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.

Ain’t got time to take a fast train

Gerardus Maiella, the proprietor of Lumen Scholasticum, has translated the French canonist Marie Dominique Bouix’s treatment of a heretical pope. Bouix was a great enemy of Gallicanism and a defender of the rights of the papacy, and he achieved some measure of fame in France during the turbulent years of the 19th century. Criticized by Creagh in the old Catholic Encyclopedia as “too often a compiler rather than a genuine author,” Bouix walks through the various arguments concerning a heretical pope. However, this supposed flaw in Bouix’s scholarship is a boon to those of us who follow current events because Bouix walks through the various arguments, including arguments current in the Catholic press, and details the objections to those arguments.

It is worth noting—especially as there will be, we suppose, objections to Bouix’s ultimate conclusion—that Maiella has done a great service to his readers by painstakingly linking to the works cited by Bouix. Consequently, one can simply read Bouix’s sources and see if they bear out the conclusion he reaches.

Of some interest is Bouix’s objection to Suárez’s opinion that a general council can declare that a pope has deposed himself by his heresy, though not as an act of jurisdiction over the pope. This opinion has had some adherents down through the years, including the eminent canonist F.X. Wernz. However, Bouix’s objection puts the matter in a different light:

That a general council can be congregated to declare the heresy of the Pontiff, and that after this declaration the Pontiff is deposed by Christ, is not a dogma, but a mere opinion. Therefore the faithful and the doctors will be free still to consider the Pope who has been declared a heretic as the true and legitimate Pontiff; and to reject as false the one who would be elected in his place. No indeed, it would easily happen that many Bishops would consider such a general council to be illegitimate, and would refuse to attend. But if such a council were at least celebrated, its legitimacy could licitly be denied; and moreover, it could also be denied that the Pope, who, before the synodal sentence, had not yet been deposed for heresy, was now deposed after the declaratory sentence. Therefore this system not only offers an evil remedy, but it adds a much greater evil; namely, it opens the door to a very entangled schism.

It seems to us that Bouix’s objection has some merit, and it well worth pondering. It may be that there are compelling responses to Bouix. However, it is hard to get around his point that Suárez’s argument is but an opinion, and it is licit to hold the contrary opinion.

We won’t spoil the rest of the interesting treatment and we urge you to check it out.

From Vermeule to Newman

Former Catholic and amateur butter importer Rod Dreher has criticized Harvard Law professor and current Catholic Adrian Vermeule for his insufficiently critical stance toward Pope Francis. Dreher, currently in communion with one of the several Orthodox jurisdictions in the United States, argues that Vermeule’s ultramontanism stems from Vermeule’s Schmittian priors. You can read the blog post and decide for yourselves. However, Dreher’s screed follows hot on the heels of a general meltdown over Francis’s decision to canonize Pope Paul VI. Additionally, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò continues to publish statements about his allegations regarding the handling of Archbishop Theodore McCarrick’s case. All of these things have us thinking about the correct mode of criticism and the need for crucial distinctions.

In some circles, it seems that the default position on Francis is one of criticism. This is true both. in traditionalist circles and mainstream conservative circles. Michael Brendan Dougherty just had a cover story at National Review setting forth “the case against Pope Francis.” Likewise, Ross Douthat of the New York Times has written a lengthy book, which is in some respects very critical of Francis. Other voices from more traditionalist circles, like H.J.A. Sire and Peter Kwasniewski, have been heard, raising issues personal and theological about Francis and his pontificate. Speaking purely for ourselves, and going purely on impressions, there seems to have been a shift in the criticism of Francis from raising questions about particular acts toward a general opposition to his pontificate.

We would not pretend that there are not serious questions about Francis’s pontificate. John Joy, for example, has set out an (unanswerable) argument that the Church’s teaching on the death penalty is infallible and irreformable, despite Francis’s decision to declare it “inadmissible.” We have discussed on innumerable occasions the debate over Amoris laetitia, which seems for the moment to have died down. (Francis’s insistence on the independence of episcopal conferences seems to have cut both ways in this case.) There are other issues that have cropped up, and the ongoing Youth Synod has been a flashpoint for still other issues, including same-sex attraction, contraception, and even the ghost of liturgical reform (a ghost that has gotten long in the tooth and whose shroud is moth eaten by now).

