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Holy Week in the Pandemic

April 12, 2020 (3,979 words)

Well, this has certainly been a Holy Week like no other. As a kid the Easter Triduum of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Vigil was not something our family participated in. Despite my attending Catholic school through grade twelve, these three special days were just not part of the program, growing up.

We would all attend Easter Sunday Mass in the morning, have a nice meal in the afternoon, and call it a day. My father may have gone out for these three long evening services leading up to the big event, while Mom stayed home and watched us six little ones, but all that was too long ago for me to remember.

Looking back my lack of interest and participation in the Pascal Triduum may have had something to do with the fact my Catholic school years, 1961-1972, just happened to coincide with a rather tumultuous time in the life of the Church, when most every tradition was being called into question.

Since my return to the fold in 1994, after a self-imposed twenty year exile, these three special services – considered by many to be the highlight of the liturgical year – have also been sort of the highlight of my own year, for every single one of the last twenty-seven years.

So having it all canceled this week due to the shelter-in-place directive designed to contain the spread of the coronavirus has really cramped my style.

My make-shift substitute observance has included watching The Passion of the Christ again, which holds up remarkably well. The quality of the work remains, even though the wild-eyed concerns of Abe Foxman and the Anti-Defamation League, who dominated the airwaves with fears of another round of pogroms in the wake of the film’s initial release, are but a distant memory.

As I recall, Abe and friends were worried about Catholics and Christians storming out of the theater with pitchforks and torches, looking to persecute anew “those who crucified Christ.” Instead, I remember audience members quietly leaving the theater in a state of stunned silence, having been brought face-to-face with the true meaning of their faith.

How he was pierced for our transgressions; crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed – as the prophet Isaiah put it several centuries before the actual event.

giving short shrift to one’s humble beginnings…

Another element of my unusual observance this week was watching the Wim Winders documentary on Pope Francis, A Man of His Word. This, along with the recent Netflix drama The Two Popes, gives the viewer a good feel for the decidedly Third World orientation of our current pontiff.

His critics, of course, remain unmoved by any such reference to humble beginnings. They are convinced this Pope’s perplexing doctrinal and ideological ad-libs have revealed him to be an unreliable – and even a dangerous – shepherd.

Starting with the phrase “who am I to judge,” uttered during an in-flight news conference on his way home from Brazil for World Youth Day in July 2013. Up to and including the “Pachamama” incident that came out of last fall’s Synod of Bishops on the Amazon (Oct 6-27).

This latest controversy started when several small figurines of naked pregnant women made their way into an October 4, 2019 indigenous prayer service in the Vatican Gardens attended by Pope Francis.

It has been reported the figurines popped up several other times before going on display in Rome’s Church of Santa Maria in Traspontina, near the Vatican.

Conservative and traditionalist Catholics are given to see this latest papal transgression in one of two ways, depending on the level of contempt they already hold Francis in:

This was either an uncritical embrace of all things indigenous, without the “purification” which Pope emeritus Benedict XVI insists is the heart of Christianity’s interaction with such cultures.

Or, this was nothing less than bowing down before a demonically infested piece of trash, offering homage to immodest, degrading, and repulsive statues of women with bursting bosoms that are designed to inspire lust.

(Sort of makes one long for those early days when all we had to complain about was “papal hyper-loquaciousness,” doesn’t it?)

our Rorschach-test Pope…

John L. Allen Jr., editor of the web site Crux, wrote an interesting piece about the Pachamama affair on October 29, 2019, seeing it as a Rorschach test for Catholics. He starts by noting the spirit of Francis’s papacy as being “non-dogmatic, non-judgmental, pastoral and generous, with an emphasis on meeting people where they are.”

First World liberals tend to interpret this spirit as a breath of fresh air. While First World conservatives see in it a cavalier attitude towards the truth.

