I’ve had two conversations with The New York Times’ Ross Douthat joined me this morning. Here is our interview from Saturday morning at 8 AM on MSNBC:
And here is the audio and transcript of our Thursday AM radio chat:
HH: I’m joined by Ross Douthat. He is a New York Times columnist, one of the most thoughtful conservatives in America, and now the author of a brand new must-read book, To Change The Church: Pope Francis And The Future Of Catholicism. Ross, welcome back, it’s good to have you.
RD: It’s good to be here, Hugh, thanks for having me.
HH: I am a little bit upset with you, and I’ll tell you why. This book is so engrossing that I have a 2am call when I’m on the West Coast, as I am. And so I’m always asleep by 8. But I could not stop reading it. I had to finish it last night, because, and I wonder if you had this reaction, it’s so disturbing to me.
RD: Well, I mean, first, I’m going to put that quote on the cover of the paperback right there, 2am reading – Hugh Hewitt. But no, I think, I mean, I don’t want readers of the book to come away terrified or anything like that, necessarily, but I think the book tries to be very realistic about the story of Pope Francis’ pontificate, which is you know, independent of whether you are Catholic or Christian or anything else. It’s just a sort of fascinating story where you have a pope who is incredibly charismatic, extremely popular, and ultimately, as I suggest in the subtitle, determined to sort of push the envelope in terms of how much he can actually change a church that officially, as pope, he’s not really supposed to be able to change at all. So it’s really, I mean, it’s, you know, it’s a tale of Vatican intrigue and, you know, cardinals fighting with cardinals, and all that good stuff. But then, if you are a kind of John Paul II kind of Catholic, I think it’s, yeah, I think it’s reasonable to be disturbed by this story.
HH: It is also, I told Chuck Todd in the first segment, although Chuck’s not a Catholic and I am, but I thought anyone interested in understanding the vast shaking that is going on, the convulsions going on in the world, will learn from To Change The Church at least part of the reason why this populist current is flowing through everything. A lot of it is demographic. A lot of it is hemispheric. A lot of it is rich and poor. And a lot of it is simply the collision of master narratives that cannot be reconciled, and have been here since modernity arrived. And I think that may be the brilliance of To Change The Church, is to coin the term master narrative. Is that original to you, Ross?
RD: Oh, it probably isn’t. I wish I could take credit for it. But no, I mean, I use it, hopefully, effectively.
RD: …to show how much, you know, much of sort of the debate among Catholics, and again, not only among Catholics, I think, among religious people of all stripes, fall into these two big master narratives. One is the liberal master narrative, where basically of course, all of the churches and mosques and synagogues, for that matter, need to liberalize in order to thrive and survive in modernity. They need to you know, sort of accept the sexual revolution above all, and sort of more generally accept a more liberal attitude in theology, a lot more doubts about who Jesus really was, a lot more skepticism about traditional doctrines like, I mean, Hell, to take an example that…
HH: Like last week’s crisis, yes.
RD: …the Pope allegedly questioned last week. And that master narrative coexists with a conservative master narrative, which has been very strong, I think, among conservative Catholics, since John Paul II, which is that liberal theology must lead to decline, and only conservative theology can sort of you know, provide the rigor and resilience the churches need to survive in you know, this very sort of secularized, but also just individualistic, chaotic, complex, modern landscape. And we had two popes who basically believed, or as certainly people around them believed, in the conservative master narrative. And Francis, in word and deed, I think, is a believer in some version of a liberal master narrative. He thinks that the Church needs, above all, a truce of some kind with the sexual revolution in order to flourish. And then more generally, that it needs to sort of, you know, open up debate, basically. And you know, he’s the pope, so he’s bound by all the prior teachings of the Church, and he can’t just stand up and say, you know, I mean, again, to take the most recent example that has happened long after I finished the book, he can’t just stand up and say actually, guys, there’s no Hell, right?
HH: And he did it with Scalfari, whom you write extensively about his relationship and why he uses Scalfari in order to sort of advance the dialectic in the media with deniability. In fact, the image that comes out, and I must tell you, every Catholic brings baggage to every book about Catholicism, and mine is of a cradle Catholic who left for 15 years, dismayed by the collapse of the American Church, and was recruited back by Charles Chaput, who might be listening at this very moment, and brought back in, so that I’m a world weary Catholic…
HH: …who’s waiting it out. But what your book does has said you know, you’re not really going to be able to wait this out. He’s a radical. That’s what I took away, Ross, is that there’s a choice coming that is being thrust upon the Church by this papacy that will make it shudder to the very, you know, timbers at the bottom of the Vatican.
