I was recently upbraided by one of my readers for my “constant sniping” at Pope Francis: this I found disconcerting, even painful, since faithfulness to papal teaching (and to the reigning Pontiff himself) has always been one of my primary underlying objectives when writing about the faith. In my defense, another reader rejoined that the real problem was “trying to explain to someone who has not yet got it how and why some of the things that Pope Francis has said, done or left unsaid and undone have disturbed and brought disquiet in the minds and hearts of loyal practicing Catholics.”
There is no getting away from the fact that one of the most disturbing developments in the Church recently has been the growth of a tendency among Catholics who a year or two ago would have been considered papal loyalists to be so confused by the public statements of the present Holy Father that they have become either tacitly or even openly critical of the way he is conducting his teaching ministry.
Thus, when I refer to the current outcrop of apparent criticisms I’m not talking about the anti-papal attacks which for years have been perpetrated by the supposedly traditionalist anti-papalists (a contradiction in terms) who have, ever since the Council, attacked Catholic deference to papal authority in terms almost identical to the way in which it has always been attacked by the Protestants, and have been in turn anti-Pope Paul, anti-Pope John Paul, anti-Pope Benedict and are now anti-Pope Francis, dismissing them all as heretics who have actually abandoned the faith. These anti-papalists include the SSPX and others on the one hand, and sedevacantists on the other, all of whom consider the Novus Ordo as evil and harmful to the faith and think that the Catechism of the Catholic Church, far from being what Pope John Paul said it was, “a sure and authentic reference text for teaching Catholic doctrine,” is on the contrary filled with doctrinal error, because it reflects the Vatican II teachings on religious liberty, ecumenism, collegiality, the Church, etc.
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Well, I consider myself to be a traditionalist. I don’t repudiate the Novus Ordo and I don’t repudiate Vatican II when it is properly understood, that is, according to Pope Benedict’s “hermeneutic of continuity.” I accept the Catechism as a sure and authentic guide to the objective content of my faith. I accept that the Novus Ordo is just as much the mass as the usus antiquior is (even though I am drawn more to the latter when it is available). I am, in other words, a Catholic traditionalist.
And I consider the SSPX and the sedevacantists to be hostile to the traditio precisely because they don’t accept these things, and don’t accept the magisterium of the Church, as it is expressed in the Pope’s ordinary teaching authority as well as in any formal or infallible teachings he may promulgate.
For a true traditionalist Catholic, the Pope—the Pope we actually have, not some dream pope who isn’t going to materialize—is his guide. Catholics, when they can, obey their pope; and it is natural to them to love and revere him, too. So why do I now find myself in the position of being criticized for “sniping” at Pope Francis?
What I had written was that “the very fact of the existence of a corpus of writings like that of Pope Benedict, as pope, as cardinal prefect, and before that as academic theologian, is an implicit standing reminder to Pope Francis that smiling and personal attractiveness aren’t enough to sustain a papal ministry, that doctrine can’t be ‘up for grabs’ [a quotation from Cardinal Francis George], and that it’s part of his function to make sure that everyone knows that.”
I went on to say: “The real question is whether the two really do have intrinsically different attitudes to the Catholic Church’s possession of the absolute and objective truth about human existence….” Well, the answer to that is quite simply “NO THEY DON’T”: and the present Holy Father himself gave it in a little-noticed passage in the final address of the recent sessions of the continuing synod (sequel next year) on the family, with his clearly articulated confrontation with those who, as he put it, give in to the “temptation to come down off the Cross, to please the people, and not stay there, in order to fulfil the will of the Father; to bow down to a worldly spirit instead of purifying it and bending it to the Spirit of God. The temptation to neglect the ‘depositum fidei’ [the deposit of faith], not thinking of themselves as guardians but as owners or masters [of it].”
The trouble is that this passage went largely unnoticed by the media (including the Catholic media). So the confusion continues: what is needed now is a sustained articulation of this theme, so that it becomes more widely understood that the idea that there is a major project under way to dismantle the teachings of the Church, beginning with its teachings on marriage and sexuality, is a pure fiction.
Unless this happens, the confusion will continue. Some months ago, I quoted Fr Ray Blake, who in his widely read blog contrasted Pope Francis with his predecessor. “There was a solidity and certainty in Benedict’s teaching,” he wrote, “which made discussion possible and stimulated intellectual honesty, one knew where the Church and the Pope stood. Today we are in less certain times, the intellectual life of the Church is thwart with uncertainty. Most Catholics but especially clergy want to be loyal to the Pope in order to maintain the unity of the Church, today that loyalty is perhaps best expressed through silence.”
I have a feeling that what the Holy Father actually wants is what we now have: a period in which even the Pope himself can be questioned by loyal Catholics. Whether in the long run that will be good for the Church may certainly be questioned: but it’s what we now have. The problem is the uncertainty that has emerged (disquietingly reminiscent of pre-Ratzingerian times) about the objective content of the Catholic religion: that’s what some faithful Catholics would like to be, shall we say “clarified.” It was a problem that under Pope Benedict we all thought had been definitively cleared up. I am convinced that that’s what Pope Francis thinks so, too: so much so that he thinks he no longer needs to say so.
Quite simply, he does. His defense of the depositum fidei needs now to be reiterated. Again and again and again. If it is, this could, in the end, turn out to be one of the great pontificates.
Editor’s note: This column first appeared December 12, 2014 in the Catholic Herald of London and is reprinted with permission.