But unlike inhabitants of the First World who want for nothing, relatively speaking, the Majority World that is just scraping by is more inclined to appreciate “a range of features of the Francis era.” Features which are of little interest to those of us caught up in the familiar liberal/conservative turf wars here at home.

Like, as John Allen tells us, “its emphasis on the peripheries, its passion for dialogue and reconciliation with non-Christian cultures and religions, its ‘Third World’ social and political agenda, and its willingness to set aside protocol and doctrinal liturgical norms in order to make a point or deliver a message.”

This last is a thread worth further scrutiny. As hard as it may be for either the liberal or conservative wing of American Catholicism to fathom, I sense a continuum in teaching from one Pope to the next.

That means I am not among the “more pro-Francis than Francis” group who celebrates what they see as his breaking new ground. And I am not part of the “more Catholic than the Pope” contingent who deplores what they believe to be his disregard for dogma.

In perusing various encyclicals from the full roster of modern-day Popes, promulgated since roughly 1864, I find a determined attempt to adapt constant teaching to current situations. It’s a difficult assignment, to be sure, and I would never volunteer for the position.

It seems these attempts have always attracted their fair share of naysayers.

Setting aside for a moment the pointed criticisms of today’s hard-core traditionalists, who it should be noted are able to find fault with all three of our post-conciliar pontiffs, though they undeniably view Francis has the motherlode of misguided initiatives, here I wish to address the mindset of rank-and-file Catholics.

Down at street level, papal encyclicals are simply not read. Sure, these encyclicals may be written about in high-tone journals that hardly anybody subscribes to, let alone reads. Or discussed at obscure conferences and seminars attended by next-to-nobody.

So it’s safe to say the scholarly work of our modern-day Popes on the social and economic question flies well below the radar, and has gone unnoticed.

Francis seems to be keenly aware of this predicament. He doesn’t skimp on his encyclicals and apostolic exhortations, for his are every bit as eloquent as his predecessors. But to make sure the point is made and the message is delivered, he is willing to set aside norms and protocols.

It’s not that the conservatives and traditionalists are wrong to be concerned about the current cultural climate, or the deep confusion within the Church. To their credit many of them recognize these conditions are long-standing problems that did not suddenly erupt in March 2013.

The full range of traditionalist concerns is duly noted in a new book from Bishop Athanasius Schneider. Christus Vincit: Christ’s Triumph Over the Darkness of The Age (Angelico Press, September 2019), is just the latest in a string of such books by a variety of authors that “offers a candid, incisive examination of controversies raging in the Church and the most pressing issues of our times, providing clarity and hope for beleaguered Catholics.”

how best to address widespread doctrinal confusion…?

Taken from the Home Page of the Angelico Press web site, it continues: “He (Bishop Schneider) addresses such topics as widespread doctrinal confusion, the limits of papal authority, (and) the documents of Vatican II… His insights into the challenges facing Christ’s flock today are essential reading for those who are, or who wish to be, alert to the signs of the times.”

Other recent entries in this genre have come from two of the Church’s most respected elder statesmen: Raymond Cardinal Burke and Robert Cardinal Sarah. These writers are all good men, devoted to a principled defense of the Church’s timeless truth.

It’s not that they are wrong by any stretch. These are indeed trying times. The common assessment of such books, “that there could not be a worse situation in the life of the Church than the one we are now witnessing,” may well be true.

But hasn’t being Catholic always been an uphill battle, due not only to the challenging nature of Christ’s teaching, but also owing to ever-present corruption within the Church and all around it, in the world-at-large?

What good does it do the average practicing Catholic, struggling with the temptations of everyday life, to indulge an intellectual exercise of rating our relative degradation compared to past ages, and declaring ours the worst of all time?

Knowledge is power, and tuning in to the machinations of the present moment is always beneficial. But I don’t know how it helps the concerned conservative or traditionalist Catholic to get overly worked up about things beyond his or her control, and that in any event need not stand in the way of one’s own fidelity, one’s own belief and practice.

