Whether Francis or his critics are right won't just determine whether he ends up as a hero or a tragic figure for Catholics--it will determine whether he's a hero or a gambler who's betraying both his church and his civilization into the hands of its enemies.
In his position at the Times, Douthat is an essentially, if covertly, evangelistic writer, and he is most convincing when his tone is irenic, funny, and self-deprecating, and when he is willing to trade small, stubborn differences for broader agreements—when, in other words, he most closely resembles Francis. Both hope to win a soul or two, and both come across as willing, given their surroundings, to make a few compromises in the winning.
It is high-minded cultural criticism, concise, rhetorically agile, lit up by Douthat’s love for the Roman Catholic Church. In some respects it goes to the root of the discontent that drives all three books; in others it is a simple sour mash, applying to Pope Francis insinuative caricatures like the ones he applied to Gabby ...
Douthat’s own position is traditionalist-cum-literalist: Any relaxing of the Catholic teaching on marriage — one man, one woman, one time — means that core teachings can be changed; if core teachings can be changed, the Catholic Church is no longer the Catholic Church; and if the church is not the church, all hope is lost. From this fixed position, he slyly derides other positions, especially the liberal outlook.
He weaves a gripping account of Vatican politics into a broader history of Catholic intellectual life to explain the civil war within the church. This is not just a conflict between the pope’s liberal fans and conservatives who pine for Benedict XVI, but a contest between two different visions of the church’s relationship to modernity ... He is hardly the first critic to accuse the pope and other progressives of ancient heresies, but his accounts of complex episodes in long-ago church history are by turns exasperating and intriguing ... Historical comparisons that leap centuries, cultures and continents are always full of problems, but they are also deeply interesting. Douthat manages in a slim volume what most doorstop-size, more academic church histories fail to achieve ... He helps us see that Christians have wrestled repeatedly with the same questions over the past two millennia ... But in his tale of the perils to orthodoxy, he ignores the way in which the church’s compromises with secular democracy and multiculturalism have — at least partly — helped Catholics domesticate the chauvinistic impulses that tend to corrupt all religious ideals.