Douthat (NYT) on Pope Francis

Pope Francis is taking a big risk, Ross Douthat more or less says over at NYTimes, in pitching his message to the weak center instead of the strong right. We saw how John Paul II, and even more so Benedict XVI, appealed to the Church’s far right, a small but energetic (and loud) group that has going for it real staying power. (This is Ruff, not just Douthat.)  This policy was tearing the church apart, and a natural reaction set in with the election of Francis. But the moderates and progressives who are delighted with Francis – will they prove to be a dependable base long term? You may quibble with the categories and terms, but Douthat is asking a question that can’t be avoided.

Read it and chime in: “The Promise and Peril of Pope Francis” by Ross Douthat.



  1. Tip O’Neil used to say “All politics is local”. Well, all church –in its experienced, touched and lived form– is local, too. The only Church most people will personally encounter, experience and interact with is the local parish. It is the local parish that is the point-of-contact with and which enlivens –or deadens– the essentials of our faith. The church that is experienced in the local parish makes or breaks disciples, empowers or debilitates apostles, expands or narrows missionary vision and the sense of relatedness to the world. It is the local parish where people “Come and see” who Jesus is.
    I love Pope Francis. But I don’t want to be a “fan” of his; I want to walk with him, talk with him, join him and Jesus on that Emmaus road and listen and learn as they break open the Scriptures and explain them and have my heart set on fire. But that can only happen in my little ol’ town. My, unfortunately, in my little ol’ town/diocese, there is often a lack of kindling wood and matches.
    Regardless of who or what is in Rome (or in the local Chancery), it is who and what is in my local parish that makes “church” present for me.

  2. The discomfort so many who are “reform of the reform, but in continuity” crowd feel toward Pope Francis is what I experience in him. He is the embodiment of what I was taught in the 1970’s seminary, but not in terms of the negative stuff of that era, but the more positive, but nonetheless simplified from the pre-Vatican II experience. Thus he once again widens the “rupture” which Pope Benedict tried to close. I say this in terms of the liturgy and the simplicity of vesture and the “iconoclasm” of papal protocol and dress. Yet he is also an enigma, for if he taught in my 1970’s seminary that the Church is Mother, that devotions are important, that apparitions of our Blessed Mother are important, that Eucharistic adoration is important, and so on, he would have been laughed out of the school.
    The left is like the proverbial reed blowing in the wind and cannot be counted on for any significant renewal in the Church. The right is too rigid and but at least they do not make a god or idol out of Vatican II and the mystique that surrounds the actual Council.
    Sometimes I think Pope Francis is a bit like the Trojan Horse in terms of those who are fascinated with him the most, atheists, post-Catholics and the apathetic, he may their hidden enemy ready to conquer by awakening or reawakening them to conversion to the true God and true Church, at least I hope so.

  3. Fr. Ruff – sorry, just can’t get into Douthat’s morality play. Not sure that taking the current US political labels and forcing the Church/Francis into those categories or labels works for me.

    OTOH, as W.B. Yeats said well in his poem, The Second Coming, the *center can not hold*….slightly different meaning, context, and times.

    And what can you say about #3 (from a self-avowed papist)….well, here it is: Pope Traumatic Stress Disorder (hopefully, Allan, can get medication for this. See the link – almost as good as Colbert.

    1. @Bill deHaas – comment #4:
      Hi Bill,

      Can you say why it doesn’t work for you? I think the question is whether his claims about engagement among conservative Catholics compared to moderate and progressive Catholics has something to it – not whether the labels are borrowed from elsewhere.

      I think people like you and me, who are not part of the zealous conservative element in Catholicism, might not like Douthat’s claims at all – we’d like to think that people like are a really engaged Catholics! But we have to face up to the claim, whether we like it or not, because there might be a truth to it that we have to respond to.

      Thanks for considering my musings,


      1. @Anthony Ruff, OSB – comment #5:
        Fair enough and good question……a couple of things come to mind.

        First, how *engaged* are catholics during any particular period of history/time? Can’t one say that catholics in the 1950s defined *engagement* in one way and that some/many council fathers were concerned about this *engagement* enough to seek reform? (so, is it really just about numbers that come to church? and what do those numbers really tell us?) Okay, yes, there obviously is a pattern of catholics leaving the church – but, couldn’t we say that this has happened before during the history of the church?

