Evangelicals & Catholics in the age of integralism

At The American Conservative, Rod Dreher has a very lengthy post critiquing Matthew Walther’s recent column at The Week arguing that the Catholic alliance with evangelicals has not worked out to the benefit of Catholics. We note by way of parenthesis at the outset that Walther’s column for The Week is consistently one of the most entertaining and provocative columns out there. Anyway, in the context of the imbroglio over Paul Ryan firing and unfiring the House chaplain, Jesuit Fr. Patrick Conroy (hired by John Boehner, a longtime friend of the Jesuits), Walther makes some very pointed remarks about the effects on Catholics of their political alliance with evangelical protestants. We agree with Walther, for the most part, but Dreher doesn’t. Dreher’s point is basically this: so what if American Catholics have gone wobbly on the Church’s social teaching because of this alliance with evangelicals?

It is worth thinking about this exchange because it provides a perfect example of what we have talked about before, and that is what Jake Meador (a protestant) has rightly called a parting of the ways between Catholics and protestants. Both Catholics and protestants are engaged at the moment in a project of ressourcement. Catholics in particular are presently engaged in rediscovering the Church’s anti-liberal, integralist tradition and thinking about how best to implement the anti-liberal, integralist teaching of the Church in American political life. This makes the consensus that made projects like Evangelicals and Catholics Together to name but one less tenable than ever before. Indeed, we have seen in recent regrettable incidents that institutions devoted to the consensus typified by Evangelicals and Catholics Together are hostile to expressions of, for example, the anti-liberal, integralist Catholic tradition. It will be clearer, we think, in short order that Dreher (among others) does not understand this moment in American Christianity as well as he thinks.

Here’s the problem. As Dreher eventually gets around to arguing, the forces of secular liberalism—implacable in their opposition to Christianity—don’t actually see much of a difference between faithful Catholics and faithful evangelicals. Moreover, it is clear that Dreher doesn’t actually see much of a difference, either. Whatever drift there has been in American Catholics’ views, he thinks it was baked in from the beginning. In support of this proposition, he argues (1) that Americans are simply protestantized at a baseline level and (2) that Americans are basically indifferentist. In any event, he does not think it’s all that big of a deal to suggest that Catholics and evangelicals should cooperate on certain issues. What is needed, Dreher concludes, is for Christians to downplay their differences and present a united front in defense of religious liberty.

Even if indifferentism isn’t baked into American religious expression, Americans should adopt it, Joe Carter of the Acton Institute tells us as he weighs in, arguing, based on the thought of 19th-century Dutch protestant and household name around the world Abraham Kuyper. Kuyper, Carter tells us, believed that Catholics and protestants have creedal confession and morals in common. More than that, on the points where secular society is most hostile to Christians, Kuyper argued that Catholics and protestants were in agreement. This is a funny assertion, not least because Catholics and protestants disagree pretty vehemently on articles of all of the creeds of undivided Christendom. Moreover, it is only by equivocation that a Catholic and a protestant can profess belief in One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, since it is clear that a Catholic means one thing and a protestant another. On this point, one wonders what response Carter would get from his Southern Baptist brethren if he told them that when they pray the Nicene Creed, they confess the same creed in the same way as St. Pius V or St. Pius X. Levity aside, it seems odd to us that Dreher or Carter would offer what amounts to indifferentism as a way forward.

Part of the reason why indifferentism seems like a strange solution is because it has been what Acton and other institutions have been advancing for some time now, without any appreciable success. In this, we are reminded of Brent Bozell’s “Letter to Yourselves” from an early issue of Triumph. The splendid site Incudi Reddere reprinted the essay yesterday in the context of a Twitter discussion along these lines. Bozell was writing to an audience of conservatives in 1969 in the wake of Richard Nixon’s victory in 1968. After discussing the decision by conservatives to support Nixon despite the fact that Nixon really did not represent the conservative position by 1968, Bozell makes this devastating point:

I think this experience can be described even more sharply. Secular liberalism has lost its war for historical existence, but it has not lost any of the battles it has had with you. On every front where your program has confronted secular liberalism’s, you have been beaten. Consider (against the background of one of Nixon’s press conferences) your campaigns against big government, against Keynesian economics, against compulsory welfare; your defense of states’ rights and the constitutional prerogatives of Congress; your struggle for a vigorous anti-Soviet foreign policy; your once passionate stand for the country’s flag and her honor. Is there a single field which the secular liberals have had to yield to the secular conservatives? That is one side of the coin. The other is that secular liberalism has, nevertheless, diedand for causes apparently unconnected with your ministrations. Some say it succumbed from existential wounds, an inability to cope with reality. Do you deem yourselves sufficiently close students of reality to have helped significantly to inflict the wounds? Others lay the failure to an organic weakness or “sickness,” a self-contained fault of the system. Has your criticism of secular liberalism persuasively diagnosed this sickness? Still others say the basic cause is in the order of ideas. Do you claim to have located the fundamental errors, or to have corrected them? I do not mean, with these questions, to chide you; I concede that men are hard to find in our time who ought to feel any more comfortable with them. The point is simply that, taking both sides of this coin together, it is not surprising you should neither be called, nor offering yourselves, as secular liberalism’s heirthat it is not surprising you are disillusioned.

(Emphasis supplied.) What was true in 1969 remains true in 2018. One might cavil with this assessment and say that Bozell was writing to secular conservatives, not religious conservatives. Okay. How many battles have the religious conservatives won? The most recent major defeat—dealt by the Supreme Court in Obergefell—was so devastating to Dreher that he now proposes anything a sort of strategic regrouping (in its weakest form) to a retreat to the bayou (in its stronger form) for Christians.

This is a painful point for many, not least Dreher. However, when one says that Catholics and evangelicals should put aside their “small differences” to fight the liberal order, one has to point out that they’ve been doing that for a while—and losing. Perhaps this time will be different. It is true that the liberal order is seen to be struggling at this moment, even if the reasons are not always so clear. Christian conservatives have, unlike the secular conservatives, a real ethical and metaphysical critique of liberalism that, in the case of the critique advanced by the Church, carries divine authority. One sees this even today, in Francis’s great anti-liberal encyclical, Laudato si’, which is clearly an authoritative critique of modern liberalism. That counts for something, to be sure. Nevertheless, when a united Christian front for religious liberty is discussed, one ought to hear Bozell intoning, “Secular liberalism has lost its war for historical existence, but it has not lost any of the battles it has had with you.”

