Douthat’s Francis book is poorly sourced, inadequate journalism
A review of ‘To Change the Church’
N.C.R – online Mar 21, 2018 by Michael Sean Winters – –
Let’s start with the compliments. Ross Douthat’s latest book, To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism, exhibits a writing style that is admirable and enviable, and his command of the English language is exemplary, his ability to turn a phrase exceptional. And, like his columns, there is an almost lawyerly logic to his writing, as he moves from fact to argument and from argument to thesis. And, like all great spiritual writing, Douthat does not hold back: His personal wrestlings are there upon the page for all to see.
But 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. As I read my review copy, a paperback with no footnotes, I kept noting in the margins, “Source?” and “How would he know this?” and “That is not how bishops talk about one another.” When the hardback arrived with the footnotes, I realized in the first instance that the sources were few, or a paragraph full of assertions would have a footnote that only referenced the last of those assertions. And among the sources were Life Site News, and Catholic World Report, an essay by John Zmirak and articles mostly from Edward Pentin, Sandro Magister and John Allen. If you are unfamiliar with these “sources,” check them out. The first three are lunatic fringe, and the latter three display varying degrees of anti-Francis bias.———-
On page 125, Douthat writes:
The mood in Rome [at the close of the synod] was paranoid and toxic; the mood among the hierarchy distrustful and disappointed. “If a conclave were to be held today, Francis would be lucky to get ten votes,” a Vatican source told the New York Times just before the synod. It was an overstatement then; by the end of that strange October, it wasn’t.
I asked one of the synod fathers if Douthat’s characterization of the mood at the close of the synod was correct. “Absolutely not,” he replied. “How does he explain that a secret vote was taken on each paragraph and all of them received a minimum of two-thirds support with most receiving close to unanimous approval? The pope was cheered by the bishops repeatedly. This conjecture about the pope not having the full support of the bishops has no basis in fact and is the wishful thinking of a minority voice who just do not like the pope.” A second synod father, when given this quote, stated simply, “The mood was upbeat.”
On page 59, Douthat manages to slur three popes, writing, “If the agenda of the two conservative popes [John Paul II and Benedict XVI] could be summed up as ‘retrench, restore, and then evangelize,’ Bergoglio seemed more impatient with the first two impulses, uncertain of their necessity, and focused almost exclusively on the third.” John Paul II and Benedict XVI were deeply engaged in the most important theological revolution of the 20th century, the ressourcement theology that informed Vatican II, which entailed rediscovery of the sources, not a retrenchment, and Bergoglio’s daily sermons refute the idea that he is not rooted in the traditions of the church; he is rooted not so that those traditions become museum pieces, but so that they become alive.
Not content to slur the popes, Douthat also commits a calumny against Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich, writing on page 72 that, “You could read an awful lot of Blase Cupich sermons without finding anything that would make a Democratic Party functionary the least bit uncomfortable.” I have heard a fair number of the good cardinal’s sermons, and I know plenty of Democratic Party functionaries who do not like his repeated calls to respect life, nor his defense of Amoris Laetitia with its clear distinguishing between gay relationships and Christian marriage; nor, frankly, are many Democrats comfortable with Cupich’s articulation of the traditional teaching of the church that the right to private property is a consequence of the fall, and you can’t wiggle self-interest into a virtue, and that “this economy kills.” I wish more Democrats did sound like Cupich. To assert there is no difference between the two is asinine.
Wrong on Catholic theology
The most common analytical flaw, however, is the binary simplicity of his theological analysis. Comparing Douthat’s wrestling with the rich, nuanced tradition of Catholic moral and sacramental theology is like comparing a 7-year-old’s paint-by-numbers drawing with the collection of the Louvre. I do not exaggerate. Consider this passage on pages 98-99, in which he attempts to tackle Pope Francis’ teaching on marriage and family:
‘For a pope to contradict his predecessors so flagrantly, to break with a tradition so deeply rooted and recently reaffirmed, was supposed to be literally impossible — precluded by the nature of papal infallibility, prevented by the action of the Holy Spirit, and unimaginable given the premises that conservative Catholics brought to these debates. Indeed, if a pope could bless communion for some adulterers using premises explicitly rejected by his immediate predecessors, it would suggest that the Orthodox and Anglicans were closer to the mark in their view of church authority than the Catholics — that the pope might be a fine symbol of unity, but that as the last word on faith and morals his authority had been rather exaggerated for at least a thousand years.’
