Martin Scorsese’s film adaptation of Silence (2016), the 1966 novel by Shusako Endo, follows the trials of a young Portuguese Jesuit, Father Rodrigues, whose mission to the Japanese in the seventeenth century is brought to agony under Japanese rulers. In the story, Father Rodrigues is offered worse than martyrdom: the choice to watch Japanese Christians being gruesomely tortured and killed, or to apostatize in front of these Christians by placing his foot on the fumie, a small image of Christ. It is a harrowing story about Christianity in a hostile culture, and in the middle of Ross Douthat’s new book, To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism (Simon and Schuster), he writes that “the varying interpretations of its story soon become a synecdoche for the larger controversies of the [Francis] pontificate.” Douthat sees that Scorsese is “one of Hollywood’s greatest Catholicism-haunted filmmakers” but that the film proposes a liberal theology which “is not a lowering of Christian standards but the grasping, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, of a higher Christianity than the one the church has previously taught.”

Like Pope Francis’ pontificate, he argues, Silence presents a confused relationship between the church and modern culture. The crux of the Francis question is about how principles of tradition—preaching, preserving, and defending doctrine—manifest with the other official task of popes and the magisteria, the teaching organ of the church, to develop doctrine on matters of faith and morals. As Pope Leo XIII standardized the role of modern popes to engage cultural, philosophical, and theological questions with his Rerum Novarum (1891), the question for subsequent papacies has been to respond to “new things” in their own time. Douthat claims that Francis has in the name of Christ taken on various new things—ecological degradation, technocracy, the endless news cycle, populist politics, moral relativism, and the moral and financial abuse within the Vatican—and in spite of some successes has mostly succeeded only in making a tremendous mess of things.

Silence offers its audience the possibility of denying Christ publically and objectively in order to preserve devotion to Christ inwardly.

The film offers a compelling microcosm of Douthat’s take on Francis-era rhetoric. In Silence, Father Rodrigues offers mass and confession for the Japanese peasants, but once he is captured these same peasants are tortured and killed as Rodrigues battles his desires to remain faithful to Christ unto martyrdom but also to end the suffering of those he has come to minister to. The turning point comes when the missing priest, Father Ferreira, comes not to bolster Rodrigues in his imitation of Christ but to urge him to apostatize, arguing that Japan has no soil for the Christian story and that Buddhism and Christianity share the same ethical goals. In the end, Rodrigues, weary from excruciating physical and psychological suffering, agrees with Ferreira that to follow Christ is trample on him in “the greatest act of mercy.” He steps on the fumie to end the peasants’ suffering and his own and eventually takes a Japanese wife and way of life. Silence offers its audience the possibility of denying Christ publically and objectively in order to preserve devotion to Christ inwardly.

Advised by the popular Jesuit author Father James Martin, Scorsese’s film, like Endo’s book, leaves open the question of whether it was Jesus who told the priest to step on the fumie, but it also endorses what Douthat sees as “two levels in Christianity—one for ordinary cases and one for more complex cases” in which the moral law seems excessively burdensome or even cruel. In these cases, it is about “what Jesus wants. It might be something as extreme as an act of apostasy, or as commonplace as receiving communion after a second marriage.” Douthat argues that this framework found in Scorsese’s Silence also captures much of the papal rhetoric of the Francis era and that “Francis’s admirers clearly believe that his efforts to change the church, no less than his public gestures, are an imitatio Christi for our times” and that in the name of forgiveness “‘Christian morality’ is sometimes not the Christian thing to do.” Douthat contends that Pope Francis’s pastoral rhetoric, like that of Scorsese’s film, attempts a vision of mercy which can “go beyond the letter, the law,” but ultimately only goes beyond Jesus. “Jesus dines with sinners, he hangs out with prostitutes and publicans, he evangelizes the much married Samaritan woman, he welcomes them into eternity. But he never confirms them in their sins, or makes nuanced allowances for their state of life; that sort of rhetoric is alien to the gospels. The ritual law—yes, that can be superseded. But the moral law—no, that is bedrock.”

On its face, Douthat’s book might seem about Church politics, and the journalese he uses around “conservative” and “liberal” both offers the shorthand we might expect in political discussion and a party-line approach to religion that is at once difficult to deny and theologically obfuscating. While the Pope is not the POTUS, he acts within an office increasingly visible and managerial. And while Catholics do not get a vote in church leadership, there are nevertheless cultural tensions between the past and present ideas of the church which mime other bodies politic. But Douthat’s book explores more fundamental questions about the papal office in the time of the twenty-four hour news cycle and Francis’s complex relationship with a new media environment, the ways teaching is communicated to Church leadership and laypersons as well as the ways the Church—embodied in the papal office—is imaged to the world.

While the Church seeks to discern and teach eternal truths, it nevertheless is clothed in a particular time and place and in various cultural possibilities.

