“To Change the Church” With Ross Douthat

interview with Ross Douthat
Wednesday, April 4, 2018
Image of Ross Douthat with a grey background
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Uncommon Knowledge

Recorded on February 27, 2018

 What do Catholics think of Pope Francis’s changes to the Catholic Church? Ross Douthat explores that question in his new book, To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism. Douthat joins Peter Robinson on Uncommon Knowledge to discuss his new book, his thoughts and critiques of Pope Francis, and the changing conception of divorce under Pope Francis’s ambiguous teachings.

Douthat and Robinson spend a large portion of the episode discussing the Catholic teachings surrounding marriage, divorce, and communion. They examine the history of Catholicism and divorce, going back so far as to understand the lessons of the New Testament on divorce and how those lessons were radically conservative for the time. They talk about how problematic the terms “conservative” and “liberal” are when used in the context of the Church as the political leanings do not necessarily correlate with moral leanings of religion. They go on to discuss the future of the Catholic Church under Pope Francis and how the Bishops can handle all of the changes.

About the Guest

Ross Douthat is an author and New York Times Op-Ed columnist. He received his bachelor’s degree from Harvard University in 2002. He is the author of several books including, Privilege, Grand New Party, Bad Religion, and most recently, To Change the Church.



Peter Robinson: The oldest institution in the West, the Roman Catholic Church, claims to teach certain unchanging, immutable truths. Or used to. With us today, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, who has just published a book on Pope Francis, To Change the Church. From Washington DC, Uncommon Knowledge Now. Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge, I'm Peter Robinson. A graduate of Harvard, Ross Douthat in 2009 at the age of 29 became the youngest columnist in the history of The New York Times, where his work appears every Wednesday and Saturday. Born into an Episcopalian household, Mr. Douthat followed his mother in converting to the Roman Catholic Church when he was in his teens. Quote, "I have a strong interest in religious questions," Mr. Douthat writes in his book, "But little natural piety." That new book, To Change the Church, Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism. Ross Douthat, welcome.

Ross Douthat: It's good to be here, Peter, thank you for having me.

Peter Robinson: Is the pope Catholic?

Ross Douthat: Of course. Of course.

Peter Robinson: Very briefly, I do mean briefly, there are bits of this where we're just going to have to pause to define terms, very briefly. Why does the pope matter to Catholics more than any other living figure?

Ross Douthat: Because the pope is the successor to Saint Peter. He is the man in charge in the long line of continuity that Catholics think, I think with some warrant, goes back to Jesus' choice of Galilee and fisherman to run the church on earth. So, in that sense, the pope is the closest thing we have to God's man on planet earth.

Peter Robinson: All right. The marriage problem, which lies at the center of the book. The book discusses many aspects of this papacy, but at the very center, marriage. The Argentine Jesuit, Jorge Bergoglio is elected pope in 2013. The following year, he invites a German theologian, Cardinal Walter Kasper to speak at an official Vatican event. Kasper's topic is marriage. I'm quoting you, Ross. "Consistently across the centuries, the Catholic church has taught that if a first marriage was valid, a second marriage is not just wrong, but actually an impossibility. Kasper proposed a crucial change in the name of mercy, the church should allow divorced and remarried Catholics to receive communion." Close quote.

Peter Robinson: Now, that's just a couple of sentences, but we've got several concepts there that we just have to explicate for a moment. If a first marriage is valid, second marriage not only cannot take place, but cannot exist? Just explain that for lapsed Catholics and everybody else.

Ross Douthat: And everybody else. Right, the idea is, again, as with the papacy itself, it goes back to the gospels, and to the words of Jesus. And in one of the many instances where people come to Jesus with a testing question, he gets asked about Jewish law around divorce, and he takes Jewish law and essentially makes it more intense and absolutely. And he says, "Moses gave you divorce because your hearts were hard," in effect, but from the beginning, God made them male and female, and therefore, what God has joined together, let not man separate, and if anyone divorces his wife and marries another, he commits adultery. And this was seen ... it's useful to stress, because tend ... we have an imagination about religious questions that assumes in the past everything was terrible and strict, and then we've sort of left strictness behind and so on, but the reality is that Jewish law was not as strict as what Jesus was proposing. And in fact, the conservative position on marriage, small c, of his era was sort of akin to a more a liberal position now, that albeit with a strong sort of patriarchal tinge that a man was allowed to divorce his wife in certain set circumstances, and so on. And Jesus, in a gesture of radicalism-

Peter Robinson: Right.

Ross Douthat: Rejects that, and says, "No, that's impossible." And that if the first marriage is real, in the eyes of God, then it's real forever. And the second marriage is never an actual marriage.

Peter Robinson: So, I just want to stress this point. It is simply ahistorical to suppose that Jesus' teaching reflects the common understanding at the time. The teaching that he pronounced was a hard and a new teaching-

Ross Douthat: Yes.

Peter Robinson: Even by the standard of 2,000 years ago.

Ross Douthat: Yes, precisely.

Peter Robinson: All right.

Ross Douthat: Yes. Which was a common aspect of his teaching in the gospels on a whole host of questions.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Ross Douthat: That he was not taking on this, on questions of great wealth, he has the famous line saying about the camel and the needle's eye, how hard it is for a rich man to get into heaven, and there, as with the divorce question, you have this response from the disciples, "Well, who can be saved then? It seems so hard." And this happens again and again in the gospels, not just on questions related to sex.

Peter Robinson: All right. Now ... if a Catholic contracts a valid marriage ... again, I just want to go through the basics here so that we can take off and discuss the argument. A Catholic contracts a valid marriage, and then times being what they are, a Catholic divorces and remarries. In the eyes of the church, pre Pope Francis, what is the status of that second marriage?

Ross Douthat: That second marriage is not considered a real marriage. And therefore, the person in it is considered to be in a state of essentially public adultery, to use the kind of harshest possible language.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Ross Douthat: Now, with that being said, the reality is that before Pope Francis-

Peter Robinson: Yes.

