The last week has produced an outpouring of reflections on the state of the nation. For many, the election of Donald Trump was unimaginable, and many in the country’s governing classes are now forced to confront the true nature of the divisions within American society. The triumph of Trump made it impossible to deny the deep chasm that exists between elite opinion, concentrated in just a handful of spots across the continent, and the way in which most of the rest of the nation perceives the present condition of society.
There is a growing and similar phenomenon taking hold in the Church under Pope Francis. Francis can be confusing, even enigmatic. But a close look at his actions demonstrates that he is, indeed, an old man in a hurry, pushing the Church along in a definitive direction, despite the fact that some Church “elites” refuse to admit the pope’s rather apparent agenda.
To see his hurriedness, we need only look to his actions over the course of the last month. On October 9, the Vatican announced that Francis would hold a consistory this month to name 13 new cardinals, some from his beloved far-flung peripheries, such as the remote burg of Chicago. On October 29, Francis substantially remade the membership of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. Out went Cardinals Burke and Pell; in came Archbishop Marini, the living embodiment of the mentality that created the Novus Ordo. While Cardinal Sarah remains prefect, his new colleagues are far less likely to endorse his call for a “reform of the reform.” Cardinal Sarah has written beautifully on the need for silence in prayer and the liturgy; Francis’s reconstituted CDW will ensure that Sarah has ample opportunity to remain silent indeed.
The pope ended October with the his trip to Lund in Sweden to kick off the year-long Reformation Celebration, where he, again, praised Martin Luther with the ridiculous claim that Luther “helped give greater centrality to sacred Scripture in the church’s life.”
Then on November 11 came reports of the pope’s last musings, including comments wherein he speculated on the odd psychology of “young people” attached to the Traditional Mass, whom he apparently regards as harboring “a rigid attitude.” He referred to the notion of the “reform of the reform” as a “mistake.”
These remarks provoked a “Trumpian” reaction. Traditionalist sites and Facebook pages were deluged with comments of anger and frustration. A common Facebook post features a photo of Cardinal Burke with the simple slogan “Burke for Pope” written across the top. Another post shows a cardinal’s biretta emblazoned with the words “Fac iterum vaticanum magnum” – Make the Vatican Great Again.
Then, of course, came the somewhat shocking news of the four cardinals’ efforts to gain a clarification from the pope regarding the proper interpretation of the controversial exhortation Amoris Laetita. The move by Cardinal Burke and his confreres is the clearest sign yet of growing and substantial divisions in the hierarchy and marks the beginning of what may become active resistance to the pope’s plans for the Church.
So just as we have spent considerable time reflecting upon the divided state of civic affairs, it seems a good time to take an honest look at the state of ecclesial life. For as Francis’s increasingly frenetic tenure unfolds, the divisions within the Church are emerging in sharp relief. It has become apparent that there are three distinct “churches” within the Church.
The Church of the Footnote
At one level now exists the Church of the Footnote, mostly consisting of high prelates and liberal academics consumed with the agenda of the pope. Here we find the likes of Cardinal Kasper, the Unfriendly Ghost of the spirit of Vatican II, who spend their time expounding the meaning of the pope’s infamous footnote in Amoris Laetitia, proffering all manner of esoteric philosophizing in order to explain whether, when, how, and why married persons living with people other than their spouses may, under certain conditions, or perhaps under any circumstances, licitly receive Holy Communion.
Although the Footnoters at present have significant power in Rome and in other reaches of the hierarchy, their essential aims are beset with irony and irrelevance. It is ironic that the faithful of the Church of the Footnote style themselves as merciful pastors, yet they engage in more obscure theological hair-splitting than any medieval schoolman in order to justify the doctrinal basis for their “pastoral” program. More importantly, despite their illusions to the contrary, the Footnoters’ focus has limited relevance to anyone not immersed in their academic machinations. In fact, before Pope Francis made the single, and somewhat obscure, teaching on Communion for persons in a state of adultery into the most pressing matter facing Christendom, precisely no one, save Cardinal Kasper, was concerned with it.
Nonetheless, the Footnoters seem to believe that a sort of theological public relations strategy meant to warm the image of the Church will re-awaken their imagined New Pentecost, after John Paul II and Benedict XVI chased off the descending Dove. Eager to please, they are unconcerned that the Church has little purchase on the general mores of modern society, and they even indicate that they wish to embrace popular ideologies that are antithetical to the settled moral doctrine of the Church.
The highest reaches of the Church of the Footnote are also consumed by a mania for ecumenism. It is little appreciated that ecumenism was a fixation of the post-Council “reformers,” who used the notion of Christian unity as reason to engage in the Protestantization of the Church. Thus, we have Pope Francis’s praise of Luther in anticipation of the 500th anniversary of the commencement of the revolt at Wittenberg and continuing evidence of a jaundiced view of the Mass itself as a stumbling block to Christian unity.
