This is the way things have always been

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

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

I.

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

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

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

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

II.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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 Conciliar postscript

To some comments we have made over the past few weeks, we offer this postscript—offer without comment—taken from Gravissimam educationis, the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Christian Education, confident that you will find it edifying:

Omnibus christianis, quippe qui, per regenerationem ex aqua et Spiritu Sancto nova creatura effecti, filii Dei nominentur et sint, ius est ad educationem christianam. Quae quidem non solum maturitatem humanae personae modo descriptam prosequitur, sed eo principaliter spectat ut baptizati dum in cognitionem mysterii salutis gradatim introducuntur, accepti fidei doni in dies magis conscii fiant; Deum Patrem in spiritu et veritate adorare (cf. Io 4,23) praeprimis in actione liturgica addiscant, ad propriam vitam secundum novum hominem in iustitia et sanctitate veritatis (Eph 4,22-24) gerendam conformentur; ita quidem occurrant in virum perfectum, in aetatem plenitudinis Christi (cf. Eph 4,13) et augmento corporis mystici operam praestent. Iidem insuper suae vocationis conscii tum spei quae in eis est (cf. 1 Pt 3,15), testimonium exhibere tum christianam mundi conformationem adiuvare consuescant, qua naturales valores in completa hominis a Christo redempti consideratione assumpti, ad totius societatis bonum conferant. Quare haec S. Synodus animarum Pastoribus gravissimum recolit officium omnia disponendi ut hac educatione christiana omnes fideles fruantur, praeprimis iuvenes qui spes sunt Ecclesiae.

Parentes, cum vitam filiis contulerint, prolem educandi gravissima obligatione tenentur et ideo primi et praecipui eorum educatores agnoscendi sunt. Quod munus educationis tanti ponderis est ut, ubi desit, aegre suppleri possit. Parentum enim est talem familiae ambitum amore, pietate erga Deum et homines animatum creare qui integrae filiorum educationi personali et sociali faveat. Familia proinde est prima schola virtutum socialium quibus indigent omnes societates. Maxime vero in christiana familia, matrimonii sacramenti gratia et officio ditata, filii iam a prima aetate secundum fidem in baptismo receptam Deum percipere et colere atque proximum diligere doceantur oportet; ibidem primam inveniunt experientiam et sanae societatis humanae et Ecclesiae; per familiam denique in civilem hominum consortionem et in populum Dei sensim introducuntur. Persentiant igitur parentes quanti momenti sit familia vere christiana pro vita et progressu ipsius populi Dei.

Educationis impertiendae munus primario familiae competens totius societatis auxiliis indiget. Praeter igitur iura parentum ceterorumque quibus ipsi partem in munere educationis concredunt, certa quidem officia et iura competunt societati civili, quatenus eius est ea ordinare quae ad bonum commune temporale requiruntur. Ad eius munera pertinet educationem iuventutis pluribus modis provehere: parentum scilicet aliorumque qui in educatione partes habent officia et iura tueri eisque adiumenta praebere; iuxta subsidiarii officii principium, deficientibus parentum aliarumque societatum incoeptis, educationis opus, attentis quidem parentum votis, perficere; insuper, quatenus bonum commune postulat, scholas et instituta propria condere.

 

Before a parting of the ways

At Mere Orthodoxy last week, Jake Meador wrote a piece about “The Parting of Ways Among Younger Christians.” Despite being a protestant, Meador has followed Catholics’ discussions of integralism and liberalism fairly closely and is, unlike some other protestants, a fairly sympathetic observer. Meador is commenting upon a note by Alan Jacobs about the recent blowup over the Mortara case—particularly Fr. Romanus Cessario’s First Things essay defending Bl. Pius IX. Meador’s piece is well worth reading—Jacobs’s is not: it’s another entry in the genre of essays wondering how First Things could be so unecumenical as to publish a Catholic priest defending Catholic doctrine—not least because Meador sees this as the end (or nearly the end) of the ecumenical project of Catholics and some protestants working together. That is, as Catholics and various kinds of protestants explore their own traditions, there will be fewer and fewer ecumenical projects. Meador is not (at least he does not seem) brokenhearted by this. However, others may be.