So while I appreciate the gist of what these honorable clerics have to say, I happen to think it would be better for all concerned if they could bring themselves to join forces with the current pontiff, and cover his flanks, so to speak.

How much more constructive it would be to see themselves as his allies in trying to bring a Christian ethos to bear on our overwhelmingly secular/materialistic/exploitative world.

If your aim is to provide clarity and hope for beleaguered Catholics, let’s all step back for a moment and recognize the task as being a monumental one. This objective can be more readily achieved if all hands are on deck.

revisiting Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia…

In this regard, the earnest, well-meaning dubia Cardinals should have helped unpack what Francis had to say in Chapter Eight (“Accompanying, Discerning And Integrating Weakness”) of his apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (AE), promulgated in March 2016.

This is the chapter (paragraphs 291-312) that caused such a ruckus regarding possible access to the sacraments on the part of the divorced and remarried.

This stellar group of four Cardinals with international reputations could have focused their attention on and helped elaborate upon such AE statements as:

“In order to avoid all misunderstanding, I would point out that in no way must the Church desist from proposing the full ideal of marriage, God’s plan in all its grandeur.” (n.307)


“I understand those who prefer a more rigorous pastoral care which leaves no room for confusion.” (n.309)

Instead of freaking out over:

“Recognizing the influence of such concrete factors, we can add that individual conscience needs to be better incorporated into the Church’s praxis in certain situations which do not objectively embody our understanding of marriage.” (n.303)

Faced with digesting an admittedly nuanced presentation, the dubia Cardinals chose to challenge Francis with five “yes” or “no” questions, in the name of clearing up what they ever-so-respectfully described as the unfortunate confusion created by His Holiness. They passed on the opportunity to help develop a catechism on the subject that Francis asked for at the time.

It was as if they assumed a) no one would take the time to read the text for themselves, and/or b) nobody could possibly understand what Francis was talking about.

I am convinced these four Cardinals meant well and so do not hold this episode against them. As for their stated mission of “clearing up confusion,” unfortunately that was an abject failure. All they did was further establish a general sense that Benedict XVI and Francis are polar opposites, forcing average believers into choosing between the two.

And that’s where things stand now, with conservatives and traditionalists sitting in perpetual judgement of their Pope, ready to pounce whenever the fickle Francis makes his next “wrong” move.

the Synod of Bishops on the Amazon…

If The Church is going to conduct a Synod of Bishops on the Amazon, and if Rome is going to host an “indigenous prayer service” in conjunction with that Synod, it shouldn’t be too far-fetched to assume such a prayer service might include a female fertility figure representing Mother Earth, still venerated by peoples in the Andes and portions of the Amazon.

Why, exactly, would First World Catholics take this inclusion as an affront to their faith? Fertility is, after all, still a good thing, isn’t it?

To cast this latest so-called impropriety as some sort of unresolvable conflict between Francis’s long-held and well-known devotion to the Blessed Mother, and his carelessly allowing a “demonic piece of trash, with swollen breasts designed to inspire lust” into the Vatican Gardens, and into a church near the Vatican, strikes me as an unfortunate over-dramatization.

We here in the First World might do better to turn our thoughts to our own wayward customs.

Regarding fertility, for instance, and its proper role within a consecrated marriage, what we should really be talking about, or at least thinking and praying about, is how the sanctity of marriage the critics of Amoris Laetitia are rightly worried about will only be restored once the virtue of chastity is rediscovered.

Yes, conservatives and traditionalists understand the predominance of pornography and sexual suggestiveness in everyday, First World life is a serious impediment to the practice of this virtue. But they are much less inclined to acknowledge how the basic tenets of our economic life – appealing to never-ending acquisition and satisfying unfettered desire – also stand in the way of chastity.

Such “extended” considerations underscore how our current dilemma has deeproots.

