The Falsification of the Good. Part One: Pope Francis and the Question Begging Nature of Accusations of Heresy.

December 2, 2023
Communio Theology
Pope Francis is not a heretic but is instead a manifestation of the unresolved theological legacy of Vatican II

Part one of a new three part series on the falistifcation of the good, the signs of the times, and demoralization in the Church:

The Falsification of the Good, the Signs of the Times, and Demoralization:

Part One: Pope Francis, Vatican II, and the Question Begging Nature of Accusations of Heresy.

“… conversion must be constructed in aspirational, not reactive terms; as an option for what is good, not against what is thought bad – or dangerous. It is an ongoing task. The soul’s compass must ever be aligned to True North. If not, we will find ourselves … at the mercy of trivial temptations, apparently drawn back into a morass of attractions and deceits we thought we had left behind for good.”
(Bishop Erik Varden. “The Shattering of Loneliness”, p. 75)

Part One:  Demoralization?

This past week I set out to write on the topic of an alleged demoralization in the contemporary Church after receiving numerous emails from priests and lay people alike, all of whom are complaining about the low morale in the ranks these days of devout Catholics. And by “devout” they do not mean ultra conservative Catholics who read “The Remnant” but just rank and file believers who actually love the Church and want nothing more than to live out the faith.  But as I began to write I was really struggling and spinning my wheels in the mud and I tossed away one introduction after another until it struck me what my problem was: I am not a sociologist and I have no empirical information about which Catholic demographic it is that is most demoralized, how extensive the alleged demoralization is even within certain subgroups, or even if there is any significant demoralization at all.  Furthermore, it is probably true that the vast, vast majority of Catholics in the world are not in any way demoralized, have no knowledge of the various ecclesial sexual and financial scandals, and do not give a fig about the controversies surrounding Pope Francis and things like the Pachamama scandal.  After all, many people in the non-Western regions of the Church, as I myself have witnessed, attend liturgies that are so … ahem, “enculturated”, … that they make Pachamama look like the Infant of Prague by comparison.  

In fact, I do not even know if “demoralization” is the right word. Indeed, based on many of the emails I have gotten, the plight of quite a few seems to go far beyond demoralization and into a full-blown existential crisis of faith.  The neuralgic point seems to be Pope Francis and what many perceive to be his teaching of heresy, which in turn causes these folks to call into question the entirety of the Church’s claims for the papacy in particular with regard to infallibility, and for the Church’s infallibility and indefectibility in more general terms.  For these troubled Catholics, a mere “demoralization” would be most welcome and a step up from the faith-destroying crisis that Pope Francis presents them with.  

I am obviously taking such a crisis seriously since I am bothering to write about it.  However, I have to admit up front that it is not a crisis that I feel in myself and that I quite frankly do not completely understand it.  And without minimizing the real crisis people are undergoing – and it is real – I think that even a cursory reading of the history of the papacy or the history of the development of doctrine in the Church should be enough to disabuse anyone of an overly romanticized view of the Church Militant as a fortress of absolute unchanging truth in perfect material continuity with itself in all ways.   Of course the truths of Revelation do not change.  And the dogmas of the faith are, by definition, non-negotiables.  But there have been popes who were  total moral scoundrels and even a few popes of dubious theological leanings.  And the development of doctrine has never been a clear, linear progression of unbroken continuities.  Those are just facts and if you cannot accept them then nothing I write can help you. And I do not say that to be mean, but to state what is simply true. I cannot help you if you are looking for me to airbrush the ecclesial portrait in order to repristinate it into it its putative original purity. Nor can I disabuse anyone of a crisis of faith in the Church if they are dead-set on viewing Pope Francis as a formal, obstinate, heretic.

And if that is your view then perhaps you should consult one of the leading traditionalists for guidance since they are adept at negotiating a faith that affirms both the truth of Catholicism and the mendacity and error of the entire modern Church since Vatican II.  Again, I am not at all being sarcastic here or trying to be snarky.  I am just being brutally honest.  If you think Pope Francis has formally taught heresy as Pope then you should look elsewhere for guidance and there are those in the Church who are better suited than I at holding their faith together in the face of what they think is a heretic pope.

