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.

A word on that John Paul II address

At Life Site News, there is a translation of a 1987 speech by St. John Paul II touching upon, among other things, Humanae vitae. In the speech, John Paul stated, “What the Church teaches about contraception is not a matter of free discussion among theologians. Teaching the contrary is tantamount to inducing the moral conscience of the spouses into error.” In this view, John Paul joined Paul VI and Pius XI, both of whom taught—in Pius’s case, perhaps infallibly—that contraception was always and everywhere objectively evil. John Paul went on in his speech to rebut briefly the idea that the doctrine of the Church, while objectively true, is infeasible in some circumstances. (Recall that this address was before Veritatis splendor was issued.) Not so, John Paul teaches us: God does not command the impossible and He gives grace to all to follow His commandments. Obviously, as the attack on Humanae vitae ramps up—with people appointed by Francis to the Pontifical Academy for Life in the vanguard of the assault—Life Site News offers the translation as a counter.We wonder, however, whether it really matters at this point.

Since March 2013, two things have been obvious. The perennial teaching of the Church on questions like communion for bigamists and contraception is well known. Francis and his staunchest partisans don’t care. Familiaris consortio and Sacramentum caritatis—to say nothing of the words of Our Lord and St. Paul—were well known on the communion-for-bigamists question prior to the disastrous family synod. Yet, despite the ambiguous votes of the bishops at the family synod, Amoris laetitia was issued, apparently in contradiction to Familiaris consortio and Sacramentum caritatis. Now, a few years later, the Pope has declared the Buenos Aires guidelines, themselves profoundly ambiguous in light of the Church’s prior teachings, “magisterial.” One wonders how it happened that the Pope’s old colleagues in Buenos Aires came to issue guidelines that he responded to in a private letter, which was later promoted to the status of an Apostolic Letter. One wonders if Cardinal Parolin and Cardinal Baldisseri know. Did the clear teaching of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI matter, even as Francis canonized John Paul and can still see a light burning in Benedict’s monastic cell?

Likewise, the teaching of the Church on contraception is clear. Pius XI, in Casti connubii, proclaimed that it was evil, and he did so in a way that some theologians believe was infallible. The infallibility of Pius’s statement in Casti connubii was debated by the commission that resulted eventually in Humanae vitae. The status of Pius’s statement in Casti connubii in light of the doctrinal commentary to Ad tuendam Fidem probably should be discussed, too; that is to say, the question has gotten harder, not easier, to answer in the negative. Then, in an act worthy of St. Peter himself, Paul VI stood up to his own commission and the entire world and proclaimed all forms of artificial birth control were intrinsically evil. This act will never be forgiven by the progressives in the Church, always ready to make another accommodation with the world, and they have not stopped complaining about it. Nevertheless, Paul’s solemn discharge of the munus Petrinum has made possible the Church’s defense of life on every front. John Paul and Francis could not inveigh against the death penalty without the Church’s opposition to abortion, and Paul’s rejection of contraception made the Church’s steadfast opposition to abortion possible. Everyone knows this. Nevertheless, there is a mounting campaign against Humanae vitae.

The progressives see Francis as their last, best chance to achieve their long-cherished goal of setting aside Paul’s act. And not without good reason! Members of the Pontifical Academy for Life appointed by Francis challenge the applicability of Humanae vitae. What’s worse: Edward Pentin reports that a spokesman for the Academy claims that it “knew” about the positions of these members prior to their appointment. Moreover, Francis has handed the proponents of communion for bigamists a major victory. Why would the progressives arrayed against Papa Montini think they will fail? Indeed, the logic of Amoris laetitia is already a victory in their eyes! Thus, while we think it is unquestionably a good thing that Life Site News has presented the translation of John Paul’s 1987 speech, we are not sure it matters all that much.

