Ross Douthat’s To Change the Church is a highly readable but to my taste over-dramatized account of the papacy of Francis. It is opinionated, unsurprisingly for a highly regarded New York Times op-ed writer. It does us the service of highlighting important issues in today’s Church, but in a way that does more harm than good. It wants complex matters to be simple, individuals to be uncomplicated, and everyone to play their part, good or bad, before a Jesus who seems never to be ambiguous. As is well known, the book is concerned particularly with the prospect of allowing divorced and remarried Catholics to return to communion, and with the notion, enunciated in a note in the 2015 Synod on the Family document, that good priests, in the local context and by the old practice of “internal forum,” might discern it right and just to welcome such Catholics back to communion. Such people cannot, after all, undo the second marriage and retrieve the first, as a robber would pay back what he had stolen or a person of power might want to repent of using his power to abuse those dependent on him.
But if such people return to the communion line (or are recognized as having returned long ago) Douthat fears that the enduring boundaries of the Faith will begin to crumble; indeed, he adds, those in polygamous marriages and even couples bonded in gay marriages will seek the graces of the body and blood of Christ. Down the proverbial slippery slope. This is because Douthat does not think it possible to confirm and confess the faith of the Church in the indissolubility of monogamous marriage (leaving aside for the moment the Pauline and Petrine exceptions), and at the same time recognize that people in ambiguous or irregular or improper situations may, in some (or many) cases, still be good if imperfect Catholics who should not be barred for life from the most central gift of our faith, receiving the body and blood of Christ.
I see no reason why we cannot have firm standards, even while not expecting any of us to be able to live up to them. When “irregular Catholics” of many kinds come up to receive communion, the sacrament is graciously offered and received, and the slow healing work of God in the world being done once again. 50 years a Jesuit and 40 years a priest, my experience still suggests that it is possible to reverence the Eucharist in the deepest way, protect the substance of the faith, and yet face up to the uncertainties of our lives, which accompany us up to communion. Douthat cites an African priest and theologian on the question of whether the divorced and remarried can receive communion: “We settled that long ago. They can’t.” To which I add: “And yet they do, and God blesses them. Can we not welcome them?” The slope is slippery, but as they say, it curves upward toward God, despite the stinginess of our hearts.
I don’t think of myself as a liberal, but still attached to my deep Irish Catholic roots. A personal recollection may help. When I was studying theology, before my priestly ordination in 1978, my classmates and I sometimes had a slightly odd conversation on this question, What would you do if you were captive in a dictatorial anti-Christian regime, and given a stark choice: stomp on a consecrated host, or be put to death? I don’t recall where this scenario came from (and not the movie Silence, I think), but we returned to it a number of times, since it clarified some basic issues. Despite no pretension to physical courage, I put myself firmly in the martyr camp, for two reasons. First, I had, and still have, a deep faith in the presence of Christ in the consecrated host, and would refuse to desecrate it. Second, a dictator has no power over the soul, no right to put such a false and unjust choice before me. I wanted firmly to refuse the premise that he had the power to pose such a choice. As I remember it, I think I was inspired by the story I heard as a child, of the early Christian martyr Tarsisius. As Wikipedia puts it, he was one day “entrusted with the task of bringing the Eucharist to condemned Christians in prison. He preferred death at the hands of a mob rather than deliver to them the Blessed Sacrament which he was carrying.” Ah, to die for the faith, in defense of the sacredness of holy communion! And Mahatma Gandhi inspired me as well: do not concede to oppressors the power to force evil choices upon people who are free and good. I would still make the same choice today: some choices don’t change, are starkly clear.
Yet, like any longtime and attentive Catholic, over the years I’ve also learned that the Eucharist is ever surrounded by a host of human ambiguities. At Mass we not only worship Christ, really present in the host, but we — sinners, believers, firm, ambivalent, ready or not, daily communicants or weddings-and-funerals-only Catholics — line up to take the host into our hands, consume it, and then drink from the holy cup. Eucharistic ministers, priests included, give the would-be communicant the benefit of the doubt. (Only once, at a shrine in India, did I see a stern looking nun standing by the communion line to pull aside people she judged to be Hindu or Muslim and not Christian.) To use the old Thomistic language at a different angle: the substance of the Eucharist is real, deep, unchanging, but the accidents – the appearances of bread and wine, the surroundings, the (un)faithful people of God – are always there too. We are, at every communion, the tax collectors and sinners with whom Jesus graciously chooses to dine.
Still, Douthat, a convert, thinks the matter much simpler — all substance, no accidents, so to speak – and to dramatize his point he has written this book. In his NYT columns and now here, he is intent upon describing the situation in the Catholic Church in bright colors, spotlighting factions in the Church, battles, forces to the right and to the left, everything at stake in the worst of times. It seems that Pope and his allies are, by Douthat’s measure, doing some good and much harm to the Church. Pope Francis could well be one of the worst popes ever. Pope John XXII, move over.
