Pope Francis and the battle for Vatican II: My latest in The Register

December 29, 2023
Crisis in the Church
The enigma of Pope Francis is best explained within the context of the ongoing debates over Vatican II

There was a much longer version of this, but it had to be edited down for publication purposes. The unedited version is posted below the Register link.


The papacy of Pope Francis has been marked by controversy almost from its inception.  Indeed, to say that this has been an unsettling papacy for many faithful Catholics is to understate the case by several orders of magnitude. However, in order to situate this papacy in its proper context it is important to view the controversies surrounding Pope Francis and the push-back they have generated as part of a larger and unresolved debate in the Church about the proper interpretation and reception of the Second Vatican Council.  And when viewed in this light we will see that the challenges posed by this papacy are both less serious than some have alleged (as in accusations that the Pope is a formal heretic) and worse than what those same folks think because the “phenomenon” that is Pope Francis is an eruption into full view of a deep clash of theological approaches concerning the Council that has – and let’s just say this out loud – never been resolved and which has been festering in the Church for sixty years.  

I will begin with a brief listing of the bill of particulars often levied against Pope Francis and then move into an analysis of what these issues might mean as part of the ongoing debate mentioned above.  I say “might mean” because in what follows I make no pretense that this is the only way to interpret this papacy.  

It was still early in his papacy when he uttered his now famous quip regarding a repentant homosexual prelate, “Who am I to judge?”. This set-off a firestorm of controversy no matter how misinterpreted his words were and the Vatican, despite the controversy, never bothered to clarify what he meant with any precision.  Then came the famously ambiguous footnote in Amoris Laetitia concerning communion for the divorced and civilly remarried (#351) following the Synod on the Family, which was then followed by l’affair Pachamama during the Synod on the Amazon.  

Controversy also ensued after his signing of the Abu Dhabi statement along with the Grand Imam Ahmad el-Tayeb (a leading Sunni Muslim) which seemingly endorsed religious pluralism as the will of God, with no specification as to whether this meant God’s direct and positive active will or his merely “permissive” will. The document states that “The pluralism and the diversity of religions, colour, sex, race and language are willed by God in His wisdom, through which He created human beings.” It is indeed hard to read this statement in an orthodox manner since it lumps religious pluralism in with other aspects of our humanity which are now regarded by most people as expressions of diversity that are good in themselves and without qualification. Thus, the statement seems to imply rather strongly that the diversity of religions is also a good thing and in an unqualified sense. And Pope Francis only muddied the waters further when he said on the plane ride home, "I want to restate this clearly: from the Catholic point of view, the document does not deviate one millimeter from Vatican II."

But it is hard to see how either Lumen Gentium or Nostra aetate (Vatican II documents that dealt with non-Christian religions) endorsed the notion that religious pluralism has been willed by God in the same way that he has willed the diversity of sex, skin color and language. So here again we see that what is really at stake in the debate is the proper interpretation of Vatican II and not so much whether the Pope has expressed a heretical view. Because what the pope is claiming, problematically in my view, is that his views are orthodox precisely because they are expressive of the teachings of Vatican II.  

There is also still a lot of rancor over the severe restrictions on the traditional Latin Mass in Traditionis custodes, and a feeling of a very real double standard with regard to his treatment of traditionalists in the Church. As evidence for this his traditionalist critics point to his disciplining of Bishop Strickland and Cardinal Burke (among others) while promoting to high office and curial responsibility other prelates who dissent from Church teaching in matters relating to sexual morality.  And finally there is his foregrounding of pro-LGBTQ folks like Fr. James Martin and Sister Jeannine Gramick while ignoring more orthodox outreach ministries to homosexuals like Courage.  

We could also add that his reforms of the Pontifical Academy for Life and the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family are evidence of a pontiff more in tune with progressive theologians than with theologians cut out of the same cloth as Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI.  Because in both cases he replaced faculty whose theology was deeply in tune with the Communio theological approach of those previous two pontiffs with theologians far more progressive and open to modern, secular notions of human sexuality in particular.  And the recently concluded Synod on synodality was noteworthy for the fact that its leadership was also heavily weighted in a more liberal direction with the clear impression that the pontifical finger was pressing firmly on the progressive side of the scales.  

