“Vatican literally falls apart after Pope Francis says ‘Hell doesn’t exist,’” ran a recent headline in a London tabloid. Unhappily, the current Pope – who does believe in hell, by the way — is all too often at the centre of such firestorms. When God poured his gifts into the Argentine Jesuit, he seems to have left out a gene for public relations.

The news was based on a chat with a 93-year-old Italian journalist friend, Eugenio Scalfari, whose reporting techniques do not include tape recorders or even written notes. His stand as a left-wing atheist might have spiced his memory of their conversation.

This was the fifth such tete-a-tete, all of them followed by scandalous headlines. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to occur to the Pope that chatting with Scalfari is like sending an anthrax letter to the Vatican press office.

But perhaps he has other priorities. Perhaps he is more interested in saving the aged journalist’s soul than keeping an unblemished media scorecard. Who knows? Perhaps he told him in the privacy of his Vatican apartment, as he told the Mafia in 2014, “Convert, there is still time, so that you don’t end up in hell [that word, again!]. That is what awaits you if you continue on this path. You had a father and a mother: think of them. Cry a little and convert.”    

After collating thousands of anecdotes like this about Francis, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, in his recent book, To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism, comes to a very different conclusion. He argues not that the Pope is a media klutz, but a subtle schemer steering the Church towards heresy. Hidden behind a façade of media-friendly photo-ops, invocations of divine mercy and grandfatherly advice there stands a brazen moral and doctrinal revolutionary. “How does one change an officially unchanging church?” asks Douthat “How does one alter what is not supposed to be in your power to remake? One answer: Very carefully, and by overwhelming consensus.”

Douthat comes close to calling the Pope a Machiavellian hypocrite or a mole for a Masonic cabal. But, oddly enough for a journalist who accuses his target of sly ambiguity, he himself is a master of dithering, of “it could be, but then again, it might not”. So his final judgement on the motives of the Pope and the future of the Catholic Church is ambiguous. But largely negative.  

Douthat’s opinion matters, at least for his media comrades, as he is a Catholic insider — a prominent conservative, a regular church-goer and a respected journalist. What’s more, he sincerely loves his Church and wants to defend it. Unfortunately, he believes that its most potent enemy is the man elected to lead it in 2013.

To support his case, Douthat relies on analysis by a number of conservative clerics, professional Vaticanistas and Catholic bloggers and columnists enraged at the Pope’s free-wheeling managerial style, liturgical innovations, episcopal appointments and bad temper.

Bad temper? Yes, bad temper. In fact, it is impossible to comprehend the reaction of Douthat and his friends without taking into account their indignation over the Pope’s scathing words about “rigidity” and “legalism”. “Among conservative and traditionalist Catholics, where John Paul and Benedict had seen the seeds of a renewed and vigorous church, the new pope saw a great many Pharisees and scribes,” he writes.

There is some truth in this. Who, me? Us? We who have laboured in the vineyard since dawn in the heat of the sun? You must be kidding! The Pope’s insistence on personal holiness and conversion, even amongst loyal priests and laity, has sometimes kindled outrage rather than fervour, hostility rather than humility. Douthat’s sympathy for their mortification colours his whole analysis. 

The central pillar of his argument is that Francis wanted to use his Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia to change the Catholic Church’s traditional teaching on marriage by allowing divorced and remarried Catholics to receive the sacraments. For Catholics, this is a transcendentally serious allegation. Catholic teaching is a tightly wound spring; with a snip here and a snip there the whole mechanism explodes into a thousand pieces.

Douthat approaches the Amoris Laetitia controversy as if it were President Trump’s proposal to build a big beautiful wall along the Mexican border: the intrigue, the politics, the pressure groups, the battle between conservatives and liberals. (He sees similarities between the two figures.) What impresses him most is the sinister influence of liberal German bishops, in particular, Walter Kaspar, who was made a cardinal by John Paul II. Kaspar, apparently, is a champion of abandoning the ban on remarriage for divorced Catholics. His fingerprints, Douthat argues, are everywhere in Francis’s views on marriage.

But there is a problem with this interpretation: Amoris Laetitia never endorses Kaspar’s views. The closest it comes is the controversial footnote 351. Over the past couple of years more ink has been spilled over this than any footnote in the history of the universe. But Douthat, surprisingly, does not linger over competing theological parsings. In fact, he is forced to concede that “the formal teaching of the church … had not been explicitly altered”.

Not that the “not” changes his argument. To press his argument further he retreats from theology to a more congenial lens for a journalist: politics and conspiracy theories. Foiled by conservative opposition, the Pope has been forced to advance his heterodox agenda through “implication and through semiofficial interviews [à la Scalfari] and in the footnotes”. But this agenda is a figment of Douthat’s imagination, woven out of the speculations of some of the Pope’s harshest and most extreme critics.

It’s worthwhile quoting what Douthat believes ought to be the Pope’s agenda. It’s not spiritual, at least in a Catholic sense, and not evangelistic. In fact, it looks strikingly like one of his columns about the missed opportunities of the Trump Administration:

Such was the great promise of Francis’s pontificate, five long years ago—that by stressing anew the church’s themes of economic and social solidarity without compromising its metaphysical and moral commitments, he could offer a vision of Catholicism that unified its warring factions and made it more attractive and influential in the wider world. Such a vigorous, recentered Catholicism’s influence could make right-wing politics less bigoted and left-wing politics less materialistic, social democracy less sterile and capitalism less ruthless, devout Muslims less frightening and political Islam less like secular liberalism’s only comprehensive challenge. From its own rediscovered center, the church could offer a different center—religious solidarity, rather than secular technocracy—to an aging, fragmenting, increasingly fearful developed world, while building a religious bridge between the still Christian elements in Western civilization and the increasingly Christian global South.

… which makes the Catholic Church seem more like the Republican Party at prayer than “the Body of Christ”. The authors of Gaudium et Spes (Joy and Hope), a key document of Vatican II, would not have recognised in these nostrums its message for evangelising the modern world. Nor would John Paul II have recognised his own game plan for the next thousand years, Novo Millennio Ineunte (Entering the New Millennium). The Polish pontiff’s advice could be summed up in a single word: holiness.

The goalposts of Catholic living are, have been, and always will be holiness and evangelisation. But about these Douthat has nothing to say; he is too locked into a take-no-prisoners war between liberals and conservatives. If it works for American politics, why not for the Catholic Church? Perhaps his mistake is understandable, for these mysterious religious terms fit awkwardly, if at all, into a journalistic frame. 

But this is the frame that Pope Francis has been using since 2013. His first apostolic exhortation (which Douthat barely mentions) was Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), which is about evangelisation. The second, Amoris Laetitia, was about evangelisation through the universal and fundamental experience of the family. Bookending the Papal trilogy is a third, to be released on Monday, Gaudete et Exsultate (Rejoice and Be Glad), whose theme will be holiness.

What is the Pope’s agenda? There’s no need to trawl through the internet. It’s all there in Evangelii Gaudium, published soon after his election: evangelisation and holiness:

The joy of the gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness. With Christ joy is constantly born anew. In this Exhortation I wish to encourage the Christian faithful to embark upon a new chapter of evangelization marked by this joy, while pointing out new paths for the Church’s journey in years to come.

Perhaps this is too naive for a journalist at the New York Times, too simple-minded for Beltway gabfests. But it’s more plausible, more plausible by far, than asserting that Pope Francis is plotting the destruction of the Catholic Church.

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet.