Is Francis Doing for Our Times What Jesus Did for His?

Is Francis Doing for Our Times What Jesus Did for His?


New Oxford Review – September 2018 – By James V. Schall

James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Government at Georgetown University. Among his many books are The Order of Things, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs, The Modern Age, The Mind That Is Catholic, and, most recently, The Universe We Think In (The Catholic University of America Press) and On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018 (Ignatius). Fr. Schall’s last lecture at Georgetown, “A Final Gladness,” can be viewed on YouTube. 

“This is where Francis-era liberal Catholicism has so often ended up — in arguments that imply that the church must use Jesus to go beyond Jesus, as it were, using his approach to the ritual law as a means to evade or qualify the moral law, which means essentially evading or qualifying his own explicit commandments, and declaring them a pharisaism that the late modern church should traffic in no more. To fulfill Jesus’ mission, to follow the Jesus of faith, even the Jesus of Scripture must be left behind.” — Ross Douthat, To Change the Church

“This book is not inevitabalist. It is conservative, in the sense that it assumes the church needs a settled core of doctrine, a clear unbroken link to the New Testament and the early church, for Catholicism’s claims and structure and demands to make any sense at all.” — Ross Douthat, To Change the Church

The last, rather playful, words in Ross Douthat’s incisive new book, To Change the Church, are “‘Hagan lío!’ Francis likes to say. ‘Make a mess!’ In that much he has succeeded.” Whether this judgment of success is a compliment, a condemnation, or both is the burden of the book. We have a Pope who tells the youth to go out and make a “mess” of things. Francis himself, in Douthat’s estimation, seems to follow those elder gentlemen of whom Plato spoke who take their cue from the youth and not from tradition, lest they be thought of as “out of date.”

Perhaps nothing could cause more international attention and consternation than the prop­osition that the venerable, unchanging Catholic Church, often held to be the last bastion of intellectual stability and sanity in the surrounding culture, has suddenly changed some fundamental doctrine she had doggedly upheld since her founding. It is the validity of this proposition of radical change that Douthat addresses in his widely read book on the Pope Francis era. This book is both a history of changes in the Church’s long past and an examination of the frequent changes that have taken place during Francis’s watch.

The fundamental question is not so much about the seeming “mess” that Pope Francis has, by his own wordings, caused, but about its meaning or content. What does it amount to? The question is no longer, as it once seemed to be, a question of heresy or schism. Heretics and schismatics today do not leave the Church to form their own separate bodies. Instead, they stay inside the Church and demand that they and their ideas be included. The real issue is now out of Francis’s hands. And that is whether the Church has any credibility, under any pope, if she so changes her doctrines and practices that she is no longer, in any meaningful sense, the Church consistent with that body of believers known from the time of Christ.


Fifty-six years ago, Pope St. John XXIII convoked the Second Vatican Council in order to bring the Church into the modern world. The central issue was whether this “modern world” was theologically neutral or whether it contained, as Tracey Rowland has written, enculturated principles at odds with what the Church had historically stood for (Culture and the Thomist Tradition: After Vatican II, 2003). For not a few, bringing the Church into the modern world simply meant joining it with no regrets.

After the Council, interpreters of that event broke into two large groups. The first group is usually aligned with the so-called spirit of Vatican II, which holds that the Church left behind the classical and medieval traditions to embrace the generally liberal principles of the modern world. The second seeks to show the continuity of the faith from ancient times to the present. In reality, Vatican II had no intention of disassociating itself from the Church’s past. In light of this, Popes St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI realigned the Church in an orthodox direction.

Douthat shows that this division was never fully settled. The election in 2013 of the first Latin American Pope turned out to be a vast reconsideration of principles that were said to stem from out-of-date ideas and practices. To the surprise of many, Pope Francis, as he settled into Rome from Buenos Aires, associated himself with a few of the views of his two predecessors, but in many other areas, he has shown himself to be distinctly modern, and mainly socialist in sympathy.

Pope Francis is, in many ways, a popular, if not a populist, Pope. He seems to be out to overturn the ideas of John Paul II in particular. He accepts environmentalism with little hint of criticism of its validity or awareness of its dangers. He has likened the Church to a “field hospital” where, evidently, many things can be left aside while “important” things are done. Francis is “pro-life” but busy with more pressing things. He seems to have embraced a version of proportionalism.

The personality of the Holy Father seems, to many, to be deliberately enigmatic. Although elected to an office the responsibility of which is to judge and decide matters of faith and morals in conformity with Scripture and Tradition, he refuses to respond to queries about what his own teachings mean. We do not find much in Douthat’s book about the harsh side of the Pope’s personality that is found in, say, The Dictator Pope.


