The Apocalypse of Pope Francis

2 01 2019

By “apocalypse” in the title, I don’t mean that Pope Francis will somehow trigger the end of the world, or that he is the Anti-Christ or an anti-Christ. That might be a popular take in some circles, but it is not one I agree with. I take “apocalypse” here in its literal sense of “unveiling”. The ascendancy of Pope Francis this decade has revealed the real essence of the global Church with all of its contradictions. Both liberal and conservative, intellectually derivative and addicted to saccharine kitsch, the actual position of the Catholic Church remains indecisive. Should it fully transition into modernity or pull back into the barracks of reaction? I don’t think the issue will be resolved any time soon.

Though historical analogies are always inaccurate, the one that the previous Pope / current Pope Emeritus (?) made in his younger days is the one I would like to reflect on here. According to then Joseph Ratzinger, the Second Vatican Council was akin to the French Revolution in the Church. This in part isn’t even an analogy. Popes up to Pius XII had a problematic relationship with the political and ideological order that emerged out of late 18th century in Europe. In the aftermath of the Revolution, in papacy after papacy, the values of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity were condemned for their inherent secularist implications. Though certainly ambivalent at times, the Church encouraged the faithful either to withdraw from society or actively advocate for a return to the traditional order and a confessional state.

I need not enter into details concerning the tumultuous events of the Second Vatican Council and the 1960’s. In my interpretation, the papacies of John XXIII and Paul VI were the revolutionary period parallel to the 18th century timeline, with perhaps the Roman Curia playing the part of Robespierre collectively. Paul VI ruled the Church as an indecisive and conflicted figure, especially after the debacle of Humanae Vitae. If his court represented the Jacobins, Bonaparte came in the form of a prelate from Poland, the now sainted Karol Wojtyla or John Paul II. Even though he eschewed the tiara and other traditional marks of Papal authority and gravitas, his rule by charisma and geopolitical power-plays invoked the famed French general who conquered Europe and crowned himself emperor. Such a regime had the character of authority but was based on the previous revolt that congealed into the rule of one figure who survived the political tumult. The papacy of John Paul II was marked by a revolutionary impulse that continued under the guidance of an authority figure who displayed characteristics of a traditional mentality (Marian piety, conservative sexual morality, anti-communism) while carrying out the plan of the Revolution (reformed Canon Law, ecumenism, liturgical “creativity”, continued promotion of progressive prelates, etc.)

Though his loyal second-in-command, Benedict XVI in his papacy was a further turn to the right, almost like the Bourbon Restoration in the Church. Benedict dug in his heals against a “dictatorship of relativism” and advocated a “creative minority,” perhaps a Church like a secluded hermit kingdom defending itself from hostile forces from without. For the average Catholic, he continued the agenda of John Paul II, with perhaps greater consistency in selecting prelates more in line with his own thinking. In terms of externals, he brought back some of the accouterments of the Ancien Regime, and advocated a return to the ancient liturgy in the broader Church.

As in the case of loyal monarchists in the 19th century, the Church of Pope Francis might have come as a bit of a shock to conservatives in the present day. But as in the case of France, the Church has never gotten over its own revolutionary period of the 1960’s. Following the restoration was the uprising of 1848 which gave birth to the radical politics that would influence Europe for decades. Pope Francis is the 1848 Revolution of the Catholic Church. No matter how much the Vatican press or the Curia pretended the rest of the Church simply didn’t exist, the actual order of the Church was radically overturned and never recovered. The shock that conservatives have at Pope Francis, akin to the shock of the “forces of order” at 1848, is the nightmarish inverted mirror of the idea of the Papacy that Bonapartist John Paul II created: “L’Eglise c’est moi” (I am the the Church.) As in the game of chess, the conservative was always comforted that no matter how many pieces fell, as long as the king was still on the board, the game was not lost, indeed, they were winning. However, once the “other side” is in endgame against the king, a sense of foreboding finally emerges. There are those in the Church (the radical traditionalists, perhaps) who saw all of this ten moves ago. You cannot keep the Papacy clean when the rest of the Church has fallen into revolutionary chaos.

You cannot have a “Benedict XVI” Papacy in a “Pope Francis” rest of the church. That contradiction was bound to manifest itself eventually. That is the real “unveiling” of the Franciscan papacy: the actual church in its vast majority was closer to Pope Francis than it ever was to Pope Benedict XVI or even John Paul II. Pope Francis is the church you get in the confessional when the confessor doesn’t want to “hurt anyone’s feelings”. Pope Francis is the church where the one priest has six Masses on Sundays with the Ladies’ Altar Society constantly plotting against him due to a passing comment about a flower arrangement made three years ago. Pope Francis is the church of overflowing crowds of faithful at Christmas and Easter who disappear the next Sunday not to be seen again for months. And so on…

To be Catholic in our day is to have selective amnesia: What part of Tradition are you willing to forget? You can be consistent and jettison the whole thing. You can be slightly less consistent and believe that Thomas A Kempis and St. Therese also came to their views of the world singing bad Top 40 from 1972 knock-off songs in church every Sunday. You can be a little less consistent and think that maybe a little Latin is a good idea, and go even further and believe that the Sacred Liturgy was divinely handed to the Pope in 1962 only to be destroyed two years later. Or you can just descend into full consistent madness and believe the real Pope was locked in a basement at some point and replaced with an impostor. Spoiler alert: none of these is a good look.

A word should be said about how “normal” (i.e. not me) people think about what is going on in the Church. Honestly, the whole abuse scandal seems to have been going on for decades. Far be it from me to minimize the severity of the crimes committed against innocent children, but I simply no longer thought of it as news. People forget that traditionally the clergy had an adversarial position toward the laity. Not merely aloof, they were taught in some ways that the laity was the enemy, constantly trying to test them, constantly resisting their exhortations to live in a more godly manner etc. In their dress, mannerisms, and culture, the clergy was taught that it was a world apart from the secular world (in legal terms, this was actually the case in Catholic countries). So of course, this would lead to victimization. I don’t know why anyone would be surprised.

Yes, there were saintly men who overcame this institutional aversion to demonstrate real kindness and compassion toward their poor lost flock. But for every Don Bosco or Vincent de Paul, there were ten guys just in it for the paycheck and probably a few really monstrous abusive characters as well. It was the culture of the clergy which de-humanized others and made them targets of abuse. This didn’t make people act atrociously (that’s a result of human nature), but it certainly fostered opportunities for such behavior as well as a code of silence to defend clerical perpetrators against the perceived enemy (i.e. the rest of the world). To a certain extent, many of those who seem disgusted at Francis’ role in the most recent revelations are the same ones who defend the idea of the clergy as a consecrated elite. Going forward, I don’t see how this can continue to be the case.

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