Ross Douthat: The church had already ... especially the church in the United States, had already adapted itself in certain ways to the reality that you describe, which is the reality that we all live with. My parents and grandparents are both divorced, it's impossible to live in the Western world and not be connected to the reality of divorce.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Ross Douthat: And so the church essentially shifted from the 1960s onward, and said, "We're going to expand the grounds for what constitutes an issue of invalidity. We're going to say it's not just that you married your sibling or your cousin by mistake, it's not just that you married someone against their will, there can also be emotional factors or various kinds, factors of intentionality, if you didn't intent a truly Catholic marriage, that can be grounds from an annulment." So in that sense, the church already created a kind of compromise with the realities that we all live with, before the controversies of the Francis era began.

Peter Robinson: Right. But, A. The fundamental theology remains in place, which is to say if the first marriage was valid-

Ross Douthat: Right.

Peter Robinson: What the church is saying is there may, in the modern world where there's less teaching about marriage, people enter into marriage, even Catholics enter into marriage less informed about what is expected of them to make the sacrament valid, it could be that there are more marriages that are never really valid in the first place. Nevertheless, a validly contracted marriage is permanent. Correct?

Ross Douthat: Right. And to prove invalidity, you have to go through a kind of juridical process.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Ross Douthat: Within the church, where the marriage that's sort of up for debate, where it's validity is up for debate-

Peter Robinson: Right.

Ross Douthat: Is taken seriously as a possible reality, and is ... and if someone, if your spouse wishes to contest the declaration of nullity, as famously happened in the case of the wife of one of the Kennedys.

Peter Robinson: Yes.

Ross Douthat: They can appeal all the way to Rome, and in her case, actually win.

Peter Robinson: Yes.

Ross Douthat: So there's a sense in which the process as it exists, while it may be lax in certain ways, by its very existence testifies to the underlying belief that a valid marriage is worth defending and taking seriously as permanent.

Peter Robinson: An annulment is, strictly speaking, it's a decree of ... it is saying not that the marriage is broken down irretrievably, but that a proper marriage never existed in the first place.

Ross Douthat: Exactly.

Peter Robinson: All right-

Ross Douthat: Yes.

Peter Robinson: And one more point, the connection between marriage and communion. To receive communion, the Catholic church teaches that a Catholic must be in a state of grace. And what does that imply for the divorced and remarried Catholic?

Ross Douthat: Nothing with absolute certainty. In the sense that the church does not claim to have an x-ray machine that can tell you the exact situation of any given soul. But the church tries to set rules based on reasonable, general premises. And the reasonable, general premise is that if someone is, again, in a state of what counts as public adultery, they are not able to do what you are supposed to do before you receive communion, they're not able to go to confession, and confess sincerely and promise, essentially, to do their best never to sin again. Because if you're in a second marriage, you're clearly not planning to sort of do your best going forward, you're staying in the marriage. So that point combined with a concern about what the church calls scandal, basically the idea that a public act, like receiving communion, to do that while you are in a publicly adulterous marriage, is to sort of teach against the church's own teaching. That combination explains why the church has said people in such second marriages should not receive communion.

Peter Robinson: All right.

Ross Douthat: Which doesn't mean that they don't, right?

Peter Robinson: Yes, yes, well we're coming to that.

Ross Douthat: I mean, again anyone ... right.

Peter Robinson: So now, we Cardinal Kasper, sorry there's a lot of set up here. But, a Catholic myself, I am quite certain ... I mean, there are a lot of bits of this that I had, "Oh, that's right, this is there because of this ... " I mean, we need a little refresher course here. Long time since parochial school. So, Cardinal Kasper, now he's speaking at the Vatican in 2013, at the invitation of Pope Francis. And Kasper says, quote, "In the name of mercy, the church should allow divorced and remarried Catholics to receive communion." Close quote. Why should that be even remotely controversial? Mercy, Ross?

Ross Douthat: Because, again, there are sort of specific questions about the mercy issue, right, which is to begin with mercy for people in one situation may not be mercy for people in another. It's possible to argue, I think reasonably, that for the church to essentially sort of exceed to the divorce revolution is to abandon the children of divorce, in many cases-

Peter Robinson: Right.

Ross Douthat: To tell them, "Oh, even the church doesn't take your parents' original marriage seriously anymore." And it's potentially to abandon people who are currently struggling in their marriages, and are looking to the church for solidity and reassurance, and so on. So those are sort of cases against the "it's just mercy" argument.  But ultimately, from the point of view of the church, those are secondary. The ultimate issue is that mercy cannot be opposed to truth, and to the church's obligation to tell people the truth about their situation. And so if the church is telling people it's fine to receive communion, to take the body and blood of Christ, which Saint Paul says in his letters, "If you receive it unworthily, you drink damnation upon yourself." So for the church to say, "Don't worry, you're worthy," to people who have not gone through an annulment process, have not taken steps to essentially assure themselves, and assure everyone around them that their original marriage was not, in fact, valid, that's a failure of the church's basic obligation to take care of souls. Their souls and the souls of the community around them.  And it's a shift that means that the church wouldn't really have a teaching on indissolubility anymore, right. It becomes a situation where the church says, "Okay, we have this law, it's on the books somewhere, it says that marriage are indissoluble because Jesus says so, of course we still believe in that." And Cardinal Kasper would say this too. If you were here interviewing him, he would say, "Nothing in this proposal challenges the indissolubility of marriage."  But the fact is, if the church both has a generous annulment process, and says, "If you can't do the annulment process, say a few prayers, go to confession, express some contrition for your first marriage's failure, and then proceed in good conscience," then that rule is just on the books, and it doesn't exist in reality.

Peter Robinson: Right, right. So, since the 60s we see Latin mass tossed out, the number of annulments granted vastly increased, particularly in this country, the old rules of fasting are tossed out, the religious orders collapse, I'm talking about Europe and the United States.

Ross Douthat: Yep.

Peter Robinson: And everybody pretty much goes along. And then you write, in To Change the Church, "Remarriage and communion was a place where conservatives felt they had to draw a line," toss out Latin, watch the nuns disappear, start dressing in miniskirts instead of their habits, all right, we can live with that. But we cannot live with this. Explain.

Ross Douthat: Because it, again, it goes to two fundamental issues. First, the words of Jesus himself. Jesus did not speak in Latin, he didn't design the Tridentine Rite, as far as we know. I mean, obviously supporters of the Tridentine Rite would argue that it partakes of divine inspiration, but you can't read the gospels and find the Tridentine Rite there. You can't read the gospels and find particular rules for ... there's sort of a general idea about pronunciation and fasting, but sort of particular issues like meatless Fridays and so on.

