Douthat, author of To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism, is one of America’s leading commentators on religious matters. As a writer for the New York Times, Douthat has a wide audience. Here in an exclusive Inside the Vatican interview, he assesses the pontificate.

By William Doino, Jr.

(The thumbs up gesture of “ok” has characterized the style of Pope Francis in regard to the world’ faithful)

Editor’s Introduction

The year 2018 has been an eventful year for the Roman Catholic Church, not least because it marks the 5th anniversary of Francis’ election (March 13, 2013). The occasion has given way to many articles, programs and books about Francis’ elevation and his impact on the Church — some laudatory, many mixed, and still others critical. Undoubtedly, the most talked-about book in the latter category is Ross Douthat’s To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism (Simon and Schuster).

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Douthat is an influential columnist for the New York Times, and, as a Catholic, has frequently written and spoken about his faith, particularly since Francis became Pope. Because of the attention Douthat’s book has received, and the increasing importance of the topics it discusses, we asked one of our best-known contributors, William Doino, to read the book and interview Ross, then write a commentary for Inside the Vatican. The result is “Ross Douthat and the Catholic Crisis — Part One,” which can be read below, and will be followed by Doino’s second, concluding segment, in the near future.

Like ITV’s other editors and contributors, Doino is not averse to respectfully, and even strongly, criticizing Pope Francis when there are legitimate grounds for doing so. A case in point is Doino’s highly critical piece, in our February issue, on Francis’ failures to deal with Chile’s terrible abuse scandals — which Francis, to his credit, has now done a complete about-face on, expressing his shame and remorse, and promising serious reform and consequences for those involved in any crimes or cover-ups.

At the same time, Doino has also been one of Francis’ most consistent defenders, whenever he believes the pontiff has been misrepresented, or unfairly and excessively criticized. Doino follows the same measured approach in his two-part essay, highlighting Douthat’s admirable strengths, but also taking exception with certain aspects of Douthat’s critique of the reigning Vicar of Christ.

We publish Doino’s essay in hopes of enhancing the discussion about Francis’ admittedly complicated pontificate, and of Mr. Douthat’s equally provocative book.

—Dr. Robert Moynihan,

for Inside the Vatican 




The first thing to know about Ross Douthat — prominent conservative columnist for the New York Times and a Catholic convert — is that he is not the person you may think. To listen to his critics, Ross is a brash and contentious know-it-all who dislikes Pope Francis immensely, and is determined to depict him as a global mischief-maker — and secret opponent of the Church he now leads.

In fact, however, Ross is a thoughtful and soft-spoken journalist who admires Francis personally— even as he critiques, and expresses apprehension, about the direction of Francis’ pontificate.

That much became clear to me after speaking with Ross, in a lengthy and lively interview, about his recent book, To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism.

Going into the interview, I didn’t know what to expect, as I hold views considerably different from some expressed in Ross’s book. But he could not have been more helpful in answering my questions; and even when we disagreed, he was as courteous as could be.

Since his book pointedly challenges Francis’ pontificate, on a range of issues, I first asked Ross if he nevertheless saw any positive signs within it.

“Oh, yes,” he replied quickly — and cited three “baseline strengths:”


(Above, the cover of Douthats’s new book)

