March 31, 2013          David Timbs (Melbourne)      David's previous article

    Pope Francis the Disturber

It has been quite intriguing to study the first impressions of Jorge Bergoglio, the newly elected Pope Francis, from different perspectives within the Catholic Community. Of special interest has been the response of the so-called Traditionalists. These are loosely connected groups within the Church who share a strong bond of identification with the more  conservative magisterial governance of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. They share a common conviction that the pontificates of these former Popes represented a welcomed period of restoration and corrective to what they regard as the misinterpretations of Vatican II and the alleged excesses of the post Conciliar years.

One of the rock solid principles of authentic Catholic liturgical and semi-liturgical practice during the pontificate of Benedict XVI was, for Traditionalists, that dimension of his magisterium, namely the will, wishes and example of the Holy Father. This became the criterion of how things should and even must be done in Catholic worship throughout the universal Church despite the authority of local episcopates guaranteed by the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church and the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy.

Paradoxically, it is precisely this guiding principle of the Pope’s wishes and example which has now come under close scrutiny by these Traditionalists but for a different reason. Francis is demonstrating, at least in some small but important ways, that he does not regard himself bound by the conventions of former papal practice in the way he describes himself as first and foremost the Bishop of Rome, in his less regal attire, his security and accommodation arrangements or even in the way he treats prescriptive liturgical law. Some of these rather dramatic departures from precedents have been interpreted by some irate Traditionalists as offensive to the memory of the recently resigned and venerated Benedict XVI whom Pope Francis refers to simply as the emeritus Bishop of Rome.

Grief and betrayal

Some Traditionalists are sensing the end of a kind of golden age in recent Church history. They did not waste time in their attempts to deflect attention away from their initial shock, alarm and despondency. Within days, Francis’ expected doctrinal conservatism was seized upon as a key reason for a speedy backlash against him by the liberals and modernists, the much maligned Spirit of Vatican II generation. This was clearly a stunt, a ploy rooted in narrow sectarian self-interest. To the collective chagrin of the Traditionalist groups, from Cardinals to laity, Francis soon provided further evidence that he was shaping up to be a serial offender.  

The Rupture, the straw that broke.....

The great tipping point came on Holy Thursday evening when Pope Francis did what Jorge Bergoglio, the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, had done repeatedly along with the countless other Bishops, priests, deacons and laity throughout the world had done for years. He, like they, had been washing not only the feet of women and men alike, some even sufferers of HIV/Aids. But this time a Pope publicly broke a universally binding liturgical law last Thursday and it happened in a Roman Juvenile Correctional Facility. Two of the twelve youths to whom he ministered as he wore  a deacon’s stole, were Muslim, one of them a Serbian female. [2]

What Pope Francis did on Holy Thursday night was nothing new. He was simply following the example of Jesus, his master and teacher. In washing the feet of the twelve he did something very Christ-like. He was modeling a centrally important biblical virtue. He offered the hospitality of God to those fringe-dwellers, society’s worthless rejects. Jesus did it. Francis did it.

What is unnerving many of the conservative elements in the Catholic Church was Pope Francis’ insistence that the Kingdom of God, in all of its grace and inclusion, is not co-extensive with Church law and protocols. The Church is not an end in itself but merely a servant of that greater mystery of salvation which is founded on Jesus Christ.  He cannot be contained, limited or domesticated by a structure and its governance.

A further source of discomfort to the ones who describe themselves as Traditionalists – who find security in boundaries – is that Francis is  calling for the Church’s conversion to the deepest levels of God’s limitless compassion towards all humanity. The riskiness of the Gospel is a challenge to those who seek solace and security in fixity and elitism. The Tradition is not a mummified corpse. It is alive and developing because it is an integral part of the story and identity of the living People of God.

The Traditionalists’ dilemma is founded in a cultural bind of strict, unthinking, unqualified obedience to the Pope or the need to re-nuance this pattern of loyalty and acquiescence with a rationalised criticism of him when he shatters established conventions and liturgical laws. The hurried solution seized upon in the last few days is that a Pope can dispense himself from law while others continue to be bound by it. Inevitably, the bottom line for Traditionalists is that the Pope has in fact set a very bad example in breaking established prescriptive law and rubrics of the Church without formally promulgating changes! For these people, such behaviour is tantamount to meddling with divine revelation.

Francis the law breaker

What is at stake for those most disturbed by the early behaviours of Pope Francis is that he has rearranged the mental furniture of Cardinals, courtiers and the Ultramontanists in particular. He has quite consciously chosen not to associate himself with some accepted symbols of papal power and dignity. To the dismay of Catholics so long accustomed to the pomp and ceremony of Benedict XVI and, to a lesser extent, JP II, Francis has made it clear that all that is indicative of their needs, not his.

Washing the feet of women for many of the Traditionalists is to dishonour the memory of Benedict, to be in a state of rupture from established practice, to subvert the Apostolic Tradition of the Church and undermine the centrality of the priesthood. Washing the feet of non-Christians is tantamount to religious relativism and indifferentism so roundly condemned by Popes JP II and Benedict XVI.

