NEW YORK — While critics of Pope Francis’s document Amoris Laetitia gathered in Rome this weekend, trying to expand their coalition to embrace other issues such as the Vatican’s rumored deal with China, one of the pope’s biggest U.S.-based critics, Ross Douthat, says that while he understands the reasoning, there’s also a real risk in conflating the issues at hand.
Although retired Cardinal Joseph Zen of Hong Kong was unable to attend a summit of Amoris critics on Saturday, he sent video greetings.
Douthat said he sees parallels in the two situations.
“In both cases, you have this understanding that the Church can make a kind of truce that sort of makes it easier to be a Catholic — under Communism in one case, and under late modern Capitalism in the other — and that this will be good for the Church in the long run,” he said.
“In both cases, you have this sort of group of, broadly speaking, conservative believers who are very intense in their practice, who are seen by the Vatican as an obstacle to these changes,” Douthat said.
Yet, he warned against pushing the comparison.
“When we look back on this pontificate 500 years from now, the China business and Amoris will probably loom as the two largest things, but they will also provoke different kinds of arguments from the theologians of 2575 for whom we’re all writing,” says Douthat.
“As an observer, I understand the conflation, but I wouldn’t want it to be taken too far,” he said.
Since the 2014 and 2015 Synod on the Family, which led to Francis’s 2016 apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, opening the possibility of some divorced and remarried people being able to receive Communion after a process of discernment, Douthat, a New York Times columnist, has consistently warned that such a move could ultimately lead to schism within the Catholic Church.
Douthat has repeated these claims in his regular New York Times columns, but in a book released last month, To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism, he says Francis will end up either a hero to Catholicism or a heretic.
Those are bold predictions — and some of his reviewers, even those sympathetic to his arguments, have urged him to proceed with calm and caution — but in an interview with Crux, Douthat maintains that he’s “reasonably calm” and the tone of his book is “detached.” He’s sincerely self-critical, to the point of admitting he could, ultimately, be wrong about all of this.
But for now, he feels compelled to make it clear what he believes is at stake.
The starting point for Douthat’s book is the Second Vatican Council, where he believes 50 years later, competing narratives of what the Council was all about created the conditions for present day controversies.
While the council reexamined the Church’s relationship with modernity, and in particular considered issues of ecumenism and religious liberty, most important for Douthat was the sexual revolution and how the Church would adapt to it.
The result for Douthat has been an environment where the Church’s official teachings have remained unchanged and affirmed by the post-Vatican II popes, but he describes it as “an uneasy truce” where ambiguity has been exploited in the Francis era.
While Douthat, a political conservative, finds fault with the way progressive forces within the Church have pushed the envelope on certain questions, he also points the finger at his own camp, who “wanted to believe that you can have John Paul II as the definitive interpreter of the council and eventually all other interpretations would go away.”
And to a certain extent, Douthat believes Francis is right and has been helpful in calling for a Church that is willing to have real debate over substantive questions that he believes were, in fact, masked under Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
However, the opening for debate, he says — and the direction in which Francis has allowed it to go, or in Douthat’s view, wanted it to go — has created confusion about ultimate matters of faith and morals. According to Douthat, that’s true not just on the question of Communion for the divorced and remarried, but he also points to the recent controversy over an interview Francis had with Italian journalist Eugenio Scalfari where, according to Scalfari’s account, the pope told him Hell does not exist.
While Scalfari has admitted to playing fast and loose with the pontiff’s words, Douthat says the whole affair shows Francis is willing to do the same with matters of Church teaching.
“A pope who offers effective public teaching by a method of granting interviews with an aging journalist who doesn’t take notes who then quotes the pope offering statements that seem to contradict Catholic doctrine in a much more sweeping way than anything in Amoris, which the Vatican then partially denies but doesn’t fully repudiate, that is a deliberately open-ended, effectively confusing, method of teaching, and Francis’s critics who say we need to recognize what he is doing here, he’s a smart man, he’s a good strategist, and he’s not just accidentally falling into this because he likes Scalfari so much,” he told Crux.
That’s why Douthat believes that, contra his critics, he isn’t causing confusion for ordinary Catholics, but instead believes he’s trying to bring clarity.
Even so, however, Douthat must contend with the fact that the average Mass-going Catholic has hardly heard of Amoris, is mostly unaware of any controversies surrounding it, and five years into his papacy, Francis has enviably high public support among Catholics and non-Catholics alike.
To that point, Douthat freely admits that if there is a crisis in Catholicism, at this point it is an “elite crisis.”
Yet in the short term, those taking sides over this “elite crisis” are becoming more polarized, and Douthat believes Francis “is encouraging the more liberal parts of Catholicism to be more liberal and then, effectively, maybe not intentionally, I think, by undercutting what John Paul tried to do, he’s encouraging the more conservative parts of Catholicism to become more traditionalist.”
In the meantime, he intends to keep raising a red flag, but to actively engage his critics along the way and in a manner that he believes is actually helpful, rather than divisive.
It’s for that reason he’s participated in a series of public debates or discussions with some of his fiercest critics, most notably Professor Massimo Faggioli of Villanova University and papal biographer and Crux contributor Austen Ivereigh.
Douthat told Crux that if there’s going to be a de-escalation in the polarization that continues to fester within the Church, it’s going to require getting off of Twitter and into rooms with one’s opponents. To that point, he says he’s happy to square off with the National Catholic Reporter’s Michael Sean Winters, who’s offered one of the most stinging reviews of his book to date.
“When you’re in the room with someone, you realize there’s a certain kind of argument and it’s just stupidity,” Douthat concedes. “There’s a certain kind of name-calling tendency that seems to make sense on the internet, and then you’re together with the person as a person, and, as Francis says, it’s the culture of encounter, right?”
And on this point, he’s willing to offer a concession: “The pope is right about this.”