The Future of Catholicism: A Conversation with Ross Douthat

Albert Mohler:              This is Thinking In Public, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about frontline theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I am Albert Mohler, your host and president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

Ross Douthat is one of the most influential public intellectuals in America today. He is a columnist for The New York Times opinion page. Before that role, he was the senior editor for The Atlantic. He is the film critic for National Review and he has appeared regularly on television and in other major media.

He is the author of several books, including Bad Religion, How We Became A Nation of Heretics, and Privilege: Harvard and Education Ruling Class. His new book has just been released from Simon and Schuster. The title is, To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism.

Ross Douthat, welcome to Thinking n Public.

Ross, we’ve known for some time that you’ve been working on this book on Pope Francis and on the papacy. Again, the title, To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism.

Anyone who’s been reading your columns in The New York Times, anyone who read Bad Religion, your earlier book, in some ways knew to anticipate this book. But how do you feel about the timing of this book now? The argument that you’re making in this book, falling into the discussion of 2018, did the book arrive just about where you though the argument would arrive?

Ross Douthat:               In a way, I mean, I started working on it, I guess two years ago now, when a lot of the debates that I’m writing about within Catholicism were burning particularly hot. And in certain ways, I’ve been grateful, both as a Catholic, but also as a writer that things haven’t progressed that much further from that point, in the sense that the core of the story I tell is about sort of these particular changes that Francis had sort of attempted to push through. Through a couple of big meetings of these senate officiants in Rome.

At a certain point he was effectively rebuffed in this very interesting way, which has essentially led to a kind of age of ambiguity in Catholic teaching that has, in effect, been sustained sort of across the writing of this book and into the current moment, I think.

Albert Mohler:              It was very interesting that one of the illustrations you use in your book about Pope Francis as kind of a catalyst for thinking about his own theological approach was on the issue of hell, particularly interviews that he had given on hell. And just about exactly the time your book came out, another one of those interviews emerged in which the very same issues were back in the headlines.

Ross Douthat:               And it was a perfect example of what I mean by sort of the rule of ambiguity. Which is to say that if you’re the Pope, the theory of the papacy is that the job of the Pope is in effect not to change, right? That the papacy, all its claims of authority that it has of course defended against Protestants for lo, these 500 years, rests on the idea that the Pope has all of these awesome sealing powers. And yet, they are actually incredibly limited because the Pope, his authority depends on the idea that he is a custodian, not a change agent.

And so the Pope cannot stand up and say that he is entertaining a different hypothesis about hell than the official teaching of the church. And Francis is well aware of that, but what he has done several times now around that particular issue is he gives these interviews to an Italian journalist, who is in his 90s, who is a secular atheist, left wing journalist with whom the Pope is friendly.

And then the interviewer, whose name is Eugenio Scalfari, publishes these interviews and the Vatican essentially washes its hands of them and says, “Well, these are reconstructions, he doesn’t take notes, there’s no transcript, and you can’t take this as sort of what the Pope is literally saying.” And in these interviews, Scalfari quotes Francis as entertaining various theological hypotheses that sort of skirt the bounds of orthodoxy, but in particular in this case, entertaining annihilationism, right? The view that maybe the souls of the damned are destroyed at the last judgment instead of remaining in some version of eternal punishment.

This is sort of characteristic of the Francis method. He is smart enough, it underestimates him wildly to imagine that he doesn’t know how these interviews are received, he doesn’t know that they will generate headlines around the world and so on. He keeps going back and doing these interviews. He’s not being somehow duped by this journalist.

And so, if you’re taking his actions seriously, you have to assume that he basically wants to open up a conversation around hell, as he’s wanted to open up conversations around divorce and remarriage, and intercommunion with Protestants, and a host of other fraught issues. And he’s using this method because were he to sort of make a formal papal statement, it would create a theological crisis.

So, that’s the fascinating-

Albert Mohler:              Yeah. No, I get it.

Ross Douthat:               His ambiguity as a papal strategy. And it’s a striking thing to watch.

Albert Mohler:              Yeah, the overarching strategy in this conversation for me is to help evangelical Christians to understand that what we are now observing in the Roman Catholic Church, in particularly in the person of Pope Francis, is a strategy that isn’t unique to him, nor to those who are hoping for doctrinal and moral change in the Catholic Church. It’s very much a part of the theological air we breathe if we are not careful.

But I’ve been closely following the papacy for all of my adult life. I did part of my graduate work in a Roman Catholic institution. Part of my doctrinal work, because I wanted to understand Roman Catholic theological method. The issue of authority has always loomed hugely over all of my theological life.

And so, I’ve watched three Popes at work here. Pope Paul VI, I was basically a boy when was Pope. But since then, I’ve been watching John Paul II, and Benedict XVI, and now Francis. As a Protestant, the shorthand that I would offer is that Pope John Paul II was not primarily a theologian, but a philosopher, and was primarily directing his attention towards the great threats to the church represented by Marxism and Communism. And who helped to develop what had been underdeveloped in Catholic theologies, the theology of the body over against the sexual revolution.

Then comes Cardinal Ratzinger, who was such a careful theologian. You could never imagine, at least I really can’t, later Pope Benedict XVI, making casual statements. He wasn’t a casual person.

Ross Douthat:               Right, there was nothing casual. He was too German to be casual.

Albert Mohler:              Yes, exactly. Exactly. The former Cardinal Archbishop of Munich is not a man likely to make theological mistakes. From his own perspective and worldview, he’d be very careful.

But then along comes Francis. And Francis is like, well, I will tell you, anyone who knows Protestant religious leaders will understand exactly the type, more grandfather than theologian. And in a lot of winks and nods.

But in this particular issue that I raised from the beginning, the interviews with Eugenio Scalfari, the thing is, you might think that someone does this once out of innocence or naivete, but this is the third time that these winks and nods have led to open accusations or reportage by this journalist that the Pope is basically changing Roman Catholic doctrine. It’s implausible to think that he would continue having these conversations if he didn’t basically want the kind of reports that are coming out.

Ross Douthat:               Yeah, I think that that’s right. And, I mean, that doesn’t mean that Francis has a definite, a sort of definite, in Catholic terms, heretical view on these questions. So when these things come out, people sort of defending Francis will say, “Oh, but look, he said some really orthodox things about hell in all these other cases in public and so on.”

So, I don’t look at Francis and see, in that case or others, someone who has a sort of definite system that he wants to take the Catholic theological system and sort of turn it in a particular direction. He sees himself as a pastoral figure, who is trying to deal with the world as it actually exists. The post-sexual revolution landscape and that, in his view, requires changing pastoral methods in ways that may endanger doctrine. But he thinks it can be done.

