Integralism, dogma, and sinking ships

It has been impressive to watch the Witherspoon Institute’s publication, Public Discourse, become one of the leading anti-integralist publications. Under Ryan T. Anderson and Serena Sigillito’s leadership, Public Discourse has been a reliable home for liberal critiques of the Church’s traditional teaching on the correct order of Church and state. Indeed, if you are looking for a liberal critique of the Church’s traditional teaching on a whole host of issues, Public Discourse looks like it is becoming your one-stop shop. (Remember Nathaniel Peters’s exposition of about half of an article in the Secunda Secundae during the Mortara controversy?) Earlier this month, in keeping with this editorial direction, Public Discourse ran an article by law professor Robert T. Miller arguing, basically, that integralism is heresy. Miller’s piece is baffling from the jump, since he’s responding to an essay by Joseph Trabbic, which argued that a Catholic confessional state is normative but impossible. But as we shall soon see, Miller’s essay is not only baffling, it’s wrong.

But before we get to how wrong Miller is—and he’s so wrong the opposite of what he says isn’t even right—it is worth considering the fanatic anti-integralism of Public Discourse lately. First of all, there is some irony in Public Discourse‘s new editorial line. Traditionalists have accused the liberals of heresy (or worse) in the wake of the Second Vatican Council. Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre’s Open Letter to Confused Catholics, with its ringing condemnations of the spirit of the French revolution of 1789, demonstrates clearly the incompatibility of liberalism with the traditional teaching of the Church. Now we see the liberals, formerly ascendant, adopting the rhetoric of the formerly embattled minority. Just as the traditionalists pointed to the teaching of Pius IX, Leo XIII, and Pius X, so too do the liberals point to Dignitatis humanae. Time will tell whether this amusing trend continues. However, there is more than irony in Miller’s piece and Public Discourse‘s new editorial line.

As we had occasion elsewhere to remark, it seems like every Public Discourse essay these days is the band playing “Nearer My God to Thee” on the doomed ship, Liberalism. After sixty years, the postwar liberal project appears to be imperiled on every front. Let us not delude ourselves, however. Not every assault on liberalism is equivalent, and it is far from clear to us that the challenges to the liberal order will be successful in the long run. Nevertheless, it is clear that many Catholic liberals see integralism—not rising populist tides or the prospect of authoritarian democracy—as the real challenge to the liberal world view. This is quite natural, we think, since integralism is based upon the teachings of the great popes who really did challenge liberalism at a time when liberalism was not so entrenched as it is, today. Assaults on integralism like Miller’s have the air of preaching to the choir to remind everyone why they are good liberals, opposed to the wicked integralists.

Miller relies, fundamentally, on the argument that whatever the doctrine was before the Second Vatican Council, the Council changed it. This relies primarily on a tendentious reading of Dignitatis humanae, which is par for the course among the anti-integralist liberals. But Miller, not content to make the simple assertion that Dignitatis humanae changed the Church’s teaching, takes it a step farther. He argues that the anti-liberal encyclicals of Pius IX, Leo XIII, and Pius X set forth teachings that are not de fide. Indeed, he suggests that there is no de fide teaching in support of a Catholic confessional state, much less the integralist state. Thus, the Second Vatican Council’s teaching is a perfectly legitimate change in doctrine and the integralists hold views contrary to that doctrine. Tough talk! Happily, at the Dialogos Institute’s blog, Dr. John P. Joy, head of the St. Albert the Great Center for Scholastic Studies, which hosts the summer programs that always look so fascinating, has responded to Miller’s essay.

And what a response! Miller argued that while parts of Pius IX’s Quanta cura were infallible, other parts weren’t. Joy demonstrates clearly and unequivocally that all of the propositions condemned in Quanta cura are infallible. And he does so by returning to the core documents regarding infallibility: Pastor aeternus and Bishop Vinzenz Gasser’s relatio at the First Vatican Council regarding the schema that became Pastor aeternus. (Gasser’s relatio begins on col. 1204 of vol. 52 of your Mansi.) By comparison, Miller just looks at the language of Pius IX’s bull Ineffabilis Deus and Pius XII’s constitution Munificentissimus Deus. It goes without saying that Joy’s approach is by far more coherent and consistent with Catholic teaching than Miller’s prooftexting. After all, nowhere in Pastor aeternus do you find the requirement that a pope use magic words to speak ex cathedra and, therefore, infallibly. Relying on Pastor aeternus and Gasser, Joy makes a powerful claim that the propositions condemned in Quanta cura were condemned infallibly. We will not spoil Joy’s essay for you—it is a treat to read—but we will say that we do not see how Miller can answer Joy coherently.

We note—though Joy does not press his point too hard, since he’s got Miller on the canvas, so to speak—that this brings Leo XIII’s anti-liberal encyclicals and Pius X’s anti-liberal encyclicals into a different light. The teachings of those great popes are obviously connected—both historically and logically—to Pius IX’s infallible condemnation of certain liberal doctrines. We know from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s doctrinal commentary to Ad tuendam Fidem that such teachings are definitive and that they may be at some point in the future dogmatically proclaimed. We would be interested to see Joy return to this question, simply to see his lucid argument on a topic of great interest. The point, however, is clear: if the condemnations of Quanta cura are infallible—and Joy pretty well establishes that they are infallible—then we must consider Leo XIII and Pius X’s encyclicals developing the teaching of Quanta cura as definitive.