This is, we think, Walther’s point. Catholics have made accommodations for the sake of presenting a united front with other Christians on other issues, only to be defeated in each fight. Walther writes,

What has been the result of this abandonment of principles? Forty years of infanticide, economic exploitation, and spoliation of the Earth as the forces of capital and technology disrupt all our settled customs, habits, convictions, and affections, at an increasingly rapid pace. Think tanks have been founded, fellowships have been granted, journals have been founded, and symposiums held. A whole new conception of politics has emerged out of what ought to have been a limited prudential alliance — but the clock has not been turned back a minute. “All that is solid melts into air,” as Marx put it, and Catholics and evangelicals stand together with their paper cups trying to catch a few drops of the precious liquid to put back in their broken refrigerators.

(Emphasis supplied.) One is justified in asking, then: was it worth it? Was it worth setting about half of Centesimus annus and about six paragraphs of Rerum novarum against the rest of Rerum novarum, Quadragesimo anno, Mater et Magistra, Pacem in terris, Gaudium et spes, Populorum progressio, Laborem exercens, Sollicitudo rei socialis, the other half of Centesimus annus, Caritas in veritate, and so on? (To say nothing of the social magisterium beginning with the apostles and the fathers down to Leo XIII!) Was it worth deciding that Dignitatis humanae, Unitatis redintegratio, and Nostra aetate blotted out the Church’s entire thought on its relationship with the state and other faiths?

Moreover, can we say that it was worth it as Catholics are actively engaged in recovering this tradition? As we say, the real problem is that Dreher does not understand this moment in American Christianity. He suggests that the vision of Evangelicals and Catholics Together is dead, right before making basically the argument advanced by that project. Jake Meador, as we have mentioned before, recognizes that both Catholics and protestants are recovering substantial aspects of their respective traditions that make it less and less possible to engage in the sort of ecumenism represented by Evangelicals and Catholics Together. Consider, for example, the ongoing recovery of the Church’s anti-liberal tradition. There is an increasing realization—at least on the Catholic side of the line—that the sense that the Church threw open the doors to liberalism at Vatican II is not quite correct. To be sure, Dignitatis humanae and Gaudium et spes show more openness to liberalism than, say, Syllabus or Leo XIII’s Libertas praestantissimum. But one must be careful not to read more into the documents than is actually there. At The Public Discourse, for example, Professor Joseph Trabbic has a lengthy essay arguing basically that. He demonstrates convincingly that the Church’s normative political position—even today—is that of a Catholic confessional state. We could go on, though we won’t, about the revival of integralism going on today.

The point is this: Catholics and protestants are recovering their traditions. The Church’s tradition is integralist and anti-liberal. Protestants are working on their own traditions, and they are finding their own reasons to be suspicious of the ecumenism Dreher advances. One might say that the only interesting work being done by Christians on the right—which is very nearly the same thing as saying the only interesting work being done by Christians—is being done in this area. This work makes the sort of cooperation that Dreher urges less and less possible. An integralist Catholic is not going to see the political goals advanced by Dreher as all that worthwhile, except as potentially an intermediate step toward a Catholic confessional state, and he is certainly not going to want to make the compromises—even rhetorical—necessary to work with evangelicals toward such a goal. Likewise, the protestants engaged in their own ressourcement are not going to be excited about coalitions with integralist Catholics.

Today, Incudi Reddere posted another piece from Triumph by Brent Bozell. It concludes, in part:

The something else we must do, then, is to be Christians. The first words of Genesis establish the precedence of being over doing: fiat lux. The goal of the Christian tribe, like that of the city which Christians could once hope to build, is to establish temporal conditions hospitable to the Gospel life. But first the tribe must be. It is a matter of consciousness. Am I an American? a Spaniard? an Englishman? Or am I a Christian? It is also a matter of presence. Here and on every other continent Christians must be visible, not in any city disguise, but openly in their apostolic role as teachers sent to the ends of the earth.

We submit that part, a large part, of being a Christian is being an orthodox Christian—that is, a Catholic. We would not deny, however, that protestants are acting in good faith when they say that being an orthodox Christian means being orthodox by the lights of their sect. However, the point is this: there is an emerging sense Bozell is right and the first step toward a political solution is being an orthodox Christian. As this sense emerges, the idea, advanced by Dreher and Carter, that Christians should gloss over significant differences in theology, ecclesiology, metaphysics, and ethics so that they can fight one more losing battle against secular liberalism becomes less and less tenable.

“What is the reality of the situation?”

In the 1970s, Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt produced some decks of cards with various questions or statements printed on them. Eno and Schmidt came up with Oblique Strategies, as they called the cards, as suggestions of ways to approach a problem that were not the straight-on approach. They had found, it seems, working separately on their own projects, that they would reach some impasse. The questions or statements were intended to get themselves (at first) out of the jams they found themselves in. The cards, originally released in 1975, were revised in a couple of subsequent editions. The cards and the sayings on them have been a sort of mid level cultural artifact since then, appearing in Richard Linklater’s Slacker. (Indeed, in Slacker, a putative card is “Withdrawing in disgust is not the same as apathy,” which isn’t a card in the original sets. The phrase, however, is striking and found its way to R.E.M.’s “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?”) One of the sayings from the first edition (and kept all the way to the third edition) is “What is the reality of the situation?”

This is a question integralist Catholics need to ask themselves right now. We should be clear at the outset that we are aware, though perhaps we should be more aware, that “integralist Catholic” is—or ought to be—a redundancy. Integralism is simply the perennial teaching of the Church, finding its finest expression in Leo XIII’s encyclicals, regarding the relationship of the Church to the state. It is assumed that the Church backed away from this teaching in the Second Vatican Council, especially Dignitatis humanae. However, this assumption is perhaps harder to justify than it might first appear. We will, therefore, use the expressions integralism and integralist simply as convenient shorthand, not least since they are at the moment used in discussions outside Semiduplex. (We were surprised to learn that such things happen, too, dear reader.) They’re not perfect, but they’ll do until perfect expressions are found.

Anyway: the reason why integralists need to ask themselves the question “What is the reality of the situation?” is because, at this moment, integralist Catholics have a little visibility and a little momentum. Much of this comes from a broader suspicion of liberalism that seems more and more justified every day. Consider for example the critique of liberalism in Scott Hahn’s new book, The First Society. Hahn graciously permitted the excerpt to run at The Josias, and you should read it as soon as you can. We haven’t read The First Society, but if the excerpt is any indication it’s probably well worth our attention. We can debate what Hahn says, but what we cannot debate is Hahn’s prominence as a Catholic apologist and writer. Suspicion of the liberal order—especially the compromises the liberal order demands (and demands and demands) of Christians—is in the air. Moreover, integralists have been recovering their own tradition. It only seems like these ideas emerged overnight. In addition to the magisterium and the teachings of Thomas Aquinas and others, there were those thinking about these ideas when liberalism’s reign seemed unquestionable. Consider, for example, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who was as disturbed by the assault on the reign of Christ the King as he was by anything else. One consideration in the reality of the situation is the (increasingly dicey) relationship between integralists and liberals and the relative lack of integralist institutions.

Turning to the first point: liberals, even Catholic liberals of the Evangelicals and Catholics Together variety, cannot provide shelter for integralists in liberal institutions. The fundamental claims of liberalism are not compatible with the claims integralist Catholics make. Everyone knows this. Integralists relate to the United States and the American project in a radically different way from liberals, even liberals on the right. Let us drill down on this example for a moment. It is often argued that the American order before recent deformations—let us say, before 1965 or so, though even that date may be too late—provided an opportunity for the Faith to flourish in an environment of ordered liberty. Why, runs the implicit question, do the integralists have a problem? Even acknowledging that there have been moments when American liberalism has benefitted the Church, as Leo XIII did in Longinqua oceani, we must affirm, as Leo XIII also did in the same letter, that the American order is not the ideal order of Church and state. It is that simple. This point, by no means the most controversial point of integralist thought, though perhaps among the most fundamental, means that integralists cannot write prose poems to the “wisdom of the Framers” and the alleged natural-law foundations of the federal Constitution.

Given that liberals on the right—even liberal Catholics–feel constrained to write exactly those prose poems, this alone would result in significant opposition between integralists and liberals. Of course, we know that the opposition is broader than that. The example, however, is an important one. Integralists have a hard time trading even in the hoary cliches that pass with hardly any notice among liberals. Think about that for a moment: if we take Leo in Longinqua seriously, we are free to acknowledge the gains for the Church under the American regime, but we are by no means free to say—against Immortale Dei or Diuturnum or Libertas—that the American regime is ideal. Given the concepts that have been bundled into the idea of the American regime by conservatives, here we are thinking of liberal democracy, free speech, free market ideology, and the rest of it, denying that the American regime is ideal is a significant act. And one liable to leave integralist Catholics in the position either of silence on these issues or radical opposition to liberals.

The bottom line is this: Jake Meador, a while back, talked about a parting of the ways of Catholics and some protestants as both Catholics and protestants delved deeper into their respective traditions and found greater points of incompatibility. The same thing is happening even among Catholics. As integralist Catholics recover the Church’s perennial teaching on its relationship to the state and to non-Catholics, it will be difficult for integralists to maintain the same close relations with liberal Catholics who, by and large, react to integralist Catholicism with anything ranging from polite bemusement to horror. Now, it is impossible for Catholics to part ways from Catholics in the same manner that Catholics are parting ways from protestants. We are, ultimately, bound together in communion with Peter in the Mystical Body of Christ. Nevertheless, it is possible to acknowledge that certain differences make certain forms of cooperation impossible. Liberal institutions simply cannot support—whether out of hostility or not—integralists for any length of time. It is clear, therefore, that integralist Catholics have to begin the laborious work of building their own institutions. This is our second point.

Some institutions already exist—The Josias comes to mind first, followed by a circle of blogs more or less in The Josias‘s orbit, including Semiduplex—but there is room for development. Naturally, one thinks of magazines of theory, criticism, and opinion, broadly along the lines of existing magazines. One may also think of magazines aimed at more popular audiences. Certainly this would solve problems that have crept up in recent weeks and months in existing—liberal—publications. There would be no problem, for example, articulating an authentically Catholic position about the duties of the state toward the baptized, even those baptized in exigent circumstances, at an integralist magazine. Nor would there be problems articulating potential aspects of the penal law in a Catholic state. But to confine one’s thought toward that sort of institution may be a strategic blunder. For one thing: there’s more to life than debates over politics or the effects of baptism in a confessional state, hard as that may be to believe.

Adrian Vermeule has talked, notably, about a strategy of replacement; that is, Catholics take positions in elite institutions and gradually populate those institutions. One can discuss the merits of the strategy another time. We will take it for granted for now. Could not a similar strategy of replacement be appropriate in cultural or artistic institutions? Indeed, might not such a strategy be necessary? And if those institutions are too hardened toward population—infiltration, they would call it—by Catholics, ought not Catholics attempt to create rival institutions? This is an elaborate way of saying that, if the strategy is replacement, then the strategy is replacement across the board. An integralist website for movie reviews or music reviews or book reviews is a component, if not perhaps an essential component, of an integralist strategy. Now, there is, we admit, some difficulty here: what is an integralist movie review? Surely it is not a movie review that assesses the aesthetic merits of a movie on how well the movie represents the correct ordering of state to Church. That would be ridiculous.

This is a point worth pondering. The answer is obviously that it would be a movie review from a broadly Catholic perspective, unafraid of considering modern aesthetic developments, but also unafraid of making moral judgments or comparative judgments. Indeed, one might argue (it has been argued in the past, so we are hardly breaking new ground) that aesthetic judgments require above all a recognition of truth. We will let the aesthetes puzzle it out in greater detail, however. We raise the point simply to highlight the danger of considering integralism a particular tendency requiring a particular set of postures to the exclusion of everything else. (This is a danger we find ourselves susceptible to.) As we have said, one of the central claims of integralism is that it is simply Catholicism. That is, it is what the popes have taught and the faithful have believed, according to their station and education. When it is expressed in the context of politics, it takes the form of integralism. But Catholicism is expressed or informs one’s expression in other contexts, and it is necessary to consider these other contexts, too.

And if you don’t accept the strategy of replacement? Well, it is clear, as we cannot help repeating, that existing liberal institutions are hostile to integralist Catholics. An integralist, regardless of his or her artistic views, is going to have a hard time obtaining and maintaining access to the most notable institutions. There are basically two choices: first, it is possible to decide that integralism is a view that must be kept secret and gain access to liberal institutions as an apparent liberal. Of course, since integralism is merely the political expression of traditional Catholicism, this will require a commitment to keep other things secret. Second, it is possible to decide that the best people to talk about these things with are like-minded people and the best places to talk about them are friendly places.

***

Lately, we have been thinking a lot about L. Brent Bozell’s brilliant, doomed Triumph magazine. At a time when the Church’s bargain with liberalism seems like more and more of a raw deal—and at a time when integralist institutions are increasingly necessary—the story of Triumph is one that ought to be told. Mark Popowski, a professor at Collin College in Texas, published, not too long ago, The Rise and Fall of Triumph: The History of a Radical Catholic Magazine, 1966–1976. We suspect this is a revision of his 2008 doctoral dissertation. It is a great resource for anyone looking to learn more about Triumph. There are other resources. A few years ago, Daniel Kelly published a biography of Bozell, and one can get The Best of Triumph and Bozell’s own autobiography. There is also an interesting essay on the topic from John Médaille at Ethika Politika from several years ago.

Many of you probably know the story. Bozell had been with Buckley and others in the early days of National Review. Bozell, a convert to the Church unhappy with the line Buckley and others took (Mater Si, Magistra No!), started Triumph in 1966 with some fanfare to present a staunchly Catholic viewpoint—taking aim at the right and the left alike. This was, however, basically the worst possible moment in history to undertake such a task. (Of course, Bozell might answer that it was, therefore, the most crucial moment in history to undertake the task.) On one hand, the Second Vatican Council initiated a process that saw the Church’s traditional anti-liberal doctrine diminished (if not eliminated) almost overnight, along with other changes, not the least of which was the complete revision of the liturgy between 1964 and 1970. On the other hand, the conservative movement was well on its way to solidifying its free-market ideology by 1966. Bozell found himself, therefore, between a rock and a hard place. Over the next ten years, however, Triumph produced a considerable amount of intelligent, incisive commentary from a Catholic perspective. Unfortunately, the publication diminished over time, ending up as little more than a newsletter before it wound up operations in 1976.

Triumph was not narrowly political, though certainly there was much to discuss politically between 1966 and 1976. But in reading The Best of Triumph, one finds the expression generally of a certain outlook. The sort of publication that would provide the best home for Catholics is a publication that, like Triumph, has a certain outlook that, among other things, expresses itself politically in integralism. There are other lessons to learn from Triumph—and other publications—and Catholics with the skills and motivation to learn those lessons will, we suspect, be capable of building the institutions that are so clearly required.

This is the way things have always been

Today, Francis released his Apostolic Exhortation On the Call to Holiness in Today’s World. It has been given the Latin incipit of Gaudete et exsultate. As much as any of Francis’s major documents, it is a snapshot of his pontificate. On one hand, there is valuable content in the exhortation, especially when Francis talks about the value of the Rosary or the spiritual combat Christians must do with the forces of evil. Likewise, Francis returns to some of his favorite themes, including a clear-eyed diagnosis of the sickness of late liberalism. On the other hand, Francis returns to some of his favorite themes. Francis discusses in a lengthy passage what he calls neo-Gnosticism and neo-Pelagianism despite the fact that his doctrinal chief, Archbishop Luis Ladaria, just issued a letter, Placuit Deo, on this topic. It is clear that Francis means, broadly, people who care too much about doctrine and people who care too much about rules. Moreover, Francis finds time to bring Cardinal Dearden’s Seamless Garment out of cold storage and complain about online feuds. These critiques, while vague, seem to be pointed to the conservative (or traditionalist) wing of the Church.

Whether Francis means to criticize all the conservatives in the Church is not exactly clear. For example, Gaudete et exsultate follows a Holy Week celebrated in many places according to the pre-1955 use of the Roman Rite by an indult of the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei. Nevertheless, it can reasonably be anticipated that Francis’s critiques will be taken up by his supporters in the media to do exactly that. And given Francis’s fondness for letting others implement vague statements, one cannot dismiss out of hand the idea that this is something he wants to see. Whether it is or not, Gaudete et exsultate falls victim to the the narrative that has consumed this pontificate. Liberal pope and his liberal supporters set against conservative prelates and their conservative supporters, with the battle playing out on Twitter and Facebook. The takes and counter-takes and tweets all write themselves at this point. Despite calling for openness to newness, the narrative of Francis’s pontificate is, sadly, anything but new.

I.

To those who follow Francis closely, there is very little new in Gaudete et exsultate. For good or for ill, Francis has a core of ideas that he returns to pretty regularly. One will find most or all of them in Gaudete et exsultate. In a sense, Francis’s pontificate points toward a document like this. He has spoken for years about accompaniment and discernment and personal growth in holiness. Even the most controversial passages of Amoris laetitia are couched in this language. Nothing could be more natural, then, to see Francis broaden his scope. And he does precisely that, writing at times quite incisively about what Christian life in 2018 demands. More than that, he has a set of rhetorical strategies that he uses whenever he can. It is hard to read Francis’s exegesis on the Beatitudes (¶¶ 63–94) without thinking of his exegesis on First Corinthians 13:4–7 in Amoris laetitia (ch. 4). Consequently, there is much to admire in Gaudete et exsultate.

Consider some examples. Francis also offers a healthy dose of the practical, almost earthy, pastoral advice that is his second-best mode. (More on his best mode in a minute.) A striking passage comes when he follows a woman through her day, pointing out definite steps she can take to advance in holiness. He also speaks frankly about evil, warning us that “we should not think of the devil as a myth, a representation, a symbol, a figure of speech or an idea. This mistake would lead us to let down our guard, to grow careless and end up more vulnerable.” (Gaudete et exsultate ¶ 161.) He concludes the exhortation with a stirring passage about Our Lady: “She does not let us remain fallen and at times she takes us into her arms without judging us. Our converse with her consoles, frees and sanctifies us. Mary our Mother does not need a flood of words. She does not need us to tell her what is happening in our lives. All we need do is whisper, time and time again: ‘Hail Mary….'” (Ibid. ¶ 176.)

Francis also reaches into what we consider his best mode: critique of the sickness in modern society. His ecological encyclical, Laudato si’, setting to one side the specific policy considerations that have since come to characterize the encyclical, is a brilliant dissection of the fundamental disorders of liberalism. Francis returns to the theme throughout Gaudete et exsultate. Francis clearly identifies the symptoms of the disease when he says, “The presence of constantly new gadgets, the excitement of travel and an endless array of consumer goods at times leave no room for God’s voice to be heard. We are overwhelmed by words, by superficial pleasures and by an increasing din, filled not by joy but rather by the discontent of those whose lives have lost meaning. How can we fail to realize the need to stop this rat race and to recover the personal space needed to carry on a heartfelt dialogue with God? Finding that space may prove painful but it is always fruitful.” (Gaudete et exsultate ¶ 29.) And he identifies the bacillus at the root of the disease: “Saint John Paul II noted that ‘a society is alienated if its forms of social organization, production and consumption make it more difficult to offer this gift of self and to establish this solidarity between people’. In such a society, politics, mass communications and economic, cultural and even religious institutions become so entangled as to become an obstacle to authentic human and social development.” (Ibid. ¶ 91.)

When Francis is at his best—and he is at his best when he plays the country pastor offering blunt advice to his flock and when he criticizes the incoherence and unsustainable nature of life under neoliberalism—there is every reason to be happy that Francis returns to his favorite themes, well worn though they may be. After five years one knows generally what to expect from Francis. Just as promised, Evangelii gaudium has proved to be a broadly programmatic document. Moreover, Francis’s regular homilies and addresses have indicated the themes that are close to his heart. And Francis has stayed true to form. After five years of this, we can say that when Francis issues a major document it is going to include a set of ideas and a set of rhetorical strategies for communicating those ideas.

II.

But there is a flip side to Francis’s reliance on a handful of ideas. Much attention will no doubt be devoted to Francis’s extended explanation of neo-Gnosticism and neo-Pelagianism. This is one of Francis’s favorite topics, too. He returns to these ideas over and over, and he clearly thinks that he has the range of his opponents in the Church with them. Now, one would have thought the matter closed with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s interesting and, by and large, excellent Letter Placuit Deo. However, Francis explains them and in further detail. And it is when considering these ideas that one sees that Francis’s pontificate is now locked, more or less, in a pattern. Francis makes some vague statements that are obviously but not explicitly aimed at his critics; Francis’s friends in the media sharpen the statements and hurl them at those deemed to be insufficiently supportive of the Pope’s agenda; and the Pope’s critics in the media respond in kind.

It is now clear that when Francis talks about neo-Gnosticism, he does not mean “a model of salvation that is merely interior, closed off in its own subjectivism.” (Placuit Deo ¶ 3.) He means, broadly, people who care too much about doctrine making sense. (Cf. Gaudete et exsultate ¶¶ 37, 43–46.) Likewise, in Placuit Deo, Archbishop Ladaria explained the neo-Pelagian tendency to believe that “salvation depends on the strength of the individual or on purely human structures, which are incapable of welcoming the newness of the Spirit of God.” (Placuit Deo ¶ 3.) Francis now clarifies: neo-Pelagians suffer from “an obsession with the law, an absorption with social and political advantages, a punctilious concern for the Church’s liturgy, doctrine and prestige, a vanity about the ability to manage practical matters, and an excessive concern with programmes of self-help and personal fulfilment.” (Gaudete et exsultate ¶ 57.)

One is tempted to ask, perhaps a little too cheekily, “Oh, and which doctrines ought we to be less punctilious about, Your Holiness?” Ought we to stop insisting on the accompaniment described in Amoris laetitia? Do we care too much about the decentralization apparently required by Sacrosanctum Concilium and implemented anew by Magnum principium? Confronted with yet another expression of Francis’s mild antinomianism and apparent prejudice against clear doctrine, one is reminded of Cardinal Newman’s Letter to the Duke of Norfolk: “did the Pope speak against Conscience in the true sense of the word, he would commit a suicidal act. He would be cutting the ground from under his feet. His very mission is to proclaim the moral law, and to protect and strengthen that ‘Light which enlighteneth every man that cometh into the world.'” One is tempted to take it a step farther and apply Newman’s dictum to doctrine. Put another way: when an authority figure tells you (and tells you and tells you) to stop caring so much about rules, eventually you will take him at his word. This ought to concern the authority figure the most, as one day he might like to command this or that on the basis of his authority only to find that it’s gone.

Francis might not be hugely upset by this, either. His emphasis on decentralization and synodality have, likewise, the effect of diminishing the authority of the Roman Pontiff. However, they also have the effect of guaranteeing that his reforms, presuming that the next pope does not take radical action, will endure in some parts of the world. It is clear that, while not every bishop and episcopal conference is on board with Francis’s agenda, at least some are. Perhaps a great many. Reducing any pope’s authority makes it more likely that these bishops and episcopal conferences will be left alone to deepen and develop these ideas. Francis’s supporters talk at length of his goal of irreversible reforms to the Church, and one way of achieving these reforms might simply be to leave future popes’ authority in a precarious state.

All of this is a particularly neuralgic spot for Catholics left out in the cold by Francis. It is, in fact, hard to imagine that traditionally minded Catholics will not see this as yet another direct attack by Francis on traditionally minded Catholics. The situation is more complicated than that, of course. This year, the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei issued an indult permitting celebration of the Holy Week rites according to the books before Pius XII’s 1955 revisions. The indult, given to traditionalist orders like the Fraternity of St. Peter (FSSP) and the Institute of Christ the King (ICRSS), appears to have been given fairly liberal application. We are aware of several pre-1955 Holy Week celebrations personally and have heard of many more. One imagines that such a major decision would have involved the Pope at some stage. Moreover, it is hard to argue that the Society of St. Pius X has not gotten a better deal from Francis than it ever did from Benedict XVI or John Paul II. Francis has conceded priests of the Society the jurisdiction to hear confessions and witness marriages without receiving significant concessions in exchange from the Society. In other words, it is hard to be too gloomy about the state of tradition under Francis, since, whatever he may say, his actions are generally favorable toward tradition in a way his predecessors’ weren’t. Can one imagine John Paul or Benedict authorizing the use of the pre-1955 books for Holy Week? Can one imagine John Paul or Benedict opting for a unilateral resolution of some of the most vexing aspects of the SSPX situation?

On the other hand, once again, Francis sharply criticizes individuals who have historically been considered orthodox Catholics. What other way is there to describe someone concerned with the Church’s doctrine or liturgy? There probably are elements of the Church that meet these descriptions in precisely the way Francis imagines. There are certainly elements in the American Church that meet Francis’s description, in fact. However, the descriptions are so vague that anyone can see anything they want in them. And it is already clear that progressives and modernists in the Church see a description of orthodox Catholics seeking to do nothing more than hold firm to the apostolic faith instead of Catholics who come awfully close to a bourgeois evangelical mode. (Though the progressives and modernists are happy to criticize the bourgeois evangelicals, too.) After five years and endless debates over Francis’s vague language, one might be excused for thinking that the vagueness is intentional. And given that there are no corrections or clarifications from Francis or the Press Office when Francis’s media partisans hurl these critiques at traditionally minded Catholics, one might also be excused for thinking that this process, by now a feature of life in Francis’s Church, is precisely what Francis wants. We know already that sometimes Francis prefers others to take his vague words and add a little form to them. (Cf. Apostolic Letter Recibí el escrito.) Already we see, for example, Jesuit Antonio Spadaro, editor of Civiltà Cattolica and a close collaborator of the Pope, alleging that Francis is taking on Robert Cardinal Sarah, “the most authoritative representative of a vision of the Catholic Church alternative to the one advocated by Pope Francis.,” with passages in Gaudete et exsultate.

Likewise, one suspects that Francis knows how his words will be interpreted when he says things like, “[w]e often hear it said that, with respect to relativism and the flaws of our present world, the situation of migrants, for example, is a lesser issue. Some Catholics consider it a secondary issue compared to the ‘grave’ bioethical questions. That a politician looking for votes might say such a thing is understandable, but not a Christian, for whom the only proper attitude is to stand in the shoes of those brothers and sisters of ours who risk their lives to offer a future to their children.” (Gaudete et exsultate ¶ 102.) Compared to St. John Paul’s clear rejection of allegations of obsession with abortion in Crossing the Threshold of Hope and then-Cardinal Ratzinger’s statement in his letter to Cardinal McCarrick that “[n]ot all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia,” Francis’s intent here is crystal clear. He clearly means to revive the slightly moth-eaten Seamless Garment rhetoric of the 1970s and 1980s. This is no doubt red meat for Francis’s progressive base, which has clearly chafed at the political exigencies imposed by John Paul and Benedict’s stance on the centrality of abortion as a moral issue, and Catholics who hold to John Paul and Benedict’s understanding of the problem can expect to have Francis’s words thrown in their faces.

At this point, we must recognize that it is not as though Francis is unaware of the toxic discourse, especially online, surrounding his pontificate. He condemns “networks of verbal violence.” (Gaudete et exsultate ¶ 115.) But he goes on to say “[i]t is striking that at times, in claiming to uphold the other commandments, they completely ignore the eighth, which forbids bearing false witness or lying, and ruthlessly vilify others.” (Ibid.) Once again, it is hard to see this pointed critique aimed at the toxic progressives who use the Pope’s words as a cudgel to beat mercilessly anyone who expresses any reservations about the Pope’s agenda. One does not suspect for a moment that Francis includes his close collaborators at Civiltà Cattolica or America or The Tablet or any of the other favored outlets when he talks about “networks of verbal violence.” But these collaborators are themselves part of the unhealthy ecosystem that Francis decries. Indeed, when reading Fr. Spadaro’s gratuitous invective at Cardinal Sarah, one is reminded of nothing more than not only paragraph 115 but also paragraph 94. Yet one does not see Francis turning on Fr. Spadaro—or those like him—with the same incisive wit and blunt advice that he applies to traditionally minded Catholics. It is clear, therefore, that Francis intends to respond to his critics (and only his critics) when he discourses on this handful of topics—and to respond sharply.

Of course, one might, in response, point to Francis’s own statement that, “[f]ar from being timid, morose, acerbic or melancholy, or putting on a dreary face, the saints are joyful and full of good humour.” (Gaudete et exsultate ¶ 122.) “Ill humour,” Francis tells us, “is no sign of holiness.” (Ibid. ¶ 126.) But such rhetorical cleverness is unlikely to have an effect on either Francis or the discourse about Francis’s pontificate, which has fallen into a largely fixed—certainly predetermined—narrative. Francis is the good, liberal pope who will restore the Church to the course that it was on in August of 1978. He is resisted by a handful of squeaky-wheel traditionalists who are, depending on who you ask, too fond of fancy vestments and Latin, too worried about rules, too opposed to the Spirit of the Council, or all of the above. The Pope’s progressive defenders take it upon themselves to dunk viciously on those they identify as squeaky-wheel traditionalists and the Pope’s conservative critics take it upon themselves to dunk viciously on the Pope’s progressive defenders. The Twitter beeves practically write themselves at this point.

This state of affairs is depressing not least because Francis warns us, “Complacency is seductive; it tells us that there is no point in trying to change things, that there is nothing we can do, because this is the way things have always been and yet we always manage to survive. By force of habit we no longer stand up to evil. We “let things be”, or as others have decided they ought to be.” (Gaudete et exsultate ¶ 137.) Yet the Pope who says this seems to be uninterested in shaking up the narrative of his pontificate. The Pope who preaches a God of surprises and the newness that Jesus Christ brings to the world seems to be stuck in a narrative that is beyond his control.

Edit 4/10/18: We added a hyperlink to Sandro Magister’s coverage of Antonio Spadaro’s presentation of Gaudete et exsultate to clarify the nature of his apparent allegation that Francis responds to Cardinal Sarah in the exhortation.

 

A question about Holy Saturday

Historically, Easter had a first vespers, which was said after communion at the vigil Mass on Holy Saturday morning. If you have an old breviary lying around—who doesn’t?—you can find it. It consists of the antiphon Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia and Psalm 116, the antiphon Vespere autem sabbati and the Magnificat, and the postcommunion prayer Spiritum nobis. Following the prayer, the vigil Mass is then concluded with Ite, missa est, alleluia, alleluia. Gregory DiPippo explains that this form of the first vespers of Easter is likely of great antiquity. While the vigil Mass was said in the morning, it was still possible to have an evening service: one could anticipate matins and lauds of Easter. In other words, one was not necessarily done for the day after the vigil Mass.

All of this changed in 1955, however. Indeed, the changes of 1955 are most striking when considering Holy Saturday and the vigil of Easter. First, as everyone knows, the vigil of Easter was turned into an evening service. Evelyn Waugh had some pungent complaints about this, noting, quite reasonably, that the evening service is not really compatible with the orientation toward the dawn of Easter. (Even when many of the 1955 changes were dropped in the Novus Ordo, the Easter vigil remained an evening service, as you no doubt know.) For those who take part in the service, the vigil Mass takes the place of matins of Easter. (Bafflingly, some apparently believed that the prophecies in the vigil Mass were a kind of matins.) A truncated lauds along the lines of the old first vespers of Easter is inserted at the end of the Mass. A new vespers of Holy Saturday, along the lines of the vespers of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, was created, and the compline of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday carried over. As DiPippo notes, this has some strange results. For one thing, it means Easter no longer has a first vespers. It also means that Holy Saturday’s vespers are not the first vespers of the following Sunday. For those in attendance at the vigil, it means that Easter does not have matins or a Te Deum, either.

However, one other curious result of the post-1955 rites stuck out to us: as far as we can tell, the only mandatory vespers of the Triduum under the post-1955 rites is vespers of Holy Saturday. Vespers of Maundy Thursday are not said by those who are present at the evening Mass, which would, we suspect, cover many bound to the recitation of the office. Likewise, vespers of Good Friday are not said by those who are present at the solemn postmeridian liturgical action (what used to be called the Mass of the Presanctified); again, most bound to the recitation of the office will be at the postmeridian action. However, there is no such rubric for Holy Saturday. In other words, the only truly obligatory vespers of the Triduum in the post-1955 rite is, as far as we can tell, vespers of Holy Saturday—the whole-cloth addition. At least so it seems by our reckoning. And while we can find our way around the breviary, we wonder if this can really be right—even if we suspect it is. If we’re wrong, feel free to shoot us a note and explain where we came off the tracks.

Recordings of Harvard conference now available

Back on March 2 and 3, the Thomistic Institute held a conference at Harvard University on “Christianity and Liberalism.” We were unable to attend, though we know quite a few people who did. However, as you may remember, March 2 and 3 were bad days to be in Boston with a windstorm battering the northeast. Thus even people who planned to attend met with great difficulty in getting to Boston. Recordings of the conference are now, we are told, available on the Thomistic Institute’s Soundcloud page. (The page is a goldmine for anyone with an interest in Catholic thought, with many interesting lectures recorded and freely available.) One may now catch up on what we are reliably told was one of the most exciting events in a long time.