But as you may have gathered by now, my own view is that Pope Francis has not taught formal heresy in a magisterial way despite what many claim.  I understand that he has said some troubling things and those things are not to be taken lightly, but in the end everything he has said can be “spun” in an orthodox direction no matter how many rubber-man linguistic and theological contortions one has to engage in to be able to do so.  That in itself is problematic since, as I have said before, the purpose of the Petrine ministry is to unify the Church by clarifying matters that are in dispute, whereas Pope Francis, true to his word, has “made a mess” and muddied the waters instead.  This, in my view, does not make him a false pope or a heretical pope. But it does make him a deeply flawed Pope who does not seem to understand the proper role of the Petrine Office. In short, I do not think he is a heretical Pope, but I do think he is a Pope with many deficits. And the Church has had Popes with deficits before.  

Therefore, and all that said, this papacy in my view should not throw us into a tailspin of despair over the Church’s indefectibility. However, and this is key, I think this papacy has seriously misread “the signs of the times” and has placed the Church on a dangerous pastoral course and it is on that level that I think people should be concerned, and it is on that level that most of my published criticisms of this Pope resides.  

Should this Pope anger us? In many ways, yes. But anger is an ugly and distorting emotion as well so caution is in order. So let’s at least be clear about what it is we are angry about, and perhaps even temper the language of anger and speak instead of deep concern. And in my view, as we will see I hope, it is his pastoral strategy, and not his magisterial teachings that is most troublesome.  Because it is a pastoral strategy that now threatens to metastasize like an aggressive cancer into all of the organs of the Church which presents us with a diffuse situation that is not easily quarantined.  And, of course, the pope’s pastoral strategy, based on what I think is a flawed reading of the signs of the times, could eventually also have doctrinal consequences since the pastoral is not something radically distinct from the doctrinal and carries within itself certain doctrinal assumptions and implications. I get that. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves here either. The Rubicon of heresy has not been crossed and, in my opinion, will never be since I continue to believe that the Holy Spirit will prevent this from happening. You might call that pietistical or naïve, but I just call it being a Catholic.

But I cannot, as I said, answer everyone’s deep existential questions about the faith.  And the issue of how doctrine develops, what to do when the Church teaches something that is later contradicted by another Church teaching, or how to handle the relationship between power and authority in the Church is beyond the scope of a simple blog post.  That is an enormously complex question and if you want further guidance on the question of the development of doctrine then read Newman, or Blondel, or some other authors who deal with that.  Doctrine has developed over time, mostly in organic continuity with what came before, but sometimes not. Sometimes, as Pope Benedict pointed out, the Church needs to engage in little “micro ruptures” with some aspect of doctrine that had overemphasized one aspect of the Tradition at the expense of another, and that these micro-discontinuities are in the service of a deeper continuity. Therefore, with regard to Vatican II, he preferred to speak of a hermeneutic of “reform” rather than a hermeneutic of a strict material continuity in all things. And that is my approach as well.

But none of this I suspect is sufficient to quiet the tempest kicked-up by Pope Francis since the narrative that has arisen around him in some circles is that he is a heretic.  I cannot answer the question of whether it is even possible for there to be a heretical pope.  I do not know.  And I do not know because I spend almost no time thinking about it or studying about such things.  Strangely, to me it almost seems beside the point and a bit of an irrelevant distraction. Furthermore we have no idea how many previous popes there may have been who may have harbored very dubious theological views as well. There were no airplane, off-the-cuff interviews back in the day, no internet, and certainly no press corps to breathlessly report on the latest musings from the Oracle on the Tiber.  And like hotel maids cleaning up a room after the guests left it in a post-party disgraceful state, the Church’s theological chamber maids have been very adept at sanitation and “tidying-up” the papal messes in the immediate post-mortem of a pope’s reign.  There was no internet, but there was a version of Austen Ivereigh and “Where Peter is” style popesplaining which made sure that the papal theological bed looked made and the sheets remained white and well-starched.

