Thoughts on the News from Rome

TPM Reader CC shares thoughts on the happenings out of Rome …

First, I just wanted to take a moment to thank you for your respectful coverage of the historic events of the past month, which has seen the first papal abdication in six centuries, the election of the first Jesuit Pope, and all of the other firsts. I know that religion is not part of TPM’s normal beat, except where it intersects with the world of politics, but I am glad that you are recognizing the historic nature of the news out of Rome.

If the perspective of a somewhat devout (albeit deeply flawed) Catholic is of any interest, I would say that these events are far more significant than most of the media fully appreciate. This story is much larger than the election of a Pope who makes nice gestures, or a series of interesting firsts. I see in this, the flowering of a process that has been unfolding over the course of the past half century.

Prior to the World Wars, the Church operated on a Counter-Reformational model, which relied upon authority to guide formation of the faith and consciences of Catholics. In the wake of the devastation unleashed by and visited upon two generations across the first half of the twentieth century, public faith in the authority of institutions was gravely weakened. It became necessary for the Church to abandon its reliance on authority, in favor of conveying the deposit of faith by means of engagement with modern materialism, through reasoned dialogue. THAT is what Vatican II was about – not repeal and revision of doctrine (which is impossible to the Church), but a new way of communicating those doctrines to a cynical world.

Blessed John Paul II, arguably the greatest philosopher-pope, and Benedict XVI, perhaps our greatest theologian-pope, both of whom iplayed significant roles in shaping and drafting the documents that emerged from Vatican II, then authoritatively interpreted the significance of the Council, which had been subject to widespread confusion. This was not a conservative coup thwarting the work of the Council, as is commonly misperceived, but an authoritative interpretation by two of its architects. For this reason I would describe theirs as “Magisterial” pontificates.

The election of Pope Francis represents the flowering of this process. With the emergence of what looks to be a Pastorally, rather than Magisterially focused pontiff in Francis (the first pope ordained into a post-Conciliar Church) the groundwork of the Council is complete, and the Church can at last engage more vigorously with the challenges of materialism and moral relativity which reduce man to a collection of appetites and urges, and values the individual only as a producer and consumer.

While the new era may involve revision of certain disciplines (priestly celibacy?), it will not herald any revision or rejection of matters of settled doctrine. Matters of doctrine, which we believe to be rooted in eternal truth, will not be revised to accommodate to the zeitgeist of modernity. If doctrine is true, then it is immutable, and it is the duty of the Church to conform to it, not the vicissitudes of public whim. One of the lessons to be drawn from the recent scandals within the Church is that the Church exists to convert the world, not to be conformed to it; it is when we lose sight of that, and imitate the secular world we fail most spectacularly and with terrible consequences for the innocent.

I hope this provides some sort of perspective on how this whole process appears to at least one person witnessing it from the inside. If I am right, the novelties of the first few weeks of the pontificate of Francis are only the opening to a much larger game, which will be played out over the next several centuries. Heady times indeed!