Peter Robinson: Right, right.

Ross Douthat: Those are all seen, I think reasonably, as rituals and practices that flow from core church teachings, but are not themselves the core.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Ross Douthat: Whereas, the question of the indissolubility of marriage, and its relationship to communion, right, the nature of communion, the nature of the situation in which you should take communion, those go to the hardest things Jesus said, not just the marriage issue, but also the idea that the Eucharist really is the body and blood of Christ, yet another New Testament teaching that has people shaking their heads and backing away.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Ross Douthat: And it goes to the continuity of church teaching. It's not just that these teachings are plausibly linked to the New Testament, they're also teachings that have been affirmed and reaffirmed by popes and councils down through the ages, they're teachings that figures, prominent figures, were martyred for, in effect, as Thomas Moore and Saint John Fisher were in England under Henry VIII. And they're teachings that the popes after Vatican II, after the second Vatican council, John Paul II and Benedict XVI explicitly reaffirmed in documents that address just these questions, that said, "Look, in an age of mass divorce, we need to recognize that people find themselves in complicated situations, the church needs to accompany them, it needs to have a spirit of charity, but we can't admit people to communion in these circumstances because of the church's perennial teaching."

Peter Robinson: Right.

Ross Douthat: This is something popes taught explicitly 25 years ago, so you get ... if you have a reversal of that, you have sort of explicit proof that the claims of continuity that the church makes, that justify its teachings on all kinds of issues are maybe a little sketchy, let's say.

Peter Robinson: All right. All right. Even before Francis' ascension, you write, "It should have been clear that John Paul II-era conservative Catholicism was not as robust as its adherents wanted to believe." Close quote. Okay. So I can sketch in the background there pretty quickly, partly because I've read your book, but partly because I was one of those who's been astonished by the current papacy. And here's the way it goes. The Second Vatican Council gets held 1961 to '65.

Ross Douthat: '62 to '65.

Peter Robinson: '62 to '65, John XXIII convenes and presides over the first couple of sessions, he dies, Paul VI takes over and presides over the concluding session, and there are documents, lots of documents-

Ross Douthat: Lots of documents.

Peter Robinson: And then we go through the rest of the papacy of Paul VI is a kind of taking the documents and going much farther than the documents did, this is when the nuns stopped wearing their habits, and ... there's a kind of liberal way-

Ross Douthat: There's a lot of experimentation.

Peter Robinson: Experimen- ... thank you very much-

Ross Douthat: Is the best way to put it.

Peter Robinson: Yes, thank you, very polite, very tactful, well done, Ross. But then we get John Paul II, and Benedict, and this is what, 30 some years between those papacies, and they say, "The second council remains valid, but the second council is contained in the documents." Not the spirit of the second Vatican council, and so we get a very careful redefinition. Marriage remains marriage, the sacraments remain the sacraments. A very careful redefinition of what is fundamental, and what has not changed as a result of the council, the Second Vatican Council, and Catholics like Robinson here think, "Oh, okay, that's-"

Ross Douthat: Right.

Peter Robinson: "That."

Ross Douthat: Yep.

Peter Robinson: And then, we have a conclave in which every single elector, every single cardinal, was created a cardinal by either John Paul II, or Benedict XVI, and they produce a Latin American Jesuit, which should be warning flares all over the Sistine Chapel, just those terms, a Latin American Jesuit, and they name him pontiff, and he behaves in all kinds of ways, as if Paul IV had never died, and John Paul II and Benedict XVI had never been born. Will you explain that to me, please?

Ross Douthat: Well, you know-

Peter Robinson: First of all, [crosstalk 00:19:11]

Ross Douthat: God works in mysterious ways, his wonders to perform, Peter.

Peter Robinson: All right, all right.

Ross Douthat: I think ... so in general, I think it is true that what ... on these particular questions, and I mean one thing to note, we can talk more about this, but the reason ... part of the reason the question of divorce and remarriage looms so large is not just on its own terms, it's that it also promises a method of reopening a host of controversial questions.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Ross Douthat: Right, everything related to the sexual revolution, and lots of issues related to ecumenism, bioethics, euthanasia, basically if you create a sort of moral regime in which you have sort of constantly granted exceptions, then you have provided a way, and I think this is how, if not Francis himself, at least some of the people around him see his mission, that you're providing a way for the church to maintain its teachings somewhere up here, while also sort of dealing with the realities of the late modern West, in ways that John Paul II and Benedict XVI weren't able to do.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Ross Douthat: In this theory.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Ross Douthat: So, that, I think, is the project. And that project does, in certain ways, take the church back in time to the controversies of, let's say, 1966 to 1975. Now, what's interesting about the pope is that-

Peter Robinson: The current pope.

Ross Douthat: The current pope, about the former Jorge Bergoglio, is that one reason he was elected is that he was seen as a Latin American Jesuit who had fought with his fellow Jesuits. That in the 70s, in those controversies about various experiments and liberation theology, and sort of putting away all of Catholic ritual, and trading it in for social and political action, he was seen as more of a conservative, in the controversies within Argentina.  And so, at least some of the people voting for him in that conclave imagined that he was sort of a parallel figure to John Paul II had been a liberal in the days of the Council, as had Joseph Ratzinger, ultimately, Benedict XVI, and that like them, Bergoglio was a kind of liberal turned neoconservative, to use American parlance, right, that he had been a liberal who had agreed that the excesses of the church's sort of left flank had gone too far, and so now he would be elected, and there would be that kind of continuity, and he was ultimately being elected because he was seen as sort of an austere and aesthetic outsider who would clean up the mess in the Vatican more than his predecessors had.

Peter Robinson: So the notion is even an Argentine Jesuit has now accommodated himself to the teaching ... I hate to talk about the spirit of John Paul ... well, let's just say the teaching of John Paul II, and Benedict XVI, then what we have here is a kind of final victory for the calming down, the rationalization of the Second Council, and the integration of the Second Council with traditional orthodoxy, if-

Ross Douthat: That would've been the view, that would've been the view of many of the men voting for him.

