Pope Francis is surely one of the most polarizing figures of the 21st century, and perhaps the most controversial pontiff since Blessed Pius IX. It seems that either one loves him or decries him as an enemy of the Catholic way of life. Why?
In addressing the question, we need to be mindful of a significant date–that of Francis’s ordination to the priesthood, December 13, 1969. The Second Vatican Council closed on December 8, 1965, and so then-Father Bergoglio, SJ, was one of the first generations of priests to be formed according to its teachings. The Missale Romanum was promulgated on April 3, 1969, and so the future pope had only a brief experience celebrating the pre-reform Mass, and even then, it was the temporary 1967, not 1962, edition of the Missal. Francis is thus the first pope of the Council. St. John XXIII, St. Paul VI, and St. John Paul II were theologically grounded in a milieu essentially still Tridentine. Francis is the first pontiff who is a fruit of the Second Vatican Council. This is not to disparage his illustrious predecessors, but simply to point out that their role was to implement and defend the decrees of the Council, but as individuals born outside of its time. This is why many hate Francis: he is the Pope of the Council, and they hate the Council.
Our Holy Father does not teach anything new, just as Vatican II teaches nothing new. To what are his detractors objecting? Amoris Laetitia is criticized for its suggestion that a nuanced approach needs to be taken to the pastoral care of souls. What is so radical about that? The Church has been doing that for centuries. The human condition is incredibly complex, and it is extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible, for many to live the ideal Catholic life, as defined by the Viganòs, Burkes, and Pells of the world. “He will not break the bruised reed,” (Isaiah 42:3), the prophet Isaiah says of the Messiah, and it takes discernment and kindness–not a sledgehammer–to heal that reed. Francis is criticized for reining in the pre-reform liturgy, yet all he is doing is restoring the norm established by St. Paul VI, who implemented the reform as mandated by the Council. Francis suffers reproach for encouraging collegial structures of governance, yet it was Vatican II that defined Church government as both Petrine and collegial.
Some commentators, clerical and lay, openly declare their contempt for the Second Vatican Council. Most suggest the Council was not implemented correctly, that it was only a pastoral council, or that it was a well-meant experiment that failed. These supposedly softer criticisms amount to the same thing: rejection of the Council. This is worrying, because it means their exponents fail to recognize the faith they pretend to champion.
The great strength of Vatican II is that it expounds the apostolic faith with astonishing simplicity. Indeed, so effortlessly lucid is its teaching that some mistake it for heresy. The description of the People of God, the salvific mission of the Church, the relationship of the Catholic Church with other ecclesial communities, and the enunciation of the common priesthood are so profoundly and satisfyingly orthodox that they seem to appear unrecognizable to those unable to distinguish the essence of the Church from its accidental attributes.
What is extraordinary is that most anti-conciliar commentators are comparing the so-called “conciliar” and “traditional” churches as if they are two separate entities, and without being able to compare. Vatican II ended 58 years ago. That means that the average age of anyone who understood the significance of the Council in its historical context is close to 80 years. So where is this hatred of the Council and the pope of the Council coming from? None of the active bishops and certainly none of the cardinals capable of participating in a conclave can have any clerical experience before Vatican II that would entitle them to offer a meaningful analysis.
I think it reasonable to suppose that the opposition stems from Summorum Pontificum. Much as I admire the late Benedict XVI, who might well be raised to the honors of the altar, it has to be said that the unwarranted liberalization of the 1962 Missal did more to further the cause of traditionalism than anything the fringes, like the SSPX, ever did. I’d suggest the intense resistance to Traditiones Custodes, as ably described by Mike Lewis, evidences this. As St. Paul VI and St. John Paul II stated numerous times, to Marcel Lefebvre and others, the usus antiquior becomes a banner for those opposed to Vatican II. It is not necessary for its devotees to understand or even to have read the Council. Human beings prefer simplicity to analysis and nuance: “1962 equals good; 1970 equals bad. Therefore, Vatican II is bad.”
So much is obvious to the outside observer that the reader might think my commentary is simply a rehash of statements made by more sophisticated writers. No doubt they are correct. Do we need instead more of a discussion about how we react to one another? Threats to Church unity and attacks on the Holy Father are, of course, nothing new. There has never been a single moment when the Mystical Body of Christ on Earth has not been subject to siege from without and rebellion from within. This is the nature of light and truth: it throws into perspective hatred and falsehood. The Golden Age of Catholicism, lauded by traditionalists, has never existed. We have, of course, the wonderful promise of Christ to Peter: Upon this rock I will build My Church; and the gates of hell shall never prevail against it. But He fulfills that promise in His brothers and sisters on their earthly pilgrimage.
Surely, we must avoid the temptation of believing ourselves God’s elite troops, the chosen ones who stand for the Vicar of Christ and understand his goals. For myself, I am aware of a certain pride that influenced my spiritual life as a traditionalist and could easily translate to my present state. I want to strive to love as Francis exhorts me, that is, without the slightest trace of judgment or pride, and seeing only persons and needs. For such is God, Who causes His rain to fall on the just and unjust, and Who exhorts us to be perfect as He is (Matthew 5:48). If we regard others from a position of moral superiority, there is nothing to distinguish us from the traditionalists who believe they have all the answers. The example of the Holy Father, following that of his Master, is to regard the person, not the ideology.
We must pray for the Holy Father. If he is an icon of the Second Vatican Council, those who hate the Council will strive to bring him down. Almost everything he says is distorted, its meaning strangled by both the Catholic and secular media. He is allowed the occasional misstep. He is a human being, and the immensity of his task must frighten him sometimes. But God is always with His vicar and His Church, not with those who sow lies and discord.
Beyond polemic, which rarely achieves results, we must participate in the life of the Church. We need to immerse ourselves in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and let it bring forth fruit in our lives, our parishes, and our communities. The radical traditionalists hold that the Pauline Mass produces Protestants. They are wrong. We have all had the privilege of encountering gentle souls imbued with a love of the Eucharist and a profound love of God. The joy and power of living the Gospel will be proof that Vatican II, the Mass of Vatican II, and the pope of Vatican II, are from God.
Image Credit: By Lothar Wolleh – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19747443
Gary Campbell is a freelance writer living in Australia, writing history and educational literature. He has also worked as a schoolteacher. Gary was a member of the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) for 12 years, including as an ordained priest for five years. He was reconciled to Rome in 1999 and laicized.