Much writing about Pope Francis tends toward hyperbole. This is somewhat understandable, given the drama of the past five years. From the abdication of Benedict (complete with a lightning bolt striking the Vatican), the machinations of the so-called St. Gallen “Mafia” during the 2013 conclave, and the unexpected result of a Jesuit pope from the Americas, to the debacles of the 2014 and 2015 synods, the controversies surrounding Amoris Laetitia, the Dubia, the cardinals demoted and humiliated, the death of Dubia signatories, the purges of Pontifical Academies, the airplane interviews (!), the financial scandals, and the twitter wars . . . just recalling it all leaves one slightly out of breath.

These past five years have been “eventful,” which has certainly helped writers covering the “inside baseball” aspects of obscure curial offices. Each appointment and press conference and footnote is dissected, almost as if the Roman augur had returned (and was needed) to understand the ambiguity marking this pontificate.

Among the many virtues of Ross Douthat’s new book, To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism, is its cautious and tentative appraisals of Pope Francis. Neither a screed nor an appreciation, the book unfolds ambiguities, giving voice to competing interpretations while spelling out the hopes, anxieties, and possible implications of these competing accounts.

The varying accounts must be understood against the contested background of Vatican II. Did the Council come very close to infusing new life into the Church before John Paul II and (worse) Benedict XVI thwarted its promise? Or did it birth the ongoing decline of Catholic Lite, despite the heroic efforts of the previous two popes? Or is there a third, more accurate interpretation: a failed Council and an uneasy, mostly ambiguous “truce” that misled many conservatives into thinking their position was secure? Douthat suggests a “story of shared failure and persistent troubles, in which the idea of renewal was constantly invoked but rarely evident,” with nothing like “the renewal or new springtime or new evangelization” occurring. Instead, a truce resulted, with an inward-facing Church endlessly struggling to maintain equilibrium.

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Mysterious Cardinal, Revolutionary Pope?

Bergolio was something of an enigma, a Jesuit so alienated from his confreres that he had not stepped into the Jesuit headquarters in Rome in over twenty years, and whose own Jesuit superiors had attempted to thwart his appointment as auxiliary bishop of Buenos Aires in 1992. But the reasons for this were unclear: was he a conservative who had battled the liberal Jesuits in Argentina, or was he a moderate for whom it was “natural . . . to oppose” the excesses of whoever was in power? It was obvious that his “style of faith” was “supernaturalist but not particularly doctrinal,” and that his unhappy experience of Latin American capitalism was “visceral and personal.” Consequently, St. Galleners supported him because of “his focus on poverty and social justice, his seeming weariness with certain culture war battles, and his decentralizing instincts,” while conservatives knew of his “wars with left-wing Jesuits” and his earthy folk piety, even as Latin American and African cardinals welcomed a non-European.

He took the name Francis, the “first pope in 1,200 years to take a new, un-roman-numeraled name.” His early gestures were striking, including collecting his own luggage, paying his hotel bill, choosing the Fiat as his vehicle, and donning simple papal vestments. Again, though, the ambiguity: was he the great liberal hope or not? His criticisms of capitalism were not different in substance than Benedict’s, and the Church has never been fully on board with capitalism anyway. Yes, he promoted progressives, often from obscurity or discredited shame, and his spontaneous remarks were often hazy, but this seemed a matter of style, not doctrine. In fact, during the first year, it was possible to believe that Francis was working to transcend the left-right impasse in the Church, to “welcome as many people as possible back into” the life of the Church, and to moderate the extremes. That is, to find a way beyond the unhappy truce of the past thirty years, perhaps by reminding the Church that the cultural conflicts of the West ignored the needs and questions of the most dynamic and growing parts of the Church.

But then came the synods. Cardinal Kasper and his allies were given free rein, often with deceptive procedural games, although in the end the bishops firmly rejected the Kasperite proposals. Or did they? The final statements were ambiguous enough to be read as opening a door in that direction. The Pope seemed to read the synod as a defeat, with his closing address “more like an outburst than a summation, from a leader angered in defeat.” Conservatives, implicitly including the John Paul II and Benedict XVI, were compared to dead stones, harsh judges, and the elder brother in the parable of the prodigal son, who had strangled mercy out of fear.

After this outburst, the Pope again returned to ambiguity, silence, and “deliberately unreliable communication.” He gave a series of interviews to an aged journalist who took no notes and reconstructed the “gist” from memory, even though the Vatican denied much of the substance. This was followed by the longest papal document in Church history, Amoris Laetitia, much of which is folkish and banal, almost lulling the reader to sleepiness before arriving at the infamous eighth chapter. It’s so unclear that, while it seems to be “arguing with” John Paul II, there’s nothing that directly contradicts Veritatis Splendor. The Exhortation might be read as providing different “rhetorical emphasis on existing Catholic teaching,” and Francis “never made explicit what he repeatedly implied,” namely, that Church teaching was wrong.

Of course, if the church was in error on communion for the divorced and remarried, it meant that the previous popes were in error, that previous councils were in error, that the English martyrs were in error, that not only the Church’s moral teachings but also her ecclesiology and sacramentology were wrong, and that there were no principled reasons to reject communion for cohabitating couples or sincere homosexual couples. That is, this was not a matter of pastoral accommodation but a revolution calling into doubt the very meaning and existence of the Roman Catholic Church. It also meant that untold millions of Catholics had struggled to resist sin, and to confess when they failed, for no reason. It had all been in vain, a ridiculous hang-up without cause. (One bishop even suggested that Jesus himself had been wrong and unmerciful to reject the Mosaic law permitting divorce.) This would make Francis a revolutionary, perhaps a heretic.