Peter Robinson: And then [crosstalk 00:22:16]

Ross Douthat: Or that it had already settled down, right?

Peter Robinson: Right.

Ross Douthat: It wasn't so much that what John Paul II and Benedict had done, that they had both been teachers.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Ross Douthat: And that in teaching, they had sort of established an authoritative interpretation of Vatican II. If you had-

Peter Robinson: Right.

Ross Douthat: My friend and yours, George Weigel, here having this conversation five or ten years ago, he would've said, very straightforwardly, "John Paul II is the authoritative interpreter of Vatican II. His interpretation stands, and it is so solid that it cannot reasonably be challenged." And what Francis has proved is that it can be challenged by a pope.

Peter Robinson: All right, so it all comes unstuck, he invites the new pope, formerly Jorge Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, in the first full year of his own pontificate, he invites cardinal Kasper, a German cardinal, to give these remarks at the Vatican. I was going to say calling into ... well, we've already been through this, but suggesting communion for divorced and remarried, which sounds like a modest pastoral suggestion, "These people need our help," but in fact, if granted, causes everything to come unstuck. Then we have ... there's a lot to get through here, even for a Catholic. But let's go quickly, we've got synods in 2013 and 2014, and then we've got the Pope issuing an apostolic exhortation in 2016, Amoris Laetitia, which I'm sure I mispronounced. So quickly ... I don't know how ... we're talking about an institution that moves in decades, if not centuries-

Ross Douthat: Quickly, it's like a-

Peter Robinson: Go ahead.

Ross Douthat: It's a political science problem, in a sense.

Peter Robinson: Yeah, okay, go ahead, Ross.

Ross Douthat: How do you change a church that can't change, right? And the answer is that you need consensus. If you look at the biggest changes of the Second Vatican Council, which were the changes especially on how the church approached religious liberty in a modern political context, where you had these clear, thundering anathemas from the 19th century, these condemnations of liberalism-

Peter Robinson: Modernity, right.

Ross Douthat: Modernity, you had to sort of ... the church fathers felt like they had to move beyond that. They did it by overwhelming consensus. They fiddled and worked with the document, and eventually they got a vote on the document on religious liberty that was something like 2,000 to 17-

Peter Robinson: Right.

Ross Douthat: Of the world's assembled bishops. So whatever happened, the pope and the church could say, "Look, this wasn't controversial. 2,000 of the world's 2,200 bishops voted for it."

Peter Robinson: We move together, we move together.

Ross Douthat: Right. And so Francis sets ... attempts to set up a similar process on the divorce and remarriage question. He convenes first one, then a second synod of bishops, which is not the equivalent of the Second Vatican Council, but a kind of smaller council of bishops to discuss the problem of marriage and family. They talk about a lot of issues, but this question of divorce and remarriage is clearly at the heart. And he ends up unable to get that kind of consensus. Instead, you have these ongoing clashes, these public arguments between bishops and cardinals, that resemble nothing so much as the controversies in the Anglican communion, right, over these same issues. And at the end of the day, he can't get to the point where he has any kind of consensus for this. So what he does, is he issues this apostolic letter, and says-

Peter Robinson: Called?

Ross Douthat: Called Amoris Laetitia.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Ross Douthat: And says, basically nothing clear on the subject. He talks a lot about accompaniment, he offers a kind of theory of sort of morality that seems to be in tension with John Paul II's arguments, that seems to be sort of moving the church away from the view that certain things are intrinsically evil, and towards a more relativized situation ethics, but doesn't say so explicitly, and then he has a couple of footnotes that seem to point towards this change that Cardinal Kasper had urged, but that don't say so explicitly. And then, that ambiguous document-

Peter Robinson: Intentional ambiguity, there's really no other way to put it.

Ross Douthat: There's no ... yeah, it's obviously ... if you take the most controversial-

Peter Robinson: [crosstalk 00:26:29] It's almost a Monty Python ... all right, go ahead, I'm sorry. [crosstalk 00:26:33]

Ross Douthat: Well if you take the most controverted question of the two consecutive synods that got lots of media attention, from own newspaper included, and sort of deal with that question in a footnote, you are obviously aiming for ambiguity. And I think the case for what the pope is doing would be, in effect, by acting ambiguously, you create space for sort of bottom up solutions. I think that if you had someone who was more congenial to Pope Francis' approach than I, sitting here, that's what they would say. They would say, "This creates room for the Holy Spirit to work."  And in fact, it has led to a kind of real bottom up experimentation, in the sense that if you go diocese by diocese, and country by country in the world today, with sort of particularly sharp divergences between, say, a liberal Germany and a conservative Poland, right, between Walter Kasper's country and John Paul II's country, you get very different public teachings on this question of communion for the divorced and remarried. And the best case scenario, is that this is setting up an era of experimentation and ferment that will lead, again, from the bottom up to solutions for this problem of how does the Catholic church subsist in post sexual revolution modernity. If you want to make the pessimistic case, which I do make in the book, you are setting up different diocese and different national churches to effectively evolve away from each other, not just on this question, but on the whole roster of issues, same sex marriage, euthanasia, and so on. And in the end, it's hard to see the process avoiding, somewhere down the line, real division and ultimately schism.

Peter Robinson: Okay. It's worth nothing, just for touching on one moment, the dubia. 2016, we get a publication by four cardinals of ... explain that very briefly-

Ross Douthat: So a dubium is the Latin for a question that is asked to clarify a point of church teaching, cannon law and so on. And so you have four cardinals, one of them is Raymond Cardinal Burke, the American not just conservative, but traditionalist, who had been fired or removed from various positions by Pope Francis, and then had emerged as one of his very striking public critics. He, along with three other sort of retired heavyweights, posed five questions to the pope and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which is the office sort of charged with continuity of doctrine.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Ross Douthat: And the first question is the easy one, it just says, "Can people who are divorced and remarried, without an annulment, take communion?" And then the next four questions are all sort of broader questions about this issue I just mentioned, whether the church is moving towards a kind of situation, ethics, or whether the view that some things are intrinsically evil and you can never do them no matter the circumstances, is still the Catholic view.

