Some thoughts on Francis and the conservatives

Ross Douthat has made waves with a lengthy interview with Raymond Cardinal Burke, who has become a sort of figurehead for the conservative reaction to Francis, and an essay about the future of conservative Catholicism under and after Francis. One point jumps out at me, which is sort of tangentially related to the matter at hand. That is, the extent to which conservative Catholics, at least in Douthat’s estimation, view John Paul II’s pontificate as the stable state of post-Conciliar Catholicism. However, this is, in my view, wrong. For almost all of the hot-button issues of Francis’s pontificate, one sees that he is simply heightening contradictions left by John Paul II. Consequently, the crisis for conservative Catholicism is, fundamentally, a crisis of inattention.

Douthat makes the point like this:

Four years ago I wrote an essay describing the Francis era as a crisis for conservative Catholicism — or at least the conservative Catholicism that believed John Paul II had permanently settled debates over celibacy, divorce, intercommunion and female ordination. That crisis is worse now, manifest in furious arguments within the Catholic right as much as in online opposition to the pope himself. And I don’t think we’re any closer to a definite answer to what happens to conservative Catholicism when it no longer seems to have the papacy on its side.

This narrative seems pretty common to me. Expanded, it goes like this: everything was basically fine until the Council. After the Council, the liberals started causing problems and Paul VI was too paralyzed with horror to do much about the problems. Then John Paul II was elected and he “permanently settled debates over celibacy, divorce, intercommunion and female ordination.” Then Benedict XVI was elected and he developed John Paul’s settlement by opening the door to more traditional liturgical practices. Then Francis came and blew it all up.

This narrative is, I believe, wrong in some pretty important dimensions. First of all, there had been signs of strain in the pre-Conciliar Church, beginning with the modernist crisis addressed by Pius X in Lamentabili and Pascendi. Pius attempted to suppress modernism with things like the Anti-Modernist Oath, but I think we can say that he was ultimately unsuccessful. Benedict XV and Pius XI had pressing social and moral issues to address. However, the doctrinal issues that began to shake the Church under Pius X never really disappeared, leading to Pius XII’s encyclical Humani generis in 1950. The Council took place in the wake of Humani generis, and, indeed, there were fierce debates in the preparatory phases of the Council about the deference owed to Humani generis in particular. Seen in this light, one can say that the post-Conciliar storm that rocked the Church was a continuation (and perhaps an intensification) of a storm that had been rocking the Church for over sixty years by that point. To put it another way: the Council and the aftermath of the Council were the midpoint of the story, not the beginning.

One of the unquestionably good things that is happening, as I have written about on many occasions, is that Catholics are delving deeper and deeper into the traditional teaching of the Church on social and political issues. From this perspective, one begins to see that the 20th-century crises in the Church are merely the continuation of the 18th- and 19th-century crises in the Church. The anti-liberal teachings of Gregory XVI, Pius IX, and Leo XIII did not happen in a vacuum. There are theological differences between liberalism and modernism in the strict senses of both terms, but there is, if one compares Pius IX’s Quanta cura and Syllabus errorum with Pius X’s Pascendi and Lamentabili, a common spirit to the two. And to a certain extent, the crisis in the Church for the past 200 years or more has been a crisis of liberalism, both in theological and social terms. The notion that the Second Vatican Council was the beginning of the period of turmoil is simply false. What can be said is that modern modes of communication have made it easier for people to recognize what is going on, though without much historical context.

But there is a more serious problem for the sort of conservative Catholicism identified by Douthat in his essays. It is the notion of John Paul II as the ideal exemplar for conservative Catholicism in the modern age. In liturgical terms, this is simply not the case; neither Benedict XVI nor Francis have followed John Paul’s lead. Indeed, whether it is Benedict’s unapologetic traditionalism or Francis’s sobriety (which, to my mind, hearkens back to Paul VI after the adoption of the new Mass), neither of the post-2005 popes have come within a country mile of John Paul’s flamboyant liturgical style. But the issue is more significant than mere liturgical style. One could argue that Francis merely heightens the contradictions in the magisterium since 1962. To be more precise: Francis heightens the contradictions in John Paul II’s magisterium.