This then adds to the suspicion that the latest Motu Proprio, Ad theologiam promovendam, which seeks the reform of yet another pontifical institution, The Pontifical Academy of Theology, is also seeking to further push the Church in similar directions.  This fear is reinforced by the language of the document which quite ambiguously sets in opposition theologies that merely “repeat the formulas of the past” with newer theologies in a different “paradigm” that are more grounded in a “contextual” accounting of human “experience”.  And all of that verbiage is redolent with the language of very progressive theologies of the post-conciliar era which consistently argued against a theology that began with the truths of Revelation and instead posited a more “existentially authentic” theology that begins from subjective experience and then re-interprets Revelation accordingly.  There is, of course, a sense in which this kind of theology is needed and necessary.  Unfortunately, what usually happened in such approaches is that the experiential tail began to wag the Revelational dog to such an extent that the latter became a mere Rorschach inkblot projection of whatever mood the prevailing Zeitgeist was in.

Nevertheless, and despite these red flags, I think all of the recent talk in some circles of papal heresy is both irresponsible and empirically false.  Nothing this pope has said or written in the form of an official magisterial text contains formal or material heresy and all of it can be interpreted in an orthodox way. Even the Abu Dhabi statement can be airbrushed into orthodoxy with just enough linguistic 10W-40 to grease the gears into place.  Space precludes me from demonstrating this on a case by case basis but I do think this is true no matter how often this pope needs to be “explained”.  It is closer to the truth, I think, to view Pope Francis, not as a formal heretic – a charge that is irresponsible, strategically counter-productive, and rhetorically inflammatory – but as part of the ongoing and unresolved sixty year old debate within modern Catholicism about how to properly read Vatican II as stated above.

Along these lines I think the best interpretation of the mind of Pope Francis is that he is a pre-Vatican II liberal along the lines of a Yves Congar or a Romano Guardini in his basic instincts, but that he has also evolved beyond those theological categories and has placed himself within the stream of a post-conciliar theological trajectory that is more progressive than those pre-conciliar liberals were.  And by this I mean that even though by instinct and formation he has more in common with pre-conciliar ressourcement theologians than he does with more radical pre-conciliar theologians like Hans Küng or Edward Schillebeeckx, that he nevertheless has also moved beyond the ressourcement thinkers and now has a deep sympathy for the view that the Council is best characterized as a “dynamic event” rather than as a collection of “static texts”.

This requires some unpacking. In the post-conciliar theological guild a view of the Council emerged among progressives who maintained that the actual conciliar texts were still too conservative since they are the product of a series of endless compromises made at the Council with the conservative bishops who were acting as obstructionists.  The conservatives were not in the majority and therefore, so the narrative goes, their views are not really those of the dominant “spirit” of the Council.  But since Pope Paul VI was deeply concerned to present all of the conciliar documents as the product of an overwhelming consensus, he was unwilling to ignore the conservative voices and insisted that they be heard.  The end result, the progressives maintain, was a series of documents that contain the “seeds” of a more radical vision even if they are still buried under the soil of an excessive traditionalism.

Therefore, the progressive post-conciliar approach was to emphasize instead these “seeds” as expressive of some vague thing called the “spirit of Vatican II” which it is now our duty to develop and advance in ever more radical directions.  The Council, they say, should be viewed as a Holy Spirit-inspired event that established processes of change that transcend the actual documents.  Thus, in their view, what the Holy Spirit was seeking was a radical change to the very essence of the Church and thus, via the conciliar “process”, inspired the Church to move toward a kind of self-rupture with certain key elements of its “recent” past. In particular a rupture was sought with the form of the Church produced during the medieval, renaissance, and baroque eras.

