[…] in today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the barque of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.
These shocking words were spoken by Pope Benedict XVI on February 11, 2013, and marked the end of what we might describe as the Ratzinger era in the Church, which began in 1981, when Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was named Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith by Pope John Paul II. I have a deep admiration for the Pope Emeritus, and he was pope when I received the sacrament of confirmation after spending much of my life in ignorance of the Church. I respected, and still respect, his lifelong commitment to protecting Catholic teaching in the face of the many threats it has faced since the Second Vatican Council. Yet I also recognize that his effort came at a cost. Certain strains of Catholic thought were either silenced or pushed away into alternate venues. There is a long list of theologians who were either punished by the CDF or found themselves under Cardinal Ratzinger’s watchful eye. At times, his apparent lack of pastoral sensitivity regarding the difficulties of living according to the fullness of Catholic teaching in the modern world only furthered the existing divide between a minority of Catholics who accept this teaching in all its rigour—especially teachings on sexuality—and a majority of much-maligned “cafeteria Catholics” who ignore or reject parts of it. Gay Catholics felt especially marginalized after the publication of what is popularly referred to as Ratzinger’s “Halloween letter” in October of 1986. The pro-life movement, in part due to Ratzinger’s influence (such as his 2004 memorandum to Cardinal McCarrick on “Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion”) became increasingly absolutist in its approach to politics, severely limiting the range of what it considered acceptable voting behaviour and cutting itself off from potential allies that it saw as compromised.
This rigourism, which had the noble goal of protecting Catholic teaching, facilitated the formation of a particular brand of reified Catholicism. By “reified Catholicism” I mean a nicely-packaged and ostensibly orthodox Catholic culture that nevertheless did not reflect the full range of voices in the Church or its underlying dynamism. Especially in the English-speaking world, it was a media culture that came to see itself as representing the Church as a whole. It allowed for the growth and interconnection of Catholic publishers whose books, booklets, and magazines populated every parish library or display stand. On television, radio, and the Internet it provided a lens through which to interpret the Church and the world, and its professional apologists provided the arguments needed to respond to a sometimes aggressively secular society. It provided neat and tidy Catholic answers to every question. That Catholic culture is one that many of us who entered or returned to the Church during the 1990s and 2000s are familiar with. Its embodiment, first in the United States and then in other parts of the world, was the Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN) and all its offshoots and acquisitions.
Many good and intelligent people were and still are part of this world of reified Catholicism. Its commitment to the Magisterium was admirable, and it provided stable ground for Catholics still reeling from the great social changes of the 1960s and 70s. But it is now falling apart. After Benedict came the deluge.
As we see more clearly now, cracks were already forming before the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI. Signs of an unhealthiness underlying Catholic culture were becoming apparent. The multi-decade abuse crisis erupted in the 1990s and again in the 2000s, shattering the public image of the Church and spawning new breeds of both blind apologists and fanatical anti-gay anti-abuse crusaders. Then there was the high-profile case of Father Marcial Maciel—a Catholic hero who turned out to be a monstrous con-artist and sexual predator. Then the scandal of the Holocaust-denying SSPX bishop Richard Williamson, which exploded just as Pope Benedict XVI was pursuing reconciliation with the traditionalist wing of the Church. Then VatiLeaks. And as the pope knew, a scandal regarding Cardinal McCarrick was brewing.
Looking back at Pope Benedict XVI’s statement of his intent to resign, it is easy to read it as an admission that he simply did not have strength left to “govern the barque of Saint Peter” through the media storms he surely perceived were on the horizon. But it was not just a fear of scandal—he understood that we have entered a new social and technological revolution at least as significant as that which formed the backdrop to Vatican II. It is perhaps symbolically significant that the first tweet from the @pontifex account, from Pope Benedict XVI, came in December 2012, less than three months before he resigned.
With the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI and the election of Pope Francis, the Church entered a new phase, and we are witnessing what might be termed a “return of the repressed,” to borrow a term from psychoanalysis. Pope Francis has shown an openness to frank discussion and criticism—to parrhesia within the Church and dialogue with those on the outside. Many of the voices that were once excluded or simply ignored in mainstream Catholic discourse are being heard once again, for better or for worse, and they have been amplified through social media.
How are we to determine which of these voices to listen to and take seriously? Although this discussion is happening within the Church, I propose that we can use the standards of ecumenical dialogue that have been established since Vatican II as a guide. Are these new voices focused on areas of agreement with the Church of today or are they primarily critical and divisive? Is Catholic unity their ultimate goal, or do they reflect an impulse to create separate communities of believers? Even if we must listen to all of these voices, there is no need to give all of them equal consideration.
At the moment, three examples of the return of the repressed stand out: the Amazon synod, the German ‘synodal way,’ and the conservative Catholic populist revolt.
With the Amazon synod we are hearing the voices of those who have been largely invisible to many in the Church, especially in Europe and North America. Acknowledging their voices will not only help to change the Church’s relationship with the peoples of the Amazon region, but also its relationship with Indigneous peoples across the world, helping to heal some very deep wounds. There are some controversial ideas in the air, surely. The influence of liberation theology is clear, and there are even perhaps strains of the Creation Spirituality of Matthew Fox (who was censured by Ratzinger). But the synod is being held in Rome, with the full approval and participation of the pope. It represents perfectly the deepening of synodality that Pope Francis has encouraged, and he will have the final say on what we as a Church can adopt from this process.
The German ‘synodal way’ is a more ambiguous and troubling example. Here, the return of the repressed is occurring through the well-funded and organized ZdK (Central Committee of German Catholics), and through lay movements like Maria 2.0. Cardinal Marx understands that the laity, in the aftermath of the abuse crisis, will have to be listened to, and that they will not be satisfied with mere talk. We shouldn’t assume bad faith, but we can definitely hear echoes of the ideas of Hans Küng, Ratzinger’s theological nemesis. Pope Francis attempted to intervene in the ‘synodal way’ a fatherly manner, providing both encouragement and warning, and although the Vatican has unambiguously expressed its concern, it has not taken definitive action against the process. The organizers of the ‘synodal way’ claim to be listening to the Holy Father, and Cardinal Marx is still one of his closest advisers, but it remains to be seen whether they are truly committed to synodality or whether they are simply intending to go their own way. What their approach has to recommend it, however, is that it is broadly in line with the goals of the Francis papacy, even if there is a risk that they plan to go further with synodality than Pope Francis ever intended.
Finally we come to the conservative populist revolt. Here we see the reemergence of ideas that have been pushed to the fringes for many decades: Maurrasianism, Lefebvrism, obsessive homophobia, anti-Freemason conspiracy theory, Marian apocalypticism, and in some cases even anti-Semitism. At its worst, it traffics in a theology of disgust and evangelization by ridicule, in which all that is deemed to be non-Catholic (according to ever-increasingly stringent traditionalist standards) is both expelled from the virtual traditionalist community and mocked with an aggression that itself borders on the obscene. The pope is derided, and his authority largely rejected or relativized. Most disconcertingly, it has worked its way into the crumbling domain of reified Catholicism.
First Things magazine, which was founded by Fr. Richard John Neuhaus in 1990, and although not exclusively Catholic was intimately tied to the reified Catholicism we have been discussing, recently published an article on its website by professor and theologian Douglas Farrow on the Amazon synod. In it, we find language regarding the pope that would have been unprintable, and perhaps even unthinkable by most mainstream Catholics, even four or five years ago:
The kairos, the culture of encounter, being lauded in the Pan-Amazon Synod is a Bergoglian kairos and culture. The church ‘called to be ever more synodal,’ to be ‘made flesh’ and ‘incarnated’ in existing cultures, is a Bergoglian church. And this church, not to put too fine a point on it, is not the Catholic Church. It is a false church. It is a self-divinizing church. It is an antichristic church, a substitute for the Word-made-flesh to whom the Catholic Church actually belongs and to whom, as Cardinal Müller insists, it must always give witness if it means to be the Church.
So where does that leave us? It leaves us, quite frankly, with the question of how both the true Church and the false can have the same pontiff, and what is to be done about that fact. […]
The real problem, here, is not that some are seeing the Church of today as an “antichristic” Church. Those types of Catholics have long existed, even if they have new platforms now for expressing themselves. The problem is that the reified Catholicism of the past few decades has been revealed for what it is—a construct. It is an image of the Church that is now passing into history. Those who cling to it will argue for a smaller, purer Church that may have to operate in defiance of the Holy See. The rest of us will continue on, as we grapple with the realization that the Church is much bigger than we ever thought it was.
Image: Pope Benedict XVI in Brazil, from Agência Brasil. Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Brazil license.
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D.W. Lafferty, PhD, is a Catholic husband, dad, and independent scholar from Ontario, Canada. He works in higher education and has published articles on the literature of Wyndham Lewis, the conspiracy theory of Douglas Reed, and the life and legacy of Engelbert Dollfuss. Online, he tweets as @rightscholar.