The doctrinal issues are, to our mind, somewhat separate and apart from the ongoing crisis roiling the American Church. The current iteration of the sex-abuse scandal has led to the downfall of not only Archbishop Theodore McCarrick but also Washington’s Donald Cardinal Wuerl. It appears that the U.S. Department of Justice is launching a RICO investigation into the Church in Pennsylvania. This will, no doubt, please those Catholics who were calling for greater state intervention into the Church in the wake of the latest abuse revelations. (For our part, we are far from sure that this will end as well as the voices calling for intervention think it will.) The American crisis follows on the heels of the protracted, frankly embarrassing affair in Chile.

One might say, perhaps not unreasonably, that the default position toward Francis in these circles is critical because there is so much to be critical about. However, it seems to us that a fundamental principle is lost when the default position toward Francis becomes one of criticism. Indeed, we might go so far as to say that there is an inversion of the right order of things when this is the case. Here we could discuss Thomas, who held that fraternal correction is a matter of virtue and therefore subject to all the requirements for any act of virtue. There have been magisterial interventions, both by the Plenary Councils of Baltimore and by Leo XIII, about the duties of Catholics commenting on current events. To our knowledge, no one has collected these interventions in one place for serious study. Hopefully someone more inclined to careful research and scholarship will do so.

But maybe they don’t have to.

It may not please Professor Vermeule to know that, in all of this, we are reminded of Blessed John Henry Newman, who, in a sermon preached October 7, 1866 (somewhat before Pius IX called the Vatican Council, when the infallibility debate reached its fever pitch), said:

[W]hat need I say more to measure our own duty to it and to him who sits in it, than to say that in his administration of Christ’s kingdom, in his religious acts, we must never oppose his will, or dispute his word, or criticise his policy, or shrink from his side? There are kings of the earth who have despotic authority, which their subjects obey indeed but disown in their hearts; but we must never murmur at that absolute rule which the Sovereign Pontiff has over us, because it is given to him by Christ, and, in obeying him, we are obeying his Lord. We must never suffer ourselves to doubt, that, in his government of the Church, he is guided by an intelligence more than human. His yoke is the yoke of Christ, he has the responsibility of his own acts, not we; and to his Lord must he render account, not to us. Even in secular matters it is ever safe to be on his side, dangerous to be on the side of his enemies. Our duty is,—not indeed to mix up Christ’s Vicar with this or that party of men, because he in his high station is above all parties,—but to look at his formal deeds, and to follow him whither he goeth, and never to desert him, however we may be tried, but to defend him at all hazards, and against all comers, as a son would a father, and as a wife a husband, knowing that his cause is the cause of God.

The whole sermon is well worth reading, not least because it treats at length of the Papal States and the union between the Church and state power. However, for our purposes the extract here is sufficient.

Recall also Newman’s so-called biglietto speech, given May 12, 1879, upon the formal notification that Pope Leo XIII, who had been elected pope just over a year before, had raised Newman to the dignity of cardinal of the Holy Roman Church. “For thirty, forty, fifty years I have resisted to the best of my powers the spirit of liberalism in religion.” Newman went on to say on that occasion,

Liberalism in religion is the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion, but that one creed is as good as another, and this is the teaching which is gaining substance and force daily. It is inconsistent with any recognition of any religion, as true. It teaches that all are to be tolerated, for all are matters of opinion. Revealed religion is not a truth, but a sentiment and a taste; not an objective fact, not miraculous; and it is the right of each individual to make it say just what strikes his fancy.

Perhaps the current criticism of Francis is not quite Newman’s loathed liberalism in religion. However, it is not so far off as one might like to imagine. Certainly the right to express one’s opinions of Francis—good, bad, especially bad, or otherwise—is implicit in all of the criticism of Francis swirling today. Therefore, it seems to us that there is something profoundly illiberal in Newman’s insistence in 1866 that, in the pope’s religious acts, Catholics “must never oppose his will, or dispute his word, or criticise his policy, or shrink from his side.” This view rejects, fundamentally, that every opinion ought to be expressed. Indeed, it holds that basically no opinion ought to be expressed, except, of course, opinions supportive of the pope’s rule over the Church.

Consequently, Professor Vermeule’s position seems to us to be an entirely reasonable anti-liberal position. One of the leading opponents of liberalism of the 19th century adopted a position no less deferential to the pope than Vermeule’s apparent ultramontanism. Of course, there are other explanations, including the notion that Professor Vermeule does not think Francis is as disastrous as his critics do. But given his thorough anti-liberalism in other respects, it is at least plausible that his attitude toward the Pope is motivated by distrust and dislike for liberalism.

