Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Mystical not ascetic: a response to Pope Francis, Part 3

Christ saying Mass
Photo by Fr Lawrence Lew

Update: to ease navigation here is the complete series of posts:
Part 1: what his disctinction 'Mystical' vs. 'Asectic' means

Part 2: why traditional Catholics can better accomodate this perspective than 'Neo-Conservatives'
Part 3: why liberal Catholics shouldn't feel too comfortable with it
Part 4: what is going on with the reference to the life and family issues.
Part 5: what to make of the worry that the Vetus Ordo suffer 'ideologization'.

In my last post I argued that the veiws of Catholics attached to the Traditional Liturgy are in many ways closer to Pope Francis' preferences than those of many 'Conservative' Catholic writers. Pope Francis doesn't like centralisation in the Church: nor do we, but they do. Pope Francis condemns legalism: so do we, but they don't. Pope Francis wants a Church open to the Spirit, not concerned above all with rule-keeping and discipline: so do we, but again, Neo-Con writers too often give the impression that they do not.

This actually fits in with a certain well-worn Neo-Con argument which says that Liberals and Traditionalists are the same in their disrespect for proper authority and discipline. The people who used to make that argument are really hoist by their own petard now, and I hope they are enjoying the experience. But things are a lot more complicated than that; as I argued here, Traditionalists like the Latin Mass Society and the Traditional Orders have always gone to extraordinary lengths to keep the rules, and do so even when putting forward an argument that the rule in question wasn't really a rule at all. In the case of the obligation to ask permission for the celebration of the Traditional Mass, this argument of ours was vindicated in spectacular fashion by Pope Benedict, who wrote in Summorum Pontificum in 2007 that we'd never needed permission after all.

Another problem with applying that old Neo-Con argument here, is that it implies Pope Francis is a liberal. Again, things are more complicated than that, and this is what this post is about. What Pope Francis wants, remember, is a Church conformed to Christ. Liberals like to use that kind of phrase when they want to deny a teaching of the Church or commit some liturgical abuse, but Pope Francis actually means it. As I quoted him before, in Brazil he said

"We may become a charitable NGO, but not the Church, the Bride of the Lord."

In another sermon, he told newly ordained priests:

"Therefore, carry out the ministry of Christ the Priest with constant joy and genuine love, attending not to your own concerns but to those of Jesus Christ. You are pastors, not functionaries. Be mediators, not intermediaries."

What does this mean?

The key thing to keep in mind is the notion of conforming oneself to Christ: the concerns of Christ, not those of an organisation, however enlightened; the Church as the Bride of Christ, not an NGO. Pope Francis is talking about the Church having a spiritual identity and a spiritual mission. That doesn't mean we shouldn't be concerned about the poor - far from it. But it does mean we shouldn't conform ourselves to the World, even in order (as we might imagine) to serve the poor more effectively.

Making the streets of an English country town resound to the sound of prayer: Walsingham 2013

This is a critique of the secularisation of the Church. It is a critique of the classic liberal argument that we must stop being Catholic in any meaningful sense in order to advance justice in the world. The liberal nuns, to take an extreme example, have 'moved beyond Christ' while working for social justice.

And here's something else. Pope Francis wants us to be open to the world, not closed in on ourselves, looking inwards to an organisation which is concerned only with its own workings. This is a critique of a bureaucratic tendency in the Church which is today at its apogee, and it is liberal Catholics who are in charge of this bureaucracy  Liberals love committees: this is true across all areas of life. They flourish on comfy chairs with little plates of biscuits and matters arising from the minutes of the last meeting. This the antithesis of a bishop or parish priest taking real responsibility for his diocese or parish, being a father to it; it is the antithesis of the encounter between a pastor and Christ found in the poor and in those wounded by sin. 'Oh no, I'm not going to answer your question, that's for the liturgy committee!' 

The attitude of defending the Church as an institution, rather than doing what is called for by the Church's supernatural reality, is at issue in the paedophile crisis. When bishops and superiors cover up, deny the truth, move problem priests around, fight unjust legal battles and refuse to pay compensation, they are defending the Church conceived of purely as a human organisation, a bureaucracy. Such actions have been done by prelates of a range of views, but it happened at a time when liberals had a massive domination of the levers of power.

