Monday, July 28, 2014

What Can I Say about the Pope?


I had intended to reserve this blog to the one topic I cared about and on which I thought I had something useful to say—what the pastoral planners are doing to the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. But it turns out that I have another topic that I think fit those criteria, how people should talk about the Holy Father.

My first rule is that I don’t care what non-Catholics say about him. They have no reason to treat him like he’s somebody special. If they tell the truth it has the added benefit of letting Catholics know what others think about their religion. I think there’s a fair number of Catholics who think the world has a respect for Catholicism that does not exist, and we’re all better off knowing the truth.

My second rule is that everybody should feel free to say what they really think. I don’t know a reason why we can’t tell each other what we think is true.

Does that cover every situation? Non-Catholics should say whatever they like and Catholics should say whatever they think is true? No. There's still the way Catholics say what they think. I don’t like the way a lot Catholics talk about the Pope when they disagree with him. I don’t like when they talk about him the way Democrats talked about Bush in 2006 and Republicans talk about Obama now. People who talk about him like they know what he’s supposed to be doing and they know he’s not doing it. I don’t like Catholics to talk about the Holy Father in a dismissive way--the way that liberal Catholics usually talked about the pope from 1968 till the election of Pope Francis, with a brief break for Pope John Paul I.

Lots of Catholics talk about the Holy Father like that, like he’s some stranger to them, like part of his job is to meet their expectations. Let’s assume that the Holy Father said something really stupid, how should you react? Should you say something that makes clear that you are entirely separate from him and what he says? Make sure that everybody knows that although you’re Catholic, you’d never say something that dumb? Or should you wince, and pray and hope that the Holy Father can fix it? If he were to say something really stupid and embarrassing would it be like some politician you don’t like doing something stupid? Or would it be like your father doing something stupid in public?

Now it is possible for people to disagree with the Holy Father without being like that. Phil Lawler is a smart guy and a good Catholic and he says that the Holy Father’s talks with that Italian atheist guy, Eugenio Scalfari, were "imprudent." So criticizing the Pope is something that can be done respectfully, but I wonder if I can do it? Can I criticize a pope in a respectful manner and also be correct in my criticism?

I think it’s something that’s easier if you have historical perspective. I can say it was a mistake for Pope Alexander VI to help his son, Cesare Borgia, conquer Italy. And I think it would have been perfectly proper for a good Catholic in 1500 to oppose this, and speak against it. (Machiavelli, though, thought it was a good idea.)

Well, that shows I can do it, but that one was just too easy. I’ll try again with a little less historical perspective. Let’s see if I can criticize in a correct and respectful manner any of the popes of the last 75 years.

Pius XII was a very intelligent, learned and energetic man. He spoke ten languages. When he was pope he made many decisions about the Church himself. He carefully controlled many things in the Church, more than any Pope has ever done, maybe more than any other Pope would have been capable of doing. 

During his papacy the Modernists were working in secret to win adherents among priests and theologians. Every year they were a little stronger than the year before. Because Pius very closely controlled the work of the Holy Office to make sure that people who taught in behalf of the Church were teaching the truth, other means of fighting heresy fell into disuse. A bishop or theologian isn’t going to criticize another theologian if he knows the Pope is supervising an investigation of that theologian. A prominent teacher who was teaching something questionable wouldn’t be criticized because it was assumed that if he was doing it in public Rome knew about it and Rome thought it was OK. So the normal ways of dealing with error fell into disuse. They were really needed in the 1960s when there were heretical theologians in every newspaper, magazine and college, and they weren't there. The heretics were not publicly opposed.

So can I criticize Pius for over-centralizing so much in the Church, including dealing with heretical teaching ? I don’t think I can. Certainly there were bad results that came from the over-centralization, but during the pontificate of Pius it was very important that there be no errors in these matters. The times were so critical. Dietrich von Hildebrand, Jacques Maritain and St. Josemaria Escriva were suspected of error. A wrong decision in their cases would have been disastrous. All three were important in holding things together in the 1960s and 1970s. Pius may have known that making so many decisions himself was not the ideal way for the pope to preside over the Church, but he also may have known that the times were so critical that it was the right thing for him to keep everything under such tight personal control. So I have no criticism of Pius.