We won’t waste your time by quoting from Jacobs’s piece at length. However, he is clearly hysterical at the prospect of a First Things in the hands of Roman Catholics who believe what the Church of Rome teaches. His overheated reaction is very understandable. For a long time, First Things represented one of the places where Catholics and some protestants met on grounds of broad agreement to defend a vision of liberalism against the encroachments of another vision of liberalism. What Jacobs does not understand—and what Meador understands very well—is that young Catholics, including young Catholics who write for First Things, have begun the laborious process of recovering the Church’s anti-liberal tradition. What this means is that some writers are less committed to any vision of liberalism, which has serious implications for the project altogether. However, other regular contributors, like George Weigel, remain as committed as ever, as near as we can tell, to the old First Things vision. Meador understands that, as the Church’s anti-liberal tradition is recovered, as it must be, the ecumenism made possible by the Church’s engagement with liberalism at the Second Vatican Council and its reception, especially by American conservatives under the guidance of St. John Paul II, becomes less possible.

Meador is not wrong to call this a parting of the ways. But before this parting of the ways, it is necessary, we think, to consider where we are and what the possible paths forward are. In short, Catholics are grappling with liberalism, the disastrous effects of which are on display in almost every walk of life, and the debate over liberalism is directly effecting the ability of Catholics to participate in ecumenical projects. There are two modes of engaging with liberalism in the Church today. One, inspired broadly by the Second Vatican Council, seeks to preserve the liberalism of the years immediately following the Second World War. This group has historically found much in common with protestants and those of non-Christian faiths, and it has historically sought to form broad coalitions aimed at preserving the “good liberalism” of the 1950s and 1960s. The other, inspired broadly by the Church’s preconciliar teaching, seeks to look beyond liberalism. Therefore, these Catholics tend to be more suspicious of ecumenical projects, especially, as Meador notes, the indifferentist aspects of ecumenical projects. Moreover, they are not nearly so interested in reestablishing the liberal consensus of the 1950s and 1960s. The fundamental tension between the two groups, we think, comes from the ongoing debate within the Church about the Second Vatican Council.

I.

 

Fifty-two years and counting after the close of the Council, Catholics can question whether the Church’s engagement with liberalism worked. The enthusiastic opening to the postwar order contained, more or less, in Gaudium et spes, Dignitatis humanae, and Nostra aetate, among other documents, did not deepen the dialogue between the Church and the world. It resulted in liberalism receiving dogmatic status in the Church. Perhaps this would not have been the worst thing, if liberalism had remained what it was in the 1950s and early 1960s. Certainly we see in sources as disparate as Ross Douthat and the Paris Statement, signed by such luminaries as Ryszard Legutko, Pierre Manent, Roger Scruton, and Robert Spaemann, a desire to return to that initial postwar liberalism. In other words, for these thinkers, there was a moment before—let us call it the Moment Before—liberalism went wrong. If the slide can be arrested and the order reset to that moment, then the faults of liberalism will disappear. It follows, we think, that under such a notion, the Church’s engagement with liberalism is only contingently imprudent.

As we say, the Council and the major documents of the Council are at the very center of this discussion. Here, the Villanova Church historian and social-media genius Massimo Faggioli’s Twitter feed is essential reading. He argues, we think, that various Council documents, especially Dignitatis humanae, are clearly corrections of the Church’s prior illiberal teachings. In his view, the Council plainly brought the Church in line with postwar liberal democracy. To insist upon a more traditionalist reading of the Council documents, a reading that begins but does not end with Benedict XVI’s hermeneutic of continuity, in Faggioli’s mind, is to challenge the Church’s commitment to liberal democracy. Indeed, to insist that Pius IX’s Quanta cura and Syllabus remain valid teachings, along with Leo XIII’s Immortale Dei, Libertas, and Diuturnum, and Pius XI’s Quadragesimo anno, is to come very near to what Faggioli somewhat breathlessly calls “Catholic fascism.” (That Pius XI also issued Non abbiamo bisogno and Mit brennender Sorge does not seem to figure much in Faggioli’s calculations.) In other words, the more political pronouncements of the Council and liberalism are inextricably linked, pull at one thread and the whole seamless garment, if you’ll excuse the joke, comes apart.

Now, there are problems with the anti-liberal argument that has Faggioli so panicked, which both traditionalists and alarmed liberals need to consider carefully. Notably, they need to consider what Leo XIII’s ralliement policy, as outlined in Au milieu des sollicitudes, means for the Church’s anti-liberal posture in the 19th and early 20th century. Obviously, the ralliement policy came off the rails during St. Pius X’s pontificate, as Vehementer nos shows. But it is not enough to say that practically Leo’s initiative failed. The implications for ralliement in the context of Leo’s anti-liberal thought ought to be considered carefully. The pope of Immortale Dei is the pope of Au milieu des sollicitudes, and the nature of the French Third Republic was well known to Leo. Yet Leo urged Catholics to support the Third Republic. Whether ralliement is enough to complicate the Church’s anti-liberal doctrine significantly is an open question. We have our doubts, but we are also not hugely interested in avoiding the Church’s anti-liberal doctrine.

