A few years ago, while I was pursuing my doctorate in theology at Boston College, some of my colleagues and professors signed a letter to the New York Times protesting Ross Douthat’s writing. They claimed that Douthat had “no professional qualifications for writing on the subject” of Catholicism, and that his view of it was “unapologetically subject to a politically partisan narrative that has very little to do with what Catholicism really is.” Catholics of all stripes roundly critiqued the letter, which served more to discredit its signatories than its intended target.
Now Douthat has turned the arguments he initially laid out in his Times columns into a book, To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism, which examines the Church through the lens of theologically astute political commentary. He gives the ins-and-outs of the politics surrounding Amoris Laetitia and the synods on the family and offers a number of potential readings of this “hinge moment in the history of Catholicism.” In these respects, the book is quite strong. (See R.J. Snell’s Public Discourse review of the book here.)
The Catholic Church is a human institution, and all human institutions have their politics, especially sprawling ones that have lasted for two millennia. However, the Catholic Church is also a theological institution, one whose arguments do not simply serve as proxies for liberal or conservative politics, but govern its direction and history. At the risk of echoing my former colleagues too closely, Douthat and his sympathizers should look at the Church through a more robust, theologically-minded lens.
Giving an Account of Christ
Holy Week and Easter remind us that Christians throughout history never step out of the shoes of their predecessors. They are still left struggling to give an account of who Jesus was and what he did, especially at the end of his life. Why would God suffer in this way? If Jesus really did rise from the dead, what could that possibly mean? What needs to be the case in order for those to matter or be efficacious for us? All of Christian theology attempts to explain the inexplicable events of Good Friday and Easter, to give them some kind of logic and meaning.
This logic ultimately determines the outcome of the Church’s doctrinal disputes, especially with the help of divine providence leading the Church further into the truth. These controversies always come as mixtures of politics and theology. Debates over Arianism, Monotheletism (whether Christ has one or two wills), and the veneration of icons saw kings and emperors convene councils, promote their partisans, and kill, torture, or exile their enemies. In many cases, it would have been difficult to predict which ideas would emerge as the orthodox ones by looking at the politics. After all, Athanasius was exiled repeatedly, Maximus the Confessor lost his hand and tongue, and iconoclasts reigned for decades.
But today, Catholics recite the Nicene Creed, believe that Christ has a divine and human will, and worship God with icons and statues. We hold the beliefs of Athanasius, Maximus, and the iconodules today because they make better sense of the mystery of Christ, whose humanity and divinity must be held together if the cross and resurrection are to offer us salvation. We reject the beliefs of their opponents because their logic would have rendered Christ’s death and resurrection meaningless. In the end, the logic of the incarnation, the cross, and the resurrection determined the outcome of theological debates more than the political wrangling that accompanied them.
Take another example, the controversy between Jansenists and Jesuits that Douthat examines in To Change the Church. Douthat posits a view of the controversy in which conservative Jansenists lost to liberalizing Jesuits (later acknowledging the limitations of this view). The Jesuits, he writes,
wanted to Christianize the new humanism, to baptize the commercial society, not reject it all outright. In practical terms, they wanted the church to still matter in a society where it no longer enjoyed medieval prerogatives and intellectual monopolies. In theological terms, they wanted to slip as many modern souls as possible into heaven even if most of them required a long, long stint in purgatory beforehand.
The Jansenists, by contrast, saw the modern world as an enemy to which the Church could give no ground. In the end, the Jesuits triumphed, and the Jansenists were condemned, in part because “Catholicism could not have survived as a global faith along the lines the Jansenists imagined.”
This is true, up to a point, but it neglects the much more important question of theological analysis and truth. Jansenism was condemned not because it stifled the Church’s survival in the modern age or endangered its ability to matter. Jansenism was condemned because its understanding of God’s action in our salvation did not cohere with the logic of scripture and tradition. It failed to offer a powerful explanation for how the cross, the resurrection, and the ongoing action of the Holy Spirit in the Church offered salvation for bumbling sinners in a way that cohered with logic of Catholic tradition. Douthat is doubtless correct that there was a sociological and political side to the debate, but that debate was resolved on theological grounds, for theological reasons.
