|It's about the future|
Sitting at breakfast this morning with a colleague we got talking about various priests we knew over the years and found out we both have great admiration for the Society of Saint Columban, a Society of secular priests who work in the missions. When I was a kid our house was always filled with Columbans and they were all great guys, but there was one in particular who was just the best priest I ever knew—Father Al Buckwalter. Unfortunately when Father Buckwalter finally got to the foreign missions—his dream—, in Chile, he died in a motorcycle accident after only about six months. I think the reason I love Pope Francis is that he epitomizes the sort of Church that Father Buckwalter represented to me as a kid. He was a priest who never judged people but could see the good in everyone. It was the heady days when Vatican II was in session and this priest represented that optimism that the Good News of Jesus Christ was the key to a better world. I am not saying that he was naïve and could not see the flaws in human nature—but only that he lived and treated people like he really believed that God’s grace could and would triumph over sin both on the personal and societal levels.
When I look at the two Churches that have grown up side by side in the fifty years since the Council, I think this is the key difference between them. I had mentioned that the one Church—a holdover from the Neo-Scholastic centuries of the Reformation/Counter-Reformation period through the Reaction/Recovery from the effects of the French Revolution—has never accepted the fundamental paradigm shift represented in the Second Vatican Council. That paradigm shift is attributable to the ressourcement theologie of the inter-war period in which theologians such as Yves Congar, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Henri de Lubac and others went to the pre-Scholastic Church Fathers and recovered the Patristic heritage for our modern age.
It would be simplistic to claim—but essentially true nevertheless—that the patristic theology has a far more positive anthropology than the Neo-Scholastic. The patristic heritage certainly acknowledges the reality of sin and dysfunction. I myself am a huge fan of Saint Augustine and nobody but nobody in the Christian tradition calls out sin like Augustine did. Yet, despite his intellectual appreciation for the frailties of our human nature, Augustine is known as the Doctor Gratiae—the Doctor of Grace. For Augustine the emphasis is not sin, but grace; sin is merely the foil by which we can see the operation of grace.
I think that perhaps the inability of Pope John Paul II to see the dangers of the direction in which he took the Church—in his allowance of the anti-Vatican II Church to take root and even thrive inside the Conciliar Church—was that he himself was steeped in the Neo-Scholastic philosophy and theology of the pre-conciliar era. I am not saying that he endorsed the survival of the counter-Church or that he did not endorse the basic direction of the Second Vatican Council, but only that he failed to see the problem of permitting this alternative ecclesiology of those for whom the Council was problematic. He himself didn’t have the monolithic theological models usually associated with Neo-Scholasticism. He was certainly was open to the ecumenism and inter-religious dialogue of the Council, indeed he was not always as precise in his actions vis a vis other Churches and other religions as some thought that perhaps he should have been. John Paul also had no personal enthusiasm for the pre-conciliar Liturgy, he merely permitted its revival to keep the peace with those who were being drawn out of the Church by the Lefebvrists and other schismatics. He never celebrated, at least as far as we know, the usus antiquior and his own liturgical celebrations could be quite avant-garde with liturgical dance, adaptations to local cultures, and some minor but interesting deviations from the official rubrics. However, when it came to his basic theology John Paul’s Neo-Scholasticism came through loud and clear. In much of his writing and speaking there was a strong emphasis on sin and the sinfulness of the human person that appealed very much to those on the neo-Traditionalist end of the spectrum.
Pope Benedict XVI was, in many ways, the reverse image of his predecessor. Benedict had been, in his life as a theologian, a proponent of the nouvelle theologie. There was nothing of the Neo-Thomist in him and he was—and I have always admired him for this—a strong Augustinian in his theological framework. His encyclicals and his addresses were far more positivist than those of his predecessor. He was, however (and so typically German), far less flexible on the connection of theory and practice. As head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Benedict had been seriously concerned about John Paul’s imprecision in papal dealings with non-Christians and even with non-Catholics. (The position given to the Archbishop of Canterbury at Benedict’s installation as Pope was markedly different than how that prelate and his predecessors had been ceremonially treated under John Paul II who had always accorded the Anglican Primate a position roughly equivalent to how he treated the various patriarchal representatives of the Orthodox Churches. On the other hand, Benedict’s precision in these matters puts a very different spin on his giving Holy Communion to Brother Roger, the Protestant Prior of the Taizé Community.) Benedict, unlike his predecessor, has a strong personal attachment to the pre-Conciliar Rites. While he never celebrated them during his papacy—at least publicly—he had as a Cardinal been very involved in the Abbey of Fontgombault’s conferences on restoring the old rite. As Pope he widely extended permission for the use of the pre-conciliar rites even to the point of usurping the authority of local bishops in their diocese to regulate the liturgical usages. He hoped, I think somewhat naively as an academic might, that the revival of the pre-conciliar rites alongside the Liturgy of Paul VI might in some way create a hybrid rite that would moderate the excesses of each. Instead, of course, it seems only to have further polarized the liturgical disputes. My own read on Benedict’s liturgical preferences is that they are not due to his theological convictions but rather to his ardent passion to preserve the cultural heritage of the Europe in which he was raised and which has been so culturally devastated first by Hitler’s crude efforts to create and impose on his conquests a sort of Nazi Art Deco and later by the equally soulless post-modernism and secularism of the last sixty years. Like the music of Mozart to which Benedict is so deeply attached, the Baroque represents to him the epitome of Western culture. His garish refurnishing of the Papal Apartments from the elegant simplicity of Paul VI (retained by JPII) to the heavy gilt of the reigns of Pius XII and John XXIII along with his penchant to raid the sacristy for the discarded remnants of his gloriously reigning predecessors, like his conviction that the 20th century produced no great music, just screamed “Bavarian bourgeois.” But in this fascination with the antique he validated the efforts of those who thought they could bypass the Conciliar Catholicism of the last sixty years and remain comfortably within the Catholicity of the Church.
Now along comes Pope Francis who is utterly indifferent to the antiquarianism of Benedict and who doesn’t share the pessimism of John Paul II and we have a problem. A segment of Catholicism cannot identify with this Pope. “I am a Catholic, but I don’t have a Pope” is becoming a rallying cry for a gamut of folk that range from climate-change deniers to Baltimore Catechism enthusiasts to Libertarians to fans of Palestrina and Tallis. Even such recent bastions of Catholicism as Christendom College and the Cardinal Newman Society are teetering. Rumors are starting to rise that Benedict’s resignation was “coerced” and thus he is still the valid Pope—his aide-de-camp, Archbishop (Gorgeous Georg) Ganswein has had to come out with several affirmations that Benedict himself recognizes Francis as Pope. Many are wondering—and some are hoping—about what Cardinal Burke’s vow “to resist” Francis should he go too far might mean. The pot is roiling. There is considerable concern about the Cardinals Francis has appointed and his ability to shape the next papal election. The September address to a joint session of Congress could be telling. The upcoming October second session on the Synod on the Family could tip the scales. In the end the worst of what might happen is what should have happened forty years ago—those for whom Vatican II represents unacceptable change need to pack up their birettas and mantillas, um I mean maniples, and go where they can be more comfortable. Vatican II is here to stay. Compromise was tried and it proved to be not only a bad choice but an exercise in futility. We need to cherish our past as history but move into the future in pursuit of the Kingdom of God. It is a kinder, gentler Church with Francis—a Church that is Rich in the Mercy of God