It seems that hardly a week goes by without another bold intervention into the affairs of the Church by one of the disaffected members of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, usually delivered via channels like the National Catholic Register or LifeSite and then spread throughout social media. By now, the gallery of personalities is well-established: Cardinals Müller, Burke, and Brandmüller; Bishop Athanasius Schneider and of course the elusive Archbishop Viganó. Although not all of them are “traditionalists,” they all claim to stand in defense of tradition against what they see as the modernizing influence of the Francis papacy.
Characteristic of all of these interventions is the implicit or explicit suggestion that the pope is at best a naïve bumbler or at worst a looming menace to the faith. In any case, the message is that he must be controlled. They seem to believe it is their duty to tell the faithful—often through media outlets that are (to be generous) notoriously slanted in their reporting—what the pope is obliged to do and what he is forbidden to do. In some cases their warnings and “corrections” come across as presumptuous or even threatening, rather than fraternal.
Such interventions have provided both consolation and inspiration to disgruntled conservative and/or traditionalist Catholics, creating an atmosphere in which odd ideas about the faith have risen to the surface, particularly regarding the role and authority of the pope. Some of these ideas have been expressed publicly in unprecedented ways—at least for the more staunchly “conservative” wing of the Church.
One comparatively mild example is the recent Catholic Herald article by Fr. Raymond de Souza, “The inexplicable transfer of St Peter’s relics to Constantinople” (25 July, 2019). Fr. de Souza, greatly disturbed by the pope’s gift of a reliquary containing bone fragments of St. Peter to Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, calls for an explanation behind the decision and asserts that the method of transfer of the relics is frankly “inexplicable.” He rejects the explanation for the decision given by Pope Francis, who suggested it was a spontaneous act, and claims that such an act is not permitted by tradition: “The transfer—‘translation’ in official parlance—of relics is a matter most grave in the cult of the saints and the Church’s liturgical life. The proposition that relics of such importance would be moved as a spontaneous act, without discernment or collegial consultation, without preparation or explanation, without ceremony or solemnity, is wholly and entirely alien to the entire tradition of the Church.”
It is worth pausing for a moment on this passage to appreciate fully what Fr. de Souza is suggesting. The “proposition” he describes is the one offered by Pope Francis, yet he unhesitatingly rejects it and, based on his own private judgment, declares that the pope’s act, concerning a “matter most grave,” “is wholly and entirely alien to the entire tradition of the Church” (italics mine). What kind of authority is required to make such an assertion? I do not believe that Fr. De Souza, despite the titles he holds and the accolades he has received, possesses it.
The article was retweeted on July 29 by Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, Texas, who commented, “I have great respect for Fr. de Souza and presume the veracity of what he reports here. This should be widely read and pondered.” What is there to ponder? Is it not possible that the pope’s gift was an act of love as generosity: freely given without any expectation of anything in return, in a humble and unceremonious way with no underlying symbolic resonance, to foster Christian brotherhood? Is the pope not free to do that if he wishes? Fr. de Souza might find it mystifying, but to publicly declare in a major Catholic publication that the pope’s actions in this case are wholly and entirely alien to tradition is itself alien to tradition.
This article came on the heels of another that Fr. De Souza also published in the Herald, on July 18, entitled “Cardinal Sarah: A prophet of our times,” in which he speculates that “when [Cardinal Sarah’s] five-year term at Divine Worship is up this November, there will be many in the inner circle lobbying Pope Francis to give him the same treatment given to Cardinals Raymond Burke and Gerhard Müller—the unceremonious dismissal.” Fr. de Souza is certainly casting aspersions by suggesting that there is an “inner circle” with such a strong influence over the pope’s decisions (which he perhaps means to connect with the “apostasy” that Cardinal Sarah, according to Fr. de Souza, has identified as “underway in many parts of the world, and in some parts of the Church”), but this is not the passage that is potentially most insulting to the pope.
