The Ungovernable Catholic Church

New York Times

July 27, 2021

By Ross Douthat

The latest dramatic move by Pope Francis — his recent order abrogating the right of Roman Catholic priests to say their church’s traditional Latin Mass — fits neatly within a historical analogy that’s useful for understanding the larger drama of Catholicism: Namely, the church since the 1960s has been reliving the experience of France after 1789, with the arc of revolution and counterrevolution embodied in each successive pope.

This analogy belongs to a writer named Arturo Vasquez, a Catholic traditionalist turned disillusioned observer of the church, who teased it out in a short essay in 2019, expanding on an earlier reference by Joseph Ratzinger, the future Benedict XVI. In this story, the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s and its aftermath is the initial revolutionary moment — the apparent reconciliation with liberalism and modernity, the stripped altars and the reinvented liturgy, and the subsequent struggle of various factions to claim power, with apparent radical victories coexisting with the partial Thermidor of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical forbidding artificial contraception.

Then John Paul II is Napoleon: the outsider — Polish rather than Corsican — who favors “rule by charisma and geopolitical power plays,” who trades on the symbols of both the revolution and the previous regime, in a pontificate that displays “characteristics of a traditional mentality (Marian piety, conservative sexual morality, anti-communism)” but also ratifies important parts of the revolution, in personnel and rhetoric and canon law.

Then comes Benedict XVI, with a spirit closer to the royalist restoration that followed Napoleon: His appointments are more consistently conservative, his attitude toward the secular world and its “dictatorship of relativism” is more critical and embattled, and he restores not just certain costumes and gestures but also the pre-Vatican II liturgy itself, not in full but as an option with the same validity as the new liturgy, a tangible reminder of an older way of faith.

And now his successor — with Benedict alive to see it — seeks to suppress the old Mass once again, distilling in a single act Vasquez’s suggestion that “Pope Francis is the 1848 revolution of the Catholic Church.”

What the 1848 analogy illustrates isn’t just Francis’ role as a would-be liberalizer, his attempts to push forward with changes that were ruled out in the church’s Napoleonic and restoration phases — most notably, changes to church regulations on marriage and divorce. It also points to the way that the Francis era has revealed, much as 1848 did to the conservative forces of order in 19th-century Europe, how fully the previous revolution had taken hold, so that a conservative or traditionalist pope can no more simply put the genie back into the bottle than 19th-century monarchists could reimpose an 18th-century political system.

Conservatives could ignore this reality as long as they felt they held the Vatican — even when, Vasquez argues, “the actual church in its vast majority was closer to Pope Francis than it ever was to Pope Benedict XVI or even John Paul II.” But now that the majority has a pope in its own image, subverting or sweeping away some of his predecessors’ most important acts, the weakness of the conservative party is laid bare.

Notably, though, apart from revealing the failure of the restoration, 1848 settled nothing about the future of France, let alone of Europe. It mostly revealed a political landscape that was ungovernable by either liberals or royalists and set the stage for ideological battles yet to come.

In a similar way, if the changes and reversals of the Francis era are breaking a particular narrative beloved of Catholic conservatives, in which the Roman pontiff guides the church through late-modern controversies with near-infallible wisdom, that breakage doesn’t tell us where the church will end up 50 years or 100 years from now. The failure of the restoration is not the final victory of the revolution; it is only a sign of total uncertainty about what now lies ahead.

For instance, to say that Francis is closer to the spirit of mass Catholicism than his predecessors is not to say that mass Catholicism directly mirrors his complex mix of 1960s-era and Jesuit and Latin American ideas about the church, let alone the more thoroughgoing liberal Catholicism of some of his advisers. It’s to say that mass Catholicism reflects his turbulent spirit, his impatience with ecclesial forms, his sense of church teaching as a zone of contest and debate, his idea of a decentralized and experimental Catholic system — all of which cashes out as its own kind of ungovernability, with many different forces empowered and contending all at once.

The attempted suppression of the old Mass is a good example. On the one hand, Francis is attempting to use centralized authority to complete the revolution of Vatican II, to consign definitively to the past a liturgy that’s often a locus of resistance to the council’s changes. (It’s many other things as well, but Francis is not wrong to see it playing that role.)

At the same time, precisely because of the development of the revolution, his authority may not be strong enough to achieve this goal. The decentralization that liberals desire on doctrinal issues, the disillusioning impact of the sex abuse scandals, the doubts about a Vatican that keeps changing its mind from papacy to papacy, the role of the internet as a rallying point against disliked authority — these factors will make many bishops reluctant to act as Rome’s enforcers and probably allow the old Mass to persist.

To put it another way, some of Francis’ moves have seemed designed to restore the church as it looked in 1975, after the revolutionary decade and before John Paul II and Benedict. But the church of 1975 could actually suppress the old Mass, for a time, for the same reason that the church of 1975 could suppress, for a time, the evidence of priest sex abuse: It still had enough of its old authority, and the technological disruption was not yet ripe. Whereas in the church of 2021, conservative Catholic journalists just exposed the secret sex life of a notable American monsignor who was active on Grindr while he was responsible for formulating sexual-misconduct policy. Whether you’re theologically left or right, it’s disruption all the way down.

Then there is also a crucial way the 1848 analogy breaks down. The grand ideological contests of the 19th century were battles to control an institution, the modern state, that was strong and growing stronger and from whose power and reach it was difficult for dissenters to escape. The contest for control of Catholicism is a battle for an institution that’s been dramatically weakened by all sorts of trends and that people can simply exit — without having to emigrate or even dramatically change their weekday life — when they’re disillusioned or defeated or just tired.

This creates a deep unpredictability about what counts as long-term strength within the church. Traditionalists proclaim that their Masses are full while many modernized parishes and dioceses decline, and accuse Francis of trying to choke off a growing and often youthful movement. Liberals counter that old-rite Massgoers are a tiny minority in the United States and Europe and an even tinier one in the context of the global church and that all the trend stories about young traditionalists mistake anecdotes for data.

Both have a point. The liberals are right that there is no great traditionalist groundswell among everyday Catholics. But the trads are right that there is a diverse cadre of younger Catholics, priests especially, who are traditionally inclined and likely to be increasingly influential in the otherwise diminished church of 2040, assuming the pope’s attempt at suppression fails.

It’s a condensed example of a larger trend, in which conservative Catholicism is weaker than conservatives imagined in the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict, but liberal Catholicism shares in the crisis of confidence afflicting secular-liberal institutions and struggles to turn sympathy and soft affiliation into full religious zeal.

“Finding young candidates for the priesthood,” a liberal Jesuit, Father Thomas Reese, wrote recently, “who support Francis and want to be celibate is like looking for Catholic unicorns” — an exaggeration but directionally correct. Which in turn explains why the most liberal precincts of Catholicism, the German church especially, feel that Francis hasn’t gone nearly far enough toward a less priestly and more Protestantized church and that the only way to really serve the revolution is to push onward, from 1848 to 1871 or 1917.

In the divisions of the church, the pressure toward traditionalist and progressive extremes, both Latin Massgoers and German Protestantizers recognize the fact of Catholic decline. Both believe the other’s vision would break the church in order to save it. Both have weaknesses and very different sorts of strength. The outcome of their struggle is — as good Catholics know — somehow foreordained. But more than at any other point in my lifetime, neither past analogies nor present trends supply much clarity about the church’s future, and the better part of wisdom is to simply say, “God knows.”