I have avoided falling into the trap of writing an article about What did Pope Francis Really Say? That doesn’t mean that I haven’t read article after article trying to propose the authentic interpretation of the Holy Father’s words or his intentions. In these pages I have always argued against a papal maximalism based on a new ultramontanism, even as I often wrote glowingly of Pope Benedict’s liturgical theology. I focused on that theology, not because the man who wrote them was the Bishop of Rome, but because there is something perennially valid, relevant and beautiful in his writings. The New Liturgical Movement will continue, regardless of who occupies the Throne of the Fisherman. Having a Pope who understood the Movement, and was a mighty contributor to it, was a great boon, and we are all the better for it. Now is the time to boldly proclaim and work for that vision, not because a Pope likes it, but because it is beautiful!
It is an interesting time for us to be working towards that vision within the Church. There are calls for Reform on every side, and I must say that this increasing clamor for it leaves me cold. I have on the same bookshelf books by Kung, Lefebvre and Weigel, people who arguably would not want to have been associated with each other, but who for me represent human attempts to diagnose problems and come up with solutions. Lots of people are putting their hope in Pope Francis and Co. to reform the Church according to the way they think the Church should be run. They assure us that if these structural reforms are carried out, the Church would look a lot more like Jesus, and that would be a good thing.
Of course, nobody who is actually involved in these discussions cares one jot or tittle what a parish priest from Carolina has to say about the subject, but I keep coming back to the same thought: Shouldn’t we start from Jesus, and then these things would take care of themselves? If as individuals and as a Church we came alive in Christ in holiness, then it seems to me that the support structure of the Church’s work would be renewed by that very fact. To do it the other way around seems to be putting the cart before the horse. But then again, that is all above my paygrade.
There is a lot of optimism that Church reform would be successful if just X, Y, or Z happened. There are loud voices that assure us that if the Church had a more democratic operating system, then all would be well. But as I look at what is happening in the American Republic today, I have few reasons to hope that will go well. People seem to think that the Church either has to be a totalitarian dictatorship swathed in the trappings of monarchy or a well-oiled business-like representative democracy. Political categories seem to be driving the discussion. But theology teaches us that the Church is unlike any other kind of organization. She is a communion, and so the way she looks, functions and governs is entirely different than any other kind of model. Shoehorning reform proposals into political categories risks forgetting that it is not democracy or monarchy that shape the Church, but communion. And that does not look like any political model.
There is a lot of talk against clericalism, careerism and triumphalism, but there are as many conceptions of what all that means as there are people who assure us that they are all evils. There is a lot of talk about people who are reactionaries, nostalgic and Pelagians, but these are fast becoming convenient labels people are using against their adversaries, no matter what they actually believe.
And then there is a lot of talk about externals. What should the Church look like? There is an obsessive concern with the image of the Body of Christ. If we do X, Y, and Z, then maybe people will view the Church in a different light. And so yet again Catholics become divided over what we should look like. Laypeople and clerics who are usually mild-mannered, law-abiding citizens of Church and State see a picture of a cardinal in lace and silk and start frothing at the mouth like it’s the end of the world, and launch hateful attacks against people they have never met from the safety of their computer screens. Other laypeople and clerics watch a video of a cardinal in chasalb and peace signs and the same dynamic ensues. We are told bowing and scraping to priests and bishops is medieval, but in order to be modern we must bow and scrape to the opinion of the world.
Finally, there is a lot of talk about freedom. Everyone thinks they have a right to be heard, and everyone is entirely sure they are the ones with all the answers. But at the same time, they insist on excluding those with whom they disagree from the discussion. The more people clamor for dialogue, the less they seem to actually want to listen and engage, the less they want to go down the arduous path of working together towards a solution.
I do not claim the charism of infallibility, but I am confident that these are all adventures in missing the point. Clericalism, careerism and triumphalism do not exist because there also exist certain titles, privileges or vesture. They exist because original sin has wounded human nature and we are not fully converted to Christ. Men do not become monsters because they are named monsignors, and sinners do not become saints because they are simpletons. A new iconoclasm may succeed in replacing all of the vestigial Baroque panoply of the Counter Reformation Papal Court we are told is evil with modernist minimalism, but we will have just exchanged one form of externalism, formalism, for another. We will have gone from a war over image and externals to the dictatorship of polyester, and we will wake up after the smoke clears and realize that nothing has really changed, because men will always find a way to sin.
There is no doubt in my mind that there are sincere people who are intent on razing the bastions to end the Church as we know it because they are confident that a kindler, gentler Church will rise from its ashes. One of the fascinating things is that everyone from sedevacantists to secularists think Francis will be the catalyst for this. Will he do this at all? Will he do this by sanitizing conciliarism by collegiality, ignoring Ottaviani’s warning that the first collegial act of the Apostles was to abandon their Savior? Will he do this by imposing it by papal fiat? These are the questions that are turning in people’s minds today. I confess that I have stopped looking for answers to those questions, and sought refuge in Jesus, in prayer and hope.
I do know that there are young people out there, clergy, seminarians and lay faithful, who have bought into Pope Benedict’s vision for a New Liturgical Movement and the admirable exchange that can happen between the Ordinary and Extraordinary Forms of the one Roman Rite. Those same people also have the same desire to reach out to the “existential peripheries”, get the Church out of the sacristies into the streets, and proclaim the Mercy of God to the world. Pope Francis’ actions resound in their hearts as Pope Benedict’s resound in their intellect. They don’t want to have to choose between the two.
But if the Reform of the Church starts from exchanging one set of externals for another, and not from Jesus, then they will feel themselves as orphans. Any new found freedom in the Church will exclude their voice, and thus compromise any contention that all are truly welcome in the Church. Not that there are not other visions within the Church that are good and noble and holy, but to eviscerate by words or deeds what has gone before, is to risk alienating from the center, from the heart of the Church, a great source of energy and life these young people bring to the world.