On the other hand, it is clear that the confusion over once-clear moral questions is spreading. As the Second Vatican Council in Lumen gentium reminds us, the Church does not consist of the hierarchy, clergy, and vowed religious alone. Lay men and women, the Council tells us, make up a significant part of the entire Church. Progressives react with horror to the suggestion that the words of St. Pius X in Vehementer nos about the duties of the laity have much applicability today. As confusion mounts, the laity have, the Council would tell us, the right to the spiritual goods of the Church and the right to make known to their pastors their opinions. Parrhesia is not merely a synonym for progressives saying what a pope does not want to say. Consequently, the laity ought to understand what the doctrine of the Church is, what the recent popes have said, and in what ways the favorites of the current pontificate are deviating from that doctrine. This is, in fact, likely the only way that the confusion spreading in the Church will be addressed.

Cardinal Müller speaks

At the National Catholic Register, there is a very lengthy and very frank interview with Gerhard Ludwig Cardinal Müller, until recently the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. It is well worth reading in its entirety. Naturally, it is with Edward Pentin, who is, we are comfortable saying, the single best English-language Vaticanista today by a country mile. We are sure—as Cardinal Müller himself says—that excerpts will be selected and warped by his enemies, especially in the press, and used to allege that he is a reactionary, out of touch, or an enemy of the Holy Father. This is the tactic progressives have settled on in their frantic attempts to shore up their agenda against the rising resistance from faithful Catholics. We won’t quote every interesting passage, but we will quote what we think is the heart of the interview:

All my life, after the Second Vatican Council, I’ve noticed that those who support so-called progressivism never have theological arguments. The only method they have is to discredit other persons, calling them “conservative” — and this changes the real point, which is the reality of the faith, and not in your personal subjective, psychological disposition. By “conservative,” what do they mean? Someone loves the ways of the 1950s, or old Hollywood films of the 1930s? Was the bloody persecution of Catholics during the French Revolution by the Jacobins progressive or conservative? Or is the denial of the divinity of Christ by the Arians of the fourth century liberal or traditional? Theologically it’s not possible to be conservative or progressive. These are absurd categories: Neither conservatism nor progressivism is anything to do with the Catholic faith. They’re political, polemical, rhetorical forms. The only sense of these categories is discrediting other persons.

We have Holy Scripture, we have eschatological revelation in Jesus Christ, the irreversibility of Jesus Christ, the Incarnation, the salvation of the cross, the Resurrection, the Second Coming of Jesus Christ for the end of the world. … The responsibility of the Pope and the bishops is to overcome the polarization. Therefore, it’s very dangerous for the Church to divide bishops into friends and enemies of the Pope regarding a footnote in an apostolic exhortation. I am sure that anybody will denounce me also for this interview, but I hope that the Holy Father will read my complete interview here and not only some headlines, which cannot give a complete impression of what I said.

(Emphasis supplied.) Read the whole thing.

Newman on the brain

At Gloria.tv, there is a translation of a conference that the late Carlo Cardinal Caffarra would have given on October 21 in London. Cardinal Caffarra’s address would have touched at length on Bl. John Henry Newman’s doctrine of conscience, especially as conscience relates to the papacy. Rather than quote from Cardinal Caffarra’s lecture, which you ought to read, we shall quote from the fifth chapter of Newman’s Letter to the Duke of Norfolk:

I say, then, that the Supreme Being is of a certain character, which, expressed in human language, we call ethical. He has the attributes of justice, truth, wisdom, sanctity, benevolence and mercy, as eternal characteristics in His nature, the very Law of His being, identical with Himself; and next, when He became Creator, He implanted this Law, which is Himself, in the intelligence of all His rational creatures. The Divine Law, then, is the rule of ethical truth, the standard of right and wrong, a sovereign, irreversible, absolute authority in the presence of men and Angels. “The eternal law,” says St. Augustine, “is the Divine Reason or Will of God, commanding the observance, forbidding the disturbance, of the natural order of things.” “The natural law,” says St. Thomas, “is an impression of the Divine Light in us, a participation of the eternal law in the rational creature.” (Gousset, Theol. Moral., t. i. pp. 24, &c.) This law, as apprehended in the minds of individual men, is called “conscience;” and though it may suffer refraction in passing into the intellectual medium of each, it is not therefore so affected as to lose its character of being the Divine Law, but still has, as such, the prerogative of commanding obedience. “The Divine Law,” says Cardinal Gousset, “is the supreme rule of actions; our thoughts, desires, words, acts, all that man is, is subject to the domain of the law of God; and this law is the rule of our conduct by means of our conscience. Hence it is never lawful to go against our conscience; as the fourth Lateran Council says, ‘Quidquid fit contra conscientiam, ædificat ad gehennam.'”