We are not so courtly as Joy, and will press this last point a little bit farther. A great brain of our acquaintance mentioned, offhandedly (as usual), that Joy’s view was adopted by no less an authority than the great canonist and Jesuit general, Francis Xavier Wernz, in his monumental manual, Ius Decretalium. In volume I, page 385, Wernz states clearly the opinion that Quanta cura is infallible and the errors condemned by that encyclical (and the Syllabus Errorum) are infallibly condemned. We recommend heartily Wernz’s treatment of Quanta cura and Syllabus in the pages following page 385, especially the examples of the treatment of Quanta cura as infallible during Leo XIII’s pontificate. Wernz goes on, we observe, to discuss the relationship between Pius’s condemnations and Leo’s encyclicals. In Wernz’s view, the relationship is even more essential than the obvious historical and logical connections; Wernz holds that the relationship between Pius’s condemnations and Leo’s explanations is like the relationship between the canons and the doctrinal chapters of the great decrees of the Council of Trent and the First Vatican Council (Ius Decretalium, vol. 1, p. 387).

If this is the case, and we surely think it is, then the magisterial weight of Leo’s anti-liberal encyclicals must be increased greatly. Of course, this is not a particularly groundbreaking conclusion to an integralist. Whether it was an act of the extraordinary magisterium or simply the universal ordinary magisterium, the Church taught certain anti-liberal doctrines infallibly. Leo XIII and Pius X’s anti-liberal encyclicals must, therefore, be read as definitive statements of the Church’s political thought. Dignitatis humanae has to be read in this light, too, and we think there are readings of Dignatatis humanae that are consistent with this view. Any integralist can tell you this.

This will no doubt be unwelcome news to Miller and his editors at Public Discourse, and we do not expect them to accept Joy’s argument, however obvious it may be. At this point, the commitments to liberalism—commitments usually driven by secular political objectives—are too strong to be shaken, even by an argument as powerful as Joy’s. Obviously, we would read Miller’s response with close attention. But we know what he’s going to say: Dignitatis humanae changed the teachings in some meaningful way and, therefore, either Pius IX was not infallible or a general council taught heresy. A better reading of Dignitatis humanae avoids such dilemmas, but such readings inevitably end with an affirmation of the Church’s anti-liberal teachings. That won’t do, we suspect, for Public Discourse.

We have previously argued that there is a real need for integralist institutions. Existing institutions like Public Discourse or First Things or any of a whole host of other organizations and publications are simply too committed to liberalism of one form or another to provide a welcome environment for integralists. The Miller-Joy exchange drives that home. There should be a publication that presents Joy’s argument on the same level as Miller’s. And there should be a publication that permits frank discussion on politics and culture motivated by the same rigorous, Catholic thought that motivates Joy’s presentation of Quanta cura.

The anniversary

There is little left to be said about Humanae vitae. This is not because it is not a rich and fruitful document. It is, of course. Indeed, it is the foundation of the Church’s entire moral position in the modern age. When Paul refused to open the door to birth control, he provided the conceptual framework for John Paul to keep the door barred against abortion and euthanasia. He also provided the orientation toward human life that one finds in Francis’s Laudato si’. On the other hand, no other papal pronouncement has been as controversial the world over as Humanae vitae. It has been cheered and lamented by Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Yet it is the fiftieth anniversary of Humanae vitae, and the occasion does, we think, call for a few words.

Foremost among them is the recognition of the fact that we have discussed before. 2018 is the year of Paul VI. We have seen the fiftieth anniversary of the Credo of the People of God, we are marking the fiftieth anniversary of Humanae vitae, and this fall, we shall see him raised to the altars as Saint Paul VI. But the influence of Paul VI in this time extends far beyond some anniversaries and a canonization. There is a sense that the Church has been plunged, since 2013, into some of the debates that raged under Paul VI. After the pause presented by John Paul II and Benedict XVI—and the collapse of the consensus that those popes represented—the dialectic within the Church between tradition and modernity (and, frankly, modernism) has resumed.

We have commented, we think, elsewhere about Gladden Pappin’s argument (following Baudrillard) that, following the pause from 1991 to 2001, history has resumed. Perhaps there is something to be said for this in terms of world history. But it seems clear that, regardless of what has happened in the world at large, history has resumed in the Church. It is natural, therefore, to look back to Paul VI in these times. Paul VI was the last pope to confront—and be forced to judge—the conflict between tradition and modernity. And Humanae vitae is the premier example of Paul confronting and deciding such a conflict. The lessons of Paul’s act of frankly Apostolic courage and clarity still deserve to be considered, along with the other lessons to be drawn from Paul’s complex, often frustrating papacy.