I think Pope Francis, while not necessarily buying into the full-orbed conclusions of such a view, embraces many aspects of the view that ecclesial processes are more important than particular theological constructions, and that this is not only true of Vatican II but also of other ecclesial endeavors as well. And as evidence for this I need only point to the recently concluded first installment of the Synod on synodality whose various textual expressions are heavily larded with this language of “process” and “event”, beginning with the initial Instrumentum laboris and on through the final document put out by the Synod at its conclusion. And immediately we saw various progressive pundits begin to emphasize that the actual final text produced by the Synod is not nearly as important as the “event” of the Synod as such.    

This is indeed a red flag for many, but there are other factors to consider as well in interpreting this Pope, and those other factors complicate things a bit.  Because if the Pope is so sympathetic to a hermeneutics of Spirit-led radical revisionism, how then to interpret the fact the Pope has not given the progressives even one of their most sought-after changes? He has not changed the teaching on contraception or any other aspect of sexual morality, including leaving intact the language in the Catechism that homosexual acts are “intrinsically disordered”. He has not allowed for the ordination of women even to the diaconate. He has not lifted the discipline of mandatory priestly celibacy despite being able to do so with the stroke of a pen.  He has not granted carte blanche approval for intercommunion with non-Catholic Christians, nor even for the divorced and remarried despite that famous footnote in Amoris. Finally, his language about the LGBTQ agenda comprising a form of “ideological colonization” when exported to the cultures of the global south indicates a deep awareness that so many of these “hot button” issues are merely the petty bourgeois obsessions of the global north.  

But actions speak louder than words, and certainly louder than the silence of the inactions described above, and the actions of this pope indicate a strong preference for theologians and prelates who read the Council as a rupture with the past and as a mandate for an ongoing revolution within the Church.  Personnel is policy, as the old adage goes, and therefore the key to this papacy is to look at who he has favored in his episcopal appointments, and how he has restructured various pontifical institutions in terms of personnel, as well as the calculated optics of whom he chooses to grant private audiences to and the transparent skewing of Synodal listening in a progressive direction. This skewing of the Synod can be seen in the fact that the Relator General of the Synod, appointed by Pope Francis, was Cardinal Hollerich of Luxemburg who has publicly dissented from Church teaching on homosexuality – a dissent he does not even bother to nuance in any way as he claims, simply and bluntly, that on this issue the Church is just “wrong”.  There is also the fact that the majority of the Vatican-chosen voting representatives to the Synod are also progressives seeking changes on hot button issues on sex, gender, and Holy Orders.

However, it is possible to resolve this “mystery” of the two papal minds if we posit the possibility that the Pope does indeed want many of these same progressive changes following the “spirit of Vatican II”, but wants the Church to “grow” into them organically via a process of “synodal listening” precisely in order to avoid schism and protect ecclesial unity. This would also explain why he allows the German synodal way to continue even as he cautions them about forging ahead on their own without a broader Church consensus on such things as ordaining women.  The Pope, in other words, is sympathetic with the broader theological aims of the German synod but sees the danger of a balkanized Church with various episcopal conferences all going their own way.  Put another way, perhaps Pope Francis wants a more liberal Church, one more in line with the tonalities of modern values, and one less focused on doctrines and theology, without for all that succumbing to the fractiousness of the Anglicans who have trod a similar path before us.

Along these same lines it is instructive to examine carefully the response given by Pope Francis to the five dubia questions sent to him recently.  In his answer to the fourth question, which was on the ordination of women, the Pope responded by reiterating the authoritative nature of Pope John Paul’s teaching on the inadmissibility of women to Holy Orders.  But he then qualified this statement and said, “On the other hand, to be rigorous, let us recognize that a clear and authoritative doctrine on the exact nature of a ‘definitive statement’ has not yet been fully developed. It is not a dogmatic definition, and yet it must be adhered to by all. No one can publicly contradict it and yet it can be a subject of study, as with the case of the validity of ordinations in the Anglican Communion”

This qualification has not been noticed by many commentators who tended to focus on the pope’s reiteration of a strong “No” to women’s ordination.  And yet, the qualification given here is actually quite a little bombshell in its own right since what the Pope is saying is that the Church does not really have an “authoritative doctrine” on just exactly how perennially binding a “definitive statement” of the magisterium is. A further implication is that if a teaching is non-infallible it is by definition merely “definitive” but not necessarily binding for all time.  And therefore, despite being “definitive” in a sense that calls for ecclesial obedience, it does not really close the door to any and all future changes that further “study” might stir up.