Douthat’s book pinpoints my reaction in hearing Protestants praise the Pope for his gentleness and humility, his image of Christ’s pastoral care, in contrast to the more uncertain—or critical—responses from Catholics I know. Douthat’s book captures the dystopia in which many faithful Catholics see themselves, but it is more than this. Douthat seeks to be fair to the two most dominant versions of Church history over the last half century or so, but he also remains committed to his own interpretation of these events. At times hesitant to overly historicize the role of the Bishop of Rome, he sees that entrenched politics are hard to ignore. In fact, in ignoring them, we ignore something integral about the pope’s situational reality. While the Church seeks to discern and teach eternal truths, it nevertheless is clothed in a particular time and place and in various cultural possibilities. This is part and parcel of the Christian story, a generative paradox, or even tension, at the heart of the Church and its churches.

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As Douthat sees it, Pope Francis’s papacy entered troubled waters most notably around the “Marriage Problem.” In brief, the “Marriage Problem” refers to the 2014 Synod on the Family wherein bishops met to discuss “the vocation and mission of the family in the Church and in the contemporary world.” Here the trouble begins and the complex nature of Francis’ papacy takes shape. Part of the problem has to do with how the synod’s proceedings were shared with the public and Francis’s use of the media. The larger part has to do with the teachings which stemmed from the synod and the question of the synod’s efficacy. From this council came Pope Francis’s Amoris Laetitia (2016) which, among other things, deals with the pastoral approach to communion for divorced and remarried Catholics, and Douthat sees this issue as a touchstone for Pope Francis’s attempt to change the Church. Douthat tells this story with a certain intrigue, with liberal and conservative cardinals as protagonists and antagonists to varying degrees. More liberal cardinals such as the German Cardinal Walter Kaspar wanted to carve a “penititential path” in the “name of mercy” back towards communion for divorced and remarried couples. In such cases, communion for such persons would be left as a pastoral issue and depend on the disposition of the persons involved and the judgment of local priests and bishops. It leaves room for German bishops to decide practices for German Catholics, and for South African or Oklahoman bishops to do the same.

Where Francis might have reaffirmed or clarified teaching on this issue in Amoris Laetitia, the longest papal document in Church history, he instead presented theologically vague or, worse, possibly perilous revisionist approaches to John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio (1981) or Veritatis Splendor (1993), both of which acknowledge the difficulty of Catholics seeking communion and restoration who find themselves in complex circumstances but which nevertheless ask them to reconcile with the Church. More than anything, the document just remained difficult to parse, a sort of theological Rorschach test: “But multiple readings were possible and reasonable,” he writes, ”and because the pope had declined to choose between them, all of them were embraced, by theologians and Catholic scribblers and bishops all around the Catholic world, as the true interpretation of Amoris… But by issuing such an ambiguous document Pope Francis had pushed Catholicism toward exactly that kind of devolution, toward a geographical and cultural variation in what his church would teach.” Douthat goes on to tell the story of the Pope’s silence, his ambiguity, and perhaps his rejection of both recent and long-held teaching on marriage. It is the story of reasonable fears being confirmed about the pope, that his liberal appointments after the synods became more obvious, or that treatment of conservative bishops and cardinals such as Raymond Burke and the signers of the four “dubia,” questions to the pope first sent as a private letter, became both publicly hostile and partisan.

The problem is, as Douthat argues, that even through his silence and ambiguity Francis poses a clear break with traditional Catholic beliefs about family, marriage, reconciliation, and communion. It was Jesus, not a pope or cardinal, who said “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matthew 19:6, Mark 10:9). Douthat sees that conservative magisteria are only continuing the teachings of Christ which has long withstood volleys against it: “Consistently across the centuries, it taught that if marriage was valid, a second marriage was not just wrong but an impossibility, because the first marriage, the real marriage, still bound the spouses as a single flesh. Consistently across the centuries, the church taught that the exception in Matthew’s gospel allowed for separation but not a second union.” Douthat stresses that this teaching on marriage has been not only perpetuated but resiliently and cogently defended “consistently across the centuries” and cannot be undone under the shifting definition of “mercy,” one which Christ himself did not offer. “This is not some complicated esoteric reading of the New Testament; it is the boringly literal and obvious one,” he argues, “which is why it takes a professional theologian to dispute it.”

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Though mentioned only four times, the English theologian Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman stands in the background of Douthat’s approach to the development of doctrine and Church culture: what it means “to change the Church.” Cardinal Newman was an Anglican priest and Oxford tutor who converted to Roman Catholicism, and he will most likely become a doctor and saint of the Church in part because of his lucid treatment of two areas Douthat sees as deeply problematic in Pope Francis’s papacy: the development of doctrine and the role of conscience.

How does the Church respond to new cultural, intellectual, spiritual, technological, or political changes?