In Humanae vitae, we find the germ of the basic liberal narrative of the Church. After the Council, all things were possible and it looked like the Church was going to enter modernity enthusiastically. Innovations that were opposed fiercely by Pius XII in Humani generis looked tame in comparison to what burst onto the scene after 1965. Then Pope Paul, with a voice that seemed to come from an earlier time, clearly and unambiguously opposed one of the most cherished practices of modern liberalism. Things started to go wrong. For the liberals, 1968 to 2013 was an unmitigated stream of disasters and disappointments. (This is not quite right, but close enough for our purposes.) Ever since Humanae vitae, there is a sense of having lost what could have been. And this sense has become especially acute since Francis’s election.

The story of Humanae vitae is well known by now. Paul set up a commission to study birth control. The bishops and theologians came down almost unanimously in favor of permitting, at least in some circumstances, birth control. It was widely expected—and a draft of an encyclical prepared, if we remember right—that Paul would ratify the decision of the commission. However, the towering prefect of the Holy Office, Alfredo Cardinal Ottaviani, and a handful of others (no doubt, in the standard liberal telling of the story, identified as reactionaries), opposed such an opening. They were able to convince Paul to go against the experts on the commission and reject any opening to birth control. Yet, according to the liberals, this teaching has not been received by the faithful, who contracept in roughly the same proportion as the faithful of the third century professed that the Son was of like substance as the Father, and some future enlightened pope is expected to come and set things straight.

We have mused before whether the deliberations leading to Humanae vitae were on Paul’s mind when he proclaimed his great Credo of the People of God. The basic narrative is, of course, that Paul was dismayed by the Dutch Catechism and other errors and enormities seemingly receiving approval from the hierarchy. He decided, therefore, to confirm his brethren in the Apostolic faith handed down from Peter to Paul VI. Yet we cannot shake the sense that Paul’s creed and Humanae vitae are of a piece. To say that the Paul of Humanae vitae is separate from the Paul of the creed would be to separate him from himself. One reads about Paul’s agonies of conscience during the explosive period following the Council, but one does not read that Paul was unmoored altogether.

We see then that Paul understood acutely the essence of the Petrine ministry. The pope acts as the guardian of the unity of the faith. His refusal to bend to the spirit of the age must be seen as an act touching upon the very essence of the papacy. Over the past five years, especially in the context over the debate of Amoris laetitia, we have had opportunity to read much (and write some) about the vision of the papacy in Pastor aeternus, the First Vatican Council’s great dogmatic decree about the Petrine office. The pope receives the assistance of the Holy Spirit not so that he can propose new doctrines—after all, public revelation ceased with the death of the last apostle—but so that he can guard the faith definitively. To condemn error is, therefore, at the heart of the Petrine office.

In this regard, Paul had for his example Pius XI and his encyclical, Casti connubii. In that document, which may be read as a rejoinder to the Anglicans’ collapse and acceptance of contraception at the 1930 Lambeth Conference, Pius condemned contraception in ringing terms. Terms, in fact, that have been argued invoked the extraordinary magisterium. Indeed, we know because the working papers of Paul’s commission to examine birth control were leaked at the time to try to create pressure on the pope that the irreformability of Casti connubii was hotly debated in the commission. However, it appears that Pius XI and Casti connubii weighed heavily on Paul’s mind.

The pope’s role as guarantor of the unity of faith would be undercut severely if a pope were, per impossibile, to overturn a clear ruling by one of his predecessors in a matter touching upon faith and morals. Once such a thing happened, the rule of faith would be at the mercy of the reigning pope. After all, what one pope does, another pope can undo. Whether or not Paul articulated that sense, we do not know. However, by reaffirming Pius’s clear condemnation of contraception, whether Casti connubii was technically infallible or not, Paul revealed his knowledge of the deeper truth about the papacy.

This was understood, we think, by his contemporaries. The Jesuit-run AARP Magazine supplement, America, has relived its glory days by posting some of its contemporary content about Humanae vitae. One of its early editorials responds to Humanae vitae by placing dissenters in dialogue with Paul himself. Paul’s teaching was not a teaching, according to the editors, but merely one opinion among many, based on reasoning subject to critique. It was, we see, anything except an Apostolic utterance, drawing its authority from Christ’s command to Peter to teach all nations. In other words, the critics of Humanae vitae have to topple the pope from his exalted position and make him just another man on the street with just another opinion. There is no other way to resist Paul on this point.

The demise of the American king

Anthony Kennedy has announced his retirement. Every politically aware person in the United States—and recall that man is a political animal—has been waiting for this moment. At American Affairs, Gladden Pappin, following Baudrillard, has argued that history has begun again after its post-1991 hiatus. You can agree or disagree with his argument, but we think it is impossible to deny that Kennedy’s retirement feels like the resumption of history. Prior appointments have not been hugely significant, except to those who watch the Supreme Court. Even the fracas over Scalia’s replacement was ultimately a battle about replacing one “conservative” justice with another “conservative” justice. The storm over Kennedy’s replacement has a historical dimension.  Indeed, it has an apocalyptic dimension.

