Book Review: What Will the Future Say About Pope Francis? by Jenean McBrearty

To Change a Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism, Ross Douthat, 2018, Simon & Schuster, New York

Simply put, Ross Douthat tells the world about the civil war raging inside the Catholic Church, a civil war that began in 1959 when Pope John XXIII called the first Ecumenical Council in nearly a hundred years. It was time, according to John, that the Church confront the modern world and update its schtick, you might say, and thus did the longest-lived Christian church set out to do the impossible: modernize without changing. Instantly, reformers and traditionalists chose up sides.

The Church must accommodate the emerging nations throwing off colonialism and traditionally Catholic countries that were secularizing by the moment, the reformers argued. Dwindling church attendance post World War II meant dwindling resources for parishes that were once the center of their communities, providing for the church’s survival through Catholic education of each new generation. Modernity, with its amusements, distractions, and evolving permissive attitudes tore families apart. As time passed, divorce skyrocketed, vocations dropped precipitously, men left the priesthood to marry, nuns-turned-feminists wanted ordination, and the missions suffered from a lack of people-power and money.

Just when it seemed things couldn’t get any worse, a relatively cheap and extremely effective birth control pill became available to both married and single women, and the full-throttle sexual revolution of the 60’s gave birth to excruciating social upheaval. The socio/political/economic landscape was changing and the Church had to figure out a way to cope.

On the other side were those who warned too rapid change would threaten the integrity of the Church as a stabilizing force. Cosmetic changes, such as abandoning the Latin mass and music, and conducting services on altars that faced the congregation using guitars instead of organs, were designed to make people feel more welcome to participate; now girls could be altar boys. But, however many dividing lines between the sacred and the banalities of existence were erased, what must never change is Church doctrine.

Succeeding popes, then, were expected to navigate a dangerous minefield as new technological and scientific advancement presented ethical and spiritual dilemmas that had to be resolved with old methods, and new personal questions answered with ancient responses. The reality is, the Catholic Church is unlike other Christian sects because it has a papacy that means a continuous chain of command that reaches all the way to the throne of God.

Nifty, non-Catholics might be tempted to conclude. Having a designated leader that can issue orders that people must follow under pain of sin means that, like any other dictator, he can “lay down the law” and go on to the next problem. In fact, the big question for many Catholics non-Catholics alike is why out dated dogma persists. With the pope in charge, the Church should be able to respond quickly to challenges. It’s not a cumbersome democratic organization, after all and this new guy, Francis? Isn’t he a liberal? Some people think he’s a socialist because he’s an Argentinian Jesuit. Didn’t he come to power in a bloodless coup that sent Benedict XVI and his unforgiving ways into retirement? The Church wasn’t just bleeding believers, its finances were in shambles. Somebody with spiritual cajones had to clean up the mess of the sex abuse scandals.

Douthat’s explanation of Francis’ papacy so far, with enough politicking and intrigue to satisfy any Tom Clancy fan, is an education in itself. Not only does he name names and keep the cast of characters straight, he is candid about the objections to Francis, his approach, personality and leadership style. Most importantly, Douthat makes the debacles that followed in the wake of Vatican II comprehensible to the layman, by answering the question as to why the Church moves at a snail’s pace when it comes to problem-solving: the doctrine of papal infallibility.

Let me digress. In 1870, the Church Bishops, Cardinals, and Pope Pius the IX issued a new doctrine for all believers, that in conjunction with Sacred Scripture, Church tradition, and Church teachings, when the Pope speaks to matters of faith and morals, he cannot err. He is not just prohibited from erring, he is incapable of erring. As the successor to St Peter, the first “pope” i.e. Bishop of Rome, all popes are guided by the Holy Spirit, and when he speaks ex cathedra, that is as spokesperson and teacher of the entire church, it’s as if God himself were speaking. Catholics are bound, under pain of sin to accept the pope’s divinely inspired teaching as reveled truth, and unquestioningly bound to obey the pope’s instruction.

