The Pope and the President

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat sees the parallels—and pitfalls—of the populist leaders.

Columnist Ross Douthat.
Columnist Ross Douthat. Stephen Crowley/New York Times via Redux

On this week’s episode of my podcast, I Have to Ask, I spoke to Ross Douthat, an op-ed columnist at the New York Times and the author of the new book, To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism. Douthat, a Catholic and social conservative, takes a critical look at the very popular pope and explains why he thinks some of the changes the church is considering could be detrimental to the faith.

Below is an edited excerpt from the show. In it, we discuss what the pope and Donald Trump have in common, whether liberals are declaring too many issues “beyond the pale” for discussion, and whether the Times should hire a pro-Trump columnist.

You can find links to every episode here; the entire audio interview is below. Please subscribe to I Have to Ask wherever you get your podcasts.

Isaac Chotiner: I want to start by reading a passage from your book.

But what happens when a pope sets out to defy this reality, to slip through the bars and evade the constraints, to act in the way that a watching world—and above all a watching media—seems to want the man at the center of the earthly church to act? What happens when a pope decides that he can deal with the church’s crisis, its deep divisions, in a swift reforming march and reshape Catholicism according to his vision?

When I read that passage, the person I was thinking about was not Pope Francis, but someone else who finds himself in a very powerful office and is faced with constraints and seems to want to break out of those constraints. Did that comparison occur to you too?

Ross Douthat: I did see that comparison. It’s a very fraught one, of course, because there are some obvious moral differences between Pope Francis and Donald Trump. And there are lots of practical differences. To the extent that you can say that the pope has a policy agenda, it’s pretty much diametrically opposed to the Trump agenda on all fronts, with issues like migration and immigration being the most telling example.

But in their relationships to their institutions, they are fairly similar figures, and they’re both coming in at a general moment in Western life where institutions are tarnished and mistrusted. In the case of Donald Trump, he comes into the U.S. government at the tail end of this era of the Iraq war, the financial crisis, and everything else. And in the case of Pope Francis, he comes into a church that has struggled mightily to deal with the cultural changes ushered in by the sexual revolution, and sort of broad economic changes as well, and that spent the last 10 years in the shadow of a totally awful sex abuse crisis.

So they’re both figures coming into these institutions who then have a, let’s say, relaxed attitude toward the norms that govern the life of a president or the life of a pope and are interested in shaking things up in various ways.

I think the further difference beyond the obvious ones is that Francis has had a more definite idea of what he wants to do with his office. I think Trump had this general populist agenda but has not been particularly adept at using the levers of power in Washington. He’s been stymied on various fronts and just exists for “at the moment” as a ranting figure on Twitter. Whereas Francis, as I try and describe in my book, is a very effective populist, a very effective disrupter in certain ways.

In your critiques of both men, aside from policy, I see something about the way in which both of them have gone against these institutional norms—norms that you find comforting either as a Catholic or as an American, and that worries you. Do you think that’s fair?

I think that’s somewhat fair. My view of Trump, like my view of Francis, has been that the problems that led to their respective elections were real problems that shouldn’t be minimized. And in the case of Catholicism, the sex abuse crisis was an awful thing, the total misgovernment of the Vatican under [Pope] Benedict was a lesser but still significantly bad thing, and the gulf between the late modern life and the teachings of the Catholic Church was a real gulf that neither [Pope] John Paul II, who [was] very popular, nor Benedict, who was less popular, had found a way to bridge. So, as I would have been open to a populist other than Donald Trump, I tried, in spite of my conservatism, to be open to the idea of a reforming pope. And as I say in the book, there are elements of the Francis agenda, including things that are not consonant with the Republican Party’s platform, that I am not only fine with—I actually admire.

But … I think the basic teachings of the Catholic Church are deep, absolute truths that the church is charged with maintaining. So to the extent that you have a figure who sees it as his mission to disrupt those teachings, I look askance at that. I see it as something that potentially costs much more for the church as an institution than it gains.

What do you think the church’s teaching should be on issues of gay marriage and gay rights generally?

As with divorce and remarriage, I think the church has needed to and probably continues to need to adapt reasonably to the realities of post-closet life and the reality of homosexuality as a phenomenon that … Let me rephrase that slightly—the reality of gay people as a class whom Christians and Catholics have often treated cruelly in the past. And in that sense, the general rhetoric that Pope Francis uses, the rhetoric of mercy and accompany him and so on, I think is entirely appropriate for the church. But I don’t think the church can bless same-sex unions, for the same reason that I don’t think it can bless second marriages. I think that ultimately the Christian vision of sexuality—the New Testament vision—is not compatible with same-sex marriage. And I don’t see a way to change that without entering into a kind of deception, basically.

There is a growing critique of the way Francis is dealing with the sex abuse crisis, where it’s the one issue that he seems to not get great press on, and it’s the one issue where he doesn’t seem to have the common touch in speaking about it. Why do you think he hasn’t been able to master that issue the way he has others? And how do you think he’s dealt with the crisis?

I think it’s a case study in the limits of a very personalized and charismatic style of leadership. Francis has done things that the last couple popes were unwilling to do. He’s actually gone in and removed bishops in cases where bishops have participated in a cover-up or otherwise mishandled sex abuse allegations. And that’s a good thing, and it’s a necessary step. I think generally, Pope Benedict did a good job cleaning up the way the church handled abusive priests but didn’t go far enough in how he handled bishops who enabled them. And Francis has gone a little further … but then if he has personal reasons of loyalty or friendship or where he feels like his credibility is invested as in some of these recent cases—in Chile especially, where he had a disastrous visit—then he can just seem stubborn and out of touch on the issue.

And what there hasn’t been, clearly, is a structural breakthrough in terms of how the church handles not just priests, but bishops. And that’s true in a lot of areas in the Vatican. The pope was elected. Ultimately, the cardinals who elected him wanted someone to clean up Vatican finances and reform the bureaucracy, which is really not a bureaucracy but a kind of Renaissance court. And Francis has come in and given a lot of moralistic speeches to members of the Curia and made a few high-profile moves and firings and so on. But then on a day-to-day level, very little has changed. A lot of the figures who were prominent and incompetent or corrupt under Benedict are there. Some figures who had lost favor have come back as part of Francis’ court. And there is, once again, among some of Francis’ allies a miasma of corruption that extends beyond just the sex abuse crisis.

So it is in a sense what you’d kind of expect from a populist’s style of leadership and its weaknesses: You get a certain very strong, moralistic rhetoric and some interesting and important high-profile moves, but the institutional side of things is something that Francis just hasn’t been interested in or effective in dealing with.

I interviewed Michael Gerson, who’s an evangelical conservative but also anti-Trump and who wrote a cover story for the Atlantic about evangelicals essentially selling their soul to Trump. He said that he thinks Catholics have resisted Trump better than evangelicals. And his reason was that the Catholic Church teaches all these things on a variety of issues, including a much more pro-immigrant stance, and the fact that there was a centralized church that was preaching these things—some of which were at war with Trump’s message—had kept Catholics from falling prey to Trumpism the way evangelicals had. I’m curious how that lines up with your own analysis.

I think there’s some truth to it, although Trump had plenty of white Catholic voters who supported him. One other thing that is true of Catholicism is that the way the church is structured doesn’t create these entrepreneurial pastors seeking a certain kind of political influence. The bishops of the Catholic Church in the United States run the gamut from liberal to conservative, but they’re all embedded in this structure that doesn’t reward the effective freelancing and influence-courting that you see from Jerry Falwell Jr. and figures like that. … You have these high-profile figures who are self-appointed leaders of evangelicalism who see a percentage in being invited to the White House and being invited on TV to raise their leadership profiles while making the case for Trump and so on. And the Catholic hierarchy does provide, I think, a certain protection against that kind of temptation for influence-seeking.

But you do have lots of pro-Trump conservative Catholics who support him for exactly the same reasons that I think the more sincere evangelicals do—this sense of embattlement in a hostile liberal culture, this anxiety about the Obama administration’s various moves that affected religious institutions. … I think many of Francis’s sharpest critics, especially among traditionalist Catholics, have had at least pragmatic support for Trump.

