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Ordained Servant Online

Roman Catholicism, Marriage, and the Sexual Revolution: A Review Article

Darryl G. Hart

To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism by Ross Douthat. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2018, 256 pages, $26.00.

Ross Douthat has done it again. The young, conservative, Roman Catholic op-ed writer who has the unlikely perch of writing for the New York Times, created a mini-controversy three years ago with one of his columns. A writer who regularly tries to explain political conservatism and Roman Catholic faith and practice—and why they matter—to the Times’ overwhelmingly secular, liberal readers, Douthat had the chutzpah to opine in the fall of 2015, only a month after Pope Francis’s positively reported visit to the United States, that the Roman pontiff had hatched a plot to “change the church.” The centerpiece of this switch in Vatican policy is a lenient path for divorced and remarried Roman Catholics to return to full communion. But the relatively simple point of either changing doctrine or reforming pastoral practice also involves, as such points always do with Roman Catholicism, papal authority. Although Francis has promoted themes of conciliarism and devolving some matters to local bishops, the pope also has the authority to make changes by papal fiat. “If Francis decided tomorrow to endorse communion for the remarried,” Douthat wrote in his column, “there is no Catholic Supreme Court that could strike his ruling down.” And yet, popes are not supposed to change doctrine. Their duty is to defend, explain, and pass it on. “Custom, modesty, fear of God, and fear of schism all restrain popes who might find a doctrinal rewrite tempting.” Those restraints explain Douthat’s resort to the language of “plot.” He argued that by various means of subterfuge, Pope Francis is changing Roman Catholicism.[1]

Douthat may recoil at the comparison, but his criticism of Francis is reminiscent of Ignaz von Döllinger’s to Pius IX during the run up to the First Vatican Council, well recounted in Thomas Albert Howard’s 2017 book, The Pope and the Professor.[2] Döllinger was a German historical theologian whose scholarship made Pius’s assertion of papal infallibility dubious. From the democratic revolutions of 1848 to the unification of Italy in 1871, Pius was looking for ways to shore up his authority since the liberalization of European politics was threatening the papacy’s own civil authority in the Papal States. Döllinger’s argument attracted international attention thanks in part to political liberals in Europe and North America who desired to see the papacy’s feudal powers overturned. But Pius won (partly). Vatican I gave dogmatic status to papal infallibility and Döllinger eventually received the condemnation of excommunication even as the Papal States became part of the Kingdom of Italy and the pope’s political power vanished. Douthat’s opposition to Francis is not on the order of Döllinger’s complaints about Pius. But the Times’ columnist is raising serious questions not only about Francis’s power but also his intentions. The irony is that Douthat, the layman who might naturally want more room for non-clergy in the church, is at odds with Francis’s apparent scheme to liberalize Roman Catholicism through devolving papal power to regional and local settings. Douthat, in other words, would likely be more comfortable with Pius IX than Francis (though John Paul II is his model pope). Still, his open dissent and its high visibility in the Times invites the comparison to Döllinger.

Even more, Douthat has provoked the ire of clergy and theologians in the United States. Soon after his 2015 editorial, a group of theologians and priests took out a one-page advertisement in the Times to challenge Douthat. Part of their missive asserted the following:

Aside from the fact that Mr. Douthat has no professional qualifications for writing on the subject, the problem with his article and other recent statements is his view of Catholicism as unapologetically subject to a politically partisan narrative that has very little to do with what Catholicism really is.[3]

They also charged Douthat with “accusing other members of the Catholic church of heresy, sometimes subtly, sometimes openly,” which was “serious business.”[4] That Douthat’s critics did not bring up dissent from the papacy may have revealed their own reservations about papal supremacy. Even so, those responsible for the letter had a point when they concluded that Douthat’s views were “not what we expect of the New York Times.”[5]

Those who wrote that letter might be tempted to buy another advertisement since Douthat’s new book is an expansion of his column about Francis’s methods and intentions. To Change the Church is narrowly about the substance of the debates over divorce and remarriage that have transpired since 2014. It is also a play-by-play account of the ecclesiastical politics that have prompted conservatives and liberals to use the mechanisms of church power to advance their views; Francis is by no means an innocent bystander but has, according to Douthat, played ecclesiastical rivals against each other while also signaling implicitly and sometimes acting directly to advance a position that amounts to liberalizing Rome’s teaching on marriage. For anyone unfamiliar with recent Roman Catholicism and the ambiguity that Vatican II introduced, Douthat’s is as good a place as any to get up to speed.

