Pope Francis in Context: An American Responds
October 3, 2017 | (15,215 words)
Well, the long wait is finally over. With “Bergoglio in Context: Have the End Times come to Buenos Aires,” appearing in the June 2017 issue of Culture Wars magazine, readers now know where their fearless editor E. Michael Jones stands regarding the controversial papacy of Francis. As with all of EMJ’s work, this piece is meticulously researched, carefully reasoned, and persuasively argued. The deep dive into Argentina’s history helps the general reader previously unfamiliar with that history to understand the forces that shaped the young priest and bishop who is now our Pope. What differentiates Francis from his immediate predecessors, Benedict XVI and John Paul II, is his Latin American upbringing and Jesuit formation. “Bergoglio in Context” goes to great lengths to detail both.
The conclusions Dr. Jones draws will not surprise anyone who has spent the last few years wondering what to make of Pope Francis’s habit of commenting on certain hot-button issues in unusual and unexpected ways. To say nothing of the recent wave of Vatican dismissals and appointments, in which certain prelates with sterling reputations as unequivocal defenders of the faith have been replaced with individuals who appear to be more receptive to our current Pope’s interest in “dialogue,” which seems to have become the order of the day.
The overriding concern expressed in “Bergoglio in Context” and other sober commentaries is that the new emphasis on dialogue is resulting in the downplaying, or outright rejection, of long-held doctrine. The Catholic Church is experiencing a seismic shift under the direction of our current Pope, with orthodoxy hanging in the balance, if not actually being ripped to shreds. Not exactly a tepid discussion for the faint of heart. As reliable an investigator as E. Michael Jones and others of his ilk have always proven themselves to be, there is no reason to consider any of them the last word on this heated subject. So then, if we are not going to automatically adopt the outlook of those we have designated as reliable prophets, how should we, the average Jane and Joe in the pew, think of the current papacy?
There can be little doubt, as “Bergoglio in Context” and other sources make plain, that this Pope is taking a more “pastoral” approach to doctrine than his immediate predecessors. As papal biographer Austen Ivereigh points out, Francis has neither the swagger of John Paul II nor the erudition of Benedict XVI. What he does have in spades is a desire to put “love and mercy first, before rules and doctrines…” And this tact has obviously “offended some on the front lines of America’s culture wars.”
But an emphasis on love and mercy, in and of itself, does not represent any sort of dramatic break with tradition. The writer Joseph Hollcraft points out how our current and two most recent popes can be seen as operating in a continuum, if you will, representing the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity. The idea being that despite whatever flaws each man brought/brings to the papacy, and despite whatever mistakes in executing the office each may have made/is making, John Paul II effectively embodied hope, Benedict XVI effectively embodied faith, and Francis is so far attempting to embody charity.
Scholars such as E. Michael Jones and the Argentinian writers he references in his long article have surely earned the right to a strong opinion, by virtue of the time and energy they have invested in their study. By using the gifts God has given them to discern the world, they are doing their job. In the process of executing their worldly assignment they are providing a great service to the rest of us, and they should continue to follow and comment on the actions and remarks of our current Pope as their talents and instincts guide them to do.
But let’s face it, the non-scholars among us are prone to intellectual laziness, and are a bit too eager to choose up sides in what is taken to be the latest round in a never-ending liberal/conservative feud. The problem with this sort of unexamined, garden-variety combativeness is the tendency it has of becoming just another empty and meaningless form of mass entertainment. Partisans of a traditional stripe too readily dismiss Francis as an unmoored Mad Hatter; just as those of a progressive bent deride Benedict XVI as a domineering, retrograde Nazi. This either/or approach reduces life’s complexities to simple slogans that shut down serious thought. It serves as nothing more than an idle distraction, generating a good deal of day-to-day heat, but precious little long-term light.
Make no mistake, we civilian Catholics benefit immensely from the wealth of perceptive and pertinent observations offered up in the long essay under review. We can recognize the Holy Spirit at work in the life of the man who penned it. But no one writer, no matter how inspired or how gifted, can possibly capture the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church, to say nothing of the life of the world, at any given moment in history. So one suggestion as to how a general reader might want to view this controversial papacy would be to responsibly imbibe all the credible information currently at our disposal, and then ask for the help of that same spirit in developing as universal a perspective as possible on current events.
Antonio Caponnetto is one of the Argentinian writers referenced in the June 2017 piece. A resident of Buenos Aires, he is the author of two books on Bergoglio/Francis and is, we are told, “one of the most important Catholic thinkers in the Spanish-speaking world. He is an outstanding historian, philosopher, theologian, and poet who knew Jorge Bergoglio personally for many years…”
Allow us to quote from the lengthy magazine essay to make a particular point. According to the E. Michael Jones translation/summary of Mr. Caponnetto’s work, the charges against our South American subject have a very familiar ring. Taken from Caponnetto’s 2010 book The Church Betrayed, we learn about the recent deterioration of the Catholic faith in Argentina, and of Archbishop Bergoglio’s role in that deterioration. But note how this trenchant account can also serve as a succinct analysis of what has taken place here at home, at the hands of a series of leading American prelates:
“Under Bergoglio’s tenure as archbishop in Argentina, that country’s bishops went from being defenders of the cross and sword of Hispanic culture to politically correct commissars… Rather than staking a claim for the social kingship of Christ, something offensive to their pluralist conception of modern society, the Argentinian episcopate have accepted as completely natural the syncretism of religious pluralism, convinced that Catholicism is nothing more than one option among many. The axiom that truth has all rights and error none has disappeared from the horizon of their teaching. The grand enemies of Christianity – Judaism and Freemasonry – have become cordial wayfaring companions, whose reciprocal and frequent visits to their respective temples are exhibited as the surest signs of their religious maturity.” (page 12)
Refusing to stake a claim for the social kingship of Christ? Accepting religious pluralism, with Catholicism reduced to one option among many? Ignoring the axiom that error has no rights? Viewing Judaism and Freemasonry not as enemies of Christianity but rather as cordial wayfaring companions? Doesn’t this locate us directly in the vortex of the fifty year-old debate that was spawned by the Second Vatican Council?
Did not the problems Mr. Caponnetto so forcefully describe start with the wobbly interpretations of landmark Council documents such as Dignitatis Humana and Nostre Ante, that have proven to be just a little too ambiguous? If these are Bergoglio’s crimes, surely he has a lot of company. While his offenses naturally possess a distinctive Latin American and Jesuit flavor, and we are in Caponnetto’s debt for his detailed portrayal, are they not eerily reminiscent of the way every leading United States churchman has chosen to execute his office? Archbishop Bergoglio’s actions may rightly be seen as participating in a most unfortunate trend, but he can hardly be singled out as an originator, or even a unique proponent, of that trend.
“Bergoglio in Context” also quotes a piece written by a Fr. Saenz for the Argentinian publication Galdius, who tells us the modernist crisis under discussion has been afflicting the Church throughout the 20th century. To which we say: Spot on. Our problems do not represent any sort of recent development. But Fr. Saenz points out this crisis has not been “uniform in its expression,” and goes on to describe the difference between the progressivism of European theologians, for instance, and that of his native Latin America.
In summarizing the Saenz analysis, E. Michael Jones focuses on the latter half of the 20th century when he writes on page 30: “What both strains of post-Vatican II theology share is a belief in subjectivity and evolution. Both tendencies could be found in the Jesuits’ hero Teilhard de Chardin, whose immanentism led simultaneously to the ‘divinization of man’ and the ‘de-divinization of God.’ In a world like this, the idea of clearly defined dogma, as articulated by Pius X in both Pacenndi (September 8, 1907) and Lamentabili (July 3, 1907) faded away from the minds of the theological elite…”
Ah, yes, the theological elite. Much of the ideological mischief described in “Bergoglio in Context” has been taking place above the heads of the work-a-day Catholic. But we commoners have been all too compliant in following leaders who seem to have lost their zeal. EMJ continues to summarize/translate Antonio Caponnetto’s work as follows:
“The missionary effort needed to rescue the Jew from his deicide, the atheist from his condemnation, the Protestant from his heresy, the agnostic from his confusion, the Evangelicals from their stupidity, and the cults from their false beliefs and their miseries, has no citizenship papers in a pluralistic country in which they have decided to live in comfort. There are no conflicting hypotheses with the secular opponents of the truth. There is solidarity, dialogue, consensus, inclusion and fluid and kind relationships. The semantic war has destroyed them. They zigzag, they undulate, they oscillate, they search frantically for the ellipsis, the ambiguity, and circumlocutions. Fleeing irrevocable words, which are sustained with body and blood. To define and to condemn are verbs which they no longer conjugate. Except, of course, when they refer to us, the dogs.” (page 12)
Here one must acknowledge a pronounced fondness for the way Mr. Caponnetto chooses to express himself. And to again comment on what strikes us as the obvious: Had he been born here and applied the same scrutiny to the American Church over the same period of time, the observant Caponnetto would not have had to edit or rephrase any of the above passage.
Based on the elaborate documentation presented in “Bergoglio in Context,” the object of our scrutiny appears to have been a most enthusiastic capitulator with contemporary Jewish influence in Argentina, and this capitulation does appear to have undermined the integrity of the faith in that country. The general reader can draw two broad conclusions from this evidence. The first is that a misguided accommodation of the faith to the modern world is not, as we may have previously supposed, an American specialty. The second is how the tendency of Jewish influence to undermine the Christian mores of a given country apparently constitutes a sort of ongoing backstory to all of Western Civilization. Both problems continue to plague us here in the States, as well as in Argentina.
The Argentinian expression of these problems may be raw and visceral, whereas our version is muted and less overtly confrontational. This may be due to the economic situation of the respective countries. Argentina’s common people seem to be mired in an open struggle with corruption at the hands of their oligarchs, which thwarts daily life. Here in the States, our oligarchs have wisely placated the underclass with cheap consumer goods, giving off a false sense of peace and tranquility across the land. Despite these superficial differences, both problems – accommodating the faith to the modern world, and allowing Jewish influence to undermine Christian values – have been exacerbated in both countries by the way the documents of Vatican II have been interpreted, inside and outside the Church.
It is not our intention to launch into a spirited defense of Archbishop Bergoglio or Pope Francis, by turning a blind eye to any negative ramifications of the extensive body of work he has left behind in Argentina, or has begun to accrue since being elevated to the papacy in March 2013. No Pope is perfect, and all Popes are prone to be criticized. We are also in no rush to side with Francis’s many new-found admirers who fawn over the “fresh approach” of what can only be charitably described as his frequent semi-oddball pronouncements. But in trying to parse this out, it may be possible for those of us in the cheap seats to avoid a deadly either/or commitment to one of the two diametrically opposed options being offered for our consideration. That is to say our papal subject may not be the epitome of “el Cardinal de Laodicea” on the one hand, who fails as a shepherd by speaking words that are neither hot nor cold. And he may also not be the heralded Great Reformer, who has ended the culture wars, and disarms the Church’s critics with his candor and bold, off-the-cuff statements. Without discounting the checkered past or the skeletons in the closet, we may be witnessing a priestly fellow making an honest attempt at this late stage of his life to deal with the sea of weak and wounded souls entrusted to his care in this new role, the best way he can. No matter how imperfect that attempt is proving to be.
In debating this Pope’s unusual public persona, we wish to note how very little mention is made of his formal writing. This is unfortunate, in our view, since his formal writing bears a striking resemblance to that of not only his two immediate predecessors, but to all other Popes of the last few centuries who have tried to address the modern condition. His stuff is articulate and beautifully written; well thought out, tackling its subject matter in a most comprehensive manner; scholarly to be sure, while somehow also managing to be accessible to the simple folk. Just like every other Pope worth his salt.
But we live in a sound-bite world, in which almost nobody bothers to read anything of substance, preoccupied as we are by the latest inane headlines streaming to our hand-held devices. This is the reality Francis faces as Pope, far different, at least in degree, than any predecessor. He has chosen to speak in the vernacular, in a way that has obviously gotten attention and made the highlight reel. This colloquial style in interviews and other public encounters may not be everyone’s cup of tea, and may therefore not be an effective way to communicate with a particular strain of serious-minded believer. But it’s hard to reach everyone, no matter what style is employed. Some will be turned off, while others will find themselves unexpectedly engaged. Giving Francis the benefit of a little doubt, one might say he is attempting to engage those who turned their back on belief a long time ago, and prompt a reconsideration of that abandonment.
In any event, even if one is not inclined to give this Pope any leeway, his “candor and bold off-the-cuff remarks”, while a decided turn-off for some of us, do not rise to the level of high crimes and misdemeanors. His interview remarks may at times be awkward and inelegant, but he is not challenging orthodoxy or changing the Magisterium. Because, as we all know, he can’t change the Magisterium, even if he wanted to.
When Francis announced on May 14, 2017 that capital punishment was a “mortal sin,” this may have been a gross over-simplification of the Church’s highly developed teaching on the subject, but most people knew what he meant. John Paul II himself repeatedly called for an end to the death penalty in speeches and public appearances during his 26 years as leader of the Roman Catholic Church. In the 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae we are informed that “Not even a murderer loses his personal dignity, and God himself pledges to guarantee this. And it is precisely here that the paradoxical mystery of the merciful justice of God is shown forth” (EV 9). This thought is further developed in EV 56, when JPII explains:
“The nature and extent of the punishment must be carefully evaluated and decided upon, and ought not to go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words when it would not be possible to otherwise defend society. Today, however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if practically non-existent.”
The writer Stephanie Pacheco tells us that while upholding the value of every human life, Evangelium Vitae “still leaves room for capital punishment, as a right of society to defend itself and preserve peace… There are good reasons to limit its use, primarily to witness to the value of life… Because of this, there is no contradiction in affirming the validity of capital punishment as retribution while at the same time seeking to greatly restrict or abolish it where circumstances allow.”
Francis’s seemingly casual, off-hand remark in May 2017 may not do justice to nuanced Church doctrine, but that doesn’t necessarily equate to his “contradicting over a thousand years of Catholic teaching on the subject,” as “Bergoglio in Context” claims on page 30. As an example of the extensive research E. Michael Jones routinely shares with his readers, we are informed that in the year 1208 Pope Innocent III condemned the error of the pacifist sect known as the Waldensians as follows: “Regarding the secular power, we assert that it may without mortal sin exercise the death penalty, provided that this is imposed through justice, not hatred, and proceeds after due consideration, not incautiously.”
But here we are comparing Francis’s verbal remarks given in the course of a magazine interview with the formal writing of a much earlier Pope. (At least we assume it is the formal writing. As far as we know, Innocent III did not grant interviews to magazine editors during the course of his papacy, from 1198 to 1216.) We are elevating such remarks to the level of “doctrine” and “teaching.” While many of us may wish our current Pope would speak with a bit more precision and not be so careless with some of his remarks, by the same token we might all try to keep things in perspective. Father Brian Harrison, who has distinguished himself as an keen observer of this Pope’s tendency to awkwardly misrepresent Church teaching in conversation from time-to-time, makes an appearance in “Bergolglio in Context” (page 31), when he takes this remark about capital punishment being a mortal sin to be nothing less than:
“ …the alarming spectacle of a Successor of Peter whose doctrine, in the eyes of his own predecessors for at least eight centuries, would not have even allowed him admission to the Catholic Church, let alone the papacy!”
We respect the historical perspective Father Harrison always brings to his analysis, and we believe his work in this area is also being guided by the Holy Spirit, as is the work of the other papal critics cited in EMJ’s long the essay. But that doesn’t translate into his every observation, no matter how finely wrought, being an absolute bulls eye.
When on page 35 we read of Francis telling the journalist Sergio Rubin that “philosophical arguments do not change anyone’s life,” it does indeed strikes us as a very odd thing for a Pope to say. But does it rise to the level of being an affront to Fides et Ratio, as E. Michael Jones suggests? This 1998 encyclical stands as “one of the major documents of the Woytyla-Ratzinger era, and (specifically) attacks (Francis’s) notion that philosophical arguments do not change anyone’s life.” Taking Francis at his casual word would inevitably lead one to draw the very same conclusion the essay “Bergoglio in Context” does.
But is that what Francis was attempting to do with his interview remark – challenge some of the most important work of his two immediate predecessors? Is it possible for us to fill in some of the obvious blanks in the Pope’s perplexing statement, in order to reasonably arrive at a different, less antagonistic, conclusion?
In his patented vernacular-colloquial manner, which admittedly bothers so many serious-minded believers, might Francis be acknowledging that in a world where everyone is addicted to their hand-held device, where our desires are now manipulated to such an overwhelming degree, and on such a non-stop, 24/7 basis, that our minds have become – for all intents and purposes – beyond the reach of reason and philosophy? Mores the pity, of course, but isn’t that an accurate representation of reality, from the perspective of the vast majority of the population?
Again, we wish our Pope would speak more clearly in interviews, and not require so much “translation.” But in our view, the admittedly unique verbal style he has chosen to employ as our pontiff neither condemns him as a horrible capitulator, nor elevates him into some sort of magnanimous reformer. And occasionally, in spite of everything, he does manage to hit his mark.
For instance, “Bergoglio in Context” takes Francis to task for how he “tends to personalize issues in ways that make them ultimately incomprehensible, as when he talks about globalization” (page 35). The essay quotes the following exchange with an interviewer as an example of this incomprehensibility:
“The first challenge I see before us concerns each and every one of us. It is the challenge to win over the globalization of indifference. The destructive illness that turns our hearts to stone and makes us self-absorbed and only able to care for ourselves and our interests; it is the illness that renders us incapable of weeping, of feeling compassion, of letting us be hurt by others’ suffering. Life is a gift for us and we are invited to share it in this communal home, caring for one another.”
