Six years later, Douthat, a columnist for this newspaper, has become the successor to the conservative Catholic doyen William F. Buckley Jr. (who once took him sailing — and skinny-dipping — on Long Island Sound). His ascendance has come at an odd moment: The right wing dominates politics, but so-called conservatives have traduced the ideals that drew him to the movement. Small-government congressmen have dropped commitments to rein in federal spending; evangelicals (those champions of traditional marriage) are supine in their support of the sexual predator in the White House. And after a third of a century in which John Paul II made the papacy “a rallying point for resistance to the redefinition of Christianity,” the church is led by a pope who has no use for the culture-war schema of resistance and accommodation — who sees the church called to “go to the peripheries” rather than strive to restore Christianity as the vital center.
To Douthat Francis is an accommodationist, and decline has reached the apex of the church. “This is a hinge moment in the history of Catholicism,” he declares, “a period of theological crisis that’s larger than just the Francis pontificate but whose particular peak under this pope will be remembered, studied and argued about for as long as the Catholic Church endures.”
What immediately follows is an adroit, perceptive, gripping account of Catholic controversializing. Douthat sets out the liberal and conservative “master narratives” about the Second Vatican Council and then offers a third narrative that deftly blends the two. He sketches the life and times of the future pope, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the Argentine Jesuit archbishop of Buenos Aires. There’s commentary on past controversies and a brief history of Catholic teaching on marriage, from Matthew 19 (“What God has joined, let not man put asunder”) to Humanae Vitae, the 1968 encyclical in which Pope Paul VI upheld the ban on artificial birth control.
It’s strong stuff, conversationally lively and expressive. Apt on-the-spot paraphrase abounds: “In his famous in-flight news conference coming back from Rio” Francis “seemed to indicate an interest in the remarriage issue, offering a positive-seeming mention of Eastern Orthodoxy’s practice on divorce. … But the furor over gay priests and `Who am I to judge?’ overshadowed these remarks.”
And then, as Douthat reaches what he sees as the heart of the matter — the Vatican synods on marriage and the family in 2014 and 2015 — his culture-warrior tendencies stir fully to life. He casts the synods as a battle: warring factions, attacks and frontal assaults, purges and collaborators. Francis’ openness to the German cardinal Walter Kasper’s proposal to relax the ban on divorced-and-remarried people in Germany receiving Communion at Mass is framed as a liberal pope’s “crusade to change the church.” Although Francis has invited free discussion more than any previous pope, his efforts to shape the synod’s outcome (he is the pope, after all) are seen as “stage-managing” and “deck-stacking.” The synod fathers’ disputes are rolled down the slippery slope and deemed a “full-scale theological crisis” in which the hope that Francis would foster unity and renewal is undone by the supposed liberals’ supposed desire to accommodate “the sexual revolution and all its works.”
Douthat’s own position is traditionalist-cum-literalist: Any relaxing of the Catholic teaching on marriage — one man, one woman, one time — means that core teachings can be changed; if core teachings can be changed, the Catholic Church is no longer the Catholic Church; and if the church is not the church, all hope is lost. From this fixed position, he slyly derides other positions, especially the liberal outlook.
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?” Left out are the signs that the traditionalists don’t want to tamp down divorce so much as bar the door to same-sex marriage. Left out is the truth that sexual behavior is more fluid than the culture-war schema allows: that there are conservative libertines as well as liberals who live marriage faithfully (even chastely). Left out are people like Gabby, who live off the grid of the culture wars — as does Douthat himself, a conservative whom liberal institutions have educated, sponsored and let thrive.
Left out, especially, is the home truth that the Catholic Church has changed already. Vatican II was at once the church’s response to a crisis and the perpetuation of it. In less than five years the council fathers made changes whose number and scale dwarf the modest proposals floated in Francis’ pontificate — made them over the objections of Bill Buckley and other pundits who styled themselves as more Catholic than the pope. The biggest change had to do with the church’s relationship to Judaism, other churches and other religions. In a few strokes, Jesus’ hard saying “No one comes to the Father except through me” and its Catholic expression (“Outside the church there is no salvation”) were softened and qualified. The change was profound and tradition-defying. Ever since, the church has affirmed the integrity of other faiths; ever since, Catholics have had to ask themselves, “Why be Catholic, when other ways are O.K., too?” Ever since, there has been no one clear answer.
This is not to say that people entering into Catholic marriage shouldn’t fully grasp the church’s understanding of the sacrament and its obligations. It is to say that the view of marriage as a marker in a culture war — a doctrinal asymptote, a line that may be approached but not crossed — is itself a greatly diminished view of marriage. Fidelity is going into new forms; like it or not, Catholics, right up to the pope, have to work out the implications as we go. The slope is slippery now and forevermore. Truly, it has been all along.