Saturday, May 20, 2017

Who are Pope Francis' 'rigid Catholics'?

Crush not the spirit. From the Rosary Walk
at Pantasaph, the Franciscan Retreat Centre
in North Wales.

Whenever Pope Francis talks about 'pharisees', 'rigid' Catholics and the like there is a speculation about whom he really means. Some of the things he says, which seem to concern liturgical issues, are interpreted as directed at Traditional Catholics, though as I have pointed out many are in fact explicitly targeted at the 'Reform of the Reform' movement. More general remarks about 'rigidity' in outlook may seem to be about anyone with a traditional understanding of the moral demands of the Gospel, given the background issue of marriage and divorce, but I think we should not be too quick to assume that the Holy Father is talking about common-or-garden traditionally-minded Catholics. There are after all other groups in the Church which may loom somewhat larger in his field of vision, and have no connection with the Traditional Mass.

How would we describe, for example, the atmosphere of the Legionaires of Christ under their founder, the manipulative, corrupt, and sexually abusive Marcial Maciel Degollado? 'Rigidity' is not a bad term, even if it hardly gets to the root of the problem. Other groups in the Church have reputations, rightly or wrongly, which place them, on the 'rigidity' scale, a long way way from, say, the post-Conciliar Jesuits. Pope Francis has some interesting things to say to them.

The NeoCatechumenal Way. There has been some strong opposition to the NCW from Latin American bishops in the past, so it is interesting to know what Pope Francis has to say. It has long had official favour in Rome; most recently Pope Benedict (corrected: not, of course, Pope Francis), in 2011, effectively forced the bishops of Japan to let them in. But as John Allen has discussed an audience Pope Francis held with members of the Neocatechumiate in early 2014 included some pointed advice:

“Communion is essential,” Francis said. “Sometimes it can be better to renounce living in every detail what your own path demands, in order to guarantee unity among the brothers who form the one ecclesial community, of which you must always feel yourself a part,”
he said.

Translation: If local pastors or the bishop asks you to join everybody else for Mass on Sunday, do it. If the Vatican tells you to play by the liturgical rulebook, do that too.

Second, Francis urged the Neocatechumenate to respect the local cultures in which the group wants to put down roots.

Learning foreign languages is helpful, the pope said, but “much more important will be your commitment to learning the cultures that you meet, recognizing that the need for the Gospel is everywhere, but also [recognizing] the work of the Holy Spirit in the life and the history of every people.”

Translation: Don’t ride into places such as Japan, or Nepal, and insist that in addition to becoming Catholic, everybody also has to become Spanish or Italian.

Third, the pope asked the Neocatechumenate to foster internal freedom and to respect those who decide to leave the group.

“Everyone’s freedom must not be coerced,” he said, “and the eventual choice of anyone who decides to seek other forms of Christian life … outside the [Neocatechumenate] must be respected.”

Translation: Lighten up internally, and when somebody leaves, don’t swing into action like a K Street lobbying firm specializing in character assassination.

This is what Pope Francis said to members of Focolare (September 2014):

It hurts the heart when, before a church, before a humanity with so many wounds, moral wounds, existential wounds, wounds of war, which we all hear of every day, to see that Christians begin to do philosophical, theological, spiritual “byzantinism”, rather what is needed is a spirituality of going-out. Go out with this spirituality: do not remain securely locked inside. This is not good. This is “byzantinism”! Today we have no right to byzantinistic reflection. We must go out! Because — I have said this many times — the Church seems like a field hospital. And when one goes to a field hospital, the first task is to heal the wounded, not to measure cholesterol... this will come later.... Is this clear?

Pope Francis addressed members of Communion and Liberation, in March 2015. CL is, of all the 'new movements', the one which can with least injustice be described as 'right wing', since it had a politically active arm which was on the political right. The movement's most implacable opponent was the liberal Cardinal Martini of Milan. Nevertheless, Pope Francis attested in this address that he had been influenced by writings of the founder, the late Don Luigi Giussani. But he goes on to say, in bold (I have never seen bold type used like this to emphasise a paragraph on the Vatican website before):

After 60 years, the original charism has not lost its youthfulness and vitality. However, remember that the centre is not the charism, the centre is one alone, it is Jesus, Jesus Christ! When I place at the centre my spiritual method, my spiritual journey, my way of fulfilling it, I go off the itinerary. All spirituality, all charisms in the Church must be “decentralized”: at the centre there is only the Lord! For this reason, in the First Letter to the Corinthians, when Paul speaks of charisms, of this most beautiful reality of the Church, of the Mystical Body, he ends by speaking of love, of that which comes from God, which is truly God’s, and which allows us to imitate Him. Never forget this, to be decentralized!

Thus the charism is not preserved in a bottle of distilled water! Faithfulness to the charism does not mean “to petrify it” — the devil is the one who “petrifies”, do not forget! Faithfulness to the charism does not mean to write it on a parchment and frame it. The reference to the legacy that Don Giussani left you cannot be reduced to a museum of records, of decisions taken, of the rules of conduct. It certainly entails faithfulness to tradition, but faithfulness to tradition, Mahler said, “is not to worship the ashes but to pass on the flame”. Don Giussani would never forgive you if you lost the liberty and transformed yourselves into museum guides or worshippers of ashes. Pass on the flame of the memory of that first encounter and be free!

Like this, centred in Christ and in the Gospel, you can be the arms, hands, feet, mind and heart of a Church “which goes forth”. The way of the Church is to leave her walls behind and go in search of those who are distant, on the peripheries, to serve Jesus in every person who is marginalized, abandoned, without faith, disappointed by the Church, a prisoner of one’s own selfishness.

“To go forth” also means to reject self-referentiality, in all its forms. It means knowing how to listen to those who are not like us, learning from everyone, with sincere humility. When we are slaves to self-referentiality we end up cultivating a “labelled spirituality”: “I’m ACL”. This is the label. Then we fall into the thousands of traps offered to us by the pleasure of self-referentiality; by that looking at ourselves in the mirror which leads us to confusion and transforms us into mere impresarios in an NGO.

Clearly Pope Francis has quite complex views about the new movements, and is influenced in different directions by different factors. On the one hand, he is not about to crush them; on the other, he is alive to the kinds of criticisms made of them. This would seem to be true of the Traditionalist movement also, which, however, cannot muster the vast crowds and vast sums of money which the new movements can, and so, I imagine, is a lot lower on his list of priorities. 

We should stop imagining that Pope Francis lies in bed thinking about the Extraordinary Form, and the priests and faithful attached to it. He has plenty of other fish to fry.

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  1. I am not sure there is much to gain from the excerpts though.

    Some of the advise in those very excerpts do seem odd, and paint a picture of the mindset of the author that would seem to suggest that he would be at odds even with the traditional movement itself.

    Take the very paragraph that you quoted that is bolded. That passage seems to indicate that Pope Francis views any set of ratified and concretely set instructions/systems as somehow being unacceptable. It would seem that he feels it unchristian.

    This is also running theme throughout everything faithful Catholics see as problematic in the current papacy. Whether it be on the matter of divorce/remarriage/communion, or content of his sermons, the issue is the encouragement toward departing from what has been firmly established.

    To that extent, it really doesn't matter if every waking thought in the mind of the Pope is the traditional movement. What will matter is that he thinks the solution to the problems faced by the Catholic Church today is to abandon any firmness.

    1. Note well that the word 'charism' is a code word within CL for a kind of uniformity of style and centralisation which would be inconceivable in the traditional movement.

  2. A small correction: it was Pope Benedict who reversed the ban on NCW in Japan in 2011.

    1. Oh yes of course, I'll correct that.