He drives them evenmore krazy than theywere
I want to go back to that article in The New Republic by Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig that explains why conservatives are reacting so negatively to Pope Francis. Conservationism, Bruenig states, by the very virtue of its name seeks “the conservation of some elements of the past.” She differentiates this from American “neo-conservatism” which embraces the a sort of hybrid of Libertarianism and Tea Party agenda with a “fixation on markets and freedom from nosy states while simultaneously preferring a closer personal regulation of one’s behaviors.” There is a natural bridge between conservatism and neo-conservatism. An unregulated economy and a weak government preserve “traditional modes of living” in the face of the progressive social agenda that undermines—in the thought of the conservatives—the traditional social structures.
This can help us see why Francis is so threatening. He has, to date anyway, been far less outspoken about the injustices of the economic structures of the developed world than have been predecessors John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul II, and even Benedict XVI, but his often returning to the theme of income inequality heralds the possibility that after his upcoming encyclical on the environment he may throw in his lot with existing papal magisterium that decries the immorality of an unregulated economy. And, as I wrote in the previous entry, when Francis talks about something he doesn’t let it stay in the realm of ideas as his predecessors were often inclined, but brings it home in very concrete—and challenging—applications.
What is threatening many on the right, among those neo-conservatives who want free market economy but “traditional” social values, is in addition to his rumbling about climate issues and income inequality, his willingness to have the Church find room (I hesitate to go so far as to say “embrace”) for new social structures. He has said that the Church should “not be obsessed” with the abortion issue. He has made it clear that gays are welcome in the Church and while he does not favor same-sex marriage he has been very open to the legally equivalent “civil unions.” He has made it clear that he will not approve the ordination of women but neither he has issued the mandata of his predecessors that it not be seriously discussed even among theologians. Indeed, to the panic of the neo-conservatives he seems to have no fears about open discussion of any topic.
Even more troubling to some than his recognition that we are living in the 21st century and not the 9th, has been the change in pontifical style. As Bruenig points out conservativism is more an attitude than a specific agenda. It isn’t the disdain for traditional pontifical accouterments such as the Santa Claus cap, the Ruby-reds, and liturgical vesture that makes a pope look like a cross between Queen Elizabeth and the Infant of Prague that has alienated many conservative voices, it is what his style of being pope represents: a movement away from hierarchy. Gone are the days of the austerely monarchial Pius XII; now we have an ordinary guy in a white robe with an occasional red clown-nose.
It gave us great pleasure to have a pope like Pius XII. We could be proud of the a triple-tiaraed aristocrat and bask in his reflected glory as he is carried around like a Babylonian God on his shoulder-high pontifical throne with ostrich plumed fans waving about. What other religion had something like that??? C’mon, we were the best because nobody did it like our Pope. And now, frankly it would be embarrassing to some to see the guy with black shoes that could use a shine and new heels, his black pants showing through the white cassock, and, yes, that clown nose. I mean, What would Jesus say? Well, actually Jesus wasn’t terribly impressed with the Temple priests of his day with their fancy robes and their elegant life-style. I imagine that he would be pretty happy with Francis, but again, that’s only what I imagine. I shouldn’t project my tastes onto Jesus.
Well, let’s look at the bigger picture. I don’t think it is Francis who really gets under the skin of the neo-traditionalists. Not all conservatives, or even neo-conservatives are neo-traditionalists but all neo-traditionalists are neo-conservatives and some are genuine conservatives as well. (To iron out that sentence you need to get out your old Logic 101 text, the implication being that one can be both a conservative and a neo-conservative. But I don’t want to get too far off track.) Let’s go back to the article for awhile, shall we?
Philip Wallach and Justus Myers addressed a question they felt had been neglected during the Republican Party’s previous two presidential defeats: “What is conservatism?” Conservatism, they argued, is more a disposition than a set of political goals, one for which “social practices, habits, and institutions embody the accumulated wisdom of trial-and-error experience.” This thinking detaches conservatism from the realm of policy, and returns it to the core of conservative commitments, where they believe it should be. At the center of the conservative disposition, Wallach and Myers locate a belief that explains why conservatives “doubt the ability of fallible people to overhaul [the] evolved social order according to their vision of how it should be.” The conservative disposition springs from the conviction that there is something transcendently meaningful about the past. “Conservatism has the most to offer societies,” Wallach and Myers wrote, “that have much worth conserving yet run the risk of dissipating their inheritance through wrong-headed, sweeping changes.” What obtains today, in the conservative mind, does so because it was found worthy in the past, and humility should prevent us from meddling too much with received wisdom.
This treatment of the past unites religious and political conservatives. Indeed, the Catholic Church has its own version of the conflict between conservatism and progressivism that one finds in American politics. Between 1962 and 1965, the Vatican held the Second Vatican Council at Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. It was the twenty-first ecumenical council of the Catholic Church, a meeting of Catholic leaders and theologians first convened by Roman emperors in the early years of the Church, and now by Pope John XXIII, to settle the place of the Catholic Church in the modern world. The ramifications of Vatican II, as it is known, still command the contours of contemporary Catholicism.
Vatican II addressed matters of liturgy: the language used in Mass (vernacular versus Latin), ecclesiology, and the place of Catholic teaching in the modern world. The intention of “modernizing” Catholic expression and teaching, which was brought up in the most incremental terms, was enough to alienate conservative Catholics. Church historian and professor Massimo Faggioli pointed out in his 2012 book Vatican II: The Battle for Meaning, that traditionalist Catholics “have grown much more vocal in denouncing the council as synonymous with disaster and chaos in the Church. Their negative view of the results of the liturgical reform could be applied uniformly to all of the major developments of Vatican II (ecclesiology, ecumenism, religious freedom, and the Church and the modern world) without altering their level of outrage.” Faggioli also observes the connection between “the main accusers of Vatican II as a ‘rupture’ with the tradition of the Church,” and those who “questioned the very legitimacy of Vatican II as a council in the tradition of the Church, its previous councils, and papal magisterium.” Traditionalists were offended not only by the outcome of Vatican II’s reforms, but by the idea of modernization itself, as though such a thing could be truly avoided.
First of all, I have respect for—and often am in agreement with—the sentiment that “social practices, habits, and institutions embody the accumulated wisdom of trial-and-error experience.” And I agree that that there is something transcendently meaningful about the past. I am, after all, a historian, but I don’t believe that everything that is more than fifty years old equates with received wisdom. This is where there is a difference between Tradition and traditions—a distinction which neo-traditionalist columnists, bloggers, clergy and others seem totally incapable of making. The red velvet and ermine cape some Popes used to wear (John Paul did not; Benedict did) is a tradition, not a Tradition. Same story for the red shoes, the triple tiara, and even the white cassock. Same for where the Pope says Holy Thursday Mass and whose feet he washes.
A lot of the traditions went out at Vatican II, or as a result of Vatican II. Mass in Latin. Mass said ad apsidem (facing the back wall of the church, sometimes referred to as “the liturgical east” as opposed to “true east.”), religious women wearing faux medieval garb, subdeacons, communion kneeling and/or “on the tongue,” women wearing a hat or veil in church, black vestments for funerals, only men serving on the altar, and other customs—some admittedly ancient—which gave us Catholics familiar identity anchors but which are not part of the “deposit of faith” which constitutes the authentic Tradition (capital T). There were some practices which fell into disuse whose disappearance I personally think was unfortunate. While some of our devotional practices were eccentric (at the least) or even theologically confusing (at the least), I think a healthy devotional life, somewhat like a multi-vitamin—supplements the liturgical/sacramental prayer that is at the heart of Catholic Spirituality. I also have to deplore the way far too many of us come dressed (or actually not dressed) for church; it is just rude and sloppy to pay so little attention to one’s appearance for an event that is of paramount importance. But the essence of our Catholic faith remains—and my experience is that with a lot of the fluff and frills stripped away, those essentials stand out all the more clearly. But there are those for whom being Catholic meant wearing a mantilla, or “hearing” Mass, or having one’s nuns veiled in eight pounds of black serge and rigidly starched linen. And they feel very threatened by all that has happened in the fifty years since the Council closed. Under John Paul and Benedict they somehow found a “hope” that the old might be restored and they could again have an identity that clearly differentiated them from those Presbyterians next door who have a cook-out on Friday evenings with beer and brats. Francis has dashed that hope. Francis has made it clear that “we” are not going back. You can still go to your Latin Mass and have shrimp scampi for Friday dinner, but as for the rest of us, we are focusing on the issues of Mercy, Forgiveness, and subordinating our lives to God’s Kingdom here and now. This is threatening because it runs the risk of having to look critically at things like income inequality, racism, commitment to peace in a world of violence, rejection of the death penalty, care for the environment, and other issues where the rubber of the Gospel hits the road of life in the 21st century. It makes us realize that we have to make a choice that no longer permits us to pledge allegiance to some heavenly kingdom while continuing to enjoy the benefits of our belonging to this earthly kingdom.