But not only is the above passage perfectly comprehensible to some of us, the phrase “globalization of indifference” impresses as being particularly evocative. (This is reported as being part of an “intimate portrait,” but the wording of the passage has a familiar ring and is likely a case of Francis cribbing from his own formal writing.) We would also note how this passage bears a striking resemblance to what Benedict XVI himself shared with us on his way out the door, in an Ash Wednesday address of 2013, as translated by Peter Waymel:
“We might say that the choice between closing in on our egotism and opening to the love of God and others, corresponds to the alternatives in Jesus’ temptations: the choice, that is, between human power and the love of the cross, between a redemption viewed solely as material well-being and redemption as the work of God, to whom we give first place in life. Conversion means not closing in on oneself in the pursuit of one’s own success, one’s own prestige, one’s own position, but making sure that every day, in the small things, truth, faith in God and love become the most important thing.”
The idea that our Popes tend to express the same principles, just with a slightly different tone or emphasis, seems to be a recurring theme. There is a continuity of thought. And while it’s quite obvious our current Pope is reading from a decidedly different script than his immediate predecessors when he speaks extemporaneously, we do not see a major ideological break in the continuum that people we admire are trying to call to our attention.
Yes, we agree, when on page 13 of “Bergolgio in Context” we are told how Pope Francis announced in the French Catholic newspaper La Croix that he was in favor of “a healthy secularism” which guaranteed religious freedom as “the key to a successful and peaceful state,” claiming that states which were “tied to a single religion don’t have a future,” he was committing a fundamental doctrinal error. But again, in this Francis is merely restating the official Catholic party line since Vatican II. This is what the other post- conciliar Popes have claimed in one convoluted/nuanced way or another. It is what every leading American prelate has been preaching to us, the great unwashed, for the last fifty years.
Stepping away from the old pre-conciliar battle against what Catholics are now being told is a “healthy pluralist, secular society” underscores the very popular Catholics in the Public Square catechism-voter guide, a special project of Phoenix Bishop Thomas Olmstead, the fourth edition of which was issued in September 2016, just in time for that Fall’s contentious presidential election.
It’s the sensibility my own bishop, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia, has expressed on numerous occasions, especially in his many headliner speaking engagements outside the diocese. In fact, defense of this new “teaching” on pluralism was the de-facto subject of a series of high-profile lectures recently sponsored by the Archbishop. Held at Philadelphia’s hallowed Saint Charles Seminary to celebrate the 50-year anniversary of Vatican II masterpieces such as Dignitatis Humanae and Nostra Aetate, the series featured out-of-town luminaries such as Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore and Robert P. George of Princeton. In effect, these august personages were brought in to – if one may re-purpose EMJ’s language – “sing the praises of the Judeo-Catholic heresy as an official doctrine, deny the social kingship of Christ, and perpetuate the re-writing of the traditional Catholic understanding of religious freedom and the proper relationship between Church and State.”
With these words E. Michael Jones is specifically castigating Bergoglio/Francis. But can’t they also be aimed – to one degree or another – at our other post-conciliar Popes, and all our “orthodox” American churchmen? Yes, they most certainly can. Yet they never are. We never hear any of this openly debated outside the pages of independent journals such as Culture Wars, in either the Catholic or secular media, possibly because such talk would seriously rock our world. This bracing challenge to the new pluralist-democratic orthodoxy, as articulated by EMJ, Antonio Capponetto, and company in the subpoena against Bergoglio/Francis, undermines the foundation of everything we American Catholics hold dear.
So one must confess to being at something of a loss when reading on page 13 of “Bergoglio in Context” that “with one stroke, Bergoglio wiped out not only centuries of Catholic meditation on the relationship between church and state, but he also obliterated all of the fine distinctions made in Dignitatis Humanae and Pope John Paul II’s attempt to clarify that document’s ambiguities while reading it in the light of tradition.”
Can all this errant philosophy really be traced to one bad Argentinian apple, who has spent his priestly life operating far away from the doctrinal epicenters of Europe and the Unites States? E. Michael Jones specifically references a “lucidly argued homily” that JP II gave in Philadelphia in 1979, in which he nobly tries to reconcile Vatican II ambiguities with tradition. This is one of many examples employed that paint John Paul II and Benedict XVI as orthodox heroes, leaving Francis, by comparison, as the unfortunate heterodox villain.
But all three Popes under discussion are part of the problematic legacy of the Second Vatican Council we are still enmeshed in, all these years later. As readers of Culture Wars magazine are well aware, both a young Bishop Wojtyla and the brilliant young theologian Joseph Ratzinger were active participants in the fateful council. Ratzinger, in particular, was considered among the “progressives” in attendance. These two relatively young bucks (42 years-old and 35 years-old, respectively) may not have been primary architects, but they were certainly important contributors. If a non-scholar may be allowed to offer his perspective, these two fine gentlemen and holy Popes spent the rest of their careers trying to put the genie back in the bottle, as it were. Trying to explain what the Council really said, what they meant for it to be, what they wanted it to become. It proved to be a herculean effort: clarifying the documents’ many ambiguities while attempting to read them in the light of tradition. Cue JP II’s Philadelphia speech in 1979.
EMJ himself has brought this inherent contradiction to his readers’ attention on more than one occasion, and does so again on page 27 of his current essay. “In a speech he gave to the curia in April 2005 before becoming pope, Cardinal Ratzinger explained that as a participant at the Second Vatican Council he had come to see that there was a good Enlightenment, the American Enlightenment, as opposed to the bad French Enlightenment…” So here we see that in the Cardinal’s view, as late as 2005, the Catholic Church could fully support the so-called good, American Enlightenment. How, exactly, is this position substantially different than what Francis’ is being accused of promoting today?
“Bergoglio in Context” tells us Ratzinger did this “without the slightest understanding that he was parroting Henry Luce’s ‘American Proposition’ as promoted by Time magazine, which was then America’s unacknowledged propaganda ministry. Eight years later, on the eve of his unprecedented resignation in 2013, Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) gave some indication that his understanding of the council might have been flawed when he opined, ‘the Council that got through to the people was that of the media, not that of the fathers.’”
True enough, but what then-Pope Benedict XVI failed to acknowledge with this 2013 remark is that the media had some help back in the 1960’s. The troubled times we find ourselves in today cannot solely be traced to the nefarious influence of a secular media. The problems started – as readers of Culture Wars magazine know only too well – when the guidelines for the Council’s deliberations proposed by Cardinal Ottaviani, head of the office eventually renamed the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), were disregarded on the eve of the Council. They were replaced by agenda items inspired by the “new moral paradigm” espoused by the likes of renegade American theologian John Courtney Murray, S.J., and embraced by the “progressives” in attendance. Father Murray, you may recall, spent the 1950’s writing on the subject of American Exceptionalism regarding traditional morality. At one point he had been silenced by Ottaviani’s office for his efforts. That he was subsequently invited into the Council’s deliberations is a sad tale, indeed, and one that has been carefully documented by author David A. Wemhoff in his impressive masterpiece John Courtney Murray, Time/Life, and The American Proposition.
The problems continued with the way certain documents intended as “peace offerings” by some theologians at the Council were taken to be “admissions of guilt” by theologians of a differing stripe. Many of the latter also became prominent dissenters from Humanae Vitae, promulgated shortly after the close of the Council. The media, as is its wont, wasted no time in amplifying the discord.
This loyal reader would wholeheartedly agree with the E. Michael Jones assertion, also found on page 27 of “Bergoglio in Context,” that “Ratzinger’s resignation marked the end of the Church’s attempt to reconcile the Second Vatican Council with tradition.” It does appear that Pope Francis is not taking up that same battle, fought so valiantly by his two immediate predecessors, of trying to defend Vatican II against what are reflexively considered to be its wayward, heterodox interpreters. And if we may be so bold, it also appears that by resigning Pope Benedict XVI was finally admitting that maybe the Lefebvrites had a point after all, in refusing to accept Dignitatis Humanae on its merits back in 1965 when it was first promulgated.
So where does this leave us? “Bergoglio in Context” may be right about Teilhardian modernists being best represented by the Jesuit order of today. If their flagship magazine America and its ubiquitous editor-at-large Father James Martin, S.J. is any indication, this once-proud religious order has completely capitulated to the powers of the world. Contemporary Jesuits are not only at peace with the popular heterodox interpretation of Vatican II’s documents, they have assigned themselves front-guard action as promoters of those interpretations.
But again we state, the combination of Francis’s Jesuit formation, his lack of interest in maintaining the grand project of “reconciling” Vatican II with tradition, and his choosing to highlight love and mercy in the way he relates to the world, does not automatically translate into our current Pope having effectively abandoned traditional Church teaching.
As we were instructed at the World Meeting of Families Philadelphia (WMOF) in September 2015, it is important to note the Catholic Church has never seen this business of mercy-versus-moral demand as a zero-sum game. That is to say, according to the Magisterium, it is a mistake to stress the moral demand of Church teaching while downplaying God’s mercy. At the same time, it is equally wrong to emphasize divine mercy while not keeping the moral demand front-and-center. The tricky thing, of course, is figuring out how to balance the two. How does one, in practical terms, stress moral demand while simultaneously emphasizing mercy? Unraveling this paradox sounds like something only a saint can accomplish. The rest of us are left trying to figure out what comes first, the chicken or the egg.