John XXIII is sometimes criticized with the word "imprudent," by people who say he didn’t realize how delicate the Church was. The Church couldn’t handle the pope running around saying "Throw open the windows." I’ve read that even using the word "aggiornamento," which I understand means "updating," was imprudent. And, it’s said, ecumenical councils should only be called when there is a pressing need, and in the absence of one he shouldn’t have called Vatican II.

Again, I don’t know. I know that Vatican I had never been closed, only adjourned, and having an ecumenical council not open but not quite closed either isn’t the way things are supposed to be. The First Vatican Council was not closed because it hadn’t finished its work. Vatican II issued documents that addressed questions that the Fathers of Vatican I intended to address but did not. They had to leave Rome because of its impending conquest by Garibaldi. I think 1962 was a better time for the council than any time after 1962. Every year the Modernists were stronger and stronger, in the seminaries, in the religious orders, among priests and religious. They worked in secret and that suited them. Their power and influence steadily increased during the years after 1910. It was hard to contain the Modernists when they emerged into the light of day after the council. If a council did not meet until 1972 or 1982 they would have been that much stronger. Maybe it would not have taken a council for their emergence. Maybe the council forced their hand and they stopped being secretive prematurely (from their point of view). 

Eventually there would have been a council to close Vatican I and to deal with the issues left unaddressed and the later it came, the harder it would be for the Church. A lot of trouble came after the council but I don’t think it was caused by the council, it was caused by the Modernism that was living and growing in the Church leading up to the council. The Church wasn’t "delicate" for any reason but that. Aggiornamento and the council brought the Modernists out of hiding, and fooled them into thinking this was their moment, their chance to take over. It wasn’t. But if they stayed in hiding longer, things might well have been worse.

If I were to criticize Paul VI for anything it would be his deference to elite opinion. He seemed deferential to the people who embodied this elite "wisdom." But, again, maybe he was right. Maybe right then an all out push against the zeitgeist would have broken the Church, maybe into many pieces. He succeeded, mostly, in keeping in the Church the people who would have supported the all out push, and he did it without a schism. 

If you don’t remember the 1960s you may not know how strong that zeitgeist was, how convinced people were that everything was going to change, that big changes were necessary and inevitable and fighting against change was evil. For example, in the United States abortion was so thoroughly rejected in 1963 that Planned Parenthood said it was against abortion, and in 1973 the Supreme Court imposed unrestricted abortion on the whole country. I think Paul had a harder task than any other Pope I’m familiar with. People, especially intellectual elites and people with worldly authority, demanded change, big change, and people in general were convinced that this was at least inevitable and probably good. People in authority in the Church were in the forefront of demanding this change.

Paul did not strongly resist this call for change, except when he had to. During Vatican II things were not that bad. Everybody knew there was a faction pressing for change. But everybody also knew that there was an opposing faction who thought the essentials had to be preserved. After the council, though, the liberals were able to sell people on the idea that at Vatican II their side won, and everything was going to change and we were going to make up new doctrines as we went along. For three years that idea gained increasing strength. In June 1968 Paul issued an apostolic letter entitled "The Credo of the People of God." After that liberals could still say everything changed, but they, and people who paid attention to Paul, knew that the pope did not agree. They pretended that Paul's "Credo" changed nothing, but they were wrong. Their opponents had something to cite that said even after Vatican II the Catholic faith remained the Catholic faith. Jacques Maritain suggested the Credo to Pope Paul, and he wrote its first draft.

What the world wanted from Paul more than anything else was, of course, contraception. He, of course, could not give in, could not teach error, and did not. In the reaction to Humanae Vitae we can see what may have happened if he had refused change on everything. Almost no one stood with Paul, a few scattered bishops, a few isolated, unpublicized, intellectuals. The bishops of Canada formally voted against Humanae Vitae. Paul got through this crisis without a schism, but what if the crises kept coming? Paul bent to the prevailing winds a lot. He did not interfere very much with the liberals who had power in Church structures, but how much progress could he make acting alone, without allies? 

And Paul did not just get the right answer in "Humanae Vitae" but wrote a prophetic document. 

