Thoughts on Ross Douthat’s Portsmouth Institute Speech and Pope Francis’s Role in a Divided Church (With Video)


Ross Douthat divided his talk at the 2015 Portsmouth Institute conference into two segments.  With the topic of “More Catholic than the Pope?: The New Catholic Civil War,” Douthat looked first at three areas of skepticism about the pope in the United States and then broadened his view globally.  Given his particular insights, the current of larger concern may actually have flowed below the surface his rhetorical structure.

Support for Pope Francis is universally high, in the United States, with gaps in popularity being very small.  Given the public perception of his two forerunners, though, Douthat finds the areas of most likely division to be entirely among variations of conservatives:

  • Catholic traditionalists — as in those who’ve questioned changes in the Church back to the Second Vatican Council — were probably destined to have disagreements with Francis, according to Douthat. However, their numbers are relatively small and the “contours” of the conflict are well known and existent.
  • Economically and politically conservative Catholics, on the other hand, may be more visible, and their differences with the Vatican are in some respects a new development. However, Douthat believes that their effect on the Church, if any, will be gradual, requiring a long series of uncomfortable tugs by the pope.  In any event, a small rift might be healthy to the extent that it prevents the American Catholic Church from becoming “a client” of the Republican Party.
  • Catholic social conservatives, like Douthat, represent the area of most concern, not necessarily because they are more numerous than economic conservatives or have greater sway, but because their concerns will be more theologically problematic for the Church globally. If the pope begins to “feint” toward actual changes in doctrine, tensions could flare up around the world, perhaps with the traditionalists providing theological flashpoints and economic/political conservatives amplifying them.

On the international stage, the risks have as much to do with technology as with Pope Francis.  In the history of Roman Catholicism, it was quite possible for regional branches of the Church to hold to substantially different policies for long periods of time because communication was much slower and less pervasive.  That environment allowed for doctrinal debates at higher levels of the Church and granted the space necessary to let conflicts flare and perhaps peter out.

In an era of instant mass communication, it’s possible for the American Church to side with the African Church as if they were close neighbors.  Moreover, it’s possible for lay people on one continent to follow controversies on another and have a populist effect on their local dioceses.

To the extent that Pope Francis plays a role that’s uniquely his own in this international dynamic, it may have to do with his apparent strategy for handling differences of opinion.  Quoting the pope as saying that “the only place where there aren’t any arguments is in the cemetery,” Douthat insists that it’s “very, very, very clear that the pope thinks that it’s a good thing for the Church to have arguments.”

In that regard, where deep differences exist between even the German Church and the Polish Church, drawing them out presents a certain amount of risk.  Despite his new doubts that a “Catholic center exists,” Douthat seems ultimately optimistic, inasmuch as any near-term break would be more likely to come from theological conservatives, and there are structural factors making it less likely that they would bring into being the scary “word that starts with ‘s’ and ends with ‘ism’.”  They tend to hold more closely the notion of the hierarchy’s authority, for example, which would be an obstacle they’d have to overcome when building a consensus that the particular hierarchy of the modern Church is, in essence, out of communion with itself.

This is where Douthat may have pulled up short.  He does suggest that “sometime soon” (in the Church’s multi-millennial time scale), we may be headed toward a third Vatican council — after a 25 to 50 year process of pressure building from both sides of theological aisle.  Such an event has long been a hope of liberal Catholics, Douthat says, with an expectation that they could “finally have everything that they were supposed to get after Vatican Two.”

One might advise Douthat, however, that conservative Catholics would be wise to avoid the mistake of American conservatives in not picking up on the signals from the Left.  The greatest example of this (recently, if not ever) came with the clear signals of same-sex marriage advocates that their talk about plurality and tolerance were simply cover that they would shed the moment they gained the upper hand, politically.

When conservatives should have been actively engaged — at least to limit the cultural effects of such a radical change — those of a more conciliatory or libertarian bent simply stepped aside, because they didn’t see the need for action.  Similarly, if conservatives have too much faith in the resilience of common principles within the Church, they may miss their chance to shore them up.

When it comes to the direction of the Church, perhaps the most critical factor is Pope Francis’s understanding of his own place in history, especially, as I’ve suggested, his sense of whether the world is approaching a crisis point or has already moved past it.

Douthat suggests that a particular faction of the Church isn’t really in a state of “de facto schism” unless the pope brings things to a head by saying that it is.  Judging that the Church is still acting within an pre-crisis world, Douthat’s hope appears to be that Francis will work to bring differences out and let them float for a while, letting sides “hash out” their disagreements in a gradual, organic way.

But if Pope Francis thinks we’re already in a post-crisis world, then his strategy might be to identify where rifts emerged and then push decisions.  Economic/political American Catholics might be picking up something beyond domestic partisan squabbles, in this area.  After all, in his skepticism of their view of the world, the pope has gone much beyond simply drawing out disagreements.  As Anna Bonta Moreland said some hours before Douthat took the stage, Pope Francis hasn’t exactly been shy about being directly critical of those with whom he disagrees.

The United States is most certainly not the world in miniature, but our recent experiences can still provide a lesson.  With a popular, charismatic leader making nods in progressives’ direction, they may feel their time has come and make a charge for Elysium.  If they force a dramatic contraction of Douthat’s 25-to-50-year process, dispensing with expected norms of debate and routing their conservative coreligionists, it wouldn’t be difficult at all for the latter to see it as evidence that the hierarchy’s authority has been squandered.

For an American Roman Catholic, of course, the Church differs from their country in that God works actively within it, as something that is His own.  There is always hope in that.  However, to the extent that Pope Francis’s uncomfortable tugs continue, conservatives will have to pray that he’s seeing something we’re not, not the other way around.

  • ShannonEntropy

    Douthat finds the areas of most likely division to be entirely among variations of conservatives:

    ► Catholic traditionalists — as in those who’ve questioned changes in the Church back to the Second Vatican Council …

    Benedict took a lot of wind out of those sails in 2007 with Summorum Pontificum

    Nowadays you can find a Latin // Tridentine // Extraordinary Mass all over the Providence Diocese, most notably at LaProv’s
    Holy Name Church Island

    ► Economically and politically conservative Catholics …

    The Pope·ster really shot himself in the mitre with his “Inconvenient Encyclical” on global warming. Could someone please forward him the URL of *this* group ??? …

    ► Catholic social conservatives … because their concerns will be more theologically problematic for the Church globally

    This is what is killing The Church. I am a Roman Catholic who divorced and then re·married … so I am ex·communicated

    Since half of all Americans — and by extension all Catholics — who marry will eventually divorce, the Church is committing slow suicide with this policy

    … monetarily as well as by active personal support … of the thousands of bucks I donate to various ‘good causes’ every year, not one ¢ent has gone to the Church since I was ex·communicated in 1979. Their loss … unless you count my soul, which The Church has decreed is now destined to spent Eternity in HELL

    Way to go drumming up support, Francis !!