An emblematic piece of fake news propagated during that fateful year 2016 was infamously headlined “Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President.” Ross Douthat’s book To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism doesn’t have quite as much shock value, but the conservative New York Times columnist is still eager to offer a punch line that will unsettle plenty of Catholics. For Douthat, the left-leaning pope and the far-right American president do have something crucial in common: They are both deeply divisive and irresponsible populists. The two seek to connect with the people directly, they attempt to bypass existing bureaucracies and disrupt long-standing institutions, and ultimately, they don’t care much for observing the rule of law. Just as countless Americans are deeply worried about the “Trump effect” on their democracy, so too, Douthat suggests, should Catholics be frightened by the much-touted “Francis effect” on one of the world’s oldest and largest religious institutions. The man born Jorge Mario Bergoglio in Buenos Aires in 1936 and known as “the great reformer” by his many admirers, could end up destabilizing the church or splitting it apart altogether.
Douthat puts on display much learnedness in theology and church history to back up this argument. Yet his account suffers from a misunderstanding of how the church works and how it really changes. James Chappel’s deeply researched and beautifully written new book, Catholic Modern: The Challenge of Totalitarianism and the Remaking of the Church, serves as a useful counterpoint to Douthat’s polemic. The Duke University historian demonstrates that, contrary to the image of the pope as a quasi monarch who can decree change from on high, transformations often originate at the bottom of the hierarchy and with the laity. The book’s focus is on how Catholics in France, Austria, and Germany became truly modern in the 20th century. Chappel highlights how two competing interpretations of Catholicism—a conservative “paternal modernism” and a progressive “fraternal modernism”—have been decisive in reshaping the Catholic faithful’s relationship to the larger world. The conservative side won, but Francis is arguably a proponent of its progressive rival. That makes it all the more important to understand fraternal modernism’s earlier failures.
Douthat is deeply upset about Francis for two reasons. One has to do with his unusual approach to church governance. Douthat disapproves of the way in which the media-savvy pontifex circumvents internal discussions over deep theological questions and takes them directly to the public, in effect launching a series of trial balloons for transformations in church doctrine. Most famous was the incident in which Francis, ruminating to reporters aboard a plane, asked, “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and he has good will, who am I to judge?” But there are also his “private letters” that have somehow become public; the tweets by Antonio Spadaro, his trusted Jesuit adviser, whom Douthat calls the Vatican reformer’s “hyperactive id”; and the innocent-looking footnotes in apostolic exhortations that, in the eyes of his critics, Francis uses to smuggle in a complete change of the church’s view on contested matters, like whether remarried couples may take Communion.
According to Douthat, there’s a method in Francis’s seemingly chaotic approach. Pursuing doctrinal transformation through the studied ambiguity of his statements, he brings theological debates out into the open and beyond the cloistered realm of church institutions. It is the very opposite of the popular misconception that all-powerful popes constantly make officially infallible pronouncements. Francis instead exhorts his followers, as he did on World Youth Day in Rio in the summer of 2013, to hagan lío—shake things up.
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In Douthat’s eyes, this is precisely what Francis’s tenure in Rome has done, to the detriment of the Vatican’s authority: He has created an unholy mess. Instead of playing to the church’s strength—that it has a single universal representative who can make binding pronouncements for 1.2 billion people—Francis has decided to decentralize decision-making, with every priest acting as he sees fit. Catholicism now means one thing in Germany and another in Nigeria. In Douthat’s view, this means confusion reigns everywhere.
Worse still, the pope demoralizes the curia with his lack of clarity. “Like functionaries in a somewhat capricious dictatorship,” Douthat writes, the churchmen have been “effectively ‘working toward the pope,’ trying to offer guidelines that differed with one another” in the attempt to “fit what they thought his ambiguities intended.” Surely Douthat is aware that the origin of this expression is “working toward the Führer,” coined by a prominent Nazi bureaucrat. Is the antipathy toward Francis among conservative Catholics really so strong that one cannot help but compare today’s Vatican to the Reich Chancellery?
Douthat does not like the liberalizing direction the pontificate has been taking, and here he offers the usual talking points of US conservatives: Give an inch on marriage or homosexuality, and polygamy, ordination of women, abortion, and transgender rights will be next. Any change or admission of pluralism will make the church slide all the way down the slippery slope to total moral relativism—a generalized “who am I to judge?”
Douthat also argues that liberalization and, as Francis put it, “obsessing” less about sexual morality will not stop the exodus from the church in Europe and other places. The combination of what Douthat calls “German theological premises, Argentine economics, and liberal-Eurocrat assumptions on borders, nations, and migration” will only alienate the faithful further.