What is so extraordinary is how quickly the reaction to Kennedy’s retirement has progressed to an acknowledgement by left-liberals that Roe v. Wade, Casey v. Planned Parenthood, and Obergefell v. Hodges are in dire jeopardy. That means, of course, that abortion on demand and same-sex marriage, the two central struts in the modern left-liberal platform, are in dire jeopardy. Indeed, skimming some of the initial reactions on Twitter, it seemed to us that many left-liberals have conceded that Kennedy’s retirement means the end of those precedents and the policies they enshrine. This is a breathtaking sentiment: for left-liberals, one man has been responsible for ordering the American Republic toward the common good as they imagine it. In this vision, Anthony Kennedy has been more than a career federal appellate judge and sometime deciding vote on the Republic’s highest court.

He has been, in effect, a king. This is a cliche by now. Google “Anthony Kennedy philosopher king” and see how many hits you get. As recently as January, Michael Brendan Dougherty, a conservative columnist at National Review, characterized Kennedy as our “philosopher king,” whose decisions give legitimacy to an ever-more-polarized United States and who restrains the excesses of whichever political coalition is ascendant. We doubt that Dougherty finds Kennedy’s decisions, especially his lodestar decisions in Casey and Obergefell, especially congenial. But he makes essentially the same point the left-liberals do. Kennedy was the guarantor of unity and order in the American Republic. The hyper-polarized electorate and the never-ending electoral cycle necessarily lead to dissension and disunity. By drawing firm boundaries, as Dougherty might say, around the edges of what the political coalitions can do to each other, Kennedy guaranteed that the dissension and disunity would not get too bad.

But, of course, in singlehandedly enacting and upholding the core left-liberal agenda, Kennedy stoked the fires of fairly serious dissension and disunity. One could draw a fairly straight line between Kennedy’s decisions in Casey and Obergefell and the toxic nihilism that motivates much of political discourse on the right.

A brief excerpt for your attention

We have found ourselves detained lately on matters less pleasant than we would like. However, not too long ago, we were reading Cardinal Newman’s Grammar of Assent, yet another one of the great man’s books that is cited and respected more than it is read, and we stumbled upon a passage that seemed to us to have great force, to say nothing of its applicability to this moment in the life of the Church:

In solving this difficulty I wish it first observed, that, if it is the duty of the Church to act as “the pillar and ground of the Truth,” she is manifestly obliged from time to time, and to the end of time, to denounce opinions incompatible with that truth, whenever able and subtle minds in her communion venture to publish such opinions. Suppose certain Bishops and priests at this day began to teach that Islamism or Buddhism was a direct and immediate revelation from God, she would be bound to use the authority which God has given her to declare that such a proposition will not stand with Christianity, and that those who hold it are none of hers; and she would be bound to impose such a declaration on that very knot of persons who had committed themselves to the novel proposition, in order that, if they would not recant, they might be separated from her communion, as they were separate from her faith. In such a case, her masses of population would either not hear of the controversy, or they would at once take part with her, and without effort take any test, which secured the exclusion of the innovators; and she on the other hand would feel that what is a rule for some Catholics must be a rule for all. Who is to draw the line between who are to acknowledge that rule, and who are not? It is plain, there cannot be two rules of faith in the same communion, or rather, as the case really would be, an endless variety of rules, coming into force according to the multiplication of heretical theories, and to the degrees of knowledge and varieties of sentiment in individual Catholics. There is but one rule of faith for all; and it would be a greater difficulty to allow of an uncertain rule of faith, than (if that was the alternative, as it is not), to impose upon uneducated minds a profession which they cannot understand.

But it is not the necessary result of unity of profession, nor is it the fact, that the Church imposes dogmatic statements on the interior assent of those who cannot apprehend them. The difficulty is removed by the dogma of the Church’s infallibility, and of the consequent duty of “implicit faith” in her word. The “One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church” is an article of the Creed, and an article, which, inclusive of her infallibility, all men, high and low, can easily master and accept with a real and operative assent. It stands in the place of all abstruse propositions in a Catholic’s mind, for to believe in her word is virtually to believe in them all. Even what he cannot understand, at least he can believe to be true; and he believes it to be true because he believes in the Church.

(Emphasis supplied.)

Evangelicals & Catholics in the age of integralism

At The American Conservative, Rod Dreher has a very lengthy post critiquing Matthew Walther’s recent column at The Week arguing that the Catholic alliance with evangelicals has not worked out to the benefit of Catholics. We note by way of parenthesis at the outset that Walther’s column for The Week is consistently one of the most entertaining and provocative columns out there. Anyway, in the context of the imbroglio over Paul Ryan firing and unfiring the House chaplain, Jesuit Fr. Patrick Conroy (hired by John Boehner, a longtime friend of the Jesuits), Walther makes some very pointed remarks about the effects on Catholics of their political alliance with evangelical protestants. We agree with Walther, for the most part, but Dreher doesn’t. Dreher’s point is basically this: so what if American Catholics have gone wobbly on the Church’s social teaching because of this alliance with evangelicals?