At any rate, a great debate could be had about Faggioli’s point, though Bishop Bernard Fellay of the SSPX is no doubt pleased to hear a prominent progressive theologian concede Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre’s point. Nevertheless, this is another reason why the furor over Fr. Romanus Cessario’s First Things article about the Mortara case reached such a fever pitch. Cessario’s argument is clearly drawn from the tradition of the Church and—despite Nathaniel Peters’s valiant effort to mention only about half of the essential Thomistic sources—is essentially unanswerable. As such, it serves as a sort of confirmation of liberals’ deep fear that the openness to liberalism that Catholics have shown is not much older than 1965 and is not broadly supported in the tradition of the Church. In other words, there is a sense that if the Catholics start poking around too much in their tradition, if they start looking behind the copy of the documents of Vatican II on their bookshelves, they will find teachings incompatible with liberalism. Indeed, they will find that the Church, within living memory, was squarely opposed to liberalism. It will be impossible to articulate a Catholic vision of the search for the Moment Before when Catholics figure out that the Church taught, until fairly recently, that there was no Moment Before.

A couple of observations. First, the idea of the Moment Before has profited Catholics almost nothing. Despite fifty years of explanations of how Catholicism and the Bill of Rights in the federal Constitution are entirely reconcilable, every major social decision has gone against the Church. From Roe to Obergefell, the engagement of Catholics with the liberal American order has resulted in defeat after defeat. The American bishops have, in the face of increasingly draconian “anti-discrimination” laws, mounted a last stand on “religious liberty,” but it is unclear whether this battle will result in some breathing room for the Church. The idea of a Moment Before seems to involve resetting the clock, so to speak, to right before Catholics started losing all these important political and legal contests. However, it is only infrequently mentioned that these political and legal contests were fought and lost during a period when the Church was enthusiastically engaged in the liberal American order. In other words, the Church, inspired by the approach mapped out at the Second Vatican Council, was actively participating in and, more important, supporting American political life—and it still lost the debates. To put it another way, the idea of a Moment Before involves returning to the conditions that produced the current state of affairs.

Second, the tension between Catholic liberals searching for a liberalism that is truly liberalism and Catholic integralists delving into the Church’s anti-liberal tradition is inevitable. We have seen that everyone agrees, more or less, that liberalism and the Council are inextricably linked. Everyone also agrees that we are in the process of receiving, as they say, the teachings, such as they are, of the Council. The debates over the Council within the Church are going to inevitably implicate the posture of Catholics toward liberalism. Catholics seeking a deeper understanding of tradition, particularly on the social question, have begun to look back beyond the Council into the teachings of Pius XII, Pius XI, St. Pius X, and Leo XIII in particular. And in those teachings, as we say, they have found the Church’s anti-liberal doctrine. Things get extremely sticky from that point.

II.

Things get stickiest along the lines Meador and Jacobs identify. If Catholics start receiving the political thought of the Church, it will turn out that the broad consensus represented by Evangelicals & Catholics Together was illusory. Or, more precisely, it was based entirely on the Church’s posture at the Council and in the wake of the Council, which was not the Church’s historical posture. What do we mean? Well, before the Council, the Church was opposed to liberalism, root and branch. There was no Moment Before when there was a good liberalism. There might be pragmatic reasons to temper active opposition to liberal regimes, such as the mortal peril of Marxism-Leninism in Europe. But in terms of liberalism simpliciter, the Church’s judgment was clear. The Council then did something—some might say it made a pragmatic judgment due to the mortal peril of Marxism-Leninism in Europe, some might say it corrected the earlier extremism of the popes—and opened itself up to liberalism. The agenda sketched out in Evangelicals & Catholics Together relies entirely on that openness insofar as the enthusiastic cooperation with the American order outlined in that document is enthusiastic cooperation with liberalism.

Other thinkers are challenging the idea of a Moment Before. Patrick Deneen’s book, Why Liberalism Failed, presents the idea—not a new one, necessarily—that the problems we see in the liberal order today are essentially baked into liberalism. Deneen’s book has brought out numerous responses, including an insightful review from Harvard law professor Adrian Vermeule at American Affairs. Building on an essay in First Things some time ago, Vermeule argues essentially that integralist Catholics ought to consider populating elite institutions and, occupying positions of power, use their authority “to further human dignity and the common good, defined entirely in substantive rather than procedural-technical terms.” Where Douthat and others would say that Christians must engage with the liberal order to return to the Moment Before, Vermeule seems to argue that, first, there is no Moment Before to return to, and, second, integralist Catholics must engage with the liberal order to supersede it.