Peter Robinson: Readable, straightforward, [crosstalk 00:29:34]

Ross Douthat: They're all very straight ... if you read Amoris Laetitia back to back with five or six things John Paul II wrote, you would have all of these questions too. They are completely reasonable questions, the pope-

Peter Robinson: And the Holy Roman Pontiff responds ...

Ross Douthat: He doesn't, right, he doesn't answer them. Again, because they ... well, I mean, again, there are different views on this. One view expressed by some of his supporters is that he has had already tacitly answered them, and doesn't need to answer them again, and that this is a publicity stunt. But, clearly the general the answer is that that level of clarity he doesn't deem appropriate at the current time, in what he intends to be an age of experimentation. So, giving answers, in effect, is to prejudge the debate and the process that he wants to set in motion for the church.

Peter Robinson: I'm quoting you, Ross. To Change the Church. "It was clear that ... " You write that the dubia raised, quote, "Reasonable questions," I'm continuing to quote you, "It was clear that Amoris Laetitia yearned in the direction of changing the church's rules for communion...He wants to do it. Yet... the pope never said so directly, never simply came out of said, 'For many of the divorced and remarried, the church's law is just too hard to follow, so they can receive communion in good conscience.'" Close quote.

Peter Robinson: This is indirection, intentionally vague language, it's, to the conservatives, "You can't get me, because I haven't actually said anything explicit-"

Ross Douthat: Right.

Peter Robinson: "That violates orthodoxy," and to the liberals, it's wink, wink, nudge, nudge, "Go at it fellas, I've given you room." Is this the way for a pontiff to conduct himself? I thought it was part of the ... I mean, layman that I am, I thought it was part of the charge of the pontiff to present clarity in matters of faith, so we all knew where we stood. We are responsible for our souls.

Ross Douthat: Yeah, I mean, the argument for what Francis is doing is that in this new paradigm, this is language that's been used recently by a couple of cardinals close to the Holy Father, that we need a new paradigm for the church, and that includes a new paradigm for the pontiff himself, for the Holy Father. That no longer as adult Catholics, should we just look to the pope for a kind of simplifying clarity. And instead, just as Vatican II, the Second Vatican Council, empowered the laity, or tried to, and sort of ordinary church life and church governance, so too now is Francis sort of completing the revolution by empowering the faithful to essentially take responsibility for finding their own clarity on some of these questions. I think that's, again, that's the response, the argument for what he's doing that I think would be offered in defense of-

Peter Robinson: You're such a charitable man, Ross. And what would be said against it?

Ross Douthat: Well, what would be said against it is what you already said, right, that the role of the ... the point of having a pope is to supply clarity. And the reality is that the popes have not always been the best political stewards of the church, they haven't always been the most moral of men. Catholicism is famous for its worldly renaissance popes, its bumbling political popes, even popes in the middle ages who raped and murdered pilgrims to Rome, I mean the church has had some very bad popes. And nobody thinks that the Vatican, at the present moment, is some model for good governance.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Ross Douthat: So the purpose of the pope has to be something else. And that something has traditionally been understood to be this kind of narrow, sort of self-limiting job, of making sure that the core truths of Christianity are the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow, and to sort of abdicate that office on a question that obviously bears on every other question where there's tension between the church and modernity, is I think to open the church up to a scale of division and potentially dissolution that I think the pope's admirers underestimate. I think there is an assumption that this process will naturally work out the way they intend it to, and there isn't enough appreciation for the extent to which in sacrificing a certain amount of moral and doctrinal authority, you sacrifice your role as a unifier, as well. That the job of the pope to be a symbol of unity depends on that kind of magisterial teaching on controversial questions.

Peter Robinson: All right. We've now ... beautiful job of being evenhanded and setting things up, but you just said, "I think ... " We now are beginning to see where Ross stands here.

Ross Douthat: I think it's clear where I stand.

Peter Robinson: No, it is clear if you've read the ... all right, all right-

Ross Douthat: [crosstalk 00:34:33] Well or even from my descriptions of all these issues are-

Peter Robinson: I just keep thinking you're a little too ready to pitch me into hellfire and just stand on the edge and watch me burn there, Ross, although-

Ross Douthat: There's no ... well, in the church of mercy, you don't have to worry about hellfire, Peter, so I'm clearly not going to do that.

Peter Robinson: What a relief. What a relief. Okay.

Ross Douthat: But look-

Peter Robinson: Go ahead.

Ross Douthat: In all seriousness, it's a very serious thing to write a book that's critical of the Holy Father. Right, we're both converts to Catholicism at different stages of life, and so converts, I think there's a certain level of suspicion that occasionally attaches to our motives, and this has come up in the Francis era, there have been sort of critiques written of people criticizing the pope saying, "Oh, it's the converts who are so obsessed with doctrinal niceties, and who don't understand the papal role as essentially a figure of unity who is to be respected and who sort of carry the church through these evolutionary processes," and so on.

Ross Douthat: And so you have to be ... I don't think that criticism is right, but it's a criticism you have to be aware of, if you're going to write a book like this. And so, I'm not trying to perform evenhandedness, I'm trying to say-

Peter Robinson: You have to be aware of it, I'm just trying to push you into-

Ross Douthat: I'm just saying ... well, no you can ... I'm in trouble already. I'm just saying, you have to be aware of your own ... if you're questioning the authority of the man who we started out talking about as God's representative on earth, you have to have a healthy awareness of your own potential limitations as well.

Peter Robinson: All right. So, let me quote-

Ross Douthat: But now, push me.

Peter Robinson: Yeah, I'm going-

Ross Douthat: Over the edge.

Peter Robinson: Okay, exactly, exactly. We've got you right up on the precipice. You can feel the fire burning your eyebrows-

Ross Douthat: Yeah.

Peter Robinson: I'm about to toss you in, Ross. I'm reading again from the book. "Whatever ... " excuse me, you quote Father Antonio Spadaro, who's a close advisor ... I don't know what he is, exactly, but every time there's a photograph of the pope, it seems-

Ross Douthat: He's a close advisor-

Peter Robinson: You can see Spadaro in the background.

Ross Douthat: He's the editor of La Civilta Cattolica, the Jesuit intellectual magazine.

Peter Robinson: So he has genuine standing.

Ross Douthat: He has genuine standing.

