My recent CWR column on Pope Francis’s comments about the worrisome rise of what he called “the restorers” in the American Church appears to have kicked up some dust and not a little misunderstanding.
Many critics seem to think that I was saying more than I was saying. For example, some traditionalists, despite my explicit statement that the primary “gaggers” of the Council were the post-conciliar progressives – and despite my claim that it is Pope Francis himself who is to blame for the current radicalization of the current ecclesial factionalism – took my critique of their restorationism as some kind of blanket condemnation of traditionalism tout court. They think I am claiming that there can be no legitimate criticisms of Vatican II.
And it is only that last claim where I think a certain ambiguity in my remarks, born of a need to remain brief, should be clarified on my part. I am in favor of a deep and robust debate, involving all voices in the Church without any censoriousness imposed from above, about the ongoing meaning of the Council and its proper reception.
I myself have criticized the Council for what I call its “double naivete”. The first naivete was an overconfidence in the internal strength of the pre-conciliar Church’s culture. After all, if the pre-conciliar Church was as healthy as its proponents claim, then how on earth do we explain the almost immediate collapse of that culture after the Church lifted the lid off of the ecclesiastical libido? No less a light than a young Fr. Joseph Ratzinger had already noted, in an important lecture published in Hochland in 1958, that the Church had become a “Church of pagans” that was rotting from within.
The second naivete was a stunning (almost insouciant) optimism with regard to the Church’s dialogue with modern culture. There was an intoxicating overconfidence in the ability of the bourgeois culture of Liberal democracy to act as a medium within which the Church could be herself and fulfill her mission. In short, I think the Council failed to read properly and prophetically the very “signs of the times”, both within the Church and in the broader culture, to which the Council appealed as a tool for discernment, and that this failure was near fatal to the conciliar project as a pastoral endeavor, the aim of which was to usher in a new Pentecost within the Church.
Therefore, my problem with the traditionalist critique of Vatican II is not that they dare to question its documents, but rather that their critique is, generally speaking (but not in all cases), simply wrong. Space precludes a more lengthy exposition, but I think they are wrong to reject certain developments of doctrine in the areas of religious freedom, ecumenism, interreligious dialogue, and the theological nuances of Dei Verbum in its Christological recentering of our concept of Revelation and the various media of Revelation in Scripture and Tradition.
However, I think the traditionalist critique of the Council does raise certain thorny hermeneutical and theological questions that have been festering in the Church ever since the conclusion of the Council. Which indicates, at the very least, they are questions that are not going away and need answering. Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI went a long way toward answering some, but not all, of those questions, and I agree with my friend, the brilliant patristic scholar Dr. Lewis Ayres, who stated in an interview I did with him, that the Council’s ressourcement theological project is an unfinished product in deep need of a renewed and vigorous revisitation. My traditionalist friends are of the view we have had enough time to do this already and that the project has been an abject failure. And, further, that it is the very unfinished nature of the whole enterprise that has led to the dangling loose ends of theological ambiguity that created this mess in the first place.
I can sympathize with this frustration while rejecting their solution to simply restore the old Mass as the standard Mass of the Church, and to resurrect the mid- century neo-scholasticism of folks such as Garrigou-Lagrange as the standard theology of the Church. I admire Lagrange and have profited from his writings, but a simple return to that mode of theology would be disastrous. Nevertheless, all of this is a debate worth having if for no other reason that the form of theology and liturgy they champion is indeed part of the Church’s Tradition and cannot, and must not, be simply swept away as so much retrograde nonsense.