Too cynical you say? I think not.  I love the papacy and just about everything about it.  There is nothing like it in any other religion and I hope it stays that way.  And there is absolutely nothing like the high drama of a new papal election with the Sistine Chapel, the clandestine meetings and votes, the pageantry, the white smoke, and the emergence onto the loggia of the new pope.  Gives me goosebumps every time.  And I affirm the Petrine ministry as a central aspect of the Church’s apostolic constitution.  But even Christ had to scold Peter severely when he misunderstood the nature of Christ’s mission (“Get behind me Satan!”) and Popes are capable of moral skullduggery and rank pastoral stupidity.  

As a Catholic, all things being equal, I owe the Pope the benefit of the doubt.  And I did that for about six years with Pope Francis.  But we are way beyond that now and all things are not equal.  The Pope is not a heretic. He is the real Pope.  But therein lies a deeper problem. The real problem.  And the problem as I see it is more subtle and more dangerous than debates over things like the change in the teaching on the death penalty or the repression of the Latin Mass or even that famous footnote in Amoris Laetitia.  The problem is that precisely while remaining within the boundaries of orthodoxy Pope Francis has subtly redefined the Church’s terms of engagement with the modern world.  And it is in that shift that I think the gravest danger resides.

Part Two:  The Current Context: Reading Pope Francis:  Vatican II, Infallibility, and the Signs of the Times.

Seen in this light, the papacy of Pope Francis seems to me to be the coming to fruition of a certain kind of post-conciliar Catholic theology where the language of orthodoxy is maintained and even affirmed as “true”, but which takes that language and hollows out the traditional meaning of those words and replaces them with a new set of meanings derived from the prevailing Zeitgeist, all the while dressing it up as a mere reading of the signs of the times.  I am not saying that this is exactly what Pope Francis is doing. Quite frankly, I do not even pretend to know anymore what the ultimate aims of this pontificate are.  Nevertheless, my claim is that the people Pope Francis has empowered and the kinds of prelates and theologians he seems to favor, are of this kind of theology.  And their thought world, though not exactly the same as that of earlier iterations of this theological genre, are of the school of thought that takes the language of the tradition and transforms it from within to better reflect the worldview, if not the ethos, of modernity.

But is that not heretical you might ask?  Well … it can be in the hands of certain very revisionist types … but it need not be and often, as in the case of Pope Francis, it merely represents a rereading and a reinterpretation of just what “orthodoxy” is in the light of changed cultural circumstances.  And once again, this rereading can be done in clearly heretical ways, and the use of “cultural circumstances” can be used as a mere ruse for radically altering doctrines in mendacious ways, but it is also often more complicated than a simple black and white, thumbs-up or thumbs-down, appraisal can give us. In other words, all “reinterpretations” by definition will involve a certain change to what is being interpreted, but not all such efforts are necessarily so revisionistic that they become heterodox.  Perhaps they are questionable. Perhaps they are highly speculative.  Perhaps they flirt with heresy while remaining just shy of its borders.  But reinterpretation is not to be simply equated with the heretical. And there is the rub. Because now you have to engage the reinterpretation, not simply by a reiteration of authorities, but precisely on a theological level.  

This is why so many of the theological debates in recent times seem so intractable and unresolvable by a simple appeal to authority.  It solves nothing really, on a practical ecclesial level at least, to repeat something some Council or Pope has taught on a given contested subject, unless one also engages in solid theological argumentation to put fire into those equations in a way that is convincing to unbiased interlocutors. Because absent such arguments the progressive wing of the Church can, and has, simply dismissed the arguments from authority as an exercise in question begging since it is the very probative and normative nature of those statements as final and definitive that is precisely what is up for debate.  For example, even in reiterating that women cannot be ordained to Holy Orders since this is the “definitive” teaching of the Church, Pope Francis also added the little zinger that, nevertheless, we need a theological reexamination of just how unreformable some of these non-dogmatic, yet definitive, teachings are.  And you can scream “Heresy!” to the rafters at the sheer chutzpah of such a suggestion but if a Pope says that a previous non-infallible teaching might be open to renewed scrutiny at some future date then it is by definition not a heretical thing for a Pope to say.

Therefore, in my opinion, Vatican II, despite its manifest theological developments which I wholeheartedly support, failed in one very important regard.  Traditionalists are fond of pointing out the many so-called “ambiguities” of the Council in this or that doctrinal statement.  But most of these I would argue can be easily explained if one gives the Council a charitable reading as a genuine attempt at developing doctrine responsibly.  But there is one glaring ambiguity that acts as a kind of “Ur-ambiguity” that allowed for a variety of hermeneutical approaches. The Ur-ambiguity is that even as the Council developed doctrines which in some ways involved some of those “micro ruptures”, it never openly admitted that this is what it was doing, and engaged instead in what Msgr. Thomas Guarino, in his excellent book, “The Disputed Teachings of Vatican II”, has called a “masking” of these micro ruptures by speaking as if everything was in perfect material continuity with what came before.  And in so doing the Council failed to give us its own self-interpretive hermeneutical key of how, when, and why doctrines can change without for all that calling into question the indefectibility of the Church. And, therefore, that very debate continues on in the Church – the debate over how “authoritative” authoritative texts are in the sense of being completely irreformable.

Guarino notes that there has been an unfortunate “infallibility bloat” that has caused many in the Church to have a crisis of faith at the mere thought that the Church may have allowed certain distortions to creep into her magisterial teachings and that those distortions needed later correction.  And this inability to countenance change of any kind has led to an inability to really address the theological nature of the crisis at hand.  Especially since the kind of change we are talking about is not so much an admission of the Church teaching overt “error” in the past as it is that one aspect of the tradition, as I said before, has been exaggerated at the expense of others.

Guarino’s conclusions in this regard make the point with such clarity that I cannot do better:

Catholic theology does not regard ordinary teaching as intrinsically irreformable or irreversible.  Such teaching does not intend to establish incontrovertible dogmatic landmarks; consequently, material identity, continuity, and perpetuity are not characteristics that belong to it necessarily and essentially. Such authentic teaching, while received by Catholics with religious respect and submission, is not proferred with the Church’s full authority, and so a reversal does not constitute a permutatio fideior distortive corruption. If the magisterium of the Catholic Church could never be wrong, then its every utterance would need to be shrouded with the veil of infallibility - - a theologically indefensible position.  That is why it is important to see the two ways ressourcement was employed at Vatican II: as the supplementation and enrichment of prior ecclesial teaching and, at times, as the reversal of ordinary magisterial teaching. (65)

This, of course, raises as many questions as it answers.  For starters, we are not speaking here of errors over minor and tangential topics.  We are talking about errors relating to serious matters of some importance, even if those matters are not dogmatic in nature.  What do we make of that?  Second, if Vatican II really did reverse several teachings of the recent pre-conciliar ordinary magisterium, then why was Vatican II so silent, so coy, over the fact that this is what it was doing? Cynical, conspiracy minded traditionalists like to say that it is because the council fathers were planting little “liberal time bombs” into the texts which would explode in the Church at a later date, which is, as they claim, precisely what happened.  

But I think this is fatuous since even a passing familiarity with the documentation of the conciliar debates shows that the bishops there hid nothing from each other and that there were numerous contentious debates that dragged on for days, weeks, months, and even years, over a single word or phrase, often requiring an intervention from Paul VI for resolution.   Nobody was successfully manipulating anybody, and even if some were trying to do so there is scant evidence that they were successful at their Freemason subterfugery and skullduggery.  Every theological position was there in full view and all of the major factions were quite open and vocal.  If there was subterfuge going on it was of a very strange sort never seen before:  deception via open and transparent debate.  The only thing missing was St. Nicholas yanking on Arius’s beard.

The more reasonable view, one not riddled with the bilious jaundice of the traditionalists, is that of Guarino, who refers, as I said above, to the conciliar reluctance to openly admit to reversals of previous teachings as a “masking” of the true state of affairs out of a pastoral concern that the integrity of the magisterium not be called into question by average believers – a prospect that deeply concerned Paul VI.  The bishops at Vatican II were very reluctant to challenge explicitly the reigning ecclesial narrative that all developments of doctrine in the history of the Church, including at Vatican II, are organic, smooth, and in material continuity with all else that has come before. However, considering that Vatican II did reverse certain prior teachings and that the Council fathers knew darn well that they were, does this not constitute a kind of deception on their part? In a word, no. Because even though the Council did not explicitly challenge the narrative of total material continuity in all things authoritatively taught, it did not for all that explicitly affirm that narrative either. It simply ignored the issue of the hermeneutics of tradition altogether and never explicitly addressed the question of what its various reversals of previous teachings implied with regard to how we are to think about the development of doctrine in the light of those reversals.  And it probably ignored the entire issue, not out of a desire to deceive, but rather for the simple practical reason that no real consensus on that vexing issue would have been possible.  

