Sunday, April 15, 2018

Ross Douthat's "To Change the Church: Pope Francis + the Future of Catholicism": Book Review

To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism by [Douthat, Ross]As the token Catholic/ conservative columnist for the NY Times, Ross Douthat, is a journalist I've enjoyed reading even when much of the rest of that paper of record I want to toss at my dog. (I refrain, strengthening my patience.) Douthat may be better at short opinion pieces than in-depth reporting, but as he's a central spokesman for the right-leaning Church, he's well informed to look at how the current pope is caught between a liberal rock pushing Francis towards more reform and more renewal, and the conservative hard place refusing to budge on doctrine and liturgy.

"To Change the Church" looks at the split. He does not have the rosy patronizing view many non-Catholics, less in the know about the Vatican and its global reach, have had about Jorge Berglogio SJ. Therefore it's instructive to learn about his stint as the Jesuit provincial during the times of dirty war and the disappeared in Argentina. Douthat has access to some insiders and he uncovers sobering truths. Some issues are dealt at length which those unfamiliar with the higher levels of the Church and intricate details of the bible and teachings may feel are exaggerated.

Douthat examines the compromises made by Pope Benedict to keep the traditionalists faithful, the growing rift between Vatican II advocates who demand more changes, the younger clergy and bishops who favor caution instead of chaos, and the recent pronouncements hinted regarding re-examination of the "nullity of marriage" vs. the indissolubility of the bonds which Jesus affirmed, within the German-Austrian episcopate's "Kaspar debate." These provocative topics reveal teachings that Pope Francis could not budge on without undermining fidelity to the Gospel. I hadn't considered before this how central this stance proved, whereas as Douthat documents, many other recent debates on tricky issues have not depended on this fundamental grounding in the Gospel. He digs into some "sources" who reveal how complicated this astute and considerably diplomatic (take that word in more than one sense) pontiff's maneuvers are. This is a corrective, again, to popular misconceptions and media.

Abuses we all are unfortunately somewhat cognizant of take up many headlines by outside writers investigating the Church. So it's refreshing to turn to other topics which tend not to gain serious attention in the mainstream press. Douthat, like John Thavis' "The Vatican Diaries," is a good guide. Douthat is not the resident correspondent Thavis has been in Rome, but he shares that reporter's understanding of the Church from the inside.

I am not sure I buy into Douthat's rather dire predictions of a schismatic division within Catholicism. Yet if it wasn't for massive Latino immigration, parish pews would be even emptier than they tend to be now. It looks as if the future Church will shift to African power, away from Europe, as in turn it moved from the Mediterranean and back to Jerusalem. The "developing world" with its burgeoning populations has skirmishes between Protestants, Catholics, and in some places Islam or as in China the secular regime. Here are the battlegrounds and the launch pads for a form of the Church which may soon overtake the "spiritual but not religious" West. After Francis, who knows what will follow?

Douthat also wrote a sprawling 2011 narrative-survey about the shifts of U.S. religious currents over the past generation, "Bad Religion," espousing not the ethos of a SoCal veteran punk band, but what Rod Dreher's "Benedict Option" has since popularized (?) concerning the role the Church will likely play in the changing American polity. This takes on the wider variety of Christian denominations within recent American culture and history, but it's recommended for those wanting more from this welcome voice. I reviewed "BR" at length a few months ago on this site. Amazon US 4-12-18
(Reprinted at The Pensive Quill 9-26-18.)