Therefore, I am in favor of all voices at the table since only an open debate involving all faithful Catholics will help us untie the knots we have twisted ourselves into. But this is precisely my complaint regarding Pope Francis. The Pope of “accompaniment” and of “going out to the peripheries” and of “synodality” and “dialogue”, seems singularly unable to extend such things to the Church’s traditionalist flank. When it comes to those “peripheries” there are only harsh and scolding words (“rigid”, “Pharisaical”, “psychologically unbalanced”) and punitive and deprecatory motu proprios, all of which seem designed to disenfranchise and demoralize some of the Church’s most devoted and devout sons and daughters. And when those sons and daughters react negatively and then seek out spiritual enclaves where they can find succor – enclaves that may indeed contain dysfunctional elements and theologically facile dismissals of more recent theology – he reacts, not like a loving father, but as a harsh magistrate bristling with all of the bureaucratic means at his disposal to put them in their place.
Combine that with this Pope’s elevation of rather undistinguished bishops McElroy, Cupich, Tobin and Farrell to high office, and a picture emerges of care and concern not for peripheries at all but for the adulation of the rainbow-colored mainstream of our dominant cultural elites. I repeat: reaching out to the sexual libertines of our culture is not a going out to the peripheries at all, but rather a wedding banquet for the well-heeled devotees of our First World fetishes and obsessions.
And when those in the Church who have skin in this game object that this kind of accommodationist project is a recipe for a catastrophic pastoral capitulation to the nihilistic Zeitgeist, they are told that they do not have a place at the table of dialogue; only the progressive understanding of Vatican II is allowed into the banquet. And I can only repeat what I said in my previous essay: that this autocratic and monochrome approach to the Council’s reception will only inflame, radicalize, and entrench those who do not agree.
In other words, my claim is that this is a Pope who does not unify, but who instead divides. This is a Pope who polarizes binaries and creates unnecessary peripheries. We need real dialogue, real healing, real conversation, and real Christian discourse in a spirit of charity. But in its place we get the back of the hand.
And that brings me to one of the other responses to my previous essay. This time from the Left, in an absurd tweet from the papal sycophant Austen Ivereigh, who says of my essay:
A curious article, which betrays the “isolated conscience” of which Francis warns in Let Us Dream, in which the desire to hold onto something we think is threatened ends up distorting our grasp of reality itself.
Devoid of any substantive discussion of my actual arguments, this tweet is also a form of mean-spirited, ad hominem accusation that plays in the sandbox of psychological imputation. And from a man who does not know me in the slightest, does not know my published works, and has most definitely not even bothered to understand my argument or, more importantly, the issues that generated it. He seems to just dismiss me as just one more cranky, Right-wing crackpot who hates the Pope for purely emotional, visceral, and subjective reasons. Therefore, I must be motivated by a badly formed conscience riddled with “fear” over the demise of things I am “clinging” to like a child clutching a teddy bear in the night, afraid of the bogeyman under the bed.
The “isolated conscience”, by the way, was a term used by Pope Francis to describe those who are selfish and who set themselves against the relational path opened up by true charity. And as such, they are tools of Satan, like Judas. Living in their own thought world and besotted by their own ideological deformations, they refuse to encounter reality and retreat instead into their safe spaces of interior, solipsistic, narcissism. And Austen got all of that from my observation that the rise of the traditionalist movement coincided with the rise of Pope Francis, and I dared to see a connection there? The fact that he would see in such a claim some kind of deeply distorting ideology speaks more to his own isolated conscience and lack of contact with charity and reality than it does to my state of mind. Sycophants gonna sycophant.
I only mention this tweet because it is all too indicative of just the sort of dismissive condescension towards people of genuine faith – fellow Catholics by the way – who dare question this papacy and its aimless drift, like a bobbing cork, in the tidal forces of modernity. It is indicative of the sort of bullying, and intellectually shallow, thuggery that passes for “dialogue” amongst Pope Francis’s most loyal admirers and promoters.
I and millions like me are not “restorationists” in the negative sense of that term employed by Pope Francis. We are simply loyal sons and daughters of the Church who have toiled in the Lord’s vineyard for decades. There is only one kind of restorationism that matters: the restoration of all things in Christ. And every faithful Catholic who shares that vision needs to be heard.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!