3/18/2018—Ross Douthat is a great columnist. Today he has written an important column in the New York Times—an excerpt from his forthcoming book—entitled Pope Francis Is Beloved. His Papacy Might Be a Disaster (the column, not the book). Douthat is making the argument that although Pope Francis is uniquely able by his actions and person to make Christ real again for millions of people—fallen away Catholics, nonbelievers, other religious people—Francis’ theological and institutional errors are weakening the Church and eventually these errors will be judged to have outweighed his contributions. In other words, to be blunt, the Church would be better without Francis.
Douthat admits that he might be fundamentally wrong about this. Indeed, it is his ability to consider that possibility in print that makes him so great.
Douthat mistakes the basic thing—the role of the Church. What is that role? It is not to grow in numbers in the pews. It is not to bring certain modes of conduct into the world. It is not to draw a line in the sand defending moral norms.
Of course, the Church does all these things. But they are not the Chruch’s fundamental role.
The Church only exists to bring Christ to the world. Therefore, it is almost a logical error to hold that Pope Francis makes Christ real to the world in a way no one else can do, but the Church would still be better off without him.
To see this, consider Karl Barth’s famous address to trade unionists in 1911. Now many of these men were socialists and undoubtedly rejected many of the teachings of Christianity. What does Barth invite them to do? He invites them to enter a relationship with Christ. Here is what Barth says:
“If you understand the connection between the person of Jesus and your socialist convictions, and if you want to arrange your life so that it corresponds to this connection, then that does not at all mean you have to ‘believe’ or accept this, that, or the other thing. What Jesus has to bring to us are not ideas, but a way of life. …And as an atheist, a materialist, and a Darwinist, one can be a genuine follower and disciple of Jesus.”
It may seem odd that I, a nonbeliever, would be criticizing Douthat on essentially theological grounds. I am able to do this because I know the effect Pope Francis has on me. I am not in the pews. I am not changing my views on things. Yet, Francis reminds me of my love for Jesus in a way no one else can.