It is worth thinking about this exchange because it provides a perfect example of what we have talked about before, and that is what Jake Meador (a protestant) has rightly called a parting of the ways between Catholics and protestants. Both Catholics and protestants are engaged at the moment in a project of ressourcement. Catholics in particular are presently engaged in rediscovering the Church’s anti-liberal, integralist tradition and thinking about how best to implement the anti-liberal, integralist teaching of the Church in American political life. This makes the consensus that made projects like Evangelicals and Catholics Together to name but one less tenable than ever before. Indeed, we have seen in recent regrettable incidents that institutions devoted to the consensus typified by Evangelicals and Catholics Together are hostile to expressions of, for example, the anti-liberal, integralist Catholic tradition. It will be clearer, we think, in short order that Dreher (among others) does not understand this moment in American Christianity as well as he thinks.

Here’s the problem. As Dreher eventually gets around to arguing, the forces of secular liberalism—implacable in their opposition to Christianity—don’t actually see much of a difference between faithful Catholics and faithful evangelicals. Moreover, it is clear that Dreher doesn’t actually see much of a difference, either. Whatever drift there has been in American Catholics’ views, he thinks it was baked in from the beginning. In support of this proposition, he argues (1) that Americans are simply protestantized at a baseline level and (2) that Americans are basically indifferentist. In any event, he does not think it’s all that big of a deal to suggest that Catholics and evangelicals should cooperate on certain issues. What is needed, Dreher concludes, is for Christians to downplay their differences and present a united front in defense of religious liberty.

Even if indifferentism isn’t baked into American religious expression, Americans should adopt it, Joe Carter of the Acton Institute tells us as he weighs in, arguing, based on the thought of 19th-century Dutch protestant and household name around the world Abraham Kuyper. Kuyper, Carter tells us, believed that Catholics and protestants have creedal confession and morals in common. More than that, on the points where secular society is most hostile to Christians, Kuyper argued that Catholics and protestants were in agreement. This is a funny assertion, not least because Catholics and protestants disagree pretty vehemently on articles of all of the creeds of undivided Christendom. Moreover, it is only by equivocation that a Catholic and a protestant can profess belief in One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, since it is clear that a Catholic means one thing and a protestant another. On this point, one wonders what response Carter would get from his Southern Baptist brethren if he told them that when they pray the Nicene Creed, they confess the same creed in the same way as St. Pius V or St. Pius X. Levity aside, it seems odd to us that Dreher or Carter would offer what amounts to indifferentism as a way forward.

Part of the reason why indifferentism seems like a strange solution is because it has been what Acton and other institutions have been advancing for some time now, without any appreciable success. In this, we are reminded of Brent Bozell’s “Letter to Yourselves” from an early issue of Triumph. The splendid site Incudi Reddere reprinted the essay yesterday in the context of a Twitter discussion along these lines. Bozell was writing to an audience of conservatives in 1969 in the wake of Richard Nixon’s victory in 1968. After discussing the decision by conservatives to support Nixon despite the fact that Nixon really did not represent the conservative position by 1968, Bozell makes this devastating point:

I think this experience can be described even more sharply. Secular liberalism has lost its war for historical existence, but it has not lost any of the battles it has had with you. On every front where your program has confronted secular liberalism’s, you have been beaten. Consider (against the background of one of Nixon’s press conferences) your campaigns against big government, against Keynesian economics, against compulsory welfare; your defense of states’ rights and the constitutional prerogatives of Congress; your struggle for a vigorous anti-Soviet foreign policy; your once passionate stand for the country’s flag and her honor. Is there a single field which the secular liberals have had to yield to the secular conservatives? That is one side of the coin. The other is that secular liberalism has, nevertheless, diedand for causes apparently unconnected with your ministrations. Some say it succumbed from existential wounds, an inability to cope with reality. Do you deem yourselves sufficiently close students of reality to have helped significantly to inflict the wounds? Others lay the failure to an organic weakness or “sickness,” a self-contained fault of the system. Has your criticism of secular liberalism persuasively diagnosed this sickness? Still others say the basic cause is in the order of ideas. Do you claim to have located the fundamental errors, or to have corrected them? I do not mean, with these questions, to chide you; I concede that men are hard to find in our time who ought to feel any more comfortable with them. The point is simply that, taking both sides of this coin together, it is not surprising you should neither be called, nor offering yourselves, as secular liberalism’s heirthat it is not surprising you are disillusioned.

(Emphasis supplied.) What was true in 1969 remains true in 2018. One might cavil with this assessment and say that Bozell was writing to secular conservatives, not religious conservatives. Okay. How many battles have the religious conservatives won? The most recent major defeat—dealt by the Supreme Court in Obergefell—was so devastating to Dreher that he now proposes anything a sort of strategic regrouping (in its weakest form) to a retreat to the bayou (in its stronger form) for Christians.

This is a painful point for many, not least Dreher. However, when one says that Catholics and evangelicals should put aside their “small differences” to fight the liberal order, one has to point out that they’ve been doing that for a while—and losing. Perhaps this time will be different. It is true that the liberal order is seen to be struggling at this moment, even if the reasons are not always so clear. Christian conservatives have, unlike the secular conservatives, a real ethical and metaphysical critique of liberalism that, in the case of the critique advanced by the Church, carries divine authority. One sees this even today, in Francis’s great anti-liberal encyclical, Laudato si’, which is clearly an authoritative critique of modern liberalism. That counts for something, to be sure. Nevertheless, when a united Christian front for religious liberty is discussed, one ought to hear Bozell intoning, “Secular liberalism has lost its war for historical existence, but it has not lost any of the battles it has had with you.”