Do you feel “embattled” in liberal culture as a conservative who writes for the New York Times and engages with pop culture a lot?

I try not to feel too embattled. I don’t think that’s a healthy approach for someone who writes for a newspaper like the New York Times to take. That means, in part, that I try and avoid wallowing in things that might make me feel too embattled. You don’t want to spend hours in the comment threads or reading your mentions on Twitter because it can encourage a bunker mentality in its own right.

I’m in a kind of privileged position, and I’m not running a Christian or conservative institution. And I think I would feel probably more embattled—or I would have certainly in the Obama era—if I were a president of an evangelical or Catholic college looking at regulations coming down from the Department of Health and Human Services. There are lots of positions of institutional authority where the tension between liberal policy and liberal cultural goals and traditional Christian teaching is very sharply felt. And the position of newspaper columnist isn’t quite one of them because, after all, I’m at the Times in order to make manifest that tension because it’ll hopefully lead to good columns and interesting arguments.

There’s been a lot of debate about liberal institutions hiring conservative writers and publishing conservative op-eds. We’ve seen this at the New York Times after they hired your colleague Bret Stephens. … We’ve seen it recently at the Atlantic, which hired a man named Kevin Williamson, who was formerly of National Review. Obviously I’m not going to ask you to criticize your colleagues, but—

I appreciate it.

I think a lot of people on the left or at liberal institutions felt like, “We’re not getting what’s going on in real America,” which is why we saw 10,000 pieces about going to diners and talking to Trump voters. I think it’s led to more openness to hire conservative voices at mainstream institutions. But the irony seems to me to be—if this is an irony—that these people are not pro-Trump conservatives. They are anti-Trump conservatives. I think the thinking probably is among people who decide these things, that there are no really smart pro-Trump arguments. So I’m wondering what you think of the way many of these liberal institutions have reacted, which is to say, “We need to hear more conservative voices,” and at the same time to say, “But we’re not going to bring in Trump supporters.”

I think the Trump phenomenon creates a basic dilemma for journalistic institutions that aspire to have diversity of opinion and don’t want to just be defined as liberal institutions, which is that, as you say, most of the conservative commentariat—independent of their specific policy views—was anti-Trump. … So wherever you go looking for ideological diversity, whatever piece of the conservative worldview you think your readers should hear more from, you are going to have a dearth of pro-Trump columnists. Now, it doesn’t mean that they can’t be found. There are some smart pro-Trump columnists, although I do think even the smartest ones end up defending Trumpism as an abstraction more than the man himself.

It’s a shallow pool of writers and thinkers who have the chops that you want to engage with the more liberal readership and who also support Trump. So that’s clearly just a baseline dilemma. Independent of that dilemma, I don’t think that ideological diversity in these institutions is a good thing just because it helps you understand what Trump voters per se were thinking. It’s good to expand your political horizons generally in the aftermath of an event like the Trump election that was so shocking, but that is also part of this general wave of disruption and political uncertainty all across the United States and Western Europe.

So I think that there is value in hiring more people from the right, even if they don’t technically speak for Trump voters in a direct way, because they do speak to ideas and concepts and realities that I think have slipped a little bit out of the grasp of an elite liberal culture that felt a little too comfortable with the idea that it achieved the end-of-history position from which it could just pass judgment on everything outside it. And I think that that extends to voices further to the left. So my view—it’s an ecumenical view—that the people who complain when conservatives are hired at these places and say, “Well, why don’t you hire more socialists and anarchists and so on,” have a totally reasonable point. And in my ideal world, institutions like my own would have more conservatives and also more people who are left-wing and also more people who are just eccentric.

And in that sense—I guess I can say this is something specific to the Times—I was unhappy in this the quick arc of the woman [Quinn Norton] we hired from this weird world of net–free speech absolutist who turned out to have this weird friendship with the neo-Nazi. I think it was totally understandable why we parted ways with her, but it was also an example of how once you get a little bit beyond the world of the journalistic clerisy, you do get people who don’t play by the rules, and have weird friendships, and say offensive things, and so on. But you also get opinions and ideas that are useful for understanding the world we live in. So I generally like the idea of outlets having the courage to take risks with people from all different parts of the political spectrum, conservatism included, but not at all limited to conservatism.