(Emphasis supplied.) Cardinal Caffarra quotes from this section, but turns also to chapter five of the Grammar of Assent. (We have no wish to upstage Cardinal Caffarra, especially now, so we will not parallel his argument, and instead again encourage you to read both his address and the relevant passages of Newman.) Turning back to the Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, we see also that Newman recognized that almost no one spoke in these terms when referring to conscience in his day:

When men advocate the rights of conscience, they in no sense mean the rights of the Creator, nor the duty to Him, in thought and deed, of the creature; but the right of thinking, speaking, writing, and acting, according to their judgment or their humour, without any thought of God at all. They do not even pretend to go by any moral rule, but they demand, what they think is an Englishman’s prerogative, for each to be his own master in all things, and to profess what he pleases, asking no one’s leave, and accounting priest or preacher, speaker or writer, unutterably impertinent, who dares to say a word against his going to perdition, if he like it, in his own way. Conscience has rights because it has duties; but in this age, with a large portion of the public, it is the very right and freedom of conscience to dispense with conscience, to ignore a Lawgiver and Judge, to be independent of unseen obligations. It becomes a licence to take up any or no religion, to take up this or that and let it go again, to go to church, to go to chapel, to boast of being above all religions and to be an impartial critic of each of them. Conscience is a stern monitor, but in this century it has been superseded by a counterfeit, which the eighteen centuries prior to it never heard of, and could not have mistaken for it, if they had. It is the right of self-will.

(Emphasis supplied.) It is no less true today than in 1874 that conscience is man’s apprehension of the divine and natural law laid down by God, which must be obeyed at all costs. And it is no less true today than in 1874 that few understand by “conscience” what Newman, relying on authorities no less weighty than Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, meant. Indeed, it seems more true in 2017 than in 1874 that people view conscience as “the right of self-will.”

Indeed, in so much recent discourse in the Church, it seems that the world’s definition of conscience has been taken instead of Newman’s. Not so long ago, an American bishop, now raised to the purple by the Holy Father, spoke of conscience not as God’s law apprehended by a rational creature, but as a decision, made at the end of a process. Now, it is true that this bishop did not go so far as the liberals of Newman’s day, but once one accepts conscience as a sort of judgment, rather than an individual’s implementation of God’s “sovereign, irreversible, absolute authority,” one is already skipping down the primrose path of liberalism. And no one was a stauncher opponent of liberalism than Cardinal Newman. Difficult questions of moral theology—questions of adultery, homosexual behavior, and access to the sacraments, to name but three—are once again being debated, with liberals invoking conscience in support of their positions. Liberalism is on the march again in the Roman Church. And, as an opponent of liberalism, Newman stands squarely against any attempt to turn conscience into nothing more than private judgment, into the more or less educated decision of a person to comply or not with God’s law. It is no wonder then that Newman was on Cardinal Caffarra’s mind.

As it becomes clear that progressives in the Church insist on relitigating every battle since 1965—as they obviously think that the Holy Father will give them their every wish, whether he will or not—it becomes equally clear that a return to theologians like Newman is necessary. You have no doubt heard the disquieting rumors that even Humanae vitae is in the sights of the modernists and progressives, to say nothing of the recent fights in Catholic social media over homosexuality. We do not think the Holy Father is prepared to go as far as the modernists and progressives demanding this or that accommodation, but it is in the nature of modernism for its adherents to go beyond legitimate authority. At this moment, it is necessary to recover the entire anti-liberal teaching of the Church, including the great papal teachings from Gregory XVI to Pius XI, in addition to Newman’s thought. Liberalism is nothing new, however new and upsetting the assault of the progressives may be. And the great anti-liberal popes and thinkers like Newman fought liberalism to a standstill.