Benedict’s letter finally revealed

At long last, the question of Benedict XVI’s letter to Msgr. Dario Viganò, prefect of the Secretariat for Communications, on the occasion of the presentation of a series of short books about Pope Francis’s theology, has been answered. Benedict declined to write a brief note introducing the series and criticized sharply the inclusion of German theologian Peter Hünermann, a strident liberal critic of John Paul II and Benedict himself. This follows a misleading presentation of Benedict’s letter by Monsignor Viganò at the presentation of the books, and a series of leaks purporting to show a very different letter. Obviously, Viganò wanted to quote part of the letter, in which the Pope Emeritus identifies an interior continuity between himself and Francis, no doubt in an attempt to silence conservative critics of the Pope. However, by omitting the passage critical of Hünermann’s inclusion in a city known for its leaks, Viganò made this conclusion inevitable.

The affair has been a slow-rolling debacle. First, the text released by the Secretariat for Communications after Monsignor Viganò quoted a bit of it, discussing the inner continuity between Benedict and Francis. This was, without a doubt, music to the ears of Francis’s partisans like social-media guru Massimo Faggioli and Francis’s biographer Austen Ivereigh. At last, they crowed, Benedict himself put paid to the idea that Francis’s pontificate represents a serious departure from his own. Then it turned out that the Secretariat for Communications had altered the letter in various ways and had to admit doing so, earning a pungent rebuke from the Associated Press. A second text emerged, with Benedict apparently (frankly) admitting that he had not read and likely would not read the books. Now, a third text has emerged presenting a very different letter: Benedict sharply criticized the inclusion of Prof. Peter Hünermann, a German theologian who, in Benedict’s assessment, “virulently attacked” papal teaching on moral theology during his pontificate. Benedict cites Hünermann’s opposition to Veritatis splendor in particular. This text appears to be the correct text and has been released by the Vatican.

One could discourse at length about the incompetence displayed in this affair, which only confirms the sense that Francis’s Secretariat for Communications, which has swallowed up the Holy See Press Office, is the worst public-relations office on earth. They completely bungled the Barros affair to the point where Francis’s personal credibility on one of the gravest matters in the Church was compromised seriously. (Remember all those bishops in the United States who had to resign in disgrace when their personal credibility on this issue was compromised?) And now we have had a disaster in slow motion involving nothing less than a letter from Benedict XVI. Now, it is obvious why the letter was selectively quoted in the first place—Viganò wanted to get that bit about interior continuity into the media. No doubt he wanted liberal journalists like Faggioli, Ivereigh, and the rest of that set to run with it. He wanted to quote Benedict to own the trads, as one might say on Twitter.

However, nothing about this pontificate has stayed secret. Almost every significant move has been leaked, analyzed, and responded to well in advance of the official publication date. The leaks range from the text of Laudato si’ to a press office summary of Amoris laetitia to the dismissal of Cardinals Burke and Müller to the coup against the Sovereign Military Order of Malta. It would require a supererogatory act of charity to think that, in such an environment, a letter marked confidential from the Pope Emeritus would be treated as such—especially after one of Francis’s officials selectively quoted from the letter.

The whole affair is deeply embarrassing at every level. First, Benedict is not wrong when he criticizes the inclusion of Peter Hünermann in a series of books with official approval. Hünermann may well be influential with Francis, but this does not change the fact that he was deeply critical of John Paul II and Benedict and has tried to resist the directions of those pontificates. Second, Viganò got out over his skis when he tried to drag Benedict into the ongoing controversy over Francis’s pontificate. Viganò, despite his role as communications chief at the Vatican, is not really a participant in the polemics in the same that, for example, Donald Trump’s press secretary, Sarah Sanders, is. (Poor Greg Burke!) Finally, everyone had to know, under these circumstances, that the actual letter would leak sooner or later. Once again, one is left scratching one’s head. How could this have happened?

But one thing is certain: this not how Francis’s closest collaborators wanted to end his anniversary week.

Five Years

On March 13, 2013, Francis walked out and greeted the people in St. Peter’s Square. Five years later, in many ways, it feels like that was the high point of his pontificate. Of course, that is far from true. One could identify other highlights of Francis’s reign, such as the release of Laudato si’ or the diplomatic work he did between the United States and Cuba. One could point to the Jubilee of Mercy or the improved relations with the Society of St. Pius X, too. Any pontificate is going to have its share of high points and its share of low points. And Francis’s reign has had its share of low points, to be sure. The ongoing doctrinal debate over Amoris laetitia, the high-visibility conflicts Francis has had with high prelates in the Church, and the serious struggles Francis has had enforcing accountability on the Church are not good by any stretch of the imagination.

One can also talk about the promise of reform of the Roman Curia, which was a major reason behind Francis’s election five years ago. There was a sense—largely correct—that a pope was needed who could take the Curial bull by the horns and introduce some much needed reforms. Five years in, we have implemented and suppressed financial reforms, we have created commissions and dicasteries, we have consolidated other dicasteries, and we have reconstituted various commissions along lines more congenial to Francis. However, there is broadly a sense that this has not amounted to much. There are worrying rumors that the sticky-fingered old regime has managed to return to power. By the same token, there are also statements that those rumors are simply chatter from the Pope’s enemies. Whether that’s true or not, it cannot be denied that there has not been a replacement for Pastor bonus and that the reforms have proceeded in an unusual manner. One has only to discuss the botched PricewaterhouseCoopers audit that was suppressed by command of the Secretariat of State to open up the whole question.

It is exactly the combination of highs and lows we just mentioned that makes it difficult to talk about Francis’s pontificate in any coherent manner. This is most acutely true in the doctrinal arena. We have been thrilled to see Francis bring anti-liberalism—albeit qualified anti-liberalism—back into the Church’s vocabulary. For too long, the narrative practically wrote itself. Once upon a time, the Church was staunchly anti-liberal, then, at the Second Vatican Council, the Church changed its mind and decided that liberalism wasn’t so bad after all. John Paul II—particularly his best known social encyclical, Centesimus annus, along with his commitment to ecumenism and interfaith dialogue—was, in this telling, simply putting the finishing touches on the new liberal face of Catholicism. Sure, there were those who rejected the direction of the Church, such as Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre’s Society of St. Pius X, but they were bad and wrong and probably schismatic.

For a long time, one corrected this narrative as best as one could. For example, John Paul’s notion of liberalism was not shared by some of his loudest American supporters. Even in Centesimus annus—and before that in Sollicitudo rei socialis and Laborem exercens—John Paul expressed reservations about the unbridled market ideology that crept into liberalism somewhere along the line. Moreover, one could argue for what is now called the hermeneutic of continuity. But forensically this was a dead-end street. Francis’s great social encyclical, Laudato si’, came long and changed the game. (Perhaps to avoid mixing our metaphors we should say that it knocked a hole in the wall at the end of the street.) With precision, clarity, and insight, Francis diagnosed the spiritual and anthropological sickness at the heart of modern liberalism and condemned the effects of the disease. Laudato si’ does not quite blot the post-Conciliar narrative, of course, but it at least returns a deeply anti-liberal strain to the Church’s teaching.

