The New York Times columnist on the marriage debate, the trouble with liberal theology, and his struggle with illness

In October 2015, as the Vatican synod on the family reached its acrimonious finale, a debate broke out in the opinion pages of the New York Times. The newspaper’s columnist Ross Douthat had taken a line which provoked a wide range of Catholics. He stated frankly that if the Church allowed Communion for the remarried, it would jeopardise Catholicism’s link with Jesus Christ: that annoyed doctrinal liberals. He suggested that the Pope was actively, if subtly, pushing for such a change: that annoyed quite a few conservatives.

And he argued that Catholic intellectuals were trying to downplay the significance of the debate, which annoyed the intellectuals. Catholic academics wrote to his employer to denounce Douthat’s lack of “professional qualifications” and his “politically partisan narrative that has very little to do with what Catholicism really is”. They ended with some advice for the editors: “This is not what we expect of the New York Times.” Fifty-five academics, a few of them at prestigious universities, some of them outspoken supporters of gay marriage and women’s ordination, signed the letter.

Since Douthat’s new book, To Change the Church, repeats and expands the arguments he made then, does he have any regrets about the episode?

“Oh, no,” he says down the phone from Connecticut. “The petition against me was mildly hilarious. And it’s every columnist’s dream, in fact, to have a number of people demanding your… I’m not clear on what they were demanding, but demanding your silence, your reprimanding.” The academics’ letter “was not something that troubled me in the slightest”, he adds.

All this may make Douthat sound like a brawler in search of his next punch-up. But his columns, a mixture of political analysis and cultural commentary, are marked by their evenhandedness. He can sometimes be urgently polemical – he has called for a ban on pornography and for Republicans to remove Donald Trump from office – but his preferred weapons are the raised eyebrow, the ironic contrast, the carefully built conclusion offered after considering the strongest objections. To Douthat’s fans, this makes him a welcome example of intellectual independence, a conservative who can keep right-wingers honest and left-wingers on their toes. His critics suspect that it is a fence-sitting act which ends up persuading nobody. “For those of us of a more foamingly right-wing bent,” the Canadian commentator Mark Steyn once complained, “he can, indeed, be excessively mindful of his readers’ sensitivities – and a fat lot of good it does him.”

To Change the Church has the same qualities. Douthat tries to tell the story impartially, to praise Pope Francis where he can, to seriously consider the claims of his opponents. In our conversation, too, he is keen to say that he might be wrong; that it is “fair enough” to criticise his lack of theological expertise; that he is “greatly appreciative” that Catholics who disagree with him are willing to engage in public dialogue. And yet when all the concessions and qualifications and on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hands have been made, Douthat’s book has a solid core of conviction. To permit Communion for the remarried – a change which the Pope has, if not explicitly endorsed, then encouraged by his actions and his silences – wouldn’t just cut against the teaching of previous popes; it would shake the whole body of Catholic doctrine. Douthat writes:

Catholics would be told by Rome that even though their first marriage might well have been a real marriage, even though it could well have constituted an indissoluble reality, they could still live with and sleep with someone who was not their husband or wife in good conscience, without any need to promise amendment when they went to Confession or fear sacrilege when they went up to receive Communion.

The proponents might have talked about “the discretion of pastors and a case-by-case approach”, Douthat observes,

but the rule it established was clear: what the Church considered to be objectively real was not necessarily binding, what the Church considered a serious, public, ongoing sin did not necessarily require repentance in the confessional, and what Jesus said about marriage no longer necessarily applied.

If remarriage can be accommodated in this way, Douthat argues, so can polygamy and euthanasia and so on down the list. Moreover, changing our understanding of divorce changes our view of Jesus himself. “The liberal view of alterations on marriage and divorce,” he tells me, “is very compatible with, let’s say, a semi-Arian view of Christ’s divinity, in which he kind of made mistakes, or was a little immoderate in teaching, and we need to come along and correct for that.”

Though Douthat doesn’t mention it, a review of his book in the journal Commonweal exemplified the point: it suggested that Jesus had been too “intransigent” in his teaching on marriage, and had been reined in by St Matthew finding an “exception”.

For Douthat, the teachings on marriage are bound up with the affirmations of the Creed. “It’s not the case,” he says, “that these sexual controversies just float somewhere, unattached to deeper questions of Christology and dogma. There’s a reason that liberal theology and liberalism in sexual morality have tended to advance together. Which gives me a certain degree of confidence that this is an area where change would be not evolutionary but actually revolutionary.”

During the writing of To Change the Church, Douthat has been seriously ill. He has never written directly on the subject, but has made references here and there, the most striking of which is in the book’s acknowledgments: “Abby, my love, thank you for everything – in sickness and in health, but God willing in the latter soon enough.” When I ask him how illness has affected the book, there’s a pause down the line. “That’s a good question.” Then he presents a typically Douthatian antithesis.

“You can read it either way: you can say that your illness is a manifestation of your faith being assailed or tested while you’re trying to make an important argument that needs to be made; or you can say that your dyspepsia and discomfort with Pope Francis is itself linked to your personal discomfort and unhappiness.”

As with this pontificate, he says, he might know the truth in a few decades. “But I think it’s imprudent to dwell too much on it right now. I mean, illness changes your perspective on life in a lot of different ways. At the very least, it gives you a sense of realism and resignation about your own capacities. I’ve written this book as best I can to express what I think are very reasonable concerns about a very complicated and tumultuous papacy. If I’ve done it badly or got it wrong then, like my health, it’s sort of in God’s hands, and you have to release it a little bit.

“Which can be,” he adds, “a reasonable way of approaching, erm, reading certain reviews of my work,” and he dissolves into laughter.