There are superficial similarities between the two approaches. Neither Douthat nor Vermeule retreats into gated communities or enclaves of Holy (Russian) Orthodoxy in the bayou, as Rod Dreher sometimes suggests and sometimes denies suggesting. Indeed, in both men’s visions, you will see intelligent Christians educated at elite schools entering the service of the regime. Some will go into government, some will go into the institutions the government serves, like finance, and others will go back into elite schools to prepare the next wave. In time, perhaps not a very long time, you will see the regime get better. But this is where Vermeule and Douthat’s visions diverge sharply. At a certain point, Douthat and the signatories to the Paris Statement and those who agree with them will recognize their Moment Before. Liberalism is itself again, they will say. Vermeule will say, simply, that we are well on our way to our goal.

To a certain extent, evangelicals like Meador, concerned by the rise of integralism among intelligent Catholics, should cheer Vermeule’s strategy. For the moment, it provides a way that integralists can remain part of the broader Christian conversation in the United States. Vermeule urges integralist Catholics to engage and populate liberal institutions and—and this bit is important—simply discharge their duties according to human dignity and the common good. There is, at least at the outset, little for Meador to be concerned about with respect to the intolerant integralist Catholics. The Catholic confessional state that he spends as much time as anyone worrying about would not emerge overnight. It might not emerge for a long time. Until that point, it would be exactly the sort of activity that the signatories of Evangelicals & Catholics Together would want to see. However, we would be surprised if Meador—or, for that matter, Alan Jacobs—would cheer Vermeule’s strategy all that enthusiastically.

What, then, does Cardinal Cupich mean?

In a recent talk at St. Edmund College, Cambridge, discussing paradigm shifts and hermeneutics implemented by Francis by means of Amoris laetitia, Blase Cardinal Cupich, archbishop of Chicago, stated:

The starting point for the role of conscience in the new hermeneutic is Gaudium et Spes 16 (2), which identifies conscience as “the most secret core and sanctuary of a man…(where) he is alone with God, Whose voice echoes in his depths.” When taken seriously, this definition demands a profound respect for the discernment of married couples and families. Their decisions of conscience represent God’s personal guidance for the particularities of their lives. In other words, the voice of conscience—the voice of God— or if I may be permitted to quote an Oxford man here at Cambridge, what Newman called “the aboriginal vicar of Christ”—could very well affirm the necessity of living at some distance from the Church’s understanding of the ideal, while nevertheless calling a person “to new stages of growth and to new decisions which can enable the ideal to be more fully realized” (AL 303).

(Emphasis supplied.) The entire talk is well worth reading, if only to see what a prelate widely seen as an influential American squarely aligned with Francis thinks about Amoris laetitia and its implementation. Other American prelates have disagreed, and it is unclear, especially considering recent votes by the USCCB, that Cupich’s views have wide currency among American bishops.

Nevertheless, this is plainly a major address and it has been promoted as such by members of the Pope’s party in the media. Were it not that Francis is currently embroiled in a very serious controversy regarding Bishop Barros of Osorno, Chile, and a letter allegedly presented to Francis by no less an authority than Cardinal O’Malley of Boston, one imagines that Cupich’s talk would receive much more coverage. But Cupich’s talk deserves some attention, not least for the passage quoted above, which implicates Bl. John Henry Newman in Cupich’s understanding of conscience. We shall see that Newman probably does not provide the support Cupich would like for his view of conscience.

First of all, we think it is fairly obvious that Cardinal Cupich intends to invoke Newman’s authority in support of his argument. Fr. John Hunwicke has identified a sort of clever usage here: Cardinal Cupich implies, but never asserts, that Cardinal Newman would have supported the proposition that conscience “could very well affirm the necessity of living at some distance from the Church’s understanding of the ideal.” Now, taken word by word: Cupich never says that Newman said what Cupich says. He never says that Newman understood conscience as a sort of get-out-of-sin-free card or an exception to any ecclesiastical rule or point of doctrine. Nevertheless, Fr. Hunwicke is quite right: to drop the quotation of Newman in the middle of that sentence makes it appear as though Newman would have somehow agreed with Cupich’s understanding of conscience. To determine whether or not this is the case, we must explore Newman’s writings in some detail.