 

The Ratchet

Today, with little advance notice, the Holy Father issued his Apostolic Letter motu proprio data Magnum principium. The upshot of the letter is that bishops’ conferences now have the authority to prepare translations of liturgical books, subject to confirmation by the Holy See. In technical terms, canon 838 has been modified to reflect this order. We are told in an anonymous note on canon 838 “in the light of conciliar and post-conciliar sources” that

The “confirmatio” is an authoritative act by which the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments ratifies the approval of the Bishops, leaving the responsibility of translation, understood to be faithful, to the doctrinal and pastoral munus of the Conferences of Bishops. In brief, the “confirmatio”, ordinarily granted based on trust and confidence, supposes a positive evaluation of the faithfulness and congruence of the texts produced with respect to the typical Latin text, above all taking account of the texts of greatest importance (e.g. the sacramental formulae, which require the approval of the Holy Father, the Order of Mass, the Eucharistic Prayers and the Prayers of Ordination, which all require a detailed review).

(Emphasis supplied.) In other words, Magnum principium appears to imagine CDW rubber-stamping what the bishops approve. We are told that this is a more authentic implementation of Sacrosanctum Concilium 22 § 2. Whether it is or not, this will be seen as a major victory for the progressives, who have, for fifty years, talked endlessly about adapting the liturgy to local conditions and doing away with the uniformity in liturgy that apparently scarred their youths. Now, the episcopal conferences will prepare translations, which the Holy See anticipates confirming “on trust and confidence” in the conferences’ judgments in the “faithfulness and congruence of the texts with respect to the typical Latin text.”

It is, of course, in our opinion a sort of strange sign for a pontificate that began with big gestures like Evangelii gaudium, Laudato si’, and even Amoris laetitia to turn to the project of making middle-aged felt-banner enthusiasts happy. That is to say that, so far, the Holy Father’s vision has seemed much grander than questions of which translation of the Mass of Paul VI is most pleasing to liberal liturgists. Additionally, the Holy Father has so far not seemed overly exercised about the endless struggles between progressives and more orthodox Catholics about Vatican II. Indeed, it is by no means clear that the Holy Father is hugely invested in the Vatican II question. At the same time, it is plain that retrenching the post-Vatican II liturgical order has been much on the Holy Father’s mind lately. Recall his speech to the Italian liturgists:

The direction traced by the Council was in line with the principle of respect for healthy tradition and legitimate progress (cf. SC, 23), in the liturgical books promulgated by Blessed Paul VI, well received by the very Bishops who were present at the Council, and now in universal use for almost 50 years in the Roman Rite. The practical application, supervised by the Episcopal Conferences of the respective Countries, is still ongoing, because reforming the liturgical books does not suffice to renew mentality. The books reformed in accordance with the decrees of Vatican II introduced a process that demands time, faithful reception, practical obedience, wise implementation in celebrations, firstly, on the part of the ordained ministers, but also of other ministers, of cantors and all those who take part in the liturgy. In truth, we know, that the liturgical education of Pastors and faithful is a challenge to be faced ever anew. Paul VI himself, a year before his death, said to the Cardinals gathered in the Consistory: “The time has now come to definitively leave aside divisive elements, which are equally pernicious in both senses, and to apply fully, in accordance with the correct criteria that inspired it, the reform approved by Us in the application of the wishes of the Council”.

And today, there is still work to be done in this direction, in particular by rediscovering the reasons for the decisions taken with regard to the liturgical reform, by overcoming unfounded and superficial readings, a partial reception, and practices that disfigure it. It is not a matter of rethinking the reform by reviewing the choices in its regard, but of knowing better the underlying reasons, through historical documentation, as well as of internalizing its inspirational principles and of observing the discipline that governs it. After this magisterium, after this long journey, We can affirm with certainty and with magisterial authority that the liturgical reform is irreversible.

The task of promoting and safeguarding the liturgy is entrusted by right to the Apostolic See and to the diocesan bishops on whose responsibility and authority I greatly rely at the present moment; national and diocesan liturgical pastoral bodies, educational Institutes and Seminaries are also involved.