Dreher is not wrong when he notes a fundamental tension in this position; that is, Francis seems a committed partisan of political and theological liberalism and it therefore is bizarre to adopt an anti-liberal attitude toward criticizing him. This, we think, is a misreading of Francis’s pontificate. It is far from clear that Francis is the liberal that has been advertised. Certainly in political and environmental terms, he is no liberal. Indeed, as Rusty Reno noted, Francis is as suspicious of liberal modernity as Pius IX ever was. And there’s a case to be made that Francis thinks that liberal modernity has rendered us incapable of strenuous moral life. This is, in fact, far bleaker than anything Pius IX ever held. And it is, of course, debatable. Highly debatable.

Even if Francis is a liberal, it is far from clear to us that the proper response is liberalism. This, then, is the crux of the problem. Barring the Head of the Church returning, there will be other popes. Perhaps some will be, in the words of the great Louisiana philosopher and theologian I.J. Reilly, good authoritarian popes. Perhaps some will be liberals. However, the anti-liberal position works as well with a good authoritarian pope as it does with a liberal pope. Indeed, it works even better. And it has the advantage of avoiding a perpetual oscillation between ultramontanism and neo-Gallicanism.

The Youth Synod

It is October, which means it is time for the Youth Synod. Already it is clear that doctrinal novelty is once more on the agenda. There has already been a skirmish about the appearance in the instrumentum laboris of the term “LGBT.” The Synod’s top official, one of Francis’s earliest supporters from his time at the Congregation for Bishops, indicated erroneously that the term had been used by youth. Not so, but he refused to remove the term, according to Life Site News. One anticipates that the Synod will be a battleground for the renewed dialectic over same-sex attraction, contraception, and other moral issues much beloved of modernists and progressives. However, the Synod comes at a difficult time for Francis, following a dreadful summer of revelations about the abuse crisis and the sense that Francis’s pontificate is winding down. It remains to be seen how much all of this will affect the final product of the Synod.

It is clear that progressives in high places have not abandoned their agenda. It is clear from the instrumentum laboris that the Synod will address youth with same-sex attraction and, once again, the battle between the divinely revealed doctrine of the Church and the pressures of secular liberalism will be joined. The same will no doubt be true with respect to contraception. No doubt other issues related to sex will be taken up, with the familiar tension between the doctrine of the Church and the apparently unfailingly progressive youth heightened. We anticipate hearing that, not only do young people want an unqualified endorsement of same-sex relationships and contraception, young people want married priests, deaconesses, and greater theological exploration of the question of ordaining women to the priesthood. Whether two-thirds of the Synod fathers will agree to these novelties remains to be seen.

In the 2014-2015 process, there was still some question about Francis’s doctrinal commitments, and that made the really extraordinary battles in the Synod seem altogether more significant. However, in 2018, it is clear where Francis’s doctrinal commitments lie. It is unlikely that he will endorse wholesale revisions of Church doctrine. Instead, the language of pastoral accompaniment and development of doctrine will be employed. In this regard the stakes for this Synod are much lower. There is, in fact, a sense that we have returned to the stage-managed Synods of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. The final report is probably mostly written. Francis can choose to endorse it and give it magisterial weight, or he can choose to issue an exhortation. It probably will not be openly heterodox, but it probably will contain ambiguities and openings to immoral conduct under the guise of discernment and pastoral accompaniment. The stories write themselves at this points.

Of course, Edward Pentin reports that there is substantial confusion about the voting procedures at the Synod, perhaps in an effort to avoid subjecting controversial propositions to a straight up-or-down vote, instead requiring bishops to vote on the entire document. Given how the 2014-2015 process worked, it is reasonable to expect that the Synod secretariat, with Francis’s support, will manipulate the process to achieve the predetermined result with a minimum of dissent. While the concept of a synodal, “listening” Church is one of Francis’s favorite talking points, there are significant questions whether this is anything more than a talking point. Clearly, the Pope likes the idea of consensus backing up certain moves; however, he has shown himself time and time again willing to go it alone, relying on his inherent authority and the willingness of his supporters to defend his decisions.

