Pope Francis has recently criticized the modern versions of Pelagianism and triumphalism in a way that has left some devout Catholics scratching their heads. The Holy Father seems to be taking aim at the more traditionally minded that are intent on bringing about a restoration of Catholic life, and they find it hard to understand why the Vicar of Christ would have a problem with, of all things, “traditional Catholicism.” So what exactly is Pope Francis trying to accomplish?
Faith and Future
I believe the Holy Father is attempting to underscore the supernatural character of faith in a time when everyone is affected by the deviations of modernity, including the very people who are reacting against these deviations. In his encyclical Lumen Fidei, Pope Francis says that faith is a supernatural gift that lights our way, “guiding us through time.” It comes from the past as a “foundational memory.” Yet, because faith proceeds from the Risen Christ it is also a light that comes from the future, “opening before us vast horizons which guide us beyond our isolated selves towards the breadth of communion” (4). Thus, Pope Francis calls faith memoria futuri, “remembrance of the future” (9). Coming from the past, faith is an unshakable memory of what God and done for us in Christ Jesus, and what He has revealed to us through His Son. Coming from the future, faith is bound up with hope in the promises God has made and guaranteed by the resurrection of His Son. Thus, in practice to keep the faith means never allowing ourselves to be robbed of hope. It means never being frozen in time because we are afraid of the future (57).
In his recent interview with Father Antonio Spadaro, Pope Francis expands upon the same theme. But there he places the emphasis on the present. Both the past and future are important because the past the “footprints” of God and the future holds the promise. But to live in the safety of the past or in a utopian future is a failure to encounter God in the concrete circumstances of today, which often require us to begin right now “long run historical processes.” In the encyclical Pope Francis says that we must not fragment time, “changing it into space.” He says space “hardens processes, whereas time propels towards the future and encourages us to go forward in hope” (57). And in the interview he suggests that we do not occupy the “space,” the territory we have carved out for ourselves, but that we respond to God in the present, in time, which involves “new historical dynamics.” In respect to the “historical dynamics” to which the magisterium opened the Church through Vatican II, Pope Francis says: “the dynamic of reading the Gospel, actualizing its message for today—which was typical of Vatican II—is absolutely irreversible.”
Change in the world is only possible because there are some things that do not change. Progress through time is only meaningful if it is based on unchangeable truth. Thus, there must be continuity between the past, the present and the future. But there is also measure of discontinuity that occurs through change. In respect to the Church’s postconciliar teaching, Pope Benedict has pointed out that “concrete historical situations and their requirements” have revealed this discontinuity without, however undermining the continuity of principles.
But here is the problem: the question as to where the line lies that divides the changes appropriate to historical circumstances from those that touch upon principle is the subject of contingent theological arguments about which good men might disagree. Such arguments concern the passage of the Church through time, that is, they are about pastoral applications of theological principles. It is for this reason that the universal authority of the Holy Father applies not only to dogmatic matters but also to pastoral ones, even when they are not guaranteed by the charism of infallibility. The Church is Mater et Magistra, Mother and Teacher in time, in the midst of all the changes and instability of “the world.”
Mary and Man
Blessed John Paul II called the spiritual journey of man through the passage of time a “pilgrimage of faith.” He did this especially by identifying its perfection in the person of Mary, who, though She was Mother of God and full of grace, lived out her faith in the historical circumstances of time, like everyone else. Hers was a vital faith that lifted her above the circumstances, which at times seem to have been impossibly difficult, as when after the Annunciation She had no way of explaining Her pregnancy, even to St. Joseph, and had to wait upon the direct intervention of God. Our Lady’s faith was wholly supernatural but circumscribed within the concrete, and while She possessed the faith, as no other, even more so than even the apostles, She remained always teachable, and therefore, like the Church She became Mother and Teacher, even in respect to the apostles. If Peter was entrusted with the faith as its guardian and promoter, to Mary, as Mother, was entrusted the faith of Peter and his brethren.
Hence, it is by way of contrast to the immaculate faith of the Virgin that we ought to understand Pope Francis’ criticism of the Pelagianism and triumphalism found among Catholics. Here is what he said about Pelagianism:
The Pelagian solution. This basically appears as a form of restorationism. In dealing with the Church’s problems, a purely disciplinary solution is sought, through the restoration of outdated manners and forms which, even on the cultural level, are no longer meaningful. In Latin America it is usually to be found in small groups, in some new religious congregations, in tendencies to doctrinal or disciplinary “safety”. Basically it is static, although it is capable of inversion, in a process of regression. It seeks to “recover” the lost past.