Allow us to offer brief overviews of the two most prominent examples of the “mercy versus moral demand” conundrum. The first involves “the defining phrase of his early papacy.” In July 2013, while heading back to Rome from World Youth Day 2013 in Rio de Janeiro, Francis responded to a reporter’s in-flight question about homosexuals by saying, “Who am I to judge them if they are seeking the Lord in good faith.” This was literally the shot heard round the world when it was first reported. It has come to serve as “Exhibit A” for those who wish to caste Francis as one who speaks words that are neither hold nor cold. While not contradicting established doctrine, he managed to leave the impression among progressives that a user-friendly “spin” was at long last being applied to the staid, moribund teaching.
Once the dust settled the realization emerged that he did not say anything that was technically in error. Since, as we all know, only God can judge what is in a person’s heart, God’s mercy is infinite, and any sin can be washed away if one seeks forgiveness with a contrite heart.
There is only one problem, though, and it’s a rather large one. This famous Francis soundbite overlooks how those tempted by same-sex attraction are called to live out the vow of chastity. He forgot to mention that in the event one succumbs to such attraction, the resulting behavior is and always will be “intrinsically disordered.” So this is a classic case of our current Pope stressing love and mercy while downplaying moral demand, right? Well, maybe not. One might point out that everybody knows the rules, and knows deep down those rules have not and cannot change. It might just be possible this Pope, in his own inimitable and sometimes off-kilter style, was simply trying to demonstrate a different aspect of Church teaching than what the deviants and outcasts have so far encountered.
But why bother trying to show a different aspect of the teaching, if the attempt gives off even the appearance of compromise? This is a legitimate question. Can we agree that engagement with the sinner in the hope of helping him to repent is the objective? Can we also agree that things have recently deteriorated to such an extreme, unprecedented, never-before-imagined degree? Maybe this is a case of desperate times calling for desperate measures.
The swiftness with which same-sex behavior has received mainstream acceptance has caught many of us by surprise. Our elected officials and even world leaders now proudly announce their same-sex orientation, and the professional psychological community long-ago changed the formal designation of this behavior from being a “disorder.” Our children and grandchildren have been raised by their teachers and media manipulators to believe that any sort of push-back against the public embrace of this arrangement is the height of close-minded prejudice, an example of religion’s retrograde influence on the otherwise steady march of progress in the realm of basic civil rights. And the same goes for those of us who are adults. We are prone to deny the truth regarding homosexuality, not in the comfort of our homes or surrounded by like-minded friends, but rather when we are out in public and confronted by an angry, highly verbal proponent. Peer pressure continues to be a very powerful force in all our lives.
To help combat such pressure, those of us who feel we are on the front lines of America’s culture wars would prefer to see a strong, unequivocal example emanating from Rome. Our preference would be that our current Pope continues to quote from JP II’s 1992’s catechism, and dutifully recite that we must love the sinner while condemning the sin. But as with so many other things, Francis has (stubbornly, perhaps?) chosen instead to take a different tact on this subject.
The conventional understanding holds same-sex attraction to be a developmental disorder. The same-sex attraction of homosexual men, for instance, has been widely understood as the result of an incomplete or especially problematic relationship with one’s father. The Catholic philosopher Ron Belgua, founding editor of Spiritual Friendship: Musings on God, Sexuality, and Relationships explained in his WMOF Philadelphia 2015 presentation that this is no longer considered to be the sole explanation for the homosexual inclination. While that indeed may be so, many of us would consult anecdotal evidence gathered from our own first-hand experience and conclude it is still the number one cause of same-sex attraction among men.
People so afflicted must be treated with respect, as the Catechism goes to great lengths to stress. But how do we express that respect in today’s climate of in-your-face exhibitionism on the part of homosexuality’s many brash and defiant advocates?
Dealing with exhibitionists is a difficult task for which we have no ready answer. But dealing with such afflicted individuals within our own circle of friends or work associates is a more manageable thing to tackle. Despite having to occasionally listen to tripe such as “what I do in the privacy of my home is nobody’s business but my own,” we would do well to remember that in many cases there is a psychological need that has not been met. The unorthodox sexual behavior is often a pronounced form of “acting out.” In the case of homosexual men, that unfulfilled need is a functioning relationship with a male authority figure. While it may have been impossible for this individual’s own father to effectively cope with his wayward son, those of us who don’t bear the brunt of that familial responsibility can more easily model a healthy male relationship, by dealing with the person in question as the Catechism indicates we must do.
Relating one-on-one with such individuals is not the same as condoning whatever their form of illicit behavior might be. Since, after all, don’t we all, as sinners, indulge some form of illicit behavior? Our relating to the homosexual as a person with inherent dignity may not result in the immediate decision to curtail his sinful sexual conduct and live out a vow of chastity. But our helping to heal the psychological wound that often lies at the core of his affliction is surely a step in the right direction.
Is this what Pope Francis was implying by his infamous 2013 “whom am I to judge” remark? We have no way of knowing. But taking in Ron Belgau’s WMOF Philadelphia 2015 presentation, Always Consider the Person: Homosexuality in the Family did provide some deeper insight into the matter. At the time of his WMOF appearance, Mr. Belgau was in the PhD program in philosophy at St. Louis University, where he was also teaching Ethics, Medical Ethics, Philosophy of Religion, and Philosophy of the Human Person. He had spent the last decade traveling around North America, speaking about Christian teaching and homosexuality.
As part of his WMOF presentation, Belgau shared with his audience that he revealed his same sex attraction to his large, Southern Baptist family in 1992, when he was twenty-one. From the start, he wanted to follow the teaching of Christianity pertaining to human sexuality, and remain chaste. He entered the Catholic Church in 1999. His mother followed, in 2005.
Mr. Belgau recounted the fears and deep hurt he felt as a young man, trying to come to terms with his same-sex attraction. Right off the bat, he told his audience: “The Church is real good at telling people with same-sex attraction what we can’t do, but it needs to do a better job of explaining what we can do.” To this end, his Spiritual Friendship blog is dedicated to exploring how the recovery of authentic Christian teaching on friendship can help provide a faithful and orthodox response to the challenge of homosexuality. The following quote runs across the top of its website, taken from The Four Loves, by C.S. Lewis:
“To the Ancients, friendship seemed the happiest and most fully human of all loves; the crown of life and the school of virtue. The modern world, in comparison, ignores it.”
Mr. Belgau’s witness is truly one of a kind. He identifies as “gay,” which makes traditional believers a bit nervous. Yet he is in complete conformity with the teachings of the Catholic Church on sexuality, with no exceptions, and claims to be unabashedly celibate. This drives the LBGT contingent up a wall. Remarkably, during the course of his unique presentation neither side found themselves inclined to storming the castle. He somehow managed the incredible feat of being sensitive to the interests of both groups, without for a moment sacrificing his integrity, or that of the Church’s teaching.
The Q&A segment that followed this talk stretched far beyond the allotted fifteen minutes. The moderator did officially cut things off at the specified time, allowing people with other commitments to exit the large seminar room in an orderly fashion. But since this was the afternoon session that ended the day’s program, and since the speaker was willing to stay on, many in the audience refused to leave, and it seemed as if every single one of them came up to the microphones.
A wave of searing questions was posed. Both from those representing the small-but-vocal LGBT group in attendance, who emotionally protested what they felt was the Church’s lack of understanding, and from practicing Catholics dealing with family members in active, same-sex relationships, who plaintively begged for help. It was all incredibly heart rending. With an unwavering calm Mr. Belgau repeatedly told us there is no one right way to deal with these difficult situations. His main advice to the LGBT people was to consider giving the teaching another chance, and to attempt an understanding of its totality. His main advice to the orthodox parents and family members was, “whatever your response, make it as loving as you possibly can.” Ron Belgau, meet Jorge Bergoglio.
Also contributing to my own personal perspective on this hot-button issue is the small matter of unexpectedly finding myself, in the wake of attending WMOF Philadelphia 2015, to be the employer of a man in an active homosexual relationship. I say “unexpectedly,” since this was not mentioned during the interview process, and only came to light approximately six months into the individual’s tenure with our small company. So all this is no longer an academic exercise for your humble correspondent. Figuring out how to love the sinner without condoning the sin is now a daily activity. It turns out that, yes, this grown man has been estranged from his father his entire adult life. And yes, his father is the same age as yours truly, the employer. In an ironic twist of fate, this individual’s wry sense of humor is reminiscent of many of my own family members, including a few now-dead close relatives. One never ceases to be amazed at the incongruities life throws in one’s path.
Then there is the second most prominent example of the “mercy versus moral demand” conundrum. It involves those Catholics who have failed to live up to the till-death-do-us-part injunction inconveniently inserted into their original wedding festivities. The dust up over “who am I to judge?” was in hindsight merely an opening act for the fireworks that have ensued over the discussion of appropriate pastoral care toward divorced and remarried Catholics.
