It was especially the Latin countries that developed the idea that the Church is the “Church of the poor.” This assertion undoubtedly lends itself to many interpretations and misinterpretations. A certain sentimentality could lead to a kind of romanticizing of poverty, which is harmful to nobody as much as the poor themselves. But the idea is essentially sound and may be seen as the expression of an important spiritual reawakening. The Church has for a long time looked like a Church of baroque princes. It is now returning to the spirit of simplicity which marked its origins – when the “servant of God” chose to be a carpenter’s son on earth and chose fisherman as his first messengers . . . In the footsteps of Christ the Church is sent especially to the forgotten and to the outcasts.
I just read this quote to a friend of mine and asked her, “What Pope wrote this?” She did not hesitate to respond, “It sounds very Pope Francis to me!” In reality, they are the words of Josef Ratzinger in Theological Highlights of Vatican II (New York: Paulist Press, 2009, 77), the collection of the young German theologian’s thoughts after each of the sessions of the Council.
Those who see Benedict and Francis as matter and anti-matter are going to have problems understanding this. A carefully constructed mythology has painted Ratzinger as the dying gasp of the Counter-Reformation papacy, with its monarchical trappings. They liken the Bavarian theologian’s appropriation of symbols put in abeyance to the hyperdramatic rituals of Julian the Apostate who failed to read the signs of the times in reviving pagan rites no one cared about anymore. Benedict’s successor’s apparent dislike for what are being called the trappings of the papal office has even led senior churchmen to declare that the monarchical papacy and the pomp of the Renaissance court, briefly revived, is dead. “Moving from HIGH church to LOW and humble church! What a blessing that we are encountering Jesus without all the trappings!” “So long, papal ermine and fancy lace” “SIMPLE is IN, extravagant is out.” These were all tweets supposedly from a Cardinal of the Holy Roman Church.
So how did we get from the Ratzinger who spoke so eloquently of a spiritual reawakening of the Church of the poor to a Ratzinger who is implicitly criticized by cardinals on Twitter for aggrandizing himself with the detritus of a sixteenth century court, which he himself earlier had recognized as inauthentic as an expression of the Church?
An oft-repeated response refuses to consider that question and says that, since there must be continuity instead of rupture, what seems to be the discontinuity between Benedict and Francis isn’t really rupture at all. In fact, these are all externals that can be changed by papal fiat anyway. None of the essentials of the faith and morals are affected, so what appears to be two entirely different expressions of the exercise of papal authority in terms of liturgy and protocol is a non-issue. As a result, the choices of Pope Benedict XVI to recover certain ritual elements and vesture appear as personal taste, and indeed, as an eccentricity. The choices of Francis need not even look like a contrast, for they are also merely personal choices, and hence, don’t matter all that much.
Yet, for all that this position indicates that they don’t matter all that much, there surely has been rather a lot of blogink spilled on trying to understand what those choices mean.
A few weeks before the abdication of Pope Benedict, commentator George Weigel issued a book called Evangelical Catholicism. In it he advances a theory that the entire Church since Leo XIII has been struggling to free itself of the stranglehold of the Counter Reformation, with the weight of its pomp and circumstance on the papal office. Once the Church is free at last from all of that, she will come into her own as truly evangelical Catholicism, as Catholicism pure and undefiled.
I will refrain here from commenting on Weigel’s invention of an entire historical hermeneutic which he proposes as the Urprinzip of a carefully elaborated proposal by which he assures us the Church can be saved. Hans Küng in Infallible? and Marcel Lefebvre in Open Letter to Confused Catholics both attempted, in their own ways, much the same thing.
I will zero in on some comments he made about the liturgy on p. 168 of his book: “The reform of the reform of the liturgy will not be advanced by a return to the use of the maniple, or by the widespread revival of fiddleback chasubles, or by a proliferation of lace surplices and albs, or by other exercises in retro-liturgy.” He contrasts this with “evangelical Catholic liturgy” which he describes as “high” but “not precious, and it is most certainly not prissy.”
As I read this chapter of Weigel’s book, which does contain many profound insights, I wondered how Weigel would explain all of those actions attributed to Benedict by others as “exercises in retroliturgy.” Also, how would he explain a cardinalatial tweet which implies that we return to the Gospel precisely in moving from “high” to “low” Church, and that Francis’ return to simplicity requires the abandonment of “high” Church?
The age has dawned upon us when the fractious system of parties within the Anglican Communion has been grafted onto the Catholic Church as if their existence were a fait accompli, and I have yet to see anyone object. The acceptance of this division has produced a widely accepted narrative describing two disparate concepts of ecclesiology and liturgy: There is a High Church party which does retro-liturgy because it is on a pharisaical nostalgia trip and fears modernity, so it takes refuge in Counter-Reformation Renaissance pomp. And then there is the True Church of Jesus, the True People of God, the Evangelical Full Gospel Catholic Church which is being led by the Spirit to shed all of that as they joyfully sing a new, relevant Church into being.
Then, I guess there are those in between. But where does Benedict fit in with all of this?
One of the questions I have asked myself is: why did Benedict choose to restore some things and not others? For many people, why he did doesn’t matter, because any pope has the power to come to a different conclusion anyway, and it’s all in the realm of the unimportant. Yet, if anything, those of us who have spent time with Ratzinger’s theology can attest that the way he has acted as Pope has been very much in coherence with his theology. He restored the papal fanon, but not the tiara. He adopted acres of man-lace, but declined to be carried in the sedia gestatoria. Did he just not have time to bring back all of the accoutrements of the Counter Reformation papacy? Or is there something more going on here?
I would like to suggest something that my readers might need time to grapple with.
In 1977, Josef Ratzinger gave a speech that has recently been republished as “Primacy of the Pope and the Unity of the People of God” in Fundamental Speeches From Five Decades (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2012, 13-33). In it he discusses Reginald Pole’s book De summo Pontifice. In a dense section on what he calls the martyrological structure of the primacy, he discusses the titles of Christ:
“The majestic titles pertain to Christ as God by nature; according to his humanity, however, he receives them only after his humiliation. Analogously, this is true for the representative: the majestic titles are effective and possible only in and by way of humiliation. The only way to participate in Christ’s majesty is concretely through sharing in his lowliness, which is the sole form in which his majesty can be made present and represented in this time. Hence the authentic place of the Vicar of Christ is the Cross: being the Vicar of Christ is abiding in the obedience of the Cross and thus repraesentatio Christi in the age of this world, keeping his power present to counterbalance the power of the world.” (p. 29)
What does this have to do with vesture and symbols? At a superficial level, it may seem that Benedict restored an ambience reminiscent of a Baroque prince, and certainly associable with the papal court of the past. Yet, we have ample evidence from his own writings that the papacy should not and could not be a Baroque court. Was he being incoherent or disingenuous? I think not. He very carefully avoided those things which could be confused with purely earthly power, such as the tiara and the sedia gestatoria. But he did bring back, or use at a very high level, other things.
A priest blogger recently commented, “Many of the trappings of the hierarchy are derived from Imperium more than from Evangelium, and from time to time it is useful for the Church to ponder this distinction and make whatever changes will bring the Gospel more clearly to the center of the Church’s life.” Here we have several things: 1. the externals of the liturgy are already put into the realm of trappings, and hence are disposable by the Church. 2. a distinction between Imperium and Evangelium. At first glance, it may seem obvious that the two are different and distinct. And we must acknowledge that some of what are called the trappings of the papacy have their historical derivation from the Imperium.
Should not then the Church in the modern world dispense with the symbolism of the Imperium, which seems so arcane and out of touch with modern sensibilities, especially when that symbolism does not touch the essence of the Faith?
On the surface, it would seem so. The entire thrust of the postconciliar period seems to argue for it. The battles over ecclesiology and liturgy, the books written by Küng, Lefebvre and Weigel, much of the last 50 years all manifest the struggle to understand where Evangelium will begin (again) and Imperium (should) end.
I contend that, Benedict has done something so revolutionary the effects of which have yet to be discerned. If one reads the recovery of symbols in the context of Ratzinger’s theology of the primacy and of liturgy, something very interesting emerges: a liturgical theology of liberation.
In our age, the monarchical spirit has yielded to democracy, for better or for worse. The Church is one of the last places where the trappings of Imperium exist. Are they a confusing relic of the past, destined to obviate the Church’s progress into the future? On the contrary, Benedict, in choosing the elements are not incompatible with the office of pope, has desecularized them and oriented them all towards another end. The ceremonial grandeur of the Benedictine papacy has redeemed the time in historical continuity with the past and put all of the earthly signs of temporal power not contrary to the faith at the service of the sacred liturgy. He has sacralized them, the same way that the organ or Latin or clerical vesture, none of which are sacred of themselves, have been removed from profane use and set apart for divine worship.
But why these elements, which seem so closely associated with the Age of Absolutism? Let us remember Pope Pius XI’s encyclical Quas primas. This letter on the kingship of Christ has often been interpreted (and hence affirmed or rejected) as an attempt for the Church to perform a hostile takeover of the secular world and the State. Is it possible for Benedict to do something radical, and read Quas primas in the light of Lumen gentium, Dominus Jesus, and Spe salvi, thus taking the symbols of earthly power, desecularizing them, sacralizing them, and orienting them towards the liturgical celebration of the sovereignty of Christ?
