It has become a cliché with a slightly dark comedic undertone: the perfect family Christmas card photo, with artfully mis-matched clothing, a beach or forest background, and everyone gazing at the same imaginary point in the middle distance. What hides behind the slightly stressed smiles and too-casual-for-comfort poses? The accompanying yearly letter probably won’t mention Dad’s gambling habit or Mom’s drinking, both of which get a little more out of hand each year; it is not obvious from the picture that the teenager is on both academic and behavioral probation at his private school or that the use of a professional photographer means growing debt, rather than financial success. No, this picture is proof of a perfectly happy, perfectly functional family!
This is the image that came to mind as I tried to process the news surrounding Traditionis Custodes, and especially, as I struggled to comprehend that this is all being done for the purpose of “unity.” Disunity certainly seems to be a problem in the Church, and one that I agree the Holy Father should do something about – but a mandate from on high, taking away a legitimate devotion from millions of people, seems like an odd way to go about it. In my mind, I hear the pope gritting his teeth, threatening his children to look at the camera and smile; only unlike the mother in the scenario above, I suppose he is threatening us with excommunication and eternal damnation, rather than the loss of dinner, if we fail to cooperate adequately. Unity, like happiness, or peace, seems like something you can’t truly threaten or coerce or command into being – unless you are the pope.
There is no question that he has a point. If the Church is a family, it is a deeply dysfunctional one. Our bishops are divided on whether or not it is morally acceptable to promote legislation that makes it easier to dismember babies; several rather prominent members of the clergy are perpetually confused on questions pertaining to the Eucharist that any First Communicant is required to be prepared to answer. Those sitting in the pews (and not infrequently those in the sanctuary as well) feel perfectly free to discard any teachings on human sexuality that strike them as obsolete. A person can walk into five different churches in the same diocese and hear five different takes on any of a number of doctrinal points. Liturgical abuses abound to the extent that it is far more likely one will encounter them in any given Novus Ordo Mass than that one would not. (This last is even alluded to in the pontiff’s letter, which should raise the question of why we have not seen a similarly strict motu proprio directed at Age of Aquarius Masses.)
Rather than tackle any of these real and serious problems, however, the Holy Father has chosen to focus on the superficial. As long as we all look the same; as long as we can be forced into an outward conformity for a pretty picture, we can pretend things are fine. There is no need to deal with hard questions like abuse or decaying relationships if we can just force everyone to smile for the camera. It is so much harder to do the real work of creating true unity, buzzwords about building bridges notwithstanding. (Accompaniment and bridges are for other people, not for Traditionalists. The Church is a field hospital, a mission, for those whose sins consist of deviancy and perversion. But there is no one to accompany Traditionalists, accused of what must be seen as the far more grievous sins of pride and rigidity.)
Parenting even a small family is no easy task, and the pope is responsible for upwards of a billion souls — a truly unenviable job. I imagine that what holds true with a toddler, however, holds true on a larger scale – once you start down the path of threatening as a medium of control, if you do not immediately receive fear-based submission, you have now engaged in a power struggle from which you cannot back down. The parent will win, of course, for it is no great achievement for a thirty-five-year-old to defeat a three-year-old; the pope will win this struggle, for it is no noble feat for the Pope of Rome to defeat his own spiritual children, these mere foot soldiers of Christ, the ragtag motley crew of nobodies who pack the pews of Traditional Masses around the globe on a Sunday morning. We can expect the threats to escalate; we can expect the stomach-churning feeling that comes from living in a home with an unstable and abusive father, not knowing when or whom he will strike next. And when we have been thoroughly routed, the pope will be able to retire to his throne and enjoy the “peace” and “unity” he has secured, ignoring the heartbreaking sobs coming from the bedroom where his hungry, terrified children are crying themselves to sleep.
In the classic musical Singing in the Rain, the protagonist is a famous actor who is memorably asked about his ascent to fame. He replies that his motto has consistently been “Dignity, always dignity!” This statement is accompanied by his fictional narrative of a classical arts education and a series of quite dignified roles, but as he speaks, a montage plays, showing the audience his true biography, which is the very opposite of his words: street performances as a child, a series of humiliating vaudeville acts, and comedic roles onstage.
“Unity – always Unity!” is the narrative we heard from Pope Francis this week in Traditionis Custodes, but there is no need to describe the montage of truth playing in the background; you can find it in the archives of this publication, but you have already been watching it for many years.