And this is what Pope Francis said more recently about Triumphalism, according to Vatican Radio:
Finally, said Pope Francis there is the group of Christians who “in their hearts do not believe in the Risen Lord and want to make theirs a more majestic resurrection than that of the real one. These, he said are the “triumphalist” Christians.
“They do not know the meaning of the word ‘triumph’ the Pope continued, so they just say “triumphalism,” because they have such an inferiority complex and want to do this …
When we look at these Christians, with their many triumphalist attitudes, in their lives, in their speeches and in their pastoral theology, liturgy, so many things, it is because they do not believe deep down in the Risen One. He is the Winner, the Risen One. He won.
Indeed, there is safety, or so there seems to be, in our own personal victories which gain us control over our circumstances. But Our Lady did not fight Her way out of the mystery of Our Lord’s suffering and death. She did not tear away the stone from the tomb of Our Lord. In fact, there seems to be a sense in which the vigilant faith of Our Lady during Our Lord’s entombment is the operative grace of the Church in crisis. It is not a position of safety. It has all the insecurity of the passing of time and the uncertainty of the future. As one Catholic historian put it: the past does not provide the answers, but knowledge of it is essential in order to pose the right questions. And in respect to faith linked to hope the question is “What promises has Our Lord made us?” While Jesus is in the tomb the answer to that question is still the operative principle.
Nature or Grace?
Many traditional Catholics are scratching their heads and asking themselves what exactly the criticisms lodged by the Holy Father mean. How, they ask, can men and women so dedicated to the sacramental life, the necessity of grace, the Church and “the Mass of the Ages,” be Pelagian? And what, they ask, is so bad about triumphalism, when it is distinguished from a Church that is emasculated doctrinally and apostolically unsure of itself in the face of worldliness, and banal in its exterior comportment?
In and of themselves, these are fair questions. But it is actually the context in which they are asked that provides the answers these Catholics are looking for. Pope Francis is responding to tendencies and movements that are particularly characteristic of the moment. I believe those tendencies are themselves what make it so hard for these people to understand what Pope Francis is saying. In the face of the frequent dereliction of duty on the part of those responsible for the welfare of souls, traditional Catholics are looking for a more virile form of Catholicism. They want answers in the present—right now—and they believe those answers are to be found in the past. The past represents safety and a certain plan of action that guarantees solutions. All that is required, they say, is the courage to make the right decisions.
This is, for example, what the SSPX has said. For them Tradition is not living. It is static. It is the place of safety and restoration. And, therefore, it is Rome that must change and return to Tradition. And so, every permission given by the Vatican, every expression of a willingness to dialogue and every offer made was interpreted as the Pope Benedict’s readiness to jettison the reforms of Vatican II, or at least let the SSPX have juridical status without requiring them to change anything. On the other hand, every stricture, requirement or correction demanded by the Vatican was interpreted as an attempt to derail the Holy Father’s efforts to bring reconciliation. These were the cold, hard calculations that led to a moment of decision that Bishop Fellay was not unafraid to confront. Rome would have to wait until it is ready to return to the past.
The problem with all this is that the religious question is a matter of both faith and reason, but is it the grace of God that is the cause of unshakable, supernatural faith in the truth revealed by Him. It is not simply a cold hard calculation. It is an assent to the One who reveals, which leads to hope in His promises. In practice it involves the passage through time with all the contingencies that create, according to the great Cardinal Manning, innumerable “inequalities and anomalies in the history of doctrine.” But, Manning also says, “to the Church the facts of antiquity are transparent in the light of its perpetual consciousness of the original revelation.” He is not talking about the mummified Church of the past, but the living Church of the present.
Progressives and traditionalists run into the same problem: private judgment—not the fiducial faith of the Protestants, but a choice of a rule of faith that will govern every other choice. It, therefore, consists in playing the remembered past or the “remembered” future off the living magisterium, insisting that theological arguments based on traditional or progressive interpretations are “The Teaching of the Church,” and therefore trump anything the actual occupant of the Chair of St. Peter has to say. In this the progressives are much more inclined to defend the radical autonomy of nature, sometimes to the point of pantheism. The traditionalists, on the other hand, will invoke the supernatural character of their calculations, and claim that their rigorous, scientific syllogisms coalesce into Church doctrine.