It is telling that Douthat reduces what is arguably Francis’s most important intellectual contribution—his criticisms of capitalism and of “an economy that kills”—to the phrase “Argentine economics.” Francis’s “teología del pueblo” (theology of the people) does have Latin American roots and is close to the much better-known liberation theology that emerged in the 1950s, even if he rejects the Marxism of the latter. The two share what among Jesuits and proponents of liberation theology came to be known as the preferential option for the poor.
For Douthat, Francis’s egalitarian economics and liberal worldview are simply the newest iteration of the papacy’s transformation into a “globetrotting do-gooder CEO of Catholicism” and have reduced the church to a global NGO or, as another US conservative put it, “a chaplaincy for the elite interests in the emerging global world order.” Yet such condemnations are impossible to square with Francis’s anti-elite tendencies and his insistent calls for the church to seek “the existential peripheries” and for priests to smell of “the sheep.” He wants the church to descend from its Davos and do God’s work in a world that is poor, dirty, and messy and in need of justice.
In such criticisms of the supposed St. Francis the Globalist, one begins to hear echoes from Douthat’s sympathetic columns about Marine Le Pen and European nationalism and Douthat’s troubling flirtations with an ascendant far right. This new right tends to endorse what Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s far-right prime minister, has called a “Christian national” vision and a world of closed nation-states—a vision that is fundamentally incompatible with the pope’s call for mercy toward refugees and migrants and his liberal and egalitarian theology.
For this new generation of far-right nationalists, religion is not a question of ethical conduct; it is purely about identity and peoplehood. As the French social scientist Olivier Roy observed, belief doesn’t matter to these figures—only belonging. And this far-right nationalism has taken hold of plenty of members of the church hierarchy, even as Francis fervently opposes it. Only one Hungarian bishop dared to speak out against Orbán’s incitement of hatred against Muslims, and numerous Catholic intellectuals, such as Harvard’s Adrian Vermeule, appear willing to forgive the dismantling of the rule of law in places like Hungary and Poland, as long as the professed “illiberalism” of the ruling governments means strict enforcement of traditional Catholic precepts.
Orbán’s nationalist definition of “the Christian people” provides the clearest alternative to Francis’s universalist conception of a santo pueblo fiel de Dios that transcends all frontiers, and it is clear with whom Douthat—an advocate of what, in his Times column endorsing Le Pen, he called a “mass-immigration halt”—ultimately sides.
The constellation of right-wing Catholics and populists that has emerged in opposition to Francis is reminiscent of the interwar period, when nationalist Catholics allied with authoritarians and even fascists in the hope that they would deliver what these Catholics wanted in matters of family and schooling. But as Chappel’s excellent book shows, not all Catholics followed this course.
Conventional wisdom has it that the church finally decided to become truly modern by embracing toleration, pluralism, interreligious dialogue, human rights, and democracy at the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. It’s also often assumed that such a development became inevitable after the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust—and, not least, was a response to the ambiguous role that Catholicism played in the latter. Chappel seeks to correct the record: The crucial decade of modernization, he argues, was not the 1960s but the 1930s. It was then that a growing number of Catholics abandoned the call for “an overturning of the secular order and a reinstatement of the Church as the sole guardian of public and private morality” and also dedicated themselves to fighting totalitarianism in both its right and its left forms.
As opponents of Nazism and Stalinism, many of these modernizing Catholics came to accept the idea of a secular, pluralistic state and took their cues from the left, embracing socialism and fraternal modernism, or a more egalitarian understanding of society and the family. But in other cases, these modernizing Catholics tacked right and developed a countervailing view, paternal modernism. Although they no longer demanded a restitution of the medieval order and most opposed an alliance with fascism, paternal modernists nonetheless supported authoritarian regimes friendly to the church, as long as they got what they wanted in core policy areas.
Of these two modernizing factions, Chappel argues, the paternal modernists were dominant within Catholicism in the 1930s and ’40s and played a much more important role in the postwar years, inspiring the large Christian Democratic parties that decisively shaped many Western European states—what Chappel calls the “most successful political innovation in modern European history.” With their conservative but anti-fascist credentials, the paternal modernizers were able to reign supreme for much of the second half of the century in Germany and Austria and even more so in a country that Chappel leaves out of his book: Italy, where the Democrazia Cristiana was continuously in government from the late 1940s to the early 1990s.
Paternal modernists made their peace with the market early on and avidly promoted a postwar consumer culture. (As Chappel observes tartly, “The apparent conflict between Catholic family values and the new consumer economy dissolved in the heat of the dishwasher.”) But the Christian Democrats also constructed welfare states based on traditional conceptions of gender and the family. In fact, even today and unbeknownst to them, many continental European citizens live in state structures—and a European Union—that bear the deep imprints of Catholicism.