As much as he writes for general audiences (in ways that are actually remarkable), Douthat also intends to alert Roman Catholics who are either uninformed or complacent about the Francis papacy. The book is especially helpful for laying out the sequence of events that began (sort of) in 2014, a year after Francis’s inauguration, at a convocation when newly appointed cardinals gather to receive their red hats and discuss church life with the pope. Francis asked Walter Kasper, a cardinal from Germany, to give the keynote address. The talk wound up setting the agenda for the next two years of synods and factional maneuvering. Kasper proposed, in the name of mercy, a penitential model for remarried and divorced Roman Catholics to receive communion. He also argued in the name of Vatican II. If the church could adapt to the modern world as the 1960s council had, why not do so again on the challenges of marriage? From there ensued a series of synods on the family, with formal preparations for the gatherings of bishops, as well as behind the scenes bickering, lobbying, and papal massaging. The process revealed two wings in the church, liberals who wanted to use the deliberative process of church assemblies to make the changes look like the seamless emergence of a consensus. Conservatives, in contrast, not only had to challenge the Vatican’s machinery by finding legitimate ways of dissent, such as a dubium,[6] but they also had to reaffirm and defend the church’s teaching and explain, in effect, why the sin of divorce, remarriage, and adultery mattered. Meanwhile, Francis produced an apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia (“The Joy of Love”), a brief on marriage and the family, and the longest papal document in history. Although Amoris reaffirmed church traditions, it also provided wiggle room for bishops to pursue their own course for restoring wayward Roman Catholics to communion. The result of these two years of meetings, ecclesiastical intrigue, and papal vacillation is great uncertainty within Roman Catholicism (with some bishops in parts of the world using the proceedings as a green light to admit those in violation of church teaching to full communion). Douthat deserves credit for calling attention to this situation, if only because the world of Roman Catholic social media is filled with apologists and church regulars who barely mention the faults and flaws of their communion and bishops.

Douthat also deserves praise for explaining why divorce and adultery are sinful. His simple answer is one that sounds very Protestant: Jesus said so. The church’s teaching on marriage began, he writes, with Jesus’s answers to the Pharisees, recorded in the Gospel of Mark. Instead of lightening the burden of Jewish law, in the Gospels Jesus “makes the law more demanding, more radical, more transcendent” (84). This truth has informed the church throughout its history and comes with a cost. “It made missionary work more challenging in practically every cultural context” (86). It gummed up the works of ecumenism. It placed the church in conflict with European monarchs (think England’s Henry VIII). Douthat’s challenge to liberal Roman Catholics is particularly poignant. For all of the church’s history the standard for morality was not aspirational but obligatory. But now liberals propose to tell ordinary people that Christian morality is “too hard” and the church has a duty to help folks manage the angst that results from the gap between their own lives and Christian duty. When Douthat compares changing teaching on marriage to what has occurred on usury, his argument weakens a bit. He concedes that the medieval church regarded charging interest on loans a grave sin, but the church was able to accommodate the beginning of modern finance without letting those concessions seep in to “issues more central to the faith” (163). That reassurance seems a tad glib for an institution that is supposed to know and be able to explain the nature of sin. Not only is it the apparent inconsistency of adapting on one sin but not another. It is also the problem of whether an ordinary church member can have confidence in church officials who change their minds about sin and its penalties (did those guilty of the mortal sin of usury receive less time in purgatory after the church changed its understanding?).

That somewhat easy elision of the church’s teaching on usury is indicative arguably of the book’s most serious flaw. As much as Douthat deserves credit for looking honestly and critically at his communion, he cannot seem to fathom Christianity apart from Rome. Despite all the evidence that Douthat gives of Roman Catholicism’s errors, missteps, folly, and back room episcopal politics, from sex scandals to poor judgments in international diplomacy, he still believes, as he writes in the preface, that Roman Catholicism has

the most compelling claim to being the true church founded by Jesus of Nazareth, whose radical message and strange story offers the likeliest reason in all of recorded human history to believe that God loves us, that He so loved the world that our sins will be redeemed and our suffering will make sense in the end.” (xvii)