This is not to say that the outcome of the Synod is inconsequential. As we have written before, history has begun again in the Church. The dialectic between continuity and rupture, between tradition and novelty, is in full swing, and this Synod will be for a few weeks the epicenter of the process. Perhaps this one is a little different, in that it is impossible to deny that things have changed in the world and even the pastoral strategies of 1978, 1988, 1998, or 2008 are inadequate to reach today’s youth. Traditionally minded Catholics point to the young people who engage enthusiastically with tradition; modernists point to the young people who want same-sex relationships blessed and contraception permitted. The strategy of tension employed by modernists since the days of Pascendi will no doubt be observed. But to say that the dialectic is inconsistent with apostolic faith, which rests primarily in tradition, and has since the days of St. Paul (cf. Gal. 1:8), is somewhat beside the point. The fact is that the dialectic will take place.

Nevertheless, is an autumnal feel to this process, and not only because it is happening in October. There is a sense that there is more time behind Francis than before him. Already people are making plans for the next conclave. In fact, just in the last couple of days, it has been announced that a well funded group is going to be investigating cardinal electors so that compromised candidates will be known prior to entering the conclave. (The suggestion is that Cardinal Bergoglio was compromised and would not have been elected pope if that had been known; whether or not this is true is anyone’s guess.) There is not much reason to think this, other than Francis’s age. Unlike John Paul II, Francis has not had high-profile health crises or sudden trips to the Gemelli clinic. And unlike Benedict XVI, who grew visibly frail before abdicating, Francis does not appear to be weakening with age. It is strange therefore that all this activity is taking place. However, there is still a feeling that the Synod may be one of the last major engagements of Francis’s pontificate. For this reason, despite the lower stakes and likelihood of few surprises, the Synod may well be significant as a sort of referendum on the future direction of a post-Francis Church.

However, for reasons entirely aside from doctrine, this Synod comes at a terrible time for Francis (and the Church). There has been a steady drumbeat of allegations that Francis has either downplayed abuse or simply ignored abuse. It began with the case of Bishop Juan Barros in Osorno in Chile, who was accused of being involved with the coverup of Chile’s most notorious abuser, Fernando Karadima. Francis first backed Barros, but that position became untenable when it was revealed that one of Karadima’s victims had passed a letter to Francis through Cardinal O’Malley regarding Barros’s involvement. The affair resulted in the abdication of most of Chile’s bishops, though only some of the resignations have been accepted—most notably Barros’s. Given Francis’s decision to back Barros in unmistakable terms, the affair damaged his credibility on abuse.

However, the fall of former Washington archbishop Theodore McCarrick has proved to be a more serious crisis for Francis than even the Barros affair. McCarrick, long one of the most prominent figures in the American Church, was credibly accused of sexual misconduct with seminarians and a minor. Rumors about McCarrick had circulated for years, even reaching the Vatican when a professor at a seminary wrote to Rome about McCarrick’s behavior after his appointment to Washington was announced. Quickly, McCarrick resigned from the cardinalate and was ordered to a life of prayer and penance while the canonical process wound its way through Rome. Given McCarrick’s prominence and influence, the case was proving to be embarrassing for Francis and some of his most prominent American supporters.

Until Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò wrote a lengthy “testimony” about a long-running coverup in Rome of McCarrick’s misconduct. Viganò made many allegations, the upshot of which is that Benedict XVI ordered McCarrick out of public life, and Francis rescinded the order because McCarrick was a friend and supporter of Francis. Francis has not really answered the allegations. However, it appears that Benedict XVI did direct McCarrick to keep a lower profile, but McCarrick basically ignored the direction. It is impossible to say more than this, given the Vatican’s silence on the matter and the fact that some key figures, such as Pietro Sambi, the former nuncio, are dead.

In the background of the allegations about what Francis knew or didn’t know, the American Church has been dealing with another iteration of the abuse crisis, this time focused on several Pennsylvania dioceses. While Philadelphia had addressed the past instances of abuse and coverup, other dioceses had not, and the Pennsylvania attorney general initiated a grand jury probe. The results of the probe are chilling: over 70 years hundreds of predator priests abused over a thousand children. There have been calls for immediate action, ranging from greater civil oversight of the Church to improved reporting and compliance mechanisms within the Church, including greater participation by the laity.

However, the overwhelming reaction to the Pennsylvania report has been grief and outrage. Washington’s Donald Cardinal Wuerl, who was bishop of Pittsburgh for some of the time covered by the report, was named and accused of furthering the coverup of an instance of abuse. He contests the allegations, but he has also indicated that he intends on asking the Pope to accept his resignation so that Washington can move forward with new leadership. Joseph Cardinal Tobin, whose Newark archdiocese has a direct connection to McCarrick’s abuse, has informed Francis that he will not be attending the Synod, instead staying in Newark to address the issues there. One has only to look at Twitter or Facebook or do a Google search to see the numerous outraged comments from Catholics stunned by all these revelations.

