It would be wrong to hold that the reign of Pope Francis affirms certain dogmatic objections against the Latin conception of the papacy, though it does serve as a disconcerting reminder when thousands, nay, millions of persons are desperate for surety. In modern times, the person holding the Petrine office, not the office itself, has served as a rickety “proof” that Catholicism possesses some comparative advantage over both Eastern Orthodoxy and the thousands of Protestant sects strewn across the globe. This might have seemed all well and good when John Paul II—a world-historical figure of great importance to the last century—was sitting on the throne; it seems like anything but now that a liberal Jesuit whose words are often as clumsy as they are misleading is actively trying to impose his will recklessly throughout the universal Church of Christ. This hard truth has not dissuaded the professional Catholic commentariat from either apologizing for, or covering over, Francis’s most scandalous words and deeds. Layer on top of that the reality that so many people’s faith is so rickety that it might indeed be taken down with too many harsh words against the Holy Father and what you have is an old-fashioned pickle. Traditional Catholics (and an increasing number of conservatives) may think they are doing the Church a great service by pointing out every misstep, mistake, and malicious act carried out by Francis, but what they seldom realize is that by impeaching the man on Peter’s Throne they are simultaneously undercutting one of the primary reasons people remain Catholic. If Catholics can’t trust the pope, who can they trust?
Traditional Catholics are typically quick to point to the “indefectible teachings of the Church,” as if they are either well known by the general Catholic populace or completely unambiguous. The idea of tradition in contemporary Catholicism is fraught with hermeneutical difficulties which far too many traditionalists ignore at their own peril. It’s not that the Church hasn’t spoken decisively on a range of doctrinal and moral matters; but contextualizing those teachings and applying them to the present situation is not a simple game of connect-the-dots, or at least it doesn’t seem that way to me. Add to that the fact that some traditional Catholics tend to absolutize certain periods in Church history or certain theological movements which have not been dogmatized and the meaning of “official” or “infallible” Church teaching starts to become a bit murky. Some things are perfectly clear, of course. Marriage is indissoluble; contraception is absolutely forbidden; Jesus Christ is One Person with Two Natures; it is meet and right to call the Blessed Virgin Mary Theotokos; and so on and so forth. Other matters, ranging from priestly celibacy to the deference which ought to be accorded to the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas, are not quite as clear cut, much to the chagrin of certain traditionalists.
There’s something to be said for trusting in the bishops of the Church as well, or at least those brave souls who have chosen to remain orthodox in an environment where heterodoxy runs free. Lest we forget, they, too, are successors to the Apostles—a simple point which sometimes drives traditionalists to start screaming the C-word. (Collegiality.) Even if they are few and far between, the Church—East and West—does still have a number of faithful and holy bishops at her service, doing what they can to lead Christ’s flock to the gates of Heaven. Unfortunately, it seems that there is still a mentality in the Church which holds that all bishops—good and bad—are simply adjuncts to the pope, lacking in any particular authority or mission unless it is assigned to them by the Man in Rome. It is not only accepted but expected that whoever holds the papal office will spend his days busily micro-managing the Church, playing politics with various bishops conferences while trying to stock the College of Cardinals with as many likeminded lackeys as he can find. Why would anyone with even a shred of common sense rejoice in such a spectacle? What soul except a demented one can take comfort in this?
As I noted in my previous post, none of this is going away anytime soon. Even if Francis exits the throne (or this earth) within the next six months (i.e., before he has time to do any more serious damage), the next pope won’t be able to rollback everything that he has done. In fact, it may be next to impossible to roll back much of anything without causing strife and schism. Too many movers-and-shakers in and around the Church have a vested interest in Francis’s reforms, hard and soft. If what we have heard of Vatican politics and intrigue is true (and a great deal of it most likely is), then what we are looking at is for the Catholic Church to be saved not be some “messiah pope” (the fact anybody would hope for one is a scandal) but by the lay faithful, good priests, and the holy bishops willing to lead them through dark times by the light of Truth. The return of Christendom—if it is ever to return before the eschaton—will not come by way of top-down reconfiguration and renovations, but by the same route it came before: Prayer, penance, and perseverance from all strata of the Church and society. Can it happen? Dare we hope? Or should we remain paralyzed in a perpetual state of scandal and righteous indignation? Heaven forbid.