And then he sees himself as more broadly sort of opening up conversations that were sort of opened somewhat in the ’60s and ’70s in Catholicism. And then the theory was, among conservative Catholics, that John Paul II and Benedict together, the theologian and philosopher, had developed an interpretation that settled a lot of these issues. And Francis thinks otherwise. I mean, I think that’s certainly clear. Without having a sort of definite place that he wants to take the church, he thinks that there was too much, what he likes to call rigidity, too much Pharisaical doctrinal obsessiveness under the last two Popes. And the time has come to open things up more.

Albert Mohler:              So, introducing the issue this way, I want to perhaps too quickly get to a set of questions that I can’t wait to ask you. But before that, I want to back up, because you do, in your book, start out by rehearsing the modern papacy. And so, I want to speak to you as an evangelical Protestant theologian to a Catholic intellectual.

Ross Douthat:               Non-theologian.

Albert Mohler:              Well, but intellectual and keen observer of the church. And I want to tell you, your book, I enjoy everything you write. You’re such a careful and incisive writer. But you are particularly careful, meticulous in the way you write. And so, I know exactly, I think, what you’re trying to do and quite successfully in this book.

But I want to begin where you begin. So, talk about why the papacy and realize you’re talking to an evangelical Protestant, but I want you to give the argument in full force. Why have a Pope? And if you have a Pope, what’s a Pope supposed to do?

Ross Douthat:               I mean, there are a lot of directions I could take that. But one sort of Protestant friendly way to look at it is that you want to have a Pope because the Bible says you should. Right? I mean, the Catholic theory of the case is that when Jesus tells Peter that he’s the rock and he’s building the church on him and the gates of hell will not prevail, and all sorts of things like that, that that is literally the founding of the papacy.

And that the papacy exists to, in certain ways, do precisely the thing that Protestants believe the church in general means to do. Which is maintain the church’s fidelity to the revelation of God in scripture and the revelation of Jesus Christ in the New Testament. And that the point of the papacy is, in a sense that it has a kind of negative power, it can at times, and this is obviously where there are lots of Protestant/Catholic disagreement, sort of distill and clarify things that were not sort of literally stated in the pages of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. And this is why the church thinks the Pope has the power to sort of define certain dogmas and doctrines around the Virgin Mary, for instance, that Protestants tend to reject.

But the most important power is to maintain and hand on, rather than to innovate. And the case for Catholicism, in certain ways, the one I mean I’ll just say that I found persuasive when I became a Catholic, as admittedly a teenager, not the most theologically minded time of one’s life, was that on a lot of questions, the church had a strong claim to be, in certain ways, a better biblical literalist than its Protestant critics.

And one of those areas is the one that has become so vexed within the church under Francis, which is the issue of divorce and remarriage. Where the church has insisted, almost alone now among Christian churches, that what Jesus says in Mark about marriage really holds and that the exceptions that Protestants have discerned, and obviously the language varies with the Gospels and Protestants have a scriptural case as well for exceptions. But the Catholic case is that Jesus is saying something that is extraordinary and hard, and that’s why his disciples freak out and say, “Well, maybe it’s better not to be married at all if you can’t get divorced.” And the church has across hundreds and thousands of years held to that, even as other churches, including our brethren in Eastern Orthodoxy, have drifted from it.

So that’s an attempt at the sort of, maybe idiosyncratic, but a sort of Protestant friendly case for why, for the purpose of the Pope.

Albert Mohler:              All right, so I’m just letting all that rest for a moment. But let me just continue what I would see as the Catholic argument here. Again, I’ve been studying these things for years, which is what makes the current situation all the more interesting.

So, the papacy is supposed to be the unity of the church, represented in this one theological monarch really.

And he is, the magisterium basically serves as an extension of the papacy, so it is the papacy itself that above all represents the unity of the church, and the responsibility to protect the faith as it is held by the church.

And when you talked about ongoing revelation, is what I would call it, and the development of doctrine, which is one of the huge questions any theologian has to face, including evangelicals, even though many of them don’t want to think about it. The development of doctrine is a very important question, but the historic claim of the Catholic church that continues in the current catechism is that the papacy can only develop doctrine consistent with a trajectory. He cannot correct doctrine, he can’t say the church was ever wrong. The church never admits that it changes a doctrine, only that it is developing doctrine consistent with the original deposited revelation. That’s almost from the catechism, I think.

Ross Douthat:               Yes, that’s right. And the gray area being that the church will say that Popes themselves in their personal speculations can get things wrong. And the church can sort of entertain hypotheses that are not codified as doctrine, but it can later reject. With a recent example being for instance the concept of limbo. This idea that the souls of the, for instance, unbaptized infants go neither to heaven nor to hell, but to a state of beatitude, sort of short of the fullness’s, the kingdom of God. This was a theological theory that a lot of Catholic theologians held. It informs Medieval and early modern Catholic thinking. And at a certain point, the church seemed to abandon it. And there are other examples like this.

And so, the argument is that basically, once the church codifies something and says this is doctrine, it can’t change. But there is room for theological speculation in areas where doctrine has not yet been codified. That then applies to something, a case like marriage, the issue of the Francis era, right? Where the church doesn’t say that marriage is a sacrament officially until it sort of starts in the early Middle Ages, basically.

So, the church in 400 AD doesn’t explicitly list marriage as one of the seven sacraments. At a certain point in the early Middle Ages it starts to do that. But then at that point, it can’t undo that idea. There can be a period where you can speculate and argue about whether marriage is a sacrament. And then once the church sort of rules and then substantiates that, then that can’t be wrong. The church can’t reverse course.

Albert Mohler:              I understand that claim, I think it’s really important for us all to understand it because that sets up then the very problem your book addresses.

So, let’s set the cultural problem out there. If you look at Protestantism: the way Protestants deal with this radical theological range, this huge polarization between liberals and conservatives, I’ll just use the easiest terms to grab a hold of here, the way Protestantism deals with that is, you have different denominations. You’ve got mainline Protestant denominations; they just join the culture. They redefine doctrine, they abandon supernatural claims, they abandon hell, did so very early as a matter of fact, and just keep redefining doctrines. They can join the LGBTQ revolution, celebrate it and move on.

Meanwhile, you have conservative, traditional, more evangelical, either confessional Protestant denominations and evangelical churches. And so the thing is, they’re not all under one hierarchy and in one organizational structure.

Catholicism, by its very nature, by its very name, taking the word catholic, the Pope is supposed to be the sign of unity over an entire church, where in much of Europe and in North America it’s trending along the lines of the Protestant liberals. Whereas where it’s growing in the church, especially in the global south, it’s growing where there is not going to be any joining of the moral and sexual revolution and there is no openness to theological liberalism.

