To Change The Church

John L Murphy with a review of Ross Douthat's To Change the Church: Pope Francis + the Future of Catholicism.

As the token Catholic/conservative columnist for the NY Times, Ross Douthat, is a journalist I've enjoyed reading even when much of the rest of that paper of record I want to toss at my dog. (I refrain, strengthening my patience.) Douthat may be better at short opinion pieces than in-depth reporting, but as he's a central spokesman for the right-leaning Church, he's well informed to look at how the current pope is caught between a liberal rock pushing Francis towards more reform and more renewal, and the conservative hard place refusing to budge on doctrine and liturgy.

To Change the Church looks at the split. He does not have the rosy patronizing view many non-Catholics, less in the know about the Vatican and its global reach, have had about Jorge Berglogio SJ. Therefore it's instructive to learn about his stint as the Jesuit provincial during the times of dirty war and the disappeared in Argentina. Douthat has access to some insiders and he uncovers sobering truths. Some issues are dealt at length which those unfamiliar with the higher levels of the Church and intricate details of the bible and teachings may feel are exaggerated. 

Douthat examines the compromises made by Pope Benedict to keep the traditionalists faithful, the growing rift between Vatican II advocates who demand more changes, the younger clergy and bishops who favor caution instead of chaos, and the recent pronouncements hinted regarding re-examination of the "nullity of marriage" vs. the indissolubility of the bonds which Jesus affirmed, within the German-Austrian episcopate's "Kaspar debate." 

These provocative topics reveal teachings that Pope Francis could not budge on without undermining fidelity to the Gospel. I hadn't considered before this how central this stance proved, whereas as Douthat documents, many other recent debates on tricky issues have not depended on this fundamental grounding in the Gospel. He digs into some "sources" who reveal how complicated this astute and considerably diplomatic (take that word in more than one sense) pontiff's maneuvers are. This is a corrective, again, to popular misconceptions and media. 

Abuses we all are unfortunately somewhat cognizant of take up many headlines by outside writers investigating the Church. So it's refreshing to turn to other topics which tend not to gain serious attention in the mainstream press. Douthat, like John Thavis' The Vatican Diaries, is a good guide. Douthat is not the resident correspondent Thavis has been in Rome, but he shares that reporter's understanding of the Church from the inside.

I am not sure I buy into Douthat's rather dire predictions of a schismatic division within Catholicism. Yet if it wasn't for massive Latino immigration, parish pews would be even emptier than they tend to be now. It looks as if the future Church will shift to African power, away from Europe, as in turn it moved from the Mediterranean and back to Jerusalem. The "developing world" with its burgeoning populations has skirmishes between Protestants, Catholics, and in some places Islam or as in China the secular regime. Here are the battlegrounds and the launch pads for a form of the Church which may soon overtake the "spiritual but not religious" West. After Francis, who knows what will follow?

Douthat also wrote a sprawling 2011 narrative-survey about the shifts of U.S. religious currents over the past generation, Bad Religion, espousing not the ethos of a SoCal veteran punk band, but what Rod Dreher's Benedict Option has since popularized (?) concerning the role the Church will likely play in the changing American polity. This takes on the wider variety of Christian denominations within recent American culture and history, but it's recommended for those wanting more from this welcome voice. I reviewed "BR" at length a few months ago on this site. Amazon US 4-12-18

My photoJohn L Murphy is a Professor of Literature who reviews @ Blogtrotter. 

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Anthony McIntyre

Former IRA prisoner, spent 18 years in Long Kesh. Free Speech advocate, writer, historian, humanist, and researcher.

4 comments to ''To Change The Church"

  1. no mention of archbishop vigano's letter?

  2. History of European Morals from Augustus to Charlemagne by William Edward Hartpole Lecky

    ‘’The Proposition For Which I Am Contending Is Simply That There Is Such a Thing As a Natural History Of Morals.’’

    History of European Morals by William Edward Hartpole Lecky was one of Mark Twain's favorite books. According to Albert Bigelow Paine, Which he first read it in 1873. Along with Lecky's History of England in the Eighteenth Century, it was an important influence on Connecticut Yankee. As Harold Aspiz pointed out, Mark Twain made use of both Lecky's facts and Lecky's ideas. One modification, of course, was the way MT moved Lecky's ascetics from the deserts of Egypt to Arthurian England . . In addition, Mark Twain was deeply attracted to Lecky's ideas about the past, progress and the human race. The excerpt below begins with a proposition in which Lecky defines what he means by a "natural history of morals’’, an example of the way Lecky's studies and forensic research depicts the retarding of development in Christian European society across the centuries. Calling the seventh century in which Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee is set; "the darkest period of the dark ages," Lecky repeatedly condemns the "superstitious torpor" and "blind credulity of medieval religion.’’’ MT agreed enthusiastically with Lecky's attack. For example, when Lecky contrasted the Roman ideals of "self reliance" and "independence" with the "cardinal or rudimentary virtues in the Christian character" -- "humility, obedience, gentleness, patience, resignation" -- MT wrote in the margin of his copy of European Morals, "Christianity then did not raise up the slave, but degraded all conditions of men to the slave's level." He then has his Connecticut Yankee say that "an Established Church is an established slave pen.’ For Lecky, the great agent of change is capitalism, or, as he calls it, the ‘’Industrial Spirit."

    ‘’ The Proposition for which I am contending is simply that there is such a thing as a natural history of morals, a defined and regular order, in which our moral feelings are unfolded; or, in other words, that there are certain groups of virtues which spring spontaneously out of the circumstances and mental conditions of an uncivilised people, and that there are others which are the normal and appropriate products of civilisation.’’ The ‘‘civiIisation’ to which Lecky refers is of course based on christian Europe’s self-professed claim as successors and heirs to the ‘classical world’ of Plato and Cicero. A world of Misogyny, racial superiority, and Divine Reprobation. The 19th century was a world of European Empire, where christian ‘civilisation’ had replaced - and often totally eradicated, native natural culture and religion had replaced the natural laws, morality and spiritually of the Human Race.

    Since God Rules The Heavens, And Caesar The Lands,Neither The Earth Nor Stars Have Greater Light Than These ‘HOLY ROMAN EMPEROR ’MAXIMILIAN

    ’ The Collective Unconscious Is A Part Of The Psyche Which Can Be Distinquished From A Personal Unconscious By The Fact That It Does Not, Like The Later, Owe Its Existence To Personal Experience. Further, It Is My Confirmed View A Great Error To Suppose That The Psyche Of A New-Borne Child Is A Blank Mind Which Contains Absolutely Nothing.’’ - Carl Gustav Jung

    ‘’’We Sacrifice The Intellect To God’’ – Ignatius Loyala ‘’Reason Is The Devel’s Harlot.’’ – Martin Luther

  3. Such convoluted bollocks.

    An Empire of corruption, stoically indifferent to the victims of it's parsons that heeds not reason nor legality either.

    Every Empire falls, the Church of Rome will be no different.

  4. My review focused on the book's analysis, not the standard anti-papist rhetoric: this is a critique of Douthat's arguments, not a rehash of rants against (or for) Rome Rule. Anonymous, I did not mention here Vigano's letter as this review was written in the spring, before that document was issued; the review is reprinted from then on TPQ


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