Earlier in the piece, he compares the Cardinal to the prophet Elijah: “As a young archbishop in his native Guinea, still in his 30s, Sarah was marked out to be murdered by the tyrants who ruled his country and found him insufficiently submissive. Like Elijah, he knows what it means to be hunted by the king.” This is troubling imagery. What is Fr. de Souza trying to say by comparing Cardinal Sarah to Elijah and offering this piece of biographical information? How does this relate to the larger theme of what he sees as Sarah’s marginalization, and his worries that the Cardinal will be given the same “treatment” as Cardinals Burke and Müller? We can hope that Fr. de Souza is not positioning Pope Francis as King Ahab, although a reader—particularly one already hostile to the pope—might draw that conclusion from the article.
Another disconcerting example—and there are so many to choose from—is a recent (July 27) article by Elizabeth A. Mitchell from The Catholic Thing. The piece, entitled “When High Noon Strikes,” presents the film High Noon (1952) as an allegorical representation of the battle the author sees taking place over the direction and aims of the upcoming pan-Amazon synod. She first reduces the debate over the synod to a simple binary conflict in which brave upholders of the law are forced to take a stand against “obfuscating outlaws”:
“If the Truth is about to be unraveled on the Amazonian periphery, as all signs from the Instrumentum Laboris for the Amazonian synod indicate, the obfuscating outlaws must be faced down, as Cardinals Walter Brandmüller and Gerhard Ludwig Müller, as well as Bishop Schneider, have done in several important public declarations.”
She then proceeds to describe the inevitable showdown at High Noon between Marshal Kane (representing Brandmüller, Müller, Schneider, et al.) and the outlaw Frank Miller:
High Noon demands men “with direct eyes” (in the words of T.S. Eliot’s The Hollow Men)—clear-eyed individuals who know God and His unchanging Truth, who speak and act with clarity, men who step forth boldly in their duty. The marshal’s “direct eyes” do not flinch. He answers the call of High Noon.
The moment the showdown is won in High Noon, the townspeople rush from their shuttered parlors and rejoice in the street, thanking the marshal for his bravery. He climbs onto his buggy, his bride at his side, and rides away without a single word.
He has done his duty. He has faced down Frank Miller and his gang. When High Noon strikes, the law is safeguarded by the marshal’s clear stand for the good of all.
In light of this passage, an obvious question arises: who, in this allegory, does Frank Miller, the leader of the outlaws, represent? For many under the sway of Müller, Brandmüller and Schneider, the answer is obvious.
I can’t imagine why any faithful Catholic would share an article like Mitchell’s online, yet it was shared on Twitter by none other than Bishop Strickland (July 27), with an accompanying message of enthusiastic approval:
“A POWERFUL piece. Elizabeth Mitchell is an example of the growing number of courageous Catholic Lay women who are speaking and writing with theological and prophetic clarity. This article deserves to be read by many.”
Perhaps Bishop Strickland considers himself one of these “clear-eyed individuals,” and so his appraisal of the article is biased. We can all, at times, become blinded by self-flattery. All I can see in “When High Noon Strikes” is another crude example of the rebirth of Catholic Americanism and the populist reversal of the Catholic understanding of ecclesiastical authority.