The reviews have indeed been mixed: one writer at the über-liberal National Catholic Reporter called the book “unhinged” and – in an echo of the academics’ letter – suggested that the New York Times reconsider employing “a man capable of such dishonest prose”.

Why does Douthat make people so cross? “You have to be reasonable,” he says mildly. “I can certainly see why any liberal Catholic writer who for the past 20 years has been criticised for being out of step with the Pope would find conservative criticism of this Pope to be infuriating.”

On the spectrum of papal critics, Douthat is toward the gentler end. He doesn’t assume the Pope has a grand plan to undermine doctrine: it’s possible, he believes, that the crisis results from a misunderstanding, in which “Francis’s impatience with doctrinal fine points made him regard the divorce-and-remarriage question as an easier change than it actually is.” Nor is Douthat especially troubled by the Pope’s politics; in some ways he welcomes them as part of the healthy diversity of Catholic thought. “I’m in favour of an orthodox Catholic left,” he says, “without necessarily wanting to join it myself.”

Pope Francis: ‘An impatience with doctrinal fine points’ (Getty)

He also distinguishes his book from HJA Sire’s The Dictator Pope, a harsh portrait of Francis’s leadership in matters of governance as well as doctrine. “I wanted to focus intently on what I think is the core issue, the core controversy of the Francis pontificate, and not get bogged down too much with debates about whether he’s mean to people in the Vatican, or which religious orders he picks fights with.”

That core doctrinal controversy raises broader issues. Douthat is unpersuaded by the sweeping traditionalist critique of modern Catholicism: “Generally, I think that the view of pre-Vatican II Catholicism as erring too much on the side of judgment and insufficiently on the side of mercy is not wrong.” But he is also uncomfortable with the clichés of John Paul II-era Catholicism. In a 2015 lecture, Douthat challenged his fellow conservative Catholics to admit some hard truths: that liberal theology had a far broader and more enduring appeal than they realised; that John Paul II’s pontificate had important blind spots; and that on matters such as the death penalty, religious liberty, Judaism and several others, the Church’s exact position is not as clear as more confident apologists sometimes claim. As Douthat puts it over the phone, “Conservative Catholicism had a touch of a muddle around the edges before these [Francis-era] controversies started.”

But the liberal muddle, he says, is worse. “Within liberal Catholicism at the moment there is a reluctance, shading into refusal, to actually fully elaborate the systematic perspective that would explain which changes are justifiable, which changes are not.” His opponents, he complains, fall back into “this tolerant, patting-you-on-the-head tone: ‘Well, you know, the Church just changes, and we explain how it changes as we go, and we’re all sort of making it up as we go along, and an adult, mature faith will lead you to accept that.’ ”

In To Change the Church, Douthat puts it like this: if the faith “has a changeless core, there must come a time when a given set of proposed reforms would mean not adaptation but rupture, not reading the signs of the times but surrendering to the spirit of the age”. The liberal side of the argument, he argues, avoids identifying such a breaking point.

“If I’m wrong and Francis is right,” he says, “then there has to be a much more serious intellectual effort to build and explain the new synthesis that links the liberal present to the more conservative past in a compelling way. And as far as I can tell, that does not exist at the moment. And that is part of why – it’s part of why I suspect that I’m right! – but it’s also part of why I fear for the future unity of the Church.”

I suggest to Douthat that the charge of incoherence could be applied to his own position. He stresses doctrinal continuity, but seems undecided on the great test cases for doctrinal self-contradiction. For instance, the Church once condemned usury as a terrible crime, but has said very little about it in the last 250 years. There are various explanations: the blithe conservative story is that the nature of money has changed, so usury isn’t such a worry any more; the bleak traditionalist story is that, while the Church has not changed any teaching, it has preserved an embarrassed and embarrassing silence. But Douthat just leaves the question hanging. So how can he be so confident about the indissolubility of marriage?

“It seems to me,” he says, “that the Church’s teaching on marriage is much closer to being a core attribute of Jesus’s message and Catholic moral teaching than was the Church’s teaching on usury. I can’t prove that in a 100 per cent provable syllogism or anything like that, but I think it’s a reasonable position.”

The doctrine comes directly from the words of Jesus, he says. “It’s a teaching that affects and undergirds all the other controversial teachings around marriage and sexuality: the understanding of the indissolubility of a one-flesh union is the reason for everything the Church says about homosexuality, contraception, bioethics and so on. It seems more foundational in that way.”

Douthat sees the strongest case for Catholicism as its fidelity to certain aspects of the New Testament – for instance, the Eucharist, the vowed life of poverty, chastity and obedience, and what Jesus said about marriage.

“The fact that the Reformation itself turned on a tangle of these issues – transubstantiation, the nature of the priesthood and, in the English case, marriage and divorce – is suggestive to me that they are as close to historical bedrock as you get for the Church, until, I guess, you get to the Creed itself.”

This pontificate, he believes, is a hinge moment in Catholic history, and its meaning is still contested: “I guess we won’t fully resolve it until we have a 100-year perspective on this Pope.”

Douthat’s non-Catholic readers may be relieved to hear that he has other projects in mind. “A book about decadence, as a political-cultural-economic phenomenon, not just a moral phenomenon. The book was originally meant to be about how Western society was what I was calling ‘sustainably decadent’.” Trump, “and developments in Europe and so on, have made me question the sustainability aspect of that a little bit.”

He also hopes, “if and when” he recovers from illness, to write a long essay or a book on the experience. “That and, you know, a fantasy novel to rival Game of Thrones in its commercial success.”

This article first appeared in the April 6th 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here