With all of this going on, the Youth Synod seems like a pointless exercise. For one thing, many youth find the abuse crisis to be a major stumbling block in their relationship with the Church. Indeed, it seems that the abuse situation has the potential to undermine any renewed presentation or engagement with young people. It will not make much difference if clergy present Church teachings in a new, more attractive and understandable light if clergy are simply not believed by young people, upset and confused by the abuse crisis. Given that there are allegations about Francis’s conduct, though the allegations are by no means proved, it is impossible to dismiss this as a purely American problem.

All eyes on Viganò

Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò’s Saturday bombshell has had quite an effect. Francis, asked about Viganò’s statement aboard the papal plane from Dublin to Rome, refused to respond, instead telling journalists to look into it for themselves. Msgr. Jean-François Lantheaume, formerly the first counsellor at the Nunciature in Washington and named by Viganò as a witness, has confirmed Viganò’s statements. Moreover, some interesting Facebook posts, purportedly from Lantheaume have been circulating. Naturally, Cardinals Cupich, Wuerl, and Tobin have all issued statements not-quite-denying Viganò’s allegations. And Cardinal Wuerl’s spokesman has issued a statement admitting that Wuerl canceled an event with McCarrick at Viganò’s request.

The Italian journalist and blogger Aldo Maria Valli has a long post, explaining how Viganò approached him to release his statement. Our Italian isn’t great and Google’s English version isn’t much better; however, the gist of the piece comes through. Hopefully it will be translated into English. The big bombshell of Valli’s piece is that Viganò, currently one of the most talked-about figures in the Church has gone into hiding outside of Italy. (This echoes some sinister comments in the Facebook post apparently written by Msgr. Lantheaume.) Aside from that dramatic touch, it’s an interesting piece that portrays Viganò as troubled by what he sees and aware of the responses he would receive.

And what responses! Some time ago, we wrote, for another venue, a piece comparing Francis to Donald J. Trump. That piece was criticized for such an outrageous comparison. (Never mind that others have made it.) This weekend shows that, regardless of President Trump’s similarity to the Pontiff, Francis’s supporters have much in common with the President’s. The liberal-Catholic media response to Viganò’s piece has been a chorus of claims that Viganò is making it up, that this is part of a coup against Francis, that Viganò is settling scores. “Fake news,” the “deep state,” and conflicts of interest might be how Trump’s supporters express those ideas, but the ideas are the same.

Despite the fact that the liberal Catholics in the United States and Italy have taken great pains to distance themselves from Trump and his policies, it is clear that they have learned well from Trump’s book of (extremely effective) communications strategies. When Villanova professor and leading Italian ice-cream enthusiast Massimo Faggioli is talking about a failed palace coup, you know that the language of the “deep state” works. One defender of Francis on Twitter has even gone so far as to call Viganò’s allegations “fake news.” It is astonishing to see strident critics of Trump fall immediately to his rhetoric to defend Francis. We doubt that Francis would be heartened by this.

Of course, the safer course has been marked by many prelates, including Cardinal DiNardo and even Cardinal Wuerl: there needs to be a full investigation into Viganò’s allegations. This poses its own problems. A key figure in Viganò’s allegations, Archbishop Pietro Sambi, his predecessor as nuncio, died unexpectedly in 2011. Viganò states that Sambi would have been the one to inform Cardinal Wuerl about Benedict’s sanctions against McCarrick. Wuerl has denied that Viganò provided him with detailed information on the matter, but his statement did not address whether or not Sambi had provided him with information. Additionally, it is entirely possible that McCarrick’s influence on Francis was not known to men McCarrick allegedly promoted, such as Joseph Tobin and Blase Cupich.

This is why Francis’s refusal to admit or deny the allegations is so troubling. At a moment in the Church when the laity is sick to death of reports of sexual abuse and cover ups, Francis’s position strikes a sour note. This follows his Letter to the People of God written in the wake of the Pennsylvania grand jury report. In that letter, before turning to the problem of clericalism in the context of abuse, Francis wrote, “I am conscious of the effort and work being carried out in various parts of the world to come up with the necessary means to ensure the safety and protection of the integrity of children and of vulnerable adults, as well as implementing zero tolerance and ways of making all those who perpetrate or cover up these crimes accountable.” Given that the allegations against McCarrick are basically that he preyed on children and vulnerable adults—seminarians—Francis’s nonresponse on the plane is especially disheartening.