And so, the papacy, which is supposed to be the unity of the church, is in an excruciating position right now. A church that claims to be universal and catholic, and that’s all encompassing. And so, here’s Francis, and Francis, as you begin your book, is sending signals that are intended to keep both of those wings, so to speak, of Catholicism in the same church somehow.

Ross Douthat:               Right. And I think it’s useful to think of this, there’s been sort of a two stage, which now under Francis may be a three stage process, in how the Catholic hierarchy has tried to deal with this big sort of liberal theology versus conservative theology split.

In stage one was, well basically up until the Second Vatican Council, the church basically tried to suppress liberal theology. In Catholic terms, it was described as modernism, which fits with sort of modernist, fundamentalist divide. And Protestantism, in certain ways, not perfectly, but there is sort of obvious overlap in various ways.

And the papacy had people take an oath against modernism, it condemned modernist propositions in the 19th century. And in such a sweeping way that it enfolded basically much of liberal democracy into modernism as well. So that was stage one.

Then stage two is the Second Vatican Council and afterwards, the church does two things. First, it sort of separates liberal politics from liberal theology. And it says that the church can accept – and by liberal I don’t mean the Democrats, I mean sort of – democratic self-government. Modern western liberty.

So, the church says the politics of liberty are acceptable. But we still, we are not embracing theological liberalism. But, even as it does that, it potentially, tacitly tolerates it, right? John Paul II and Benedict, they might discipline an occasional theologian, they might attempt to rein in on certain errors, but they also accepted that Catholicism was going to have an official teaching and then a big part of the church in the west was dissenting from it, not explicitly, was tacitly. So that was sort of phase two.

Phase three with Francis, at least at the moment, seems like a shift towards a more Anglican model. With, you know, Anglicanism famously, long before the modern conflicts, it tried to deal with theological controversy by saying, “We don’t have a theological position. You can be a low church Anglican, you can be a high church Anglican, you can be an evangelical Anglican, you can be an Anglo-Catholic Anglican, and we’re a middle way between Rome and Protestantism. Then we’re also middle way between other things as well.”

And so, Francis is effectively, he’s suggesting you that you can de-centralize doctrine a bit. You can the German bishops go one way, and the Polish bishops go another. And by sort of moving papacy towards a more ambiguous mode of teaching, he is implying that different contending positions on questions that the last two Popes have suggested were settled, were sort of acceptably Catholic.

So, it’s a turn of the ratchet from, we’ve gone from sort of tolerance of dissent, to a kind of diminution potentially of Rome as the guarantor of orthodoxy. Or a sort of a narrower definition of orthodoxy, where the Nicaean Creed is orthodoxy, but what the church has said about sex and marriage and maybe some other issues as well isn’t.

That’s sort of how I see the progression.

Albert Mohler:              Not just maybe some other issues, as you well know and even indicate in the book, it’s not just maybe some other issues, it’s certainly some other issues.

Ross Douthat:               Well, right, no, no, I mean, I think, you know this better than I from inter-Protestant debates, but the sexual stuff is – the cultural war is where the battles burn hottest. But the theological underpinning is so very, very deep.

And that’s why you see this in, I have examples in the book, but in Francis era arguments, you start out having an argument between Catholics over marriage and divorce, and by the end you’re having an argument about Christology, about who is Jesus and why should we trust him?

Albert Mohler:              There is simply no way to deny, nor to avoid the fact that any people or any group representing theological conviction will be considered widely out of step with the modern world. The modern world is itself resistant to theological conviction or even to theological assertion, not to mention theological judgment.

Therefore, the people whose business it is to make theological judgment, they find themselves, we find ourselves, in a very interesting predicament in the context of later modernity. That’s what makes this conversation all the more interesting and urgent.

So many questions just at this stage, and some of them come up even since you published your book so recently. So, part of it is Francis, I think it’s a brilliant insight on your part, that what he’s looking at is kind of an Anglican model. And we can understand that, where you kind of let local theology rule.

And so, you have a church that is unified in some sense, but you have people who hold contradictory theologies and contradictory moral judgments, but you say let the local situation rule. A couple of quick observations on this, the first is, why would anyone adopt a model that is already, just even pragmatically, shown itself to be so disastrous? I mean, the Anglican Communion would appear to be the last place anyone would look for a wonderful example of how to preserve the unity of the church. They’re not even certain that the Anglican Communion can hold together. And so, that’s the first question.

And the second question is like unto it, and that is, what other option might there be if you’re going to claim to be kind of a global, universal church, holding everyone together? You may have noted that just a few days ago the Council of Bishops of the United Methodist Church officially proposed their own Anglican option on the LGBTQ issues. Saying explicitly that North American churches can move in more liberal directions, removing clear language prohibiting LGBT ministers and all that follows from it.

Meanwhile, they even mentioned Africa. Saying in Africa, they could maintain those very same prohibitions. It puzzles me, but does not surprise me. But it makes me wonder why Catholicism would do so?

Ross Douthat:               Well, right, because it’s … well, I think it’s … the attraction of that model is obvious. Because if you have these seemingly contradictory and insuperable divisions, but then you have, I think, a very understandable and natural desire for Christian unity, a desire to hold your part of the body of Christ together. And the Anglican compromise is attractive, even if it has not succeeded in holding together for North America and Africa.

Albert Mohler:              It’s attractive even though it’s failed. Yeah.

Ross Douthat:               But I think it’s also, for Catholics, I think there are a couple of other things going on. One is that, I think there is an assumption shared by both liberal and conservative Catholics that Catholicism is different from Anglicanism, right? There’s sort of a faith in the papacy that’s on both sides of this debate. This is something I have run into as I spent a fair amount of time as a Protestant in my youth, and maybe I’m overly influenced by those experiences. But I will say to my fellow Catholics, there are real dangers of schisms down this sort devolutionary, Germans go one way, Africans go another road. And people will say, “Oh, schisms is what Protestants do.” Right?

And the fact is, of course, the reason you had a reformation is because schism is what Catholics did then. But, you know, it’s been many centuries since Catholicism has broken in a serious way. And people think, I think, that it is harder to imagine that happening than it would be in the Anglican Communion.

And part of that, too, is I think there’s an assumption among liberalizers that unlike in Protestantism, the theology of conservative Catholics means that they don’t have anywhere else to go.

Albert Mohler:              Okay, more on that, yeah, hold that for just a moment, because that’s another place we have to go.

