Having previously written for CWR what I think a very strong defense of communities where the so-called Traditional Latin Mass (TLM) or the “extraordinary form of the Roman Rite” are the norm, you might think me sympathetic to the anxiety aroused by the new motu proprio issued by Pope Francis largely rescinding the liberal provisions made in Summorum Pontificum (whose author I defended here).
In truth, I am ambivalent. Most of my ambivalence has to do with online “traditionalists” indulging in the transparently tendentious uses and abuses of history that I have attempted to treat on CWR here and here. These are serious historiographical errors that cannot be left tolerated and unchecked. Traditionalists who continue to indulge and promote them lose otherwise staunch allies such as myself in an instant—and never faster than when complaining about Vatican II as some kind of “chosen trauma.” It is nothing of the sort, and I greatly welcome what the council did, especially in relations with the East, which I have treated about in great detail elsewhere.
My sympathy is further depleted by recalling how, over the last 400 years, the liturgical needs and requests of Eastern Catholics such as myself have been treated as playthings by not just Roman authorities but local Latin clergy as well. Latin intransigence and chauvinism when confronted with requests for legitimate local diversity have been around for centuries, as we Eastern Catholics know only too well. The fact that proponents of the TLM are now tasting it again, after a few years of freedom, can only invite thoughts of doctors being poor patients when they, too, must take bitter potions and pills.
Latin chauvinism is not just confined to the endlessly recycled tales of intrigues in Eastern Europe after the Reformation. For over a century now it has marked, and still marks, this country as well, especially when it comes to the treatment of married Eastern Catholic clergy, as I show in my new book, Married Priests in the Catholic Church. I wish we could write all this off as in the past, but as I have shown on CWR previously it is still very much alive.
Nevertheless, this should not prevent all concerned Catholics from joining hands in confessing that we are, and cannot but be, deeply ambivalent about the current state of the papacy, and for good reason. I wrote about that ambivalence here and more bluntly here. To paraphrase Gerald Ford, a papacy big enough to give you what you want is also powerful enough to take away what you love. Those who rejoiced in Pope Benedict XVI promulgating Summorum are now mourning Pope Francis promulgating Traditionis Custodes. Thus does one see anew what I called the promise and perils of papal populism.
Papal populism is a guilty pleasure of us all. Some of us are in favor of the pope when he’s writing letters to Fr James Martin about LGBTQ issues; others when he’s issuing denunciations about “gender ideology” and abortion.
But populism is no way to run anything. Is there any way out of this?
I think there is a way forward, but it is a way of askesis and apophaticism, involving massive and massively kenotic self-denial on all our parts, resulting in that much “smaller” Church we often hear about in comments made by a young Joseph Ratzinger, but here understood much differently.
Let me stipulate here my central claim: an overlarge and overweening papacy is found in nobody’s idea of “tradition”—neither Latin nor Byzantine, neither ancient nor early modern. It should be regarded as utterly indefensible today, and everyone of us should be looking to restrict and restrain it at every turn, regardless of our liturgical proclivities or traditions. Here is where those of us in the East can easily join hands anew with Latin Christians by reminding the latter that the post-1870 papacy is seriously at odds with the developed tradition up to that point, and the post-1870 papacy poses near-insuperable obstacles to not just ecumenism but also to reform within the Catholic Church as a whole.
Ultramontanism and papal centralization are enemies of the common good of the entire Church as such.
What can be done about such things? I have attempted on CWR over the years to call for papal slenderizing in several ways. One relatively easy way to begin would be to ensure that regular papal interviews are scrapped.
More broadly—and with increasing levels of difficulty, I admit—we would not want to continue to have an overlarge Roman Curia for reasons I suggested here. Such shrinkage, I suggested here, would itself require a massive and long-term rethinking of ecclesial (especially episcopal) structures towards the kind of accountability the Catholic Church uniquely and scandalous lacks today more than any other comparable institution. Such a rethinking would require abandoning shoddy notions of “sovereignty.”
The single biggest and most far-reaching change is one many “traditionalists” have been inclined to sneer at, not least since it has been so vigorously promoted by Pope Francis: genuine synodality, but not of the sort we have had with him and his predecessors, which is a sham. Instead, we need real, regular, and top-to-bottom exercises of legitimate synodality properly understood. Such synodality would also require recognizing that the laics are not some optional add-on to a church run exclusively by clerics, but must be included in all structures of governance with equal voice and vote. (I elaborated all this in considerable detail in my 2019 book Everything Hidden Shall Be Revealed: Ridding the Church of Abuses of Sex and Power.)
The point of these restrictions—and still others desperately needed—is to return health to the Church by stopping the constant focus on, and abuses of power by, the papacy. It has grown so vast and powerful that what is envisaged is not merely a clipping of wings, but their entire removal. No bishop of Rome now or in the past has any legitimate business in flitting about determining how a parish in Montreal or Melbourne or Mumbai or Moscow should celebrate the liturgy. That is up to them and their pastor in communion with the bishop (in communion with the bishop of Rome who, as Adrian Fortescue acidly noted just over a century ago, should be too busy tending his own flock in the central Italian peninsula to be trying to boss anybody else around.)
If we really had such structures, then local communities would rightly have much more control over not just the forms of their liturgical celebration, but also parish and diocesan finances, the election of bishops, and many other things found in both Eastern and Western tradition but currently lost to us.
But getting to the point when such structures and their healthful fruits are commonplace will require enormous work on our part, building long-term alliances between previously unlikely and sometimes openly hostile parties on the peripheries of the Catholic Church—those of us in the East, and those in the West in various TLM communities and orders who have hitherto shown neither talent nor interest in such alliances.
Are we all condemned, then, to shout ourselves hoarse in our little enclaves of irrelevance while the papacy continually fattens itself on its own eminence until it becomes morbidly obese, killing us all?
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