Recent months have seen the publication of several books critical of Pope Francis’ exercise of the Petrine Office. Phil Lawler, Ross Douthat, and Henry Sire have all issued tomes critical of the direction Francis is taking the Church.
Contrary to the accusations of certain self-anointed Franciscan Fanboys come rather lately to ultramontanism, many of those uneasy with the direction of the Church under Francis are thoughtful people of substance and good will who developed grave concerns after a period of cautious optimism early in the current pontificate. Perhaps Francis was engaging in a radical new style of papal display while maintaining the substance of Catholic teaching, a strategy very much in keeping with Pope St. John XXIII’s understanding of the very purpose of Vatican II, which was to keep the substance of the Faith while adapting forms of its expression to modern man’s needs and modes of understanding.
For instance, Matthew Schmitz of First Things has recounted that he was able to appreciate and esteem Pope Francis’ early statements and documents using the lens of the hermeneutic of continuity. But the synods on the family and Amoris Laetitia foreclosed that possibility going forward:
I was not then, and never will be, against Francis. In June of that year, I celebrated the publication of Laudato Si’: “Francis’ encyclical synthesizes the great cultural critiques of his two most recent predecessors.” I was glad to see Francis smashing the false idols we have made of progress and the market. […]
My admiration for Laudato Si’ has only grown with time, but I fear the import of that document is bound to be obscured by Amoris Laetitia. A pope who speaks with singular eloquence of our need to resist the technocratic logic of the “throwaway culture” seems bent on leading his Church to surrender to it. What is more typical of the throwaway culture than the easy accommodation of divorce and remarriage?
And so I ended up criticizing Francis—the pope for whom I once had such great hopes—in the pages of the New York Times. “Francis has built his popularity at the expense of the church he leads,” I wrote. How little I had wanted to arrive at these conclusions—how much I had dragged my feet along the way.
Schmitz is representative of many thoughtful Catholic intellectuals (Phil Lawler has recorded his own shift); it’s easy and honest to read much of what Francis wrote in (say) Evangelii Gaudium and Laudato Si’ in true continuity with what Benedict (and John Paul II) before him had taught. A fun game on social media early in Francis’ papacy was to post a papal quote and query one’s followers about which pope said it as a way of illustrating continuity among the three. And yet the synods on the family and the resulting Amoris Laetitia proved a tipping point, where cautious optimism about Francis gave way to concern and loyal opposition in a sort of Emmaus moment, where for many their eyes were opened and they saw the Vicar of the risen Christ for who they now think he is: a radical dedicated to changing the Church in accord with the mischievous Spirit of Vatican II.
John Zmirak was there first. A witty, acerbic, and informed writer, he struck an anti-Francis tone from the first. And so the recent spate of books critical of Francis warrants taking a look at Zmirak’s Politically Incorrect Guide to Catholicism, issued back in 2016. Zmirak describes his aim for the book as follows:
It’s my task to throw a wet blanket on the hootenanny that began with the election of Pope Francis and help the reader discover” that fundamental Catholic teaching and practice can’t change on matters of politics, economics, love, marriage, sex, and resistance to “evil ideologies” from “Islam to feminism, Nazism, and communism. (pp. 3-4)
Zmirak attempts to support a papally-minimalist, free-market, pro-life, pro-marriage understanding of Catholicism by discerning a solid core of official Catholic articulation of the Tradition, interpreting certain documents and movements (such as “Catholic Social Teaching”) in ways counter to progressive readings, and claiming other documents and statements don’t represent the true Tradition. Zmirak’s book puts the problem faithful Catholics have in the post-conciliar era into bold relief. It presents a defensible but idiosyncratic reading of modern Catholicism and proposal for how faithful Catholics should situate themselves within it.
Zmirak begins the book with a couple chapters covering basics, setting up general principles to move to his particular critiques. After running through some introductory preliminaries addressing the confusion many outside and inside have about Catholicism, the first chapter, “The Church: What It Says about Itself, the World, and What Will Happen to you When You Die,” presents an efficient and helpful rehearsal of salvation history, beginning with the fact of sin bequeathed to the human race from the Fall, through the chosen people of Israel, through the Church founded by the Jew Jesus. Zmirak here is reminding his readers that salvation of souls is the first thing for which the Church and its teaching and practices exist, often forgotten in an age where many inside and outside the Church assume it’s both a caucus for advancing secular policy goals and a club for a sort of group therapy in which people can have an opportunity to feel good about themselves.
From there, Zmirak in the second chapter deals with the episcopacy, from your friendly local Ordinary to the Pope, as bishops are the authentic teachers of the Faith. The title is, “The Pope, the Other Bishops, and When and Why Catholics Have to Believe What They Say—and When They Don’t.” This chapter is the most important for the book, as it grounds Zmirak’s critiques of what many left-leaning clergy have asserted in recent decades. Zmirak herein affirms a certain magisterial minimalism:
There is just one thing that Catholics believe about every pope who legitimately held that title: not one has ever taught ex cathedra (“from the chair” of Peter)—that is, when he was making a solemn pronouncement of a dogma for the whole Church—anything on faith or morals that contradicts “the Deposit of Faith”. (p. 30)
Zmirak then flirts with conciliarism, noting that papal infallibility itself was affirmed by a council (Vatican I, 1870), and that “[v]irtually everything that Christians share in common as points of faith was…arrived at as the decision of often contentious councils of bishops” (p. 31), such as Christ’s equality of divinity with the father and Mary’s appellation as Mother of God.