To Change the Church leaves the reader with a sense that the Church is no longer really the same Church that we have known from antiquity. The title of the book thus should have been The Already Changed Church. The Church that was established to remain loyal to what was handed down through the centuries seems, for many, obscured, if not invisible. The fine line of distinction is whether this difference constitutes a different Church or whether the changes Douthat outlines are logical “developments” of the original deposit of faith.

Of particular interest is the reasoning that goes into justifying the changes Francis has set in motion, particularly those dealing in the broad sense with families, but also those dealing with the Church herself. The first approach is whether a doctrine of mercy can be so developed that it allows us to act against the explicit words of Christ as understood from the beginning. The second is whether the Church is mainly concerned with eternal life or the present life. Are grace and the spiritual life more important than political transformations in this world? In tradition, of course, both were necessary to each other.

When one considers the drift of Pope Francis’s economic instincts, particularly his emphasis on poverty, one is left with the impression that he is trying yet again some version of socialism that never worked before and will not work again, no matter how it is reformulated. In this sense, Francis appears less as a modern, up-to-date thinker than a tired old socialist who is unable or unwilling to see where his ideas invariably lead.

Under Francis, issues of Vatican finances seem unresolved, if not worsened, in some ways. Not a few sexual scandals are associated with clerical figures he has appointed. He also seems to have a penchant for appointing scientists who are atheist and anti-life to key Vatican posts. Francis’s warm embrace of global-warming shows little consideration of the formidable arguments that modern life has little to do with the recurring cycles of the earth’s temperatures.

The Pope has pushed his reform in almost every area of Church life and leadership. Douthat asks how Francis’s initiatives are faring. Catholicism is obviously on the decline in Europe and North America, difficult to judge in Latin America, but on the upswing in parts of Asia and Africa — areas that show the most resistance to Francis’s agenda. Christians of all kinds in China remain under the control of the communist government. Francis’s proposed “deal” with the Chinese government seems, to many, to imply a capitulation to it. The persecution of Christians in Muslim countries has been devastating, but it has not aroused much interest in Francis. He directs public interest to “refugees,” not to the persecuted or the persecutors. The result seems to portend a successful invasion of Europe and North America by Muslims of various persuasions.

The Pope has surrounded himself with his own ideological followers, so it looks as if his “reform” will continue long after his time. It is difficult to tell where most bishops stand. Many seem reluctant to say anything, though Francis seems to have the support of most German bishops and several leading ones in other countries. There is no immediate sign that Francis has any intention of resigning. His health seems good enough. These things can change in a moment, of course.


Douthat has an amusing account of the too many sessions the Pope has spent with atheist philosopher and publicist Eugenio Scalfari. After each unrecorded interview, Scalfari recounts that Pope Francis has said something totally at odds with some basic tenet of Christianity. The Vatican Press Office then scrambles to “explain” the situation. In the meantime, millions of people are left thinking that some serious problem exists in Rome. The issue is never satisfactorily resolved.

But for the world itself, the question is not what Pope Francis does or does not believe. If Francis were a liberal Anglican theologian or a Pentecostal or a member of the Swedish episcopate, it would not make much difference what he claims to believe. It would be difficult to find some extreme view that some famous or obscure cleric has not already put forth as the “authentic” version of Christianity. But Francis is a duly elected Pope who has published thousands of pages of text, spoken to hundreds of millions of people, and offered opinions on a bewildering number of issues. He has criticized many members of his own flock, sometimes severely, when they did not agree with him. Granted the tight rules about when something is or is not infallible, some issues have arisen in which Francis seems to have denied what a pope is commissioned to uphold.


Pope Francis seems to be searching for a theory that would allow him to change the Church while making it appear that everything remains the same. What is at issue is whether a pope can change what Christ set down as unchangeable. One “positive” interpretation of this pontificate is that Francis is doing for our time what Jesus did for His — that is, Jesus looked at the historical situation and judged what was needed. Thus, in changing certain basic aspects of tradition, Francis is retaining the tradition that now allows the opposite of what it previously forbade. In this approach, “change” would really mean “no change.”

Douthat himself makes it clear that he does not think we can have it both ways:

Francis’s admirers clearly believe that his efforts to change the church, no less than his vivid public gestures, are an imitatio Christifor our times — demonstrating that just as Jesus set mercy and forgiveness and the relief of suffering above the law, so must his contemporary disciples, and accept that what we think of as “Christian morality” is sometimes not the Christian thing to do.
This idea is powerful. But it is not an idea that is found anywhere in the traditional teachings of the church.

The Socratic and Christian traditions agreed with the proposition that it is never right to do wrong. The issue Douthat wrestles with in this book is not with that of Socrates and Christ but that of those who see in Francis a way to overcome this “limitation” to our freedom, the limit that affirms clearly that it is never right to do wrong, that what is wrong is not arbitrary or in our power, even papal power, to change. In brief, “going beyond Jesus” seldom leads back to Jesus. This conclusion seems to be Douthat’s final judgment.

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