In that letter, Francis went on to write: “This awareness of being part of a people and a shared history will enable us to acknowledge our past sins and mistakes with a penitential openness that can allow us to be renewed from within.  Without the active participation of all the Church’s members, everything being done to uproot the culture of abuse in our communities will not be successful in generating the necessary dynamics for sound and realistic change.” It is hard to square “penitential openness” with a refusal to answer the allegations of a longtime Curial official and diplomat—an archbishop—even if to deny them or explain them.

We thought Francis was perhaps out in left field when he linked the crisis with clericalism. His supporters’ rhetoric—so far from penitential openness—seems, however, to be linked intrinsically with the clericalism he condemns. He wrote, “whenever we have tried to replace, or silence, or ignore, or reduce the People of God to small elites, we end up creating communities, projects, theological approaches, spiritualities and structures without roots, without memory, without faces, without bodies and ultimately, without lives.” The response of his supporters, denying Viganò’s statement not by adducing facts but by attacking character seems precisely like this exclusionary vision of the Church. Viganò, who is not one of the sons of light in the new order, has dared to speak out. He must be silenced, ignored, or excluded—precisely the clericalist attitudes that Francis identifies as root causes of the abuse crisis. Is this really the renewal Francis has called for?

The sober response of many—the call for an investigation—is the beginning of Francis’s penitential openness, not Trumpian cries of “fake news” and “deep state” and “coup.” If there is nothing to Viganò’s allegations, if they are the bitter rhetoric of a disappointed old intriguer, as the critics claim, then an investigation can be nothing but a good thing.

The bombshell

Today, an eleven-page document, apparently written by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, former nuncio to the United States, was released. It is a stunning document, alleging basically that the Holy Father was aware of then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s abusive activities but promoted McCarrick for a variety of reasons. More than that, it paints McCarrick as a close adviser to Francis on American matters. Indeed, it suggests that McCarrick was the architect of Francis’s high-profile American appointments, such as Blase Cupich’s appointment to Chicago and Joseph Tobin’s appointment to Newark. Some of these allegations were known; for example, Rocco Palmo reported when Tobin was translated from Indianapolis to Newark that McCarrick was behind the move. However, after McCarrick’s meteoric fall, Tobin’s partisans pressured Palmo to recant the reporting. He has refused to do so. However, other allegations are coming to light for the first time.

Viganò’s document implicates a huge number of high-profile churchmen. Three Secretaries of State—Sodano, Bertone, and Parolin—are alleged to have furthered McCarrick’s career, despite warnings in Rome about his misdeeds. Other high prelates are alleged to have known about McCarrick’s crimes. Viganò states that Benedict XVI imposed some sanctions on McCarrick following these warnings, basically ordering him out of public life. However, Viganò’s most serious allegation is that Francis rescinded these sanctions upon his election in 2013. Viganò goes on to claim that McCarrick became—along with Cardinal Maradiaga—a kingmaker in the Curia under Francis and a trusted adviser, especially with respect to the Obama administration. The whole document must be read, and the allegations take one’s breath away.

In a small but explosive bit of Edward Pentin’s coverage of Viganò’s statement, Pentin writes that Benedict XVI was aware of the allegations against McCarrick and recalls (today, presumably) ordering Cardinal Bertone to impose sanctions on McCarrick, but he cannot recall what the nature of those sanctions was. This adds some confirmation to Viganò’s statement, since he alleges that Benedict’s sanctions against McCarrick were common knowledge in the Curia and had been communicated repeatedly to McCarrick and his successor, Donald Cardinal Wuerl. He suggests that Cardinal Bertone and others may have helped McCarrick skirt Benedict’s sanctions by delaying their imposition.

The bottom line is this: Viganò alleges that McCarrick was aided and abetted by prominent churchmen from Pope Francis on down, despite his misconduct with seminarians being documented thoroughly. As a result of the corruption that Viganò details in his letter, Viganò demands that the Pope and high prelates resign over all this. At the very least, one wishes that there would be total transparency on the McCarrick case. Surely someone in Rome has a scanner and could make a PDF of his file at the Secretariat of State and the Congregation for Bishops; ideally, this would be posted on the Vatican’s website, so that the Church, if it is interested, can review the documents and come to its own conclusions about the McCarrick affair. But Viganò’s demand that Francis abdicate goes well beyond a Truth and Reconciliation Process for the McCarrick case.

The demand is not quite unprecedented—after all, in the climax to the Investiture Controversy, Kaiser Heinrich IV demanded that Pope Gregory VII resign. But it is hard to think of more recent examples of an archbishop and longtime Vatican bureaucrat and diplomat calling for the abdication of the Roman Pontiff. It is supremely unlikely that Francis will abdicate over this. But it is a sobering reminder of the corruption at the highest levels of the Church. It is rumored that Benedict XVI abdicated when he realized he lacked the strength to reform the Roman Curia. Tonight, anyway, Francis’s pontificate teeters on the edge under the weight of these allegations—allegations that are remarkably similar to what is alleged to have brought down Benedict’s papacy.

No doubt the Pope’s partisans will dredge up Viganò’s misdeeds. He will be presented as the far-right culture warrior who brought Kim Davis to meet the Pope. He will be presented as a longtime malcontent and complainer, whose letter to Benedict about his promotion to the nunciature (engineered by Cardinal Bertone when Viganò started poking his nose into Bertone’s business) touched off the first Vatileaks scandal. He may even be presented as someone who has played his own sorry role in the abuse scandal, as it is alleged by the people who investigated Archbishop John C. Nienstedt that Viganò told them to keep quiet. Of course, this last affair begins to look strange in the light of Viganò’s allegations today.

However, the funny thing is that it’s hard to see how Viganò’s misdeeds make him a liar. He may, in fact, be a culture warrior who has a grudge against Francis for sacking him from the nunciature and withholding the customary red hat. He may, in fact, be a talented Curial bureaucrat who torpedoed his career by asking questions better left unasked. And he may have made bad decisions when confronted with the misdeeds of others, like Nienstedt. But it’s hard to spin this past into the conclusion that Viganò is a fabulist. Indeed, he seems like exactly the sort of character who ends up spilling the beans on everything for a variety of motives, some noble and some less noble.

The ball is now in Francis’s court—not a happy thought from any perspective. The Vatican seems incapable of managing a crisis, and this probably counts as a crisis. The Holy See Press Office has been caught flat footed time and time again. The Barros affair in Chile seriously damaged Francis’s credibility and the narrative was out of control before the Vatican acted. The combination of the McCarrick revelations and the Pennsylvania grand jury report imperiled (and still imperils, frankly) the moral authority of the U.S. hierarchy, but it took quite some time for Francis to respond. And when he did, he blamed clericalism. It will be bitterly ironic if Viganò’s allegations are confirmed, either by individuals with knowledge who are emboldened to come forward or by solid reporting by outside journalists, since there’s no other word for McCarrick’s protection and promotion under Francis than clericalism.

Pointing to noted non-Catholic and bouillabaisse enthusiast Rod Dreher’s coverage of the breaking news, Alan Jacobs seems to think that nothing will come of this. We shall see. We agree with Jacobs that Francis probably will not address this head on, but we already see Francis’s partisans like the anonymous (but allegedly well connected) Twitter account @Pope_news coming out to attack Viganò. We know that Francis is perfectly happy to use intermediaries, like Fr. Antonio Spadaro, S.J., or the bishops of the Buenos Aires pastoral region or any of a whole host of people, to make his arguments for him. How they react to this will be a good sign of how Francis reacts to it. Moreover, it will be harder for prelates like Blase Cupich, Joseph Tobin, and Robert McElroy, to maintain silence if intrepid journalists follow up on Viganò’s allegations and find confirmation. In the meantime, there is little for the rest of us to do—except watch, wait, and pray.

A little more on the new catechism

John Joy has done it again! Just a few days ago, we cited Joy’s brilliant defense of the infallibility of Quanta cura against the anti-integralists of the Witherspoon Institute’s house organ, Public Discourse. Now, after Francis’s baffling declaration of the inadmissibility, Joy lays out at The Josias an unanswerable case against assent to the new text of the Catechism. Joy digs in to the language of the new Catechism text and Cardinal Ladaria’s letter to argue that the Catechism text is an act of the authentic papal magisterium and as such presumptively entitled to religious submission of will and intellect. He then rebuts the presumption, showing how ambiguous and contradictory it is. More than this, the morality of the death penalty is, Joy shows, a dogmatic teaching of the Church. For these reasons, Joy concludes, the faithful are well advised to withhold assent from the new teaching until the Church sorts things out.

For us, Joy’s piece shows how weird the change and the arguments adduced in support of the change really are. In particular, given the language in the new text and Cardinal Ladaria’s letter about the once-upon-a-time morality of the death penalty, it is hard to see how “inadmissible” can mean intrinsece malum. Fr. John Hunwicke, as always full of Latin erudition, has picked up on this point. Of course, the Pope knows how to say something is immoral—though he seems to spend more time saying things aren’t immoral, no matter how they might seem—and his Latinists know how to say something is intrinsece malum. Thus, the fact that they chose the baffling non posse admitti over intrinsece malum suggests that they did not intend to say that it was intrinsece malum. Perhaps they meant to imply it though. Francis is a master of implication, as we have seen time and time again, and perhaps, acknowledging the doctrinal difficulties in saying the death penalty is intrinsece malum, he merely wished to imply it. We think not.

In Veritatis splendor (no. 80), John Paul cites Gaudium et spes 27 for a long list of acts “always and per se” seriously wrong, regardless of their circumstances. The text of the new Catechism could have compared the death penalty to those acts, taking the Council’s condemnation and dragging it into this context, instead of relying on the march of progress to make it “inadmissible.” Moreover, John Paul went on to teach, “If acts are intrinsically evil, a good intention or particular circumstances can diminish their evil, but they cannot remove it. They remain ‘irremediably’ evil acts; per se and in themselves they are not capable of being ordered to God and to the good of the person” (no. 81). Yet the text of the new Catechism acknowledges that, “Recourse to the death penalty on the part of legitimate authority, following a fair trial, was long considered an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes and an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of safeguarding the common good.” (Emphasis supplied.) The text goes on to speak about “Today” and “a new understanding” and “more effective systems,” implying that the moral liceity of the death penalty hinges on this narrative of progress. If Francis or Cardinal Ladaria or whoever wanted to imply that the death penalty was intrinsece malum, they sure picked a funny way to do it. Indeed, given what John Paul says in Veritatis splendor, they have picked the exact backwards way to do it. Consequently, we do not believe that they even imply that the death penalty is intrinsece malum. Given the fact that they neither say nor imply that it is intrinsece malum, we must conclude that they do not think it is intrinsece malum. Good! Francis may just have saved his tiara after all!

Moreover, the question has occurred to us whether the change to the Catechism may rightly be called a papal act. If a dicasterial text is to be considered a papal act as opposed to an act of the responsible dicastery, in the practice of the Church (see, e.g., art. 126 of the 1999 Regolamente Generale della Curia Romana), then it must be approved in forma specifica. In fact, it must contain the magic words approbavit in forma specifica (with reference to the Roman Pontiff). In the Latin rescript accompanying the new Catechism text, we find only approbavit. Does this mean that the change to the Catechism is merely an act of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith? (Remember that Francis knows how to promote someone else’s text to his authentic magisterium.) Some clever canonist or theologian will have to explain it to us! Perhaps it doesn’t matter: Francis has made on a couple of occasions statements basically the same as the new Catechism text. But given his manner of speaking, it might be argued that those statements have basically no magisterial value.

But these speculations are ultimately unnecessary. Francis’s partisans, official and otherwise, will insist simultaneously that this is a major change and that it is simply a development in existing doctrine. Only a few members of Team Bergoglio, like Massimo Faggioli, will have the intellectual honesty to assert that this is a major rupture with the Church’s prior teaching. However, they will in the same breath assert that such ruptures are simply part of the Church’s life. In this respect, Faggioli (and those like him) are the mirror image of the traditionalists who likewise assert that there have been numerous ruptures in teaching, especially since the Second Vatican Council. That said, there is no sense meeting Francis’s partisans with narrow technical arguments about whether or not the rescript approving the new text had the three magic words to make it a papal act.

However, there is a lot of sense, for those inclined to do so, to meet Francis’s partisans with John Joy’s argument. But we stand on the point we made a couple of days ago. The merits of the Catechism change itself are what they are. Joy’s argument against assent is, we think, quite unanswerable. However, the Catechism text is not ultimately about the death penalty. It is about returning to the dialectic that prevailed in the Church prior to Paul VI’s death forty years ago tomorrow. Seen in that dimension, Francis has succeeded.