The phrase “the aboriginal vicar of Christ” comes from Newman’s letter to the Duke of Norfolk, and it comes at the end of a long passage where Newman sets forth the Catholic understanding of conscience. The passage—though lengthy—is well worth considering in full:

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 {247} 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.'”

This view of conscience, I know, is very different from that ordinarily taken of it, both by the science and literature, and by the public opinion, of this day. It is founded on the doctrine that conscience is the voice of God, whereas it is fashionable on all hands now to consider it in one way or another a creation of man. Of course, there are great and broad exceptions to this statement. It is not true of many or most religious bodies of men; especially not of their teachers and ministers. When Anglicans, Wesleyans, the various Presbyterian sects in Scotland, and other denominations among us, speak of conscience, they mean what we mean, the voice of God in the nature and heart of man, as distinct from the voice of Revelation. They speak of a principle planted within us, before we have had any training, although training and experience are necessary for its strength, growth, and due formation. They consider it a constituent element of the mind, as our perception of other ideas may be, as our powers of reasoning, as our sense of order and the beautiful, and our other intellectual endowments. They consider it, as Catholics consider it, to be the internal witness of both the existence and the law of God. They think it holds of God, and not of man, as an Angel walking on the earth would be no citizen or dependent of the Civil Power. They would not allow, any more than we do, that it could be resolved into any combination of principles in our nature, more elementary than itself; nay, though it may be called, and is, a law of the mind, they would not grant that it was nothing more; I mean, that it was not a dictate, nor conveyed the notion of responsibility, of duty, of a threat and a promise, with a vividness which discriminated it from all other constituents of our nature.

This, at least, is how I read the doctrine of Protestants as well as of Catholics. The rule and measure of duty is not utility, nor expedience, nor the happiness of the greatest number, nor State convenience, nor fitness, order, and the pulchrum. Conscience is not a long-sighted selfishness, nor a desire to be consistent with oneself; but it is a messenger from Him, who, both in nature and in grace, speaks to us behind a veil, and teaches and rules us by His representatives. Conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ, a prophet in its informations, a monarch in its peremptoriness, a priest in its blessings and anathemas, and, even though the eternal priesthood throughout the Church could cease to be, in it the sacerdotal principle would remain and would have a sway.

(Emphasis supplied.) When Newman says that “conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ,” he means it literally. Conscience is an individual’s apprehension of the divine law, and, according to Newman, never suffers enough in the apprehension of the individual to lose its character. That is, conscience will always be the voice of God and must always be obeyed as such.

Taken in one way, Cardinal Cupich appears to assert that God can be set at odds with His Church. Of course, one cannot believe that a bishop and a cardinal of the Holy Roman Church would make such a startling assertion, even if it is popular with protestants and progressives. Nevertheless, taking Newman’s understanding of conscience, to which Cupich refers specifically, if somewhat ambiguously, in his remarks, it is hard to see what Cupich is driving at. One therefore wishes to ask, perhaps somewhat less polemically than Charles Kingsley, what, then, does Cardinal Cupich mean? Let’s see what we mean.

First, Cardinal Cupich recognizes that conscience is identical with the voice of God, as Newman says. Cupich asserts that the voice of God “could very well affirm the necessity of living at some distance from the Church’s understanding of the ideal.” Taken in its literal sense, this is extraordinary: the voice of God could “affirm the necessity” of failing to follow the teachings of the Church. Of course, Cupich neglects to note that “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.” It is the apprehension of this law that is conscience. This is perhaps the most serious ambiguity. If Cupich accepts the identity of conscience with the divine law, then he asserts here that the divine law, apprehended by man, can “affirm the necessity” of resisting the teachings of the Church.

Recall what Pius XII said in Mystici Corporis Christi:

Because Christ is so exalted, He alone by every right rules and governs the Church; and herein is yet another reason why He must be likened to a head. As the head is the “royal citadel” of the body—to use the words of Ambrose—and all the members over whom it is placed for their good are naturally guided by it as being endowed with superior powers, so the Divine Redeemer holds the helm of the universal Christian community and directs its course. And as to govern human society signifies to lead men to the end proposed by means that are expedient, just and helpful, it is easy to see how our Savior, model and ideal of good Shepherds, performs all these functions in a most striking way.

While still on earth, He instructed us by precept, counsel and warning in words that shall never pass away, and will be spirit and life to all men of all times. Moreover He conferred a triple power on His Apostles and their successors, to teach, to govern, to lead men to holiness, making this power, defined by special ordinances, rights and obligations, the fundamental law of the whole Church.

(Emphasis supplied.) In other words, Christ, the head of the Church, the sole ruler and governor of the Church, conferred upon the hierarchy, beginning with the Apostles and continuing down to the present day, “a triple power . . . to teach, to govern, to lead men to holiness.” When the Church, in Cardinal Cupich’s words, proclaims its understanding of an ideal, it is exercising this triple power, granted by Christ.

Consequently, it appears that Cardinal Cupich comes awfully close to asserting—presuming an understanding of conscience consistent with Cardinal Newman’s—that the divine law, implanted in each man by God, can permit individuals to act contrary to the teaching of the Church, established and ruled by God, who has given to the hierarchy the powers of teaching and sanctifying. While we are confident that Cardinal Cupich did not mean to set God against His Church by means of conscience, we are afraid that some readers, unschooled in theological controversy, may mistake his meaning and see in his words such an implication. And we admit that, having brought Cardinal Newman’s understanding of conscience into his remarks, one could fairly assume that Cupich meant to adopt Newman’s understanding as his own. The conflict between God and His Church in Cupich’s remarks follows from this understanding; therefore, one wishes that Cardinal Cupich would clarify his meaning.

A clever interlocutor—and the supporters of Amoris laetitia have shown themselves to be extremely clever if nothing else—might object and say that we have ignored an important point in Newman’s discussion of conscience. He might say that Newman acknowledged the possibility of a conflict between conscience and purely ecclesiastical laws. He might say that we are being unjust to Cardinal Cupich, whose meaning can be derived in greater detail from Newman’s own analysis of the potential conflict between conscience and ecclesiastical law. Indeed, our clever interlocutor might say that Cupich’s meaning is entirely clear if one considers Newman’s argument. This may be true. Let us consider, therefore, what Newman says:

But, of course, I have to say again, lest I should be misunderstood, that when I speak of Conscience, I mean conscience truly so called. When it has the right of opposing the supreme, though not infallible Authority of the Pope, it must be something more than that miserable counterfeit which, as I have said above, now goes by the name. If in a particular case it is to be taken as a sacred and sovereign monitor, its dictate, in order to prevail against the voice of the Pope, must follow upon serious thought, prayer, and all available means of arriving at a right judgment on the matter in question. And further, obedience to the Pope is what is called “in possession;” that is, the onus probandi of establishing a case against him lies, as in all cases of exception, on the side of conscience. Unless a man is able to say to himself, as in the Presence of God, that he must not, and dare not, act upon the Papal injunction, he is bound to obey it, and would commit a great sin in disobeying it. Primâ facie it is his bounden duty, even from a sentiment of loyalty, to believe the Pope right and to act accordingly. He must vanquish that mean, ungenerous, selfish, vulgar spirit of his nature, which, at the very first rumour of a command, places itself in opposition to the Superior who gives it, asks itself whether he is not exceeding his right, and rejoices, in a moral and practical matter to commence with scepticism. He must have no wilful determination to exercise a right of thinking, saying, doing just what he pleases, the question of truth and falsehood, right and wrong, the duty if possible of obedience, the love of speaking as his Head speaks, and of standing in all cases on his Head’s side, being simply discarded. If this necessary rule were observed, collisions between the Pope’s authority and the authority of conscience would be very rare. On the other hand, in the fact that, after all, in extraordinary cases, the conscience of each individual is free, we have a safeguard and security, were security necessary (which is a most gratuitous supposition), that no Pope ever will be able, as the objection supposes, to create a false conscience for his own ends.

(Emphasis supplied.) First of all, some context. Newman begins this argument by observing “that, conscience being a practical dictate, a collision is possible between it and the Pope’s authority only when the Pope legislates, or gives particular orders, and the like. But a Pope is not infallible in his laws, nor in his commands, nor in his acts of state, nor in his administration, nor in his public policy.” It is not clear that when the Church proposes an ideal, in Cardinal Cupich’s terms, relating to the moral law, that there is the same possibility of collision. Still less is it clear that when the Church repeats what Our Lord said in the Gospel—as is the case with the question of divorce and remarriage—that there can be the possibility of collision.