Along these lines, what Amoris Laetitia can be said to address is the fall-out – in the form of a multitude of divorced and remarried (now “ex”) Catholics – resulting from the Church’s informal capitulation to the culture, in what amounted to its caving on the issue of sexual morality, back in the 1960s.

I say “informal’ because while the Popes may have held the banner high, too many of our priests, bishops, religious sisters, and lay commentators were enlisted in the rebellion. The rest seemed to have been embarrassed into silence.

an odd abandonment of long-held Church teaching…

This coincided with an odd abandonment of long-held Church teaching on economic justice. Again, the Popes never wavered. But lay Catholics, especially of the conservative and traditionalist variety, came to accept “enlightened self-interest” as the Christian way to go.

Francis’s critics don’t seem to pick up on this latter, economic point at all. And while the more learned of those critics are aware the cultural fault lines extend much further than the 1960s, they are not big on prescriptions for action, beyond rolling back the liturgical “innovations” of Vatican II, and retreating to the catacombs.

Their limited to-do list still leaves us with centuries’ worth of setbacks to sort through.

Our respected academics keep themselves occupied with an angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin debate over the fine points of doctrine and dogma. But the average practicing Catholic is keeping it simple, choosing between their preferred present-day papal standard-bearer – either Benedict XVI or Francis.

This knee-jerk selection process nobly defines one as either an observant traditionalist or an open-minded reformer. But these cozy labels we put on like a favorite sweater miss the larger point entirely.

We in the First World remain blind to the disastrous effects of the “unbridled (classical) liberalism” our astute Popes have been railing against to no avail in exquisitely-worded encyclicals since at least 1864. That would be when Pius IX gave us his Syllabus of Errors.

He followed up that effort by convening the First Vatican Council (December 1869 – October 1870) to deal with the rising influence of “rationalism, (classical) liberalism, and materialism.”

But those deliberations were cut short when the Italian army entered the city of Rome at the end of Italian unification. As a result, a full examination of these new subversive influences was left incomplete.

Nevertheless, the overriding issue was continuously addressed by subsequent Popes. Their consistent message of concern was largely ignored by leading American prelates, who came to be smitten with the increase in material well-being their flock had begun to enjoy.

By the time John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), to again ponder relations between the Catholic Church and the modern world, the challenges posed by political, social, economic, and technological change had become even more pronounced.

on the defensive, and ineffective……

So we see that the Church has been on the defensive for quite some time now, and hasn’t been fairing very well in its dealings with modernity. Nor has it been particularly effective in its instruction to First World adherents on how best to conduct themselves in the dazzling and seductive new world order of pluralism and (classical) liberalism (aka, liberal democracy).

One might say Vatican I failed to realize its agenda because it was cut short. While Vatican II ultimately failed because it tried too hard to accommodate contemporary society, instead of correcting its “errors.” While elevating ecumenicalism, it inadvertently devalued evangelization. It compromised the need for individual sanctity. It undermined the universal call to holiness it set out to highlight.

The attending theologians and presiding bishops who were responsible for guiding the discussion and drafting the documents of Vatican II were unable to arrive at a clear consensus. And so the Council and its final sixteen documents sent a mixed message that could be interpreted in whatever way one saw fit.

Sadly, this prompted the faithful to splinter into two opposing camps: conservative and liberal. The irony is neither side in what is largely a politically and economically motivated passion play over the direction of the Church really gets it.

The problem remains what it has always been throughout the modern era: rationalism, (classical) liberalism, and materialism.

Our three post-conciliar Popes (not counting John Paul I, who was only in the chair of Peter for thirty-three days) have tried to address this condition, each in their own way.

Considering the stubborn and persistent refusal on the part of both liberals and conservatives here in the First World to “read” this billboard-size sign of the times, having a Pope at the helm just now with a decidedly Third World orientation is proving to be most fortuitous.

the built-in advantage of an outside observer…

His South American origins give Francis a leg up on being able to clearly comprehend the contours of the modern scourge, and being willing to confront it without reservation. But that doesn’t mean I think his every utterance need be assigned oracle status. Or that he should be uncritically hailed as an anti-establishment trailblazer, as his liberal champions would have it.

