As I read Evangelli Guadium and have spent a fair amount of time thinking about the document itself, the commentary surrounding it and Pope Francis’s leadership several issues seem to crystallize themselves:
It appears to me that there is broad agreement that something is amiss within the Church. In fact some of the rapture that greets Pope Francis stems from this sense, that he will be a “reformer”. This brings us to the heart of the issue, because as GK Chesterton said
“For reform implies form. It implies that we are trying to shape the world in a particular image; to make it something that we see already in our minds. Evolution is a metaphor from mere automatic unrolling. Progress is a metaphor from merely walking along a road—very likely the wrong road. But reform is a metaphor for reasonable and determined men: it means that we see a certain thing out of shape and we mean to put it into shape. And we know what shape.”
The problem right now is that there is a serious disagreement within the Church as to what it should look like, what its “form” should be.
For some of us Pope Francis is disturbing because he says things which delight the Church modernists and make things difficult for those of us who want to restore sanity to the Church. Nonetheless I must ask myself however why God sends us this Pope saying these things at this time? I will not presume to completely answer this question but I will frame the outline of what might be the shape of a possible answer.
As you might gather Catholic X-ray has a “conservative” for want of a better word flavor. To some degree it seems to us pretty clear that there is a tradition, including not just the Latin Mass, but devotions, an intellectual heritage and a particular vocabulary that has been forgotten post Vatican II. This stored treasure was a great thing. Amazingly it used not force, but reason to move both the learned and unlearned to pursue invisible things, not out of force of arms and in promise of carnal pleasures… (Gee… what world religion uses force of arms or describes a heaven in which we are rewarded with 72 virgins….? Ah…Let’s see…. But I digress…)
Let’s quote St Thomas himself:
“For these “secrets of divine Wisdom” (Job 11:6) the divine Wisdom itself, which knows all things to the full, has deigned to reveal to men. It reveals its own presence, as well as the truth of its teaching and inspiration, by fitting arguments; and in order to confirm those truths that exceed natural knowledge, it gives visible manifestation to works that surpass the ability of all nature. Thus, there are the wonderful cures of illnesses, there is the raising of the dead, and the wonderful immutation in the heavenly bodies; and what is more wonderful, there is the inspiration given to human minds, so that simple and untutored persons, filled with the gift of the Holy Spirit, come to possess instantaneously the highest wisdom and the readiest eloquence.
When these arguments were examined, through the efficacy of the abovementioned proof, and not the violent assault of arms or the promise of pleasure, and (what is most wonderful of all) in the midst of the tyranny of the persecutors, an innumerable throng of people, both simple and most learned, flocked to the Christian faith. In this faith there are truths preached that surpass every human intellect; the pleasures of the flesh are curbed; it is taught that the things of the world should be spurned. Now, for the mind of mortal men to assent to these things is the greatest of miracles, just as it is a manifest work of divine inspiration that, spurning visible things, men should seek only what is invisible”.
It is a complex question why this patrimony is being neglected and lost but there is no doubt the Church appeared healthier when it was intact. I therefore reject the idea that to be a conservative, that is to have as a goal the conservation, protection and promotion of this treasury is now more a fault than it would be to preserve other human treasures such as the works of Bach, or the scientific papers of Einstein or even the knowledge of how to brew beer. In fact the whole mission of the hierarchy of the Church is to preserve what was handed down in the beginning. Thus it is troubling to hear Pope Francis refer to conservative in the sense that it is a pejorative. Still the Pope does just this. Here in an otherwise laudable passage defending unborn children the Pope states:
“Among the vulnerable for whom the Church wishes to care with particular love and concern are unborn children, the most defenseless and innocent among us. Nowadays efforts are made to deny them their human dignity and to do with them whatever one pleases, taking their lives and passing laws preventing anyone from standing in the way of this. Frequently, as a way of ridiculing the Church’s effort to defend their lives, attempts are made to present her position as ideological, obscurantist and conservative.”
Given the associated adjectives in the passage it’s hard not to see the Pope does not see conservatism in the Church as a “good” thing, and elsewhere in his well interview with fellow Jesuit Fr. Antonio Spadaro he states :
“My authoritarian and quick manner of making decisions led me to have serious problems and to be accused of being ultraconservative. I lived a time of great interior crisis when I was in Cordova. To be sure, I have never been like Blessed Imelda [a goody-goody], but I have never been a right-winger. It was my authoritarian way of making decisions that created problems.”
