Friday, March 29, 2013

Pope Reigns; Traddies Panic

Pope Francis continues to strike fear into the hearts of the traditionalist community.

On Maundy Thursday, he went to an Italian jail and washed the feet of twelve young people, including two women and two Muslims.  Most of the press coverage treated this as yet another touching instance of the new pope's personal humility, and of his desire to turn the Roman church in a humbler direction.

But the blog Rorate Coeli declared this to be "The Official End of the Reform of the Reform -- By Example."  The canonist Ed Peters remarks grimly that "we live in antinomian times." Which is their way of saying nonononononono!

Mind you, the Papist bloggers have a point.  Their church's liturgical law does indeed specify that foot-washing be restricted to twelve "select men," and although there is some argument over just why that is so, or whether it should continue to be so, there is no real question that it is so.  Popes can abrogate the law if they so choose, but they can't simply disobey it.  Except, of course, that sometimes they do.

Still, these guys may be missing the bigger picture.  For years, we have complained that the Roman Catholic church -- and especially the Roman Curia -- displays a nearly suicidal contempt for public relations.  For all that John Paul II was a master of the grand symbolic gesture, he wasn't much of an administrator; Benedict's choice of grand gestures, although endearing to scholars and antiquarians, was less than masterly.

There are two results.  The first is that, since the death of Paul VI, people seeking the "progressive" face of Roman Catholicism that emerged in his era have been consistently disappointed, at least in the papacy.  This, by itself, would not be particularly serious -- within the church, the progressives were a minority, and their gradual marginalization hasn't been such a great problem.  Some of their opponents are quietly happy about it.

But to the eclipse of "progressive" Catholicism we must add the second, and far more destructive, result of official tone-deafness.  In recent years, it has become possible, permissible and even popular to publicly identify Roman Catholicism with its very worst failures.  Specifically, that has translated into the assumption that every priest or bishop is somehow involved in the child molestation scandals.  Such an assumption is false, of course -- but no less common for that.  The Roman Catholic church has responded ineptly to crisis after crisis, and has allowed itself to be perceived as a corrupt, formalistic institution governed exclusively by arrogant, out of-touch old men who put their personal interests before either the law or the good of their people.  (For example.)

This perception is (largely) mistaken, and should be corrected whenever possible by appeal the facts.  But frankly, all the facts in the world will not sway the masses as effectively as a few well-timed gestures.  Francis is trying to make those gestures.

Is he wrong on church law?  Probably; but so what?  He's the freaking pope, he should get a little slack from the papists.  His instincts, so far, are on target in a way we have not seen in a long time, and which both Catholicism and the rest of Christianity need urgently at the moment.


Mark Christianson said...

Father Z writes on his blog that the issue for him and Ed Peters is maintaining good order in the church, as if following a church law on whose feet are washed or allowing women to be amongst them was a matter of good order in the first place. The traditionalist cries over this strike me as a good example of people being unable to see the forrest through all those trees. What the rite or the biblical story behind it might mean gets lost. Neither that meaning nor the perception of the action (or the reaction from the traditionalists) in the Catholic church, the church at large, or the world seems to get much thought. And it becomes an excuse for Father Z. to blast "liberals" as new "gnostics" who somehow bring secret knowledge to interpret rite and associated church law. The rules are important, not actually thinking theologically about the act. But maybe that's what all this is really about for at least some of the traditionalists, obedience to rules for their own sake and and excuse to blast those deemed not sufficiently traditional or tied to those rules.

Father Anonymous said...

I think you're on target here. Not all of them are about rules for the sake of rules (I don't think Peters is, really), but I think that's part of it.

At another level, though, I think it is a sign of the times. We live in an age when many people with strong convictions are genuinely and deeply afraid of leaders who don not share their values. And, rhetorically, we no longer seem inclined to keep this fear from manifesting itself in strong language and conspiracy theories.

Think of the way Americans with strong political opinions often treat presidents we disagree with -- and I accuse myself here, although my own intense anger at Bush never came close to the venom that the "Truthers" show toward Obama. (Nor, for that matter, has anything I have yet read by a pious Catholic writing about Francis).