RD: Yeah, I mean, I think that there’s an assumption among a lot of conservative Catholics in the Francis era, and this extends all the way up into the hierarchy, you know, to bishops and archbishops and cardinals, that sends, that Francis has been a destabilizer, you know, that he’s created problems for the Church, and he sort of muddies the waters of Church teaching and so on, but that you know, once he passes to his reward and there is a new pope and a pope after that, and so on, you can sort of return to the status quo, return to, effectively, to the John Paul II era. And that’s why there’s this sense, again, among people who are very powerful in the Church in certain ways, that they’re sort of waiting this pontificate out. And yeah, I think that’s, I think that that’s wrong. I think that Francis has already changed things in substantial ways. He’s sort of provided proof not that a pope can sort of explicitly change Church teachings, but that there’s a lot of room for a pope to sort of use ambiguity and so on to basically give permission slips to the more liberal parts of Catholicism, to sort of proceed as if it were 1975 again, basically.
HH: And to use personnel…
RD: And that, and those permission slips are going to be, you know, those changes have happened. And I think conservative Catholics, they need to recognize that liberal Catholicism was more resilient and appealing than a lot of people thought under John Paul II, and that yeah, I don’t think, I think in the end, you know, conservatives can’t rely as I think they too often relied on just papal authority to settle Catholic controversies. This is just, it’s just a struggle.
HH: It’s a struggle. I’m talking with Ross Douthat about his brand new book, The Change The Church, which is a must-read for people who are not Catholic, but most certainly for Catholics. So Ross, personnel are policy. And the radical pope is doing radical things. And when I really became disappointed and weary when he passed over Gomez and Chaput, because Gomez, born in Mexico City, the largest diocese in America, a natural leader of the American Catholic Church, doesn’t get a red hat, Chaput, who has done all of the dirty work for popes, and I mean cleaning up messes, not hit pieces, but cleaning up the legionnaires of Christ, cleaning up Denver, cleaning up Philadelphia. He’s a Native American. So the two who would have been most representative of the Church emergent in minority communities and rising up, passed over by this Pope, who, I won’t comment on the people he has put into the conclave, but it’s just ruthless. I mean, he really is Jesuitical in how he’s carried this out. And I, you don’t say that, but it really does come through. He’s a no-holds barred, I’m going to win. And when you write that he couldn’t get 25 votes in a conclave today, that might be an overstatement, but it does reflect what is a shattered general consensus existed at the end of Benedict’s reign.
RD: Yeah, I think that’s right. I think that he has, you know, I mean, look, Vatican politics is not for the faint of heart, right? And one reason I, you know, I try to be sort of even-handed and respectful in the book, in part because you know, the fact that he plays favorites and passes over figures who disagree with him and so on, that’s not unique in the annuls of papal history at all.
HH: Right, right.
RD: What’s distinctive is the goals for which he’s doing that, that you know, the reason that he’s passing over these, you know, these American archbishops when it comes time to make cardinals, you know, is not some sort of specific dispute about this or that matter of sort of Church policy, but it’s because he really does have a larger vision, or certainly people around him have a larger vision for what the Church needs to become. And that requires, yeah, sort of stacking the decks, stacking the College of Cardinals to ensure that they don’t elect a conservative pope again. And I think that there’s a tension…
HH: And in a way that if Benedict had done it, you write this. If Benedict or John Paul II had done what Francis I has done, the liberals would have had a heart attack. They would have screamed.
RD: Right. I quote Father Thomas Reese, who’s sort of, you know, a very distinguished, very liberal American Jesuit who wrote about what some of these things Francis has done sort in terms of maneuvering and said basically that. He said look, I’m glad he’s doing it, because you know, I’m rooting for him. I’m on his side. But it’s more extreme than Benedict or John Paul. And again, Benedict and John Paul also stacked the College of Cardinals in ways that made people assume that it was impossible for a pope like Francis to be elected, which just shows you can never predict future. But Francis has been more, he’s acted more like a man in a hurry, basically.
HH: Well, he is, because he’s 81.
RD: Yeah, no, well, and there’s this generational tension, right, which is that we now have a dynamic in the Church where if you’re just looking at sort of priests and religious where the younger they are, the more conservative or tradition-minded they are. And so liberalism in the Church within the clergy is heavily concentrated among older priests, bishops and cardinals. So there is a sense in which I think Francis worries that time is not on his side, and that sort of this is the peak chance for the liberal project to push ahead before you hit all these John Paul II and Benedict XVI priests sort of coming up through the ranks.
HH: And indeed, I took hope from that. You know, you spin out a few narratives, a few possibilities. Serra as Pius XIII is a wonderful narrative, right? But there’s another narrative.