In other words, they kicked the can of the hermeneutics of “development” down the road which has resulted in 60 years of ongoing debate.  

Obviously, had they addressed the issue head-on they would have had to develop a notion of “development” that was expansive enough, and hermeneutically sophisticated enough, to encompass the fact that the Church has at times allowed some distortions to creep into her teachings and therefore, that “development” means not only organic supplementation but also various negations and reversals, however infrequent such corrective measures are.  But the Council did not do this and rather than viewing this as deceptive I view it as the typical product of compromise via committee.  Paul VI was intent, as his interventions demonstrated, on making sure that the traditionalist faction was listened to and their concerns addressed.  But Paul also clearly wanted the ressourcement wing to proceed as well.  The result was a chimeric hybrid of the two, neither nefarious in motive nor as “ambiguous” as its critics claimed, the net result of which was definitely the masking of all ruptures and reversals in the language of material continuity.

A classic example of this is the development of the concept of episcopal collegiality in Lumen Gentium that retrieved from the Tradition the idea that a bishop gets the three “munera”” (functions) of his office (teaching, governing, and sanctifying) directly from God in virtue of his ordination as a bishop and not as something delegated to them from the Pope.  The Council wanted to affirm that bishops are not simply branch managers of Catholic Inc. with the Pope as its CEO.  And this was an important issue for the ressourcement theologians.  But this seemed to call into question the teachings of Vatican I on papal supremacy which made the traditionalists nervous.  And so, after all the debate, and in order for Lumen Gentium to pass a vote, a “nota praevia” was added at the end of Lumen Gentium from Paul VI which assured one and all that any collegiality would have to be “cum Petro et sub Petro”. But the emphasis was clearly that in order to be “cum Petro” a bishop needed first and foremost to remember that they are “sub Petro”.  This made the traditionalists happy and so Lumen Gentium passed the vote on the floor overwhelmingly.

But this, once again, was a giant “hanging chad” and, once again, merely kicked the can down the road as to when and how a bishop can question some teaching of the Pope or to what extent a Pope can intervene in a bishop’s diocese over things like when a pastor can publish Mass times in a bulletin for a Latin Mass.  

Sadly, the Council’s failure to develop a proper hermeneutic of how to retrieve the tradition - - even if that failure was motivated by a sincere pastoral concern not to crush the bruised reed - - was the single biggest mistake, theologically and even pastorally speaking, made by the Council.  Because it left the door wide open for others in the post-conciliar era to fill that void and to propose a hermeneutic of rupture as the key motif of the Council - - a rupture they viewed as so extreme that everything was now up for reinterpretation. Therefore, the so-called “spirit of Vatican II”, so often invoked by the progressive wing of the post conciliar Church, finds its theological grounding in both what the Council actually *did* in reversing some previous teachings, but also, and more importantly, in what the Council did *not* say:  “Here is what all of this means for our notion of ‘development’ and here is what it does not mean.” The failure of the Council to achieve its stated aim of a new springtime in the Church can be tied directly to this lacuna in its interpretive apparatus. And it is a lacuna that proved fatal to its entire ressourcement project of renewal since the various reversals of the Council, left hanging and without conceptual contextualization in a broader theology of development, had political consequences in the Church that were of the very kind the Council hoped to avoid by not addressing the topic of the hermeneutics of development at all.  An epic fail.

