Back to the Future?

Published April 7, 2022

The Catholic Thing

A group of high-ranking prelates and theologians met late last month in Chicago for an invitation-only conference on the topic of “Pope Francis, Vatican II, and the Way Forward.” The conference was organized by institutes at Loyola University, Boston College, and Fordham University, with organizing help from Michael Sean Winters of the National Catholic Reporter (NCR).

One attendee, Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, described to NCR what he saw as the purpose of the event: “We have this what they call ‘opposition’ to the pope. It’s trying to build walls, going backwards – looking to the old liturgy or maybe things before Vatican II.” The names of the attendees at the conference are not public, but one can assume that the presumed “opposition” was not well represented.

That there is opposition to Pope Francis in the Church is as obvious, even as it is difficult to define just what constitutes opposition. But reading NCR’s reporting of the Chicago conference the phrase “shooting straw men in a barrel” comes to mind.

Among the topics discussed in Chicago (again, according to NCR reports): “the impact of moneyed conservative influence in Catholic social movements and media companies; polarization and division among U.S. bishops; the atmosphere of education at American seminaries, and the reluctance of some U.S. dioceses to implement the [synod].”

Anyone familiar with the landscape of American Catholicism or with the particular ecclesial outlook of those who organized the conference, can easily guess who is meant by the “opposition.” Fair enough.

A closed-door meeting of hand-picked bishops and theologians – along with friendly reporters – sponsored by endowed centers at wealthy universities to discuss the malign influence of money in the Church and the lack of openness to synodality among a vaguely defined “opposition” is not so much nefarious as it is funny. No one should begrudge the choir a chance to be preached to now and again. I hope the conference was edifying for all involved.

One keynote address from the Chicago conference which has been published – by the National Catholic Reporter – was given by Massimo Faggioli, an historian at Villanova. “The opposition to Pope Francis,” Faggioli writes, “is rooted in the opposition to Vatican II – a theological crisis that did not begin with this pontificate.”

How is it that opposition to Pope Francis began before he became pope? Faggioli lays the blame primarily at the feet of Pope Benedict XVI. Pope Benedict famously contrasted the “hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture” – an error made by both traditionalists of the Lefebvrist sort and progressives – with the “hermeneutic of reform,” which allows for certain discontinuities, but preserves, in the words of Benedict, “the continuity of the one subject-Church which the Lord has given to us.” Benedict continued, “It is precisely in this combination of continuity and discontinuity at different levels that the very nature of true reform consists.”

But this dichotomy between rupture and reform, Faggioli argues, soon took on a life of its own, expanding and morphing beyond Benedict’s original intent into a perceived dichotomy between “rupture” and mere “continuity.” In this new phase, any discontinuity between the Conciliar and post-Conciliar Church was understood to be rupture, and therefore illegitimate, thus closing the door to even the “discontinuities” of authentic reform.

It’s an interesting thesis, with elements of truth. It’s also too precious by far. For one, the idea that most or even many Catholics in the United States – even among those in the “opposition” – see all discontinuities in ecclesial life between the pre-Conciliar Church and today as illegitimate simply doesn’t withstand basic scrutiny. The American Church is very much a post-Conciliar Church, even if not in the way Faggioli would wish.

Second, and more to the point: whatever Cardinal Maradiaga or Professor Faggioli might think, very few American Catholics want to return to the 1950s; it’s just that even fewer want to go back to the 1970s.

And that, more than anything else, I think, explains most American ambivalence toward Pope Francis. Why? Because, rightly or wrongly (wrongly, I would argue), a great many American Catholics see in this pontificate an attempt to return to the pastoral strategies and priorities that were the hallmark of the most disastrous era in American Catholic history. The years immediately following the Council were a catechetical, evangelical, liturgical, and vocational disaster. And that’s before we get to the fact that this same era happened to coincide with the worst days of the abuse crisis in this country.

In other words, the “discontinuity” that fuels most American ambivalence about this pontificate is not a perceived discontinuity between the pre- and post-Conciliar eras, but a much-hyped discontinuity between the post-Conciliar vision of John Paul II and Benedict XVI and a carefully curated image of Francis as the last, best hope to resurrect the post-Conciliar revolution that was stymied for 35 years by John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

Who has been peddling such a caricature of Pope Francis? Where would American Catholics have learned that the great hope for this pontificate is that Francis will finally overcome the failures of his immediate predecessors, snatching “progressive” victory from the jaws of “conservative” defeat? I suspect some of the folks at that conference in Chicago could answer those questions, but as I mentioned, the list of attendees hasn’t been published.

Now, I’m not entirely convinced that Pope Francis wants to roll the clock back to 1977. And if some have cast Francis in the role of progressive revolutionary, too many others, both inside and outside of the Church, have been too eager to believe that caricature – either in hope or fear.

Pope Francis is still a pope willing to “make a mess,” and the Synod on Synodality next October could provide some sparks. But a return to the way things were is not going to happen. For anyone who would just as soon leave the ecclesial silly season of the 1970s in the past, that is an encouraging thought. That is not the way forward. It never was.

Stephen P. White is executive director of The Catholic Project at The Catholic University of America and a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

Image: Flickr/R Boed

Stephen P. White is a fellow in the Catholic Studies Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Mr. White’s work focuses on the application of Catholic social teaching to a broad spectrum of contemporary political and cultural issues. He is the author of Red, White, Blue, and Catholic (Liguori Publications, 2016).

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