(Emphasis supplied.) Setting to one side the Holy Father’s decision to minimize Sacrosanctum Concilium 22 § 1 in favor of episcopal conferences and to minimize the responsibility and authority of individual diocesan bishops, this speech seems to reflect the standard narrative of Vatican II. That is, a reform moving ever forward toward some more or less poorly defined endpoint.

Of course, it is entirely possible that this reflects some sort of reaction to the response to the grander elements of the Holy Father’s program. Curia reform appears to be something better discussed than implemented. Despite the increasingly extreme weather observed in the United States and elsewhere, there seems to be little interest in Rome or Washington in taking up Laudato si’ and the environmental question again. Amoris laetitia has turned into an extremely complicated, unpleasant situation, with prelates and theologians debating seriously the implications of private letters and unanswered dubia, among other things. Indeed, recently the American bishops had an invitation-only conference in Orlando about Evangelii gaudium; they wanted to promote its reception and understanding by Catholic leaders. Whatever that means. It is a strange thing to do, over four years into a pontificate, to return to a “programmatic” document, as if the intervening priorities of the pontificate never happened. It is possible, we think, that the Holy Father has turned to the question of liturgy, so long a topic almost entirely controlled by party spirit, to accomplish some things broadly pleasing to his core constituency.

Candidly we were not surprised to see Magnum principium. It does not reflect the broad scope of the Holy Father’s vision, but even visionaries have to help their supporters. (Cf. p. 70 of Syme’s Roman Revolution.) We were, however, hugely surprised to read this in Magnum principium:

The goal of the translation of liturgical texts and of biblical texts for the Liturgy of the Word is to announce the word of salvation to the faithful in obedience to the faith and to express the prayer of the Church to the Lord. For this purpose it is necessary to communicate to a given people using its own language all that the Church intended to communicate to other people through the Latin language. While fidelity cannot always be judged by individual words but must be sought in the context of the whole communicative act and according to its literary genre, nevertheless some particular terms must also be considered in the context of the entire Catholic faith because each translation of texts must be congruent with sound doctrine.

It is no surprise that difficulties have arisen between the Episcopal Conferences and the Apostolic See in the course of this long passage of work. In order that the decisions of the Council about the use of vernacular languages in the liturgy can also be of value in the future a vigilant and creative collaboration full of reciprocal trust between the Episcopal Conferences and the Dicastery of the Apostolic See that exercises the task of promoting the Sacred Liturgy, i.e. the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, is absolutely necessary. For this reason, in order that the renewal of the whole liturgical life might continue, it seemed opportune that some principles handed on since the time of the Council should be more clearly reaffirmed and put into practice.

(Emphasis supplied.) What a startling admission from the Holy See. The Holy See has been, in its approach to translations of liturgical texts, defending the “entire Catholic faith” because “each translation of texts must be congruent with sound doctrine.” For some reason, “difficulties have arisen” between episcopal conferences and the Holy See in this work. That is, episcopal conferences and the Holy See have been at odds about whether or not liturgical texts are “congruent with sound doctrine”? What an extraordinary, unsettling admission. And what an extraordinary, unsettling solution: devolution of authority over liturgical translations to the same episcopal conferences that have been involved in “difficulties” with the Holy See.

In all of this, we cannot help but be reminded of Paul VI’s statement introducing his great Credo of the People of God. (It seems that Paul VI has been on our mind just as he has been on the Holy Father’s mind.) When he spoke, Paul said, in terms that are no less frank than the terms the Holy Father likes to use:

Likewise, we deem that we must fulfill the mandate entrusted by Christ to Peter, whose successor we are, the last in merit; namely, to confirm our brothers in the faith. With the awareness, certainly, of our human weakness, yet with all the strength impressed on our spirit by such a command, we shall accordingly make a profession of faith, pronounce a creed which, without being strictly speaking a dogmatic definition, repeats in substance, with some developments called for by the spiritual condition of our time, the creed of Nicea, the creed of the immortal tradition of the holy Church of God.