My marginal note reads, “Huh?” If this purported throwing overboard of everything for which the Catholic Church has stood “for at least a thousand years” is actually what Francis is doing, how come more than two-thirds of the bishops at the synod, in a secret ballot, voted for a text that Douthat finds so wrenching?
Flat-out wrong on Pope Francis
There is a final passage that combines unsourced and incorrect assertions with tendentious analysis, all of it topped with a comparison that is grotesque. On page 200, Douthat compares Pope Francis to Donald Trump, writing:
‘The comparison to Trump is a fraught one, of course. Many of Francis’s admirers have cast him as the anti-Donald and in certain ideological ways he clearly is — a populist of the left rather than the right, a defender of the rights of migrants who dismisses talk of a confrontation with Islam, a universalist and near-pacifist rather than a nationalist, and so on. But mirror images resemble one another even when the features are reversed, and as a ruler of the church, in the context of existing Catholic doctrine and discipline and norms, the pope has turned out to be far more Trumpian than most of the cardinals who elected him ever anticipated. Rome under Francis is much like Washington under Trump — a paranoid and jumpy place, full of ferment and uncertainty. Francis’s opponents, like Trump’s, feel that they’re resisting an abnormal leader, a man who does not respect the rules that are supposed to bind his office. Meanwhile, to his supporters, as to many of Trump’s, all these discontents are vindication, evidence that he’s bringing about the changed required to Make Catholicism Great Again.’
No, Mr. Douthat, the Holy Father is not a vulgar, misogynistic narcissist with little learning and a short attention span. The Holy Father does not gratuitously insult poor and desperate refugees and migrants. The Holy Father does not revel in his power or gild the buildings he owns with his own name. Rome is not “a paranoid and jumpy place” just because Douthat’s friends are paranoid. There is no “uncertainty” except for those few who fancied a scenario in which the Second Vatican Council would be rolled back bit by bit until we could all return to the Golden Age that was the 1950s. This is whole-cloth nonsense leading to a comparison that is, as I say, grotesque.
I cannot recommend that anyone buy this book, but if you do and you retrieve it from the non-fiction section of the bookstore, you can ask for your money back. Douthat should go write novels. The editors at The New York Times should ask why they would continue to give a man capable of such dishonest prose some of their prime real estate. Let him go be among his friends at Life Site News and Catholic World Report where this kind of nonsense is standard fare. Maybe he could be the next editor of The Wanderer. He has done a disservice not only to those who seek to understand the Catholic Church but also to those of us work hard to get the true story, who base our analysis on facts not fictions, and who grow suspicious when our theses are unbalanced, in short, a disservice to journalism. This book is a disgrace.
[Michael Sean Winters covers the nexus of religion and politics for NCR.]
The U.S. ‘National Catholic Reporter’ is an independent news organisation that often publishes articles of interest – not only to Roman Catholics but also to those of us who have been captivated with the new regime of Pope Francis at the Vatican.
Obviously, the new book by conservative Roman Catholic journalist, Ross Douthat (whose writings some of my more conservative fellow Anglicans here in New Zealand devoutly follow) has drawn mixed revues – especially in the United States.
Entitled: ‘To Change the Church’ Douthat’s book seeks to examine the effect on the Roman Catholic Church by the emergence of the papacy of Pope Francis, otherwise known as Jorge Bergoglio to many of his fellow Jesuits around the world. Undoubtedly, Douthat has gathered together as many scraps of information as he can about what goes on in the closed world of the Vatican, but in his attempt to critique the liberalising nature of the pope’s eirenic movement towards the Church’s openness to people on the margins, he has forgotten to check out his story with those people more credibly ‘in the know’.
No doubt U.S. Cardinal Burke, who heads a small team of hierarchs in the US Roman Catholic Church who have protested against the Pope’s recent statement ‘Amoris Laetitia’ – because of its openness to divorcees would be pleased with Douthat’s attempt here to discredit the impact of the ministry of Pope Francis. However, the majority of the Church’s bishops have welcomed the winds of change that have come with Pope Francis’ new reign.
In his comparing Pope Francis with the rampant eccentricity of US President Donald Trump, one begins to wonder whether Douthat is a Republican or a Democrat. I can’t help thinking, though; he is just another follower of ‘The Donald’.
Because of space limitations, I have not recorded the entire critique of Douthat’s book by NCR reporter, Michael Sean Winters, having included only passages that have caught my attention as worthy of comment here. The full article can be found at this link:
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand