There is something going on at First Things. Yes, Rusty Reno and Mark Bauerlein jumped on the Trump bandwagon, but we’re not talking about that. There are a lot of very sharp, young Catholics writing for First Things, expressing something other than the neocon, neo-Cath fusionism of Fr. Neuhaus’s circle. Among the bright lights of the magazine is literary editor Matthew Schmitz, who has written today “How I Changed My Mind About Pope Francis.” An excerpt:
I was not then, and never will be, against Francis. In June of that year, I celebrated the publication of Laudato Si’: “Francis’ encyclical synthesizes the great cultural critiques of his two most recent predecessors.” I was glad to see Francis smashing the false idols we have made of progress and the market.
Then Amoris Laetitia came out. In it, Francis sought to muddy the Church’s clear teaching that the divorced and remarried must live as brother and sister. “I have felt the Church’s teaching on marriage land like a blow, yet I take no encouragement from this shift,” I wrote. It was clear by then that my initial rosy assessments were wrong. Francis meant to lead the Church in a direction that I could not approve or abide. He believes that “the great majority of our sacramental marriages are null.” This renders him unable to resist the lie that says a man may abandon one wife and take up another. Instead, he reassures us that we can blithely go from one partner to the other without also abandoning Christ. This is the throwaway culture baptized and blessed, given a Christian name and a whiff of incense.
My admiration for Laudato Si’ has only grown with time, but I fear the import of that document is bound to be obscured by Amoris Laetitia. A pope who speaks with singular eloquence of our need to resist the technocratic logic of the “throwaway culture” seems bent on leading his Church to surrender to it. What is more typical of the throwaway culture than the easy accommodation of divorce and remarriage?
(Emphasis supplied and hyperlinks in original.) Schmitz’s reflection, moving as it is for his frank admission that he got it wrong and tried too long to explain what, in retrospect, was clear, is all the more moving because it points to the unrealized promise of this pontificate. Laudato si’ is a brilliant dissection of the sickness at the heart of modernity. The environmental stuff is ballast. That is not to say that the pope does not have the authority to pronounce on such matters—he certainly does—merely that it is less compelling than his diagnosis of the disease that has atomized society, disconnecting man from himself, his neighbor, his world, and, most destructively, his God. Yet the Holy Father does not seem all that interested in revisiting these issues.
Consider also the opportunity missed on the subject of integral human development. While Cardinal Müller has a reputation as a rock-ribbed doctrinal enforcer, if largely ignored these days, he has done a lot of important work on liberation theology, especially in correcting some of the errors condemned by the Church. And, of course, Francis’s time as Jesuit provincial in Argentina was marred by his conflict with his brethren who were very enthusiastic about liberation theology. Thus, the Holy Father and his doctrinal chief have extensive experience dealing with theology aimed at development and liberation, while being clear eyed about the errors that crept into liberation theology. Imagine, then, the work they could do in articulating an authentic, orthodox vision in the vein of Pacem in terris, Populorum progressio, and Caritas in veritate. However, instead of an encyclical building upon not only Laudato si’ but also the previous social magisterium, we are dealing with Amoris laetitia and the pressing question of how the Pope can admit bigamists to communion without formally admitting bigamists to communion. One cannot escape the sense that time and energy are being wasted.
But the problem confronting many Catholics is more serious than merely wasted potential. Wasted potential in and of itself would not be a huge problem. After years of a pope’s reign, it is easy to look back and see missed opportunities and mistakes. No, the situation is more serious. Schmitz goes on to observe:
I was inspired this week to revisit my past writings by Austen Ivereigh’s recent interview of Antonio Spadaro, one of the pope’s close advisers. Ivereigh notes that it’s “striking how many of AL’s critics are lay intellectuals, rather than pastors,” and suggests there is “a basic division in the reactions to AL between, as it were, the pastors and legalists.” Spadaro seems to agree. Am I, as a lay critic of Amoris, guilty of an unpastoral legalism? Probably so, if it is legalistic to wish that Francis’s defenders were as ready to offer doctrinal clarifications as they are to hand out psychological diagnoses.
But I also wonder at the assumption in Ivereigh’s question. If fewer pastors than laypeople have criticized the document, is that because the pastors approve of it? Or is it because they fear the damage that would be done to the Church by a public division? If the latter is the case, I wonder what Francis would have to do or say before more bishops begin to speak out. Is it unobjectionable for a pope to contradict his predecessors, the faith, and Christ himself, so long as he doesn’t explicitly say that’s what he’s doing?
(Emphasis supplied and hyperlink in original.) This is, we think, a question that many Catholics are now asking themselves. And, at this point, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the Holy Father means to contradict Familiaris consortio and Veritatis splendor. His supporters—especially men like Ivereigh and Fr. Spadaro who have a lot of their professional prestige wrapped up in the “Francis revolution”—will talk about what St. John Paul really taught and how he really would have agreed with Amoris laetitia. But this is window dressing: they know as well as the next person that if St. John Paul had meant to endorse communion for bigamists living more uxorio he would have done so.
In a certain sense, it seems to us, the so-called Francis revolution is deeply reactionary. The Holy Father and his supporters apparently want to roll the clock back to 1975 or so, when all things indeed seemed possible in the wake of the Council. The careful theology of St. John Paul and Benedict XVI, intended largely to continue the work of the Council in applying the magisterium to modern problems (to say nothing of correcting the erroneous perceptions of the Council), has been jettisoned for the most part. And rightly so for the men and women who saw the Council as an opportunity to make the Church in the world’s image. The bitterness of their disappointment on that October night in 1978 has only recently become manifest. They saw, it now seems, the period from late 1978 to early 2013 as a deviation from the course marked out by the Council.
But this is an anxiety that only men and women alive in 1975 or so can share. To those who grew up as spiritual children or grandchildren of St. John Paul and Benedict, these concerns are not only dated but also wrong. Those of us who remember John Paul and Benedict remember that, whatever else they did and whatever their flaws were, they treated us like adults who were prepared to take up our crosses and follow Christ as Christians in the modern age. That is not the message we see uniformly from Santa Marta these days, which is often as not deep pessimism about our ability to do what Christ tells us He will help us do. Schmitz concludes:
Francis says his critics desire rigidity. Once I disregarded the polemical edge of that word, I came to see that he is right. In a world that has been massively deregulated, both morally and economically, people are bound to desire the security of structure. Is seeking this structure a form of “rigidity” to be mocked and denigrated, or an honest human need worthy of consideration by any pastor? Francis wants the Church rebuilt to suit the freewheeling ways of the baby boomers. It’s no accident that their children don’t like the changes.
(Emphasis supplied.) The only younger Catholics excited by what they see are those young Catholics with a primarily political agenda. (This includes clerical careerists, would-be spinmeisters, and political operatives sent into the Church by secular politicians.) But it is unclear, from our limited experience, that serious young Catholics are all that committed to this revolution, not least because, as Schmitz rightly observes, they have long paid the price for the free-to-be-you-and-me world dreamed of by the men and women of 1975.
Read the whole thing at First Things. It’s very good.