Indeed, Zmirak is concerned that many contemporary Catholics see the pope as an “oracle” (p. 39), whose words on economics and politics must be obeyed and cannot be challenged. Helpfully, Zmirak reminds his readers that the Holy Spirit does not directly choose popes (pp. 42–45, a point Cardinal Ratzinger also once made, with real force). Zmirak notes that it’s actually Mormons who treat their president as an oracle who can declare heaven’s will directly and change doctrine on a dime, as with polygamy (pp. 44–46). Positively, Zmirak explains the ordinary and extraordinary magisterium and what sort of obedience and assent is owed to each. The upshot for Zmirak is that Catholics must obey (but have only to obey) authentic teaching on faith and morals. False teaching, however subtle, or clerical statements on (say) economics or politics outside the bounds of faith and morals, merit no necessary obedience.
Against “cafeteria Catholicism” and “Feeding Tube Catholicism,” then, Zmirak advocates for “Knife-and-Fork Catholicism.” Instead of picking what teachings we like in the cafeteria of faith and morals or lying back “as the latest pope’s latest statements are downloaded into our brains” as if (here mixing metaphors) hooked up to a feeding tube, Zmirak would have us “sit up like men and women with knives and forks at a restaurant,” accepting “balanced, healthful meals sent out by a chef whom we trust” (p. 50). “But,” he continues, “if there seems to be some kind of mistake,” like the serving of “prison rations,” then “we drop our forks” (p. 50). “We send the chef a message that we will pass, in the happy faith that the restaurant’s Owner will agree and understand” (p. 50). We are to side with Our Lord against his unfaithful shepherds.
Ecclesial authority and “hot button” issues
This, here, is the key issue of Zmirak’s book: Under what conditions do ordinary, faithful Catholics get to reject what some ecclesial authority asserts, from their parish priest to the pope? Zmirak’s model requires faithful Catholics to know ecclesial documents backwards and forwards and assumes a high place for sanctified reason—that is, it presumes that Catholics have the ability to know the Faith and sift and sort contemporary pronouncements by it. The Church issues official documents—whether conciliar constitutions, apostolic exhortations, encyclicals, dicasterial directives, catechisms, and so on—and publishes them in myriad languages in many media, from traditional booklets to the Web, because the Church esteems reason. It believes Catholics can read, understand, interpret, and apply them. But a problem arises when thinking Catholics of whatever stripe interpret them in a way that seems to others at odds with what a document says, or simply rejects them because they seem to err in facts of morality or history or seem to contradict prior binding teaching. And so progressives reject Humanae Vitae because it supposedly relies on an outmoded and insufficient conception of natural law, most Catholic biblical scholars reject what the Church really teaches about the authorship of many books of the Bible, and Amoris Laetitia gets interpreted and implemented in radically different ways in different dioceses and parishes. What’s a Catholic to do? Zmirak would have them think for themselves as informed and faithful Catholics, and if they do so, they’ll agree with him.
Having established the basics of Catholicism and how magisterial authority is supposed to work within, Zmirak moves both to hot-button issues and how progressives on one side and orthodox and traditionalist Catholics on the other have operated since the Council. Zmirak rightly emphasizes that the “Spirit of Vatican II” is a nebulous, even Gnostic concept that allows its advocates the sole role of determining what the Spirit is saying, often in spite of the explicit statements of the conciliar documents, and argues convincingly that the texts of the council are normative.
In one of the best chapters in the book, “How Birth Control Tore the Church Apart,” Zmirak does an admirable job summarizing the context and aftermath of Humanae Vitae, explaining how modern medicine and urbanization (thanks to which children became an economic burden more than an asset) made possible a reconsideration of the Church’s historic teaching on contraception. Zmirak also notes that Pius XII made a “theological development” in 1951 in a speech to Italian midwives by asserting that limiting and spacing births was legitimate by means of periodic abstinence. But by the time of the Second Vatican Council, many leading laity and clergy were in the fevered grip of the ideology of technological progress and so rejected Humanae Vitae absolutely.
Humanae Vitae, issued fifty years ago this month, revealed the fissures simmering during and before the Council, making public and unavoidable a rift between progressive Catholics on one side of the divide and orthodox and traditionalist Catholics on the other. As progressives came to dominate the conversation as well as chanceries and institutions in the West, the orthodox (associated later with John Paul II, who sought to receive the Council and implement it rightly) and traditionalists (who largely rejected the Council and joined splinter groups like the SSPX) retreated into subcultures. Zmirak observes that progressivism became an exercise in autophagy, as the Church and its institutions have withered under their reign. Vocations have plummeted, and measures of fidelity among the laity indicate collapse. The orthodox and traditionalists persisted in maintaining a certain fidelity to the Faith, but have been ineffective in seizing real control of the Church. Zmirak here is ecumenical in a way, calling the orthodox and traditionalists to get along and work together, whatever they make of John Paul’s actions and legacy, the state of the liturgy, and other items on which they might disagree. As he does often in the book, Zmirak also reminds his readers that we need the other ninety-five percent of Catholics who reject Church teaching or don’t go to Mass because they simply don’t know any better (see pp. 119–120): instead of writing them off or retreating to the righteous enclave of a subculture, Zmirak would have faithful Catholics see them as objects of gentle mission.