  1. The extent to which Francis has been able to draw upon the “celebrity aspect” of the modern papacy and use it to capture, not only the religious, but secular imagination. Francis’ many dramatic gestures of compassion — symbolized by his embrace of a disabled man covered with boils — “amounts to a modern-day imitatio Christi — a public imitation of Christ — and that’s a great thing,” said Ross, supportively. Seeing how much Francis’ gestures have inspired people, “should not only give Catholics but all Christians hope that the Christian idea still has powerful appeal, even in our heavily secularized age.”
  2. More generally, Ross doesn’t think Francis was necessarily wrong to “imagine that there is a way to present Catholic arguments in a fresh manner, so as to escape the ‘culture war’ box so many want to confine them to.” Francis’ encyclical, Laudato Si, is a prime example, for it not only re-affirms basic moral truths but highlights Catholic social teachings as an alternative to Western technocracy — and that is a message everyone can hear: “That the Church challenges both the Right and Left is necessary and important,” emphasized Douthat. “The Francis of Laudato Si is a Pope with whom conservative Catholics should be willing to learn from and admire — even if they disagree with some of his policy recommendations.”
  3. The Pope’s personal quest for holiness. “I am sure,” Ross told me humbly, “that Francis, on a moral and spiritual level, is a better Christian than I am. I know there are other books and articles that attack Francis personally, but I am very wary of that approach.”

Whatever his disagreements with Francis — and some are substantial — Ross remains impressed with Francis’ piety, and his pursuit of Christian living, even as Francis acknowledges his weaknesses and failures (“I am a sinner” “Pray for me”), in need of God’s mercy.

Keenly aware of Christ’s teaching that we should take the mote out of our own eye, before rushing to criticize others, Ross said it’s important for Francis’ critics to consider whether their personal lives are consistent with the Gospel.

At the same time, “Pope Francis is the most important teacher of the Catholic faith, and when that public teaching is seen as causing confusion, or even perceived as conflicting with his predecessors, it is legitimate for Catholics to make their voices heard — even if their own lives sometimes fall short of the Gospel, as God knows mine has.”

That is a fair point. If only perfect people were permitted to criticize pontiffs, no Pope would ever be criticized, for everyone (save for Our Lord and Blessed Mother) suffers from the effects of Original Sin. And here, Ross has a surprising ally: Pope Francis, who has called for free and open dialogue in the Church, insisted that Catholics “have the right to think that the path upon which he is leading the Church is dangerous or could bring bad results;” and recently said, “It is not a sin to criticize the Pope.”

With that clearly in mind, Ross expressed his concerns about Francis’ pontificate:

  1. First and foremost “is the mistaken belief that there can be some sort of pastoral, pragmatic truce with the sexual revolution in the West that enables the Church to evangelize anew… I don’t think Francis has a comprehensive liberal theological vision, but pragmatically, he often aligns himself with those ‘progressives’ who do. And that’s a real risk, for liberal Catholicism’s proposed truce can’t be reached without emptying out things that are distinctively and essentially Catholic, which the Church has admirably preserved for centuries.”
  2. A truce is also strategically unwise, Ross continued, “for it simply doesn’t gain the ground that liberal Catholics imagine.” Rather, it winds up becoming “a tacit surrender” to our culture, where the Church becomes an enabler, and a “meek and ineffective chaplaincy” to a fallen-away world.
  3. Douthat believes that Amoris Laetitia, Francis’ much-discussed Apostolic Exhortation, which seeks to strengthen the family and minister to those living in “irregular” relationships, has — for all its noble intentions — weakened the Church’s teachings on marriage and the family, and encouraged illicit reception of the Holy Eucharist (especially for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics living in a second, adulterous relationship) — creating deep divisions in the Church, which might ultimately lead to schism.

But if so, how did the Church reach this alarming crisis?

That is the subject of Douthat’s book, as he takes the reader on a whirlwind tour of Catholic history, past and present, zeroing in on Vatican II, Benedict’s abdication, Francis’ election, the two synods on the family, Amoris Laetitia, the projected legacy of Francis, and much else.

Douthat’s narrative is eloquent and provocative, with many rich insights and tightly-reasoned arguments. But it also contains numerous omissions and weaknesses which should not be overlooked.

The overriding strength of Douthat’s book is its relentless critique of liberal, or “progressive,” Catholicism. In theological terms, progressivism amounts to “Modernism” (as Pope Pius X defined it)— which is not to be confused with orthodox Catholicism, which accepts the authentic development of doctrine, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, faithful to the Church’s Sacred Deposit of Faith.

