5. The Era of Pope Francis and an Epilogue; 2013 -?
One again the Traditionalist scene in the United States was rocked by an event from across the seas. Pope Benedict, who had done so much for the cause of Catholic Tradition – without fully embracing it himself – abdicated. It was clear from the start that his successor, Francis, would be a man of entirely different character – had he not been pushed as the main alternative to Benedict in 2005? But what few – aside from a key group of initiates – realized was that Francis was a genuine progressive in the line of cardinals Bernardin or Martini. What had been inconceivable in 1978 or 2005 had taken place: the left wing of the Church had captured its highest position.
If we consider the situation only in America, this development, while unexpected, was not at all totally surprising. For the Church’s progressive wing had not been idle in the years we have followed the twists and turns of Traditionalism. They remained in total control of most religious orders and Catholic institutions of higher education. The Catholic press and the Church bureaucracy were in their hand. And they retained vocal supporters among the hierarchy: Mahoney, Bernardin or Weakland.
Beyond maintaining their position in the ecclesiastical sphere, the Catholic left forged powerful links with the forces of civil society. They developed valuable ties with secular educational establishment. The liberal media (that is, almost all the media) turned to their agitators for “authoritative” commentary on things Catholic; the Catholic hierarchy (including the Vatican) also turned to the National Catholic Reporter as a preferred media outlet. And a new field of activity for the progressives was the overt alliance with the Democratic Party and specifically the Obama administration, counteracting “pro-life” initiatives in and outside of the Church. American Catholic progressivism was a movement that John Paul II and Benedict might attempt to restrain but could hardly discipline, let alone dislodge.
Pope Francis immediately launched a systematic campaign both of accommodation with Western secular civil society and of outreach to the Catholic left. Certainly in rhetoric it is a return to the 1960s, covered in the first installment of this essay. Instead of increasingly respectful treatment Traditionalists now heard themselves denounced by Pope Francis in coarse and contemptuous language. More concretely, at Francis’s direction, the Vatican launched a campaign of annihilation against the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate – a bi-ritual order with a growing Traditionalist commitment. One of the main initial penalties imposed was the de facto abolition of Summorum Pontifcium for these friars. But these actions had little resonance in the United States, given the friars’ limited presence here.
The forces of the American “Conservative Catholics” had very little time to rejoice, however. For Francis and his acolytes immediately moved, in word and deed, even more forcefully against the holiest principles of the conservatives. Francis and his team denounced capitalist economic principles. They called into question or mocked pro-life activity of all kinds. And as one of his most significant new ecclesiastical initiatives, Pope Francis launched a “discussion” clearly aiming at changing the rules of the Church regarding divorce. This last move struck the weakest link in the conservatives’ stance on life issues. For divorce is an unambiguous conflict between the teaching of the Church and one of the nonnegotiable principles of American civil society.
What was the impact of these dramatic developments? We have seen that in the 1960’s the reforms of the Council had been virtually unopposed. The reaction to the current attempted restoration of the 1960’s has been far more complex. True, among the clergy open rebellion is nonexistent. Yet by 2014 a lively Catholic samizdat – the Internet – had arisen. News was rapidly disseminated and critical commentary offered. The Traditionalist Catholic of 2014 had an infinitely better idea of what was going on in the Church – both in and outside of the United States – than his predecessor of fifty years ago. And his experience of 50 years of working around the structures of the “official Church” had immunized him against the progressive revival.
There is above all this remarkable fact: in the first year of Francis the Traditionalist cause in America has actually strengthened. True, certain masses sponsored by “fair-weather friends” have been canceled. But other masses and apostolates have taken their places. Certain prelates have taken the opportunity to settle scores with a movement they always disdained. But others have maintained and even expanded the Traditionalist presence. Traditional masses are still spreading to new locations with full official support. The successful modus vivendi of traditional Catholicism with the Church establishment, inaugurated by Summorum Pontificum, has largely continued. For Traditionalists. the loss of papal support has not produced an existential crisis or a rush to “preemptive obedience” (as the Germans call it).
The situation of the conservative Catholics is much more critical. For Pope Francis has radically challenged their core beliefs on the nature of the papacy, on “life issues” and on the economy. Only a minority (of which George Weigel is representative) attempts to uphold the ultramontane cause in its purity, seeking to prove that Francis is no different than Benedict, John Paul II or Paul VI. Other leading spokesmen have lapsed into silence or have vehemently criticized the utterances of the pope’s inner circle (but not those of Francis himself). Predictably, those who have most directly criticized Francis himself have done so for his statements on capitalism and Israel. We do observe, however, that the pro-life movement is continuing in its accustomed course unconcerned about whether they are “obsessing” or not.
We do not know what the future will bring. We do not know what will happen if Francis extends in some way the actions he has taken against the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate to the whole Church. We also have to consider the long-term effect of the endless stream of statements from the Vatican and of potential episcopal appointments as well. My personal view is that Francis’s actions on other fronts (such as on divorce) are likely to precipitate such a crisis in the Church that the relationship with Traditionalists will remain in the background. It would be just as plausible, however, that a Vatican that suffers a reverse on these other issues would respond by retaliating against ”enemies” – of which Traditionalists would be the easiest and safest targets.
So a movement that first arose out of the religious chaos of the post-conciliar years finds itself established as a fixed, if mostly marginal part of the United States Catholic scene. In a way, Pope Francis should be happy with the Traditionalists; their only method of survival and of evangelization has been by means of example. Without the institutional support of the hierarchy, the Catholic educational system or the religious orders, the Traditionalists built a network for themselves. It is growing not receding. In many, if not most places, a working relationship has been established with the institutional Church. And leadership has been handed over to a new generation of clergy, religious and laity. It is a success envied by Traditionalists in most other parts of the world.
Yet there is also a palpable feeling of dissatisfaction. Traditionalists remain the one group of the Roman Catholic Church that can be officially persecuted. The Vatican has assumed once again a position of open hostility. It seems after so many years and so much effort Traditionalists remain on the outside.
Part of the discontent is the pain of honestly facing the reality of the “Conciliar Church”; the dire predictions of the Traditionalists have only been proved so terribly true. This is a Church where the knowledge of religion among the mass of Catholics borders on the nonexistent; where the practice of the overwhelming majority in key areas of morality is hardly distinct from that of the surrounding population. A Church whose hierarchy seems “obsessed” only with material, secular issues and with arranging their comfortable accommodation with the world. A Church where the pope, the Vatican and the bulk of the hierarchy are able to isolate themselves in a fantasy world free both from the obligation of dealing with reality and from accountability for their actions. A Church that expressly rejects the rational and the beautiful, patronizing instead cretinous “movements.” A Church that is on the path to extinction in the developed world.
The unavoidable issue is that, in view of such facts and given its principles, Traditionalism cannot remain the province of a nostalgic few, of a “remnant” or of an elite following a “counsel of perfection.” Traditionalism can be nothing else than how it was described in the subtitle of Latin Mass magazine: a “movement for Catholic reform.” Not a call back to some past which never existed but a rediscovery and reliving, in all its neglected richness and completeness, of the Tradition of the Church. Living completely the liturgical life of the church is necessarily inseparable from adhering to Christian morality and accepting Christian theology.
There is more than enough to do in rebuilding the Church, but isn’t it also clear that Catholic Traditionalism also has important consequences for the life of the Catholic in the world and in this country? Certainly our secular adversaries think so – that is why Pope Benedict faced opposition not just from within the Church but from sovereign states and from Western civil society in general. It is very important to powerful secular forces in the Western world that the progress of the Traditionalist cause be stopped – the Latin mass is a political issue!
What is the next step for the Traditionalists confronted by both the great promise of their movement and the catastrophic situation of the Church today? There have been many heroic laymen and priests in the American Traditionalist movement; there have been many intrepid writers, journalists and, today, bloggers. And there has been an ever-increasing focus on the liturgy in all its perfection. But I believe to get to the next step, to move to being a genuine reform for the whole Church, the Traditionalist movement needs to acquire what ancient Ireland is reputed to have had when it set out to re-evangelize the West: saints and scholars. Let us take that in reverse order.
Scholars are easiest to develop and train. They need to acquire the tools of scholarship in their various fields without becoming a part of the secular academic establishment, which is lethal. Scholars can preserve and present to clergy and laity the riches of Catholic history, philosophy and theology. They can deal squarely with the unpleasant truths of the past and the present, which Catholics make a habit of ignoring. They will counter the normal Catholic response when confronted by difficulties of all kinds: the flight to the irrational, the blind submission to the world or ecclesiastical authorities.
Saints – that is another matter. The crisis of the Church and 16th-century was result in large part through a new generation of Saints. When, in the 1520s, things were at their bleakest, a soldier, Ignatius Loyola, was reading a book of saints while recovering from a war wound. A little while later John Fisher and Thomas More stood virtually alone against the conformism of the hierarchy of an entire kingdom. Later there were many more: like the mystics Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, the great Archbishop of Milan, Charles Borromeo or the apostle of Rome Saint Philip Neri. But saints cannot be “produced” – they can only be given to us.
Is my vision – scholarship and sanctity added to liturgical perfection – not unlike the Benedictine reform of the 6th century onwards? Does not American Traditionalism need more focus on contemplation as opposed to action? I do believe so! But I would also expect that the Traditionalist movement, which has overcome so many difficulties and challenges to reach where it stands today, will enjoy the necessary divine support to continue and perfect its mission – if we only ask and pray for it.