The times were revolutionary. The Church was Satan's special target. Paul had few allies among the bishops and prominent priests, and fewer among intellectuals and academics. I think Paul did miraculously well in leading the Church under the worst circumstances.

As far as I know neither I nor anyone else has any criticism of John Paul I.

Liberals and some other critics of John Paul the Great complain that he was not a good administrator. There is some element of truth in this, but the bigger truth is that when you're doing one thing you're not doing another. He looked beyond Rome and overlooked problems in Rome, but what he did in the world was much more important than what he didn't do in Rome.

The people who complain so bitterly about Pope Francis were not really happy under Pope Benedict. They complained that he wrote books about Jesus when he should have been doing something else, something that would have totally ended the power of liberals in the Church. I was never impressed with the argument. Pope Benedict’s teaching, in his talks, in his official documents and in his books, is a gift to the Church that will last for a long time. He did so much to fix the Church's attitude toward liturgy. That gift is going to last too. And he could have done much more administratively in the Church if he had more help, if he had bishops willing to help him the way he helped John Paul.

So what about Pope Francis and Scalfari? Apparently Scalfari is a famous atheist in Italy who talks to famous people, then writes about the conversation as if he has a transcript, but actually any way he wants to. I think the question is what do you want from the Pope? Should he make an attempt to communicate with atheists? If so how should he do it? I think talking to this guy with his ground rules is fine. If the Holy Father turned down an equally famous atheist, who would have been fair and accurate, then the Holy Father made a mistake, but I don't think that guy exists.

Because Scalfari did not accurately report the Holy Father's words there were errors that had to be fixed. This is where the upset comes from, but I don't think it's a big problem. The problem was that the news media said the Holy Father said stuff that no Catholic should say. Again, not good, but how bad is it? I think there are three relevant audiences. First there are people who don't know much about what the Church teaches. I think this is the group Phil Lawler cares about. Certainly we'd prefer that they get the Pope's opinions correctly reported, but they don't appreciate the fine points anyway. If they hear only the first report they get the impression that the Pope is a nice guy who wants to connect with atheists, and they don't appreciate or understand why the controversial quotes are controversial. If they happen to pay attention to the second report, the one where the Pope's real views are explained, then they get the straight story and why the misquote was a misquote. 

The second group consists of the liberal Catholics who get all happy when they hear that the Pope said something that contradicts Catholic teaching. Now I guess I don't really like that, but if they gets their hopes up and then dashed often enough they might just accept that the Holy Father is a Catholic, despite their wish that he wasn't. The Holy Father has talked to this guy three times now. The first time there was a big kerfuffel because nobody knew how he worked. The second time there was a smaller one. The third time even smaller, since we had already been through this twice. I don't think the last interview really did any serious harm to anybody in the first two groups. 

The third group condists of the people that these interviews really bothered. I'll call them "conservatives." 

"Conservatives" like to hear the Pope saying "conservative" things. Many were mad because the first reports had him saying liberal things. They were especially mad this time because the Pope had done this twice before, and they thought he shouldn't have put himself in a position to be misquoted again. Some say that they don't think the problem is the atheist's method, but that the Holy Father actually says this stuff. I really don't know why they prefer that option, but some of them do. I think that if an atheist actually had a Pope telling him non-Catholic things he'd write it down verbatim, maybe ask for it to be repeated, maybe use his phone to record it. 

Now we don't have an unorthodox Pope, but if we did our problem would be that, and not that he talks to atheists. Anyway, I think that the reason these people are mad is because they think the Pope should only say things that make them happy. I think they should just offer it up. This pope is more informal and more likely to be misquoted than Benedict, but the media put a lot of effort into misquoting Benedict too. The National Catholic Reporter used to say that Benedict kind of approved of condoms, in a way, sometimes. I don't think they actually believed it, but they enjoyed saying it. The Holy Father thinks (or thought) talking to Scalfari does more good than harm. The harm done seems to me to be temporary and not important. The good might be very important to some people, maybe to Scalfari himself. I'm sure the people who get so worked up about these interviews are just wrong. As a matter of fact I worry about them. If they can't handle this, how could they handle a real persecution?

This post is too long, but summarizing it is pretty easy. It's possible to respectfully disagree with the Pope, and some people do. But I think the people who do this are usually wrong, and the popes are usually right.

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