Much of what we see in these examples is mere posturing, since most of those who believe it is the duty of bishops, priests, and even the laity to tell the pope what he cannot do are unclear or evasive regarding what the consequences will be for the pope if he continues to act freely. Not so with Bishop Schneider. In one remarkable passage from his statement on the Instrumentum Laboris for the upcoming Amazon Synod, he takes things further than any of the papal critics who are not already speaking from the twilight realm of sedevacantism:
The successor of Peter, the Pope, has a strict duty, as given to him by God, as the holder of the Seat of Truth (cathedra veritatis), to preserve, in its purity and integrity, the truth of the Catholic Faith, the Divine Constitution of the Church, the sacramental order as instituted by Christ, and the apostolic inheritance of priestly celibacy; and to pass them on to his own successor and to the next generation. He may not support in the slightest way – by silence or by an ambiguous conduct – the obviously Gnostic and naturalistic contents of parts of the Instrumentum laboris, as well as the abolishment of the apostolic duty of priestly celibacy (which first would be regional, and then naturally, and step by step, then becomes universal). Even if the Pope would do this at the upcoming Amazon Synod, then he would gravely violate his duty as the Successor of Peter and the Representative of Christ, and he would then cause an intermittent spiritual eclipse in the Church. But Christ, the invincible Sun of Truth, will re-illuminate this brief eclipse by again sending His Church holy, courageous, and faithful popes, because the gates of hell are not able to overcome the rock of Peter (see Matthew 16:18). The prayer of Christ for Peter and his successors is infallible. That is to say, that, after their conversion, they will again strengthen their brothers in the Faith (see Luke 22:32).
The sheer audacity of this statement and the strange theology behind it undoubtedly cross a line. Schneider here defines the role of the pope as a purely conservative one. The pope is bound to tradition in every respect, and has only one duty: preserve the truth of the Catholic faith in its entirety as it has always been. He says, astoundingly, “[The pope] may not support in the slightest way – by silence or by an ambiguous conduct – the obviously Gnostic and naturalistic contents of parts of the Instrumentum laboris, as well as the abolishment of the apostolic duty of priestly celibacy . . .” In being so clear in this passage about what the pope absolutely may not do, he also makes clear what he believes the pope must do. The pope must, first of all, interpret the Instrumentum Laboris as he does—as a document containing heresy—and must reject it. He must not alter priestly celibacy (which is, as Schneider surely knows, a discipline rather than doctrine), even in a limited way, “which first would be regional, and then naturally, and step by step, then becomes universal.” Because there is a potential for a slippery-slope scenario, in other words, the pope is forbidden from reforming the reformable.
So what does Schneider suggest the consequences would be if pope does not heed his warnings? On this question Schneider is a little more ambiguous, but his meaning comes through. There would be a “spiritual eclipse” (the dark pontificate of Francis, I assume) after which Christ would send his Church “holy, courageous, and faithful popes,” since “The prayer of Christ for Peter and his successors is infallible.” This proposition, however, turns our understanding of Church and pope upside-down. It changes, radically, what it means to say that “The prayer of Christ for Peter and his successors is infallible.” It suggests that popes could teach error—teach heresy—but would eventually be replaced by good popes. And who would be the guardians of orthodoxy during this spiritual eclipse? Presumably brave bishops like Schneider. Though they would be hunted by the king, or—if you like—forced into protecting the town from Frank Miller and his gang of outlaws, they would persist until a new age in which timeless, unchanging tradition would once again assume its rightful place on the Chair of St. Peter.
All this considered, I no longer think that these self-appointed marshals are merely misguided, standing up in Quixotic fashion to a caricature of the pope, and to a conspiracy of their own imagining—though they are certainly doing that. What we are witnessing with their interventions, more and more, is the construction of a new conception of the role of the pope, or even a new vision of the Church: a pope-less Church of Tradition. In this Church, the Roman Pontiff would no longer possess the “full, supreme and universal power” that he is “always free to exercise” (Lumen Gentium 22). He may still be called “the pope,” but he will be shackled. Tradition and its representatives would monitor, judge, and admonish him, since the only popes who can safely wield supreme power are those who are safely in the past. This is not to say, however, that the pope of this pope-less Church would be stripped of all the trappings of authority. On the contrary, I suspect that such a pope would be treated with the utmost reverence. His actions would be choreographed, and his decisions predicted and applauded. One could be certain that if he ever engaged in the transfer of relics it would be in a solemn manner, for reasons that would be rich with historical significance. He would shine for the world as a glorious living symbol of the Catholic faith. But what he represented would no longer be alive, and for that reason no longer worth preserving.
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