The two recent Synods on the Family (October 2014 and October 2015) kicked off the controversy. The mid-Synod report from both gatherings featured ominous reports of rebel bishops wishing to change Church teaching that would allow those whose first unions were not properly annulled to receive Holy Communion. The closing remarks at both gatherings issued by Pope Francis struck some observers as encouraging dissent in the name of collegiality.
And then came the Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love), issued in April 2016. While this is a rare example of a piece of Francis’s formal writing causing an uproar, rather than an interview or other “unofficial” remarks, the criticism AL has received can still be circumscribed by noting that while the document has been widely commented upon, it has not been widely read.
Some of those who have read it have found serious flaws, however. Father Raymond DeSousa has noted in The National Catholic Register that Francis clearly wants to change Church practice on the admission of the divorced and civilly remarried to Holy Communion. In this the Pope has the support of Walter Cardinal Kasper of Germany, who in February 2014 proposed admitting to the sacraments those living in conjugal unions outside of a valid marriage. The presumption is that Jorge Bergoglio had privately advised such Buenos Aires couples to go to Communion during his years there as Archbishop. But, according to Father DeSousa’s speculation, Francis could not get the synod of bishops to agree. So on the contested question, Amoris Laetitia is seen as “ambiguous, employing hints buried in footnotes, and deceptive citations of previous magisterial teaching. AL does not teach what its author clearly wants to teach, which means it can still be read, granted with some difficulty, as being in continuity with what the Church has always taught.”
One can presume the four international Cardinals who submitted a dubia to Pope Francis in September 2016 have also read AL. After not receiving a response from the Pope, these Cardinals then made their dubia public in December 2016. Concerned that certain passages could be interpreted in more than one way, the dubia sought clarification by posing five (5) questions that require a simple “yes” or “no” answer. So far the Pope has not deemed it necessary to respond, or to even acknowledge receipt of the dubia. A situation E. Michael Jones describes as follows: “Bergoglio’s anti-intellectualism and his authoritarian administrative style came together once again when he summarily refused to entertain the dubia which Cardinal Burke, three other cardinals, and a number of theologians raised in response to Amoris Laetitia.” (page 35)
And so yet another new controversy rages on. On one side of the great divide, there are the progressives who welcome any apparent breach in Church teaching as a positive development. On the other side are traditionalists who pride themselves on being defenders of the faith. The progressives, as always, are hopelessly misguided. It is the traditionalist reaction that prompts the most reflection, and is most in need of a little fraternal correction, in our humble opinion.
We are told the Church is tittering on the edge of a moral abyss, undergoing an unprecedented assault on her integrity, because in the wake of Amoris Laetitia “what is allowed in Argentina is not allowed in Philadelphia.” And we admit, this does sound rather dire. We also admit Cardinal Kasper is not helping in this regard. He claims AL “changes everything,” and explains that by applying the “general vision” of the document, there is a possibility of giving remarried divorcees access to the Sacraments. To think a magic wand can be waved, and all civilly divorced and remarried Catholics can suddenly present themselves for Communion as if nothing had gone awry, is simplistic in the extreme. But is this really what AL is promoting?
One can’t help but wonder just how many of the well-intentioned partisans currently wringing their hands have actually read the “offending” paragraphs of Amoris Laetitia? If you haven’t yet done so, allow us to make a polite suggestion: stop what you are doing, and read chapter eight of AL right now. Take your time, don’t rush through it. Give the words the respect they deserve, since they are coming from the pen of a successor to Peter.
Many have pointed at the response of the Argentinian bishops to AL, and to Pope Francis’s affirmation of their interpretation, as proof positive the document is subversive at its core. But what, exactly, are the particulars of the Argentinians’ take?
As the writer Diane Montagna reports on September 30, 2016, when Francis expresses his appreciation for the text drafted by the Argentinian bishops (“Basic criteria for the application of Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia”), he highlights how it manifests the fullness of the sense of that chapter, which deals with “accompanying, discerning, and integrating weakness.”
Ms. Montagna tells us that in focusing precisely on Chapter 8, the Argentinian bishops state that “we should not speak of ‘permission’ to have access to the Sacraments, but a process of discernment accompanied by a pastor.” This process must be “personal and pastoral.” Accompaniment is an exercise of the via caritatis, the document states, and is an invitation to follow the path of Jesus. Such an itinerary, the bishops write,
“…requires the pastoral charity of the priest, who “welcomes the penitent, listens to him attentively and shows him the maternal face of the Church, as he accepts his good intention and his good intention to place his whole life in the light of the Gospel and to practice charity.” This path, they warn, does not necessarily end in the Sacraments, but may lead to other forms of greater integration into the life of the Church: a greater presence in the community, participation in prayer or reflection groups, and a commitment to various forms of ecclesial service.”
“When the concrete circumstances of a couple make it feasible, especially when both are Christians with a journey of faith, one may propose that they commit to living in continence. Amoris Laetitia does not ignore the difficulties of this option (cf. note 329) and leaves open the possibility of receiving the sacrament of Reconciliation when one fails this intention.” (cf. note 364)
“In other more complex circumstances, and when it is not possible to obtain a declaration of nullity,” the document continues, “the aforementioned option may not, in fact, be viable. Nonetheless, it is equally possible to undertake a journey of discernment.” And “if one arrives at the recognition that, in a concrete case, there are limitations that diminish responsibility and culpability (cf. notes 301 and 302), particularly when a person judges that he would fall into a subsequent fault by damaging the children of the new union, Amoris Laetitia opens up the possibility of access to the Sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist (cf. notes 336 and 351). These in turn dispose the person to continue maturing and growing with the strength of grace.”
It’s that last part that is causing all the commotion, of course. We would suggest this is more complicated than either side is making it out to be. Chicago’s Blasé Cardinal Cupich, for instance, is representative of those who trumpet the grace bestowed by the Sacraments, and how that grace can only help a wayward soul in his faith journey, regardless of present circumstances. Many others have pointed out what appears to be a dramatic break with two thousand years of Church teaching, most recently affirmed throughout the papacy of John Paul II, whose frequent writings on the indissolubility of marriage are being referenced anew.
Ms. Montagna relates Pope Francis’s belief that the pastoral charity proposed in AL cannot be reduced to “programmatic, organizational or legal mediation, although these are necessary.” Of the four “pastoral attitudes” indicated in AL – “welcome, accompaniment, discernment and integration” – the one least practiced, according to Francis, is discernment. “I consider personal and communal formation in our seminaries and rectories to be urgent,” Montagna quotes him as stating. Indeed. The Pope’s vision of pastoral charity, understood as the ongoing tension of seeking out those who are far away, is a form a hand-to-hand spiritual combat. While our devoted priests may certainly be up to the challenge, given how few of them we have left, Francis’s pastoral vision may be seen as inherently problematic.
In this sense the teaching contained in Chapter 8 of AL might be rightly criticized on the grounds it will be impossibly hard to implement, given the current low enrollment numbers in our seminaries, and the reduced number of active priests in our rectories. But being hard-to-implement does not automatically make it heretical in nature.
In addition to being a challenge for our clergy, the nuances are also a challenge for the average Jane and Joe to get their head around. Happily dumbed-down by the sound-bite culture we luxuriate in, few of us bother to consider the fine points under discussion, let alone begin to comprehend the deeper ramifications. This may explain why those four distinguished Cardinals issued their dubia in the first place. Thoroughly understanding the tenor of the times, perhaps these shepherds concluded it is beyond our now-diminished capacity to appreciate the distinctions Pope Francis is trying to make. And so in order to protect our souls from confusion they have chosen to reduce the entire Exhortation to a series of five (5) questions that require nothing more complicated than a simple “yes” or “no” answer. How sad. It’s as if they believe in their hearts we are simply too lazy, or too preoccupied, to give the Exhortation the attention it deserves. Francis, meanwhile, has recommended a thorough catechesis on the Exhortation, though this recommendation has been lost amid all the noise created by the objections.
Here’s the thing: Focusing on Pope Francis as nothing more than a dangerous and unpredictable outlier who is carelessly undermining thousands of years of clear and unambiguous teaching is a classic case of ignoring the elephant in the room.
Regardless of what one thinks of the pastoral approach Francis spells out in AL, what is being addressed is a decades-old phenomenon that stands in dire need of addressing. Does AL blatantly violate established doctrine, and open the door to schism? One certainly hopes not, but evaluating that potential is precisely what we are all scrutinizing at present. Even Pope Francis – in an unguarded moment with his loyal supporter Christoph Cardinal Schonborn of Vienna, who was also a trusted lieutenant of JP II and who helped pull together the 1992 Catechism – has himself expressed similar concerns.
But let’s turn our attention to the elephant for a moment. The teaching many of us admire may be clear and unambiguous, but the general level of understanding and loyalty to that teaching long ago became muddled and compromised. While the staunch reaffirmation of Church doctrine by leading churchmen is always and everywhere a noble enterprise, merely doing so at this late date, without any attempt to shed light on the unfortunate conjunction of causes that has led us into the present quagmire, is not all that helpful and leaves a lot to be desired.
When Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI spoke at the recent funeral of Joachim Cardinal Meisner, one of the four courageous dubia cardinals, he stressed how “the Church stands in particularly pressing need of convincing shepherds who can resist the dictatorship of the spirit of the age and who live and think the faith with determination.” These remarks were interpreted by conservatives as a subtle swipe at Pope Francis in general, and at Amoris Laetitia in particular. Maybe it was, and maybe it wasn’t. But regardless of Benedict’s intent, it would be a far more productive use of our time to recognize that it is we ourselves – conservatives and liberals alike – who have succumbed to the spirit of the age.
Case in point: On this its momentous 50th anniversary, it is reassuring to once again hear Humanae Vitae referred to as a “prophetic document that got it right.” But how many married Catholics who consider themselves “devout” and “practicing” remain “open to life” in their conjugal activity? Not many, one would have to conclude, judging from the preponderance of two-child households that dominate our parishes. Yes, Paul VI did his job, and he deserves our thanks. But his wise teaching didn’t really take, even among the isolated remnant who still attends Mass. Why aren’t we talking about that?
Probably because we don’t think anything is askew. The new demographic norm results from what is routinely described as nothing more dramatic than a value-free “decision to have fewer children.” But with everyone reaching the same alternative conclusion regarding procreation, this would appear to be uniform obedience to a cultural imperative, rather than independent decision-making. As with so many other such imperatives that silently dictate our behavior, we never quite get around to probing the inner logic behind this one. Instead, we flatter ourselves into believing we are all “thinking for ourselves” and “reaching our own conclusions.” This faux independence, this superficial sense of individuality, is what we pride ourselves on. It’s what we think makes America great. As the dock worker-philosopher Erik Hoffer noted years ago in a slightly different context, many of today’s independent minds tend to follow the herd, hueing to public opinion and the party line.
Archbishop Chaput is one who has employed the value-neutral “decision to have fewer children” phrase in his writing. Almost immediately after his September 2011 installation here in Philadelphia, he was forced to initiate a heart-wrenching consolidation of parishes and parish-based elementary schools, archdiocesan high schools and other church-sponsored facilities. This was a necessary, emergency iesponse to an ongoing financial crisis that had been kicked down the road by his predecessors. In a general notice sent out to everyone in the archdiocese, the phrase was invoked as the obvious explanation behind the need for this unnerving consolidation. But it was referenced almost in passing, as if he didn’t want to draw too much attention to the fact, and appear confrontational in the process. Some of us were waiting for the other shoe to drop, for the startling decrease in our Catholic population to be taken up in a somewhat more comprehensive manner, and tied into pertinent Church teaching such as presented in Humanae Vitae. But that hasn’t happened, at least not so far.
The fiscal responsibility the Archbishop has demonstrated during his time in Philadelphia is admirable, as is his ongoing and unwavering support for traditional teaching on faith and morals. He has long been known as a singular champion of the pro-life cause, for instance. But by not expounding on the deeper ramifications of the widespread use of artificial contraception on the part of his flock, it could be said Archbishop Chaput is defending, or at the very least accepting, the notion of individual choice as the overriding prerogative of American life. The inner logic of this prerogative is that we all get to decide for ourselves how we will live, and what rules we will abide by. Needless to say, this “Americanism” directly contradicts the inner logic of the faith and morals we all credit Archbishop Chaput with publicly ratifying. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, away from the podium, the cavalier way we have been raised to think and act as proud Americans has eroded our belief and practice.
Those of us still left in the pews are wont to heap praise on the few “orthodox” bishops who are not afraid to reference Humanae Vitae in the odd homily or formal address. But, by the same token, it never occurs to us to hold them accountable for their utter lack of support for comprehensive NFP training in their dioceses. Natural Family Planning remains a cottage industry that exists on the fringes of the contemporary Catholic mind. Lacking access to this important training leaves us ill-equipped to face contemporary life.
Consider how economic priorities dominate our thoughts and actions, drowning out other non-monetary pursuits we may have once aspired to. We are forced to function in an all-encompassing economic/material paradigm. This finds successful Catholics inclined to chase the American Dream of career advancement and upward mobility, at the expense of being open to life. While struggling Catholics are forced to close themselves off to life, since in the vanquished middle class two incomes are now required to raise a family, where one was once enough.
Both types of Catholics, the successful and the struggling, have been left exposed to fend for themselves amidst the pornographic nature of our economic system, where indulging every desire is the accepted basis of all consumer activity. Given these adverse economic realities, and these unprecedented temptations, why isn’t Natural Family Planning a prerequisite in our parish pre-Cana programs? Melissa Gates, that globe-trotting Catholic philanthropist, is of the opinion 96% of Catholic women use artificial contraception. We might agree with Mrs. Gates’s math, but we have to admit she is more right than wrong in her assertion. If we do not provide an alternative to the popular forms of artificial contraception that actually conforms to Church teaching, what are we to expect?
The same goes for all the other wonderfully sound teaching on such topics as the theology of the body, the purpose and meaning of marriage, and the importance of practicing chastity even within marriage, that taken together constitutes what might be aptly described as Catholic anthropology. (Yes, you read that right: chastity within marriage – not just fidelity. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, gentlemen.) The reasons why this doctrinal wealth is no longer discussed or embraced are complicated. But we now have a couple of generations of so-called Catholics who are being led by the dictates of the culture and the dreaded spirit of the age, rather than the dictates of the Church. This applies even to the few remaining practicing Catholics, not just the droves of fallen-away Catholics. Our switching of priorities has been orchestrated by secular cultural commissars, despite the best efforts of the likes of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, the late Cardinal Meisner, and the other “orthodox” churchmen still active among us.
When are we going to get around to properly disseminating the teaching we are so fond of hearing affirmed? The need for catechesis has been sounded from various quarters, but who exactly is going to provide this instruction? Our prelates can set the tone and lead by example, but they are not the ones in the trenches, hashing things out with those of us who are being led into temptation on a daily basis. Our convents and seminaries have been emptied, so we cannot look to the nuns and priests who played such an important role in properly forming the conscience of our people in a prior age. We complain that too many of our bishops shy away from controversial teaching, but they no longer have a solid Catholic consensus behind them. It is we, the Church militant, who lost our fervor and first succumbed to the spirit of the age.
How much blame can be laid at the feet of a bishop when his entire flock has chosen to reject the role of the Church as teacher and guide for all humanity, entrusted with the mission to “convert all nations.” We complain that too many bishops behave like clever politicians, angling to avoid public controversy so they can hold on to their jobs. If we want to see ardor displayed on the part of our leaders, wouldn’t it be a good idea to display some ardor ourselves?
Continuing for a moment on the need for convincing shepherds, how do we think our pre-conciliar papal heroes would fair today? The age of mass communication has been commandeered by secular forces, giving our enemies powerful tools of manipulation and persuasion. Simply put, Vatican II waived a white flag to the modern world, just as things were taking a dreadful turn for the worse. And the eternal truths of Catholicism have been in full retreat ever since. Not even a giant such as Leo XIII, to select at random just one from a roster of stellar pre-conciliar examples, could be expected to stem this formidable tide on his own.
How many of us who have not decamped in outright rebellion have bothered to develop our youthful grasp of the faith into a mature understanding? This is supposed to be more than a comfortable club in whose membership you demonstrate the wish to continue by renewing your decision to donate, or by deigning to show up for Mass. There are complexities in life that lie far beyond the scope of the Baltimore catechism. Since few of us bother to read encyclicals or exhortations or catechisms or other spiritual treatises on our own initiative, when, pray tell, does a regular Jane or Joe receive a more developed presentation of the Magisterium?
Given this state of affairs, that is to say the dearth of adequate catechesis among our adult population, should we really be surprised that so many troubled souls have opted for civil divorce when faced with the inevitable travails of living in close quarters with another, equally flawed human being? Since we are no longer inclined to tap into two thousand years’ worth of handy Catholic anthropology, which exists for the express purpose of helping us navigate the rough water, what are we to expect?
The conservatives/traditionalists who have managed to remain in their marriages give the appearance at times of being immune to the dictates of the culture, and immune to the spirit of the age. But few of us have escaped unscathed. Most of us bear the marks of capitulation, even if we have been trained not to notice the tell-tale signs. In some cases, the ones who see themselves as upright and stalwart are in the throes of trying to serve two masters, though they are often the last to realize it. Some have come to rationalize this as a simple case of “trying to improve one’s material circumstances,” as if this pursuit has no bearing whatsoever on the fidelity of one’s belief and practice. As the Argentinian writer Antonio Caponnetto might put it, some of us have become at home in our pluralistic society, and have chosen a life of comfort. A righteous defense of Church teaching in the area of divorce and remarriage is commendable, for the most part. But it sometimes comes dangerously close to casting stones, when one fails to acknowledge one’s own transgressions in other areas of the spiritual life.
Meanwhile others look back on their own thirty or forty years of wedded bliss, and are not as quick to dismiss the large and growing contingent of divorced Catholics as weak and indulgent. Yes, in conforming to the spirit of the age, many of these wounded people describe their divorce in glowing terms, as representing some sort of personal “growth.” But the hurt is always just beneath the surface. In surveying the wreckage many survivors are humbled by the realization we ourselves have periodically been a de-facto separated couple. It’s just that neither party bothered to file the paperwork. We somehow made it through those times when all was lost, and walking away seemed like the only viable alternative. Many of us will readily admit we have only managed to avoid a formal process of civil divorce by the skin of our teeth, and the grace of God.
