A balanced look at the struggle for the future of Catholicism.
New York Times op-ed columnist Douthat (Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, 2012) delves into the decadeslong struggle between liberal and conservative forces within Catholicism. Starting with the Second Vatican Council, the author then covers the turbulent 1970s, during which the church struggled to find its way in the post-conciliar world. With the election of Pope John Paul II, a conservative interpretation of the Council took precedence and found its fullest interpretation in John Paul’s successor, Benedict XVI. With Benedict’s surprising retirement in 2013, however, the church had a rare opportunity to change direction, and it did so with the choice of Jorge Bergoglio as Pope Francis. Despite the many issues facing Catholicism, Douthat chooses to focus mostly on the question of how the church views divorce and remarriage. Some of this work centers on remarriage and the pope’s sometimes-ambiguous teachings and statements on the matter. While Francis is the central figure in such debates, most of the author’s commentary has to do with the many cardinals, and other clergy, whose activism on one side or another fuels the fires of division within Catholicism. Perhaps the book’s greatest attribute is the level to which it introduces average readers to the infighting among the Roman Curia and the larger family of bishops and cardinals who steer the church. Though largely sympathetic to Francis and Catholic liberalism, Douthat does play devil’s advocate on many occasions and, in his conclusion, provides some criticisms of the pope. However, the author is prone to an overabundance of speculation, often bogging down his otherwise solid analysis with a series of what-ifs. His attempt to see the current church through historical lenses—e.g., comparisons with controversies over Arians, Jansenists, and other heresies and schisms—is laudable but overdone.
An imperfect but certainly fascinating look at the church under Pope Francis.