Four Years Ago (and Then Some)

Four years ago I awoke to the stunning news that Pope Benedict XVI would abdicate the Throne of St. Peter, unintentionally paving the way for Jorge Bergoglio to be elected as Pope Francis. At the time, it had only been two years since I returned to the Catholic Church after seven in Eastern Orthodoxy and four as a “weak atheist” (or “strong agnostic”—take your pick). While Benedict’s reign had very little to do with my decision, I certainly believed in 2011 that the Church was in (relatively) safe hands, particularly given the former pontiff’s decision to liberate the traditional Latin Mass from the exclusively ghetto existence it enjoyed following the promulgation of the Novus Ordo Missae. My rather naïve belief at the time was that the Tridentine Mass would continue to spread and that within a generation, the New Mass itself would be organically reformed along traditional lines. Growing up as I did my own ghetto—an Eastern one—I was never that invested in the politics of the Latin Church. Since most Latin Catholics I met expressed genuine admiration for the beauty and solemnity of the Byzantine Rite, I reasoned that the second they were able to have access to the splendor of their own tradition again, they’d jump at it. Boy, was I wrong.

It had not occurred to me that 40 years of liturgical banality could have such a deleterious effect on Catholic consciousness, nor did I consider that the very same post-Vatican II prejudices about “the bad old days” which were alive and well in the 1980s and 90s had survived. Granted, an increasing number of Catholics I came across after 2011 freely admitted that “mistakes were made” after the Second Vatican Council, but very few outside of traditionalist circles were willing to pin the blame on the Council itself. Instead they wanted to keep faith with Benedict’s “hermeneutic of continuity” (HoC), arguing that the problems in the Church were caused not by Vatican II, but by the “interpretation” and/or “application” of the conciliar documents. Having what I feel is a fairly good grasp of the law of noncontradiction, I could never bring myself to accept the HoC; it struck me as overly optimistic, if not absurd. If indeed the conciliar documents can be read in continuity with the traditional doctrines of the Church, then the burden of proving as much is on the proponents of HoC. It is little wonder then that those who champion HoC typically spend an inordinate amount of time tarring-and-feathering their critics as quasi-schismatics or crypto-Protestants; proving the HoC to be anything else other than a pleasant fiction is too difficult.

But I digress. Returning to that fateful day in 2013 when the Sovereign Pontiff announced his plans to step down, my initial reaction was a mixture of disappointment and sympathy. I sympathized with Benedict’s decision because the truth was that he had lived far longer than most of the men who had stood in the Shoes of the Fisherman and, more likely than not, he did not wish to see the Church fall into turmoil as it did during the closing, and largely ineffectual, years of John Paul II’s pontificate. Some warned that Benedict had set a “dangerous precedent,” but it was a warning that was lost on me. Other patriarchs and local church heads retired before death all of the time, especially when they were no longer physically or mentally fit to do the job. Why should the papacy be any different? Yes, the papal office carries unique authority over the Universal Church and, with that authority, greater responsibilities than those assigned to other bishops; but is that not itself an argument that popes should be especially circumspect about whether or not they have the strength to discharge their duties?

Here in 2017 I still don’t know what to think about papal abdication, even if I have some very strong ex post facto thoughts about Benedict’s choice—thoughts informed by what has occurred in the Church during the Francis’s unsettling reign. I confess that not a day goes by when I don’t hold the hope that he will announce his own resignation for the good of the Church. Whatever their faults, neither John Paul II nor Benedict XVI saw themselves as “great reformers” of the Catholic Church even if both allowed far too many reform-minded prelates and priests run roughshod over tradition. Still, as I have opined to numerous friends, I have little confidence that the next pope, regardless of his convictions, will be able to undo the damage wrought by Francis; that will take several generations, if not more. And then there is still the problem of the Second Vatican Council, though part of me still believes that its importance to the life of the Church will begin to fade as more and more of its champions move on to their eternal reward.

Knowing what I know now, would I have still chosen to make my way back to Catholicism six years ago? While there was a period where I could not answer that question honestly, particularly in light of my own personal struggles and failings, I am at full peace with the decision even if the decision itself has been anything but peaceful. To be clear, this peace comes not from some hubristic confidence in my own intellect nor as a byproduct of pro-Catholic, anti-Orthodox triumphalism. Rather, it is the unmerited peace that can only be felt through God’s grace and the assurance He gives to the weakest of his sheep that despite the capitulations, contradictions, and compromises which are prevalent in the Church today, she will never submit fully and that it is only by the light which she possesses, the Light of Christ, which can lead us out of the present darkness.