This is, we think, Walther’s point. Catholics have made accommodations for the sake of presenting a united front with other Christians on other issues, only to be defeated in each fight. Walther writes,

What has been the result of this abandonment of principles? Forty years of infanticide, economic exploitation, and spoliation of the Earth as the forces of capital and technology disrupt all our settled customs, habits, convictions, and affections, at an increasingly rapid pace. Think tanks have been founded, fellowships have been granted, journals have been founded, and symposiums held. A whole new conception of politics has emerged out of what ought to have been a limited prudential alliance — but the clock has not been turned back a minute. “All that is solid melts into air,” as Marx put it, and Catholics and evangelicals stand together with their paper cups trying to catch a few drops of the precious liquid to put back in their broken refrigerators.

(Emphasis supplied.) One is justified in asking, then: was it worth it? Was it worth setting about half of Centesimus annus and about six paragraphs of Rerum novarum against the rest of Rerum novarum, Quadragesimo anno, Mater et Magistra, Pacem in terris, Gaudium et spes, Populorum progressio, Laborem exercens, Sollicitudo rei socialis, the other half of Centesimus annus, Caritas in veritate, and so on? (To say nothing of the social magisterium beginning with the apostles and the fathers down to Leo XIII!) Was it worth deciding that Dignitatis humanae, Unitatis redintegratio, and Nostra aetate blotted out the Church’s entire thought on its relationship with the state and other faiths?

Moreover, can we say that it was worth it as Catholics are actively engaged in recovering this tradition? As we say, the real problem is that Dreher does not understand this moment in American Christianity. He suggests that the vision of Evangelicals and Catholics Together is dead, right before making basically the argument advanced by that project. Jake Meador, as we have mentioned before, recognizes that both Catholics and protestants are recovering substantial aspects of their respective traditions that make it less and less possible to engage in the sort of ecumenism represented by Evangelicals and Catholics Together. Consider, for example, the ongoing recovery of the Church’s anti-liberal tradition. There is an increasing realization—at least on the Catholic side of the line—that the sense that the Church threw open the doors to liberalism at Vatican II is not quite correct. To be sure, Dignitatis humanae and Gaudium et spes show more openness to liberalism than, say, Syllabus or Leo XIII’s Libertas praestantissimum. But one must be careful not to read more into the documents than is actually there. At The Public Discourse, for example, Professor Joseph Trabbic has a lengthy essay arguing basically that. He demonstrates convincingly that the Church’s normative political position—even today—is that of a Catholic confessional state. We could go on, though we won’t, about the revival of integralism going on today.

The point is this: Catholics and protestants are recovering their traditions. The Church’s tradition is integralist and anti-liberal. Protestants are working on their own traditions, and they are finding their own reasons to be suspicious of the ecumenism Dreher advances. One might say that the only interesting work being done by Christians on the right—which is very nearly the same thing as saying the only interesting work being done by Christians—is being done in this area. This work makes the sort of cooperation that Dreher urges less and less possible. An integralist Catholic is not going to see the political goals advanced by Dreher as all that worthwhile, except as potentially an intermediate step toward a Catholic confessional state, and he is certainly not going to want to make the compromises—even rhetorical—necessary to work with evangelicals toward such a goal. Likewise, the protestants engaged in their own ressourcement are not going to be excited about coalitions with integralist Catholics.

Today, Incudi Reddere posted another piece from Triumph by Brent Bozell. It concludes, in part:

The something else we must do, then, is to be Christians. The first words of Genesis establish the precedence of being over doing: fiat lux. The goal of the Christian tribe, like that of the city which Christians could once hope to build, is to establish temporal conditions hospitable to the Gospel life. But first the tribe must be. It is a matter of consciousness. Am I an American? a Spaniard? an Englishman? Or am I a Christian? It is also a matter of presence. Here and on every other continent Christians must be visible, not in any city disguise, but openly in their apostolic role as teachers sent to the ends of the earth.

We submit that part, a large part, of being a Christian is being an orthodox Christian—that is, a Catholic. We would not deny, however, that protestants are acting in good faith when they say that being an orthodox Christian means being orthodox by the lights of their sect. However, the point is this: there is an emerging sense Bozell is right and the first step toward a political solution is being an orthodox Christian. As this sense emerges, the idea, advanced by Dreher and Carter, that Christians should gloss over significant differences in theology, ecclesiology, metaphysics, and ethics so that they can fight one more losing battle against secular liberalism becomes less and less tenable.

“What is the reality of the situation?”

In the 1970s, Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt produced some decks of cards with various questions or statements printed on them. Eno and Schmidt came up with Oblique Strategies, as they called the cards, as suggestions of ways to approach a problem that were not the straight-on approach. They had found, it seems, working separately on their own projects, that they would reach some impasse. The questions or statements were intended to get themselves (at first) out of the jams they found themselves in. The cards, originally released in 1975, were revised in a couple of subsequent editions. The cards and the sayings on them have been a sort of mid level cultural artifact since then, appearing in Richard Linklater’s Slacker. (Indeed, in Slacker, a putative card is “Withdrawing in disgust is not the same as apathy,” which isn’t a card in the original sets. The phrase, however, is striking and found its way to R.E.M.’s “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?”) One of the sayings from the first edition (and kept all the way to the third edition) is “What is the reality of the situation?”