I agree with you that bringing in conservatives can still serve a purpose, even if those conservatives are not pro-Trump conservatives and that opening ourselves up to different voices is important. But I think that some of the people who have been hired … the ways in which they’re conservative do not represent the 40 percent of the country but represent just the other side of the elite consensus, so they dislike Trump, but they’re extremely hawkish on foreign policy, or they dislike Trump but—

They dislike Trump, but they’re for free trade.

They’re in favor of increased immigration, and so on.

Right. And you have extreme cases like Jennifer Rubin, who is still notionally a conservative blogger for the Washington Post [and] who in the age of Trump is simply against anything that has ceased to become a conservative, and I’m not casting aspersions on her motives. I think something like the Trump election can cause people to evolve and change in all kinds of ways. But her pieces for the Post do not, in spite of her technical conservative label, don’t represent a major shift to diversity of opinion.

I don’t think you answered the question of whether you think that the Times should hire a pro-Trump conservative. Are there people that you see making the case for Trump that you read that you find intelligent or interesting?

I guess if you asked me to cite my favorite pro-Trump writers on the right, the list would include Dan McCarthy, the editor of Modern Age who did a piece for us defending Trump’s trade policy, and I had him in to do a larger dialogue about the Trump era. He’s an incredibly smart guy, a very good writer. Christopher Caldwell hasn’t written as much about Trump, but he was pro-Trump, I think, at least tacitly during the campaign, and he’s one of the best conservative writers there is. Someone who doesn’t write as much about day-to-day politics, but Helen Andrews, who’s a younger conservative writer who writes a lot about literature and ideas for a bunch of different outlets—I think she was tacitly pro-Trump. But as I think about their writing, in many situations they are, again, defending an idea of Trumpism that seems a little bit removed from the man himself.

I think it’s a big challenge to give someone a column and expect them to go week-by-week defending things that Trump does, because I do think it’s hard to find, to my mind, an intellectually coherent case for, not some macro-level stuff, but the day-to-day workings of this administration.

I can’t think of a writer who, week in and week out, has defended Trump and I have found persuasive at a level that I would want to read as a regular columnist.

We have a president who I find to be a racist and who is enacting an agenda that I think is in many ways bigoted. And I realize this all comes down to definitions of what’s racist. But when I see a writer being hired who wrote something that I perceive as bigoted in some way, part of me feels like, “You know what? Enough.” You do that now in modern society, given what’s going on, and you lose your chance to write for serious publications. … But I also think that one of the frustrations of people on the left is that conservatives who rant about political correctness or who say, “We need ideological diversity,” will not draw a line and say, “This is unacceptable. We’re not going to support this person getting a job somewhere.” I think that’s where a lot of the tension and misunderstanding comes in.

I agree, but there’s also a lot of variation in the reasons why liberals seem to get angry too. You’re bringing up race, I assume, because Kevin Williamson is the new hire at the Atlantic, and there is a quote from the beginning of a piece that he wrote many years ago for National Review where he’s being accosted by a young black kid, and he describes the young black kid in what seems like racist language to people. [Editor’s note: He described the kid as making a “gesture of primate territorial challenge.”] But when Bret Stephens was hired at the Times, the objection to him was all about his views on climate change. And the freakout about Bari Weiss, my other colleague, recently was about racism in some loose sense, where she had written this tweet about an Olympian who wasn’t an immigrant, who was the child of immigrants, and so on. And I know that this was a proxy for larger disagreements with her writing, but I don’t think it’s just a case of liberals drawing the line about race. I think there’s an attempt to just draw a lot of lines.

I agree with that. That’s true.

And the list is expanding. This is not to go all “that’s how you got Trump on you,” but there is a sense in which liberalism has been on the cultural ascendance for the last 10 or 15 years. And part of its cultural ascendance has been trying to take previous lines that it has drawn to exclude, for instance, overt racists from debate (that most of us agree are good lines) and expand the definition of racism and so on. And the other difficulty with this is an internet-era difficulty, which is that Kevin Williamson has written a million words about a million subjects over a long and very journalistic career. And my impression of some of the rage against him is that it finds his most trollish tweet and his most insensitive passage, and it builds a case for “Kevin Williamson [is] a terrible person.”