        Second, wonder how much of our musings or even Douthat’s are culturally & geographically influenced? What would a laborer in Guatemala say about engagement in his local church? What would a Kenyan say in an area where the church is growing exponentially?

        Other musings – how much of the term *engagement* is defined as attendance at the Western-European institutional church (his parallel example of the Jewish community -which does seem apropos to western catholicism but not to the world church?) Have experiened increased *engagement* but you find it in groups such as lay communities that serve various needs; groups that seek a church that addressed/includes women; gays; ecumenical movements (but, then that touches on Douthat’s nondenominational group reference).

        So, like other periods of our history, culture impacts church engagement…but, isn’t Francis calling us back to the original call of Jesus and the disciples – did they imagine or intend to *found* an institutional church:? or, rather, did they intend to preach *encounter*; engagement*, and the gospel message? And from these encounters, doesn’t the church emerge and grow? Isn’t the church constantly re-imagining itself via conversion, invitation, call, and response (or is Douthat implying a structure about an institution with a left, right, and center whose starting point is an institution rather than Jesus).
        Realize that this means the *old* ways of defining center changes; it also means that there is risk in what Francis is calling for? But is that risk any different from the risk confronting James, Paul, Peter, etc. One could say that we have lost our *soul* to an institutional idea that has grown old and encrusted with time.

  4. Yes, I think most (here) would agree that the left-middle-right language distorts as much as helps (in both politics and the Church). But I think Douthat is on to something when he suggests that perhaps the major “conservative” fear about Francis is that the positive attention is the culture claiming him as its own, and repackaging him in its own image (an image nicely constructed in contrast to his oh-so-outdated predecessors), and not in his liturgical style, his openness, or even the suggestions that many in the Church have obscured the Gospel in their obsession about abortion or homosexuality, or fears of radical changes in Church teaching.
    Where I think we might por beyond Douthat, is on how we assess decline or success in religion. Specifically, it might be the case that the ‘decline’ in ‘liberal Christianity’ (and/or Judaism) is no such thing at all, but a decline in the last vestiges of the non-liberal elements therein. It warrants noting that decline in church membership and participation in liturgy, the basic ways in which we measure decline of a religious body, are not necessarily the central elements by which a religious body would understand itself. One might argue that the final withering away of all the institutional dross of Christianity is a sign of the success of liberal Christianity. If we take ‘spiritual not religious’ as any indication, or a general sense of the fellowship and goodness of men and women, and a general trust that reality is good, even that Jesus of Nazareth gives us an incredible moral code, then Liberal Christianity is well.
    Now how ‘liberal Catholics’ relate themselves to that stream of theology is quite varied, of course – but at the minimum, it should give us pause about how we assess left, right and middle and ‘success’. It might also suggest that when we try to assess Francis, he might not be trying to rebrand the Church, or reposition the Church on a rebuilt ‘center’, but is first and foremost concerned to reach out to lost sheep and draw them back to…

  5. One of Mr Douthat’s concerns is morality. But conservatives, both outside the Church and in it have no better record on that score. Sin is a matter of the human condition, not the liberal outlook.

    That said, I’m most unimpressed with the attempt to place the Pope Francis phenomenon in the context of politics. If Mr Douthat is following his own advice, we’re eavesdropping on his propping up his buddies on the front porch.

    The recent so-called decline of religion, be it Fr Maciel and Cardinal Law or mainline Christianity is a lack of imagination and a great dollop of fear in engaging the modern world, in setting out for the deep or the farthest boundaries, depending on one’s favorite pope.

    Small Christian communities, from base communities to “special” parishes have shown that regardless of ideology, the key to fruitfulness (a term I prefer to success) are things totally off his radar: prayer, commitment, sacrifice, and intentionality in living a Christian life. Pope Francis has the smell of these, and the sheep are picking up on it. And some are resisting. Not bad people, mind you. They just need to be invited back in off the front porch.

  6. I agree with Todd, and point to this copied from above:

    But the moderates and progressives who are delighted with Francis – will they prove to be a dependable base long term?