From Quas primas: “Men must look for the peace of Christ in the Kingdom of Christ; and that We promised to do as far as lay in Our power. In the Kingdom of Christ, that is, it seemed to Us that peace could not be more effectually restored nor fixed upon a firmer basis than through the restoration of the Empire of Our Lord” (1) and “It was surely right, then, in view of the common teaching of the sacred books, that the Catholic Church, which is the kingdom of Christ on earth, destined to be spread among all men and all nations, should with every token of veneration salute her Author and Founder in her annual liturgy as King and Lord, and as King of Kings. And, in fact, she used these titles, giving expression with wonderful variety of language to one and the same concept, both in ancient psalmody and in the Sacramentaries. She uses them daily now in the prayers publicly offered to God, and in offering the Immaculate Victim. The perfect harmony of the Eastern liturgies with our own in this continual praise of Christ the King shows once more the truth of the axiom: Legem credendi lex statuit supplicandi. The rule of faith is indicated by the law of our worship.” (12)
The pope, far from being personally self-aggrandized by the pomp and circumstance of a Renaissance court, finds himself truly as Vicarius Christi in obedience to the Cross of faith and handing on the Tradition. The papacy becomes the repraesentatio Christi in the world not as an earthly potentate, but as Christ the King. The person of Peter’s successor disappears into a symbolic reference to the Prince of Peace.
The Scriptures present this kingdom of peace as one which men enter through the interior regeneration of faith produced by the external rite of baptism. This kingdom, opposed to Satan and the world, demands detachment from riches and earthly things, a spirit of gentleness, hunger and thirst after justice which comes from the carrying of the Cross in penance.
The papacy which presents this Kingdom to the world, in this optic, is relativized and minimized in terms of power, and instead manifests the pope’s function as the first Leiturgos. The pope disappears into Christ the King, and performs a holy work through the sacramental economy entrusted in a special way to the Bishop of Rome.
The pope as a mere world leader with some temporal power and recognized spiritual power now appears as something else, something mystagogical. Christ the King in persona Papae Romae, presiding over His Church in charity, through the Sacred Liturgy ushers in the Kingdom of Justice and Love, which is the true liberation of man from sin, oppression and injustice. The Church of the Poor then becomes, not a Church of wealth, but truly free. The sacraments and the liturgical tradition become no mere human traditions, but the way to liberation, a liberation of the human person which will then in turn affect human society.
Far from being a blip on the screen as the dying gasp of the Counter Reformation Church, the Benedictine papacy, with all of its liturgical richness, is actually a powerful theology of liberation. It frees human attempts at liberation from romanticized patronizing of poverty and the futility of earthly means. Orienting the human desire and activity for liberation liturgically and sacramentally in communion with the Roman Pontiff develops a truly powerful theology of liberation. It is powerful not because of the man who wears the Fisherman’s Ring and exercises spiritual and temporal power on behalf of humanity, but because the grace of Christ the King acting through and with the Pope, and the Church in communion with him, in the Civitas Dei which replaces the City of Man deep in the heart of each one of us through grace.
No greater symbols can I find of this high theology of liberation than the ferulae of Francis and Benedict. The brutal, grey Scorzelli staff is an image of ugliness, of human suffering, of pain. It is where the Church begins, and on this earth always dwells, at the side of the poor and the marginalized, the sick and the lost. But the glorious gold ferula of Benedict , stamped with the Agnus Dei, classical symbol of the Lamb slain for sin, reflects the eschatalogically fulfillable glory which is ours in the liberation of the Cross (cf. Revelation 5.6-14). They are not before and after, they are not pre or post, they are both inseparable parts of the life of the Church, and of the ministry of Peter.
Superficiality fails to recognize the history and the symbolic import of Benedict’s reappropriation of certain elements, his recontextualization and even sacralization of them. A deeper look into them reveals something terrifyingly beautiful, the revelation that the Kyrios of Glory and the Servant of the Slums are one and the same Lord. They are both part of the same mystery where latria is ascribed to the Lamb/Ancient of Days (cf. Revelation 5.8-14). A hermeneutic of continuity has no need of contrived explanations for differences in the Church Visible under Benedict and Francis. It need only take account that a humble German professor has integrated the last of the Imperium into the Evangelium, read not in the Good Book but in the whole life of the Church, and that an Argentinian pastor makes that Christ of Glory present in humility and charity in those places that need it most.