In making this profession, we are aware of the disquiet which agitates certain modern quarters with regard to the faith. They do not escape the influence of a world being profoundly changed, in which so many certainties are being disputed or discussed. We see even Catholics allowing themselves to be seized by a kind of passion for change and novelty. The Church, most assuredly, has always the duty to carry on the effort to study more deeply and to present, in a manner ever better adapted to successive generations, the unfathomable mysteries of God, rich for all in fruits of salvation. But at the same time the greatest care must be taken, while fulfilling the indispensable duty of research, to do no injury to the teachings of Christian doctrine. For that would be to give rise, as is unfortunately seen in these days, to disturbance and perplexity in many faithful souls.

(Emphasis supplied.) Despite Paul’s statement, perhaps intended to contradict the narrative of progress moving ever forward, eventually leaving behind the truths of the faith in favor of “a kind of passion for change and novelty,” it is clear that the progressive wing of the Church holds firm to the view the Church in the wake of the Council must move ever forward into change and novelty, even at the cost of increasing disquiet and disturbance and perplexity in many faithful souls.

The ratchet, dear reader, only moves one way.

“Burying Benedict,” tradition, and unity

Matthew Schmitz’s essay, “Burying Benedict,” has kicked up quite a firestorm in the Catholic internet. The usual suspects—ranging from Fr. James Martin, S.J., to Professor Massimo Faggioli—have chimed in to suggest that, when one pope contradicts another pope, the only important thing is that there is one pope at the moment. You can find their comments on Twitter, along with other comments in a similar vein. To take these complaints at face value, one would conclude that the reigning pope, the magisterium, and tradition are all the same thing. It seems that these defenders of the Holy Father have forgotten what the Second Vatican Council taught in the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum:

And so the apostolic preaching, which is expressed in a special way in the inspired books, was to be preserved by an unending succession of preachers until the end of time. Therefore the Apostles, handing on what they themselves had received, warn the faithful to hold fast to the traditions which they have learned either by word of mouth or by letter (see 2 Thess. 2:15), and to fight in defense of the faith handed on once and for all (see Jude 1:3). Now what was handed on by the Apostles includes everything which contributes toward the holiness of life and increase in faith of the peoples of God; and so the Church, in her teaching, life and worship, perpetuates and hands on to all generations all that she herself is, all that she believes.

This tradition which comes from the Apostles develop in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. For there is a growth in the understanding of the realities and the words which have been handed down. This happens through the contemplation and study made by believers, who treasure these things in their hearts (see Luke, 2:19, 51) through a penetrating understanding of the spiritual realities which they experience, and through the preaching of those who have received through Episcopal succession the sure gift of truth. For as the centuries succeed one another, the Church constantly moves forward toward the fullness of divine truth until the words of God reach their complete fulfillment in her.

(Emphasis supplied and footnotes omitted.) While not as clear as Alfredo Cardinal Ottaviani’s great, maligned schema De fontibus revelationis, Dei Verbum nevertheless makes the point that the tradition of the Church goes back to Christ Himself and, alongside scripture, constitutes one wellspring of divine revelation. Again Dei Verbum:

Hence there exists a close connection and communication between sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture. For both of them, flowing from the same divine wellspring, in a certain way merge into a unity and tend toward the same end. For Sacred Scripture is the word of God inasmuch as it is consigned to writing under the inspiration of the divine Spirit, while sacred tradition takes the word of God entrusted by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit to the Apostles, and hands it on to their successors in its full purity, so that led by the light of the Spirit of truth, they may in proclaiming it preserve this word of God faithfully, explain it, and make it more widely known. Consequently it is not from Sacred Scripture alone that the Church draws her certainty about everything which has been revealed. Therefore both sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of loyalty and reverence.

(Emphasis supplied and footnote omitted.) Nowhere in the Council’s understanding of tradition can one find the idea, articulated if dimly by Schmitz’s critics, that the reigning pope and tradition are one and the same thing. It would be just as ludicrous to say, since Dei Verbum teaches that scripture and tradition are part of one wellspring of revelation, that when a hypothetical pope contradicts scripture, the important thing is that there is one pope. It would be bizarre to imply that the pope and scripture are somehow the same thing. Public revelation ceased at the death of the last apostle; there is but one deposit of faith, handed on one generation to the next.