But let me just point out that if you do go back to the 16th century, part of the reason why the church did not hold together then, that is, when we say the church we mean all those who were claiming to be the continuation of the church. The reason it didn’t hold together then was because the issues were so basic that one side could not avoid anathematizing the other. So, it’s not just that we disagree, it’s not just that we disagree a whole lot. It’s not just that we are going to disagree for a long time. It’s that we each believe the other to be in revolt against the truth and to have rejected the true deposit of revelation and to no longer be a church, or not be a true church.

Now, that is what we are seeing in Anglicanism. You can go to the African archbishops in the Anglican Communion, they are right on the verge, if they haven’t gone over, of calling the Episcopal church in the USA apostate and anathematizing it. And so, that’s one thing to see. You’re going to see the same thing basically between Protestant and liberals and conservatives.

But I understand there’s something else that holds the Roman Catholic Church together, and that’s a sacramental unity. And that’s what’s missing in many ways from all this, because the Pope, it is claimed, is holding the keys that actually make the distinction between heaven and hell. The Archbishop of Canterbury, for all of his glory and power in the Anglican Communion, holds no such authority. That’s the game changer.

Ross Douthat:               But he’s not the head of his own church.

Albert Mohler:              Yeah. As a matter of fact.

Ross Douthat:               The irony of Anglicanism is that the head of the global Anglican Communion is technically subordinate to Elizabeth II.

Albert Mohler:              He gets only to dress like a monarch, he isn’t actually a monarch.

Ross Douthat:               Right. And that’s sort of … I think the other dynamic too is that Catholicism is so big. There are more than a billion Catholics. There’s a lot of obviously intensity in the faith, but there’s also a lot, I think more than in some smaller Protestant denominations, there’s a lot more cultural Catholicism than there is sometimes cultural Protestantism. I think there’s a sense in Catholicism that there are enough Catholics who are sort of somewhat indifferent to these high level theological debates. Again, this is true in Protestant churches as well.

Albert Mohler:              But a whole more in Catholicism, given its sacramental life. The average Catholic can ignore most of this.

Ross Douthat:               Right, the average Catholic’s view is supposed to be that the point of the hierarchy is to, you know, let me go to confession and celebrate the Eucharist and so on, you have the sacramental role. But that sort of the, yeah … There’s a saying that you don’t want to be in the engine room of the bark of St. Peter, the ship of St. Peter, right? Rome is always a little corrupt, and they’re always having arguments and so on. And the church is sort of sustained in spite of that.

And I think when you talk to Catholics about what’s happening under Francis, you’ll get a lot of that reaction. People saying, “Well, the church has been around a long time, we’ve had a lot of these elite level fights, and it’s hard for me to believe that this one on sort of esoteric fuming points about the distinction between an annulment and a divorce and so on.” It’s hard for people to see that is going to lead to a split.

Which it might not. But it’s a strange gamble. I also think, one other thing that’s going on right at this is where they have the geographic diversity of Catholicism matters. The dynamic in the church in part is being driven by the fact that Francis is a Latin American. You know, he was Jorge Bergoglio, the Archbishop of Bueno Aires. Latin America doesn’t have a Protestant mainline, right? It has pentecostalists and evangelicals and it has an established Catholic church, but it doesn’t have the equivalent either of mainline Protestantism in the US, or the established Lutheran churches of Scandinavia or something.

And so, I don’t get the sense that Latin American Catholics are sort of aware of what’s happened to mainline Protestantism. That experience isn’t as present and palpable for Latin American Catholics, also for Italian Catholics. You know, Catholics from countries where there aren’t Lutherans and Presbyterians and Episcopalians.

Albert Mohler:              No, that makes sense.

Ross Douthat:               And that’s part of why, you know, to your question about well, why can’t they see what happened to Anglicanism or to the Methodists or whoever in the US? I think they are aware of it from a distance, but it’s not part of their cultural experience.

Albert Mohler:              I want to move to three or four just giant issues before we run out of time. But, just in recent days, in one day, early in the day I preached commencement at Geneva College. The name’s just perfect for the point I’m going to make. And there you have a college historically grounded in confessional, reformed thought and living that out in western Pennsylvania. Had a wonderful time being there. And in order to get home, it was just easier to drive back to Louisville. And that gave me the benefit of being able to make a stop I wanted to make, which was at Stuebenville, Ohio, at the Franciscan University there.

Okay, so just as an observer, I mean that’s a school that turns out about half of all the theology graduates in the Roman Catholic institutions in North America. It’s a massive school, traditionalist Roman Catholic. Filled with young people, compared to many other institutions in the Catholic Church that are not drawing Catholic young people.

And so, I wanted to go in the bookstore. And here’s the quandary. In the bookstore I found lots of books supporting the papacy, exactly what I would expect to find. I found the papal documents all published. But, isn’t the quandary of a traditionalist Roman Catholic such as that represented in the old line traditionalist Catholic situation, isn’t it that the very office that they have honored, as the very symbol of unity in the church, is now the office they fear under Pope Francis.

Ross Douthat:               Well, I’m going to draw an even finer distinction for you, with apologies for the Catholic inside baseball. But how I would describe Steubenville is sort of John Paul II conservative and not traditionalists. The traditionalists are the Catholics who think basically everything the church changed in the ’60s was a mistake. And they think, you know, it’s obviously they think the mass should still be in Latin and so on. But they think generally, they sort of, the partial liberalization of Vatican II was a mistake.

And what’s been interesting to me, as someone who is not a traditionalist, I don’t go to the Latin mass, I would have identified as a sort of, some kind of conservative John Paul II Catholic, is that the traditionalists know exactly what to say about the Francis era. They have a whole theory. They think, yes, the church has been adrift since the ’60s, and what we’re seeing under Francis is just the ultimate expression of that. And the Holy Spirit is going to preserve him from formally teaching heresy, but it’s allowing the church to fall into a kind of tacit heresy. And ultimately, the church needs to essentially reclaim its pre-Vatican II heritage.

And it’s the conservatives, the ones who basically said we’re okay with modernity up till 1965 or so, who are sort of baffled and at sea in exactly the way you described. And a big dynamic that Francis has accelerated is younger intellectual Catholics, and this is a small group, but potentially a very influential one, are becoming more traditionalist, I would say, in part in reaction to the broader culture.

Albert Mohler:              That makes perfect sense, yeah.

Ross Douthat:               But I think you’re right, I think the Steubenville John Paul II Catholicism hasn’t figured out how to deal with the Francis era and in that sense, it’s the John Paul II synthesis, which was sort of what I found when I came into the church, it’s having an intellectual crisis. It doesn’t know what to make of what Francis is doing. And the traditionalists are ready with a more coherent synthesis, but it’s also one that requires, you know, essentially arguing that most of what’s happened in the church since before I was born has been a mistake.

