We are only a few days into the reign of Papa Francesco, and already there are many people trying to scrutinize the tea leaves to read into every word, action and gesture some interpretation of what the Franciscan papacy will be like. The blogosphere has already become a battlefield with people taking sides based on their interpretation of what they have seen. The basic narrative, however, seems to be this: there is a rupture between Benedict and Francis. For some, this is a source of joy, because they like the latter and did not like the former. For others, it is a source of great anxiety, and because of it, they are tempted to question the motives of the new pope. Then there are many who see all of this as just ridiculous and that the people who are freaking out on either side need to “get a life” and do something more useful with their lives
I should like to offer an observation which undergirds my contention of why all three reactions are misplaced: it shows what is wrong with an essentially Ultramontanist view of the Roman primacy. It is no secret that, after the loss of the Papal States and the accession of Blessed Pius IX to the Throne of Peter, the influence of the papacy and Roman administration has become more prevalent in the daily life of the Church. After the proclamation of the doctrine of papal infallibility and the rise of modern mass media, the influence of the papacy would be increasingly felt throughout the world. Vatican II sought to do what was supposed to have happened at Vatican I, but which was made impossible because of the Franco-Prussian War: place papal infallibility in the context of the ministry of all the bishops. At Vatican II itself, there was quite a war between what we call papal maximalists in the Ultramontane vein and papal minimalists in a basically Conciliarist vein.
Vatican II chose to see the relationship between Pope and bishops in terms of collegiality, and the relationship between Pope, bishops and People of God, less in terms of papal absolutism and more as a communion. The reality, however, is that how this theological vision is lived in the Church has also competed, to a certain extent, with the brilliant personal charisma of many of the Popes of the post-Vatican II period, particularly Blessed John Paul II. People now have certain expectations of how the Pope should act because of the way in which Papa Wojtyla incarnated the post-Vatican II papacy.
So when Josef Ratzinger became Pope, many people were watching very closely to see how he “did” the papacy. In an age in which visual images and soundbites are supremely important, everything he did was up for scrutiny. One of the principal themes of Pope Benedict’s pontificate was the “hermeneutic of continuity.” His principal point was that the Church of post-Vatican II is not radically altered or different than the Church of pre-Vatican II, a corrective against the revolutionary rhetoric of both progressive and sedevacantist alike. But that vision was also seen in the gradual reintegration into papal vesture and liturgical celebration of visible elements in continuity with the papacy before and after Vatican II.
He was alternately celebrated and pilloried for the ferula, for the fanon, for ad orientem worship, for chant and polyphony, for lace and for fiddleback chasubles. The prophets of rupture saw these things as a return to the pre-Vatican II Church in all of her ecclesiology and liturgy. Those who interpreted these things in this way celebrated or pilloried him as a result. Yet, anyone who has read Ratzinger’s theology in depth also knows that his theology of the Roman primacy is anything but a facile reappropriation of a supposedly pre-Vatican II ecclesiology of papal monarchy. It is anything but Ultramontane and anything but revolutionary at the same time, and is much more.
Yet, the post-Vatican II reincarnation of the Ultramontane spirit welcomed the recovery of these signs and symbols as beautiful and as highlighting the papacy. Yet it was not that spirit which animated Benedict XVI to reintegrate these things into the liturgy. It was quite another.
What do I mean? The classical liturgical movement of the 20th century, particularly as influenced by men such as Louis Bouyer, Pius Parsch and Josef Jungmann, had a severe allergy against Tridentine Baroque liturgical form. They saw it as a decadent devolution from a truer liturgical spirit which breathed only in antiquity and which needed to be rediscovered and retranslated in modern idiom. I think we cannot underestimate the power of this allergy against the Tridentine Baroque in the thought of the liturgical reform. Because they saw the papal court with its traditions and liturgy as fossilized into that form, they loudly called for its rejection. The aesthetic crafted under Paul VI and Virgilio Noe sought to bring about the de-Baroquicization of the papal liturgy and the formation of a papal vision coherent with the pride and prejudice of that classical liturgical movement.
That aesthetic was a powerful exercise in a hermeneutic of rupture, even as it was intended to give visible form to the ecclesiology of Vatican II, which in many ways was a continuation of the theological development of papacy, hierarchy and ecclesiology of the preconciliar period and Magisterium.
Previously, there was a powerful idea that the Pope bore the weight of the tradition, not just in sense of what Congar would see as Tradition versus les traditions,“ but in all of its particularities of vesture, behavior and the papal rites. It is probably apocryphal, but Blessed Pius IX’s “Io sono la Tradizione” incarnates that idea. In some ways, it is analogous to Louis XIV’s, “L’etat, c’est moi.” For an American, unused to the highly stratified and specific culture of court etiquette, it seems all a bit effete, overwrought, and hardly in symphony with evangelical simplicity.
Yet, monarchy perpetuates itself, not like an inspirational idea like the American Dream, but as a complex language of rites, customs and symbols into which monarch and ruled live and dwell and use. The papacy has always had that kind of weight of tradition assigned to it. That is why every single visible change to the way things are done around the Pope has weight. For many people, the visceral reactions to Pope Benedict and now Pope Francis, prove this principle, but others do not grasp their importance: they see it as all adventures in missing the point. They do not understand the weight of the ceremonial life in which the Roman Pontiff goes about being Peter.
With Pope Benedict, we had a rich theological treasure and Magisterium which helped us to understand why he insisted on recovering aspects of the papal liturgy and ceremonial as an exercise in the hermeneutic of continuity. He was profoundly influenced by the classical liturgical movement, but also clearly saw its tendency towards rationalism and puritanism. His cultural idiom was forged by the Bavarian and Italian Baroque, and he was able to see these elements of continuity for their own beauty and shorn of any sinister ideological interpretation.
Pope Francis, however, is an entirely new player on the papal stage. He is a Jesuit, first of all, and we all know the conventional wisdom about Jesuits and liturgy as being like oil and water. And he also comes from Latin America, a continent which I would offer is the land that the liturgical movement, both classical and new, forgot. It is important not to jump to conclusions about why the first steps of his papacy seem to be so radically a rupture with the last steps of his predecessor. But, at the same time, the weight of tradition, volens nolens, upon the Roman Pontiff is so serious that he cannot for long continue to “do his own thing” without it being interpreted in various ways not according to his intention. Perhaps that is why the Popes for so long were content with being their own men, but conforming to the expectations of the ceremonial life of the Pope of Rome. Such conformity may (and arguably should) be personally uncomfortable, agonizing and even annoying. It is also a reminder of Our Lord’s words to Peter in John 21.18, Truly, truly I say to you, when you were young, you girded yourself and walked where you would: but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go. Papal conformity in this way avoids individual holders of the office arbitrarily and eccentrically undertaking words, gestures and rites which may be interpreted in a way far from their actual intention. Far from glorifying the papal office overmuch, it actually conforms the man to the office and holds him accountable to it and not his own preferences. It causes him to disappear behind the office and become Peter and less himself.
It is also important to note that in the Church’s life, there has always been a tension between visible exuberance and simple austerity. In the Middle Ages, Bernard of Clairvaux with his Spartan Cistercian simplicity arrested Europe just as much as Abbot Suger with his soaring riots of color and glass and precious materiel. Yet Bernard and Suger belonged to the same Church. The same Church produced the rococo churches of Austria and the mud huts of the Tamanrasset. The tension between the two must not be capitalized upon by ideologues who see only one or the other as the true Gospel: they must live in communion with each other.
Three people in the Church’s tradition saw this very well. The great Jesuit Robert Bellarmine lived in a time in which the Church desperately needed great reform. His personal life was one of unmitigated austerity. The people knew that underneath the pomp and circumstance of the office to which he was called, his was a life of penance and interior and exterior mortification. Humility for him was not casting aside the weight of his office, with all of its expectations, but an interior virtue of obedience to it all. And it was that, combined with a life of piety and zeal, which made him into the great reformer. Blessed John XXIII was concerned to made the Gospel accessible to modern people, but he loved the ceremonial and liturgical splendor of the Church. He embraced it and reveled in it, but his human warmth and virtue made all of it seem, not alien and weird, but even more beautiful.
The deacon Francis was a servant of the Church because he was a servant of God. His love of poverty and simplicity did not cause him to go off on revolutionary crusades against the Church’s rich liturgical and artistic patrimony. He instead infused all of that patrimony with the presence of Christ. Now the Pope who has taken his name, and seeks to rebuild the Church which has fallen into ruins, has the chance to live the virtue of humility and obedience by taking up the weight of the papal tradition in a hermeneutic of continuity. If he infuses that tradition with his own personal love for the poor and the marginalized, his own personal simplicity and desire to not be on the world stage, he just might be the most incredible witness for Christ and His Church we have seen in a long time.