It would be a tragedy indeed if Pope Francis' desire for decentralisation led only to the morbid growth of Bishops' Conference bureaucracies, where these attitudes could continue to flourish.

In sum, Pope Francis is opposing the invasion of the Church by secular attitudes and secular goals. The point was expressed with great lucidity by Dietrich von Hildebrand, one of the founders of the Traditional movement:

It is easy to feel oneself alive and free if one forgets about the unum necessarium, the one thing necessary, and directs all one’s powers toward secular endeavors. It is easy to feel oneself bursting with energy if, for example, the clearance of slums concerns one more than transformation in Christ. What the progressives call “leaving the Catholic ghetto” is in reality giving up the Catholic and keeping the ghetto. They would replace the universal Church with the ghetto of secularism, with imprisonment in a stifling immanentism, with isolation in a world that sits in umbra mortis, in the shadow of death. To achieve a unity of religion and life by adapting religion to the saeculum does not result in a union of religion with our daily life, but reduces religion to the pursuit of purely mundane goals.
The fallacy in the progressivist approach is obvious. If we assert that religion should permeate our lives, the implication is that we should break through to the realization of the primary vocation, the very meaning of our lives, which is our re-creation in Christ. We should then no longer be exclusively absorbed by the immanent logic of our professional lives or by everyday preoccupations, but should see them and all things in the light of Christ. Indeed, the echo of our self-donation to Christ should resound through all the scenes of our lives.

It is the very opposite of uniting true religion with everyday life to believe that all that is demanded from a Christian is to fulfill the duties prescribed by the logic of his secular life. This would mean the absorption of religion by secular activities, so that we would be satisfied that in fulfilling the requirements of these we were doing everything that God could ask of us. In reality this is to avoid the confrontation with Christ. Those who act in this way are Christians in name only. The decisive question for the vivification of religion today is whether through the light of Christ our everyday lives will become deeply changed and adapted to Him, or whether the Christian religion is to be adapted to the immanent logic of mundane concerns.

Thinking about von Hildebrand's characterisation of the alternatives, which is Pope Francis putting forward: the progressive theory that only secular concerns are real, that (for example) in a Catholic school exam results are the only thing to think about, or, instead, the idea that even what we do in secular contexts should be suffused with the Christian spirit and give witness to the Faith? The latter approach fills liberals with horror, but it is clearly what Pope Francis is talking about.

Dietrich von Hildebrand's analysis, in his great book Trojan Horse in the City of God (1967), is so useful in this context that I've had ten pages retyped in order to make it available to a wider public. You can download the text of the chapter 'Vivification of Religion' here.

In these three posts I have not been arguing that Pope Francis is really a Trad in a false flag operation, and that tomorrow he is going to celebrate the Old Mass and do all sorts of other things we'd like. No, he is coming from a very different place. Nor is my point that his words can be twisted around to suit a traddy agenda. I'm not concerned with taking stray phrases out of context, but of the underlying argument.

Rather, my point is that if you look at the underlying argument, what he is saying is not so easily categorisable in terms of liberalism or conservatism; he recognises problems with both, even while (as it would seem) associating Traditional Catholics with problems as well. The object of my discussion has been to suggest a way in which Traditional Catholics can respond to his analysis of the problems in the Church, an analysis which represents a genuine insight, to show that we can be part of the solution, and not only part of the problem. I don't suppose we will make ourselves heard by the Holy Father directly, we don't have a loud enough voice for that, but we will have plenty of opportunity to engage with people officially directed to apply his policies, and to people impressed with his general orientation. It is to them, therefore, that we need to explain that Traditional Catholics are not hyper-conservatives with all the baggage of Ultramontanism and legalism, and that we recognise the need to conform ourselves, and the world, to Christ, and not the Church, and ourselves, to the World.

I have one last thing to add, in a final post in this series. In the spirit of freedom of discussion there is something Pope Francis said with which I wish to disagree.


  1. Anonymous5:37 pm

    Dear Doctor,
    I am a mere schoolboy; and, I fear, not an unduly intelligent one, with no theological training whatever. I confess I am a little disturbed by your disparaging references to ultramontanism.As the Catholic Encyclopaedia of 1907 bears an Imprimatur, I will use it's definition of ultra-montanism: .If you are not an ultra-montane, with all due respect, sir, what are you?