Albert Mohler:              Yes, and the more liberalizing folks in the Catholic hierarchy, especially the Bishops, have been moving, especially since Vatican II, and to a model of a more collegial and conciliar Catholicism, which had been more or less at the expense of the papacy, or at least with the tacit corrective ability to the papacy. And in particular, papal teachings that cannot be reversed but are now not very popular in the church.

But with Francis, it appears that with a Pope who is likely to be self-consciously a reformer. And you deal with that very well, very carefully. Not a revolutionary, but a reformer. The question is, what that really will mean for Catholicism. By the time you end the book, you say that there are likely two alternatives. Either he is successful in the span of historical perspective, and he’s a hero, or he turns out to be a heretic. Those are two very polarizing words: hero or heretic. But that’s actually how you end the book.

Ross Douthat:               Yeah, it’s kind of a strong ending, I guess. And I think a lot of people would obviously disagree with me on that. I think there are a lot of conservative Catholics who would say because Francis has seemed to sort of allow room for erroneous or even heretical teachings ambiguously, we can simply elect a more conservative Pope who can reinterpret what Francis said, you know, in light of what John Paul II said, and the church can sort of move forward from there.

And my skepticism about that is partially because I think what Francis has shown is something that conservative Catholics didn’t really grasp, which is that liberal Catholicism is resilient.

It has all of the sort of secular institutions on its side. It has a very natural appeal to people who are sincere and serious Christians, better Christians than I in many cases, who just want the church to sort of fit with the times a little better.

And as long as that’s the case, the legacy of Francis is going to be invoked and invoked and invoked as sort of a blueprint for how liberal Catholicism can change the church. And at a certain point, I don’t think it’s going to come, it may not come in my lifetime, but at a certain point, maybe another ecumenical council like Vatican II, but at a certain point the church is going to have to sort of make a decision and formally say whether or not these kinds of changes are acceptable.

It’s at that point that you either, you don’t have to call him a heretic exactly, but you have to either say we are sort of rejecting things that Francis did, or you have to say the conservatives were wrong about how the church can change. And now it’s changed in these ways and that’s the explicit teaching. I don’t think the sort of de-centralized Anglican model gets you out of that, because the reality is, the papacy is where the power is in the church. So you can de-centralize for a generation or something, but those powers don’t go away. And everybody ultimately is going to be, to put it in very crude secular terms, competing for control of the papacy.

And that’s different from the Protestant situation, I think. That’s just a big difference, the papacy is, will always have these powers.

Albert Mohler:              Yeah, well, it’s different, but the temptations are very similar.

Ross Douthat:               Right, and the theological lines of battle are very similar.

Albert Mohler:              Let me give you a contrary argument, as an outsider, admittedly. So “capital P Protestant” speaking here. When I look at the history of the papacy, say over the last 150 years, and by the way, I love your line in here, that there seems to be something of a pendulum in the church. I think you say after a fat Pope, people want a thin Pope.

Ross Douthat:               That’s the line, yeah. That’s what people in Rome always say.

Albert Mohler:              I get that, but let me just say that if I were liberal, I would feel pretty good about the long term picture. Why? Because when I go back to the middle of the 19th century and look at Pope Pius IX and I look at his language and his understanding of Catholicism. And even if I then fast forward to Benedict XVI, Benedict looks incredibly liberal compared to Pius IX.

And so, even thin Popes are fatter than they look.

Ross Douthat:               Or vice versa.

Albert Mohler:              Yeah, I feel pretty good about the long term trajectory here.

Ross Douthat:               Yes. I think that that’s a totally reasonable argument. And it’s one reason, I mean even though I’m a critic of Francis and a conservative and everything else, I try in the book to sort of entertain scenarios where I’m wrong, right? And liberal Catholicism in some sense simply triumphs.

But I think, you know, the problem with that is, and this is where it is very similar to the situation in Protestantism, the problem with that theory is that we don’t have a model of post ’60s theological liberalization that has been really institutionally successful, you know, across denominations.

You have examples, you can say some forms of mega church Protestantism that have no doctrines have been successful, but that’s not really a model that works for confessional and liturgical churches. For confessional and liturgical churches, there just isn’t evidence that you can sort of build a really resilient and sort of effective Christian Communion on the basis of liberal theology. And that may change and this is where the idea that there’s a Francis effect and so on, and he’s sort of showing how this model works, it’s very powerful.

But the baseline data remains that the people whose kids are most likely to stay Catholic are conservative and traditionalist Catholic. People who are likely to go into the priesthood are conservative and traditionalist Catholic. And you see this in Francis himself, I write a bit about this in the book, that he’s sort of part of an older revolutionary or reforming group pitted against younger conservatives and younger traditionalist. And in that sense, the liberalizers, in a way they agree with you and they say the wind’s at our back, this will just be Vatican II all over again. They also have, I think, sort of conscious or subconscious doubts when they look ahead 40 or 50 years.

Like, what is the future? Like, German Catholicism, I would say by the end of this pontificate will be sort of effectively, and I don’t mean this as a slur, Protestantized, right? That in a sort of mainline, Luthernish type way.

Albert Mohler:              That’s even caught the attention of The Wall Street Journal.

Ross Douthat:               Oh yeah.

Albert Mohler:              That development is not just interest to Catholics.

Ross Douthat:               No, and it has, I mean all of this has big implications for Protestants. But the German church will be at that sort of endpoint. And the German church has no priests, nobody goes to mass, it’s incredibly rich because it’s funded by a tax. It’s sort of important to German society as a purveyor of social services. But if that is the endpoint for the liberalization project, if Germany is the endpoint, and right now that’s what it is. That’s the endpoint. Maybe there’s a different one, but that’s the endpoint we have, then there are reasons for conservative Catholics to say, look in the end, we’re going to have a comeback because the exhaustion of the liberal tendency in the church is just inevitable.

Albert Mohler:              No, that is exactly the point, though. If the liberals could look at history and say, “Eventually we win,” then conservatives can look at the nursery and say, “Eventually we win.” Again, the Franciscan University, it was filled with young students that are not at more liberal Catholic institutions, partly because of the way their parents and the students made choices, but also because the parents made choices to have babies.

So, you’ve got Protestant liberalism and also, every sociological study I see shows that more liberal Catholics are also not having the kinds of children at the rates that conservative or traditionalist Catholics are.

Ross Douthat:               Right, they convert some of the … the conservatives don’t hold all their kids. And the other thing is that the culture now is, let’s say things are a little more fraught in the west than they were, well, I mean they got pretty fraught obviously in the late ’60s and early ’70s. But like at the time Vatican II opened, you know, it’s the early ’60s, there was a real argument that sort of, you know, modern civilization, you just had the baby boom, it was in good demographic shape. There was all this optimism, it was the space age. And so Vatican II is shot through with optimism about modernity. That’s the theme of the Second Vatican Council, it’s that we were wrong to be pessimistic about modernity in the 19th century and now we need to enter into dialogue with modernity and recognize all its good points.

