On July 25, the Catholic Herald published a piece by the Canadian priest Raymond de Souza entitled, “The inexplicable transfer of St Peter’s relics to Constantinople,” in which the author offers a litany of objections to Pope Francis’s gift of a reliquary containing small bone fragments (believed to be St. Peter’s) to Eastern Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople.

I pointed out in a Twitter thread on July 3 that radical traditionalists’ objections to popes giving away relics to Eastern Orthodox leaders is nothing new, citing a series of posts on the old radtrad website “Tradition in Action.” Headlines decrying these gifts include, “Paul VI delivers to heretics the head of St. Mark,” “The Pope [JP2] gives a relic to heretic Karekin II,” “Archbishop of Milan gives relics to the Schismatics,” and “Paul VI delivers to the Monophysites a relic of St. Athanasius.” Once again, this is nothing new. Traditionalists have been sounding alarms whenever a pope has made a positive gesture towards a member of another faith or a separated Christian community.

It’s a very old complaint, but on the surface, Pope Francis appears to be continuing the tradition that began in 1964 with St. Paul VI giving the skull of St. Andrew to the Orthodox after five centuries.

Not so, according to Fr. de Souza. The thesis of his article is that while past instances of the “translation” of relics from West to East were praiseworthy and justified (his primary example is St. John Paul II’s gift of relics of St Gregory Nazianzen and St John Chrysostom to Bartholomew in 2004), Francis’s gift was “inexplicable,” and laments that Francis still hasn’t given a “full explanation for the decision.” (Whether any explanation Francis might give would suffice, in Fr. de Souza’s eyes, is questionable.)

It’s an interesting phenomenon — there are a large number of Catholics who embrace the innovations and developments of John Paul’s pontificate, but decry Francis whenever he attempts to do something similar. These Catholics are not part of what’s generally known as the “traditionalist” movement; they acknowledge the legitimacy of Vatican II, accept the ordinary form of the Mass, and wholeheartedly embraced the pontificates of Francis’s immediate predecessors. But for all of their support of the changes in teaching and discipline promulgated by St. John Paul II, it appears that they believe that legitimate developments of doctrine or discipline came to a sudden halt in early 2013.

This is different than the criticism of radical traditionalism. Radical traditionalists are usually deeply critical of Vatican II and the modern popes. They see the continuity between Sts. Paul VI and John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, and now Pope Francis. To them, Francis is the continuation of a modernist crisis affecting the Church beginning with the commencement of the Council in 1962.

The phenomenon I’m describing refers to a different group: “JP2 Catholics” for whom the crisis began with the election of Pope Francis.

I have often wondered what would have happened had Francis, rather than John Paul, promulgated the disciplinary change on the reception of sacraments for non-Catholic Christians. If you need a reminder, the 1983 Code of Canon law established that:

  • 3. Catholic ministers administer the sacraments of penance, Eucharist, and anointing of the sick licitly to members of Eastern Churches which do not have full communion with the Catholic Church if they seek such on their own accord and are properly disposed. This is also valid for members of other Churches which in the judgment of the Apostolic See are in the same condition in regard to the sacraments as these Eastern Churches.
  • 4. If the danger of death is present or if, in the judgment of the diocesan bishop or conference of bishops, some other grave necessity urges it, Catholic ministers administer these same sacraments licitly also to other Christians not having full communion with the Catholic Church, who cannot approach a minister of their own community and who seek such on their own accord, provided that they manifest Catholic faith in respect to these sacraments and are properly disposed. (CIC 844)

In contrast, the 1917 Code taught that:

It is forbidden that the Sacraments of the Church be ministered to heretics and schismatics, even if they ask for them and are in good faith, unless beforehand, rejecting their errors, they are reconciled with the Church. (Canon 731.2)

The Sedevacantist website, Novus Ordo Watch, sees the hypocrisy behind those who support John Paul’s changes in sacramental discipline but condemn Francis whenever there’s a hint that he might do something similar. Indeed, it was John Paul II who abrogated the 1917 Code’s blanket prohibition of the reception of sacraments for non-Catholics. One would not know that based upon the hysteria surrounding the proposal (which hasn’t even been implemented) by some German bishops allowing for Lutheran spouses of Catholics to receive the Eucharist when properly disposed and “manifesting Catholic faith” in the sacrament.

St. John Paul II was the pope who codified the possibility that Protestants in some situations could receive Catholic sacraments without renouncing their Protestant faith and fully reconciling with the Church. For the Orthodox, he went even further and permitted them to receive sacraments “licitly” whenever they requested them and were properly disposed. It’s undeniable that John Paul knocked down the door, yet Francis is the pope who is maligned when he even considers additional possibilities within the framework that John Paul established.

One can’t help but wonder if these sorts of objections are thought through. When one looks closely at history and the papacies of Sts. Paul VI and John Paul II, it’s hard to understand how Francis is the theological and doctrinal radical. Yet, that’s the position held by a certain kind of Catholic in today’s Church.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at several other “controversial” moments in Francis’s papacy, and explore the precedents established by his predecessors.



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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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