Ross Douthat, who converted to Catholicism as a teenager, performed a great service to the Church when he wrote To Change the Church, his assessment of Pope Francis’s pontificate thus far. Despite his many criticisms of Francis, Douthat avoids anger and bitterness, giving the Pope the benefit of every doubt and freely acknowledging that the future may end up vindicating him. Douthat’s devotion to the Church is also evident throughout: He forthrightly declares, “I will die a Catholic,” and no less than Cardinal Dolan has declared that what drove Douthat to write this book was his love for both the Church and the current successor of Saint Peter. What Douthat’s devotion has produced is a well-written, well-reasoned, and clear-eyed account of the Catholic Church today.
Douthat does not focus much of his attention on the Pope’s politics. He even suggests that, early in his pontificate, Francis had the opportunity to wed left-wing economics with doctrinal rigor in a way that would have made the Catholic message more appealing in much of the world. It remains true that Francis is less of a thoroughgoing leftist than his most vocal promoters within the Church. But it is hard to disagree with Douthat’s conclusion that,
as the debate over communion for the divorced and remarried has proceeded, the papal message has lost any distinctively conservative element, instead offering simply liberalism in theology and left-wing politics—German theological premises, Argentine economics, and liberal-Eurocrat assumptions on borders, nations, and migration.
What makes Francis distinctive, though, is not his political beliefs, but his seeming willingness to change what the Church teaches, albeit in an ambiguous manner. The ongoing debate within the Church over giving Communion to remarried divorcees whose prior marriage was not annulled—a debate brought to a boiling point by Francis—is rightly the focus of Douthat’s book. As Douthat writes,
After all, if a rule rooted in Jesus’ own words, confirmed by dogmatic definitions and explicitly reconfirmed by the two previous popes, linked to Reformation-era martyrdom and bound up with three of the seven sacraments could be so easily re-written . . . well, then what rule or teaching could not?
As Douthat makes clear, this question is a vital one. One hopes that his book will be read and pondered by the men who will eventually meet to elect Francis’ successor.
I recall reading recently an allusion to what one critic called Evelyn Waugh’s “chaste prose.” That style is on magnificent display in The Essays, Articles, and Reviews of Evelyn Waugh, edited, with commentary, by Donat Gallagher and published 30 years ago. I have been reading the book on and off throughout those three decades, and it has been on my night table for the last week or so. Waugh’s prose style drives home for me something I’ve been increasingly conscious of in recent years, which is how Latinate British English is by comparison with what Mencken called the American language: its compactness and economy, the tucked-in quality effected by transfer from the Romance languages across the Channel. An American speaker commonly says, “You gave it to me”; the English speaker is likely to say, “You gave it me”—following the fixed usage of Latin, French, and Italian, the accusative and the dative being cleanly deprived of a preposition. And beyond the cleanness and absolute clarity of Waugh’s discursive prose is the honesty and simplicity that has an elegance of its own. His prose is not what dazzles, but the statement and the thought behind it.
Waugh, I learn from Gallagher, considered himself foremostly a thinker—a surprising bit of information, whose truth seems instantly plausible. Waugh had the modern world down cold—imaginatively and socially, but intellectually as well. The Oxford dandy and drunken reveler actually learned something at school, and continued to learn until his premature death at 61. The superb essays on Msgr. Ronald Knox and his translation of the Bible show the breadth and intelligence of Waugh’s knowledge of Church history. “Carroll and Dodgson” masterly demonstrates the insight of a great novelist who, partly for that reason, was also a keen and resourceful critic, a man who could “criticize” because he was able to create. His notice of Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair is quite simply the best book review I have ever read. (I have been a literary editor for 42 years.) And his dismissal of Garry Wills’s Chesterton: Man and Mask will delight any long-ago reader of Joe Sobran’s Wills Watch, which was a feature of National Review’s editorial section for years.
A wonderful volume, one (another being Flannery O’Connor’s letters, The Habit of Being, and for many of the same reasons) I expect to return to for as long as I draw breath.
—Chilton Williamson, Jr.