In short, the Church’s own history teaches us that her theology matters more than her politics, that theological lenses are ultimately the ones by which Catholicism is understood most clearly. Thus, Douthat is correct to note that today’s divisions on doctrinal questions show deeper, more fundamental disagreements on the nature of the Church, the Bible, the nature of the sacraments and redemption, the identity of Jesus, and the nature of God. It can seem like opposing sides disagree not only on theological conclusions, but on the rules for deriving them. To borrow a metaphor from Paul Griffiths, it’s as if Jamaica’s cricket team arrived to play in the World Series.
But the solution to those disagreements will be prolonged theological argument, not short-term politics, as has been the case with theological controversies in every age. Those who make robust arguments that best develop our understanding of Christ and his message will endure, while those whose arguments diminish the meaning of the cross and resurrection or otherwise lack the logic of the tradition are likely to pass away.
Of course there remains a great exception to this rule: the Protestant Reformation. In this case, theological disagreements led to the formation of new communities where different ideas could grow and perpetuate themselves. Douthat fears that a similar schism could take place in our own time, but this seems unlikely for at least two reasons. First, prominent theological figures have not emerged who are willing to break communion with the pope; there are no candidates for the role of Luther in the episcopate or in the theological academy. Second, the level of discontent in the Catholic Church has not reached the fever pitch of Reformation days—at least in the bulk of the Church that lives outside the scope of the internet commentariat. If schism is unlikely and theological argument will carry the day, then two implications for Douthat’s arguments in To Change the Church follow.
First, it is far too soon to say that Vatican II and the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI failed because they did not solve all theological debates perfectly and decisively. No pope is perfect, and neither man was, but together they and many Council Fathers left a staggering body of teaching that developed the Christian message in accord with the logic of the tradition to meet the demands of our time.
Some argue that if the theological conservatism of John Paul and Benedict led only to Francis, perhaps it didn’t conserve enough; if those popes’ attempted synthesis was so easily challenged and unraveled, perhaps it wasn’t a successful synthesis at all; and if their project of restoration still left fertile soil for a new revolution, perhaps the entire project needs to be reassessed. This is myopic and ignorant of history. By what means should we judge their synthesis and project of generous orthodoxy unsuccessful? By the thousands of priests and religious whose lives it intimately formed? By the successful lay apostolates and vibrant parishes they inspired? By the vast body of writing they left and the way they developed Catholic theology? Would we say that that Thomas Aquinas and John Henry Newman “failed” because neither’s thought made the Church perfect five years after his death?
Second, if Pope Francis—or anyone else in the Church—wants to change Catholic theology, he or she would have to show why that change makes better sense of scripture and the mysteries of Christ, why it is more in keeping with the logic of the faith than the doctrine it replaced. This would be extremely difficult to do and would take a long time (barring the short cut of schism mentioned above). It would require long, sustained theological argument.
As we see in his recent apostolic exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate, to give but one example, Pope Francis is best understood as a pastoral actor rather than as a theological thinker. He cares more for homespun, personal spirituality than robust theological argument. He is not interested in changing doctrines but in solving pastoral problems that are obvious to him. As his words and actions repeatedly make clear, he is much more interested in giving communion to Protestants and the divorced and remarried than in the effect such actions have on theology. And his own pastoral experience is a strong criterion of authority for him. As Archbishop Forte told the press at the synod on the family, Francis knows the conclusions he wants and leaves it to others to provide the reasoning.
But in Catholicism, theological reasoning has the greatest staying power. Long after episcopal appointments go on to their reward and the sting of insults fades, clarity, lucidity, and coherence with established doctrine endure. Francis’s focus on pastoral changes and political action means he is less likely to produce arguments with theological staying power. This should be a source of hope for Catholics who share Douthat’s worries. Pope Francis may get the messier church that he wants, but that is not the same as enduring theological logic. After all, 2 + 2 ≠ 5, and messes can be unmade.
Nathaniel Peters is the executive director of the Morningside Institute.