So it’s pretty clear while he is not a classic leftist modernist Catholic, he is not warmly predisposed to “conservatism”, as he understands it. This will be a difficult situation for those who seek to restore the patrimony of the Church. A frontal assault is unlikely to work. In fact it will play into the hands of the modernists, because every time the Pope says or does something that appears to dismiss our goals it will be seen as a loss, and it will feed into the narrative that the movement of history is toward a progressive liberal post Vatican II Church, which is a vague combination of new age religious syncretism, liberal politics, warmed over mainline Protestantism. This kind of religion is not compelling (not a surprise as it lacks the virtue of being true), and as the history of the Episcopal Church demonstrates it beings a process of inexorable decline. (See more here .) The narrative also relegates traditionalists to more and more of an intellectual ghetto, with minimal influence. The defenders of an intellectual and theological tradition that shaped Western Civilization and spanned 2 millennia should not feel excessively defensive when faced with the relative intellectual vacuum (outside of the hard sciences) that is the last 50 years. With that thought in mind “conservatives” should focus on the following objectives:
1) To proclaim morality as the root to happiness and human fulfillment. When defending a moral teaching of the Church the emphasis should be on the benefit to the sinner. Sin itself leads to unhappiness. Take one example. It has widely been speculated that Pope Francis is not sympathetic to the idea of withholding the Eucharist from pro-abortion politicians. A phrase taken out of context in Evangelium Gaudium supporting this speculation is as follows:
“The Eucharist, although it is the fullness of sacramental life, is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.”
Now there is some reason to believe he does not necessarily have pro-abortion politicians in his mind, given that he has suggested to Latin American Bishops use of the Aparacedia document as a guide to Church activity in Latin America. This document addresses a large number of concerns, but among them is included the concept of “Eucharistic Coherence” as it states:
“We hope that legislators, heads of government, and health professionals, conscious of the dignity of human life and of the rootedness of the family in our peoples, will defend and protect it from the abominable crimes of abortion and euthanasia; that is their responsibility. Hence, in response to government laws and provisions that are unjust in the light of faith and reason, conscientious objection should be encouraged. We must adhere to “eucharistic coherence,” that is, be conscious that they cannot receive Holy Communion and at the same time act with deeds or words against the commandments, particularly when abortion, euthanasia, and other grave crimes against life and family are encouraged. This responsibility weighs particularly over legislators, heads of governments, and health professionals.”
Given the inconsistencies in support for this document, and the ambiguity of many of Pope Francis’s statements, it’s hard to know what to make of his actual opinion. Nonetheless traditionalists need to make the clear case that prohibiting those in mortal sin from getting communion is not a “punishment” it is a spiritual work of mercy. To receive communion while in a state of mortal sin does not bring with it the reception of grace, but further condemnation, because it is yet another mortal sin (a sacrilege). Therefore the likely effect is to harden the sinner in their sin. If you stop Nancy Pelosi from getting communion you help her to save her soul. You also prevent the scandal involved in acting like defending unspeakable crimes like abortion is not sinful. In any case neither reason is acting to punish anyone. This is true with any sin. In truth once we argue that preaching against sin is argue in favor or behaviors that will result in human happiness and fulfillment and against human behaviors that result in ruin. We do not think Doctors judgmental when they advocate against human behaviors that merely harm ones physical health and result in limited evils like sickness ( limited in the sense that all of us will face death regardless, and thus injury to our health is an evil but limited in scope) . In what way is it logical to say it is judgmental or wrong to caution against human activities that can not only result in temporal evils but infinite ones like hell. Consider sexual promiscuity. This is a sin with negative temporal consequences. It can cause sexually transmitted disease, or given the association of out of wedlock birth with poverty, child abuse and such can have great negative consequences for society at large. It is of course also a sin and can lead one to hell. To “preach” against this is merely to call attention to the fact, that although sex is enjoyable, and associated with great pleasure, to take that pleasure in ways not intended by God is to do harm to oneself and is ultimately self destructive of one’s happiness and the well being of society. In any case that is the case we should persistently make to everyone.
