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Pope Francis and his discontents

Pope Francis is going to spend four days this week in the Philippines, and the signs are he’ll get a massively enthusiastic welcome. In fact, a recent poll there found that 88% of Filipinos are “crazy excited” about his visit, 6% are “excited”, and the remaining 6% are “glad”. That’s not bad for a country where the Church, even though still a powerful presence, is in something of a decline, thanks both to a general slide into non-practice and to vigorous evangelising by Protestant churches. But the truth is that Pope Francis could expect a rapturous welcome in most countries these days. Time Magazine was not wrong last week when they called him “likely the most popular man on the planet”.

Which is not to say he doesn’t have his critics. He does, and some of them also get crazy excited, though not in a good way. What’s curious – and deeply disheartening – is that the most intense expressions of criticism and general denigration of the Pope have tended to come from Catholic quarters. I’m not talking about reasoned opposition, about a robust challenge to what the Pope says, especially in off-the-cuff interviews and even daily homilies. There’s nothing wrong with that. The Pope is a big man; he can take it. Remember in 2013 when, on two occasions, he rang conservative Catholics who had taken serious issue with him and thanked them for what they’d said. Criticism can be good for the soul.

What I’m talking about is the imputation of malice and arrogance to the Pope. I’m talking, for example, about Maureen Mullarkey’s blogpost last week at First Things. Angered by early noises about the Pope’s upcoming encyclical on ecology, Mullarkey accuses Pope Francis of “apocalyptic alarmism”, calls him “an ideologue and a meddlesome egoist”, and claims he suffers from megalomania. He “sacralizes politics”, bends theology as he makes “intemperate policy endorsements”, uses “marxisant” language, and is attracted by animistic environmentalism. Worse, he “sullies his office by using demagogic formulations to bully the populace…” The final sentence, by contrast, is anodyne: “Francis is imprudent”.

Ideologue, egoist, megalomaniac, bully. This is strong stuff, especially from a woman like Mullarkey, an artist, a writer and a Catholic – a decidedly conservative Catholic. And it is surprising to find such an intemperate rant in First Things. This journal, after all, has garnered quite a reputation for the high calibre of its articles on theology and religion mostly as they relate to public life, always from a conservative standpoint. But – and maybe this is the truly surprising and disheartening thing – rhetoric like Mullarkey’s has become unexceptional when Pope Francis is the topic in many conservative Catholic media.

We’re not dealing here with traditionalist sedevacantists like Novus Ordo Watch or Rev Anthony Cekada, nor with aggressive traditionalist media like Rorate Caeli or self-advertising pot-stirring Catholic conservatives like Ann Barnhardt. We’re dealing with mainstream Catholic outlets of a conservative stripe. The National Catholic Register, for example. Or Fr John Zuhlsdorf’s very popular blog, or the Catholic blogs at Patheos. Or The Catholic Thing. To be clear, there are many bloggers or journalists at these outlets who would by no means countenance anti-Francis vituperations. And even those who are far from being fans of Francis tend (mostly) to show restraint, merely, for example, expressing bemusement at Francis’s response to conservative prelates or registering a fear that he may be courting worldly favour. But it is in the comment boxes that the gloves come off.

So that you know what I’m talking about, here are some examples taken from the media just listed over the last eighteen months. Pope Francis “has made a spectacle of his ‘humility’ and rejected the trappings of the faith”; he is “a whole lot of bad news”, a “disgrace to the church”; he is “political, manipulative and dishonest”. The Pope is presiding, one commenter says, “over the dismantling of the Church”. There are many calls for God to send a new Athanasius (maybe Cardinal Burke is the one, a number of commenters have opined) or a new St Catherine of Sienna. St Thomas Aquinas “must be cringing in the Heavenly courts” at the Pope’s “sheer relativism”. Those who wanted to destroy our Church had a plan, the third step of which was to place Antichrist in the papal chair: “Mission accomplished!”

Another says that Pope Francis is “a theological train wreck…What a catastrophe!” Others: he is “reckless and irresponsible”, “out to destroy the Church”, full of “double speak and vagueness”, “a bully and a tyrant”, “vindictive”, “an unmitigated disaster”, “a wolf, a thinly, thinly veiled wolf”, a “modernist”, a “charlatan”, a “clown”, a “heretic”, a “fool”. “Cardinal Burke is the one who should be pope,” one commenter moaned, “and Francis should leave the faith before he causes any more damage.”

As I’ve said, these are from the comboxes of highly reputable Catholic media. It’s not too much of a surprise, then, when similar bile makes an appearance in a highly regarded journal like First Things. The discourse has already been legitimised and normalised among ordinary Catholics. It should be noted, though, that First Things was inundated with emails from upset readers after Maureen Mullarkey’s piece, and the editor, Russell Ronald Reno, wrote a fine piece in response. His attitude was effectively Voltairean. He didn’t approve of the things she said about the Pope, but he would defend her right to say them, especially given that Pope Francis himself has expressed “a strong desire for a more open atmosphere in which people can speak their minds. And he has spoken his own mind, often in unguarded moments, and sometimes with an exaggerated and divisive rhetoric, some of which he doubtless regrets”. This is fair enough.

“I don’t like the dismissive, cutting tone of Maureen’s criticisms,” Reno remarked, adding wisely, “The world of blogs is full of anger and denunciation, and there’s too much of that in [her article].” His conclusion: “[O]ur public culture needs the virtue of civility. Our church culture needs that too, of course, but also the virtue of charity. We’ll never fully realize those virtues. The passions of debate are often too strong, especially in the Church where the stakes are so high, supernaturally high.” Well said.

So what specifically brings out the ire in the conservatives I’m quoting? From what I’ve seen in the blogs and forums, it could be any one, or more, of the following suppositions: Pope Francis has no regard for tradition, particularly not for the extraordinary form of the Mass or for the devotions and pious practices which have come down to us; either he doesn’t know or he doesn’t care that Catholic doctrine is unchangeable, and that any development in it may never alter its essence; he doesn’t care that it’s his job as Pope to be fundamentally ‘contra mundum’, not to seek the high regard of the world; with his de-centralising tendencies and his option for the margins, he is sapping the Church’s strength in its epic battle against progressivism and the culture of death; and he is a Latin American leftie who meddles in politics and pushes big government.

Actually, though, it is practically possible to reduce all these to one. It is this: Pope Francis embodies the dreaded ‘spirit of Vatican II’. One of the drearier refrains in the comment boxes is that the Second Vatican Council introduced the rot which is eating away at the Church. Readers will frequently find reference to “spirit of Vatican II heretics” and to the “wreckovation” of churches after the Council. They will hear about how the Church, like St Paul’s companion Demas, fell in love with the world in the 1960s, how its people have not been properly catechised since then, how various cabals of heretics took control of the Council (Bugnini and Bea are often mentioned), and so on. Maybe one commenter at a National Catholic Register blog put it most succinctly – if most viciously – when he called Pope Francis “a Judas Pope spawned by a Judas Council”.

There are lessons to be learned from all of this. The most obvious one, I think, is that in disputes and controversy within the Church we need to press always for a climate of charity. The second one is that the Church is far from done with the task of explaining the Second Vatican Council clearly and comprehensively to Catholics themselves. Is it the same Church? That was the title of a book Frank Sheed brought out in 1968. There are Catholics who still agonise over this question fifty years later.

If anything, the question has more currency now than it had ten, twenty or thirty years ago. The election of Pope Francis has served to bring it prominently to the fore. During the previous two pontificates there were many conservative-leaning Catholics who were content to think that the excesses of the conciliar reforms would be stanched, that the post-conciliar pontiffs would lead “the reform of the reform”, and that there would be a restoration of traditions that had been jettisoned blithely in the aftermath of the Council. Pope Benedict’s ‘Summorum Pontificum’ (2007), for example, was a source of great optimism. The Missal, the Ritual and the Breviary of 1962 had not been abrogated, the Pope made clear, and provision was made for much more frequent use of them. But then along came Jorge Bergoglio. Implementation of the Council was back on the agenda (according to this simplistic narrative), and so the knives came out.

Before the neuralgic issues – such as liturgical reform, religious freedom, collegiality, papal magisterium, ecumenism, and so on – are addressed, a good deal of groundwork is needed, and much of it might come under the broad title: ‘The encounter between theology and history’. In his 1970 Introduction to Christian Faith, Walter Kasper quotes the Protestant theologian Ernst Troeltsch to the effect that this encounter would eventually raise far greater problems than the encounter between theology and natural science. And so, I believe, it is proving to do.

Specifically with respect to Vatican II, we need a coherent Catholic perspective (or perspectives) on what Kasper calls “the radical ‘historicalization’ of all reality”. And out of this we need to draw credible explanations of doctrinal development, the meaning of sacred tradition (as distinct from other forms of tradition), the use of hermeneutics, the return to patristic sources, the relationship between the Gospel and the “spirit of the times”, the theological underpinning of ‘aggiornamento’, and the distinction between rupture and reform. It is the same Church. Not all Catholics, however, are able to show how this is so when they are confronted with ostensible signs of rupture.

Unreasonable critics, like the poor, will always be with us; but we might reduce the number somewhat if we could show them the Second Vatican Council as the gift of the Spirit which it is. And – who knows – perhaps then they might see what a gift of the Spirit Pope Francis is too.