This is a question integralist Catholics need to ask themselves right now. We should be clear at the outset that we are aware, though perhaps we should be more aware, that “integralist Catholic” is—or ought to be—a redundancy. Integralism is simply the perennial teaching of the Church, finding its finest expression in Leo XIII’s encyclicals, regarding the relationship of the Church to the state. It is assumed that the Church backed away from this teaching in the Second Vatican Council, especially Dignitatis humanae. However, this assumption is perhaps harder to justify than it might first appear. We will, therefore, use the expressions integralism and integralist simply as convenient shorthand, not least since they are at the moment used in discussions outside Semiduplex. (We were surprised to learn that such things happen, too, dear reader.) They’re not perfect, but they’ll do until perfect expressions are found.

Anyway: the reason why integralists need to ask themselves the question “What is the reality of the situation?” is because, at this moment, integralist Catholics have a little visibility and a little momentum. Much of this comes from a broader suspicion of liberalism that seems more and more justified every day. Consider for example the critique of liberalism in Scott Hahn’s new book, The First Society. Hahn graciously permitted the excerpt to run at The Josias, and you should read it as soon as you can. We haven’t read The First Society, but if the excerpt is any indication it’s probably well worth our attention. We can debate what Hahn says, but what we cannot debate is Hahn’s prominence as a Catholic apologist and writer. Suspicion of the liberal order—especially the compromises the liberal order demands (and demands and demands) of Christians—is in the air. Moreover, integralists have been recovering their own tradition. It only seems like these ideas emerged overnight. In addition to the magisterium and the teachings of Thomas Aquinas and others, there were those thinking about these ideas when liberalism’s reign seemed unquestionable. Consider, for example, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who was as disturbed by the assault on the reign of Christ the King as he was by anything else. One consideration in the reality of the situation is the (increasingly dicey) relationship between integralists and liberals and the relative lack of integralist institutions.

Turning to the first point: liberals, even Catholic liberals of the Evangelicals and Catholics Together variety, cannot provide shelter for integralists in liberal institutions. The fundamental claims of liberalism are not compatible with the claims integralist Catholics make. Everyone knows this. Integralists relate to the United States and the American project in a radically different way from liberals, even liberals on the right. Let us drill down on this example for a moment. It is often argued that the American order before recent deformations—let us say, before 1965 or so, though even that date may be too late—provided an opportunity for the Faith to flourish in an environment of ordered liberty. Why, runs the implicit question, do the integralists have a problem? Even acknowledging that there have been moments when American liberalism has benefitted the Church, as Leo XIII did in Longinqua oceani, we must affirm, as Leo XIII also did in the same letter, that the American order is not the ideal order of Church and state. It is that simple. This point, by no means the most controversial point of integralist thought, though perhaps among the most fundamental, means that integralists cannot write prose poems to the “wisdom of the Framers” and the alleged natural-law foundations of the federal Constitution.

Given that liberals on the right—even liberal Catholics–feel constrained to write exactly those prose poems, this alone would result in significant opposition between integralists and liberals. Of course, we know that the opposition is broader than that. The example, however, is an important one. Integralists have a hard time trading even in the hoary cliches that pass with hardly any notice among liberals. Think about that for a moment: if we take Leo in Longinqua seriously, we are free to acknowledge the gains for the Church under the American regime, but we are by no means free to say—against Immortale Dei or Diuturnum or Libertas—that the American regime is ideal. Given the concepts that have been bundled into the idea of the American regime by conservatives, here we are thinking of liberal democracy, free speech, free market ideology, and the rest of it, denying that the American regime is ideal is a significant act. And one liable to leave integralist Catholics in the position either of silence on these issues or radical opposition to liberals.

The bottom line is this: Jake Meador, a while back, talked about a parting of the ways of Catholics and some protestants as both Catholics and protestants delved deeper into their respective traditions and found greater points of incompatibility. The same thing is happening even among Catholics. As integralist Catholics recover the Church’s perennial teaching on its relationship to the state and to non-Catholics, it will be difficult for integralists to maintain the same close relations with liberal Catholics who, by and large, react to integralist Catholicism with anything ranging from polite bemusement to horror. Now, it is impossible for Catholics to part ways from Catholics in the same manner that Catholics are parting ways from protestants. We are, ultimately, bound together in communion with Peter in the Mystical Body of Christ. Nevertheless, it is possible to acknowledge that certain differences make certain forms of cooperation impossible. Liberal institutions simply cannot support—whether out of hostility or not—integralists for any length of time. It is clear, therefore, that integralist Catholics have to begin the laborious work of building their own institutions. This is our second point.

