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The pope, his critics and theirs

The Church has always included many kinds of interests and factions, and a prime task for historians and social chroniclers is to assess their power and intentions.

Ross Douthat, right, speaks during the Francis@Five public debate with Massimo Faggioli, left, moderator David Gibson, center, at Lincoln Center in New York on Jan. 31, 2018.  Francis@Five was presented by Religion News Foundation and The Center on Religion and Culture at Fordham University with Salt + Light media partner.  RNS photo by Jack Jenkins

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“Will Pope Francis Cause a Schism in the Catholic Church?” That headline in The New Yorker (April 16) is subheaded: “In his new book, ‘To Change the Church,’ the Times columnist Ross Douthat critiques the Pontiff.” Such an opener requires some background and context.

Addressing news of religion has to include notice of Roman Catholicism, since the Church is, as crude folk used to say, “the biggest kid on the block.” Often those who do sightings of it find that these religious notices are blurred and blended into secular news. This generation’s round of conflict increasingly focuses on Pope Francis—as, I hesitate to say, but it comes out this way, “the biggest kid on the block”—and the factions which line up on many sides of his papacy. The Church has always included many kinds of interests and factions, and a prime task for historians and social chroniclers is to assess their power and intentions.

So here we have Ross Douthat, a Catholic, facing his Church and its leader, attacking Francis and those who support him in two little mousy forums (just kidding): his New York Times column and a new book, noted in The New Yorker. Since his attacks are drawing great attention, in this short space we’ll simply quote one counterattack. Thus Michael Sean Winters’s review in the National Catholic Reporter opens by praising Douthat for his prose, which merits some praise. But then: “I come to bury Douthat not to praise him, for his facts are nonsense, his arguments tendentious, and his thesis so absurd it is shocking, absolutely shocking … what he writes is completely or only partially unhinged. I incline to the former.”

What follows is Winters’s analysis of gross errors of fact in Douthat’s accounts of bishops’ meetings and what the majorities within them represent. He and others fault Douthat for suggesting that Francis’s approach to Catholic teaching and practice portends, and may contribute to, a schism. Effecting schism is hard to conceive of, much less to realize, but in the chaos of present times it has to be entertained. Schisms in organizations like the Church tend to originate among competing interests. Think of the division into the Church Roman and the Church Eastern in the eleventh century, or the Church Protestant and the Church Catholic in the sixteenth.

For reasons too complex to analyze here, the foreseen “schism” in Catholicism (and possibly beyond) would likely bear the marks of the chaos of our time, privileged because of religious freedom and propagated in a world of amassed media expressions. Rather than theorize, let’s look in on the “close to home” scene. While the Second Vatican Council revealed how expressive and dug-in forces and voices were in the 1960s, there was enough consensus to permit the ushering in of a new phase of Catholic life. The changes of style—and, some would say, substance—in the time of Francis draw media and popular attention daily. Douthat, like most critics, focuses on issues which also dominate in political talk: themes related to marriage, abortion, et cetera. He and his kind have attracted notable criticism of their own. Winters, in his critique, provides chapter and verse, which we commend to our readers who can do their own appraising. A taste of Winters’s article: Douthat (whom he attacks most vehemently in boldface subheads) is “Wrong on the synods that led to Amoris Laetitia”; “Wrong on Cardinal Müller, the popes, Cardinal Cupich”; et cetera.

In this short column we cannot ourselves give a full and fair appraisal, and won’t pretend that quoting Winters and his (and my) kind settles the case; it only illustrates one corner of one corner of the current scene. It’s one more alert that there is more going on in Catholicism than the familiar exposures of priestly sexual scandal, which, alas, have had to dominate Catholic news and are not on the verge of disappearing. These may not be good moments for the still immensely popular Pope Francis, and vocal members of the Catholic Right, fighting in many dioceses and journals, certainly win their way into media notice and demand attention. We’ll keep observing and commenting, still from within friendly-to-Francis Protestant company.