This failure is doubly tragic since the Council in its ressourcement re-interrogation of the tradition had in seed form the makings of a truly profound and radical, and yet utterly orthodox, hermeneutical revolution.  The traditionalists are correct that Vatican II was a unique Council in both style and substance since it was not called to address a particular heresy, or a specific crisis, or a specific geo-political challenge, or even a particular pastoral problem.  Instead, it was called in order to address … well… hmm… everything.  Pope John XXIII, in calling the Council, did not task it with updating this or that particular doctrine in the light of modern challenges.  He called on the Council in a very generic and unspecified way to re-interrogate the entirety of the deposit of the faith and to repropose that deposit in a new form, stripped of turgid, neo-scholastic language, and in a manner more Christological and evangelical.  To my knowledge, such a project had never before been attempted by the Church and it does not take a great deal of perspicacity to see that the risks and potential rewards in such an endeavor are huge:  succeed and the Church might just yet reinvigorate the Church by instigating a lay revolution of sanctity-in-the-world; fail and the entire dadgum ecclesial edifice might collapse into a ragtag flotilla of lost refugees in uncharted waters.  What it was that Saint Pope John was proposing now seems to us, after all of these years, as “old news” and rather boilerplate as a piece of historical information. But in reality the Pope’s mandate was the equivalent of a high-stakes gambler going all-in with a poker hand that was anything but a slam dunk.

Therefore, and in the light of all of this, I think it important for the sake of ecclesial sanity, to set aside the language of heresy when speaking of Pope Francis. The charge of heresy is a very, very serious charge and it is therefore certainly not an adjudication that should be made by the Inquisition of social media pundits, myself included, no matter how critical one might be of some of his pastoral decisions.  It is one thing to be concerned that he places a public dissenter from the Church’s sexual teachings (Cardinal Hollerich) in charge of the Synod.  But it is another thing altogether to deduce from that a charge of formal heresy and to make that claim repeatedly and publicly.  To quote Yoda: “Foolishness that is”.

It is better, I think, to view him instead as part of the ongoing debate within modern Catholicism about how to properly read the signs of the times and how, in the light of that reading, our theology and pastoral praxis is to proceed, and how doctrine is to develop, if at all.  And appeals to authority are not sufficient because what is in question is precisely the exact nature and limits of ecclesial authority as well as the hermeneutics of tradition. In short, we must make theological arguments and good ones at that.  

And we *can* construct such arguments about tradition from the theological affirmations of Vatican II despite the Council not doing this for us.  And this is especially important since the progressive wing of the Church appeals to the Council all the time. 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 was 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 shit again? Forget it! I am tired of these conciliar ambiguities and fights over them! Now let go of my tongue.”

We can also invoke past authoritative statements, the Doctors of the Church, and as much of the great Tradition as we can muster.  But all of that must be placed in a deeper theological context and synthesis that precisely answers the questions at hand, rather than simply assuming what it is we need first to demonstrate.  We need, in other words, a true “disputatio” and not an over-reliance on quotes from the Councils of Constance and Trent or whatever.  And we must enter into such disputations with the “second naivete” of a childlike demeanor wherein we take the process of argumentation at face value as a quest for the truth, even if our interlocutors are dishonest manipulators of “process”.  And ultimately such “manipulators” will eventually be exposed by the truth, goodness, and beauty of the Gospel. Because the saints always win, even if from their crosses.  And there are both saints and manipulators galore in all of our ecclesial “camps.” It is not, to put it another way, a Church of “liberal manipulation turtles” all the way down and there are deep reservoirs of goodness among all of the parties involved in these debates.

Therefore, in the blog posts to follow this one I wish to outline in brief what I think the “signs of the times” are and what those realities indicate to us about the proper pastoral path the Church should follow.  I will then explore why I think Pope Francis and his ecclesial allies are misreading those signs, and misreading Vatican II, and what I think the very negative consequences of those misreadings are.  I will then conclude with a meditation on the hope that I have that there is in the midst of all of this confusion clear signs that we are in fact being presented by the Holy Spirit with a truly unique opportunity to “rewild” the Catholic faith in a manner that is at once faithful to the Revelation of God in Christ even as it charts a very radical path forward. And that path is the path of the crazy, whackadoodle world of a sanctity unleashed onto the world as a true revolution of the soul. Not the lace doily sanctity of Baroque epicene effeminacy, or the “Muskrat Love” sanctity of 70’s style egalitarian, pot-fueled, populist, pewter chalice, Catholicism, or the modern variant of that in the rainbow holiness of the new alphabet people Catholicism of perpetual “marginalization”.  But instead the sanctity of prophetic radicality that is ill at home in most of these ecclesial parlors. Very few Catholics actually fit neatly into any of those camps.  And so they remain, as they have always remained, open to the provocation of Christ via the witness of true saints who speak in the language of a non-self-aware sanctity utterly suited to our times.