The Europe in America of the age of Donald Trump and Brexit and mass migration and everything else, that modernity theme is much more vulnerable? You know? I mean, the sexual revolution looks very different in 1963 than it does in the age of sterility and #MeToo. So, I just think there are various ways, even as I recognize why liberals believe themselves to have history on their side, I think history might have other plans for all of us. Not necessarily enjoyable plans either.

Albert Mohler:              No, exactly. I will tell you that I like the word fraught. Every day I have fraught thoughts, I can tell you that. I live in the same world you live in.

Let me ask about one other issue, and this one’s massive and perhaps I would think given my own theological instincts, the most important issue I would want evangelicals to watch. In confessional Protestantism, there is no distinction between the pastoral and the doctrinal. And so the doctrine, the faith is to be confessed and is to be lived without any division, being able to say we can teach one thing and apply it differently.

The Roman Catholic Church has always had more elasticity there because of the sacramental nature of the ministry. I would tell you as a Protestant, I would say the local option has always been there in the person of the Bishop, but not explicitly as you see now.

But now with Pope Francis, you have something that I’ve never seen before and that is a Pope openly arguing that priests can apply the doctrine in ways that are different in one case than in another? On issues to which the church has spoken clearly. That to me is something fundamentally new and marriage and divorce are at the center of it.

Ross Douthat:               Yes. And I think that’s right, although I think official Catholic teaching, even through the sort of tacit pastoral compromises since the ’60s, have been quite close to what you describe as Protestant teaching. That the pastoral fulfills the doctrinal, the doctrinal shapes the pastoral. You can’t, you know, there may be certain kinds of wiggle room, but that wiggle room has to be itself consonant with what the doctrine sets, right?

So, we can think about levels of culpability, right? In determining whether something is a mortal sin. But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a sin. So you’re saying, “Okay, there are gradations of culpability and pastors handle each one differently and so on.” But the goal is still for the person to cease committing the sin.

And yeah, Francis has, again it’s sort of unclear how explicit it is, but it’s clearly the theory is that this is the solution. That, you know, just as sort of the Anglican model is part of a solution to the problem of being Christian after the sexual revolution. The other part is that we’re going to have our doctrines, and they’re going to be on the books, and we’re not changing them, so there’s not going to be a theological crisis, there’s not going to be a schism. And meanwhile, we’re going to say that pastoral practice is different.

And the deliberately provocative analogy that I use in the book is that this risks ending up being like how Soviet Communism ends up, where you say, “Well, we’re still Marxists Leninists, we still have all these ideological principles, but in practice we’re liberalizing our economy and allowing private ownership in all these things.” And that was, in Russia, a signal that Soviet Communism was about to collapse.

Now the counterargument is that in China they’ve done the same thing. They’ve said, “Hi, we’re Marxist Leninists, we have all these dogmas. And by the way, we’re basically a capitalist country.” And they are still going strong. So, you know, even with that analogy, you could say, well, Catholicism can go on with this in the same way that the Chinese Communists have gone on.

But I don’t see that as a … that doesn’t seem like a very Christian … like, when I read the New Testament, I don’t see that as sort of Jesus’ model for the church.

Albert Mohler:              No, and even in the current Chinese example, I talked about it extensively on The Briefing, on the 200th anniversary of Marx’s birth, you had the Chinese government paying for this 18 foot tall statue of Marx and Trier in Germany. And you had President Xi going to Chinese universities saying, you know, Marxist proved to be right. Well, every action they take is in direct refutation of Communist doctrine.

But everybody kind of knows it, as long as everybody is apparently prospering in China, everybody is kind of happy. But I don’t think that’s going to work in the church situation. Especially when you look at the fact that you’ve got folks in Catholicism right now, I’m thinking of Cardinal Kasper and others, Walter Kasper from Germany, and others, they’re going further than what the Pope has said explicitly. But as I read what they’re working on in their own documents now widely disseminated in Catholicism, I’m not sure anybody’s married. Which is supposed to be a sacrament of the Roman Catholic Church.

And what I mean by that is, when they’re saying that pastorally you can come to the conclusion that the people who got married didn’t have a full consciousness of the meaning of marriage. Therefore, it was never a marriage in the beginning. What couple does have a full understanding of the meaning of marriage?

In other words, what I’m seeing now, at least as a Protestant observer, is that what’s opened up is a back door that’s so big it eats the front door.

Ross Douthat:               Yeah. No, no, I mean that’s generally my view of that theory as well. You can see in this, there is this peril around the idea of the development of doctrine, which is that it encourages people to treat Catholicism as a kind of intellectual game. Where it’s like, if we can come up with this very clever way of sort of bending church teachings to open that back door, we will.

The case of the indissolubility of marriage, you start with the idea that not every marriage is valid. And then you come up with reasons why almost every marriage is invalid and then you can say, “Well, if there invalid marriages, then they don’t need divorces.” They were dissolved to begin with. But the end game is this implication that basically Christians are incapable of marriage. Right?

Albert Mohler:              Or incapable of obedience. That is one of the most important points you make in your book. By the way, I want to quote you back to yourself. You’re here kind of summarizing that argument, the Roman Catholic Church, when you write that behind this is the assumption “for many of the divorced and remarried, the church’s law is too hard to follow. The moral dilemma is too extreme. And therefore, they cannot be considered to be seriously sinning and can receive Communion in good conscience.”

I mean, by the time you end that argument, you are saying that it is impossible for ordinary Christians to be ordinarily faithful.

Ross Douthat:               Yes. I think what Kasper and others would say is there are particular aspects of modern life that make it impossible in particular areas. That’s how they sort of try and confine that.

So, they wouldn’t say it’s impossible not to murder someone, but they would say since the sexual revolution, it’s impossible for some people to follow the church’s teaching on sexuality. But that’s just a very strange argument, because, you know, I mean again, it’s like full consent, most marriages in various times and places have been arranged marriages, they’ve been entered into at a young age, they’ve happened in societies that were deeply sexist and treated women as second class citizens and so on. It’s clear to me, just as someone who lives in the world, all the ways in which the sexual revolution has made Christian marriage harder to enter into and sustain. But it’s not clear to me that in the medieval past, there weren’t a different set of issues that made marriages, you know, full consent, hard to enter in to.

