Ross Douthat's book examines the deepest divisions in the Catholic Church
To Change the Church
by Ross Douthat, Simon & Schuster, 256pp, £19
When Amoris Laetitia was published in 2016, few anticipated how deeply it would divide the Church, how endless the controversy would be. Amid all the scandal and chaos, one fact has become clear. Though John Paul II and Benedict XVI stabilised the Church after the Council, their programme – broadly liberal, but traditional on moral matters – was more a working settlement than a lasting synthesis.
This is the argument made by Ross Douthat in the most insightful book on the Church to be published in many years. He describes the increasing polarisation between the two parties in the Catholic civil war and suggests the only plan that might bring them together.
“Attempts at a revolution have encouraged liberal Catholicism to become more ambitious, more aggressive, more optimistic about how far the Church can change,” Douthat writes. But they have also encouraged younger conservative Catholics “to take a darker view of the post-Vatican II era, and to reassess whether there might have always been more wisdom in the traditionalist critique than they wanted to believe”.
One thing Douthat does not explore is the way in which this generational battle is a kind of class war. Louis Veuillot called liberal Catholicism an error of the rich. If the young are less prone to this error, it may be because they are poorer than their parents in ways both material and cultural. They are less likely to have stable employment, lasting marriage or the prospect of children. Significantly for the Church’s current debates, they are less likely to have a married mother and father.
This is why there has been a generational polarisation in the reaction to Amoris Laetitia. Narrowly considered, the document is about divorce, remarriage and Communion. In broad terms, it is about the Church’s stance toward liberalism. Moral and financial deregulation was championed by the generation of May 1968 and is now being challenged by its children. When it comes to the typical sins of this liberal culture, Amoris says, “Who am I to judge?”
True, Francis rebuked wealthy Westerners for their wasteful consumption in Laudato Si’ – and rightly so. But no one is likely to be bothered by denunciations of pollution, war or capitalism that are not accompanied by concrete prohibitions – say, on usury.
In fact, entertaining vaguely self-critical thoughts on matters outside one’s control tends to induce a pleasant feeling of broad-mindedness, the righteous repose of the armchair radical. It is not enough for the Church to decry abstractions such as the “contraceptive mentality”, the “throwaway culture” or “systemic injustice”. Only when concrete acts are judged always and everywhere wrong is the individual forced to confront his own frailty and taint.
Douthat argues that Amoris seeks to strip Christian teaching of this absolute character. It recommends “discernment”, a process that allows the Church to preserve a vague moralism while denying that any act is per se immoral. Someone who wants Communion need not confess his sin with a firm purpose of amendment. He instead must be “a responsible and tactful person”. He does not need contrition, only “discretion”. Politeness takes the place of repentance. Uncouthness remains as the unforgivable sin.
The Australian Archbishop Mark Coleridge has explained how such a scheme works in practice: “A second marriage that is enduring and stable and loving, and where there are children who are cared for, is not the same as a couple skulking off to a hotel room for a wicked weekend.” Evil acts committed in good order with ample capital cease to be sins.
Douthat observes that it is not easy to know “how far to accommodate to liberalism, and when and where to draw lines and resist”. Newman provided the most generous standard for this difficult work in his Biglietto speech. He noted that “there is much in the liberalistic theory which is good and true; for example, not to say more, the precepts of justice, truthfulness, sobriety, self-command, benevolence.” He resisted blanket denunciation in order to weigh how liberalism worked in practice. “It is not till we find that this array of principles is intended to supersede, to block out, religion, that we pronounce it to be evil”, he said.
In the immediate wake of the Second World War, it seemed that liberalism and the Church could work as one. In spite of changed conditions and the accumulation of contrary evidence, the generation of 1968 still holds this dream. Amoris Laetitia seeks to extend it. In submission to the Council that called on us to read the signs of the times, we should acknowledge the present reality. For 50 years liberalism has superseded, has blocked out, religion. It has obscured the truth not only of revealed doctrine but of nature itself. Allowing every caveat, accepting each nuance, those who pronounce it evil are faithful to Newman’s standard.
Amid our current upheavals, wariness toward liberalism is a matter of prudence as well as principle. The Church should not bind itself to a teetering order. Had liberalism been a final dispensation, as so many imagined, lasting peace would have been necessary. Had it delivered what it promised, there would have been common ground. But liberalism was neither final nor finally liberal. In the name of liberty, it refused tolerance; invoking equality, it denied its foundation; to increase fraternity, it launched endless war. Even if it were not so widely challenged, the problem would remain. Wherever liberalism succeeds, it ceases to be. In such a case, the Catholic embrace of liberalism is a concordat with Atlantis, an attempt to make peace with a world that no longer exists and perhaps never did.
Instead of concessions to liberal hedonism, we need what Douthat calls a “distinctively Catholic sort of synthesis.” This would stress “the Church’s themes of economic and social solidarity without compromising its metaphysical and moral commitments”. It would bring about “religious solidarity, rather than secular technocracy”.
If Pope Francis were to do this, Catholicism’s ideological, generational and class divide might begin to heal. He could be a new Elijah, turning the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to the fathers.
Matthew Schmitz is a senior editor at First Things
This is an expanded version of an article which first appeared in the March 30 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here