So in addressing the present divorced-and-remarried crisis, and in evaluating the relative worth of Amoris Laetitia, one might suggest the non-scholars among us need to do more than keep Francis at arm’s length, inoculating ourselves by citing John Paul II’s unerring words. We need to get down to the heart of the matter, which is our utter lack of familiarity with Catholic anthropology as it understands the human person. That is to say, how it speaks to the mystery of men and women, sex and marriage, and the new souls who enter this world as a result of such unions.
That anthropology springs from the thought of the ancient Greeks, who are famous for considering romantic love to be a mild form of insanity. Anyone who has lived through the ordeal can vouch for the accuracy of this two-millennium-old assessment. It also acknowledges an overwhelming physical attraction to the opposite sex as being hard-wired into our DNA, which kicks in even before an infatuation develops with any specific member of that opposing gender. This is a primordial component that assures the propagation of the species, of course. But for those creatures made in the image of God, who possess the Imago Dei, this raw passion is also meant to be something of a “gateway drug,” if you will, designed to lead us through the infatuation stage, on a path toward maturity and responsible adulthood. The journey begins with the fostering of concern for the well-being of someone other than ourselves. That someone in most cases turns out to be one’s spouse, who, by virtue of authority, law, and tradition, we commit to honor and cherish, in sickness and in heath, for richer or poorer, as long as you both shall live. We all know the drill, even if we have no idea what it entails when we first say “I do.”
This caring for a single someone other than ourselves is but a step on the road towards achieving an even higher form of love, one that is unconditional and persists regardless of circumstances. This higher love is meant to eventually extend out to the larger world. The transformation of our initial, falling-off-a-log Eros into something more akin to a profound agape is typically a slow and arduous process. Overcoming the natural biological inclination toward self-gratification and looking out for number one is no easy feat. For most of us, the covenant of marriage is the context in which this strenuous purification unfolds. It comes with many trials and tribulations that test our resolve. It can take decades, if not an entire lifetime, to make any headway in this regard. One has to commit to the long haul if one expects to achieve the desired results. Unfortunately, in some cases the process is short-circuited. The intermittent trials are deemed to be insurmountable. The break that results is found to be irrevocable.
And no doubt there are certain hard cases where this proves to be true. But when over half of all marriages end in divorce, something else is at work. What is that something else? We have already heard a few perceptive observers refer to it as “the spirit of the age.” For the purposes of this discussion, that spirit expresses itself in the current emphasis on what is described as achieving one’s full potential. This is known in some heady academic circles as self-actualization. It is a very powerful driver of divorce, even for those who do not employ the fancy therapeutic terminology. To use the vernacular, one does not want to be “held back” by a spouse one has “outgrown.” This is personified as a severe lack of patience with the perceived short-comings of the other.
The dramatic increase in divorce over the last half century dovetails nicely with the popular theories on self-actualization that have gained currency in the therapeutic community during the same period, and with how that community has come to influence the popular culture. But this emphasis on what might be called “individual flourishing” has found expression in other disciplines, as well. Economists of the Austrian school such as Friedrich Hayek (1899-1992) were promoting the very same principle even before the Brooklyn-born psychologist Abraham Maslow (1908-1970) first introduced his theory on the “hierarchy of needs” in 1943, with self-actualization being at the top of Abe’s famous pyramid.
It turns out not all versions of human flourishing are created equal. Some types support the common or greater good, and other types undermine it. Allow us to offer the following simple outline by way of illustration. Marriage has always been the primary building block in a certain understanding of society. Mankind is meant to live in community, and the common end of such communities is the flourishing of all. To achieve an ordered society that results in the common good, vested authorities and unencumbered individuals must work together to literally will it into being. It is not an automatic outcome, as history clearly demonstrates. In the case of the individual citizen, helping to enhance the “flourishing of all” generally involves the setting aside of some personal desires, and making sacrifices for the sake of others. The first “other” one typically makes such sacrifices for is one’s spouse.
But one of Nobel-prize winner Friedrich Hayek’s theories puts a different spin on all of this. Sacrificing for others is no longer part of the larger equation. Hayek sees society consisting of a “spontaneous order,” which arises not from the pursuit of a common good, but rather through the use of what he describes as “common means.” His societal order is achieved when citizens collaborate in their use of common means, as dictated by their self-determined needs and wants. The key word in that last sentence, the one that requires a leap of unfounded faith, is “collaborate.” It assumes selfish human nature is somehow to be purified in the open marketplace of its own volition. No moral constraints need be considered or applied. In this construct, authority’s only role is simply to facilitate the pursuit of personal ends. This applies to any authority, not just the governmental variety.
Achieving maximum freedom for the individual is the new benchmark that must be met by any system of thought, in any discipline, that claims to guide human action. It’s not that the idea of a common good has been rejected. Only that an entirely new road map has been installed as to how we can best arrive at the destination. A sense of commitment to one’s marital partner can’t help but suffer when such a utilitarian approach becomes the framework for our thinking. Maslow’s definition of what constitutes “healthy” psychological development, and the Austrian school’s redefining our approach to economic activity, have lately combined to reverberate in other areas of our lives.
But these new ideas contributing to unprecedented divorce rates are not really new at all. They actually have very deep roots. When one realizes Maslow’s self-actualization is an intellectual cousin of Hayek’s spontaneous order, then one can see that both are natural expressions of the great American Experiment in “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” This famous phrase from our 241 year-old Declaration of Independence has gotten a sleek update, which issues forth on a regular basis from the lips and pens of conservative commentators. “Individual liberty, economic freedom, and limited government” is what our great nation is founded on, just ask any self-styled conservative. Little do these well-intentioned partisans realize, the traditional morality they claim to uphold (i.e. marriage, etc.) is being undermined daily by the “rights of the individual” principles they espouse.
Our current crop of conservatives, with the by-lines and the big reputations, are for the most part a very confused lot. They see personal morality as a separate thing altogether from economic morality. They believe market economies fueled by an unfettered capitalism possess a unique internal mechanism that supersedes traditional, moribund notions of morality.
In a truly novel interpretation that has somehow managed to charm the educated upper crust, we are told each individual citizen is an independent economic actor, blessed with the opportunity to pursue his own interests, and is therefore solely responsible for his own economic outcome. In theory, nobody is taking advantage of anybody, since everyone has the same opportunity to advance his own cause. While we admit this all sounds very appealing, it fails to acknowledge the way some of these independent economic actors have leverage, while others have none.
The every-man-for-himself ethos at the heart of the unfettered version of capitalism that is currently being practiced leaves those without leverage at the mercy of the ones who get to call the shots. The fundamental lack of mercy and justice in our economic system is a glaring example of immorality writ large, but the conservative manifesto chooses not to notice the obvious.
As academics and think-tank experts, our lauded commentators have the luxury of living above the fray. Their writing on the economic question pledges allegiance to the institutions that fund their efforts, which is not necessarily the same thing as having an allegiance to the truth, or to the Catholic Magisterium as it pertains to economic behavior. As if things couldn’t get any worse, there is often a lack of real-world experience with the forms of economic activity these people get paid to pontificate about. This unfortunately renders many of their learned pronouncements little more than theoretical exercises, the proverbial castles in the sky.
Regarding the stand-alone thing that is personal morality, conservatives tend to babble on incessantly about how our nation is founded on the great Judeo-Christian biblical tradition. They bemoan the dire state of cultural drift over the last half century, exemplified by such things as the dramatic increase in the divorce rate. It is surprising how so many smart people can be so misinformed on such a big, important issue. In the first place, in terms of practical application, there is no such thing as a Judeo-Christian tradition. Just ask any honest, serious Jew.
In the second place, our country was founded by Protestants who reject all clerical authority in favor of individual conscience. Or devotees of the Enlightenment who go even further, rejecting all moral claims in favor of what they refer to as “pure reason.” When you find the biblical passage asserting the supremacy of individual conscience in moral matters, or the supremacy of human reason in the face of revealed truth, please do let me know.
Here are a few quick hits that highlight the causal chain of American thought on the interplay between economics and morality. What de Tocqueville encountered when he visited here in 1835, and commented so favorably upon in his Democracy in America, was a generic religiosity he believed fueled our industriousness. By the time Max Weber published his Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism in 1905, he noted how the original Puritan/Calvinist belief in “getting ahead” as a sign one was also destined for heaven had been replaced by a simple, age-old striving to do as well as possible for oneself, here on earth. Then, in 1982, Michael Novak published his influential The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, in which he attempts to re-establish a positive link between ambition and religious belief, and stakes a claim for the inherent morality of his grand paradigm, “democratic capitalism.”