Papal Authority and Ambiguity

For decades, conservatives had supported and pushed papal authority as a means of limiting theologically adventurous bishops. Now questions were asked about the nature of papal authority, what counted as magisterial teaching, whether a heretical pope was still pope, and so on. Douthat suggests a parallel with the Arian controversies of the fourth century, in which the Arians proposed a “more rationalized Christianity” that could avoid some of the philosophical problems of the Trinity. The Arians seemed to be winning for quite some time, supported by the imperial elite, many bishops, and local church synods. Covered with a kind of skeptical ambiguity in which they proposed little, but denied much, the Arians even seemed to corrupt Liberius, the pope. It was Athanasius who resisted, Athanasius who prevailed for orthodoxy without much help from the pope. Perhaps this was a model for our time, an admission that the faithful may be outmaneuvered, for now, but that a new Athanasius could persist until a future time, “call it the Council of Nairobi, say, circa 2088,” when the inability of liberalism to either give birth or convert would allow the consolidation and restoration of orthodoxy, as the Council of Trent did when the Church was confronting the emergence of Protestantism.

As Douthat reads it, this sort of hope assumes that the current papal ambiguity is something of a mixed blessing. “At least the Pope hasn’t explicitly denied authoritative teaching,” it might be thought, and so we can avoid schism or heresy until the crisis passes. Small comfort, perhaps, but it is a comfort nonetheless. Unless, Douthat wonders, the assumption is wrong, and the full theological crisis of “pope-as-heretic” emerges.

Recall that Douthat gives multiple interpretations of an ambiguous situation. Following that mode, he provides a different analogy—not Arius and Athanasius, but the Jesuits and Jansenists. The Jansenists of seventeenth-century France were moral rigorists, thoroughgoing Augustinians with some parallels to old-school Calvinists. Their great rivals, the Jesuits, were often portrayed, unfairly, as morally lax, guilty of the worst casuistry to allow rich patrons their adulteries and thefts. The Jesuits knew, however, that a Jansenist Catholicism could not have survived modernity. It is the Jansenists who have been forgotten, while a more reasonable faith survived. Today’s conservatives, on this reading, will be tomorrow’s Jansenists, a footnote of sectarian rigorism set aside for the faith to endure and thrive in its new cultural situation. The Jansenists, like today’s conservatives, asked Catholics to do what cannot be done, something beyond the “ordinary modern person’s reach.”

Perhaps this liberalizing theology is not a rejection of the faith but “the grasping, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, of a higher Christianity,” something beyond the doctrinal possibilities of the old Church. Here, Douthat points to the film adaptation of Shusako Endo’s Silence, in which Jesus himself asks his disciplines to forgo and deny him for higher reasons. (I once lunched with a priest who informed me, in Silence fashion, that God was asking him to lose his faith as an example of faithless Catholicism for others. In losing faith, he would be a martyr.)

Douthat suggests that “this idea is powerful,” this notion that Jesus “set mercy and forgiveness and the relief of suffering above the law.” At least, it is powerful to many. It is not, however, “to be found anywhere in the traditional teachings of the church.” In fact, the church has repeatedly considered and explicitly rejected the idea with the full weight of its teaching office. Jesus insists on the moral law, and he sets aside ritual law only when the ritual obscures the power and clarity of the moral. The moral law “is bedrock,” suggests Douthat, and it is perfectly clear why other Christian communions have divided over these issues. They are not about sex or church discipline, they “actually cut very deep—to the very bones of Christianity, the very words of Jesus Christ.”

What Will Pope Francis’s Legacy Be?

So, what will be the Francis legacy? An exhausted but ultimately victorious orthodoxy? A swelling resurgence of traditionalists, especially among the young? (There is some evidence of this, certainly more than the supposed return of the lapsed and alienated Catholic.) Or will it be schism? A new theology, what Flannery O’Connor derided as “the Church of Christ without Christ”? Will it be the ascendancy of the African Church and the marginalization of the European, where it survives only because of full coffers? Will the old truce hold, or will it fail now that everyone realizes they kept the truce only because they felt their side would inevitably succeed?

Douthat doesn’t tell us. The book maintains its studied ambiguity, showing the fault lines and commitments of the various factions. He allows that Francis’s pontificate may end as did his time leading the Jesuits in Argentina, with the Society “destroyed,” “divided,” and “financially broken.” But it’s also possible, he says, that the whole ark might be held afloat by cynical company-men, those curial officials for whom schism is simply bad business, who will keep the Church alive because they wish to preserve their power and position.

Douthat doesn’t resolve any of these possibilities, and the ambiguity remains a challenge. A reader looking for talking points will be disappointed, a reader looking for clarity will be frustrated, but a reader looking to thoroughly understand will find much of value here, even if the understanding is expansive rather than clarifying.

Good and serious Catholics sometimes welcome converts not with, “well, at last, you’ve found the true faith” but “come on in, the water’s terrible,” or “really, this old thing?” They confess their love more like a wife at her fiftieth anniversary than in the poetry of first love. The Church is all too human, all too dysfunctional, and has always been so. Yet, this ark, battered and leaky, survives and thrives. There’s a quiet sense that the Vatican thinks in centuries, that a thirty-year crisis will hardly matter in time.

Or, perhaps this time is different. It feels different to many, as if something unprecedented and irreversible is happening. But we don’t know, and Douthat is honest enough to leave us hanging, waiting for the next installment of the Church’s story to be told. His story is unsatisfying in its ambiguity, but all the more interesting and truthful for it.