I read through To Change the Church looking for specific points where I might comment in a useful manner, even if writing not as a Vatican expert, and a couple of months after the most significant reviews have appeared. In the course of my study of Hinduism I have also done considerable work on the Jesuit missionary tradition, so I read most carefully Douthat’s stray comments on missionaries, largely tucked away in his odd chapter on Jesuits and Jansenists (and slavery and usury). He correctly notes that bold missionaries of this kind were not modern liberals, even when their methods roused resentment in colonial predators, and even when their holy experiments provoked controversy in the Church — regarding ancestor veneration in China, for example, or caste accommodation in India. The missionaries facing the great cultures of Asia — which were not to be coopted and overthrown as easily as Cortes conquered Mexico — sought to keep a balance between fidelity to the great tradition of the Church and changes needed if the Gospel were to have meaning on the ground in India, Tibet, China, Japan and so on. Even the Riccis and de Nobilis of the 16th and 17th centuries were not lone rangers. Nothing was done quickly, and no innovator was entirely on his own. In the age of very slow communications, endless missives went back and forth to Rome, decisions were open to review, and policies adopted were later on reversed. Protestant Christians too often got into the disputes, living out very different views of how the faith was to be preached and lived. Yet in all of it, amid complexities outside the Church and among Christians too, the Jesuits kept at their efforts to preach Christ. Haltingly, over the life times of individuals and generations too, the Church did take root in Asia — even if, in our century, the Church is once again having to figure out how to live Christian witness in China, India, and other great Asian countries.
There is much to be said then on what we might learn from missionaries. Unfortunately, Douthat veers off into the easier topic of Scorsese’s Silence, a movie that, though its heart is in the right place, oversimplifies Endo’s novel that itself was a bit of a simplification. Excitingly, it is all about what this or that individual decides to do. Douthat dwells on the struggles portrayed by Andrew Garfield and Liam Neeson, the newer and older apostates, as if Scorsese’s retelling of Endo’s novel tells us what Jesuit missionary strategies were really like and what Jesuits today really think. But he would have done well to slow down and study a bit more. Alessandro Valignano, a Jesuit of the greatest influence in Asia at the end of the 16th century when he was in charge there (as the Visitor), makes a brief appearance at the start of the film (incorrectly, it seems, since he was dead by the time of the events in the movie.) But Douthat would have done well to think more about Valignano. He might have read Josef Franz Schütte’s authoritative Valignano’s Mission Principles for Japan (1985), or Liam Brockey’s splendid The Visitor (2014), a book about Valignano’s successor, Andre Palmeiro, who actually was deeply involved in sorting out the kinds of crises taken up in Silence. As Schütte and Brockey show us in great detail, the work of the Jesuits in Asia was pioneering, very difficult, and necessarily a matter of discernment, trying things out and testing them in prayer and in the context of ecclesial responses. The Church moves slowly, and these Jesuits knew that their work would count for more, and outlive them, if they took reasonable risks to cross cultural and religious divides, tested their ideas and practices pastorally, defended the better examples theologically, discarded some, and in all things were patient, sowing but waiting for God to harvest. Such pioneers received feedback and pushback from other Jesuits, Church leaders, and yes, even from Hindus, Buddhists, Confucians and others with whom they sought to communicate. Voltaire’s sarcasm (which Douthat reminds us of) aside, these Jesuits didn’t just come up with wild ideas. They worked carefully. They discerned. Like Pope Francis.
Jesuits still experiment, and discern the results, because we must, in a Church where wisdom flows from above, and rises from the ground up. Let me illustrate this with a personal reflection that may be taken to clarify things — or further unsettle the Douthats in our midst. I just published a small book, Learning Interreligiously: In the Text, In the World (Fortress, 2018). It is a collection of 100 of the 300 columns (or blogs) I posted for America magazine, 2008-2016. I chose hopefully less dated pieces, about 100 of them, and they will still, I hope, be of some interest to readers. But the cover is what matters here. It contains a photo taken in January 2017, myself sitting with a group of Hindu sadhus in Sarangpur, in Gujarat, India. (See the photo with this essay.) The sadhus are very ascetic monks of the community of Swaminarayan, a saintly mystic teacher who was, his followers discovered, the highest divine master who came down to earth and lived in Gujarat several centuries ago. I had been invited, and wonderfully hosted, because of my prior conversations with some of the sadhus on the tension between the spiritual and academic, and the very idea of theology as faith seeking understanding. They had read some of my work, and I some of theirs. (One sadhu has just published a book Cambridge University Press, An Introduction to Swaminarayan Hindu Theology.) They welcomed me at their Sarangpur training center, where I spent about four days, visiting some of the classes of the more than 100 young monks in training there, in conversation, and joining the monks for at least three of their daily hours of worship.