One constant monitor of doctrinal and ritual purity suggested in a Good Friday commentary that Pope Francis may have compromised the integrity of the Liturgy by engaging in a form of theatrics on Holy Thursday night. The commentator also charges that the Pope tampered with an ancient tradition which may not lightly be altered.  Francis, it is claimed, has done precisely that,

“Pope Benedict taught that although aspects of the liturgy can be modified, parts of it cannot. Are the rules about whose feet can and cannot be washed part of that inviolable Divine-Apostolic tradition? Perhaps not – but it is surely part of the Apostolic-Ecclesial tradition, these traditions whose origins go back to the earliest days of the Church, and are therefore not lightly to be discarded.” [1]

A commenter on this article has elevated the symbolic gestures of the new Pope to the level of hyperbole when writing that Francis has brought to a brutally abrupt end the golden era of Benedict XVI’s programme of Reform of the Reform. The person has a rather short memory. Cardinal Ratzinger launched the program of the Reform – regression – the moment he took over the CDF in 1981. The poster even goes so far as to equate Francis’s behaviour with the catastrophe of Good Friday,

“Jerusalem desolata est

8 years of the hermeneutic of continuity, torn up in 2 ‘humble’ weeks.

A slap in the face for the priests and lay folk who have fought, and suffered, to uphold Church teaching and law in the face of systemic disobedience ..... tradition and symbols matter. They define who we are.”

These sentiments echo the hysterics and disingenuous commentary in Rorate Caeli which, two weeks ago, declared the election of the Archbishop of Buenos Aires to be a total disaster for the Catholic Church.

Another source of Traditionalist outrage and fearful apprehension can be found in one of blogdom’s most conservative and widely read sites. Its owner and moderator is Fr John Zuhlsdorf (his moniker is Fr Z), He is an American protestant convert who, for some reason, is incardinated into the Italian diocese of Velletri-Segni. He spends most of his time apparently in the USA.

Like many of his like-minded followers, he has consistently made the mistake of confusing faith with Traditionalism, belief with ideology. Indicative of his agenda, Zuhlsdorf espouses priests facing to the east at Mass (back to the people), communion kneeling and on the tongue, to say nothing of the ornate, effeminate liturgical drapery of the post Tridentine era as the epitome of devotion, culture, taste and profoundly indicative of the greater glory of God.

Zuhlsdorf is the epitome of clericalism and would believe wholeheartedly in the phrase attributed to St John Vianney in his more bizarre and neurotic mode, After God, the priest is everything. Clearly, and to his dismay and disgust, Pope Francis has other ideas.

Especially since the beginning of Benedict’s papacy, he has assumed the role of spokesman for a loose constituency of Catholic Traditionalists. In the last two weeks he has demonstrated a rather subterranean, pouting teenage reactiveness to and theatrical outrage at the liturgical minimalism of Pope Francis. Zuhlsdorf’s recently revised version of his confusion, hurried rationalisation and resentment are thinly disguised. The hubris is palpable and almost overwhelming. And still, his weak-minded followers simply adore him! [3]

And it is this fellow, along with many like him, who is attacking Pope Francis because he puts his own understanding of the Gospel, his pastoral experience and instincts before Church law, protocols and liturgical rubrics. Zuhlsdorf has admittedly toned himself down somewhat over the last day not because he is not angry and resentful but because the successor of Peter has done what to him is inconceivable.  Francis consciously broke the laws of the Church entrusted to his care.

What all too many Traditionalists seem incapable of doing is to move beyond a comfortable dogmatic and historical fundamentalism to expose themselves to the rigors of the big, uncomfortable, critical questions about the origins of the Church, its structures and its ministries. If they took that route, Francis would prove not be their only disturbance.


 [1] This blog reflects the despondency and disappointment that publisher and supporters experience in Pope Francis’ setting aside of liturgical laws. Click here - the author, in a rather nervous Holy Saturday article, gets tied up in a tangle of relativism in concluding, “Respect and obedience does not mean subservience.” Subservience worked just fine for the author when the Pope was JP II or Benedict XVI! Click here.

[2]The Holy Thursday papal Mass in the Rome correctional facility as reported in NCR, click here.

[3] Fortunately, many respondents add some balanced, commonsense, enlightened, observations which, I think, are beyond Zuhlsdorf’s ability to comprehend. He and many of his camp followers have far too much to lose by quietly accepting the legitimacy of Francis’ departure from, what for them, is a fixed and unchangeable manual of rubrics. See here.    On the other hand, an English conservative cleric and blog master is equally confused, bewildered and even angry at having to hose down the house fire at his Mary Magdalen blog.    Jimmy Akin treads carefully through the mine-field of the semantics of papal continuity, embarrassment and nuanced loyalty, here.  

David Timbs writes from Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Holy Saturday, 2013

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