Most Catholics around the world are giving thanks to God for a new pope. A few of us are already pontificating about the future. This is my own little reflection on the relationship between the pontificates of Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis.
I believe that in order to fully appreciate the events of the last month or so, one must consider that we have a new Holy Father because, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Pope Benedict carefully formulated a plan. The evidence shows that he did not just wake up one morning and say: “I have had it. I just can’t do it anymore.” The historical facts indicate that he was considering a potential abdication through most of his pontificate. I think it is also fair to say that he was aware of all the potential outcomes. The man, before anything else is a thinker. I don’t believe he was surprised by any of the reactions or criticisms. He had prayed for a long time and had thought the whole thing through. When he made his decision he was definitive.
None of this means, however, that his human considerations could have given him certitude about an outcome. Apart from a private revelation, which is entirely possible, he was making a personal calculation based on reason enlightened by faith, but he was doing so in the legitimate exercise of his office and was entitled to a kind of prudence and protection of divine providence that is unique to the Vicar of Christ.
Divine and Human Faith
The First Vatican Council decrees the following regarding supernatural faith:
If anyone says that the assent to Christian faith is not free, but is necessarily produced by arguments of human reason; or that the grace of God is necessary only for living faith which works by charity: let him be anathema.
The articles of the faith are the direct object of the Theological Virtue of Faith, by which we believe what God has revealed on His authority by means of his infused grace. Faith is an intellectual virtue in which reason obviously plays a part, but the cause of such Faith is not reason but grace. Faith is a gift. The Infallibility of the Pope is one of those articles that is the object of this kind of faith.
Obviously all the various assessments of Pope Benedict’s decision to abdicate and the conclave’s election of Pope Francis are not and cannot be a question of Theological Faith. Human reason and human faith, play far more important roles. But those who are tempted to criticize should remember this: If the Pope Benedict, the cardinal electors and now Pope Francis have not been exercising infallible judgments in the recent momentous events, neither are the pundits and prognosticators. As the Catechism says:
Mindful of Christ’s words to his apostles: “He who hears you, hears me,” the faithful receive with docility the teachings and directives that their pastors give them in different forms (87).
In the concrete, even though obedience to these words of Our Lord involves in a large measure only human faith, it is not human faith to believe that Our Lord’s command must be followed. An analogy that helps to illustrate what I am trying to convey is the kind of faith that one puts in the Sacrament of Penance. The faith that we put in the Sacrament itself is the Theological Virtue of Faith. The faith that we put in a particular confessor, or in a particular reception of the Sacrament of Penance is not. Christ gives us no such infallible guarantees. We don’t know absolutely that our absolution is valid.
“Was I properly disposed? Did the priest understand me adequately?” This can be an agony for the scrupulous.
But that is the way the Sacrament works by Christ’s design. There is and must be an element of human faith, and no guarantee of infallibility. In practice, that is, in the concrete, the life of faith always involves a putting out into the deep (cf., Lk 5:4). And although there is a measure of human faith here, it is not merely such, because even in this, it is not man who is the ultimate guarantor that one is following the will of God, but Christ. One who confesses in good faith and one who follows the pope in good faith is exercising the Theological Virtue of Faith.
The Law and the Prophets
The Catechism also teaches us that all the baptized participate in the triple office of Christ as priest, prophet and king (783). However, priests, especially bishops who have the fullness of the priesthood and most especially the pope as the Vicar of Christ and Head of the apostolic college, have a mandate to exercise these three offices in a particular way. These offices are the proper functions of the Holy Father and the bishops: the priest sanctifies by offering sacrifice; the prophet teaches by delivering God’s message; and the king governs by shepherding God’s people after the heart of Christ (cf., Jer 3:15).
But I believe there is a different but complimentary distinction that needs to accompany this tripartite distinction of office, and that is the twofold distinction of the Law and the Prophets, roughly corresponding to the dogmatic and pastoral teaching of the pope and the bishops. The Prophetic Office actually encompasses both the teaching of the general principles of the faith (the law/dogma) and its practical application (the prophets/pastorality). The first is protected by the guarantee of infallibility, the second is not. And although clearly pastoral teaching must be subordinated to dogmatic teaching, neither can be dispensed with, and both involve faith, even if in some measure the latter involves human faith.