With its call for “worker-priests” and more egalitarian family and social structures, fraternal modernism fared less well in postwar Europe. Chappel’s prime example of its vicissitudes is the French philosopher Jacques Maritain. In the 1920s, Maritain was close to the protofascist Action Française, and his beliefs were thoroughly antimodern. Ideally, he would have preferred to undo everything that had happened intellectually since the Reformation. But after the Vatican condemned Action Française, Maritain reconsidered his position in line with Rome’s binding decision; he began to shift left and was eventually forced to flee occupied France for the United States. Once in New York, he discovered that democracy and First Amendment guarantees were actually great things for religion. By the mid-1940s, he had become a major champion of universal human rights and called on the faithful to be a “leaven” in the democratic body politic, as opposed to pining for a confessional state.
In Maritain’s eyes, Catholics largely failed to be that leaven in the postwar period. He grew deeply disappointed by the Christian Democratic parties and declared that “despite (or because of) the entry on the scene, in different countries, of political parties labeled ‘Christian’ (most of which are primarily combinations of electoral interests)—the hope for the advent of a Christian politics…has been completely frustrated.” But the later ascendancy of fraternal modernism also did not lead to a Christian politics. By the late 1960s, Maritain felt that it had enabled too many compromises with the modern world. He eventually retreated from public affairs and lived his last years with a religious order in France.
Maritain’s concerns foreshadowed a larger trend in the Vatican. Under John Paul II, the church systematically turned on left-wing experiments and on liberation theology in particular. While neither the Polish pope nor his German successor ever ceased to criticize capitalism, the bottom-up initiatives central to fraternal modernism, especially those fostered by worker-priests, were marginalized. Meanwhile, the “obsessing” over sexual morality that Francis would later denounce became ever more prominent. It was not until Francis achieved the papacy that fraternal modernism’s focus on solidarity and equality was rehabilitated.
While Chappel’s division of the church’s modernizers into paternal and fraternal factions is indeed illuminating—especially when contrasted with Douthat’s nostalgic understanding of the church—his argument tends to become a bit too schematic as the book’s narrative progresses. It seems that anyone not hoping to travel back to the Middle Ages ends up a “modern”; Chappel notes that many of the “Catholic intellectuals who defended accommodation with fascists were just as modern as those who opposed them.”
It is also not clear that all of Chappel’s “moderns” really wanted to “privatize” religion and leave politics to the secular state. After all, paternal modernists wanted the state to protect and even promote patriarchal Catholic conceptions of the family as well as confessional schools. Many German Catholics, for instance, opposed Konrad Adenauer’s seemingly religion-friendly state until the 1960s because they deemed its policies on education unacceptable. Meanwhile, the Vatican had by no means abandoned the ideal of a completely Catholic state à la Franco’s Spain (where Catholicism was declared the official religion).
Still, quibbles about schematism and chronology aside, Chappel’s history shows how profoundly Catholicism can be transformed over time. Douthat’s big question is “How does one change an officially unchanging church?” But as Chappel demonstrates, the very question betrays a misunderstanding of Catholicism. While doctrine is indeed “officially unchanging,” the church as an institution—conceived as “the people of God”—has changed throughout history. In Islam and Protestantism, there are texts one can fall back on in the effort to return to religious “fundamentals,” but in Catholicism, institutionally speaking, the idea of Catholic fundamentalism is nonsensical. In a church based on the notion of the apostolic succession, one can’t go against the hierarchy by returning directly to the “fundamentals” of sacred texts.
Of course, change should not mean mindless accommodation to circumstances. It is one thing to adapt to Mussolini out of realpolitik; it is another to argue that the results of the Second Vatican Council amount to a deeper understanding of what it means to be Catholic rather than a capitulation to the fads of the modern world. True, conservatives like Douthat can still complain that this pope, with his folksy ways, has failed to make a convincing theological case for the direction in which he wants to move the church. But Douthat and his fellow nostalgists fail to plausibly show how Francis’s idea that reform happens from the peripheries and through engaging with the faithful—in short, by going to el pueblo—is somehow incongruous with Catholicism. As Chappel demonstrates, no pope ever changes the church by himself. Social forces outside the hierarchy always drive the church along with those within it. As Chappel sums up his history, “The Catholic transition to modernity was less a stately procession than a harried scramble, and a desperate bid for relevance in a Europe that was coming apart.” Crucially, it was also a process that involved many lay actors—intellectuals, workers, and politicians. Chappel reminds us that the power of popes, like that of presidents, is seldom as great as it seems. Which I suppose allows one, in the end, to speak of Francis and Trump in the same breath, if one is eager to do so for the sake of a punch line.