I want to begin these lines by setting a positive tone. As a journalist who has written for most of the nation’s conservative or Traditional Catholic publications, during the past half century I have dealt close-up with more high-ranking Churchmen than the average Catholic ever will and have had the utmost respect for some. Let me name a few.
There was Austin Vaughn, Auxiliary of New York. A tireless champion of the encyclical everybody was supposed to forget, Humanae Vitae, he was once introduced to an assembly of all the Catholic chaplains of U.S. armed forces by the Military Vicar of the day as “the St. John Fisher of our time.” As with Fisher, Vaughn had no brother bishop following his lead. I had the privilege of being confirmed by him.
There was Joe Sullivan, Bishop of Baton Rouge. Pilloried for violating liberal democracy’s sacred tenet of “free speech” when he barred Charles Curran from giving a talk on a Catholic campus, he was left twisting in the wind by the Vatican. He died not long afterward – of a broken heart, I think.
George Lynch, retired Auxiliary of Raleigh, was a quiet, gentle man arrested more than once outside an abortuary (as was Bishop Vaughn) during the heyday of Operation Rescue. Whenever he rose to speak at one of the bishops’ annual Washington meetings, you could hear his episcopal colleagues moan as if he were Banquo’s Ghost.
Archbishop Rafael Nze Abuy of Equatorial Guinea, black Africa’s only Spanish-speaking nation, became the only bishop in the world with a death sentence on his head when he refused the order of his country’s insane dictator to have his name included when Catholics made the Sign of the Cross. In exile in Arlington, Virginia, he received a monthly “support” check from the Vatican that came to less than $10 when converted to U.S. currency.
I could name a few other men like the ones I have, but these four will suffice. All are now forgotten. All were also exceptional, and suffered because of it. More typical was the first high-ranking Churchman, a cardinal, to lie to me knowing that I was aware of it. My memory is vivid of him behind his desk with an expression on his face that said: “Yes, that was a lie. Contradict it in print and it will be your word against mine. I’ll win.” The cardinal went to his grave with the world paying much homage.
Also more typical were the Rembert Weaklands and Roger Mahoneys and all the smaller-fry versions of them who were busy paying hush money and otherwise covering up scandals whose effect would be devastating once the public began paying attention.
Besides wanting to strike a positive tone, there are two reasons why I’ve begun this article as I have.
The first is I want it understood that not one of the bishops I named, and others I could, was a Traditionalist, not if your sole measure of Tradition is liturgical or if you don’t distinguish between human traditions and Tradition. Though all were ordained before Vatican II’s post-conciliar liturgical revolution, every one of them was accustomed to saying the 1969 Mass of Pope Paul VI.
Second, because the Church is hierarchically-ordered by Providence deference and respect is always owed to the office of bishop, but by naming some men precisely because they were exceptional I want to establish that I am not easily beguiled by high-ranking Churchmen simply on account of their rank. That would include popes.
That said, I am dismayed by the criticism many Traditional Catholics continue to direct at Pope Francis, especially Trads who never think beyond the Mass. I even hear some who used to disparage Pope Emeritus Benedict now compare him to Francis as if they saw Benedict all along as a thunderbolt of orthodoxy. It would seem that what these Trads want is nothing less than the Church exactly as she was in Italy circa 1500, but it only seems so. In fact, like Martin Luther they would fulminate against a Church with cardinals who kept mistresses and in which men often became cardinals in the first place because they were relatives of the reigning pope, perhaps even his son.
I conclude that what these persons really want is a Church exactly like the one they want, they being each one of them as individuals, which is a pretty good description of Protestantism.
I watched Pope Francis closely during the first couple of months of his pontificate. Here is some of what he did during just that short time: affirmed Christ can be found only in the Church; reminded the bishops of his home country, Argentina, that pro-abortion politicians are not to receive Communion; ordered an errant Scottish cardinal out of Scotland rather than let him, as if guilty of nothing, spend the rest of his days in a comfy retirement home he’d set up for himself; instead of gallivanting around the world, announced he’d make only one trip outside Italy in 2013 (to Brazil) but otherwise stay in Rome and tend to business (he wouldn’t even go to Castel Gandolfo for an August break); told female religious to stop pushing a feminist agenda; told Catholic women (how many listened?) that their real power lies in the home, not a workplace outside it.
Most of all, ever since his first denunciation of the “cult of money” and “commodifying” of human beings, he has made it clear he understands, and wants to do what he can about, the most pressing moral problem of our age. It’s not abortion or same-sex “marriage”. It’s the one from which, in large part, they (and so much else) stem. It is the fact that most men nowadays are condemned to spending their lives at jobs in the service of an economy which, because it is predicated on endless growth, only works by destroying the natural world and feeding the evils of greed and envy. This has spiritual as well as material consequences.
(If a reader thinks I, not to speak of Pope Francis, exaggerate the gravity of this problem, let him reflect: When women elect to kill their preborn babies, is it more often because they fear having the children will endanger their lives or their lifestyle? And what is the argument heard most often in support of same-sex “marriage”? Isn’t it that only a legal spouse can collect state and federal “benefits”?)
Against all that, the fact Pope Francis evidently is less interested in liturgy than was Pope Emeritus Benedict strikes me as immaterial to the point of irrelevancy in assessing his pontificate to date, especially if we take a longer historical view. The truth is that except at Vatican II, and for but a short time then, liturgy has never been on the Church’s front burner, especially not in times of crisis. When a comparative handful of prelates gathered at the Council of Trent, they weren’t thinking of it but of the Protestant Revolt and how to counter it. At the next Council, Vatican I, what the bishops had on their minds was the rising tide of liberal democracy with its false notions of freedom and equality, especially “freedom of conscience,” and they defined the dogma of papal infallibility, intending it to be a bulwark against the tide.
We can be confident that when the cardinals gathered in Rome to elect Benedict’s successor, liturgy wasn’t on their minds. What was? Doubtless it was the fact that ten years of scandal had to many persons made the word “priest” almost a synonym for “pervert” and had left the Church in some places, like Ireland, a virtual ruin. Whom could they elect who might begin to make the Church once again morally credible? An enthusiast of the Tridentine Mass? Who would that be anyway?
The Holy Ghost turned them in the direction of Pope Francis. Adding to his appeal was his style. Even when he teaches the hardest lessons, he doesn’t raise his voice, never threatens. He sounds like a patient and good-humored father speaking to his children.
That, of course, is exactly who he is, a father, il papa, Holy Father, speaking to his children. Instead of acting like a bunch of Protestants, Trads need to remember it and to realize there’s more to being Catholic than worshipping the way folks did in Italy in 1500, wonderful as that is.
Knowing them as well as I did, I think the bishops I remembered at the beginning of this article would agree.