So much for the idea that the pope is some how himself the tradition. In fact, we know that the pope is the servant and guardian of the tradition, and has been promised the special assistance of the Holy Spirit for that ministry. Recall what the First Vatican Council taught in its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of Christ, Pastor aeternus:

That apostolic primacy which the Roman Pontiff possesses as successor of Peter, the prince of the apostles, includes also the supreme power of teaching. This Holy See has always maintained this, the constant custom of the Church demonstrates it, and the ecumenical councils, particularly those in which East and West met in the union of faith and charity, have declared it.

[…]

To satisfy this pastoral office, our predecessors strove unwearyingly that the saving teaching of Christ should be spread among all the peoples of the world; and with equal care they made sure that it should be kept pure and uncontaminated wherever it was received.

[…]

For the Holy Spirit was promised to the successors of Peter not so that they might, by his revelation, make known some new doctrine, but that, by his assistance, they might religiously guard and faithfully expound the revelation or deposit of faith transmitted by the apostles. Indeed, their apostolic teaching was embraced by all the venerable fathers and reverenced and followed by all the holy orthodox doctors, for they knew very well that this See of St. Peter always remains unblemished by any error, in accordance with the divine promise of our Lord and Savior to the prince of his disciples: “I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren.”

(Emphasis supplied.) This office, in service of the tradition given by Christ or through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to the apostles, which has been handed down from those times to this time, is ultimately an office of unity:

This gift of truth and never-failing faith was therefore divinely conferred on Peter and his successors in this See so that they might discharge their exalted office for the salvation of all, and so that the whole flock of Christ might be kept away by them from the poisonous food of error and be nourished with the sustenance of heavenly doctrine. Thus the tendency to schism is removed and the whole Church is preserved in unity, and, resting on its foundation, can stand firm against the gates of hell.

(Emphasis supplied.) In other words, it is not the role of the pope to set one faction of the Church against another or to choose winners and losers, but, instead, to avoid precisely that factionalism in favor of unity. By serving the tradition and Indeed, the primacy of Peter itself is an office of unity:

This power of the Supreme Pontiff by no means detracts from that ordinary and immediate power of episcopal jurisdiction, by which bishops, who have succeeded to the place of the apostles by appointment of the Holy Spirit, tend and govern individually the particular flocks which have been assigned to them. On the contrary, this power of theirs is asserted, supported and defended by the Supreme and Universal Pastor; for St. Gregory the Great says: “My honor is the honor of the whole Church. My honor is the steadfast strength of my brethren. Then do I receive true honor, when it is denied to none of those to whom honor is due.”

(Footnote omitted.) All of this is to say that the pope is not magic. He does not get to rewrite the tradition of the Church at will to meet his whims or the whims of progressive theologians. That is not what popes do. Instead, he guards the tradition of the Church to avoid schism and preserve unity.

This is, of course, the risk of a partisan spirit in the Church and the concomitant ultramontanism. And it is a real risk. “Our man” is in the Apostolic Palace (or the modern guesthouse nearby), and it’s time to get our own back. Right and left have fallen prey to this beguiling temptation. When Benedict was pope, conservatives felt as though he would singlehandedly grant them their list of wishes going back to 1965. Now that Francis is pope, modernists and progressives feel as though Francis is going to singlehandedly grant them their list of wishes going back to 1978. Benedict undoubtedly did things his supporters were pleased by, such as the new translation of the Roman Missal, the Ordinariates, and Summorum Pontificum. Francis undoubtedly does things his supporters are pleased by, such as Amoris laetitia. But the partisan spirit that motivates such assessments leads very quickly to the irrational ultramontanism we see in the reactions to Schmitz’s piece. No one really thinks the pope can do whatever he wants. No one really thinks he’s magic. But in the moment, when things are going your way? When you’re sticking it to your ecclesiastical and ecclesial opponents? Well, maybe you didn’t mean to say it quite like that.

But you did say it.

The bottom line is that it should be uncontroversial to say that the pope must serve tradition, that he must hand on what he received. We do not make all things new with each Habemus Papam.