Albert Mohler:              Well, partly because there was no consent. I mean, the Catholic Church has argued for centuries that marriage existed when there was no consent at all. I mean, there was a tacit consent in the vows, but in other words you had arranged marriages where the kind of self-conscious consent we’re talking about here was not a part of the picture, nor did anyone claim there was.

Ross Douthat:               Right. Or, I think they would say there was self-conscious consent, but that you could have … it didn’t have to be a romantic pairing.

Albert Mohler:              Wasn’t modern companion at marriage, for sure.

Ross Douthat:               For consent to be present, yeah.

Albert Mohler:              Well, just a couple of quick questions here as we come to the conclusion. One hard, one easy. The hard question is this, at least I think it might not be immediately answerable. But it’s going to be fun to ask anyway.

So, you finished the book, and you published it, that’s the way it works. And some time has passed, likely about a year since you turned in that manuscript. So, what would be the chapter you now wish you had written?

Ross Douthat:               We haven’t really talked about this except in touching briefly on China, but the Pope’s attempted, still ongoing opening to the government in Beijing that would try and sort of regularize the underground church in China, the underground Catholic Church by giving the Communist government more power over the appointment of Bishops.

Albert Mohler:              Effective veto power.

Ross Douthat:               Right. I mean, that’s a big deal. It may not happen, but it’s sort of the biggest agenda point of the last year or so of Francis’ pontificate. And it fits in interesting ways, even though the theological issues aren’t the same with some of these issues, because it’s sort of the equivalent in China of the theory of accommodation in the west. In the west we have to accommodate the sexual revolution. In China, for the church to grow, we have to accommodate to sort of political power.

So, they’re interesting, it’s different, but there are interesting overlaps and presumably in the paperback edition of the book, that’s sort of the bulk of new stuff. I think other things that have happened, as I said at the outset, have been sort of continuations of what I’m already talking about. Sort of further ambiguities introduced and so on, without it changing the basic drift of the pontificate.

But China’s a potentially big deal.

Albert Mohler:              Yeah, it is a very big deal. And of course, the Chinese Communist party is making the issues all the more clear, even in the last week by its further crackdown. It’s not as if it’s trying to act friendly to the Catholic Church.

Ross Douthat:               No, no. What’s being demonstrated is that, in what I’m told, is that there’s sort of a division in the Chinese government between the foreign ministry, which wants to make a deal, and the religious affairs ministry, which doesn’t. But the view from Rome seems to be that they want this deal so much that they’re just willing to sort of wait, even as China cracks down on Catholics and other Christians. It’s not clear what the Chinese could do that would make the Vatican back out at this point. Which is not a good negotiating position to be in.

Albert Mohler:              I should say. The second question, I think maybe it be a bit easier. I’m incredibly thankful for your contributions as a columnist at The New York Times. In an unusual way, we get to watch the unfolding of your mind because we’re looking at it a couple of times a week, hopefully, and more online. But the big question would be, what’s your next project? I know you well enough to know there’s something else, a big question that’s very much on your mind. What are you working on next?

Ross Douthat:               Well, the project that I was actually under contract for before I got sidetracked into writing about the Holy Father, is a book about decadence, as a … not just cultural phenomenon, but as a sort of economic and political sociological phenomenon. As a way to understand where the west, as a civilization, is right now. With the idea being that we are sort of stagnant. That we aren’t actually rushing headlong into the future, that we’re sort of stuck. We have slow growth. We have technologies as stimulation, instead of technologies of exploration.

The question is, does this mean we’re headed for a collapse? Or does it mean that we’re sort of sustainably decadent, and we could be sort of stuck in this kind of slightly brave new world, a society for a long time to come.

So, that’s the main book project. I’ve also been ill for a while. I’m improving, and I might write about my illness and some points, but that’s a more personal project and maybe the next you have me on, I can tell you more about that.

Albert Mohler:              Well, we will certainly pray for your health. It’s good to hear you in strong voice.

Ross Douthat:               Well, you’re very kind. I’m grateful. And yeah, I’m doing well enough. So, that’s all you can ask for.

Albert Mohler:              Well, I want to thank you especially for sharing your thoughts in this book and for sharing your thoughts on this program. As always, Ross Douthat, I thank you for joining me today for Thinking In Public.

Ross Douthat:               Thank you so much. I really appreciate being on.

Albert Mohler:              I had really been looking forward to this conversation with Ross Douthat. I’d been watching his unfolding argument column by column in The New York Times. And quite honestly, as an evangelical Protestant theologian, I have been looking at the huge questions raised by the pontificate of Pope Francis, understanding most urgently that these are not questions only about the future of Roman Catholicism, these are questions about the future of Christianity in the United States and around the world. And they are questions about the future of Protestantism, the future of evangelicalism.

The issues that are addressed in this book are issues that strangely, oddly, and perhaps unexpectedly enough, are present anywhere you find a people of conviction, of theological conviction in the modern age. Especially in what’s being described intellectually as the late modern age. We are watching an increasing secularization in the culture that is coming with dramatic intellectual and theological consequences.

The huge question becomes, how does any thinking individual, how does any Christian, how does any believer, how does any congregation or denomination or institution, how does any assemblage of congregations or people of conviction resist the seemingly inexorable pressures of the modern age? Pressures that are not only tempting, but apparently demanding that people of conviction abandon or revise virtually every conviction.

So that leads to an interesting set of questions, why the conversation with Ross Douthat? That’s easy to answer. He is one of the most consequential and one of the most interesting public intellectuals in America today. Why talk to a Roman Catholic? Or for that matter, why talk to a convert to Roman Catholicism, who is writing about tensions within the Roman Catholic Church and the nature of Catholic identity? Well, it’s because the very same issues addressed in this book about Catholicism are the issues, and the temptations that are all too present within the Protestant world, and even within evangelicalism.

Why focus so much conversation on the papacy? Well, I think the reformers in the 16th century could answer that question quite well. The papacy becomes one of those non-avoidable questions, and the logic of the papacy leads to Roman Catholicism, and the logic of Catholicism leads to the logic of the papacy. The logic of Reformation doctrine, the logic of a Protestant understanding of the Gospel, the logic of a Protestant understanding of the church makes the papacy not only untenable, but inconceivable.

Every strength that Roman Catholicism claims for the papacy is understood to be a weakness from an evangelical perspective. That is to say that even as Ross Douthat pointed to Matthew 16 and said that perhaps he could tempt an evangelical to see in Matthew’s Gospel, in Christ’s words, the declaration of the papacy, it’s that very move that leads Protestants, evangelicals in particular, to recoil and say, “If you can find the papacy there, you can find anything anywhere.”