From here Zmirak moves on to hot-button political issues, such as economics, amnesty for illegal immigrants, gun rights and capital punishment, climate change, and sex. Whereas much of the Church’s clerical and lay leadership leans left on these issues, Zmirak contends that right-wing positions are compatible with Catholicism. The Church, he thinks, has approved of market economics from the Middle Ages to today, and Zmirak accuses Francis and others of launching “straw-man” bromides against capitalism and economic freedom. Amnesty for illegals, Zmirak argues, will empower leftist politics in the United States and thus lead to ever more abortion. Zmirak finds that Catholic calls for gun control are ill-informed and at real odds with Catholic teaching regarding the right of self-defense. So too with calls to abolish capital punishment; this of course is the most obviously problematic case for the so-called “development of doctrine,” as there was a papal executioner until 1870 and capital punishment remained on the Vatican City State’s legal books until 1969 (see p. 194). As regards climate change, Zmirak reminds us that the Church and its magisterium can pronounce definitively only on faith and morals, not matters of science. In the penultimate chapter, “Sex, Sanity, and the Catholic Church,” Zmirak describes the carnage left by the sexual revolution and shows in contrast how perennial Catholic teaching on marriage, sex, and family is sane and humane.
But he also decries how contemporary progressive Catholics—including, for him, Pope Francis—are seeking to undermine perennial teaching under the banner of a supposedly “pastoral” approach, rehearsing the drama surrounding the synods on the family and Amoris Laetitia. Zmirak offers his own five-point plan to “make us prophetic witnesses to the reality of marriage, in the face of the pale pansexual temporary sex contract that our laws call by that name” (pp. 282–283). The plan includes NFP training, a “covenant” binding Catholics to Catholic teaching (lifelong marriage; a renunciation of divorce and remarriage, and an agreement that the aggrieved party gets all common property in the case of a civil divorce); the making of a civil divorce a result of an annulment, not a prerequisite; strict application of canon law; and a waiting period of three to five years for marriage after annulment.
Temptations and opportunities
Zmirak closes the book with a chapter dealing with “Temptations and Opportunities for the Church.” For Zmirak, the temptation is retreat: either a retreat into progressivism (he names several prominent, supposedly orthodox Catholics active on the internet who in his view have given in), or a retreat into righteous enclaves. In Zmirak’s view a “seamless garment” approach to life issues will dilute prolife witness and activism on the fundamental crime of procured abortion (see also prior in the book, pages 96–101), while he also fears blessing gay couples is a real possibility in the near future, as is surrendering our fight for political freedom as citizens and religious liberty as churchmen. In all these areas, certain progressives would have us surrender to the Spirit of the Age (which, I observe, is what ecclesial progressivism is designed to do, as it attempts to progress to the ends determined by liberal modernity, and thus seeks to employ the Church as a caucus supporting the standard laundry list of left-wing causes favored by Western elites).
Along the way here Zmirak wrongly derides Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option” as defeatist retreatism, which Zmirak, and most reviewers of Dreher’s work, misunderstand—Dreher is calling for traditional Christians to realize they’re on the margins on the West and to focus on developing thick communities devoted to Christian practices like liturgical prayer, mutual support, and hospitality while still evangelizing and fighting tooth and nail for religious liberty. Zmirak ends by endorsing Jason Scott Jones’ “Whole Life” program which he himself modified with Jones in The Race to Save Our Century (Crossroad, 2014), and which is presented in the present work as a five-point list of fundamental principles (see pp. 325–326):
- The sanctity of each human being as an image of God
- The reality 0f a transcendent moral order that is above all man made laws
- The need for a free society that protects fundamental rights
- The virtues of a humane economy that allows humans to flourish
- The duty of solidarity among every member of the human family
Zmirak is an entertaining writer, by turns witty, by turns acerbic, and always clear. For those looking for a representative model of how certain Catholics disagree with clerics and remain faithful, this book serves as a ready, readable resource. But it’s perhaps also idiosyncratic to the point of being Quixotic; has Zmirak made himself a one-man magisterium? Is his sort of political conservatism, which looks so traditionally American, if not libertarian, really what the Church affirms? Zmirak would say yes, of course, and he can point to myriad moments in history and official documents to make his case.
Above all his work shows up the crisis in contemporary Catholicism, in which the post-conciliar Church seems to many to be estranged from the Church of prior eras. Whether one follows him will depend on just how confident one is in one’s own knowledge and reason in judging contemporary clerical pronouncements. But perhaps that’s precisely the sort of laity that Vatican II envisioned.
The Politically Incorrect Guide to Catholicism
by John Zmirak
Regnery Publishing, September 2016
Paperback, 256 pages