In short, what I hope to show is that the Pope is a necessary, but not sufficient, source for ecclesial unity. That the Petrine ministry in the Church, though essential, is inferior to the Marian dimension of holiness in the Church.  And, therefore, that if one is currently thrown into a crisis of faith by papal missteps and errors then perhaps one should question why the lack of emphasis upon the universal call to holiness in our bourgeois Western Church of the past 200 years did not engender the same response.  And this sad fact – that we have not blinked twice at the centuries long deficit of the call to holiness in the Western Church, while at the same time frothing at the mouth over a papal footnote in a low level magisterial document -- should give us pause.  Perhaps our focus has been off for longer than we think and perhaps it is not just the progressives who are the only bogeymen here.

Finally, and before I move on to an analysis of the signs of the times, it is important to reiterate that the doctrine of the infallibility of the Church is not an end in itself but a means to an end.  The theological purpose behind it is grounded in a sound theological insight which goes back to the Fathers even if the Fathers would not have used the language of infallibility.  And that insight is that if Jesus is to be made contemporaneous to believers of all times and places then the concrete historical particularity of Christ must have a mediation into time and history that is a wholly reliable mediation.  A mediation that does not so distort the reality of Christ over time that he fades into the mist of the past as an obscure puzzlement fit only for antiquarian quests of ancient oddities.  In short, if Christ is to save us he must reach us in the here and now in the full reality of who he was then and still is now. He cannot reach us as simply a “dangerous memory” of a man who once lived 2000 years ago and who once “spoke truth to power”.  I don’t need the memory of Jesus for that.  

But this mediation takes place on multiple levels and is not to be reduced simply to infallible magisterial teaching alone.  Sometimes when speaking about the mediation of Revelation this kind of reductive approach is adopted and one ends with a kind of magisterial positivism that conflates the full mystery of Revelation with some propositional dogmas from Councils and Popes.  There are also mediations of Christ in the sacraments and the sacramental office that makes them possible on the level of an ex opere operato assurance that they are valid regardless of the holiness or sinfulness of the minister.  Once again, what is affirmed here is the reliability (infallibility if you will) of the mediation of Christ in the sacraments.  

However, all of this refers to the objective structure of the Church, but as Balthasar points out, this objective structure, which he calls the “Petrine principle” within the Church, is inferior to the Marian principle of subjective holiness in the Church and its lived appropriation of the truth of the Church’s teachings and the transformative grace of the sacraments.  These are the saints and those seeking to become saints. And a Church that is perfect in her doctrinal expressions and perfect in her sacramental structures, but which lacks the public witness of a multitude of saints, is going to be an ineffective Church in both the short and long term.  The transcendental properties of Being all hang together and Truth, in order to be perceived, must be at one with the Good, and vice versa.  Balthasar puts it as follows:

“In a world that no longer has enough confidence in itself to affirm the beautiful, the proofs of the truth have lost their cogency. In other words, syllogisms may still dutifully clatter away like rotary presses or computers which infallibly spew out an exact number of answers by the minute.  But the logic of these answers is itself a mechanism which no longer captivates anyone. The very conclusions are no longer conclusive.” (Glory of the Lord volume I: p. 19)

In part two of this series I will take up this analysis and push it further.  I will argue that there have been three approaches to reading the signs of the times in the Church and only one, in my view, is adequate.  The first approach is to read the signs with an eye toward accommodating the Church to them in order for the Church to remain “relevant”. We see this approach in full display in the German Synodal Way.  The second approach is to read the signs and to view them as largely toxic to the faith and in need of rejection.  I think this approach is mostly correct but lacks an essential soteriological moment.  And that will lead me to the third approach which is to read the signs as indicative of a culture that is largely toxic, but which is in need of our engagement as saints of vicarious empathy. And I see this dynamic in play in various modern saints whose profile is thus one of a sanctity that is truly, and uniquely, modern.

Dorothy Day, pray for us.

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