The proposals for tolerance for mortal sin from liberal theologians and cardinals, with some apparent blessing by the pope, is one indication that, as was clear in the sixteenth century, the Vatican is not very reliable at preserving Christian teaching and morality. That seems all the more apparent after Vatican II, which has provoked a steady stream of bickering and maneuvering between conservatives and liberals about “real” Roman Catholicism. In fact, Douthat, someone who believed John Paul II had put up the barricades to progressive change after the experimentation of the 1970s, now thinks even popes cannot steady the ship. One consequence of Francis’s tenure is for conservatives to “take a darker view of the post-Vatican II era” and to see that council as compromising the church. If Francis could be the successor to John Paul II and Benedict XVI, perhaps those conservative popes “didn’t conserve enough” (198). Benedict himself may have confirmed this verdict in the eulogy he sent for the funeral of a deceased German archbishop: “he learned to let go and to live out of a deep conviction that the Lord does not abandon His Church, even if the boat has taken on so much water as to be on the verge of capsizing” (187).

At the same time, Douthat reiterates a view common among Roman Catholic apologists that this is the church Jesus founded. If you read John Henry Newman, Aquinas, Augustine, Dante, or even Evelyn Waugh, you understand, Douthat asserts, that as a Roman Catholic you belong to “the same tradition, the same story.” In fact, when you step into the “worlds of Catholic past,” you can “think with the letter writers of the New Testament and the church fathers scribbling in late antiquity” (160). Douthat writes that you cannot do this with the church’s contemporary reformers like Francis and Kasper, and by implication, neither can you do that with Protestant reformers. In which case, if you enter a Protestant church you are not inhabiting the same tradition that stretches back from John Paul II to the apostle Peter. Can Douthat really imagine that the Sistine Chapel comes anywhere near the sort of space in which the apostles worshiped, or that the traditions and aura surrounding the papacy resemble in any way the standing that even the apostles enjoyed in the early church? What sixteenth-century Reformers were trying to do (at least in part) was to restore the church to the simplicity and meaningful pastoral work of the early church. But for Roman Catholics, even those like the gimlet-eyed Douthat, imagining a Christianity that inhabits store fronts or elementary school cafeterias seems inconceivable (not to mention that he doesn’t make much room for the folk piety on which Roman Catholicism thrives and in which apparitions of Mary and miraculous healings at Lourdes abound).

Why can’t Douthat take the step that Luther and Calvin did when the contemporary writer has even more evidence that the bishops are prone to error and to use their offices to inflict their blameworthy judgments on church goers? The book suggests an answer in the section where Douthat compares the contemporary controversy to the seventeenth-century dispute between Jansenists and Jesuits. He quotes Leszek Kolakowski on why Jansenists could not succeed at reforming the church: “Christianity had to make itself, if not ‘easy,’ at least much easier, in order to survive” (­­­­­­­168).  Kolakowski adds, “One could not resurrect as a universal norm the ethos of the apostolic time when the faithful really lived in the shadow of imminent apocalypse” (168). That is what Jansenists tried to do but “to their doom” (168). Douthat seems to sense that what he is doing in this book, by criticizing proposals for making the church more lenient, is more on the side of Jansenism than the Jesuits. But he also takes comfort from his church’s size. The very first line of the preface speaks of “the most important religious story of our time” because it concerns the “fate of the world’s largest religious institution” (xi). In other words, Douthat seems to know that the church has always had a hard time insisting on rigor, from prohibiting indulgences in Luther’s day to accommodating usury in the modern era. That is how the church has remained so large and inclusive. To Change the Church’s major weakness, then, is wanting a big church that makes demands. Douthat’s awareness of his communion’s history and laxness indicates that he should know better.


[1] Ross Douthat, “The Plot to Change Catholicism,” New York Times, Oct. 17, 2015,

[2] Thomas Albert Howard, The Pope and the Professor: Pius IX, Ignaz von Dollinger, and the Quandary of the Modern Age (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017).

[3] The October 26, 2015 letter is reprinted at Daily Theology (blog),

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] This is a formal way to ask the pope to answer a question about church law or teaching. The dubia that conservatives sent to Francis, four questions, he never answered.

Darryl G. Hart teaches history at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan, and serves as an elder in Hillsdale Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Hillsdale, Michigan. Ordained Servant Online, October 2018.

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