A part of the argument made in the 16th century and beyond about the papacy is that Protestantism would be fissiparous, it would factionalize, and it would fracture over and over again without the unity provided by the Pope and the magisterium of the church. After all, according to official Roman Catholic teaching, it is the Pope aided by the magisterium, advised by the magisterium, who holds the keys, the very keys that the Roman Catholic Church claims were given to Peter, not to the church, and then to a succession of Popes, from Peter on to the present.

Now, again, if you go back to the 16th century, we need to remind ourselves that the reformers insisted that there was no argument with the Roman Catholic Church over Christology or the doctrine of the trinity. The argument was over how one even came to know doctrine and where doctrinal authority was to be found in the church. The solas of the Reformation, not by accident, include Sola Scriptura, the authority of scripture alone.

But we can understand why the Catholics then and now would argue that absent the Pope, there could be no enduring institutional of the church. But that’s what makes the argument so very interesting now. It becomes particularly interesting now with the Pope being Francis. Pope Francis is clearly understood to be a different character than the Popes who came before him. There is speculation about just how revolutionary or reformist Pope Francis may be, but there’s no question that intentionally and regularly, consistently since he became Pope in 2013, Pope Francis has been at least insinuating or gesturing or openly arguing that the church should change the way it deals with several pressing doctrinal and pastoral issues.

Most importantly, the Pope has made two huge suggestions. One of them is what Ross Douthat refers to here as kind of the Anglican temptation, that Catholicism could find a way to allow Catholics in Germany and Catholics in Africa to operate by two different understandings of morality, even by two different pastoral applications of the church’s definition of marriage. A doctrine that it has defined not only as a teaching, but as a sacrament. Thus, central to the faith.

But the Pope has done something else, he has openly insinuated and then he gone on to articulate how there could be a formal distinction functionally between official church doctrine and teaching on the one hand, and pastoral application on the other. Now, he’s talking about marriage, but he has also made very clear he’s talking about human sexuality, the issue of homosexuality in particular, has become one of the contexts with which this Pope has been associated. This is the Pope who famously said on an early plane trip as Pope, as he was speaking to press, “Who am I to judge?” Speaking specifically about homosexuality.

But at the same time, his church judges directly. It judges according to official teaching. It says that homosexuality and homosexual behaviors are intrinsically disordered. So, the church is making a judgment, but what the Pope was modeling there was the idea that in a pastoral application, the church wouldn’t change its doctrine, but merely apply it in an individual setting, in a way that wouldn’t be according to the direct words of the doctrine or of the official church teaching, but would take other issues into consideration.

Now, here’s what different from Protestant liberalism. Protestant liberalism said you change the creed. If you look at so many of the liberal denominations, they have officially changed the creeds. They have adopted revisionist creeds that reflect a more liberal theology. The argument of Francis, it appears at present, is this, we won’t change the creed. We won’t change the catechism. We will never say that the church was wrong on these issues. We’re not even going to admit that we changed the doctrine or the teaching. We’re going to leave all the words in place, but we’re going to empower priests, and over the priests, bishops, to make pastoral decisions about exactly how these church teachings, even sacramental teachings, are to be applied in context of individual life.

So, I entered this conversation as a Protestant, clearly confessionally Protestant. I entered this conversation understanding that the theological distance between me and Ross Douthat is absolutely massive. Understanding that we actually hold contradictory understandings between the one and the other on questions of ecclesiology, and questions of Gospel, questions of justification, questions of revelation, questions of authority, questions of doctrine, even the question: where is the true church?

But I also enter into this conversation with an incredible intellectual respect for Ross Douthat for being so honest and incisive in looking at this moment in Roman Catholicism, even as in a previous book, he looked at this moment in American religion and has seen things that we very much need to see. He has understood what’s going on and has had the honesty and the courage to name it. And the intellectual care and discipline to analyze it.

It might be tempting to many evangelicals and confessional Protestants to say we don’t have anything to learn by looking at contemporary Catholicism. But I would argue that is wrong. Because lived out before us right now is the Roman Catholic Church trying to deal with some of the same big questions, trying to do so consistent with its own claim as a church, and its own understanding of revelation and doctrinal authority.

One of the things that evangelicals have noted over the last several decades in particular is that the Roman Catholic Church has been steadfast on so many of the issues of current cultural concerns, such as the sanctity of life, and such as the reality of marriage and the definition of marriage as always the union of a man and a woman. And historic teachings on sexuality. We see Catholics, especially under Pope Francis, beginning to openly discuss what had not been openly discussed before. Could there be a way out of this by a local option? Could it be allowed that Catholics in Germany would be allowed to hold to a different doctrine and to a different sexual morality than Catholics in Africa?

But just translate that into another question, is it different as evangelicals and confessional Protestants to live faithful Christianity in Talladega, Alabama, than in San Francisco, California? We can understand why there is a temptation to say, “You have to take the local context into consideration.” Not only as you’re thinking about certain modes of cultural communication, but even as you’re thinking about issues of basic doctrine and morality.

But it’s the second big move by this Pope that should have an even closer attentiveness from evangelicals. This is where the Pope is now openly arguing, and then even more pervasively signaling, that perhaps there could be a distinction between formal church teaching and pastoral application.

That’s a particular temptation that comes to the Roman Catholic Church for two reasons. One is their understanding of doctrinal development in the stewardship of the magisterium of the church, and the second is a sacramental ministry. This is where at least in theory Protestants would have an absolute defense against arguing that there could be any dichotomy, or any conflict, any two-stage form of life, with doctrine in one life and moral practice and pastoral application in another.

But just consider how close this temptation will be to many evangelicals who will say, “You know, we don’t have to change what we say the Bible says. We don’t have to deny what Paul says in Romans 1 or in 1 Corinthians 5. We don’t have to deny the orders of creation as revealed in the book of Genesis and as amplified throughout scripture. We can continue to say that we believe all that officially. But when it comes to our own counseling, and when it comes to our own preaching in the local church, and when it comes especially to individual ministry, we can apply those truths in ways different than we have seen before.”

To put the matter bluntly, evangelical Protestants are going to find ourselves in the predicament of having some who say, “We haven’t changed the doctrine, we’re just applying it differently.” There are going to be some who will say, “You can have peace with the entire moral and sexual revolution and still hold fast to a doctrine you claim is unchanging.” The claim will be, we haven’t changed the doctrine, we are just changing its application. It’s very, very important that evangelicals watch that argument now in Catholicism, and then watch out for it in our own circles.

But as Ross Douthat makes brilliantly and chillingly clear, it is quite possible to claim that you refute situation ethics in theory, only to turn around and apply situation ethics in practice.

Many thanks to my guest, Ross Douthat, for thinking with me today.

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Thank you for joining me for Thinking in Public. Until next time, keep thinking.

I’m Albert Mohler.