Pope Francis’ attribution of Pelagianism to the restorationist tendencies—in my opinion, rightly applied to the above mentioned line of thinking—has nothing to do with a failure to believe in grace or in a neglect of its sources, but with the restorationist mode of operation in the face of the modern crisis. The traditionalist Counter-Revolution is no less pragmatic and Machiavellian than the progressive Revolution. When the Pope becomes the enemy, this somehow seems to justify the very human propaganda campaign and political program that undermines papal authority. Pope Francis criticizes the idea that a restoration of the past is going to solve the problems of the present and prepare for the future. Traditionalists believe this is a rejection of Tradition. But human prudence is the wisdom of this world and it is human prudence that consistently pits personal opinion against the teaching authority of the Holy Father. This is not a work of God. It is a work of man, hence Pelagian.
I believe Pope Francis’s criticism of “triumphalist” Christians is related to what he has said about Pelagian restorationaism. He states that while traditionalists do not believe in the Resurrection of Christ they do have a very vibrant faith in their own victories. Obviously, no traditionalist denies the fact of the bodily resurrection of Christ. So what does the Holy Father mean? I believe it is this: belief in the historical resurrection of Christ and a really “deep down” assimilated belief in the “Risen One,” is a hope believed against hope, when in the present circumstances we are as good as dead (cf. Rom 4:18-19). From this hope proceeds no Pelagian Counter-Revolution, but a persevering faith in the One that God has sent (cf. Jn 6:29). Our belief in the indefectibility of the Church and in supernatural obedience, especially to the Holy Father, is not always supported by the facts of the present circumstances as we estimate them. When we obey the Holy Father, our faith is not in him, but in Christ—in God, not in man. The restoration of the Church in its pastoral practice and the liturgy is not a project or campaign to be strategized with cold, hard logic. The Church, as Pope Benedict has pointed out many times, is a person at whose feet we sit. And we are disciples, that is, learners. Only One is our Teacher, the Christ (Mt 23:8).
The Faith of Mary
When we sit at the feet of the Church, we sit at the feet of Mary, Mater et Magistra, and with Her in the midst of crisis we keep vigil with Christ who lays in the tomb. Faith is an encounter with Christ who graces us with the ability to believe in what we do not see even at the cost of our lives. But this pertains not only to the abstract truths of the faith, but also to our passage through time—not only to the truths which do not change, but also to the living Church that does, and to whom has been given the wisdom to be Mother and Teacher.
In the Spadaro interview, Pope Francis says “God has revealed himself as history, not as a compendium of abstract truths.” Hence, he says that faith is not a “laboratory,” but a “journey,” it is not space safely circumscribed but time that leads to the “frontier.” Yes, these are truths that can be misunderstood, but we would be mistaken if we only talked about what Pope Francis has said, so as to stave off any misunderstanding. There is, in fact, no safe place. Neither the longed-for past, nor the imagined future are places of safety. The present certainly is not safe. This is precisely why we have the living and visible head of the Church, who teaches in the name of Christ. It is why we must cling to the faith of Mary.
Pope Francis refuses to succumb to pessimism and recently pointed to the holiness within the Church in persons such as Blessed Mother Teresa, and those who live hidden lives of holiness that remind us that the Church has never been better, because “holiness is greater than scandal.” In these times he invites us to “courageous creativity,” not radical innovation, but innovation in continuity. There ought to be no fear of the future, or an abstract retreat into the safety of the past. We need the courage to go forward under the guidance of the Vicar of Christ in the present, in the journey of time.
The memories of Mary remain archetypical for the whole Church of all times. They are memories of the past, but they are also memories of the future, and they offer us answers to the problems we confront in the present. It is to the Church, and always to the Church, neither to the abstraction of a new utopian Church nor to abstraction of “Eternal Rome” that we must have recourse, but to the living person that the Church is in Christ. Only in this way will the apocalypse of our age become a new Jerusalem. The Woman Clothed with the Sun has the answers because Her perspective has the panoramic view of eternity. Only from that point of view, as Manning says, are the “facts of antiquity . . . transparent in the light” of the Church’s “perpetual consciousness of the original revelation.” Our Lady always leads us to the living, breathing Church, under the headship of Her Son’s Vicar on earth. The memories of the Immaculate, past and future, comprise the only guarantee that in the present our faith will remain wholly supernatural, and free from the excesses of human calculation. May we remain vigilant with Her at the tomb of Jesus.