Someone has to say it publicly: The Catholic Church in the United States does not understand the Holy Father and is doing itself great harm.

This sentence isn’t entirely original. It’s the inverse of the opening line of a June article by Jayd Henricks in First Things, who claims that Pope Francis has a distorted understanding of the situation in the US Church. Specifically, he objects to the pope’s statement in May (published June 14 in La Civilta Cattolica) that there are many Catholics here who are obstructing the implementation of the Second Vatican Council. Francis told a gathering of editors of European Jesuit journals, “Restorationism has come to gag the Council. The number of groups of ‘restorers’ – for example, in the United States there are many – is significant.”

Henricks opines in his article, “The Holy Father’s remarks are baffling to just about anyone, other than the ideologically blinded, who knows the Church in the U.S.” Henricks then presents a litany of examples intended to refute the pope’s statement. He argues that no US bishops and very few priests reject the council. He suggests that right-wing extremists such as Fr. James Altman and those affiliated with Church Militant don’t reject it either. He goes on to point out that the reformed liturgy is celebrated 99 percent of the time, and with contemporary music – as if this is evidence of the Council’s widespread success and implementation in the US.

Many of his assertions trivialize what it means to embrace and implement the Council. Going to a guitar Mass every Sunday doesn’t turn one into Henri De Lubac or Cardinal Bea. Nor does simply paying lip service to the Council mean that one has embraced its teaching and purpose. And despite what Henricks claims, the list of “restorationists” among prominent Catholics is long and growing. It includes a large number of former “JP2 Catholics” who have since become redpilled on reactionary traditionalism. They include Philip Lawler, Tony Esolen, and Eric Sammons, each of whom proudly declared that they are indeed restorationists following the publication of the pope’s words.

Furthermore, a simple Google search would have confirmed that Fr. Altman has indeed gone on the record about his opposition to the Council, at least in part, telling a gathering in White Bear Lake, Minnesota, “Do you know (they probably don’t like me to say this) but there was a change in the ordination of a bishop [from] back before Vatican II? It went from being an ordination—a consecration to the fullness of the priesthood to being an ordination of, like, an executor (I don’t have the precise word) but it went from being “one of us but with this great grace, the fullness” to being a tyrant. And we’ve seen how that has played out since Vatican II. You can look at the Vatican II documents… People say, well, there’s nothing wrong with the Vatican II documents. Well, first of all, Nostra Aetate – bad news, bad. And I think it’s 15 through 18 in Lumen Gentium… there’s some sketchy stuff in there that leaves it so broad, so ambiguous it’s open for interpretation.”

True, virtually none of the US bishops are publicly on the record stating their opposition to the legitimacy of the Second Vatican Council (with the possible exception of the 99-year-old Corpus Christi emeritus Bishop Rene Gracida, who apparently penned the foreword to a book entitled Vatican II: The Launch into Apostasy written by a David Martin, who is described as an adherent of the condemned Marian apparitions in Bayside, New York, in which the Blessed Mother allegedly declared that children born as a result of in vitro fertilization have no souls and that Pope Paul VI was replaced with a body double in 1975). That said, many in the US Church, including bishops and priests, openly support Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, who rejects the council, and Kazakhstan auxiliary Bishop Athanasius Schneider, who has argued that the documents of Vatican II contain doctrinal errors.

Henricks also claims, “There is certainly a living traditionalism that is attractive to some, but nothing that is opposed to the Council. This approach holds onto the timeless beauty of key expressions of the faith, but it does not reject anything from Vatican II.” This is manifestly untrue, as we have pointed out on this website many times. And, as we’ve noted countless times, many these radical traditionalists are regularly given platforms by parishes and mainstream Catholic media outlets. This is a movement that has been allowed to grow out of control while the US episcopate has been busy laying off professional journalists and spending millions of dollars for a Eucharistic congress in Indianapolis that no one will remember three months after it’s over.

What Henricks does in his article is conflate acknowledgement of the legitimacy of Vatican II with a genuine commitment to implement the Council—an ongoing process that goes far beyond liturgical changes. No, this is not a nebulous “Spirit of Vatican II,” which Henricks describes as “The Church of 1978, its liturgical experimentation and moral confusion.” What much of the US Church rejects is the implementation of initiatives set into motion by the Council that continue to develop in the global Church but have in recent years been met with opposition by powerful and influential leaders in the United States, both in the hierarchy and in well-funded public-facing organizations.

I can understand why many US Catholics have difficulty figuring out Pope Francis and find him confusing. For those of us who have spent a long time in the “US conservative Catholic” milieu (and I am/was a very much a part of this scene), the shift from Benedict to Francis was extremely jarring. Even though I don’t think differences in the core messages of these two popes (except, perhaps, in the area of liturgy) are as dramatically different as some believe, they do have clear differences in priorities, approach, and style. Pope Francis tests US conservative Catholics and pushes us out of our comfort zones. This is undeniable. I have experienced it myself.

As someone from this background, I believe that truly coming to terms with Pope Francis’s papacy requires a bit of a leap of faith. Once again, I am speaking from experience. Sadly, very few have been willing to do so.

Those who haven’t taken the leap (including bishops and clergy) tend to find him baffling and generally oppose Pope Francis’s most important teachings and decisions. Even if they don’t reject the Council per se, they certainly reject the pope’s interpretation of it. In many cases they have allowed themselves to be dragged down the rabbit hole of “recognize and resist.” In other cases, they’ve resigned themselves to keeping their mouths shut about Pope Francis and are just waiting for his papacy to end. The prelates most supportive of the pope (such as McElroy, Cupich, and Gregory) are seen as outliers within the bishops’ conference.

Are restorationist movements “gagging” the Council? I think the pope makes a good point, at least in the sense that he’s trying to implement the Council and much of the US Church seems completely useless when it comes to participating in what he’s trying to do. He has faced resistance from Catholics in the US on every major initiative of his papacy (Including Laudato Si’, Amoris Laetitia, and the Synods on the Family and Synodality). At the very least, one cannot say they are helping the situation.

Image: Adobe Stock. By JavierArtPhotography.

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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.

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