In the photo, the sadhus are in saffron robes; I am wearing an Indian kurta and trousers. A reader may ask, what were they talking about? Is Clooney preaching? At least teaching? I have scarf around my neck – it is a bit chilly at night in Gujarat in the winter. But the scarf looks something like a stole. Is the event (semi)liturgical? What is Clooney up to? I can imagine that the suspicious, perhaps including fans of Douthat’s book, might immediately start worrying about syncretism, the confusion of religions, etc. In fact, though, we were at that point discussing religious life, Christian and Hindu, and the requisites for being a scholar who is still religious. Doctrinally and devotionally, the sadhus and I can be said to be diametrically opposed — Jesus alone is savior, alone worthy of worship, or rather it is Swaminarayan and no one else — or people with a lot in common, men in religious orders living lives under vows and authority, practitioners and scholars too. I think the latter is closer to the truth, even if we did not, in our conversations (then or at other times) resolve doctrinal differences. For me, it was a matter of discernment: accentuate doctrinal and devotional differences or honor common ground — and see where either choice might lead. I have chosen the latter path. Neither the sadhus nor I have become relativists, and we get along because of our commitments, not despite them. We continue the conversation, and I was happy in the past year to meet again with some of the holy monk scholars in New Jersey and in London. I mention all this not to over-dramatize my own daring — I endure no hardships at all, by the standards of so many courageous witnesses to faith, ancient and contemporary —but to point out that in the Church, in the Society, many of us are still trying to make real, in our own small ways, the mission of the Society in a changing world. Writ large, this is what the Pope is doing for the Church as a whole, keeping alive our mission, not, as Douthat seems to think, spoiling it.
Closer still to home, at Harvard Divinity School: in 2018 the accidents of our Eucharistic faith are becoming more unpredictable, not less. That I say this is not entirely surprising, given that for nearly a decade and a half I’ve been teaching at Harvard Divinity School, hardly a conventional seminary, and hardly the typical post for a Catholic priest. But by the grace of God, the firm and reconfirmed mission of superiors, and quite a bit of hard work on my part, there I am, amidst a remarkable and unruly community of believers and seekers of all faiths and none, and some nice put apparently quite secular colleagues.
A significant number of our students at any given time are Catholic, come to Harvard because of the excellence of the educational opportunity, because they want to test their faith by finally studying outside a Catholic context, and because they are uncertain, seeking, and hoping to find in the free space that is HDS a surer ground for their own millennial, 21st century Catholic identity. Among our students there are also former Catholics, who are now Protestant or Anglican or Buddhist or Muslim. Some of these, more precisely think of themselves as Catholics who somehow practice in another faith community too. Surprising, confusing, but not so uncommon in a world of complex, divided identities.
On the relatively few occasions when I preside at Eucharist on the Harvard campus, I always stress the substance of the faith of the Church: this is the body of Christ, not just a symbol; it is Jesus in our midst, really so. And then I offer communion to those who join the communion line. Again and again, the substance and accidents of faith meet in our day and age, person by person, face to face. The Lord eats with tax-collectors and sinners, the faithful even with no community, and even with those unable yet to repent (entirely) and (entirely) sin no more. After all, who on the communion line is not a sinner? The phenomenon, though a complexity in a way very local, does mark off a place in which we are Church today, and will be Church in the years to come. No one needs to approve or bless the situation, and we might wish for greater coherence and straightforwardness, but such is the situation of some of God’s people right now.
Globally and in all the small places where we live, we are faced with our own missionary work, how to reground the faith in modern American culture, in Cambridge, MA, in the myriad places where God meets us sinners daily. Pope Francis, his advisors, Catholics right and left of center, and Jesuits too, are all struggling with the monumental challenges of the 21st century, around and in the Church. Douthat and likeminded conservative Catholics too are very much needed in the conversation, argument. Catholics personally and acutely aware that the Church sometimes blocks their way to God are also very much needed in the conversation, even when they are Catholic, divorced and remarried, or Catholic in a way that doesn’t fit the paradigms we are used to.
On the whole, Douthat would have helped us more with less op-ed, less Hollywood, and more care for the complexities facing many of the members of our holy communion, our communities of saints and sinners here on earth. Or simply, more respect for Pope Francis, whom the Holy Spirit guided the cardinals to elect. To Change the Church is now widely known, its good and harm said and done. For all of us, faith will continue to be at the core of things, and for Christians, a basic faith in Christ who not only set firm standards, but at the same time insisted on living among sinners, a divine physician, come not to condemn but to heal. We might say, there is more to faith than faith alone: “Now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”