Book Review: To Change The Church

To Change The Church:  Pope Francis And The Future Of Catholicism, by Ross Douthat

As someone who is at least a moderately serious observer of the Roman Catholic Church [1], I have somewhat mixed feelings about this book.  I think that the author believes himself to be more conservative than he really is simply because the left that he is to the right of is so far off from what is biblically correct that to be a part of it is insanity, and he comes off as a moderate but not an insane person.  That said, the author’s caution and sense of justice is relatively even-handed, a tough thing when dealing with contemporary Catholicism as well as contemporary politics, both aspects this writer wades into.  The author also praises John Zmirak, who happens to be an online acquaintance of mine and a pretty hilarious commentator on contemporary Catholicism from a traditionalist perspective.  By and large I thought this book was a good one, as it honestly attempts to come to grips with Francis’ dictatorial approach and its possible effects on the unity of Catholicism as a whole as well as the troubled relationship between Catholicism and modernity as a whole.

This volume of about 200 pages is divided into eleven chapters, and also includes a personal preface by the author (who explains his background and approach) and also acknowledgements, notes, and an index.  The author begins with a look about the fate of most popes to be prisoners of the Vatican (1), and then provides three different stories about Vatican II and its consequences, looking at a conservative and liberal narrative as well as the author’s own more moderate narrative (2).  After this the author discusses the surprising abdication of the previous pope (3) and the surprise victory of the Argentine Bergoglio in the conclave that followed (4).  The author discusses Francis’ agenda as a pope (5) as well as the marriage problem that ruined his papal honeymoon pretty quickly (6).  The author then looks at Francis’ efforts to change the church in radical ways (7) and the pope’s disinterest in responding to his conservative and traditionalist critics (8).  The author then finishes with a comparison between the contemporary crisis and the dispute between Athanasians and Arians (9) as well as between Jansenits and Jesuits in 17th century France (10) before looking at the Francis legacy as likely having been “making a mess,” without really doing anything to fix the problems that contemporary Catholicism faces (11).

Again, without being a great book or an essential book, this is certainly a good one.  The author has thought seriously about the historical antecedents to the contemporary state of the Catholic Church and comments that schism and division are possible as well as a continued weakness within the Catholic Church.  The extent to which this weakness may be corrected by a more dynamic successor who is able to recover Catholic influence in a world that is growing ever more hostile to biblical Christianity or anything that remotely resembles it and the way that the divisions of the Catholic Church can be overcome by future events is somewhat unclear.  The author shows himself to be somewhat skeptical about the relationship between political and social and theological conservatism in the United States among many right-wing American Catholics and also makes a shrewd comparison between Trump and Francis as both representing populist opposition to contemporary institutions that are viewed as being dangerously out of touch with contemporary reality.  This book certainly gave me food for thought and if you find reading about internal Catholic politics interesting you will likely find something of worth here as well.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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