Progressive Catholics, unlike orthodox ones, are immersed in secularism, relativism and skepticism, and therefore — however well-intentioned they may be — are at war with Christianity itself. Many progressives are very uncomfortable with the supernatural (except in the most superficial sense), obsessed with the here and now, and cavalier toward Sacred Scripture. Their neuralgic point of rebellion is focused on the Church’s teachings on sexual morality and gender, which they neither comprehend nor will defend. Nothing Catholic progressives say on moral and religious matters can ever really be trusted, because their outlook is so unstable, and subject to change at any moment. Heavily influenced by the latest fads, progressives cannot help but fall into continual error; and despite their self-professed devotion to the Church and its saints, they have no abiding respect for either — unless they can use them, selectively and misleadingly, to foster their revolution.

In thrall to their worldly ideas, they are unfazed by research demonstrating that, wherever progressivism has been applied, in Christian circles, it invariably leads to a massive loss of belief and religious practice.

Worse, progressives in the Church are unable to distinguish between genuine Catholic reform and dissolution, and so continue to promote the latter as “renewal.”  Gripped by a secular fever to save the world, rather than souls, they are racing away from the Gospel at a breakneck pace; but the more they are warned against it, the faster they seem to run. All this Douthat lays out brilliantly. The key question (to be examined later in this essay) is whether — and if so, to what degree — Francis is a progressive himself.

An additional strength of Douthat’s book is that it corrects certain notions many conservatives have about the papacy. The biggest is what might be called “the Great Pope Theory.” This holds that, no matter what kind of confusion, heresies and scandals are roiling the Church, all we need is one strong Pope — or better yet, a string of them in a row — to issue forceful orthodox decrees and disciplinary measures, to set the Church right again. But if there is one thing we’ve learned from history, it is that, even the greatest of Popes — like St. Pius X or St. John Paul II — have been unable to defeat the modernist-progressive movement completely. It may have appeared vanquished for a time, but it was always lurking around the corner, ready to spring back into action. And now it has, with dissent exploding everywhere.  This is not to say we shouldn’t celebrate great Popes, or call for necessary disciplinary action to fortify orthodoxy and quell dissent. It is only to remind overly-confident conservatives what the Gospel itself teaches: that all Christians will be tempted until the end of time, and many will be led astray, no matter how secure they may feel under a particular pontificate. This may well be why Our Lord asked: “When the Son of Man cometh, will He find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:8)

Douthat also reminds Catholics of another stark truth: that however devout a Pope may be, there is no guarantee he will surround himself with wise and competent men. That this has been borne out in Francis’ pontificate has become all too apparent. Although there are many admirable prelates  appointed by Francis — Cardinal-designate Luis Ladaria and Cardinal Robert Sarah immediately come to mind — whenever faithful Catholics hear news about other papal  “advisors” — Jesuits like Father Antonio Spadaro, SJ; theologians like Victor Manuel Fernandez; Cardinals like Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, Reinhard Marx and Blase Cupich; or Vatican officials like Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo — they cringe, fearing they are likely to hear something very strange, if not un-Catholic.

To his credit, Ross not only presses his case against “Francis-era Catholicism:” he presents liberal counter-arguments to his own. What he does not do, to any significant degree — depriving his readers of a vital third option — is present a strong conservative case for Francis’ orthodoxy.

Yet fairness to Francis obliges us to consider that case, far more extensively than Douthat does.

One of Douthat’s concerns is that Francis’ teachings are in serious tension- if not outright contradiction — with those of his predecessors, St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

(Below, John Paul II and Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio on the occasion of Bergoglio’s creation as a cardinal on February 21, 2001.)

Yet a decade before he became Pope, Francis, as a Cardinal in Buenos Aires, delivered a major address (available in the book, La Verdad Los Hara Libres (The Truth Will Set You Free) praising John Paul II’s great encyclical, Veritatis Splendor, for its defense of moral truth and absolutes.