This further explains his apparent deep antipathy for more traditional Catholics who he dismissively characterizes as “backwardists”.  This too is another “tell” that he leans in the direction of a post-conciliar line of rupturist interpretations. His draconian response to the  traditional Latin Mass movement corresponds to a view of the Council as establishing a process characterized by an “ever-forward” dynamic and which therefore frowns upon mere text-based approaches to the Council as so much hide-bound conservatism.  Sacrosanctum Concilium, whose 60th anniversary we just celebrated, is a case study in this mentality.  Because a careful reading of its actual text would not lead one to conclude that the Mass of Paul VI is the liturgy the Council fathers actually envisioned.  But if one treats the document instead as a simple initiator of a spirit of change that now has free rein to move beyond the text itself in a radical way, then adherence to the Mass of Paul VI becomes the litmus test of one’s adherence to that particular conciliar hermeneutic. This is why all criticism of the new Mass has to be squelched because any such criticism further implies a criticism of “the conciliar process”, even if those criticisms appeal to actual conciliar texts, or especially if they appeal to conciliar texts.

We can lament these facts as a horrible betrayal of Vatican II but that would be to engage in an exercise in question begging.  Because what the progressive approach to the Council as an event that transcends text and as a spirit that transcends the letter argues for is not going to be refuted by quoting that text and that letter right back at them.  Theologically, what has to be developed first is exactly why the distinction that liberals make between text and event, spirit and letter, is so deeply incoherent on a foundational theological level in the first place.  Why such a distinction violates the first principle of Christianity as the self-exegesis of God in the historically real particularism of the Incarnation. And therefore, that it further violates the first principle of the ecclesiology that follows from this which is an affirmation that the Incarnation is palpably and visibly extended into history precisely in and through the concrete “letter” (flesh) of inspired textual word (scripture), doctrine (conciliar and papal texts), and sacrament (ex opere operato structure and office).

There is therefore a deep theological contrast between the fundamentally christological nature of the proper incarnational approach to the Council – as with all councils – and the dangerously open-ended nature of liberal calls for a Church in a state of endless “suspension” of its doctrines.  And in this endless suspension of doctrines, which are casually dismissed as historically relativized truths for another era, we also see that those in the Church who continue to take doctrines seriously are accused of that most protean of categories: “fundamentalism”.  But the Church is not a high school debating club and cannot be in a constant forensic posture of  political debates with no inner guiding christological teleology.  

Therefore, and no matter how exhausted many are with the whole tiresome question of “what did Vatican II really say?”, the fact is that the case of Vatican II has been reopened by the Pope himself and no matter how maddening it might be we need to head back into court to relitigate a case we thought the last two popes had already decided and that double jeopardy had now attached to their interpretation of the Council.  But in a Church such as ours, with a theology of the papacy such as ours, the very principle of double jeopardy is tenuous to say the least.  And so back to court we must go. And we must remember as well that it took several centuries, and not a few martyrs to the faith, to finally put in place a standard, magisterial understanding of the christological dogmas of Nicaea. Where would we be now if Athanasius or Maximus had said, “What? This same nonsense again about conciliar interpretations? Forget it! I am tired of these conciliar ambiguities and fights over them! Now let go of my tongue.”

So the game’s afoot.  We can either run away into some imagined fortress of solitude while burning bridges behind us with accusations of papal heresy, or we can, like those before us, take a deep breath and take on the task of conciliar interpretation and appropriation once again. Because other than rejecting the Council and the entirety of the magisterium of the Church since then, we have no other choice.

Dorothy Day, pray for us

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