    I think that is just the wrong question if your intent is to follow Christ. It is only the correct question if you are intent upon building a political base. You might just as well ask if Jesus knew what he was doing picking fishermen and tax collectors to further the kingdom.

  7. Mr. Douthat’s commentary is based on a widespread (but understandable) misconception of what Pope Francis is about. He’s not trying to rebuild a political party by “regaining the center”. He’s preaching the Gospel, insisting that we not pass by those who are lying beaten and bloody in the ditch; and there are a lot of them. IF his Gospel message is merely a “political” strategy to rebrand and rebuild “the Church”, then it is a lie and will fail.

  8. Sorry, but I find Ross Douhat’s thesis, and the comments of those who feel he has a point, “old world” – eurocentric. Within that context his remarks seem to offer a useful hermeneutic frame work, but as some of the comments show, it also has its limitations.
    The “Catholicism” of Pope Francis, that seems to both echo the world of the 1970’s, when both people like Fr Allan and yours truly were in the seminary, but also have a strong committment to popular devotion etc is very much the Church that one sees and hears about in Africa, Asia and Latin America. I see it all around me among both Japanese Christians, and among the migrant worker community some of us work with – mostly Brazilians and Filipinos. It also came out clearly in a report on a survey done by our Diocesan Commission on the Lay Apostolate, and in reports I heard at the annual gathering of leaders of Diocesan Liturgical Commissions which I attended at the beginning of last month.
    A new center also does seem to be emerging in the Churches of Asia, Africa and Latin America, and it is also producing vocations, as witnessed by the fact that in the past 5 years my community has seen an average of 115 confreres making final profession and receiving first assignments each year; some 85% come from Asia, Africa and Latin America, and the majority of our men in formation in the USA come from the Vietnamese community.
    In the voices that Pope Francis is listening to, among the members of the Council of Cardinals, one notes as a sign of hope, voices from the younger churches. I personally eagerly await the results of their discussions, and see them as as pointing to the future of the Church, a Church that will probably different from the one Mr Douhat envisions.

    1. @Brendan Kelleher svd – comment #11:
      The cultural perspective of this pope is certainly different than anything we’ve seen and it is not Eurocentric indeed. But if you will recall, Catholicism in the USA and Europe also had a very, very strong devotional component. That was almost completely obliterated by the so-called progressives at the time who were almost completely in charge of implementing Vatican II renewal in favor of only the Mass, maybe Scripture services and then what came to be called “para-liturgies.”
      The USA might have fared better if the devotional aspect wasn’t ripped out from underneath popular Catholicism. In addition to the other things that some might call “throw backs” Pope Francis is also calling for fidelity to the Magisterium of the Church, another thing that would have gotten him laughed out of my seminary in the 70’s. In fact, any seminarian in my seminary who exhibited strong tendencies toward the Holy Rosary, Eucharistic adoration and piety as well as clinging to the Magisterium, he would not be long for that seminary. Thus in a class of 60 to begin with in 1976 we ended up with 23 in 1980. So I suspect if the US Church had been more like the communities you describe, we would be more similar today in terms of vocations.

      1. @Fr. Allan. McDonald – comment #12:
        If the “devotional component,” as you put it, was so easily “obliterated” my premise might be that it was skin deep.

        I think your diagnosis of the recent past leaves much to be desired. It might be that the problem with “devotional” seminarians is that they exhibit little depth, no sense of a baptismal call, and might be better suited to the cloister than ministry in the world.

      2. @Todd Flowerday – comment #13:
        Todd, your derogatory description of the devotional life now is exactly what was used to bully Catholics into forgoing it. They were humiliated by people like you. Keep that in mind, because it can be a very effective manipulation indeed and it was and still can be.

      3. @Fr. Allan. McDonald – comment #14:
        I suspect that many Catholics misread those sorts of questions in the 70’s. There are indeed people with a very mature spirituality and sense of call who practice individual and communal devotions. And there are others who litter church entrances with chain letters for St Jude, bury statues of my patron saint in their yards, and such.