Indeed, when planning for the Reformation Celebration in Lund, the pope himself initially did not want to celebrate Mass in order to maintain the ecumenical character of the visit. (He changed his mind after an outcry from Swedish Catholics.) The pushback over the summer against Cardinal Sarah’s proposal for ad orientem worship, and the purge of the CDW to protect the 1970s status quo approach to the Novus Ordo, is also likely driven to some degree by ecumenical considerations.
The Church of the Footnote ultimately seeks a humanistic Church that can claim a comfortable sinecure in the economy of modernity, preaching “social justice” but not the Creed, proclaiming a non-judgmental, universalist Gospel that comports with modern political and ideological preoccupations, where recycling is a corporal work of mercy and everyone is “welcomed” and “affirmed,” where there is much talk of mercy, little of sin, and none of doctrine.
The Church of John Paul II
The Church of the Footnote has its greatest impact upon the Church of John Paul II. The JPII Church is populated by certain clerics and leading intellectuals who carry on the work of the late pope by battling, in the main, the Sexual Revolution. These are the so-called Catholic “conservatives” who are seen as “social warriors” – anti-abortion, pro-marriage, horrified by “gender ideology.”
The Church of JPII arose in the 1980s and 1990s. It has many adherents among the American bishops, who for two generations saw their task as leading the conservative resistance to abortion license and the “attacks on the family.”
Prior to Francis’s election just four years ago, the Church of JPII was the prevalent expression of Catholicism in the United States. The JPII Church rightly prided itself on containing the post-conciliar madness that brought so much ruin upon the Church throughout the 1970s. At the Church’s moral teachings on sexuality and the family, the JPII faithful drew a firm line and sought to re-evangelize society on these fronts.
So at the death of John Paul II in 2005, the crowds shouted, Santo subito! His legacy would frame the Church’s work in the 21st century. The JPII Church reached its zenith with the election of John Paul’s right hand, Ratzinger, who, it seemed, might take the JPII Church and at last marry it with its greatest missing element, the Traditional Liturgy.
Then, of course, came the resignation of Benedict and the accession of Francis. Now the model bishop is said not to be the man of the JPII Church, carrying on about abortion and the redefinition of marriage, but the “pastoral” man who is no “culture warrior.” Good-bye, Archbishop Chaput; hello, Cardinal-Elect Cupich.
While there is no question that the JPII Church achieved many salutary results, Francis’s subtle dismantling of the project should not come as a surprise. The JPII Church rested on precarious foundations. Although John Paul himself evidenced, especially in the latter part of his reign, a growing recognition of the problems rooted in the devastation of the liturgy that followed the promulgation of the new missal, the average Catholic nonetheless continued to experience regularly the post-conciliar novelties and abuses. Regardless of John Paul’s exhortations and personal qualms, Communion in the hand while standing, “Eucharistic ministers,” “altar girls,” permanent deacons, and “One Bread, One Body”-style hymns dominated in nearly every diocese and every parish in the West.
So, in practice, the Church of the JPII era accepted most of the worst aspects of the implementation of the Novus Ordo. From that reality, the JPII Church set out to argue people back to traditional sexual and familial relations. This was a noble endeavor, but philosophical-style reasoning was no match for the individualist ideology that has marked modernity with increasing ferocity ever since Luther proclaimed the Priesthood of All Believers.
Without a properly catechized faithful, nourished by the sacraments and imbued with the unvarnished Gospel, the JPII Church was overmatched and largely unsuccessful. Mass attendance continued to decline; among the younger generations especially, cohabitation and marriage defined as including same-sex couples are taken for granted as perfectly normal and appropriate. Many Catholics, even those who attend Mass, revolt at the notion that the Church can “tell them what to do” and feel that it should stay wholly out of political matters.
Due to the emphasis upon sexual matters and matters with political implications, the faithful of the JPII Church were painted as hardline moralizers preventing the Church from effectively reaching the modern world. The mercy of the Church of the Footnote, with its dialogue and its apathy toward doctrine, is the antidote to the JPII Church. The rise of the Footnoters has left the JPII Church is a state of confusion, unsure of how to continue its model in the face of the newly ascendant “pastoral approach.”
The Church of Tradition
On Friday October 21, 2016, a young curate celebrated the first Solemn High Mass in the cathedral church of the Diocese of Rockville Centre (Long Island) in over 50 years. He was assisted by two other young priests from neighboring parishes who acted as the deacon and subdeacon of the Mass. The average age of the sacred ministers was around 30 years old.
The Mass was organized by a small, informal confederation of laity and clergy acting through the local chapter of the Knights of Malta and a fledgling organization dedicated to the promotion of the traditional Mass known as the Sursum Corda Society. The bishop gave his kind permission, as did the rector of the cathedral.