Francis has never withdrawn that praise, despite Douthat’s argument that Francis, as Pope, has tried to undermine Veritatis.

In his first Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, Francis stated, “the Church insists on the existence of objective moral norms which are valid for everyone” — a principal teaching of Veritatis Splendor.

During his 2016 visit to Poland for World Youth Day, Francis was positively effusive about St. John Paul II’s Christian witness.

Furthermore, Francis recently celebrated the 25th anniversary of John Paul’s invaluable Catechism, since it “presents the faithful with the perennial teaching of the Church so that they can grow in their understanding of the faith.” And of course, it was Francis who canonized John Paul II, thus ensuring his magisterial teachings and influence will endure until the end of time. This hardly indicates serious conflict and tension.

As for Francis and Benedict, both men have expressed great warmth for one another, and deep admiration for their respective pontificates. Last November, presenting the annual “Ratzinger Prize,” Francis said of Benedict: “His work and his magisterium continue to be a living and precious heritage for the Church.” Benedict, for his part, has affirmed the “interior continuity” between his pontificate and Francis’ (despite their well-known differences in style and personality), while also endorsing Francis’ approach to mercy, affirming that it is “entirely in accord” with St. John Paul II’s. And in a contentious debate over liturgical translations of the Roman Missal, Francis explicitly sided with Benedict by affirming that Christ shed his blood “for many,” and not “for all” — as certain progressives, mistranslating the Latin pro multis, have, implying an unwarranted universalism. Francis maintained that “for many” better conveys the Biblical truth that human beings will have to make a decisive choice in this life, for or against God — or as Francis put it, for “eternal life”or “eternal shame.”

(Left, Pope Francesco has always publicly demonstrated great admiration for his two predecessors and their theological and ecclesial positions) 

Further, Ross’s book neglects to mention that Francis’ first encyclical, Lumen Fidei, was co-written with the recently retired Benedict — at the insistence of Francis. This is an unfortunate omission, not only because an encyclical is one of the highest forms of papal teaching, but because of the strength and beauty of what Lumen Fidei declares. In one of its most memorable passages, we read: “Since faith is one, it must be professed in all its purity and integrity. Precisely because all the articles of faith are interconnected, to deny one of them, even of those that seem least important, is tantamount to distorting the whole. Each period of history can find this or that point of faith easier or harder to accept: hence the need for vigilance in ensuring that the Deposit of Faith is passed on in its entirety.”

Ironically, Francis’ critics have accused him of obfuscating Catholic doctrine and neglecting the Church’s Deposit of Faith. Yet here is Francis, in a binding encyclical letter, strongly affirming both. Ross’s book should not only have mentioned, but highlighted, Lumen Fidei.

A major, if not the major, theme, of Ross’s book, is the swirling controversy that continues over Amoris Laetitia. Ross recounts, and endorses, what he believes are trenchant criticisms made against Amoris’ text and footnotes — including the famous “five dubia” (or questions) posed to Francis by Cardinals Burke, Brandmueller, Meisner and Caffarra. As noted, however, Ross only briefly mentions that Amoris has been defended by equally esteemed Catholics as well. This imbalance shortchanges the reader and unduly favors the critics. Among the highly respected Catholics who have defended Amoris Laetitia’s orthodoxy, are: Cardinal Gerhard Mueller (who served as both Benedict and Francis’ head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith), in many statements and interviews); Cardinal Marc Ouellet (Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops), in a twopart essay for the L’Osservatore Romano);

Msgr. Livio Melina (of Rome’s John Paul II Institute), in his essay, “First Reflections on Amoris Laetitia,” and  contribution to the book, Sin, Mercy, Reconciliation: A Theological-Pastoral Dictionary; Father Jose Granados, Dr. Stephan Kampowski and Father Juan Jose Perez-Soba, in their work, Accompanying, Discerning, Integrating: A Handbook for the Pastoral Care of the Family According to Amoris Laetitia); Professor Robert Fastiggi (of Detroit’s Sacred Heart Major Seminary), and Dr. Dawn Eden Goldstein (of Holy Apostles Seminary in Connecticut), in a series of scholarly and in-depth articles for Vatican Insider; Professor Melanie Susan Barrett (of Illinois’ Mundelein Seminary), in her article “Continuity, Pope Francis, and Amoris Laetitia;” and the Catholic Herald’s astute canon lawyer, Edward Condon.