        I think people as well as critics can be assessed based on what they do and say, and not just on others’ perception of them. Doubtless there are many very holy individual people who have been conned into seminary because of the perception of a one-size-fits-all Catholicism.

        You and some others don’t seem as willing to accept the potential fruitfulness of a viri probati solution to small parishes without resident pastors, though doubtless it would uncover a significant wealth of vocations.

        Sometimes “success” is only acceptable when it achieves something wanted, not something given.

  9. If only the Church were perfect! Think of all the things that popes wouldn’t have done …

    They wouldn’t have given confusing interviews or made off-the-cuff remarks that people find hard to interpret.

    They wouldn’t have given us the triple horror of Liturgiam Authenticam, the Vox Clara committee and the new English translation of the Mass.

    They wouldn’t have endorsed dodgy scholarship – or produced it themselves – on liturgy and scripture.

    They wouldn’t have engaged in a futile attempt to exclude gays – even chaste and celibate ones – from the seminaries.

    They wouldn’t have selected idiots as bishops or named fops as cardinals.

    They wouldn’t have supported the idiots and fops in spending millions on futile and non-essential political fights and ‘culture wars’.

    They wouldn’t have been Hamlet-like on the reforms of Vatican II.

    They wouldn’t have convened a major reform council of the Church, only to die before it could end.

    They wouldn’t have launched waves of attack on Catholic universities and academics, through the oath against Modernism, diocesan vigilance committees and the modern descendants of these things.

    They wouldn’t have tried to shore up monarchical governance, of the Church or of nations, or of the pope above national monarchs, even as aristocracy crumbled around the world.

    They wouldn’t have kept concubines or sired children.

    They wouldn’t have denied their Master even as he went to his death.

    But popes did all these things, and they will do more. The Church is far from perfect.

    I have high hopes for Pope Francis. I think that he is simply doing what he sees as right and following the guidance he is given in his hours of prayer. Ross Douthat seems to want to interpret him as a political actor. I don’t believe that is his focus at all.

    But he is, first of all, human, as his predecessors were. Can we give him room to be human?

  10. I do not find Mr Douthat’s terms (right,center,left) very insightful or helpful to understand Pope Francis. I would suggest that Pope Francis
    is in continuity with the teachings of Vatican ll and with the Popes from John 23 to Benedict 16. (Of course each Pope had his own gift’s, personality, historical context etc that makes them very different on one level.)

    By putting emphasis on being the Bishop of Rome and by his daily homilies, he is helping to redefine the role of the papacy (which John Paul ll wrote a letter about?).
    The major themes of collegiality, openness and engagment, dialogue, baptismal call to holiness and radical discipleship have been stressed by all the Popes in the past 50 years.
    None of these changes can come quickly or easily. And one could suggest that Pope Francis is building on the work and struggles of these past 50 years and now at this moment, he has been called and given a mandate by the conclave to use his gifts to move the church forward in its renewal.

    For comparison with Mr Douthat’s analysis, i would suggest the insights from this article as one that helps to see all this in a bigger context and perhaps with more perceptive insights:

  11. Todd – you state and I quote: ” It might be that the problem with “devotional” seminarians is that they exhibit little depth, no sense of a baptismal call, and might be better suited to the cloister than ministry in the world.”

    Formation directors that I know would wholeheartedly concur with your brief synopsis. The issue isn’t the cultural devotions – it is the personalities and individuals’ dependence or exclusive focus on these as the foundation of their faith and calling. Today, formation directors contend with a group of priest candidates who are attracted by the *reform of the reform*, TLM, the Burke approach or those who hero worshipped JPII….some have been ordained. Now, they work with and try to support these guys in their first assignments as their styles are confronted by real live folks who find them to be backwards, negative, or immature….they create waves by solitary decisions to bring back old devotions to replace what the parish has done for years, etc.; inability to work with lay staff especially females, imposing their individual likes on the parish community, etc. This is causing issues – for example, in STL alone, some of these recently ordained have had to go on leave and receive psych treatment…and the pending changes in papal style that will ripple down to conferences and bishops will put even more stress on them.

    Finally, this whole citing of Francis and devotions – in fact, IMO, Franics means and uses *devotions* in a very different way than what Allan is referencing.

    Jonathan – great list.

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