Viewed from our current, post-orgy vantage point, we see how the undercurrent of generic religiosity that was in the air during the early years of our nation’s history was but a passing phase. It may have taken a while to completely dissipate, but by the latter half of the 20th century it was done in and left for dead by the celebration of the individual at the heart of our founding. This guides our government and public institutions and all public life. It runs directly counter to Catholic anthropology, and has led to the dramatic increase in divorce we are witnessing.
An unfettered free market is the economic interpretation of those same flawed concepts of “freedom” and “individual liberty.” This economic preference was also embedded in our country’s DNA from the start. And it, too, overcame all attempts at restraint or correction by the same point in our history – the latter half of the 20th century. This has led to the dramatic increase in economic injustice we are witnessing. And wouldn’t you know it, an unfettered free market also just happens to run counter to Catholic anthropology, as well.
Despite the abuses and excesses that continue to emanate from the financial capitals of the world, there are plenty of die-hards who continue to defend the economic status quo on the basis of its being the best exemplar of freedom and individual liberty, the celebrated cause of our era. They also continue offering justification on the grounds it represents the best path to the common good, which they narrowly define as lifting the Third World’s abject poor out of their survivalist poverty. But in another one of those ironic twists, it seems the only conservatives still arguing for the inherent morality of our Darwinian economic free-for-all are Catholics, such as think-tank celebrities like Father Robert Sirico and his Acton Institute.
(Michael Novak, the wizened Catholic guru of the “inherently moral” conception of capitalism, is no longer with us, having left this mortal coil on February 17, 2017, at the mellow age of 84. And Arthur C. Brooks, the 53 year-old Catholic president of the American Enterprise Institute, while claiming capitalism promotes the common good, does not believe it is inherently moral. Not as of his recent essay appearing in the February 20, 2017 edition of America magazine.)
So in this slightly expanded reading we see the roots of the dramatic increase in divorce experienced over the last fifty years are to be found in the American Experiment of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Liberals understand this pursuit in terms of libertine behavior in their private lives. Conservatives understand it as libertine behavior in their public, economic life. Liberals and conservatives are therefore both libertines at heart, from a Catholic perspective. An absence of moral restraint in their respective area of interest qualifies members on both sides of the liberal/conservative dialectic as rugged, independently-minded Americans.
But what are the roots of the American Experiment? After all, it did not spring forth as whole cloth from the fertile minds of the five-man writing committee responsible for the Declaration of Independence: Thomas Jefferson, the undisputed primary author, along with his four renowned helpers; Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Roger Sherman, and Robert R. Livingston.
Besides being an expression of the Protestantism and Enlightenment beliefs of a select cadre of progressive thinkers who gathered in Philadelphia in the summer of 1776, our founding documents amount to the most up-to-date expression of the ideology known as Classical Liberalism. This ideology emerged at the dawn of the modern era, some 500 years ago. It is, in fact, the philosophical underpinning that animates all of modernity. It effectively replaced Christianity in a generic sense, and Catholicism in a much more particular sense, as the preferred operating system of civilized society. It represents the emancipation of the individual from the tight hold of authority, law, and tradition. Sound familiar? At every one of life’s crossroads, in every aspect of human endeavor, it promotes the rights of the individual above all else, apart from any consideration of the common good. In modern times, a just society is defined as one that promotes the maximum freedom of individuals. The penultimate importance of this freedom is routinely cited by liberals and conservatives alike.
The U.S. is the perfect embodiment of Classical Liberalism, and as such can rightly be described as the crowning achievement of the modern age. All other nations in the developed world have adopted our take in these matters, exemplified by the unique concept of “ordered liberty,” which upon careful review is itself a case of wishful thinking in the extreme.
All developing nations in the Third World that want to be viewed as “enlightened” are in the process of adopting this same take. So ultimately one might say divorce is an altogether modern invention, a natural result of an almost world-wide adherence to the tenets of Classical Liberalism.
Which of course brings the discussion back in a perfectly seamless fashion to our consideration of Amoris Laetita, and its author’s alleged wanton ambiguity, his “employing hints buried in footnotes, and deceptive citations of previous magisterial teaching,” as Father Raymond DeSousa so eloquently puts it in his National Catholic Register piece. Given the few historical antecedents briefly noted above, our problem would appear to be much more extensive than a Pope who is trying to figure out how best to minister to the divorced victims of our emancipated age.
The disease that is ravaging our people and culture, then, is nothing less than modernity itself, with the American Experiment being its most successful iteration. Not exactly a tepid discussion for the faint of heart. Reintroducing authentic Catholic anthropology into the popular mind is the only antidote. Since this anthropology is diametrically opposed to everything that both liberals and conservatives currently hold dear, it won’t be easy to administer the cure.
Yes, that’s right, liberals and conservatives are both advocates of the ongoing revolution, the grand, centuries-old experiment. Their entrenched positions regarding “individual liberty,” which they confidently promote as polar opposites, are merely two sides of the same coin.
While liberals/progressives have long been properly identified as misguided at best, and enemies of the truth at worst, conservatives/traditionalists have lately gotten a free ride. This needs to be re-examined. What passes for a traditionalist viewpoint here in the States has been fatally undermined by the adoption of the American Experiment as a new moral paradigm that somehow magically embodies, if not actually improves upon, all previous Catholic thought, especially as regards economic justice. The ignorance or flagrant disregard of the need for economic justice has blinded the upright and stalwart to the larger lessons of history, which they claim to cherish.
The revolutionary idea of American Exceptionalism has been percolating on these shores since the original colonists first landed, and has steadily gained momentum ever since. And important turning point for the Catholic population in this effort was the writer Orestes Brownson’s big book of 1865, The American Republic. A recent convert at the time, Mr. Brownson had the bright idea that our founders “built better than they knew.” Meaning our country’s guiding principles can be reconciled with the natural law, and specifically with the elaborate thought of the angelic doctor Thomas Aquinas, even though the founders themselves thoroughly rejected any and all semblance of Catholic doctrine.
This overly optimistic analysis was unfortunately adopted by too many in the American hierarchy. The majority of them, in successive generations, have come to embrace the idea that our pluralist-democratic nation poses no threat to Catholic belief and practice. An important by-product of this ideological adventure is the way it allows conservatives and neo-conservatives to apply the same don’t-worry-be-happy analysis to economic matters.
Our sense of exceptionalism has been the subject of numerous attempts at fraternal correction on the part of a series of pre-conciliar popes. In addition to the work of Pius X (1903-1914), cited earlier by E. Michael Jones, check out the long line of edicts promulgated on the subject, or that reference the subject as part of a larger presentation. Starting with Gregory XVI (1831-1846) and Pius IX (1846-1878) in the middle of the 19th century, and continuing through to Leo XIII (1878-1903) at the close of that century. Then roll into the related work of a string of solid 20th century pontiffs (after Pius X there is Benedict XVI, Pius XI and Pius XII, just to recite the pubic record). Everything is readily available on the internet. Every single one of these documents is easy to read, because they are so well-written.
This includes the legacy of John XXIII (1958-1963), who, building upon the work of his predecessors, delivered some trenchant insights of his own on the modern condition. Especially in Mater et Magistra (1961), promulgated on the anniversary of those two pre-eminent social justice encyclicals, Rerum Novarum (1891) and Quadrisimo Anno (1931). The economic nostrums John XXII brought forward and amplified were then quickly dismissed by that Catholic icon of modern conservatism, William F. Buckley, Jr., by way of his witty, widely-publicized quip, “Mother, yes; Teacher, no.”
Though John XXIII called for the Second Vatican Council with the best of intentions, it somehow veered off in a different direction after his death, and ended by (inadvertently?) sanctioning the slow-brewing radical American perspective. It might not be fair to think of Vatican II as solely responsible for the doctrinal and dogmatic mess we find ourselves in. Or for the watering down of belief and practice on the part of the few intrepid souls still in the pews, to say nothing of the lost legions who have left altogether. But that celebrated conclave certainly didn’t help matters.
It is right and just for serious observers such as E. Michael Jones, Antonio Caponnetto et al to keep tabs on our current Pope, and bring their misgivings to our attention. There is no question that some papacies do a better job of expressing the faith, and therefore turn out to be more effective in the long run, than others. While history will be the final judge, it’s always instructive to read the thoughts of worthy contemporary commentators in real-time.
“Bergoglio in Context” runs to 30 pages in the June edition of Culture Wars magazine, and features 123 citations. It is an exceptional piece of work, which brings together a wide range of fascinating background intel that indicts many culprits. One might say nobody knows post-conciliar American history – or history, period? – better than does E. Michael Jones. It would be a fool’s errand to rebut or refute any of his hypotheses. All we have tried to do with our response here today is offer something of an everyman’s perspective.
At the risk of sounding trite or hopelessly naïve in the wake of EMJ’s towering scholarship, whatever flaws we may uncover in how this Pope conducts himself, and however much we may wish for a different sort of Pope, this is the one the Holy Spirit has deemed to send our way, at this particular moment in history. Even as we look through a glass darkly there is no reason to lose hope, since the situation, as they say, remains fluid. If we still believe in the power of prayer, let us join together to pray for the elderly Francis. And then let us keep our shoulder to our own plow.
Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.
October 3, 2017