Peter Robinson: Okay.

Ross Douthat: But he's also, essentially, part of the pope's small sort of intellectual circle.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Ross Douthat: I think is fair to say.

Peter Robinson: So Spadaro says in 2014, "It is not said how far the process of integration can go," that is, of the remarried back into communion, the sacramental life of the church, "But neither are any more precise and insurmountable limitations set up." In other words, wow, ambiguity. Hallelujah, just what we need. And you write, "This reading was similar to how progressive Catholics had often interpreted the documents of Vatican II. Whatever was novel was taken to control the text's meanings and implications. Whatever was conservative was assumed to be merely vestigial. What mattered above all was the direction of movement, pointing to further movements still."

Peter Robinson: And that's the game going on here, where in Amoris Laetitia, he never quite comes out and says, "This way to change things," but in a couple of footnotes, there's intentional-

Ross Douthat: I mean, so this is-

Peter Robinson: This is an old game revived, so to speak.

Ross Douthat: Well, and this is the sort of fascinating thing about liberal Catholicism.

Peter Robinson: Yes.

Ross Douthat: Going back to before Vatican II, to the controversies that preceded it. There's always been a deep uncertainty and ambiguity about how far liberal Catholicism wants to go. And that ambiguity is sort of written into the DNA of the liberalizing project, in certain ways. And I'm not always sure if it's in there because the liberalizers are aware that they're dealing with truculent conservatives, like you and I, who have to be carefully brought along, or if the liberal project is sort of inherently open to whatever comes next, right?

Peter Robinson: Right.

Ross Douthat: Where wherever culture is going, that's where the church has to go as well. And so, one of the challenges in having arguments about the church under Francis, and I've done a series of public conversations lately with the papal biographer, with various figures who sort of are defenders of Francis against my criticisms. I find it very hard to sort of pin people down on the question of how much change is possible. What is, in fact, fundamental to Catholicism? What is the core of the church from the liberal perspective?

Peter Robinson: Because they're all a process, they have no stopping point.

Ross Douthat: They have no stopping point, but they also want to say ... I mean, there's a tension among Francis' own defenders, between wanting to say, "He's a revolutionary pope who's making changes on a scale we haven't seen," while also saying, "But nothing important is changing, this is just a pastoral shift,"-

Peter Robinson: Nothing happened here, look the other way.

Ross Douthat: "Don't get your knickers in a twist."

Peter Robinson: Right.

Ross Douthat: Right.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Ross Douthat: But I don't think it's sort of calculated dishonesty, I think there is a sort of-

Peter Robinson: A way to believe both, somehow?

Ross Douthat: There's a sense in which the ... there is a genuine faith that the Holy Spirit is guiding this process, I see it, I think reasonably, as a kind of Hegelian revision, in certain ways, of Catholicism where there a sense of the spirit of God working in history, leads the church to greater and greater enlightenment with time. And if that's the case, then you do want to have this sort of doubled sense, where you're confident that the important things are never changing, but you're also open to big shifts. And that is, I think, the way people who really ... people who are sort of at the vanguard of liberal Catholicism right now think. It's not that they have a 10 point program, it's that they're for whatever change is happening right now, and what that makes possible, well, we'll deal with that then.

Peter Robinson: All right. The conservative response ... and I've tried to sum it up, I may be missing something, you've got four Card- ... we have about 5,000, something over 5,000 bishops in the world. And how many cardinals would there be, a couple of hundred, tops, something like that?

Ross Douthat: Slightly, yeah.

Peter Robinson: All right. So we have four ... and a cardinal is a bishop, there's no ... it's just, okay. Distinction within ...

Ross Douthat: They're particularly important bishops.

Peter Robinson: Right, okay.

Ross Douthat: Who elect the next pope-

Peter Robinson: Correct.

Ross Douthat: If they're young enough to vote.

Peter Robinson: We have four cardinals sign the dubia.

Ross Douthat: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Peter Robinson: Which the pope ignores. As I see it, three bishops in Kazakhstan have published a document called Profession of Immutable Truths About Sacramental Marriage.

Ross Douthat: Kazakhstan is the strange core of traditionalist Catholicism today.

Peter Robinson: It is. Bizarrely so-

Ross Douthat: Yes.

Peter Robinson: And as far as I can tell, those three in Kazakhstan authored the document, and I believe they're now up to 16 signatories.

Ross Douthat: Many of them retired.

Peter Robinson: Many of them retired. And then we've got recently the former head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith-

Ross Douthat: Doctrine of the Faith.

Peter Robinson: Cardinal Muller, or Mueller, I don't know how he pronounces it, has recently written some articles which are pretty clearly an answer to the pope, but very carefully stated. Fair?

Ross Douthat: And phrased as arguments with papal advisors and allies.

Peter Robinson: Yes, no-

Ross Douthat: A lot of this is taking place at the level of-

Peter Robinson: Right.

Ross Douthat: Cardinal fighting with cardinal.

Peter Robinson: Right. Right, right, right.

Ross Douthat: Not-

Peter Robinson: Nobody's saying, "Holy Father, you're making a mistake." Nobody's-

Ross Douthat: Well, the authors of the dubia is walking up to that idea, yeah.

Peter Robinson: Okay. So as I counted, out of more than 5,000 bishops, we've got about 17 who've said, "Uh, Holy Father, you may want to rethink this." By contrast, the liberals ... and by the way, so often I hear, "Well, Peter, liberal and conservative don't actually apply in the church." That's nonsense, they do actually, don't they?

Ross Douthat: They do in this.

Peter Robinson: In useful terms. To describe something real.

Ross Douthat: It's a mistake to map them onto American politics.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Ross Douthat: A conservative in the church might be a social Democrat and-

Peter Robinson: Right.

Ross Douthat: An advocate for immigration, and so on, but on doctrinal issues, it's hard to come up with better terms, as problematic as they are.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Ross Douthat: Yes.

Peter Robinson: Okay, so in this country alone, we've got Cardinal Cupich of Chicago, who's in the terms you just described, a liberal. And he's organized seminars around the country for a reading of Amoris Laetitia, which is, I think we can fairly say the liberal reading. Bishop McElroy of San Diego has already announced rules encouraging divorced and remarried to return to communion. And conservative or orthodox bishops, like Archbishop Chaput of Philadelphia, quote, "I've never been critical of the Holy Father, and I would never speak ill of him." Close quote. So they're just sitting it out. Well, wrong.