A talented choir sang Byrd’s Mass for Four Voices. Altar boys, ranging in age from four to college-aged, served under the direction of an expert young master of ceremonies. A half-dozen priests attended in choro. The joy of the faithful assisting at the celebration was palpable.
This, in miniature, is the Church of Tradition. It is not organized from on high – indeed, it has few true friends among the hierarchy and even fewer among the professional ecclesial bureaucrats who staff chanceries and parish offices. Rather, the Church of Tradition is kept alive by the efforts of quietly dedicated laymen and clergy – mostly younger clergy without a stitch of purple on their cassocks or birettas.
The Church of Tradition has struggled in effective exile since perhaps the commencement of the second session of the Vatican Council. It was a tiny remnant in the 1970s and 1980s, but it kept on with virtually no ecclesial sanction. To his great credit, in 1988, John Paul II established Ecclesia Dei and indicated a warming toward the traditional Mass. That same year, JPII gave his sanction to the formation of the Priestly Society of St. Peter, allowing it to act exclusively according to the liturgical books of 1962.
Then, of course, Pope Benedict, in the most far-reaching act of his too brief reign, promulgated Summorum Pontificum. As a result, while the Extraordinary Form is still rather out of the ordinary, the traditional liturgy has clawed its way back to the edge of mainstream Catholic life.
The Church of Tradition is grounded in an immersion in the sacramental life of the Church, particularly, of course, in the love of the traditional Mass. As such, it is not focused on anyone particular area of the Church’s teaching or dogma, but rather, it seeks to accept the entire deposit of the Faith as handed down through the ages with filial obedience.
The Church of Tradition is interested in neither dilution of doctrine nor in lame, or even absurd, attempts to modernize the Gospel in a frenzied effort to appeal to the present age. It therefore rejects or ignores the labors of the Kasperites and is scandalized when the pope proposes, as he did in Lund, a contemporary restatement of the Beatitudes.
At the same time, the Church of Tradition is not defined by the teachings on sexual morality. Although it is not consumed by these “hard sayings,” by drawing people into the Sacred Liturgy, the Church of Tradition offers a path toward the spiritual conversion that must proceed the intellectual conversion on these matters.
Thus, the Church of Tradition seeks to build a spiritual life upward from the rock of the Church’s patrimony instead of upon the shifting sand of post-conciliar fads coupled with a code of sexual ethics.
Both the Church of the Footnote and the JPII Church have long been united in dismissing the Church of Tradition as an irrelevant rump of oddballs. The concern for the liturgy has been denigrated as an obsession over aesthetic tastes, as part of a pointless “liturgy war” from which the Traditionalists are told to move on.
Wedded to their assumptions on the wisdom and permanence of the post-Council ways, the Footnoters and the JPII adherents have been blind to the fact that, in truth, the Church of Tradition offers a means for both to reach their legitimate goals.
It is the Church of Tradition that can integrate the Footnoters’ laudable emphasis on mercy – the sacrifice of Christ crucified for man – and the moral concerns of JPII, for it is a people nourished by the sacraments and imbued with a pious devotion to the Church in all its fullness who will accept and strive for holiness in daily life, in the family, and in the public square.
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The divisions in the Church are subtle, but they are stark, and they are becoming increasingly evident. There is no question that the Church of Tradition sees the Church of the Footnote as a group of aging, out-of-touch elites determined to tear down the sacred to please modern tastes. The Church of Tradition vehemently rejects the Footnoters’ project, both on theological and practical grounds, as a failure. There is a marked loathing of the prelates who are enforcing the anti-tradition agenda – hence the Fac iterum vaticanum magnum movement of the simple lay faithful against the reigning princes.
The Church of JPII lies in between. Those members who belong to the immediate post-Council generations are leery of the Church of Tradition. For them, ironically, the ways of the 1969 Missal form a kind of untouchable tradition that they refuse to re-examine. Yet the JPII Church also sees that the Footnoters would vastly diminish the work of the rebuilding of the Church to which John Paul committed them and would throw away all the sacrifices they have made to argue publicly for the wisdom and binding character of the teachings of the Church.
Eventually, in God’s Providence, the long crisis of the post-Council period will end. One of these “churches” will emerge as the dominant expression of the Catholic Faith in the 21st century. It will be the one, I pray, that will reconcile the Church with the modern age – not by succumbing to it, but by leading it as the last, great, and impenetrable vessel of Christianity, sailing always onward, guided by its fixed stars, ever ancient and ever new.
Christian Browne is a practicing attorney in New York state. A board member of the Nassau County Catholic Lawyers Guild, he earned his J.D. from Fordham University in 2004. He is the author of The Pearl of Great Price: Pius VI & the Sack of Rome.