Kevin Williamson is, in fact, a misanthrope. That’s his writing style, and it’s a distinctive kind of thing, and I think he does it very well. And he writes about the white underclass from which he comes in much the same critical way that he writes about the black underclass, which is something that makes him interesting among conservatives who have a tendency to criticize the black underclass and romanticize the white underclass. So I have—as someone who tweets and writes myself—a certain discomfort with the tendency to say, “We can explain a writer’s fitness or unfitness for society by finding the most offensive things he’s ever said,” rather than looking at what is interesting and distinctive about his entire body of work.

You’ve written hundreds of thousands of words. You have views that I think a lot of liberal readers disagree with. You don’t seem to have faced a Kevin Williamson–type backlash or a backlash that Bret Stephens faced when he joined the Times. I’m wondering why you think that is.

Part of it is that I joined the Times at a period when I was unknown and very young, and liberalism was in this relaxed, early Obama-era mood of optimism.

There was no internet outrage culture to go back and find things that I had written and attack them.

And then I’ve worked for liberal publications my whole career. So I have a very clear sense, I think, of to what extent you can write in dialogue in ways that allow people who don’t agree with you to give you a hearing and not assume that you’re a bigot and a troglodyte. The challenge is if you’re hiring people from conservative publications, you’re hiring people who haven’t spent their lives doing that very careful thing, walking that tightrope. So they’re going to have things in their paper trail that wouldn’t fly as columns or arguments for a more liberal readership.

I think my experience has been very unique. Now, with that being said … I wrote a column arguing that liberals should be willing to negotiate with Stephen Miller, even though they might think of him as a white nationalist because immigration restrictionism is a part of American politics, and that isn’t going away.

And that column did get me accused of normalizing white nationalism, normalizing racism, if not being a racist or a Nazi myself. And it wasn’t the same level of outrage that some other things have generated, but it was slotted in as an example of “The Times is becoming a newspaper that enables Nazis and Richard Spencer shifting the Overton window” and so on.

I obviously don’t think that my column was an example of white nationalist propaganda, but I’m not going to persuade people otherwise in an interview with you. But I think it’s an example of how this is a very fraught moment in American politics, and people are on edge.

That was my least favorite column of yours in a very long time, so maybe we have hit upon the germ of a difference here. You said that because you’d been writing for liberal publications, you knew not to go past certain lines the way maybe writers of conservative magazines like the National Review would not quite know.

Yeah, arguments written for people who disagree with you are inevitably more careful and, let’s say, polite than arguments written for people who agree with you.

But I also thought you were saying that the standards for someone who would write about a racial issue or something sensitive would be higher at a place like the Times than they might be at conservative publications. And it seems to me that that’s true, and that’s also probably a good thing. National Review for many years had a man called John Derbyshire write for them … who would write these awful things very frequently. Having these types of standards that liberal institutions have, which people like to make fun of as being overly politically correct or everyone’s walking on eggshells, there is a certain value in enforcing the idea that we’re going to talk about these things in certain ways. Not to say that people should have the right to talk about them in other ways, but the people we want to give platforms to will talk about them in certain ways.

I think that’s reasonable, but I also think that there is a zone of left–right disagreement about where racial sensitivity becomes racism versus where it becomes having an honest conversation about race. I write movie reviews for National Review, but I’m not a spokesman for National Review in any way, but they’ve, including in the Derbyshire era, published pieces on race where I think this racial insensitivity could shade into something more toxic, and Derbyshire being an example. But Derbyshire was ultimately jettisoned from National Review for a piece he didn’t write for them but that he wrote for a more racist-tolerant website, I guess you might say.

My point is just that it’s fine for liberal publications to have standards. It’s fine for any publication to have standards. Clearly, there are people who might write for a conservative publication and whose views it would be totally reasonable for liberals to not want to publish in their publication. I’m just skeptical of an approach that says, “We’re going to look at your whole body of work and find places where you crossed the line.” I think that that approach doesn’t do justice to the real complexity of a full writing career.