I think it is particular unhelpful and even “unhealthy” to minimize the legitimate and necessary role of the pope as prophet in the second sense, namely, in the role as Universal Shepherd (Pastor) of the Church. Here I am not criticizing the conscientious objector, or the theologian acting in good faith, and with the urgency and necessity of a well-formed and sincere conscience, when this has to do with non-infallibly taught doctrinal and pastoral teaching that does not seem to be reconcilable with previous magisterial teaching, and when such objections are expressed directly to the magisterium itself. Public dissent from magisterial teaching, on the other hand, causes immediate scandal to the faithful. But the know-it-all zealotry has another deleterious effect: the cultivation of a habit of mind that reduces almost every aspect of faith to a calculation of human judgment. Dr. John Rao, for example, already on the morning after the election, and admitting that he had no evidence to go on, speculated that the selection of Pope Francis was due to the
political machinations on the part of one or the other elements within that faction of the college of cardinals that is wedded to the so-called “spirit of the Council,” however they interpret that, who don’t care if the Church dies, so long as that spirit is maintained.
The Prophets Benedict and Francis
It is already clear that the Pope Emeritus and our new Holy Father are two very different men. The temptation of the digital age news cycle and the deluge of information and opinion will be to construct a mythology around the personalities and events of this papal transition. It is already very clear, for example, that the liturgical tastes of the two pontiffs are quite different. But continuity is not to be found in personal example, nor in respect for persons, but in the work Christ has chosen to undertake in His Vicar(s), which will become apparent to the docile, but be imperceptible to those who insist on reducing everything to a calculations and syllogisms.
Over the last month, I have noted how the Vatileaks scandal, the report on Vatican affairs mandated by Pope Benedict, the rumors of the blackmail of the pope and the documentation of the widespread presence of homosexuality among priests and especially among Vatican curial officials, were being described in public so as to provide a way of interpreting the outcome of the upcoming conclave. And so it has happened.
The speculations and accusations on both the left and right have been wild, but in particular, among the traditionalists, there has been much wishful thinking. Unfortunately, that tentative hopefulness for a Counter-Revolution has been transformed into very definite disappointment and anger. Before the conclave, I read many articles about why this or that cardinal should be or would be elected pope. I read lists about what the new pope might do, or what he ought to do. I even read one post in which the author, in a not altogether unserious way, speculated about what he would do, if he were pope, which included the abolition of the Ordinary Form of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Clearly the consensus among traditionalists, even some of those who are regular and ostensibly loyal to the Holy Father, is that it is time to end the Revolution, by which they mean, not the end of the abuses of the postconciliar period. What they are talking about ending are the mandated reforms of the Second Vatican Council.
Now that Pope Benedict has retired and there is a new man of different temperament and interests, the traditionalists anticipate the worst. They are deathly afraid that Pope Francis is not Ratzingarian enough. But in reality Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI was not “Ratzingarian” enough for the traditionalists. The fact is that the traditionalists never have accepted Pope Benedict’s hermeneutic of continuity, at least not without a long series of highly nuanced interpretations and qualifications. Every time, Pope Benedict spoke favorably, or acted in the interest of conciliar teachings, such as religious liberty, ecumenism, interreligious dialogue, collegiality, all the way until the very end when he decided he take a more modern view of his papal responsibilities and retire, the traditionalists were up in arms and in attack formation. The stilettos came out and were deployed with the surgical precision for which the traditionalist mind is well-known. But Pope Francis is fully Ratzingarian when, not two days after his election he sent a message to the chief Rabbi of Rome saying:
I strongly hope to be able to contribute to the progress of the relations that have existed between Jews and Catholics since Vatican Council II in a spirit of renewed collaboration and in service of a world that may always be more in harmony with the Creator’s will.
Take a look at the recent comments on Rorate Caeli, for example, excoriating “[another] flagrantly Modernist Pope.” Also, Fr. Zuhlsdorf had to admonish his commenters to behave themselves. (God bless him for throwing down the gauntlet). And Taylor Marshal has had to pen a lengthy argument on why the traditionalists ought to give Pope Francis at least a chance.
