When Paul Rock and I wrote our 2015 book, Jesus, Pope Francis and a Protestant Walk into a Bar: Lessons for the Christian Church, it was unclear, despite the immediate popularity of Francis among not just Catholics but people of many faith traditions, what his long-term effect on the church would be.
Nothing puts this division of opinion in clearer focus than New York Times columnist Ross Douthat's new book, To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism, and the considerable, if contentious, reaction to it.
I will link you here to two reviews of it that demonstrate what I mean. The first is this one by one of my fellow National Catholic Reporter columnists, Michael Sean Winters, who flays Douthat in excruciating detail and calls the book a "disgrace." Winters' lengthy review is in the spirit of a film reviewer who once said of a movie, "The film was shot. The director should have been."
A second review is this one from The New Yorker by Vinson Cunningham.
Cunningham goes into considerable background detail about a controversial footnote in a papal teaching document as a way of explaining how Francis has himself become controversial among a certain set of Catholics, whom we might call traditionalists. That set often includes Douthat, a convert to Catholicism.
"Almost uniquely among mainstream commentators," Cunningham writes, "Douthat has been willing to suggest the possibility that Francis will spark a genuine schism between liberals and conservatives. . ." In the book, "one sometimes senses a barely constrained wish to apply the H-word (heretic) to Francis himself — a wish suppressed only, perhaps, by a last shred or two of institutional deference."
Cunningham, who likes the Douthat book a lot more than Winters does, writes this: "The book is characteristically well written, and makes impressive use of theological crises from centuries past in order to contextualize Francis in the long, often fractious sweep of Catholic history."
By contrast, Winters writes that "I come to bury Douthat not to praise him, for his facts are nonsense, his arguments tendentious, and his thesis so absurd it is shocking, absolutely shocking, that no one over at Simon & Schuster thought to ask if what he writes is completely or only partially unhinged. I incline to the former adverb.
"You would think that someone who works for a newspaper would be able to distinguish fact from fancy, to feel some sense of authorly responsibility for getting the story correct, have a nose for propaganda and insanity. In the case of Douthat's book, these attributes are missing."
I have not read the Douthat book (though I sometimes enjoy his columns, even when I think he's batty) and may not get around to reading it, given the huge pile of other books stacked up ahead of it.
But what intrigues me about it is that it has become the cause for a possibly clarifying debate about Francis, whose papacy follows those of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, who saw their role at least in part as stalling out many of the reforms begun by the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. Francis, by contrast, sees one of his primary roles as re-engaging with Vatican II and trying to find ways to move the reforming spirit of the council into the church today.
Ask me in 10 or 20 (or 100) years whether Francis succeeded or whether the concerns Douthat raises in his new book have helped to return the church to a pre-Vatican II period of rigidity and isolation. Or perhaps there's a third option that is can't be foreseen at the moment.
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SOME GOOD NEWS ABOUT U.S. MUSLIMS
I mentioned here on the blog the other day the many ways Republicans have been attacking Islam in recent times. Another side of that sad news is what the National Geographic reports here: "Muslim communities in America are thriving." The roughly 3.5 million Muslims in America certainly face challenges, but, like many immigrant communities before them (but some 40 percent of American Muslims are African-American converts), they are negotiating their way into full citizenship participation.
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P.S.: I want you to know about this upcoming event in the Kansas City area called "Tearing Down Walls: Finding a Path to Religious Understanding." It will happen this coming Friday and Saturday, April 20 and 21, at Colonial Church in Prairie Village. The link will send you to a page that will tell you what you need to know and to register (a pre-event conversation at 1 p.m. Friday is free; cost for the other sessions, including lunch, is $15). It's being sponsored by Eden Theological Seminary of St. Louis.