In his Essay on the Development of Doctrine (1845), Newman offers seven principles by which doctrine can be seen to “develop” but not “alter,” among these a doctrine’s “Anticipation of Its Future” and “Conservative Action upon the Past.” An idea is said to develop in its “being the germination and maturation of some truth or apparent truth on a large mental field. On the other hand this process will not be a development, unless the assemblage of aspects, which constitute its ultimate shape, really belongs to the idea from which they start.” The difference here is vital, for the Catholic Church understands its teaching to be a unified expression of Christ’s life in the Church and the world, having never broken in its teaching mission which it calls infallible—that which cannot fail in teaching faith and morals. Pope Francis, Douthat argues, has presented what John Henry Newman dubbed a “suspense of the magisterium” in which “the pope was deliberately declining to exercise his teaching role. Alternatively you could say that Francis was offering Catholics a choice of multiple magisteria.” In the latter case, Francis presents an informal teaching through semiofficial interviews and footnotes which directly or indirectly contradicts explicit church teaching.

Douthat shows the pope to be theologically ambiguous and therefore dangerous on central teachings regarding communion for the remarried. Readers feel brought back to the time of dogmatic uncertainty around important issues such as sexual ethics, reproductive technology, and liturgical reform before and during the Second Vatican Council (1962-64). British novelist David Lodge’s darkly comedic novel How Far Can You Go? (1980)—in which young English Catholics during the time of Vatican II test the limits of “orthodoxy” around sexual norms in an age of theological and pastoral ambiguity—has once again become timely. In those times, and as Douthat argues in ours, “father says” can become a formal license but also an avenue of great distress and pastoral recklessness unless pastoral care is connected to a clear magisterial teaching about theological questions. Father James Martin presents a good example of this “pastoral accompaniment” in which complex situations are decided upon by local priests even against clear teaching. As Douthat relates, Martin understands Silence to endorse a more subjective understanding of conscience in determining moral action: “‘A Jesuit friend felt the essential question the movie poses is: Can we trust that God works through a person’s conscience, and that God helps us discern the right path in complex situations, where the normal rules seem inadequate to the reality of the situation.’” Martin’s definition of conscience only proliferates more uncertainties about moral action, uncertainties suffered by characters in Lodge’s novel and Scorsese’s film. In Martin’s view, conscience is private judgment held up over clear teaching around matters of faith and morals. Douthat taps into these longstanding tensions about interpreting Vatican II and the limits of orthodoxy if church leadership remains divided on moral matters.

No one has to like what Douthat says or how he says it to see that the Francis papacy is markedly different than recent papacies. Douthat’s vantage point for interpreting the papacy of Pope Francis is that of layperson and a journalist. He writes with a kind of “everyman” sensibility, a “bad Catholic” such as Walker Percy often imagined, and it is obvious from the start that Douthat expects both criticism and forgiveness. Whatever is wrong with this book must be forgiven by the “mercy of God,” he writes, as “the major duty I assumed wasn’t to the pope; it was to the truth the papacy exists to preach, to preserve, and to defend” (xvii). For conservatives, this book will be a satisfying story of how Francis’s papacy went from reform to revolution. For others it will read like a cherry-picking of the events, hard-boiling the pope’s mercy into a narrative of slyness and subversion. And for those who have remained optimistic or simply ignorant of papal politics in the age of Francis, it might serve as a resounding call to pay attention.

This book is not just for Catholics. It is for anyone who is interested in the dissemination of ideas in time and space, the limitations of the world’s most important office, and the possibility of objective moral truths in the age of spin and silence. 

Douthat has written a theologically astute book attentive to the sausage-making process of Church politics. But Douthat also shows the difficulties and benefits of being pope in the age of the “image,” wherein suggestion often dictates public opinion and long-held and honed truths seem less likely to persuade.  This book is not just for Catholics. It is for anyone who is interested in the dissemination of ideas in time and space, the limitations of the world’s most important office, and the possibility of objective moral truths in the age of spin and silence.

Douthat leaves out one important detail in Scorsese’s adaptation of Silence. The film closes with Rodrigues’s cremation during which he holds a small crucifix, Scorsese’s nod to viewers that after years of rejecting his priestly vocation, Rodrigues has after all been faithful to Christ. It may be for some a satisfying ending, one in which Christ will be faithful to those who suffer even as they reject “traditional” forms of worship and faithfulness. But this is not in Endo’s novel, and it deepens Douthat’s reading of Silence as a microcosm of Pope Francis’s papacy.

Whether liberal or conservative or neither, all must grapple with the fundamental questions Douthat raises. What is the role of conscience, even that of a pope’s, when the church is on mission in a hostile culture? What would it mean to change the church while remaining faithful to Christ’s revelation? Perhaps Cardinal Newman was right to think that ideas are often taken for granted until they begin to change, that they reappear in new forms and relations and become more visible only when they come under the most pressure: “At first no one knows what [the doctrine] is, or what it is worth… It changes with [new relations] in order to remain the same. In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.”

1 COMMENT

  1. Hmm. I read the book years ago. Never saw the movie. I thought the point of the book was that the Western priest seemed to think that what was going on was all about him, and that he could “end” it, while the Japanese Christians maybe had different motivations in mind…maybe their suffering and remaining true to Christ were about something more than whether this Portuguese priest felt bad. He’s not a hero, or supposed to be emulated or admired. I’m not sure why anyone would think that, unless you had some ulterior motive for doing so.

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