HH: And you point out heresy is tolerable, but schism is bad for business, so there’s a point at which, and there are demographic issues. There’s African Catholicism. There are lots of reasons for people, but here’s the problem. If you think the world is really sick, I said this unrelated to your book after the shooting at Parkland. The Roman Catholic Church is the one true church that can bring everyone together around the table and talk and get everyone talking about what is wrong with this world, especially in the West that religion and Christianity specifically can solve. But not if it’s paralyzed, not if, in fact, it’s dissolving, and it occurs to me that next year, it’s 30 years since the Soviet Union dissolved overnight. It is possible that a lot of what we understand to be the Catholic Church can dissolve overnight, Ross Douthat. That’s what I took away from your book.
RD: I think it’s at the very least more possible than a lot of Catholics want to imagine. I think, you know, the story of Catholic history, it is a story of the Church, you know, holding together across 2,000 years. But it’s also a story rich with, you know, schisms, the Protestant Reformation, we had three popes at once for a while in the Middle Ages. So really strange things can happen. And I think Francis, the course Francis has taken, sort of his youth as ambiguity after he was sort of halted from making explicit changes by conservative opposition, means that sort of the crisis is probably postponed a bit. You aren’t putting, you know, because he’s so ambiguous, you aren’t putting conservative Catholics in the position of saying oh, well, the Pope is definitely teaching heresy, what do we do now? You know, he has with these interviews that he gives, you know, it’s sort of, he gives an interview and says something that if a pope really said it, would be heretical. I mean…
HH: Yeah, Hell is, there is no Hell, that is heretical.
RD: …take Hell. But then, immediately the Vatican says well, you know, this is an old man where he’s having, the journalist he’s doing the interview with, and you know, this is not an accurate transcription of the Pope’s remarks and so on. But meanwhile, the Pope continues giving the interviews. But so it’s this world of ambiguity that I think postpones the crisis. I’m less worried about it dissolving overnight than I am of it sort of evolving, different parts of the Church evolving away from one another.
HH: No one saw, no one saw the Soviet Union collapsing so rapidly. And I just left with that. Let me close, Ross, and we’ll continue the conservation Saturday morning at 8 on MSNBC, because Ross Douthat is going to be my guest on my MSNBC show to talk about To Change The Church. And I really do urge everyone, not just Catholics, but of course Catholics, to read this because of the master narrative of left-right and modernity vs. postmodernism now. The Pope’s first great analogy was the Church is a field hospital. At the end of this, and I’ll give you the last two minutes, I thought to myself, you know, field hospitals only work on one side of the battle line. They don’t sit in the middle between the two warring sides. They sit on one side or the other. And so it’s actually a very apt analogy. He’s a field analogy for liberal Catholicism, a field hospital for liberal Catholicism, not for traditional, rigorous Catholicism.
RD: Right, and the Church is, you know, it’s supposed to be, I’m actually stealing this line from my own mother, who has an essay coming out soon on just this sort of field hospital question in the journal, First Things. But you know, the Church can be a field hospital, but it’s more accurate to say the Church is supposed to have field hospitals. It’s supposed to run ministries that are out there on the streets, on the margins. The Pope is right about that. But the Church itself is a full hospital, right?
RD: It’s supposed to be the whole thing. It’s supposed to have all the medications, all the surgical implements, you know, everything that you need. And seeing it as a field hospital can be a useful image at times. It can be a way, I think, of sorting speaking to the sort of battlefield feeling of the late modern world. But you don’t want to lose the sense of the Church as something more than just this sort of provisional place for binding up people’s wounds. It is supposed to, I mean, what you said before is right. The Church is, it claims to be the one true church. So at its best, it’s supposed to be offering not just sort of provisional tactics, but a really comprehensive alternative to modernity. And that alternative should challenge conservatives as well as liberals.
RD: I should say I don’t have a problem, you know, when the Pope is critical of sort of the excesses of capitalism and free market and so on. As a conservative, I don’t have a problem with that, because I want to be challenged. I want my own…
HH: And on climate, absolutely.
RD: And on climate stuff. I don’t know if I’d want the Pope in charge of writing carbon regulations, but I thought Laudato Si, his climate encyclical, was a really rich and interesting document. But that needs to be combined with a real challenge to what I think is just the real sickness that we, you know, you see it in the #MeToo movement. You see it in sort of, you know, everybody freaking out about rape on campuses and so on. Western, post-sexual revolution Western culture just isn’t working that well. And the idea that this is the time for the Church to make a truce with that culture seems to me like it’s, at the very least, a missed opportunity independent of what it means for Church unity and you know, the Soviet scenario that you’re sketching out.
HH: Yeah, that’s why it left me not only disturbed, but also saddened, the possibility of missed opportunity. More on Saturday, Ross Douthat. Congratulations, To Change The Church is a book that will change minds, and that is a rare thing indeed. Thank you, Ross.
End of interview.