Unfortunately, Laudato si’ has not been received by the liberal elements in the Church—left-liberals and right-liberals alike—who most need Francis’s incisive critique of modern liberalism. It proved all too easy for everyone to focus on the ecological stuff, both in admiration and derision, and ignore the real genius of the encyclical. We could cite all manner of snide comments about air conditioning and carbon credits from right-liberals who are, in their own way, bound to the vision of the Church articulated by John Courtney Murray and allegedly implemented by the Second Vatican Council. On the other hand, we could find adulatory reviews of Laudato si’ that make it sound like an annex to the Paris Climate Accord. Both groups miss the point, and their missing the point has made it difficult to have the discussion that Laudato si’ demands. Furthermore, Francis’s priorities quickly shifted from expanding upon Laudato si’ and deepening his analysis there to the Family Synod and Amoris laetitia.

The debate over Amoris laetitia rages still, and in many ways has become the central issue in Francis’s pontificate, for good or for ill. The debate has been covered here and elsewhere at staggering length. The consequences of the debate, however, are clear. There is a sense not only that the doctrine on communion for bigamists has been changed or unsettled in a meaningful way but also that Francis is somehow in favor of doctrinal changes, not only on the questions addressed in the eighth chapter of Amoris laetitia but also on other questions. Here we have in mind the debate currently simmering over Paul VI’s Humanae vitae. More broadly, there is a resurgence of the post-conciliar sense that the doctrine of the Church is somehow up for grabs in a meaningful way.

Indeed, one could say that the most important development of the first five years of Francis’s pontificate is the resurgence of a post-conciliar sensibility in general. That is, the idea that the Second Vatican Council is the most important event in the Church since Pentecost—and, in some ways, the most important event—had diminished significantly under Benedict. That trend has reversed under Francis. Now, here, as everywhere else, one ought to distinguish between Francis and his partisans, especially his partisans in the media. However, it is clear that Francis at least believes that he must emphasize the importance of the Council and the reforms allegedly ordered by the Council. (Recall Magnum principium?) The Spirit of Vatican Two, so doughtily fought by John Paul and Benedict, is, as a consequence, back. We see this, for example, with various liberal prelates, particularly some of Francis’s high-profile appointments in the United States, whose names we need not mention now.

Francis’s appointments, by the way, are part and parcel of the controversy over Amoris laetitia; an important aspect of Amoris laetitia has been a sort of decentralization of teaching authority. The recent approval by Francis of the guidelines of the Buenos Aires bishops shows that this decentralization is in one sense entirely intended by Francis. For whatever reason, Francis did not want to spell out the consequences of some statements in the eighth chapter of Amoris laetitia. Some of his old colleagues in Argentina did, however, and Francis was willing to approve their guidelines as an authentic, magisterial interpretation of his own words. What this means in specific terms is yet unclear. However, in general, the meaning cannot be mistaken: Francis is happy to devolve doctrinal authority to bishops, and he has been happy to appoint bishops to high-profile sees who are very much on board with his agenda. Gone are the days when John Paul and Benedict appointed even theological or ideological opponents to high-profile sees. By the same token, however, the faithful are happy to devolve doctrinal authority to bishops in line with their agenda. Rightly or wrongly, Francis’s authority has been compromised in the minds of many Catholics disturbed by Amoris laetitia. They have turned to other figures, particularly other high prelates in the Church, for guidance and clarification. We could name some and so could you.

There are several ways to look at this development. On one hand, nowhere does one find in Pastor aeternus, Lumen gentium, or Christus Dominus a statement that the pope is the only teacher in the Church. The bishops of the Church—in communion with the pope—have a teaching office to exercise. There is nothing wrong with Francis encouraging bishops to teach and there is nothing wrong with the faithful looking to bishops to be taught. However, the pope, as we know from Pastor aeternus and other teachings, is supposed to ensure the unity of the Church’s teaching and its consistency with tradition; that is, it is probably not the pope’s job to spark a debate but to restrain a debate. Likewise, it is a very serious situation if various bishops throughout the world are seen as more reliably orthodox than the pope. This is not to say such a serious situation could not happen; we know it has happened. Yet it is difficult to respond to the position that holds that Amoris laetitia is at odds with the tradition. Francis manifestly wants a decentralized approach to doctrine, and that necessarily means disagreement, some of it likely sharp.

It is, as we say, difficult to approach Francis’s pontificate consistently and coherently. To tell the story of Laudato si’, especially from the viewpoint of the Church’s traditional teachings against liberalism, is to tell the story of a wildly successful pontificate. A pontificate, indeed, that has reinvigorated the Church’s traditional hostility toward liberalism in many ways. But to tell the story of Amoris laetitia is to tell the story of a pontificate bogged down by confusion and controversy. Lately the controversies have been mounting, too. Francis’s handling of the case of Bishop Juan Barros of Chile has ballooned into a broader controversy about Francis’s commitment to reforming what Benedict XVI memorably called the “filth” in the Church. Francis’s personal credibility took a major hit in the Barros affair when it turned out that, despite his annoyed protestations that he’d never seen any evidence against Barros, none other than Cardinal O’Malley of Boston, one of Francis’s closest advisers who holds a brief for cleaning up the abuse situation, had delivered to Francis a lengthy, extremely detailed letter from one of Barros’s accusers.

While one can debate Francis’s record on abuse—even Robert Mickens criticized Francis severely—one cannot question the fact that the Barros controversy revealed the weakness of Francis’s team. There have been other signs that Francis is not always well served by his subordinates, but the inability of the public relations operation to get in front of the furor, especially after the O’Malley angle became public, was astonishing. The Vatican’s public relations operation is more and more revealed to be a disaster, as the recent debacle over the doctored letter from Benedict XVI shows. However, Francis has made it clear that he is not the prisoner of the Vatican, instead claiming personal responsibility for acts by his collaborators in the Curia. As Damian Thompson has noted, after five years, Francis finds himself where Benedict found himself: struggling to maintain control over the bureaucracy and the message of his pontificate.

It remains to be seen, however, what long term effects these events will have. One cannot write the story of Francis’s pontificate quite yet. However, five years in, it would be curious indeed to see the highs and lows resolve themselves into the same paralysis that afflicted Benedict’s pontificate in its last years. Perhaps “curious” isn’t the right word, as such an outcome would answer many questions and give the next pope the clearest agenda in a long time.