Second of all, as we have noted before, Newman rejects an understanding of conscience as mere self-will. This is the “miserable counterfeit” of conscience Newman excludes from consideration in the context of a collision between conscience and ecclesiastical authority. In rejecting this understanding, Newman sets forth the important principle—a maxim, if you prefer—that “conscience has rights because it has duties”:

So much for philosophers; now let us see what is the notion of conscience in this day in the popular mind. There, no more than in the intellectual world, does “conscience” retain the old, true, Catholic meaning of the word. There too the idea, the presence of a Moral Governor is far away from the use of it, frequent and emphatic as that use of it is. 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.) In other words, “the right of thinking, speaking, writing, and acting, according to their judgment or their humour, without any thought of God at all” cannot excuse one from obedience to the pope. Why not? Because it is not conscience. Therefore, if, by conscience, one uses this popular understanding, one can never justify, no matter how skillfully the argument is laid out, disobedience to ecclesiastical authority, to say nothing of disobedience on a point of considerable importance, such as this one.

Additionally, in the note on liberalism to Newman’s Apologia pro Vita Sua, we learn that Newman—as a protestant—”denounced and abjured” the proposition that “There are rights of conscience such, that every one may lawfully advance a claim to profess and teach what is false and wrong in matters, religious, social, and moral, provided that to his private conscience it seems absolutely true and right.”

To return to the main question: assuming, without granting, that the moral and ethical teachings of the Church fall into the category of acts discussed by Newman, we see that Newman proposes an extremely rigorous process for a conscience to claim the right of resistance. “If in a particular case it is to be taken as a sacred and sovereign monitor, its dictate, in order to prevail against the voice of the Pope, must follow upon serious thought, prayer, and all available means of arriving at a right judgment on the matter in question.” Moreover, the burden of proof, the onus probandi, is always with conscience: that is, if one believes one’s conscience requires resistance, one has the duty either to make out a case against obedience or to obey. The commands of the Pope do not have a burden of proof; that is, it is enough that the Pope issues them. Additionally, Newman recognizes that there may be an initial inclination to disobedience, which must be addressed squarely and rigorously. “He must vanquish that mean, ungenerous, selfish, vulgar spirit of his nature, which, at the very first rumour of a command, places itself in opposition to the Superior who gives it, asks itself whether he is not exceeding his right, and rejoices, in a moral and practical matter to commence with scepticism.” The process of justifiable resistance, in Newman’s terms, is arduous. It is not enough to invoke immediately—without serious thought, prayer, and an exhaustive effort of arriving at a right judgment—conscience and thereby claim the right to resist the Pope’s teaching.

Perhaps this is what Cardinal Cupich means. That is, perhaps he means that, for the divorced-and-remarried who wish to defy the teaching of John Paul II in Familiaris consortio and Benedict XVI in Sacramentum caritatis—that is, the teaching that they must live as brother and sister in order to be free to approach communion—upon the invocation of conscience, the process is long and difficult. The bigamists must engage in serious thought, prayer, and formation through “all available means” of a right judgment. They must “vanquish that mean, ungenerous, selfish, vulgar spirit” of their nature that rebels against commands from superiors. They must have no hint of self-will, and they must understand that the burden is on them and the presumption on the side of John Paul and Benedict and the teaching of the Church from the time of Christ Himself. Only when they are “able to say to ‘themselves,’ as in the Presence of God, that they must not, and dare not” follow the decrees of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, Cardinal Cupich may be saying, may they invoke conscience as a basis to live more uxorio in a bigamous second marriage. Such a rigorous interpretation of Amoris laetitia would put Cardinal Cupich in an extreme camp. Few prelates, if this is indeed what Cardinal Cupich means, have expressed such a rigorous view.

We are left therefore where we were a few minutes ago. What does Cardinal Cupich mean when he says that conscience “could very well affirm the necessity of living at some distance from the Church’s understanding of the ideal”? Does he mean to say that conscience sets God at odds with His Church in individual cases? We cannot believe that a cardinal would make such a bold—and boldly un-Catholic—statement, but, if he means to ratify Newman’s understanding of conscience and not the “miserable counterfeit” resisted by Newman, his meaning is unclear to a great extent. On the other hand, does he mean to follow Newman in holding that conscience may resist a decree of the Pope if, after the most arduous process of purification, education, and proof, conscience determines it is necessary? Such a view would turn the pastoral emphasis of Amoris laetitia into an austere rule leading to careful theological argumentation. Perhaps this is what Cardinal Cupich means to endorse. But if this is the case, we admit frankly being confused by the Pope’s friends’ endorsement of Cardinal Cupich’s talk. It is so far removed from their understanding of Amoris laetitia to be altogether more like the arguments of Cardinal Burke or Bishop Athanasius Schneider than those of Cardinal Schönborn or Rocco Buttiglione.

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.