This Pope is definitely taking a different tack from his two immediate predecessors in addressing the problem, of that no one can deny. But is he doing so to reorient Church teaching, or to restore it and integrate it back into people’s everyday lives?

When Francis says near the end of the Wim Wenders documentary, A Man of His Word, that one “should never proselytize,” it does seems like a statement right out of the Vatican II playbook, stressing ecumenicalism at the expense of evangelization. But then again, how exactly do you propose we address the strident conflict born of religious strife that exists around the world now, in 2020?

Similarly, when he comments that the building of walls “is not Christian,” can’t we all kind of see where he is going with that?

Our conservative and traditionalist friends may mean well when they remind us of the vital role walls have played throughout history in defending Christendom against the onslaught of Islam. But again, given current geopolitical realities, and the interconnectedness of the global village, how much sense does it make for us to behave as if we’re still at Vienna in 1529 or 1683?

Or to point out how the Vatican itself is surrounded by the Leonine Walls, 40 feet high and 12 feet thick, erected by Leo IV in 848-852 to defend against the marauding Saracens. Yes, these days we do need metal detectors and other instruments of strict border security. There are bad people in the world intent on doing bad things.

But surely our very intelligent traditionalists realize the vast majority of the today’s displaced migrants are being forced from their homes by extreme poverty and gratuitous violence – and oftentimes by both, simultaneously.

Even someone who devoutly yearns for the return of the Latin Mass can grasp where Francis is coming from when he opines in the vernacular like no immediate predecessor ever has on the subject of “walls.”

a cascade of continual controversies…

The same goes for every other “controversy” this pontificate has supposedly instigated. We hear how there is little Catholic orthodoxy to be found in this Pope’s “musings about nature.” That he “appears” to deny the doctrine of transubstantiation and the reality of hell, and expresses “unnerving ambivalence” toward homosexuality and the sanctity marriage.

We all have a responsibility to use the native intelligence we have been given to the best of our ability, in order to properly discern the world around us. Since that’s really all that Francis’s critics are doing, they are to be commended for their industriousness. However let us never forget that using one’s head need not result in the hardening of one’s heart.

There is a broader perspective on all this that traditionalists may want to consider. This Pope is actually making the Church’s long-running case against rationalism, (classical) liberalism, and materialism. He’s just doing it in a way that’s catching most of us off guard.

Francis seems determined to deliver the Church’s message on this score – even if it means setting aside protocols and norms we in the First World have grown accustomed to and now consider as prerequisites.

So it sort of goes without saying he may not be everyone’s cup of tea.

If you find you don’t cotton to this Pope’s somewhat free-wheeling style, well, that is certainly your prerogative. It’s perfectly okay to scratch one’s head at some of Francis’s moves. After all, no Pope is going to be perfect. And it stands to reason the work of any one Pope will have special resonance for a segment of believers, but perhaps not all believers.

In adamantly choosing to put this papacy in the dock, however, be careful not to cast yourself in the discredited role of “Pharisee,” focused on the letter of the law, while ignoring the spirit of that very same law.

A modest suggestion would be for all those traditionalists intent on “restoration” to make a concerted effort toward reconciliation with this pontiff, and open themselves to the prospect that Francis is, in fact, a major asset in that vast undertaking.

He may be plying his trade in what strikes some as an unusual manner. But that is no reason to go around dramatically bemoaning how disheartening it is to see the keys of St. Peter in such unsteady hands. Openly doubting his motives, and calling his fidelity into question.

Let’s apply caution in deliberating on the most suitable means to accomplish this valuable purpose. And not be so quick in our ardor to dismiss Pope Francis as some sort of awkward, slightly-demented stumbling block.

During this, our Holy Week in the Pandemic.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr
April 12, 2020

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