Since I have been writing on the subject of traditionalism, I have received more and more private emails from individuals who stand outside the traditionalist camp, and now find themselves under the influence of traditionalist arguments. They have read my defense of the modern magisterium and have been encouraged. My point here is simply to confirm that my contention that this is the Postconciliar Moment. Pope Benedict tried to make this clear. Now Pope Francis seems to be more concerned about the hunger and poverty of his own people, than about what vestments he wears for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. (For anyone who wishes to criticize this last remark, please read about the behavior of the pope’s namesake first: “Strip Our Lady’s Altar Bare!”). This is not a criticism of Pope Benedict, only an acknowledgment of a difference in perspective. In any case, the traditionalists are using these kinds of differences as a club against Pope Francis.
Perhaps, it is finally time for all those of good faith to recognize that collegiality, religious liberty, ecumenism, interreligious dialogue and the modern liturgy are here to stay, and to begin working to implement the hermeneutic of continuity in response to the prophetic graces bestowed upon the Church through the gift of the holy men that God has called to serve the Church as Universal Shepherd.
Benedictines and Franciscans
I believe it is more than providential that the last two popes, who will be forever linked in an unanticipated and unprecedented alliance and ecclesiastical watershed, have taken the names Benedict and Francis. Stability and mendicancy: mutually exclusive categories considered in themselves, but complementary because of one faith and the common life of the profession of the three evangelical counsels. The stability of Benedictine life made the organic development of the Roman Rite in all its glory possible, and formalized the great intellectual and ascetical tradition of the Lectio Divina. On the other hand, the lack of both common property and the vow of stability was an innovation of the Franciscan Order, followed soon after by the Dominicans and others. It did not facilitate the solemn celebration of the sacred liturgy in the way the older form of religious life did. But it was ordered in a new way toward evangelization and reform. It was a huge innovation, and one that was not without serious problems. In fact, within the first few generations, the Order was under attack by the secular clergy, and St. Bonaventure was forced to defend the Franciscan charism as both traditional and innovative. Pope Benedict has noted this in his brilliant and brief exposition of the thought of St. Bonaventure.
St. Francis was blindly attached to the See of Peter, and chose to celebrate the sacred liturgy according to the form used in the papal chapel, not because of a commitment, proper to the Franciscan charism, to a certain liturgical form, but precisely because it was the form of the Roman Rite used by the Holy Father. It is true, as Father Zuhlsdorf points out, that St. Francis was not a liturgical minimalist, and certainly was not of a proto-protestant bent of mind (which was a common problem of the times). However, St. Francis was committed specifically to conciliar reform and made sure that his order was at the tip of the spear when it came to all of the reforms mandated by the Fourth Lateran Council, not just the liturgical reforms. What was characteristic of all Franciscan communities, regardless of specific tendencies in regard to interpretations of the Rule, was not liturgical solemnity, but of the celebration of the sacred liturgy with decorum and reverence, especially making sure that the Blessed Sacrament reserved properly, and that all the appurtenances of the sanctuary were in good order and cared for. All of these things were mandated by the Council. St. Francis was simply being obedient to the mind of the Church.
The transition from Pope Benedict to Pope Francis, if anything, looks very much like “innovation in continuity.” It both confirms the intuitions of Pope Benedict and indicates how much the man was and is a scholar and a contemplative, not a zealot or an ideologue. What do, for example, the traditionalists, and indeed many “conservative Catholics” make of Pope Benedict’s assertion (2009) that the Charismatic Movement, properly integrated into ecclesial life, and subordinated to magisterial authority, has a permanent place in the Church? Perhaps, Pope Benedict’s intuition at the end of his pontificate might be expressed in simple terms to both the left and the right as “I will not be used.” Pope Francis’ election is confirmation that reform often involves delicate matters best left to the Holy Spirit and the very disconcerting prophets who come under his influence. It the end it will perhaps prove not only possible to be both traditional and charismatic, in the best sense of each word. Perhaps that integration is the whole point of what the Spirit is saying the Church today.