (p. 208). Clearly, making a mess has risks.
Douthat claims that ‘making a mess’ is a deliberate strategy of the Pope’s, in order to stimulate issues to emerge into the open for discussion, dialogue, and resolution. He calls this a Hegelian shift, a going beyond the Jesus of the Gospels to a ‘higher morality’ as a more perfect expression of the mercy of God . He feels that the tension between this ‘higher Christianity’ and historical Catholicism may well lead to ‘crisis, breakage and schism’, Pope Francis’s followers’ denials notwithstanding (pp. 179-181). Heavy stuff.
Douthat doesn’t question the sincerity of Francis, rather his goal of bringing about a revival of the Church, a more mission-minded one, by means of a return to the unresolved issues of the 1970s, like collegiality and a more open attitude towards the shift in sexual morality in the age of ‘liberal modernity’. Francis’s way to achieve this goal, according to the book, is a more decentralised church and a greater flexibility regarding moral issues that allows for cultural differences. The bishops of Nigeria, say, will interpret the church’s stance on the admission to communion of the divorced and remarried differently, and more conservatively, than the bishops of Germany, who are more likely to be liberal, and so on. For Douthat, however, this is an ‘ambiguous revolution’ (p. 200), that may well lead to doctrinal and ethical chaos. He tries his best not to be too dogmatic about this, but the book doesn’t sound a particularly hopeful note either.
To provide a context for his argument, Douthat has interesting chapters on early church heresies and the Jesuit response to Jansenism and other crises in the church, but in the end I feel he massively misses the point about Pope Francis. The point being that Francis, as a good Jesuit, gets up each morning and discerns what Jesus wants him to do through prayer and prudent consultation with those who advise him spiritually and otherwise. He is not dictated to either by Vatican protocol or historical precedent. One group will label this impulsiveness and unpredictability, another group will see the guidance of the Holy Spirit in it all. It is really a case of the proverbial bottle of whisky: is it half full or half empty? Douthat belongs to the half empty group. But the book is worth reading, if only to enable Pope Francis enthusiasts like myself to see a well-argued contrary viewpoint. And in a church polarised by those in favour and those against the current Pope, especially in the United States, a dialogue is badly needed.
Buy the book here.