Ross Douthat: Well, sort of.

Peter Robinson: You know, I keep having to go back to you for the charitable view of things, Ross.

Ross Douthat: No, I think what's interesting, and this in a certain way, you could argue it a different way though. You could say that it's astonishing that the Holy Father has come out with a document that he clearly intends to be interpreted in a particular way. And he has been challenged on this point by cardinals of the church, in effect, by his own former head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and by everyone else down to-

Peter Robinson: Ross.

Ross Douthat: Lowly newspaper columnists like myself. And most of the church's bishops in the US and around the world, have effectively decided to sit this out. I think that it's not that there is sort of a contention of bishops and cardinals who believe in Francis' agenda. And they are important and significant, and because Francis appoints bishops, their numbers are growing, but they still are operating as a faction within the church. And then you have, in effect, a faction that you mentioned, the archbishop of Philadelphia-

Peter Robinson: Yes.

Ross Douthat: He has-

Peter Robinson: Archbishop Chaput.

Ross Douthat: He issued guidelines on communion that essentially took the conservative line. So you have ... essentially, you have factions of liberal and conservative sort of at war with each other, and then you large numbers of bishops who, I think, know that this is problematic, and don't want to pick a side, and basically want the issue to go away.

Peter Robinson: Ross, you quote in your book, you quote Cardinal Newman, the great churchman of the 19th century on the behavior of bishops confronting the Arian heresy of the late second and early third centuries, this marvelous thing you've gone 2,000 years is nothing to you, Ross.  Quote, "The body of bishops failed," you are quoting Cardinal Newman. "The body of bishops failed in their confession of the faith. They spoke variously, one against another, there was nothing of firm, unvarying, consistent testimony." Close quote. You have just described thousands of bishops who are just saying, "Well, let's just let this one pass." Are they failing in their duties as bishops?

Ross Douthat: Yes, I think so. But in an understandable and very-

Peter Robinson: Oh, stop being so nice.

Ross Douthat: No, it's true, though-

Peter Robinson: Can I get some hellfire out of you, please?

Ross Douthat: Well but the issue ... right, so what's distinctive about this moment, is that the pope is the protagonist. That's what's so fascinating, compared even to the Arian heresy, right. If you go back to that heresy or other debates within the church, so often you have a pope who's sort of being pushed along by a faction, a pope who vacillates. With the Aryan heresy, you had a pope who was literally kidnapped by the emperor and sort of maybe forced to sign something, but you don't have a pope as the protagonist. And that's the challenge for conservative Catholics, right, it's how do you deal with the idea that the pope, as the protagonist of the drama, might be wrong? And you only have a few case studies of that in the history of the church, and they're very obscure. They relate to a medieval pope who had some heretical views about the beatific vision, these sort of even more obscure than footnotes-

Peter Robinson: Stuff that only you and I actually like reading about-

Ross Douthat: Right, exactly. So it's just these bishops are in a potentially unprecedented position. And it's ... if I were giving them advice, it's hard to know exactly what advice to give them. I think that they should speak more forthrightly. I think that that is their obligation, and they should follow it. But it is a difficult situation, given how much of Catholicism is structured around the idea that the pope is the custodian of doctrine.

Peter Robinson: All right. How does this-

Ross Douthat: The church isn't built ... the Newman phrase, that's a great phrase is, "Suspense of the Magisterium ... " right, the Magisterium is the church's teaching on these issues, it's sort of suspended. And in such a moment, it's very hard to know how to behave.

Peter Robinson: You're so charitable. All right, and quoting you again, Ross, To Change the Church, quote, "Rome under Francis is much like Washington under Trump."

Ross Douthat: Yes.

Peter Robinson: That's going to make it into the final version, you're not-

Ross Douthat: It's still there. Yes.

Peter Robinson: Excellent. "Rome under Francis is much like Washington under Trump. A paranoid and jumpy place, full of ferment and uncertainty." Close quote. Donald Trump may be gone in three years, and he will certainly be gone in no more than seven.

Ross Douthat: We think, we assume.

Peter Robinson: Francis may live into his 90s, for goodness sake. Is this current ... impasse isn't quite the word.

Ross Douthat: It's a bit of an impasse.

Peter Robinson: All right. And you just said that the body of bishops are just essentially saying their prayers and sitting it out, hoping it will all go away. But he could remain pope for another decade, easily.

Ross Douthat: Yes.

Peter Robinson: Is this sustainable? Must one side win, and the other side lose?

Ross Douthat: In the long run, yes. But not in the next 10 years. I think it is sustainable in various ways. If he wants to sustain it, right? As long as he's the pope, if he wants to say, "We're maintaining ambiguity on these issues," and it's up to the local bishops, it's up to the national bishops' conferences, there's no one who can veto him. There's no one who can override him. All you can do is essentially rebel and go into some kind of schism, which is not something ... there's no model within conservative Catholicism for doing that, and it would be, again, as long as he's sort of maintaining this situation, it would be an extreme, and rash, and destructive act. So I think the situation, it's likely to ... let's say the sort of devolution of the church, the sort of ... the Germans are going to become more and more liberal, they have plenty more plans after this one for intercommunion with Lutherans, before sort of blessings potentially for same sex couples, and so on. I mean, the German church will become Episcopalian-ized over the next 10 years.

Peter Robinson: Over the short term, this can continue. But, Lord knows in Catholicism, there is such a thing as a long term, the church has been around for 2,000 years. What happens?

Ross Douthat: I think the most reasonable thing to happen, that doesn't mean it will, but the most reasonable thing is there's going to be another Council. Because what the Francis era has proven, is that to some extent, the liberals were right about Vatican II's unsettledness. The fact that you can have a pope take the spirit of Vatican II, that progressive Catholics envisioned, and sort of run with it-

Peter Robinson: Right.

Ross Douthat: And let it work itself out further.

