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How Pope Francis Affects The Struggle To Seize The ‘Radical Catholic Center’


Pope Francis is a special man. Never before has the world seen such a pontiff. When at last he is called to his final reward, this pope will truly have left his mark on the Catholic world.

Most Catholics would probably agree with the above. They would hear it in different ways, however. It has been five years since Jorge Bergoglio, a little-known Argentinian bishop, assumed the papal throne. He promised reforms, and in some ways he’s delivered.

But is the Catholic Church better for it? Has the holy father successfully realized his vision? Both questions are explored at length in Ross Douthat’s newest book, To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism.

The Roman Colossus

What is the point of the Catholic Church? It’s a question of perennial interest. Over the centuries, many have viewed the Church of Rome as Christ’s spotless bride. To others, she’s the Whore of Babylon. Some resent Catholicism as the lifeline by which monarchy, patriarchy, heteronormativity, and the like have been kept from a much-deserved grave. Still others see the church in mostly positive terms as a perfectly tolerable Christian denomination with perhaps a touch of megalomania.

Regardless of what they see in her, nearly everyone wants Rome on his side. Conservatives bask in her support for traditional morals. Liberals gripe about patriarchy but then start crowing when she shows sympathy for their social causes. Everyone seems to grasp that the church has a remarkable pool of resources that go well beyond the riches of the Vatican museums.

Despite many scandals and missteps across her lengthy history, Rome still carries an aura of moral authority, as an ancient faith with an awe-inspiring philosophical edifice, a rich sacramental tradition, and an institutional structure that has endured for nearly two millennia. With more than a billion baptized members and a spiritual leader who can command the globe’s attention, Rome is a colossus. Everyone has an opinion on what should be done with her many unique gifts.

It may be helpful to think of Francis’ pontificate as a chapter in that ongoing debate. In a world of unprecedented material wealth and appalling spiritual poverty, billions of eyes naturally turn towards the church, and Catholics across the spectrum are haunted by a frustrating sense of underachievement. We want to feel like the light of the world again. At the outset of his pontificate, Francis created a sensation by implying that this moment of transformation was at hand. As Douthat explains, though, things haven’t quite turned out as planned.

The Allure of the Radical Catholic Center

In the first half of the book, Douthat gives his own telling of modern Catholic history, starting at Vatican II, a council largely devoted to asking questions it did not intend to answer. “We’re going to modernize,” declared the bishops, “but not in a way that jettisons or dilutes any of the rich truths that we have preserved from the time of Christ. Let’s get to work!”

Shortly after the council, the Sexual Revolution swept across the Western world, and the Catholic Church found herself struggling to negotiate the intended remodel from a heavily countercultural position. Polarization was more or less inevitable, and a decades-long debate ensued over accommodation and orthodoxy, and what it means to be Catholic in the modern age.

In the midst of intense factionalism, the pontiff naturally assumed a more prominent role, and Pope John Paul II (now a canonized saint) rose to the occasion in a remarkable way, holding a troubled church together with his insightful writings and magnetic personality. Pope Benedict XVI, although brilliant and impeccably orthodox, found that a difficult act to follow. He abdicated in 2013.

As Douthat recounts in some detail, Jorge Bergoglio was initially selected as a dark horse. He didn’t stay dark for very long. From his earliest days as pontiff, Francis demonstrated his talent for making headlines and inspiring the world. He shunned ostentation and embraced the sick and disfigured. He made unsolicited phone calls to ordinary people, just to offer advice and encouragement. His homilies and interviews showed that he understood the yearning so many Catholics felt for a church that had finally surpassed the wearisome post-conciliar disputes, finding unity instead in a “radical Catholic center.”

This social and spiritual vision, believers hoped, would fling open the church’s rich storehouses of wisdom and moral authority, answering pressing social questions in a way that would ennoble and humanize us, infusing modern life with greater meaning.

Taking a few pages from St. John Paul II, Francis clearly hoped to use personal charisma as a catalyst for change. He urged the faithful to go to the margins of society and “make a mess” for Jesus. He begged us to overcome the petty factionalism and insularity of the previous decades, stepping into a new, mission-driven era of service and love. In his early missives, Francis made an obvious effort to balance his criticisms of right and left, urging Catholics to find a middle path between rigid traditionalism and lax conformity to contemporary mores.

The Center Did Not Hold

Five years into this rejuvenation plan, however, even liberals would be hard-pressed to label it a success. Ordinary Catholics still seem to have vaguely positive feelings about their pope, but they evidently aren’t of the sort that bring people back to confession, Mass, soup kitchens, prisons, or urban slums.

The pews haven’t refilled and the church hierarchy is more bitterly divided than ever, displaying the kind of politicization that predictably followed Francis’ willingness to set aside normal promotional patterns, removing people he regards as troublemakers and promoting outsiders who are more sympathetic to his views and agenda. (In a Catholic context we normally talk about “hermeneutics of continuity” rather than “illiberalism,” but the problems are relevantly similar to what we’re seeing in Western politics as polarizing populist leaders erode our political traditions and civic norms.) If the 2013 world was waiting for a Catholic rebirth, she is still waiting.

Once a charismatic headline-maker, Francis now exercises his influence mostly through the cudgel of administrative authority. Scandals have surfaced, and the curia has seen no noteworthy reforms. Reading Douthat’s book, I suddenly wondered, “Does the holy father still say outrageous things on planes, or did he stop?” Maybe he still says them and we just don’t care anymore. It’s telling that I wasn’t sure.

