All my life, it would seem, I have admired men (and “insolent women”) who have refused to be pushed on matters of doctrine — whether Catholic Christian or, long before, many other kinds of “doctrine.” I’ve mentioned in this space, perhaps, that my father was consistently a hero to me. This was because he would not budge on a matter of principle; nor would he “appear” to budge. He was extremely accommodating otherwise — I can’t remember him making an issue of anything else — but he lost many jobs by refusing to do what he believed to be wrong, or by telling people (such as his employers) what he thought. Of course, he hadn’t always been asked for his opinion. He’d just decide it was time to speak up.
In listening to interviews with the soon-to-be-demoted, and already papally humiliated Cardinal, Raymond Burke, this last fortnight, how vividly I recalled my father. For here is a man of courage and of truth, who will not be intimidated; perhaps our most impressive living bishop.
I was thinking of my own father again, when the pope used the expression “hostile inflexibility” on the weekend just past, applying it to “traditionalists.” Once again he insulted and belittled faithful and longsuffering Catholics, in the course of playing to the media gallery of current public opinion; once again he posed as “the people’s pope,” tilting against the hidebound reactionaries — the bogeymen of the popular imagination, who have stood in the way of “progress,” these last two thousand years. (I think of rednecks from Augustine to Thomas Aquinas to Karol Józef Wojtyła and Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger.)
That the pope himself would not change Church teaching he has assured us on several occasions — when he has been under attack. As a hidebound person myself, the question increasingly comes to mind whether he understands the breadth and depth of that teaching. His extempore lapses are frequent and embarrassing; his association with, and promotion of “progressive” sophists such as Cardinal Kasper have alarmed everyone I know within the Church who is genuinely learned.
His sincerity need not be in question. As a product of Peron’s Argentina, and in many ways a typical Latin American bishop of his (failed) generation, it is often easy to see what he intends. Mixed, holus-bolus, with his many reckless, populist statements, are others entirely beyond criticism. I have no doubt of his “good intentions.” Yet I wonder, too, if he understands himself.
The Church has shed numbers and vocations just where she has tried to accommodate herself to the times: in Europe and the Americas. She has grown, like wildfire, in Africa and Asia where she has preached like the Church of the first centuries. Yet within Europe and the Americas there is a large constituency which believes that she still hasn’t compromised enough, and that she cannot compete with “secular humanism” unless she engages in a kind of moral disarmament, abandoning the “hostile inflexibility” of “traditionalism,” and marketing her wares in a more savvy way.
The sense of the Church as a dollar-store religion was brought home to me recently on learning that the Sistine Chapel is now to be rented out for “corporate events.” Porsche is the first client, maker of sexy cars. The rent is competitive with other venue operators, and of course the income will be “given to the poor,” as another publicity gesture. One is reminded of Paul IV — the crass and embarrassing pope who told Michelangelo to paint clothes over all those naked figures, in what is among the holy shrines of Christendom. It is a sanctuary, a temple of Our Lord. It contains an altar. It is His house, and it is not to be profaned. Read, O ye hidebound traditionalists, what Christ himself did when he found a very similar situation by the Holy of Holies at Jerusalem.
According to tradition, it was Judas who advised — in the anecdote of Martha and Mary — that the expensive ointment poured over Christ’s feet would better have been sold to raise money for the poor. He was, and remained to his self-euthanizing end, our first Church liberal.
A pope must show reverence to an office which is not his, but Christ’s. He sits upon the Throne of Peter, not on a garden chair. He is not placed in it to pursue his own agenda, or exhibit his own “style.” To the world, especially the world of today, it is a “dinosaur” office. It comes with cultural accretions that speak of many centuries of self-denying Faith — including, incidentally, that of Michelangelo, a man of extraordinary talent and almost certainly homosexual inclination, who lived a chaste and devout life, working himself to the bone for the glory of the Church in his later years, and actually refusing payment. The monuments of this past are not to be disowned, or hawked in exchange for “charitable contributions,” more than any other aspect of the Faith is to be squandered.
If Muslims, or Calvinists, or Socialists, or Capitalists, desecrate our heritage, we can make do with what remains. We do not desecrate it ourselves.
But again, I don’t think our current pope intends to divide and overthrow the Church of which he declares himself a son, nor to play the iconoclast. He has confused “the poor in spirit” with “the poor” in our contemporary, neo-Marxist sense of “people with low income.” He has confused the humility of the inner hairshirt, with the outward, flashy display of humility by which a politician awes the crowd. Saint Francis of Assisi could correct him on that.
He is not the Magisterium, in himself. He is, for today, spokesman of the Magisterium; but I fear he simply does not understand the majesty of it.
Do not stop praying. Do not for a moment lapse from the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, which Christ left to be our guide. Nor will Christ abandon us, though in moments He appears to be silent. She is His Bride, and the darkness of her servants will pass.