Peter Robinson: After 30 some years of John Paul II-

Ross Douthat: After 30 something years of  conservative, even traditionalist action from Rome, means that while yes, the sort of technical letter of the documents of Vatican II can be interpreted in conservative ways, the truth is that Vatican II opened a lot of questions and didn't resolve them. And it opened them just before the sexual revolution, and various biotechnological revolutions that are ongoing broke over the West. So, Vatican II doesn't finish the debate in the way that, let's say the Council of Trent, for all its complexities, did finish the debate about how the church should respond to Protestantism. So in this sense, the liberals have spent the John Paul II era saying, "We need another Council. We need another Council," are going to, I think, ultimately have their mirror image in conservatives saying, "Well look, if we have this level of division and uncertainty, just electing another conservative pope isn't going to resolve anything, we already did that. We need to have a greater resolution."

Ross Douthat: And so, on a 20, 40, 60, 80, 100 year timeline, at a certain point-

Peter Robinson: You'll live to see it, but I won't.

Ross Douthat: Well, I hope I don't ... well, I hope I live to cover it, if I have to live to see it. But at a certain point, I think you would need an attempt at resolution, and then that resolution, I think, depending on which side won and which side lost, would lead to either a sort of traditionalist schism, if I'm wrong, right, and the Pope is right about how much the church can change, then you would traditionalists joining and expanding on the Society of Saint Pius X, the traditionalist group that already exists-

Peter Robinson: Right.

Ross Douthat: And sort of going their own way. Or you would have, as happened after the first Vatican Council, which you know was sort of a triumph for ...

Peter Robinson: The first Vatican Council was 1870?

Ross Douthat: 1870s-

Peter Robinson: Right.

Ross Douthat: Effectively.

Peter Robinson: 1870s.

Ross Douthat: You had a small group of sort of more liberal leaning Catholics who formed what they called the Old Catholic Church. I think some version of that on a larger scale awaits the church at the end of this struggle, but I'm not going to tell you exactly when it's going to happen.

Peter Robinson: Come on, Ross. I'll be gone, so you could predict anything.

Ross Douthat: Well, cryogenics though will bring you back, so ...

Peter Robinson: All right. Toward to end of To Change the Church, if one wished to look for a providential element in all this conflict, and I think we are required to look for a providential element, if one wish to look for a providential element-

Ross Douthat: Or a chastisement.

Peter Robinson: Or chastisement.

Ross Douthat: You can look for a chastisement too.

Peter Robinson: "It might be that given the depth of the divisions with Catholicism, something like the Francis crisis and whatever comes next, simply had to happen before the Faith could regain its footing, and become a missionary force again." Close quote. How has this affected your faith?

Ross Douthat: It has challenged it, I would say. I think it has exposed sort of issues and questions that were always there, and needed to be addressed. And I think that there's something healthy for conservative Catholics, in recognizing that the pope is not always someone you're going to agree with on every single issue, that the papacy historically has not been the chief bulwark of orthodoxy in every single controversy, that the church has depended on saints and heroes from all over. And so I think under John Paul II, especially conservatives fell into a pattern of sort of assuming, well-

Peter Robinson: Leave it to the old head in Rome.

Ross Douthat: Leave it to Rome, things are bad on the ground here, but we always have the pope on our side, and so on, and that's not a healthy way to think. It's not a healthy way to think institutionally, and it's not a healthy way to think spiritually. So, there are good things for conservative Catholics, people on the rightward side of this divide, that can come out of having a pope who you have to argue with a bit. But ... you want ... and again, this is of course a sort of convert thing to say, but you want the church to make sense. And you want to have trust and confidence in what the church is teaching, because it teaches a lot of really bleeping hard things that I certainly don't live up to in my own life, and-

Peter Robinson: Hard to believe, and hard to live up to.

Ross Douthat: And hard to live up to. And so, there's a sense in which, and this is sort of my ultimate beef, I think, with liberal Catholicism, you want me to have a beef, here's-

Peter Robinson: I do, Ross.

Ross Douthat: This is my beef. I say something like this in the book, but the view that Catholic truth, and moral truth, are constantly evolving and changing, and we're constantly coming to a deeper understanding of these issues, it turns the God who, from a Catholic point of view, sent his only son to teach us and to die on the cross, into a kind of trickster. Into someone who comes and says, "Here are all these really hard teachings. Do your best to live up to them for 2,000 years or so, and then I'll tell you, 'Actually, you know ... '"

Peter Robinson: Just joking!

Ross Douthat: "'Just, it's wasn't ... they were more guidelines, they were more suggestions.'" And you know, I'm being a little unfair, but I think that that is implicit in some of these ideas. That the God who is always changing his directives, is not a God who I trust to give me directives, and what is again, the hardship and burdens of a human life.

Peter Robinson: Ross, would you close by reading a passage from To Change the Church?

Ross Douthat: Of course. And this is just to frame it. This is a passage, this sort of gets to the core of ... I mean, the core of the argument, which we haven't maybe talked enough about, is what did Jesus say, and what does it mean for us? And so much of the liberal argument is saying ... there is a sense in which the Jesus of scripture, the one who makes these hard moral demands, has to be transcended in favor of a Jesus who-

Peter Robinson: Somebody we can live with.

Ross Douthat: Somebody we can live with. And I'm saying that doesn't match up either with the church's own traditional reading of the gospels, or my own. So, talking about the question of moral relativism, and so on. "In the gospels, Jesus doesn't urge Peter to, 'Go ahead, betray me, I understand.' Jesus doesn't tell the woman taken in adultery, 'Go back to your lover, because your situation is complex.' Jesus doesn't tell Zacchaeus, the tax collector, 'Actually, keep the money you may have unjustly taken, because you need it to support your family.' Jesus dines with sinners, he hangs out with prostitutes and publicans, he evangelizes the much married Samaritan woman, he welcomes thieves into eternity. But he never confirms them in their sins, or makes nuanced allowances for their state of life. That sort of rhetoric, that very modern sort of rhetoric, is alien to the gospels. The ritual law, yes, that can and sometimes be superseded. But the moral law, no, that is bedrock."

Peter Robinson: Ross Douthat of the New York Times, and the author of To Change the Church. Thank you.

Ross Douthat: Thank you, Peter.

Peter Robinson: I'm Peter Robinson for Uncommon Knowledge and the Hoover Institution. Thank you for joining us.