    As we are both British, if an English son of the Holy Roman Church is not an ultramontane, what is he? I find it hard to believe you would advocate the 'liberal' position of the Cisalpine Club and the Catholic Committee, or even that of Lingard? They desired, legitimately enough, further deliverance from the penal laws; and to compass this end they had recourse to means not at all legitimate. Their end was quite rightly that of the excommunicate signatories of the Staffordshire Creed. As Pastorini tells us, the end result of Cisalpine principles, the denial of the temporal supremacy of God's Vicar, is " [the exclusion of] the Pope's spiritual jurisdiction" and "diminish our dependence in spirituals on the Church in Rome, and by degrees to shake it off entirely... and to have the Liturgy in English." and in the end the Old Catholicism of Doellinger or De La Mennais. If any man is a Cisalpine, it is Archbishop Vincent Nichols. I could talk at length about the Appellants, or the Oath, or the Catholic Committee, but I'm not really here to show off.

    Why am I referring to a very historical debate? Simply, sir, because I am very confused – surely the doctrinal chaos, the liturgical anarchy the nasty concoction of ‘Bishop’s Conferences’ and de-centralisation, which looks to get much worse under the present Papacy is the enemy of ultramontanism? Do you mean by ultramontanism ultramontanism as I would understand it? That is, the temporal power and ecclesiastical supremacy of the Pope – ‘an integral and active Catholicism’, or in a word, Catholicism? The First Vatican Council, as you know far better than I do and it is not my place to check my seniors and betters, defined ‘ultramontanism’ – the supremacy and infallibility of the Pope – as a dogma, surely? I don’t mean following the Pope when he is obviously in error or denying the Pope can commit an error. As my dear old friend and guide and father – spiritually, of course, but, given my own situation – Fr. B.S. said, Pope Leo XIII once called Cardinal Gibbons Cardinal Jibbons.

    As I said, I am an untrained and probably rather ignorant young man, with just enough knowledge to make me slightly dangerous; I also wish to make it clear I neither assume nor accuse you of heresy - simply, you remind me a little of Lord Acton at the present and that worries me. A Catholic must surely be an ultramontane, or Catholicism is Roman and Ultramontane.


    1. Anonymous5:38 pm

      P.S. Forgive me my presumption! I do hope I have not made a pig's ear of things.

    2. Anonymous6:28 pm

      The definition in the ultramontanism in the Catholic encyclopedia appears to be misleading.

      Ultramontanism as the term tends to be used today refers to a particular way of understanding papal supremacy. I would describe it as an exaggeration where the pope is a sort of absolute dictator.
      I'm probably not explaining it very well.

    3. Rather off topic but I was interested in your references to the Cisalpine Club. In my office we used to have the minute books of the Cisalpine Club but at some stage they got lent to somebody and I do not know what happened to them. I did however read them - I think they went from about 1800 to 1826. What was impressive was the prodigious amount of alcohol which they seemed to consume at each meeting at the Thatched House Tavern - they brought their own bottles and paid corkage. I suspect bottles were smaller in those days - perhaps a pint rather than 75 centilitres but on average each person present seems to have got through a bottle of claret, a bottle of sauternes and a bottle of port at each meeting or something very near that. I cannot help feeling they must have ended up as muddle-headed as I feel when I read anything about our present Pope!

  2. Since Patrick has the secret of eternal youth, and gets younger when the rest of us get older, he may be recalling the usage of this term from his own experience. But the Catholic Encyclopedia is nearly a century old, and Ultramontanism now means what 'bgperry' says.

    Even in the old debate (in which the Encyclopedia is not neutral) we can see that the Gallicans had a point. It isn't healthy for the Church to be run as if it were a dictatorship. Papal Primacy does not take away the authority of bishops in their sees.

    1. Anonymous9:58 pm

      Well, sir, quite rightly, you sorted me out very properly. I do not sup at the waters of ever-lasting life. admit I have been very silly and ashamed of being a schoolboy posting on Catholic matters far above my own swollen young head, I lied about my age. The better thing to do would be to deflate that head and retire from a contest too big for me.

      I have been very silly and childish, I might have been treated with more respect had I not been a presumptuous little boy seeking to treat with my betters on equal terms. As I was addressing you directly, I decided honesty was decidedly the best policy, and any way, silly boys usually get found out. On that I give you my word.