On top of this are Francis’ own statements he has made about the indissolubility of marriage and proper reception of Holy Communion. Among them:

—in his first in-flight press conference, on July 28, 2013, returning to Rome from Brazil, Francis specifically stated that Catholics “who are divorced can receive communion,” but that “when they are in a second union, they can’t” [emphasis added]

—In an address on April 25, 2014, Pope Francis declared: “The holiness and indissolubility of Christian matrimony, often disintegrating under tremendous pressure from the secular world, must be deepened by clear doctrine and supported by the witness of committed married couples. Christian matrimony is a lifelong covenant of love between one man and one woman; it entails real sacrifices in order to turn away from illusory notions of sexual freedom and in order to foster conjugal fidelity,” concluding:

“In this sea of difficulties, we bishops and priests must give a consistent witness to the moral teaching of the Gospel. I am confident that you will not weaken in your resolve to teach the truth ‘in season and out of season’ (2 Tim 4), sustained by prayer and discernment, and always with great compassion.”

—On September 25, 2014, the Catholic News Agency reported that in an interview with the Spanish newspaper, Diario Cordoba, Bishop Demetrio Fernandez of Cordoba, Spain, said: “We asked the Pope himself, and he responded that a person married in the Church who has divorced and entered into a new civil marriage cannot approach the sacraments. The Pope said that ‘this was established by Jesus Christ and the Pope cannot change it.’” Significantly, the Holy See has never disputed or distanced itself from the Bishop’s statements, but the Vatican has distanced itself from other private conversations Francis allegedly had, particularly with the atheist journalist Eugenio Scalfari, whom Ross spends far too much time paying attention to. Yet, many of the Pope’s critics have completely ignored Bishop Fernandez’s testimony, while embracing the unsubstantiated claims of Scalfari, who neither takes notes nor records his conversations with the Pontiff.

—On September 27, 2015, returning to Rome from the United States, Francis declared: “A sacramental marriage is indissoluble. This is not something the Church can change. It is doctrine.” Then, speaking about the new annulment process, he created to establish greater justice and fidelity to Catholic teaching, Francis explained to a reporter, “I am glad you asked about ‘Catholic divorce.’ No, it doesn’t exist. Either there was no marriage — and this is nullity, that it did not exist — or, if there was a marriage, it is indissoluble. This is clear.”

On February 17, 2016, returning to Rome from Mexico, Francis praised divorced and remarried Catholics who refrain from Communion, while living in an irregular relationship, and made clear they deserved the Church’s compassion, but not its permission to sin, stating, “Being integrated in the Church, does not mean ‘taking Communion.’” Edward Condon, the afore­mentioned canon lawyer, then published an excellent commentary for the Catholic Herald, entitled, “The Pope has Clarified that he Wants a Change of Attitude, not of the Discipline on Communion.”

—In one of his articles for Vatican Insider, entitled, “Responding to the Five Dubia from Amoris Laetitia Itself,” Professor Fastiggi notes: “The February 15, 2018 issue of La Civilta Cattolica contains a transcript of the conversation Pope Francis had with some Jesuits on January 16, 2018 in Santiago, Chile. In this conversation, Pope Francis states: ‘If you look at the panorama of reactions to Amoris Laetitia you will see that the strongest criticisms of the Exhortation are against the eighth chapter: “Can a divorced person receive Communion, or not?” But Amoris Laetitia goes in a completely different direction; it does not enter into these distinctions. It raises the issue of discernment. This was already at the heart of the great classic Thomist morals. So the contribution that I want from the Society is to help the Church grow in discernment.’”