Puzzlin’ Evidence

One of our favorite scenes in David Byrne’s (sort of uneven) 1986 film True Stories is the scene where the preacher, played perfectly by John Ingle, begins spooling out an entirely secular web of conspiracy theories. Ingle’s preacher hits every note of the 1980s evangelical preacher as he sings “Puzzlin’ Evidence.” It is a shame that the album version of “Puzzlin’ Evidence” on the True Stories soundtrack is a version by Talking Heads with vocals by David Byrne. Whatever Byrne’s talents as a vocalist, he does not bring the same rollicking style to “Puzzlin’ Evidence” that Ingle did. At any rate, we could not help but think of “Puzzlin’ Evidence” as we saw some of the reactions to Fr. Romanus Cessario’s very fine piece in First Things about the Mortara case.

Princeton professor Robert George, one of the grand old men of the interfaith coalition of neoconservatives, reacted to Cessario’s piece with horror. On Twitter and Facebook he decried the very idea of baptizing a child against the will of his or her parents as “an unspeakable injustice,” condemned by no less an authority than Thomas Aquinas. Somewhat surprisingly, George does not note that the current canon law of the Church, promulgated by St. John Paul II in 1983, notes that an infant—whether the child of Catholic parents or non-Catholic parents; it does not matter—in danger of death is baptized licitly even against the will of his parents (can. 868 § 2). The same code states that a child in danger of death “is to be baptized without delay” (can. 867 § 2). This, by the way, was the law under the 1917 Code, which clearly authorized baptism even of the children of non-Christians in danger of death (1917 can. 750 § 1). By the way, did you know that pastors have long been supposed to teach their subjects the correct way to baptize, in case of emergencies (can. 861 § 2; 1917 can. 743)? Stop for a moment and think about this: the law of the Church practically directs the faithful to baptize infants in danger of death notwithstanding any objections by their parents, and it commands pastors to make sure that the faithful know how to do this. Despite this clear teaching, George calls the baptism of Edgardo Mortara “an unspeakable injustice.” Does George really mean to say that the law of the Church for the past century, if not longer, constitutes an unspeakable injustice?

Plenty of the responses to George have happily pointed this out. One might also ask George what he thinks Matthew 28:19 means, to say nothing of the canons of the seventh session of the Council of Trent (March 3, 1547). We wish to emphasize another point, however, which might be overlooked otherwise. We come to the puzzling evidence.

In George’s haste to decry the baptism of Edgardo Mortara as “an unspeakable injustice,” he echoes some of the most vicious modern critics of the Church. In his (revolting and revoltingly titled) attack on Mother Teresa, Christopher Hitchens cited Teresa’s order’s practice of baptizing the dying as evidence of her “hypocrisy.” Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth: the saint consistently baptized those persons in her care. Fr. Leo Maasburg recounts that in Communist Armenia—where baptism was by no means a risk-free proposition for anyone—a hospital under Mother Teresa’s direction made sure that children (and some adults) dying were baptized. Nevertheless, the entirely true allegation that Mother Teresa baptized the dying has become one of the favorite slurs of the secularists against the Saint. In a review of Hitchens’s book for the New York Review of Books, Murray Kempton gleefully took up the charge. Indeed, Kempton is spurred to heights of fury rarely seen even in the explosive pages of the NYRB by the idea that an Albanian nun might want to succor the dying spiritually. The charge that Teresa baptized the dying remains one of the more popular charges, even twenty-some years after Hitchens’s book: Michael Stone, writing at Patheos in 2016, found nothing but horror in the idea that Teresa might baptize the dying.

Is there really any difference between George’s language regarding the Mortara case and the savage polemics directed at Mother Teresa? Is there any difference, really, between the spirit of George’s frantic denunciation and the lacerating blows directed at the Albanian saint? George calls the baptism of Edgardo Mortara and its consequences “an abomination” and “an unspeakable injustice.” Hitchens calls the baptism of many of Teresa’s patients a “hypocrisy.” Murray Kempton calls her baptisms “tickets of admission contrived in stealth and sealed with a fraudulent stamp.” And the Patheos blogger called them examples of “her moral corruption, and her callous attitude toward the sick and dying in her care . . . .” He goes on to call this “[t]he stuff of horror movies.” Surely George does not mean to indict Mother Teresa in the same terms that her most hateful critics have used! Surely he would find some way to distinguish his outrage over Romanus Cessario’s mild, intelligent defense of Pius IX from the gleeful, spiteful attacks of Christopher Hitchens and Murray Kempton! But try to think how you can indict Pius IX and exonerate Teresa. Try to think how you can distinguish contempt for Pius IX and Cessario’s argument from contempt for St. Teresa of Calcutta.

Harder than it looks, isn’t it?