Now, let me say at the outset that one needn’t accept necessarily the claim that John Paul or Francis deviates (or deviated) from the apostolic faith on any of these issues. One can follow the canonist Bouix’s discussion of the question of the pope heretic to see the various positions taken by learned and eminent doctors. One needs only to accept that certain actions by Francis have been criticized by what Douthat calls conservative Catholics as breaking from the consensus John Paul II established. What conclusions are to be drawn if it is shown that Francis is actually closer to John Paul than previously suggested, I leave to the reader.

Let’s consider three burning issues of Francis’s pontificate: the Amoris laetitia debate, the 2018 decision to amend the Catechism to declare the death penalty inadmissible, and Francis’s interfaith enthusiasm. These may, in fact, be the primary points of contention with respect to Francis’s pontificate. Other issues are controversial, such as Francis’s social teaching in Laudato si’, but Francis’s critics are simply wrong. Francis is more or less completely in line with his predecessors and his frank suspicion of modernity is, in fact, closer to the teaching of Pius IX and Leo XIII than some of John Paul and Benedict’s social encyclicals. As I’ve said on several occasions (though maybe not here): putting Romano Guardini and Martin Heidegger in a retort and mixing them up does not precipitate out a conventional European liberal. It does no good to call Francis a “globalist” or whatever, either, when his two immediate predecessors have also been globalists in almost exactly the same way. So, the three burning issues I identify are, I think, the live controversies in Francis’s pontificate. 

On the question of divorced-and-remarried Catholics, it seems fairly clear that Francis is heightening a contradiction left in John Paul’s magisterium. Familiaris consortio, pointed to as the touchstone of perennial Catholic teaching with respect to the divorced and remarried, says, more or less, that the they can live together “as brother and sister.” One could read Amoris laetitia as providing some guidance for what the Church’s response is when what would happen does happen. (Douthat closes by quoting T.S. Eliot; there is another Eliot line applicable to the debate over divorce and remarriage: “What you get married for if you don’t want children?”) One could also point to John Paul’s 1996 letter to Cardinal Baum, then the major penitentiary, in which he observes, “it is indeed possible that, despite the sincere intention of sinning no more, past experience and the awareness of human weakness makes one afraid of falling again; but this does not compromise the authenticity of the intention, when that fear is joined to the will, supported by prayer, of doing what is possible to avoid sin.” In other words, Amoris laetitia simply pulls together the strands of John Paul’s teaching and makes manifest what was merely implicit.

One could make two other points. First, Veritatis splendor says that concrete circumstances cannot make evil actions good, but they can make evil actions less evil (no. 77). John Paul made this point at some length earlier in his pontificate, in Reconciliatio et paenitentia (no. 17), when he wrote, “Clearly there can occur situations which are very complex and obscure from a psychological viewpoint and which have an influence on the sinner’s subjective culpability.” This is more or less Rocco Buttiglione’s argument in favor of consistency between Amoris laetitia and Veritatis splendor. Second, there is a sense in which Amoris laetitia‘s practice, if taken literally, represents a significant assault on laxity about communion for the divorced and remarried. The decision about whether one should approach communion is, in many cases, not taken after careful discernment with one’s pastor. We all have stories and it would be unedifying to repeat them. However, requiring people to at least have a chat with Father before trooping up for communion would be an improvement over the practice in many American parishes, whatever else it would be.

Turning back to the question at hand, Francis’s decision in 2018 to amend the Catechism to declare the death penalty “inadmissible” simply emphasizes John Paul’s turn from the Church’s traditional teaching on the death penalty. In Evangelium vitae, John Paul said “[i]t is clear that, for these purposes to be achieved, the nature and extent of the punishment must be carefully evaluated and decided upon, and ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent.” Cardinal Ladaria’s letter explaining the change to the Catechism bases itself heavily on John Paul’s teaching. Certainly the 2018 amendment is logical if one begins with John Paul’s teaching. The death penalty is admissible only in cases of absolute necessity; there are no cases of absolute necessity today; therefore, the death penalty is not admissible. You can decide for yourself whether John Paul’s premise holds up in the light of the Church’s prior teaching, but it seems clear that Francis’s teaching flows from John Paul’s.