2) We need to somehow make the case that a free market economy can be defended in a fashion that seeks to increase the ability of the poor to emerge from poverty. For conservatives this will mean avoiding rhetoric that conflates favoring a free market with Libertarianism or “Laissez Faire”. It means making the case that it is unlikely that the state can design an economic system that will be better than what emerges organically, but there is a role for the state in helping the destitute, and creating opportunity that is widespread. It is my thought that often the Church views the free market as a legal protection of wealthy plutocrats who use their political influence to accumulate the more wealth at the expense of the poor. Actually this is what crony capitalism looks like in a heavily regulated market , but to a some extent this is the actual “system “ that prevails in many places, including here in the United States at times. Defending the principles of a free market economy should not reduce to defending the status quo. By the same token saying that there is a role for the government to play does not mean defending the Leviathian federal government the statists desire. Much can be done at smaller more local levels of government, subsidiarity is still a valid principal. We need to articulate a defense of conservative ideas more in the language used by the historic Church and less using the language of an individualistic culture. This is important however, because in the real world of practical politics our political leaders will have a great impact. If some of our fellow Catholics keep voting for political liberals because of a concern for the poor, we will end up with a society that is hostile to religion, hostile to the unborn, that euthanizes the elderly, and that has more poverty since their economic ideas are both stupid and evil.
3) We need to bring back a vocabulary that is not jargon filled gobbeldy gook and a real human being can say what it means. Lets look at two passages from recent Papal documents:
Pope Francis in Evangelli Gaudium:
“A constant tension exists between fullness and limitation. Fullness evokes the desire for complete possession, while limitation is a wall set before us. Broadly speaking, “time” has to do with fullness as an expression of the horizon which constantly opens before us, while each individual moment has to do with limitation as an expression of enclosure. People live poised between each individual moment and the greater, brighter horizon of the utopian future as the final cause which draws us to itself. Here we see a first principle for progress in building a people: time is greater than space.”
Now I ask the reader can you honestly say what he means by this?
Compare this to a passage selected from Leo XIII letter to Archbishop James Carrol Gibbon of Baltimore in Testem Benevolentiae Nostrae. He states:
“The underlying principle of these new opinions is that, in order to more easily attract those who differ from her, the Church should shape her teachings more in accord with the spirit of the age and relax some of her ancient severity and make some concessions to new opinions. Many think that these concessions should be made not only in regard to ways of living, but even in regard to doctrines which belong to the deposit of the faith. They contend that it would be opportune, in order to gain those who differ from us, to omit certain points of her teaching which are of lesser importance, and to tone down the meaning which the Church has always attached to them. It does not need many words, beloved son, to prove the falsity of these ideas if the nature and origin of the doctrine which the Church proposes are recalled to mind. The Vatican Council says concerning this point: “For the doctrine of faith which God has revealed has not been proposed, like a philosophical invention to be perfected by human ingenuity, but has been delivered as a divine deposit to the Spouse of Christ to be faithfully kept and infallibly declared. Hence that meaning of the sacred dogmas is perpetually to be retained which our Holy Mother, the Church, has once declared, nor is that meaning ever to be departed from under the pretense or pretext of a deeper comprehension of them.” -Constitutio de Fide Catholica, Chapter iv.
We cannot consider as altogether blameless the silence which purposely leads to the omission or neglect of some of the principles of Christian doctrine, for all the principles come from the same Author and Master, “the Only Begotten Son, Who is in the bosom of the Father.”-John i, I8. They are adapted to all times and all nations, as is clearly seen from the words of our Lord to His apostles: “Going, therefore, teach all nations; teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you, and behold, I am with you all days, even to the end of the world.”-Matt. xxviii, 19”
Here the meaning is pretty obvious, notwithstanding the florid prose of the time. Leo XIII obviously rejects the idea that some truths of Catholicism should be downplayed to make Catholicism more palatable, and in fact Jesus’s command to teach all nations implies that the truths transcend particular local characteristics.
We need to say more clearly what we mean. As Traditionalists we should argue for clear language.
Ok That’s it for our long commentary on Evangelli Gaudium: I suspect we will come back to some of the above themes, but particularly the last three points in the future. For now let’s end as did Pope Francis with a reminder to pray to Our Lady in this Christmas Season: