Thursday, March 12, 2015

Francis, the Bridge Too Far, and the Threat of Schism, more to say

Need More Be Said To Explain
The Paranoia?

I came across a fascinating article in The New Republic by Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig in which she adopts a view of Pope Francis as one who synthesizes the often contrasting views of Tradition and Modernity.  She also identifies how much opposition to the Pope’s agenda comes from the American Right.  Let me recommend the article and then let me quote two paragraphs.  Check out the article for yourself at   For now, check out her observations in the following paragraphs
THE WORLD’S MOST RENOWNED CHRISTIAN THEOLOGICAL GUIDE IS, of course, the Pope. He is, in a sense, a steward of the Church’s religious past, a clerical leader who must mediate the institution’s traditions as a public figure and symbol, and in his writings and pronouncements, which bear a great deal more authority among the Catholic faithful than do papal visits or interviews. The Church views herself in terms of apostolic succession and papal primacyterms that describe a continuous transmission of authority that can be traced to the original apostles of Christ. The Pope has a special relationship to the past, being the recipient of so much carefully preserved thought and practice. Each Pope, therefore, must make use of the richness of Church tradition, while also ministering effectively to a world of ever-evolving challenges and realities.
Pope Francis ascended to the papacy two years ago, becoming Catholicism’s first leader from South America. A curious narrative soon emerged with regards to his approach to the past and the traditions of the Church among cultural, political, and religious conservatives in the United States. He has made no substantial changes to Catholic doctrine, and yet has nonetheless earned opprobrium worthy of extreme tampering. It seems rather that Francis inspires uncomfortable feelings, and affronts particular dispositions rather than particular doctrines. A key moment for testing this hypothesis is on the horizon: This summer Francis is expected to publish an encyclicalan authoritative papal document indicating an issue’s pressing priorityon the environment. It will reportedly address matters of environmental stewardship and climate change. (No specifics of the document have been issued yet.) As its release draws near, American conservatives have begun protesting supposedly vast reforms that have not happened. Steve Moore, chief economist at The Heritage Foundation, has declared Francis an adherent of a “modern pagan green religion”; Maureen Mullarkey, a writer for the religious journal First Things, charged the Pope with “bending theology to premature, intemperate policy endorsements.” No one but Pope Francis and his closest advisers know what is contained within the encyclical. Conservatives troubled by the very suggestion of a theological approach to climate change have been forced to expose more id than argument, dragging in such temporal terms as modern and premature. Pope Francis will travel to Washington, D.C. in September to address Congress, a visit already hotly anticipated. To understand the responses of conservative Catholic politicians like Representatives Paul Ryan and Peter King to papal pronouncements on inequality and climate change requires untangling the Church’s other trinity: of the Pope, the past, and the right wing.
 CONSERVATIVES HAVE BEEN WARY OF FRANCIS since his ascension in March 2013. On the day he was named Pope, the far-right Catholic blog Rorate Caæli called Francis “a sworn enemy of the traditional Mass.” In the following summer, legendarily plainspoken Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput said that the right wing of the Church “generally have not been really happy” with Francis’s papacy. Francis had that week made his famous quip, “Who am I to judge?” when asked about homosexuality. He was referring specifically to gay people who follow Church teaching and seek a celibate life within the Church, and thus his statement was entirely in keeping with Catholic doctrine. The trouble seemed to stem largely from the fact that he had used the modern parlance gay. In May 2014, conservative Catholic writer Michael Brendan Dougherty published a provocative op-ed in The Week arguing that “Catholics must learn to resist their Popeseven Pope Francis.” Dougherty suggested that the legitimacy of papal teachingand in a sense, the principle of papal infallibilitywas subject to review by the greater body of Catholic faithful. The duty of the believer, he concluded, “is not just to rebuke and correct those in authority ... but to throw rotting cabbage at them, or make them miserable.”
There have always been grumblings about popes, but the differences in opinion between Francis and the movement collectively known as the “American right” appear especially numerous, and unusually bitter. In October 2014, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, who is Catholic, wrote that in matters of marriage and family life, “[Francis] may be preserved from error only if the Church itself resists him.” The “error” he referred to was Francis’s leadership at the Synod on the Family, held in Rome in October. The Pope’s hand-picked prelates had drafted a working document for the synod, which contained early, and mildly positive, language regarding homosexual orientation and the possibility of communion for the divorced. “Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community,” the document originally read, adding, “For some [divorced and remarried persons], partaking of the sacraments might occur were it preceded by a penitential path.”
The final report issued from the synod was substantially revised, and most of this language was removed. Communion remains generally unavailable to the divorced and remarried, and Church attitudes toward homosexuality continue to be negative. Conservatives were nonetheless rattled by Francis’s willingness to flexibly address what appear to be “modern problems”: gay people in the Church and the ever-growing number of divorced and remarried persons. At the end of his column, Douthat wondered, with some anxiety, if Francis might “be stacking the next synod’s ranks with supporters of a sweeping change” that would leave traditionalists unfairly on the wrong side of history.
The Heritage Foundation, Maureen Mullarkey, Rorate Caeli blogsite, Archbishop Chaput, Ross Douthat, Michael Brendan Dougherty—with the possible exception of the bloggers at Rorate Caeli, these are not stupid people.   (Actually Rorate Caeli used to be a pretty reputable site but the last few years has become more polemical than substantive.)  What about Francis is triggering this backlash from the right and what does it mean?
Within my lifetime we have had seven popes.  Pius XII, the Pope of my childhood and the man who will ever epitomize the papacy for me—much as I might wish it different—was an intellectual progressive but faced with the real challenge that post-war Italy might go Communist, forged a close alliance with Eisenhower/Dulles America where, for us, to be Catholic was to be American.  We might be Republican, were more likely Democrat, but never questioned American policies—at home or abroad—and so we stood for political and social conservatism.  Our local gauleiter  Cardinal Francis Spellman of New York, assured us that we, as a nation, were on God’s chosen path.  The face of Catholicism in America was Fulton Sheen whose weekly television show reinforced the collective naiveté that all was well in heaven and its earthly colony from sea to shining sea.  You didn’t see Catholics marching with Dr. King—at least at first—Archbishop Thomas Toolen of Mobile rallied his fellow bishops to keep the Catholics home in Ohio and Boston and let the Episcopalians and the Presbyterians do the Christian thing in standing up for human rights.   That is why we were shocked and appalled when a young priest by the name of Father James Groppi began leading marches for fair housing polices in Milwaukee.  Catholics didn’t do that sort of thing.  And you didn’t see Catholics marching against the War in Viet Nam, Spelly saw to that.  And that is why were were shocked at the Berrigan brothers and their friends.  Of course by that time Pius was entombed beneath the High Altar of the Vatican Basilica and we had been blessed with the human face of John XXIII and the genteel visage of Paul VI.  And there had been the Council.  John and Paul and their Council had done a lot to change the tenor but not the practice.  We had Pacem in Terris and  Mater et Magistra and Gaudium et Spes and Popolorum Progressio—each of which was pretty radical in terms of its social vision but very little of which trickled down to the folk in the pews.  This has been the major problem with the implementation of Vatican II: we were shown the trees but never saw the forest.  Or, in the minds of most of our priests and practically all of our bishops, there was no forest.  Changes yes—but a changed perspective?  They never got it and so could never pass it on.   Yeah, yeah, yeah—our altars were changed to “face the people” and the “sign of peace” was introduced at Mass, but we never got the basic change in emphasis from Church as religion, institution, rules and rituals, something you do on Sunday to a community of disciples committed to carrying on the work of Jesus in proclaiming the Good News to this broken world in which we live.  We thought that one could have charity for the poor and unfortunate without a passion for the justice that would break the shackles that weighed them down.  We never understood that without a passionate commitment to justice, charity was no more than an empty, even cynical, sentiment. 
John Paul’s encyclicals, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis,  Dives in Misericordia, Laborem Exercens, and Centesimus Annus, were the most radical papal statements yet, but like those of his predecessors they remained largely unread by American Catholics.  Moreover, John Paul’s interest in forging a political alliance with the Reagan administration in order to weaken the Soviet Bloc meant he chose bishops in this country who would not rock the Reagan/Republican boat.  Those prelates who took the social teaching of the Church seriously—men like Archbishops Raymond Hunthausen, John Quinn, or William Borders or Bishops like Ken Untener—found themselves beyond the good graces of Rome. Even Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago found himself isolated from fellow American Cardinals and pretty much without any influence in the Papal Apartments or the Secretariat of State.  So along comes Francis and the idea that he is writing an encyclical on the environment has sent the climate-change deniers on the American Right into a total panic. Why?  Well, because Francis, despite his Jesuit roots, doesn’t hide behind pontifical ambiguities.  He is plain spoken, makes the rubber hit the road, and says what he means and means what he says.  He is, in a way, validating Father Groppi and the Fathers/brothers Berrigan.  Ms Bruenig is right—no doctrine has been changed, but far more threatening we have a Pope who is taking the teachings of the Gospel and the Church seriously and threatening to point out to us that we too should take them seriously.  