The pope’s role, then, is more than just being the head honcho of a world-wide organization. He is pastor, teacher, and unifier of his billion plus flock no matter what personal opinions he or his churchmen may hold on any given subject. For example, in 1950, Pope Pius XI defined the Assumption of Mary into heaven body and soul, as a doctrine of the Church. Mary, because of her Immaculate Conception and sinless life, did not have to die as was do. When her time on earth was through, the angels came for her and took her to heaven.

Compare that doctrine with the discipline of priestly celibacy. The Church forbids priests to marry, to the chagrin of those who believe the sex scandals could have been prevented by marriage, but has not defined priestly celibacy as a doctrine. Priestly celibacy was not even a discipline until the 12th Century, and there were clergy, such as Martin Luther, who believed it would be better if priests did have to shoulder the responsibilities of husbands and fathers so they would know what their parishioners were up against.

At first blush, it would seem fairly easy then to allow priests to marry if enough Church prelates and the Pope decide to end the discipline. Why haven’t they? Almost a thousand years of tradition, and the realities of daily life that would claim too much of a priest’s time and Church resources, the flexibility of assignment, and the entrenched conservative priests who don’t approve. But, theoretically, it could happen.

The same could be said for the Church’s ban on artificial birth control. Nothing in scripture forbids limiting pregnancies, and as for tradition, birth control has gone through several phases of being permitted or not, depending on who was pope and what people were taught by their priests. Pope Pius XI, the same guy who was able to make the Assumption a doctrine was not able to do the same with birth control; he did say it was it was a great and moral flaw and a sin against God and nature, but some priests interpreted his statement as doctrine and others did not. Some thought it binding but not eternally binding. It may be “reconsidered” in the future. The laity mostly ignored Pius’ pronouncement, and as it’s become clearer that there are positives to limiting births financially and health wise, many priests have done likewise.

However, the continuing vacillations regarding birth control point to the problem that Douthat wrestles with when he considers Francis’ papacy, that is, the failure of a pope to be clear and unambiguous about where he stands on the issues. As Paul Vi said in 1965 regarding the birth control issue: “The world asks what we think and we find ourselves trying to give an answer. But what answer? We can’t keep silent. And yet to speak is a real problem. But what? The Church has never in her history confronted such a problem.”

From Douthat’s point of view, Pope Francis’ takes the same posture only on purpose as evidenced by his continued refusal to clarify his statements about whether divorced Catholics can ever be allowed access to the sacraments, for example. His reticence has led to annulment mills and conflicting teachings from parish to parish that makes the church seem capricious rather than authoritative.

The world is full of issues the church has never had to confront in her history. Gay marriage and adoption, for example. Some issues, such as radical Islam, are familiar, but the moral implications of homophobia and islamophobia are definitely new.

“Who am I to judge?” Francis said when asked about homosexuality. Well, he is exactly the one who must judge as he speaks for God. Yes, it’s difficult especially when Francis has spent his pre-papacy life enjoying the luxury of not judging. But the eyes and ears of the faithful are waiting for him to be clear. Is it the case that Francis beliefs conflict with his church’s tradition, sacred scripture, and teachings? Who is in error? Him? The Church fathers, former popes, God himself? Was the doctrine of papal infallibility ill-considered?

Perhaps it is true that the Catholic church must change, but how and to what extent is fraught with peril. After all, at one time the Catholic church was the paragon of moral stability for millions of people. With clarity and conciseness, Douthat makes us keenly aware those days for Catholics may be over for good. Jenean McBrearty is a graduate of San Diego State University, who taught Political Science and Sociology. Her fiction, poetry, and photographs have been published in over two-hundred print and on-line journals. Her how-to book, Writing Beyond the Self; How to Write Creative Non-fiction that Gets Published was published by Vine Leaves Press in 2018. She won the Eastern Kentucky English Department Award for Graduate Creative Non-fiction in 2011, and a Silver Pen Award in 2015 for her noir short story: Red’s Not Your Color. She lives in Kentucky and writes full time ⸺when she’s not watching classic movies and eating chocolate .