Some institutions already exist—The Josias comes to mind first, followed by a circle of blogs more or less in The Josias‘s orbit, including Semiduplex—but there is room for development. Naturally, one thinks of magazines of theory, criticism, and opinion, broadly along the lines of existing magazines. One may also think of magazines aimed at more popular audiences. Certainly this would solve problems that have crept up in recent weeks and months in existing—liberal—publications. There would be no problem, for example, articulating an authentically Catholic position about the duties of the state toward the baptized, even those baptized in exigent circumstances, at an integralist magazine. Nor would there be problems articulating potential aspects of the penal law in a Catholic state. But to confine one’s thought toward that sort of institution may be a strategic blunder. For one thing: there’s more to life than debates over politics or the effects of baptism in a confessional state, hard as that may be to believe.

Adrian Vermeule has talked, notably, about a strategy of replacement; that is, Catholics take positions in elite institutions and gradually populate those institutions. One can discuss the merits of the strategy another time. We will take it for granted for now. Could not a similar strategy of replacement be appropriate in cultural or artistic institutions? Indeed, might not such a strategy be necessary? And if those institutions are too hardened toward population—infiltration, they would call it—by Catholics, ought not Catholics attempt to create rival institutions? This is an elaborate way of saying that, if the strategy is replacement, then the strategy is replacement across the board. An integralist website for movie reviews or music reviews or book reviews is a component, if not perhaps an essential component, of an integralist strategy. Now, there is, we admit, some difficulty here: what is an integralist movie review? Surely it is not a movie review that assesses the aesthetic merits of a movie on how well the movie represents the correct ordering of state to Church. That would be ridiculous.

This is a point worth pondering. The answer is obviously that it would be a movie review from a broadly Catholic perspective, unafraid of considering modern aesthetic developments, but also unafraid of making moral judgments or comparative judgments. Indeed, one might argue (it has been argued in the past, so we are hardly breaking new ground) that aesthetic judgments require above all a recognition of truth. We will let the aesthetes puzzle it out in greater detail, however. We raise the point simply to highlight the danger of considering integralism a particular tendency requiring a particular set of postures to the exclusion of everything else. (This is a danger we find ourselves susceptible to.) As we have said, one of the central claims of integralism is that it is simply Catholicism. That is, it is what the popes have taught and the faithful have believed, according to their station and education. When it is expressed in the context of politics, it takes the form of integralism. But Catholicism is expressed or informs one’s expression in other contexts, and it is necessary to consider these other contexts, too.

And if you don’t accept the strategy of replacement? Well, it is clear, as we cannot help repeating, that existing liberal institutions are hostile to integralist Catholics. An integralist, regardless of his or her artistic views, is going to have a hard time obtaining and maintaining access to the most notable institutions. There are basically two choices: first, it is possible to decide that integralism is a view that must be kept secret and gain access to liberal institutions as an apparent liberal. Of course, since integralism is merely the political expression of traditional Catholicism, this will require a commitment to keep other things secret. Second, it is possible to decide that the best people to talk about these things with are like-minded people and the best places to talk about them are friendly places.

***

Lately, we have been thinking a lot about L. Brent Bozell’s brilliant, doomed Triumph magazine. At a time when the Church’s bargain with liberalism seems like more and more of a raw deal—and at a time when integralist institutions are increasingly necessary—the story of Triumph is one that ought to be told. Mark Popowski, a professor at Collin College in Texas, published, not too long ago, The Rise and Fall of Triumph: The History of a Radical Catholic Magazine, 1966–1976. We suspect this is a revision of his 2008 doctoral dissertation. It is a great resource for anyone looking to learn more about Triumph. There are other resources. A few years ago, Daniel Kelly published a biography of Bozell, and one can get The Best of Triumph and Bozell’s own autobiography. There is also an interesting essay on the topic from John Médaille at Ethika Politika from several years ago.

Many of you probably know the story. Bozell had been with Buckley and others in the early days of National Review. Bozell, a convert to the Church unhappy with the line Buckley and others took (Mater Si, Magistra No!), started Triumph in 1966 with some fanfare to present a staunchly Catholic viewpoint—taking aim at the right and the left alike. This was, however, basically the worst possible moment in history to undertake such a task. (Of course, Bozell might answer that it was, therefore, the most crucial moment in history to undertake the task.) On one hand, the Second Vatican Council initiated a process that saw the Church’s traditional anti-liberal doctrine diminished (if not eliminated) almost overnight, along with other changes, not the least of which was the complete revision of the liturgy between 1964 and 1970. On the other hand, the conservative movement was well on its way to solidifying its free-market ideology by 1966. Bozell found himself, therefore, between a rock and a hard place. Over the next ten years, however, Triumph produced a considerable amount of intelligent, incisive commentary from a Catholic perspective. Unfortunately, the publication diminished over time, ending up as little more than a newsletter before it wound up operations in 1976.

Triumph was not narrowly political, though certainly there was much to discuss politically between 1966 and 1976. But in reading The Best of Triumph, one finds the expression generally of a certain outlook. The sort of publication that would provide the best home for Catholics is a publication that, like Triumph, has a certain outlook that, among other things, expresses itself politically in integralism. There are other lessons to learn from Triumph—and other publications—and Catholics with the skills and motivation to learn those lessons will, we suspect, be capable of building the institutions that are so clearly required.

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.