Adapted from the Twitter feed Tuesday, April 10, 2018. Posted Wednesday morning, April 11.
Why do I suspect one of these books is not like the others and probably won’t do my soul any favors?
I’ve been saying that if Pope Francis gets me going back to church, I’ll never forgive him. Apparently Ross Douthat has written a book arguing that Francis’ doing the things that are making lapsed Catholics like me re-think our lapses is creating a crisis within the Holy Mother Church. Going by Paul Elie’s review of “To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism” in the New York Times---it’s a less than positive review, and you have to give the Times’ credit for letting Elie drag one of their own.---it looks like one of the main theses Douthat’ nails to the church door is that the Church needs to return to its core teachings and Francis is taking it in the opposite direction.
Douthat came of age during the culture wars of the 1990s, and the culture-war schema pervades his work. At Harvard, he decides that the place is unmoored from Western humanism, a superluxury cruise on which the “overclass” consolidates itself through relentless networking, sucking up, résumé-enhancing and grooming in fast-track behavior. Ditto sex at Harvard, which he sees as an extracurricular mix of know-how and status-seeking. “The regimen of diaphragms and dental dams, masturbation and oral sex and porn, has replaced the older forces of family, religion and shame that policed the sexual landscape for generations. Instead of telling young people to save sex for marriage, the new sexual orthodoxy tells us to have as much as we want, but to do it carefully.”
In [“Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics”, his previous book], Douthat in effect spells out how such a state of affairs came to pass. It involves “the slow-motion collapse of traditional Christianity and the rise of a variety of destructive pseudo-Christianities in its place.” Given two options — accommodation or resistance — most churches accommodate, leaving the culture to make an idol of the self.
Elie doesn’t say if among those core teachings Douthat wants us to return to are meatless Fridays and Latin masses, nor is there mention of Douthat’s thoughts on the selling of indulgences and burning heretics. Douthat wants the Church to go back to the good old days but it’s not clear from the review if he thinks those were the days before Vatican II or the days before the Counter-reformation.
Elie does more than imply Douthat has nothing insightful to say about the fact Francis took over a Church that for more than a generation had been engaged in an international criminal conspiracy to aid and abet child molesters.
I’m not sure how much I trust Elie, though. He praises Douthat’s prose style.
Douthat’s a convert, twice-over. He converted under his spiritually-seeking and -wandering mother’s influence when he was in high school and then made that conversion his own through study, self-questioning, intellectual self-examination, and force of will later on. When I was tweeting about this, Charles Pierce, a Catholic himself, product of the Jesuit teaching at Marquette, chimed in to say:
Ross is a convert and this cradle Catholic knows they're the worst, especially when they seem to have been attracted to HMC because of its authoritarian command structure.
HMC being the Holy Mother Church.
I tweeted back:
As the priest in "St Vincent" says, we're the best religion because we have the most rules...and the best clothes.
I rarely bother with Douthat’s columns, but I’m tempted to read his book. Douthat was born in 1979, fourteen years after Vatican II, a year after Karol Wojtyła became Pope John Paul II. The canonized in a rush job Saint John Paul is the only Pope Douthat knew for the first twenty-six years of his life and he was obviously not just fond of him but thinks of him as the ideal Pontiff. It would be interesting to see how the young(ish) convert’s view of Church history differs from that of this aging former altar boy and Catholic School grad who was greeted every morning upon his arriving at St Helen’s by the somewhat chillily smiling portrait of Paul VI of whom all the adults in my circle, including the nuns who taught us and the priests I served Mass for routinely said, “He’s fine in his way, but how great it would be if John XXIII was still alive.” To hear them talk, you might think---as I did---the death of the relatively liberal reformer (of old age. He was an old Pope.) ranked with John’s and Bobby’s and Martin’s assassinations as a tragedy of the time.
I’ll let you know if I give in to the temptation and if I do whether it’s worth your while to sin too. I’m sure it’d only be a venial sin, easy enough to atone for by saying an Our Father and a couple of Hail Marys---unless you let Douthat convert you to his heresies.
You should read all of Elie’s review, though, which our good friend and old newcritics boss Tom Watson recommends for its kick-conscience conclusion:
As a first draft of history, “To Change the Church” is a high-wire act, an effort to maintain a balance between theology and polemics for a wide public. And yet the air is thin up there, the wire narrow and tight. From above, Douthat, seeing every act as a tactical move in the culture wars, pushing every hypothesis to its limit, ignores human experience. Left out is the prospect that Francis called a synod about marriage and family not because he wanted to fly the flag of the sexual revolution but because marriage and family are where so many people in our time encounter the paradoxes of body and soul, self-fulfillment and self-sacrifice. Left out is the fact that Catholics don’t skirt the church’s teaching on marriage just to make things easier for themselves; they say, “By what right do those child-abuse-indulging clerics tell me that my marriage is adulterous while twice-divorced, thrice-married Newt Gingrich is now a Catholic in good standing, living in Rome as the spouse of his ex-aide/girlfriend who is the United States ambassador to the Vatican?”
Follow the link to A Conservative Catholic Begs the Pope: Lead Us Not Into Temptation at the New York Times.
Correction, Friday afternoon, April 13: In the original post, I wrote that the portrait of Paul IV was hanging in the entrance hall of my grade school when I was a kid. That was a typo, I swear. It was Paul VI! Paul IV was Pope from 1555-1559. I'm old, but not that old. Thanks to Charles for the catch!
And if you're looking to earn yourself a little time off in Purgatory, you could give yourself an indulgence and read my review of "St Vincent", Bill Murray as a holy wreck.