      It was, Doctor, an honest and sincerely meant question, which I tried to phrase in as respectful a manner as I could.I tried to make it clear you were by far my academic superior and I meant no harm whatever. I am honestly sorry.

      Am I correct in saying you really mean the course of the extreme infallibilists who alleged every action of the Roman Pontiff was in fact incapable of error?

      Insofar as I can, thank you.

  3. Hello,

    I am writing this after reading your article at Rorate Caeli. I first wanted to thank you for your article on Hiderbrant and also taking the time to type up those pages (which I also read).

    I just wanted to ask/say that I am not sure if laws and disciplines are completely irrelevant to living a life with Christ. There are instances in our journey of faith where we do not always understand what Jesus wants us to do. We may think we don't have to go to mass for an example.

    In such situations, the legalism can make us go to Church till we come to an age where we understand.

    I can only see legalism as unacceptable if the position is such that "if you do not know why you are going, you might as well not go" which to me seems false as well.

  4. Anonymous12:08 am

    Mr. Shaw, your explanation was excellent by the way thank you. I have linked to it

  5. This series has been a pretty outsanding work.

    I'm skeptical that greater collegiality is the solution to all problems. But I don't think there's a lot that francis gives in his critque of modern society and the Church that traditionalists should fear.

    Part of this stems from the fact we've been marginalized unjustly for so long, I fear we've become that "self-referential" Church with a fortress mentality, even when we don't always need to be.

    Part of me also fears that based on the wild hysterics some have engaged in, the fear that Francis or a future Pope will outright revoke Summorum Pontificum is a self-fulfilling prophesy if they continue their histtorincs.

  6. Patrick: Ultramontanism as I use the term is the position which gives exagerated importance to Papal pronouncements, actions, example etc., treating non-binding ones as binding, accusing everyone else of being disobedient etc..

    Now you are being honest can we have less of the school-boy shtick? I has been wearing a little thin. And stop subscribing to by YouTube channel every five minutes.

    Eufronsnia: thank you. Actually I paid for it to be typed out by a lady in the Philippines. The wonders of globalisation.

    Again, what I assume Pope Francis means by 'legalism' is an exaggerated concern for the law; what I mean by Legal Positivism is the rejection of the Catholic Natural Law theory which places law which has been *made* by the state or the Church into the context of the moral law, custom, and fundamental legal principles such as equity, the need for promulgation, consistency and so on.

    We certainly need law in the Church and we should certainly obey it. What the law says, however, is by definition in accord with the purpose of law, in the case of the Church's law this is the good of souls, otherwise it is not law.

    1. Thank you for taking the time to clarify! What you say makes perfect sense now.

  7. Anonymous9:49 am

    Dear Sir,
    I am genuinely a schoolboy, so yes. Second, of course. I did it to remind myself of a video to watch, I had no idea it caused you any trouble. Thank you. I am walking on eggshells, as when Peter or Patrick in my case cries wolf so many times, he’s scarcely to be believed when he is being sincere. ‘O what a tangled web we weave / When first we practice to deceive!’

    But thank you for honestly answering the question.

  8. An excellent article. I am not a member of the LMS and am fully in favour of the new Mass, even though it does not yet express ALL that Vatican II wanted to have expressed in the "New Mass" - there is no sense of participating in the Liturgy of heaven, and hence a need for further changes. I also agree with Pope Benedict that there is need for a continuation of the "Old Mass" as a valid expression of Tradition, and am not against the LMS.

    There are two pairs of words I would like to banish from any religious conversation. The first is "Contemplative Life" - "Active Life", when these refer to two different and distinct kinds of vocation. According to patristic Tradition, we are all called to action which culminates in contemplation. The second pair is "Conservative" and "Liberal". If anyone is content with either label, he is already conforming his faith to political and worldly categories because the two words have no theological content whatsoever.

    I thoroughly agree with the article and would like to re-publish it in my blog "Monks and Mermaids", referring back, of course, to this publication.

    1. Please go ahead.

      I assume you meant to say we are 'called to contemplation which leads to action' not vice versa!

  9. No, although that is also true. The main value of contemplation is not that it is useful, that it leads to effective action, even though it does: union with God in contemplation is the very summit of the Christian life, the most adequate effect of holy communion, the foretaste of heaven, and,as St Peter Damian would have said, the activity in which we are most intensely in contact with the Church in heaven and on earth, through the power of the sacrament.