Whereupon, Fastiggi comments: “I think we should take the Holy Father at his word. In Amoris Laetitia, he does not enter into the distinctions over who can receive Holy Communion and who cannot. Instead, he wishes that greater attention be given to discernment. He’s absolutely clear that ‘this discernment can never prescind from the Gospel demands of truth and charity, as proposed by the Church’ (Amoris Laetitia, 300). These words show that Pope Francis does not intend any change in Catholic doctrine or discipline but only a change in the pastoral approach toward those who have failed to live up to the demands of the Gospel.

As Cardinal Mueller has noted, the only proper interpretation of Amoris Laetitia is the orthodox interpretation, i.e., one ‘in the line of Holy Scripture, apostolic tradition, and the definite decisions of the papal and episcopal magisterium, which is continuous up to now.” (National Catholic Register, October 9, 2017)

Finally, in his catechesis of March 14, devoted in part to worthy reception of the Eucharist, Pope Francis stated: “We know that one who has committed a serious sin should not approach Holy Communion without having first obtained absolution in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.” This important statement was largely ignored by the media, save for the Catholic Herald and The Christian Times, which wrote in astonishment: “The Pope’s clarity in explaining proper reception of Holy Communion during his papal audience on Wed­nesday stands in contrast to his exhortation on marriage and family, Amoris Laetitia, which some say contains doctrinal ambiguities.”

(Below, Francis with happy newlyweds)

Having studied the Holy Father’s other statements on this subject, I was not nearly as surprised, and wrote in my own commentary for the Herald: “That he made this statement at the end of his catechesis as part of his greetings to Polish pilgrims, does not detract from its power or universal significance. Francis was teaching — and without qualification — that only those who are in a state of grace should receive Communion. These are the words that the faithful have been longing to hear, after the contentious debates following Amoris Laetitia, and now that they have received them, they should commend Francis, and spread his teaching far and wide.”

It might prove beneficial if Ross could study these papal statements, as well as the commentaries defending Amoris Laetitia’s orthodoxy, from faithful scholars, then discuss them in the future (perhaps in the paperback edition of his book.) Being as open-minded as he is, they just might cause him to moderate, or even reconsider, some of his criticisms of Francis.

(To be continued)

Part Two of this essay will address additional questions raised by Ross and his important book, including:

—What are Francis’ views about Vatican II?

—Has there been a genuine “Francis Effect”?

—How close are Pope Francis’ views to those of Cardinal Walter Kasper?

—Has Pope Francis really withdrawn from the culture wars?

—What are Pope Francis’ actual views on sin, mercy and the confessional?

—Does Pope Francis approve of episcopal pastoral letters which authorize Communion for those living in mortal sin? If not, why hasn’t he moved against them?

—Historically, has the Church fundamentally changed its teachings on issues like slavery, usury and religious liberty, and if so, does that not prove that the Church can change its other fundamental teachings again, under Francis or a future Pope?

—What is the likely legacy of Francis, and prospects for the future Church?

—How does Catholic teaching on the Indefectibility of the Church relate to all these controversies?

—What might Blessed John Henry Newman have said to faithful Catholics who share Mr. Douthat’s concerns?


For information about our upcoming pilgrimages please email: [email protected] 

(1) Rome and Vatican City — with special visits inside Vatican City
(2) The Italy of St. Benedict, St. Francis, St. Clare, St. Rita of Cascia, St. Catherine of Siena, and other saints
(3) England in the Footsteps of St. Thomas More, St. John Fisher and Blessed John Henry Newman
(4) Germany in the Footsteps of Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI
(5) Russia
(6) Ireland: In Search of the Emerald Isle’s Past, and Future
(Please note any particular interest; please include your phone number if you would like us to call you to discuss various pilgrimage packages.)

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