What happened to the beautiful dreams of Francis’ salad days? The most obvious problem was that he gave the faithful too many compelling reasons to worry about his orthodoxy. Although he never formally jettisoned Catholic dogma concerning the indissolubility of marriage, the pope’s aggressive push for “pastoral accommodations” for the divorced and remarried left little doubt as to his true wish. The implications of literally abandoning a millennia-old dogma are almost unthinkable. (Are we going to issue apologies to the liberal Protestants for our years of stubborn intransigence in the face of their enlightened reforms? Why would we even pretend to be Christ’s church anymore?)

Francis’ actual strategy — formally retaining the teaching, but pushing hard to reduce it to dead letter — was less catastrophic than that, but it’s still the ecclesial equivalent of a weak handshake. It’s more or less the opposite of what one would need to inspire a burning sense of mission in the Catholic faithful.

Beyond the orthodoxy concerns, the fact remains that a “radical Catholic center” needs to stay in the center. Francis’ efforts along these lines broke down severely when the sought-after unity didn’t immediately emerge (and critics did). Certainly, we can have some sympathy for the holy father on this front. As we regularly see in the political realm, it’s difficult to stand as a judicious mediator among deeply divided factions. Very few have the necessary patience, prudence, and perspective.

But those qualities are simply required if one hopes to draw a divided people back together. By surrounding himself with like-minded friends, and crankily castigating his critics as hard-hearted Pharisees, the pontiff effectively shelved his own plan for a less factional and more mission-oriented church. In the long run, an ability to deal charitably with detractors is more important than a willingness to pick up one’s own luggage from the conclave hotel.

The Bitter Populist Hangover

In the later chapters of his book, Douthat tries to get perspective on our present situation by considering historical precedents. What relevant insights can we glean from Arians, Jansenists, and Jesuits of ages past? No parallel is perfect, of course, but the discussion is still interesting for opening reflections on the different roles that right, left, and pontiff have played in previous historical controversies. It’s helpful to be reminded that all parties have their characteristic temptations, and over the very long run, the necessity of fighting these battles under one roof has worked to the Catholic Church’s benefit.

Readers hoping for an inspiring conclusion will be disappointed, however. Douthat doesn’t confidently predict disaster, but neither does he articulate any clear vision for how the current muddle could end well. Admittedly, that vision is elusive. The post-Francis hierarchy will be notably more liberal than the one Pope Benedict left, and though it seems unlikely that the left will have the numbers to elect another pontiff in exactly the same mold, conservatives will have the same problem. In all likelihood we will end up with another dark-horse compromise, and that (as we have just seen!) might take us in many directions.

Conservatives will always have a natural advantage in our greater capacity to preserve the faith. We have more children, and ours tend to show more interest in retaining their faith and pursuing vocations. Even so, the liberal grip on Catholic institutions is so strong at this point that it’s hard to see how a more confident and orthodox Catholicism could really win the day in the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, the faithfully orthodox (both clergy and laity) are disappointed and demoralized, having finally been forced to accept that the Roman pontiff can’t necessarily be expected to support them in their efforts to keep the faith in a hostile world.

Looking for Silver Linings

Even in the early days, some people were deeply suspicious of Francis’ populist vision. This reviewer spent those first months panicking, then settled for the Xanax of trusting that the Holy Spirit would work it all out somehow. As a voice of blinkered and naïve optimism, then, let me offer a few closing thoughts on how Francis’ pontificate might work over the long run for the church’s good.

In myriad ways, Francis’ failures are thoroughly characteristic of the age. He is unmeasured, impatient, exhibitionist, and basically unable to expand his personal paradigms to accommodate the immensity of his office. The endless churn of global crises gives him a sense of urgency, which inspires impetuous action even in areas where he obviously lacks the necessary background and expertise.

These are roughly the same defects we see in Donald Trump and other populist leaders. We live in an age when information is easy to obtain and hard to process, so the market for false hope is booming even as despair quietly takes hold. It’s difficult for leaders to pass up opportunities to make a quick buck on that lucrative stock.

If anyone can summon the necessary discipline, it should be the Catholic Church. Popes don’t have to worry about re-election, nor do they get performance reviews. They preside over an institution that has watched empires rise and fall; the American Constitution is a rambunctious puppy next to the church’s magisterium. Rome can afford to act more judiciously, and she needs to if the church’s riches are to be made available to the faithful and the world as a whole.

This insight may turn out to be a critical element of that “radical Catholic center” that holds such immense appeal to faithful Catholics. It’s healthy for Catholics of all stripes to be zealous about applying the wisdom of their tradition to contemporary social and spiritual problems. We also need to understand, though, that this will be a lengthy and difficult process, not least because we don’t actually have specific answers to many of the problems that plague the modern world.

Working out those answers can take time, as we of all people should know. In that spirit, future pontiffs would do well to keep a lower profile, tending to the church’s more fundamental functions and leaving Catholics across the world to pursue the church’s evangelical mission on other fronts. There is simply no reason the pontiff needs to be perpetually issuing statements on guns, energy policy, or the situation in Syria. We need to downscale the papal personality cult into something a mere human being can manage with credit.

Most importantly, the pontiff must protect those resources that make Rome’s favor worth courting, even for secular figures. To that end, it is critical to recall that the church’s most important mission (at least in her own understanding) is not to remedy the political and social crises of every age. She exists so that ordinary human beings can gain ready access to critical truths about God and his relationship to mankind, and to divinely offered graces that pave the way to eternal life. If Francis’ pontificate helps future leaders to remember that, he will be a special man indeed.