March 29, 2018

Douthat's New Book

I lost sleep last night compulsively reading Ross Douthat's new book To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism.  It's not surprising this would be a good one given it offers intrinsically interesting subject matter via a writer of great gifts.

It starts with Douthat's openness about his spiritual journey (in the interest of transparency as it necessarily impacts how he views things) to a short history of the papacy, including how Benedict XVI chose to go the route of the obscure pontiff from the 1200s who made resignation an option.

But really the price of the book was worth it just to open my eyes to the fact that I’ve been looking at the papacy wrong, that I’ve been seduced into thinking like the Church needs someone who will turn things around when, in fact, all periods of restoration and evangelization have come from the grass roots, St. Benedict, St. Francis, etc... It’s saints who really change things for the better by their fealty to God, not popes.

And it’s only a modern thing where we canonize popes and have a cult-like allegiance to them. Once you get past the papal-martyrs of the first 300 years, papal saints have been few and far between.

I feel rather relieved in some ways. I feel like the Church is not doomed with Francis just as it was not saved by John Paul. There’s no greater proof, to my mind, that popes are extremely limited in power by the fact that St. John Paul II and Benedict led no great rebound.  Ultimately the only salvation is the breath of God restoring his Church with radical saints.

Douthat makes the case that while church “liberals” have obviously accelerated the downfall of the Church by any objective measure (vocations, Mass attendance, birthrates, etc..), church “conservatives” have not made any significant difference, just slowed the rate of decline a bit.

So he says both liberals and conservatives share blame in the ineffectiveness of our witness. Conservatives are too insular and have compromised themselves by identifying too closely with right wing politics (such as approving of George W. Bush). Liberals have failed by not recognizing the failed experiment of Episcopalians, who have gotten everything that Catholic liberals want with disastrous results.


The conclave vote was interesting. Bergoglio started with about 20% of the vote on the first ballot and moved to about 85% of the final fifth ballot. So I guess almost perfect bell curve of opinion: 20% totally enthusiastic about him from the beginning of the conclave, and 15% couldn't bring themselves to vote for him even in the final "rubber stamp" vote.  The penultimate vote had him at 64%, which means about 36% apparently had some misgivings even at that relatively late stage, or simply preferred their candidate and weren't willing to compromise.  He benefited likewise from a certain malleability, of seeming to be all things to all groups:
Not all of the Bergoglio distinctives were apparent to the cardinals in the conclave, and perhaps a fuller sense of Bergoglio’s background and perspective would have changed the outcome of the vote. But perhaps not, because once his candidacy gained momentum, different pieces of his biography seemed to be arranged to suit what different electors wanted to see in him. The St. Galleners canvassed for him because they saw hints of their own worldview in his focus on poverty and social justice, his seeming weariness with certain culture war battles, and his decentralizing instincts. Conservatives came around to him because they were reassured by what they knew of his wars with left-wing Jesuits, his earthy supernaturalism, his conflicts with the Argentine president. Latin and African cardinals appreciated his non-European, from-the-peripheries perspective. North American cardinals saw a fellow New Worlder and an experienced manager whom they could back against the Italianate corruptions of the curia.
Douthat also gives a spirited and touching defense of the "Pharisee" Catholics whom Francis regularly rails against:
To be sure there were legalists in their ranks; to be sure there were stone-throwers and nostalgists and bigots; to be sure the temptation toward self-righteousness was ever-present, ever-real. But looking at the big picture, it seemed unfair to treat their beleaguered subculture—the homeschooling families raising five children on a modest budget, the young men joining the priesthood in a world that sneered at celibacy, the clusters of Catholics praying the Rosary at abortion clinics, the elderly parishioners sacrificing to keep eucharistic adoration going—as if it shared in all the authoritarian faults of the church in Franco’s Spain or Eamon de Valera’s Ireland. Especially since it was this subculture that in many cases had kept Catholicism in the West going, kept it from sharing Mainline Protestantism’s fate, kept parishes from closing and seminaries from emptying, kept the church’s schools from going under and the church’s charities from becoming simple clients of the government, kept the church’s scandal-plagued bishops from becoming generals without an army.

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