On Sunday, in his homily for the Mass of Pentecost, Pope Francis presented simple and eloquent synthesis of what he has been saying about the Holy Spirit in recent weeks. He asked us to remember three words: newness, harmony and mission. I appreciate what he is saying and am inclined to interpret it the same way I did in regard to his remarks about the charismatic movement.
Newness as Opposed to Novelty
Pope Francis says that newness is a characteristic of the Holy Spirit. I believe this corresponds to what Pope Benedict called innovation in continuity. Not everything new is a “novelty” in the sense in which the Church discourages such things. There is a distinction to be made which is not always easy. But that is why we have a living magisterium to help us discern the spirits. The fact is that both the penchant for novelty and the stubborn refusal to accept what is new on the pretext that it is not “traditional” are indicative of the same problem: the effort to “program and plan our lives in accordance with our own ideas, our own comfort, our own preferences.”
I often think about the argument made which states that the Second Vatican Council caused the crisis that came in its aftermath. Certainly, on the face of it, the line of reasoning enjoys a certain plausibility. But we must be careful not to be guilty of the post hoc ergo proper hoc fallacy. I believe that the crisis of modernity had been coming on for a long time, and not just since the Enlightenment and French Revolution. In the Middle Ages currents were set in motion, such as the Nominalism of William of Ockham, that would stew for a very long time and unravel the fabric of Christendom. The Church rightly opposed these insofar as she was the universal arbiter of such questions, and more or less successfully managed a situation that would inevitably worsen. The Church ceased to hold the place that it had in the old world and that the old methods of maintaining that place would eventually need to be replaced by new methods, ones which took a more nuanced approach to the values of modernity, such as that of human dignity. That this resulted in crisis is understandable, that, therefore, the effort should have never been undertaken or should be abandoned is another matter.
The argument hinges on whether or not the Church would have preserved itself intact if it had not engaged in aggiornamento in the face of changing conditions. I believe there is stronger argument behind the idea that a small remnant Church may have survived mostly without change if the reform had not occurred, than there is that the Church would have remained the dominant social force in the world. But neither option is a solution to the problem of modernity. At some point the Church had to come to terms with the changing conditions. That a crisis ensued from the Church’s adjustment to its changed status vis a vis the rest of the world is not in itself proof that such an adjustment was ill advised. Crisis was inevitable either way.
And so, Pope Francis asks the question:
Do we have the courage to strike out along the new paths which God’s newness sets before us, or do we resist, barricaded in transient structures which have lost their capacity for openness to what is new?
The Holy Father very clearly is asking us to get out of our comfort zone and expose ourselves to unpredictable wind of the Holy Spirit. There is no question that that openness to newness is a dangerous thing, and we are understandably afraid of it. But this is precisely what the Holy Spirit does:
We fear that God may force us to strike out on new paths and leave behind our all too narrow, closed and selfish horizons in order to become open to his own.
Harmony as Opposed to Monotony
Openness to what is new in the face of changing conditions and novelty in matters of doctrine are not always easily distinguished. Likewise it is not always easy to distinguish true deep unity in the Holy Spirit from mere external uniformity. Pope Francis says:
The Holy Spirit would appear to create disorder in the Church, since he brings the diversity of charisms and gifts; yet all this, by his working, is a great source of wealth, for the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of unity, which does not mean uniformity, but which leads everything back to harmony.
Unity and uniformity are not the same thing. Pope Benedict, in the context of allowing and promoting multiple forms of the Roman Rite said that Catholicity does not mean uniformity. Pope Francis says:
Only the Spirit can awaken diversity, plurality and multiplicity, while at the same time building unity.
Pope Francis preached these words in front of the members of the “new movements” that have arisen since the Second Vatican Council. These movements have brought vibrant new life to the Church, but not without also bring problems as well. Regnum Christi under the Legionaries of Christ is one example of a movement that has the blessings of the Church, but whose founder turned out to be an evil man. The life of Regnum Christi has proven to be quite problematic. The Neocatechumenal Way is another movement, which has had its problems, in particular, in respect to the liturgy, but has continued to exist with the support of Pope Benedict. The work of the Holy Spirit is not a “safety first” type of activity. Openness to the work of the Holy Spirit means the possibility of error in matters of discernment. For whatever reason, the living magisterium believes that both the risks and the failures have been worth enduring for the sake of long term success. I believe the reason is that while the principles of the faith remain unchanging, their application is often complex and in particular times prophetic inspiration is necessary.
Obviously, then, not all diversity of form is capable of supporting unity. We have seen much division, but according to Pope Francis diversity becomes “a source of conflict” only when such diversity acts outside magisterial oversight:
Journeying together in the Church, under the guidance of her pastors who possess a special charism and ministry, is a sign of the working of the Holy Spirit.
I believe that those who have great zeal in favor of their programs for reform or restoration must be sensitive to the insights of the living magisterium. In particular, they must be docile to Peter as he has spoken over the last fifty years and make an act of faith that in the future of the Church lies in the harmony of which Pope Francis speaks. It is a dynamic orthodoxy that is the fruit of a long hard fight to defend tradition and at the same time adapt in those things that are both necessary and legitimate. We have an opportunity now to learn from the mistakes of both extremes and come out of the crisis in a true state of renewal.
Mission as Opposed to Zealotry
Pope Francis says that the Holy Spirit ”saves us from the threat of a Church which is gnostic and self-referential, closed in on herself.” A gnostic Church is elitist, living at a fairytale and pharisaical standard—eminent in every virtue but charity. A self-referential Church is one that is so preoccupied with its own identity and is incapable of responding in realtime to what is happening on the ground with the actual people who are affected by the decisions it makes. This is not about the principles, or about issues of natural law and the like. It is about being in touch with what is actually happening and not being preoccupied with ideology and pet theories about the panacea that will fix everything.
What this means is that we need to chuck the checklist and measuring stick by which we assess everyone and everything and begin to discern where the Holy Spirit is moving in the vessels of clay around us who may have far more wisdom than we give them credit. There is no safe place in this vale of tears. The little groups and cliques, the sects and cults we create are not the Roman Catholic Church. They are the societies of convenience that we create in our own likeness.
The way around this problem is to repudiate all ideology that is not in accord with tradition as it is protected, handed on and developed by the living magisterium. The mistakes on both sides of the spectrum, (left/right; progressive/traditionalist) have to do with this lack of docility to what the Spirit is saying to the Church as it is mediated to us by the Holy Father. Instead of putting our trust in Peter we have opted for heretics, schismatics, false prophets, ideologues, gnostics, cult leaders, revolutionaries, counter-revolutionaries, megalomaniacs and know-it-alls. We cease to be missionary to the extent that we commit ourselves to the false-messianism of zealotry.
What we need is the Holy Spirit whose inspiration is authenticated by our fidelity the Vicar of Christ.
Update: In respect to the willingness of the Church to takes risks and suffer the consequences in order to address the real needs of the times, Pope Francis said:
“The Church must go out from herself. Where? Towards the existential outskirts”, even if that means risking accidents along the way, in the outward journey. To those who worry about what can happen to the Pope responds : “I prefer a thousand times a Church damaged by an accident, than a sick Church closed in on itself”. Faith- he added – is an encounter with Jesus, and we must do the same, help others to encounter Jesus.