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To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism by Ross Douthat, Simon & Schuster, US $26.00, Pp 256, March 2018, ISBN 978-1501146923

The 266th pope of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis’s leadership has caused deep fissures and divisions among the Roman Catholics of the world. One Roman source told The New Yorker, “If a conclave were to be held today, Francis would be lucky to get ten votes.” In To Change the Church, Ross Douthat argues that Pope Francis is a crucial experiment for the Western civilization at a time when it is facing resurging external enemies such as the ISIS and Russian President Putin. Ross Douthat shows how the debate over communion for the divorced and the remarried, which Pope Francis encouraged, divides Catholicism along geographical and cultural lines by separating the church from its own past. The question to debate is how Christianity should respond to the sexual revolution and modernity itself.

Ross Douthat argues that the Francis era has made conservative overconfidence of the Pope John Paul II era look foolish in hindsight. But it has not made liberal confidence look justified, or at least not yet. Pope Francis, born Jorge Mario Bergoglio in 1936, is powerful and popular, but in reviving the spirit of 1970s Catholicism he has solved none of the problems that have bedeviled liberal strains in Christianity for the last two generations. The main challenge for the present pope’s legacy is that five years into his pontificate the much discussed “Francis effect” seems to be largely a media phenomenon, a shift in how the papacy is perceived by outsiders rather than an actual revival of enthusiasm within the church. Ross Douthat says that there is no evidence beyond the anecdotal that a liberalizing pontificate is actually bringing the lapsed back to faith, increasing mass going, inspiring new vocations, or otherwise ushering in the great progressive renewal that John Paul allegedly choked off.

Ross Douthat says that the only spotty evidence points the other way. Mass attendance in the United States is flat since Francis’s election. Religious observances among younger Catholics have modestly dropped off. A record number of Italian Catholics took steps to disaffiliate from the Church in 2015. In Brazil, the decline of Catholic numbers steepened in the Francis era, with nine million fewer Brazilians identifying as Catholics in 2016 than just two years before. Likewise, in Australia, what had been a gentle decline in Catholic identification under John Paul and Benedict has accelerated in the 2010s. Worldwide, seminary enrollment has gone down in each of the first few years of Francis’s pontificate, after seeing (small) annual increases up until 2011 under Benedict. In Rome itself, the numbers for pilgrimages and papal audiences are down from the Benedict years, notwithstanding the boost from Francis’s Jubilee Year of Mercy.

There are short-term trends, and most of them are not the result of the policies of the pope. Ross Douthat says that it will be decades before we can look at any “Francis effect” in full and assess its consequences for Catholic practice and belief. Ross Douthat says that placing too much emphasis on the papacy would be unreasonable, given the limits on its power and the swamping influence of cultural and demographic effects. But they are evidence against the frequent suggestion from Francis’s admirers that his attempted renewal will rescue and revive the faith. Indeed, given the disappointing experience of 1970s Catholicism, and the strong historical correlation between progressive theology and institutional decline, the burden of proof is on the liberalizers to show that this time things are different. Under Francis, there is no break with patterns that made liberal Catholicism seem moribund before his surprise election. There are no signs either that liberalization will be a path to expansion rather than decline under Pope Francis.

To Change the Church is a balanced and nuanced critique of Pope Francis by a conservative Catholic Christian intellectual. Ross Douthat argues and shows that Pope Francis’s liberal theological revolution has failed to revive Roman Catholic Church. To Change the Church is packed with background information that will help you make or modify your opinion about Pope Francis and the future of Christianity. This polemical and controversial book will go a long way in understanding not only Pope Francis but also the future of Catholic Church and Christianity itself. It is a necessary read for all students and experts of Christianity as well as whoever cares about the future of Christianity.

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