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Opinion: A papacy big enough to fulfill your wishes can also destroy them

Ultramontanism and papal centralization are enemies of the common good of the entire Church.

St. Peter's Basilica, Città del Vaticano, Vatican City (Image: Sean Ang | Unsplash.com)

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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About Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille 93 Articles
Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille is associate professor and chairman of the Department of Theology-Philosophy, University of Saint Francis (Fort Wayne, IN) and author of Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy (University of Notre Dame, 2011).

16 Comments

    • Why not? If what he’s saying is true — that the Latin Church didn’t really have such an expansive understanding of the pope’s jurisdiction until very recently — why is it impossible for the prior understanding to make a return? Surely it would be a slow process, but I don’t think it’s reasonable to completely exclude it. Perhaps the reaction we’re seeing now is the progress of such a movement.

  1. As an Orthodox Christian, “convert” from Roman Catholicism where I was for 20 years, I will say that while I do think this illustrates the problem with Roman over-centralization, on the other hand I am a little envious that you guys have an authority who can address a serious issue this quickly and efficiently. I sort of wish we had someone in Orthodoxy who could do the same thing about the Moscow-Constantinople split, or the Calendar nonsense.

  2. I would like to thank Professor DeVille for his thoughtful commentary upon the recent Moto Proprio. Like him, I am Eastern Catholic, and have found great devotion and spiritual benefit from serving at the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom (as well as SS. Basil the Great and Gregory Dialogos) for several decades now.

    I therefore have little attachment to, or connexion with, either the Mass of Pope S. Paul VI, or that of Pope S. Pius V. Nonetheless, I have been saddened by the liturgical iconoclasm of the past half century in the Roman Church, and had hoped that the generosity of Pope Benedict XVI in promulgating ‘Summorum Pontificum’ could help overcome that iconoclasm.

    I fear that His Holiness’ recent action serves to shut the door on that hope and in my face, and on the rights of many under canon law to worship in a legitimate rite of that Church. I also fear that His action will not serve His Holiness, either in this life, or in the next.

  3. It is nauseating to have to admit that to be a Catholic in the “contemporary Catholic Church” means to be tyrannically ruled by apostate “progressive” clerics and their chanceries who hate Catholic tradition and memory and identity.

    To be Catholic means to be outnumbered 10-to/1 by apostate “Catholic” University presidents and faculty.

    It means having Bishops most of whom probably identify with John Kerry instead of John the Baptist.

    But as to the Pontiff’s brutality in this action, what does one expect of the man elected Pontoff by the engineering of the sociopath sex abuser McCarrick, and the sociopath sex abuse coverup artist Cardinal Daneels?

  4. You lost me at “askesis and apophaticism, involving massive and massively kenotic self-denial on all our parts.” Maybe the vernacular isn’t all bad.

  5. When things such as this happen, I often wonder how we can keep from reacting to the last crisis in such a way that we set ourselves up for the next crisis. I also wonder how we can promote principles that are at least reasonably consistent across time and space. It gets tempting when a Pope makes a bad decision to weaken the papacy and then turn around and call for a stronger papacy when local bishops and priests misuse their authority, or even a stronger laity when all of the above misuse their authority.

    In any case, this article is a useful contribution to the discussion.

  6. I fully agree with Prof. DeVille on the unfortunate lack of appreciation for Eastern liturgical rites and traditions on the part of Latin Christians over the centuries. Vatican II’s solemn declaration that “the Churches of the East, as much as those of the West,” have the right and duty to rule themselves “in accordance with their own established traditions” (OE,5) was a welcome step towards correcting prior abuses. I am not sure, though, what to make of Prof. DeVille’s claim that “the post-1870 papacy is seriously at odds with the developed tradition up to that point.” This seems to suggest that what Vatican I taught about papal authority was a departure from tradition. I think a distinction needs to be made about the reality of universal papal authority and the exercise of that authority. The universal authority of the Roman See is hardly a novelty that emerges in 1870. Regarding the Apostolic See of Rome, St. Maximus the Confessor (c.580-662) stated: “This Apostolic See, which, from the Incarnate Word of God Himself, as well as from the holy councils (according to the sacred canons and definitions) has received and possesses the sovereignty, authority and power of binding and loosing over all the churches of God in the entire world, in and through all things” (Migne, PG 91:144). In its 1439 Decree for the Greeks, the Council of Florence defined that the Roman Pontiff is “the head of the whole Church, the father and teacher of all Christians; and that to him, in the person of Blessed Peter was given by our Lord Jesus Christ the full power of feeding, ruling, and governing the whole Church, as is also contained in the acts of the ecumenical councils and the sacred canons” (Denz.-H, 1307). Vatican I, in chapter 3 of Pastor Aeternus, cites this definition of the Ecumenical Council of Florence (Denz.-H, 3059). Vatican I’s teaching about the universal authority of the Roman Pontiff was drawing upon a developed tradition in spite of what Prof. DeVille suggests.

    • The papacy that emerged in the early 20th century–one that appoints every bishop in the world and reshapes the liturgy at will–is not something that can be found in the Fathers.

      Pius IX refused to add Saint Joseph to the Roman Canon.
      A century later, Paul VI promulgated a Mass where the Roman Canon itself is entirely optional.

      Roman primacy should not equal papal absolutism. But here we are. And the elephant in the room will not be seen off with prooftexts from the Fathers.

    • Thank you, Dr. Fastiggi. I don’t really disagree with anything you’ve written, but I think the thrust of what you’re saying is that popes wield authority in matters of faith and morals, whereas Dr. DeVille is saying that the exercise of universal immediate jurisdiction is what’s not really traditional. Two different things.

      Maybe I’m wrong.

  7. The age of the televised and live-streamed personality-cult-Pontiffs, and the satellite-personality-cult of unaccountable Cardinals and Archbishops and Bishops, who operate with impunity by virtue of Billions of Dollars in their secret control, is repulsive and disgusting and infantile (as Adam Deville has indicated), and needs to be curtailed.

  8. Dr Fastiggi, thanks for a well documented and reasoned response on the true nature of the papacy, and the difference between the office and its exercise.

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