Finally, Francis’s interfaith enthusiasm, notably the controversial Abu Dhabi document but especially the unedifying Pachamama affair during the Amazon Synod, seems to be nothing more or less than a continuation of John Paul’s interfaith enthusiasm. One has only to look back at the history of John Paul’s interfaith efforts, whether it was the 1986 World Day of Prayer for Peace at Assisi or his exuberance with respect to the Koran, to see precedents for Francis’s various statements. And the reactions to John Paul’s actions have been more or less the same. Indeed, the similarity of the events is confirmed by the similarity of the reactions to the events. Consider Archbishop Lefebvre’s December 2, 1986 declaration against the events in Assisi or his August 27, 1986 letter to a handful of cardinals about the same events. There is not a lot of daylight between the rhetoric surrounding the recent Pachamama affair in Rome and Archbishop Lefebvre’s response to Assisi in particular.

Lefebvre’s reaction is particularly important here. Douthat asks a question in the context of Cardinal Burke’s position, namely whether the pope can lead a schism. Cardinal Burke rejects the idea, but Douthat goes on to say:

The pull of such ideas, though, explains why you need only take a step beyond Burke’s position to end up as a kind of de facto sedevacantist, a believer that the pope is not really the pope — or, alternatively, that the church is so corrupted and compromised by modernity that the pope might technically still be pope but his authority doesn’t matter anymore. This is the flavor of a lot of very-online traditionalism, and it’s hard to see how it wouldn’t (eventually) lead many of its adherents to a separation from the larger church, joining the traditionalist quasi-exile pioneered after Vatican II by the Society of Saint Pius X.

One must remember that Archbishop Lefebvre’s position was expressed most forcefully on November 21, 1974, following the visitation of the Ecône seminary by Belgian priests deputed by Paul VI as apostolic visitors. The main assault on the Society of St. Pius X by the Roman authorities took place in the wake of the November 1974 declaration and with the declaration as a pretext for the action. In other words, the most serious phase in the conflict between Archbishop Lefebvre and Rome began only in early 1975. Much of Archbishop Lefebvre’s conflict with the Roman authorities, therefore, took place while John Paul II was pope. Indeed, Archbishop Lefebvre routinely stated that John Paul was expressing the spirit of the Council. Consider, to take one example aside from his criticism of the Assisi spectacle, his comments about the 1983 Code of Canon Law. All of this is to say that Archbishop Lefebvre and the Society of St. Pius X found themselves at odds with John Paul II more or less to the same extent and for the same reasons that they found themselves at odds with Paul VI.

As a special bonus issue, consider the brewing controversy over deaconesses. Francis has promised to reopen his commission examining the question after the Synod mentioned that in the Synod fathers’ consultations, the indigenous people of the Amazon demanded deaconesses. I will set to one side how curious it is that the people of the Amazon happened to demand action on one of the modernists’ obsessions and in precisely the manner that the modernists want. The deaconess controversy is simply a heightening of the contradiction inherent in the teaching that the diaconate is a ministry of humble service, as opposed to part of the sacramental priesthood. This issue began with Lumen gentium (no. 29) and was enshrined in the Code of Canon Law by Benedict XVI in Omnium in mentem. The suggestion that Benedict opened the door to female deacons has been pretty firmly rejected by Archbishop Georg Gänswein, but the diaconate as a ministry of humble service, as opposed to a liturgical ministry and part of the sacramental priesthood, presents contradictions. It is also historically incorrect, but that’s another story.

For all of these reasons, I think the notion that Francis represents a significant break with John Paul II particularly is misguided. Francis has, as I have said, heightened contradictions inherent in John Paul’s magisterium or continued practices that John Paul was criticized sharply for. To the extent that Francis represents a crisis for conservative Catholicism, it is ultimately a crisis that has existed for some time. Conservative Catholics, for reasons I think have more to do with broadly political reasons, have simply failed to engage meaningfully with the issues John Paul presented during his pontificate and find themselves confronted with clearer expressions of those issues by Francis.

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