To Change the Church

by Ross Douthat, Simon & Schuster, 256pp, £19

When Amoris Laetitia was published in 2016, few anticipated how deeply it would divide the Church, how endless the controversy would be. Amid all the scandal and chaos, one fact has become clear. Though John Paul II and Benedict XVI stabilised the Church after the Council, their programme – broadly liberal, but traditional on moral matters – was more a working settlement than a lasting synthesis.

This is the argument made by Ross Douthat in the most insightful book on the Church to be published in many years. He describes the increasing polarisation between the two parties in the Catholic civil war and suggests the only plan that might bring them together.

“Attempts at a revolution have encouraged liberal Catholicism to become more ambitious, more aggressive, more optimistic about how far the Church can change,” Douthat writes. But they have also encouraged younger conservative Catholics “to take a darker view of the post-Vatican II era, and to reassess whether there might have always been more wisdom in the traditionalist critique than they wanted to believe”.

One thing Douthat does not explore is the way in which this generational battle is a kind of class war. Louis Veuillot called liberal Catholicism an error of the rich. If the young are less prone to this error, it may be because they are poorer than their parents in ways both material and cultural. They are less likely to have stable employment, lasting marriage or the prospect of children. Significantly for the Church’s current debates, they are less likely to have a married mother and father.

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