  1. Excellent, as usual. I have always believed that the most subversive product of the conciliar reform was the Lectionary and Pope Francis has proved my point. While conciliar documents and papal encyclicals have their value -- though go, as you say, mostly unread, much less acted upon -- it is the broad, daily exposure to the Scriptures, and the Gospels in particular that are likely to rankle the conservative mindset even more. To wit, the daily Domus homilies by the pope. There has been nothing more offensive to the wingnuts than the almost daily harangue against them based straightforwardly and without varnish on the day's readings. I have always been amazed at how the worst of right wing Republicans and Katholic Krazies of my acquaintance can attend daily Mass and retain their political and religious views when they hear, over and over again, the diatribes against pharasaic religion, the prophetic denunciations against social injustice, the narratives of divine mercy, and the pauline invective against religion grounded in mere tradition and works righteousness. All of this has been the subject of Francis' daily preaching and it has driven them to utter distraction. This is also why, I believe, they are so enamored of the "Extraordinary Form" -- it effectively shields them from such uncomfortable exposure to the Bible behind clouds of incense, the cover of a foreign language, the distraction of rubrical obsessions and the comparative paucity of reading from Scripture.

    1. I have always thought that the major factor in the shift of American Catholics from social conservatives to social liberals has been the Liturgy. As you point out, hearing the scriptures day after day makes a huge impression on how we see ourselves and the world in which we live and our mission to that world. Moreover such rituals as the sign of peace drive home the need to integrate the vertical nature of worship with the horizontal nature of the Gospel message. And I think you are right: this is precisely why the wingnuts favor the "Traditional" Liturgy: they can "worship" God without having to pay the price of allowing their stony hearts be replaced by hearts of flesh.

    2. You might be onto something. One of the most common complaints I've heard about the Ordinary Form of the Mass is that there are too many Scripture readings. I always thought that was a silly complaint, but you have given me new insight into their discomfort.

    3. "too many scripture readings"???? boy, doesn't that say something right there about those who are offering this critique the Word of God is a two-edged sword and it slices pretty clean

    4. Yep, "There are too many Scripture readings." They feel that the three year lectionary and the extra reading is a mistake. They feel that it's harder for people to become familiar with the readings.

      To me, this is a hypocritical argument as well as a silly argument. They reject all arguments that it takes effort to become familiar with the Extraordinary Form of the Mass or that it is difficult to follow the Latin Mass. They chalk that up to laziness.

      But that argument cuts both ways. If Catholics spent more time reading the Scriptures, then they would instantly recognize the readings they hear at Mass. They could also read it ahead of time or meditate on them throughout the week to make them more familiar. Is that laziness?

  2. Always thought provoking and enjoyable. It's amazing to think that Ross Douthat works for the godless, secularist NYT. I found this quote odd: "At the end of his column, Douthat wondered, with some anxiety, if Francis might “be stacking the next synod’s ranks with supporters of a sweeping change” that would leave traditionalists unfairly on the wrong side of history." focusing on the word unfairly I have to wonder what makes the stacking that has already occurred fair. And what makes a Papal appointment unfair?

  3. The irony is that the person who revived the constant reading of holy scripture in the English speaking world was Blessed Thomas Cranmer. I don't think I've ever seen a study of the effects of such scripture reading on people and governments, for good or for evil.

    Was the slave trade eliminated only for economic or political reasons? the end of colonialism?

    (Don't I recall Sam Ervin quoting scripture as well as Shakespeare at certain points in the Watergate hearings?)

    1. i plan on doing an entry on this topic as I think you bring up a good point