On March 13, 2013, a man wearing a simple white cassock was acclaimed the 266th successor of St. Peter, and my heart sank down into my entrails. For all my manful attempts to resist that sinking feeling, it kept returning, in each broadly reported statement and writing of this pontificate, in every symbolic gesture seemingly designed to elate the chattering classes, in every fawning essay written by one who but two years before could find no praise whatsoever for the papacy or for the Catholic Church. By last summer, I was reading little of the news from Rome, not through any wilful decision not to, but merely through loss of interest. Within the last month, however, a certain incident (concerning which discretion bids my silence) at last shattered my guard, and a leaden sense of delayed grief finally dragged my spirit, theretofore distracted with other matters, to the floor. Finally, despite every effort to convince myself otherwise, I must confess that I am very, very disappointed by Pope Francis.
What a change he has caused in his 16 short months on the throne of St. Peter, so much so that the legacy of the eight glorious years of Pope Benedict now seems endangered. Never through word or action did Benedict savage the legacy of Pope John Paul, nor did John Paul ever in his long pontificate repudiate Pope Paul. Now, every time I hear the Traditional Latin Mass in all its antique glory, the resurgence of which is among the greatest of gifts of the Ratzinger papacy, I have that nagging thought in the back of my mind that it could be the last time. Surely, this is but anxious hyperbole, but underlying it is a grave misgiving that it would be remiss and, frankly, intellectually dishonest not to explore.
The presumption of continuity in the papacy already assumed, the role of the Bergoglio pontificate in the general trajectory of the Church’s history has confused me. We’ve not seen so abrupt an about-turn in the Church since the reforms enacted in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, and surely their baleful effects merit no review. This was indeed a notable consequence for what was supposedly a rather modest “pastoral council,” resolving no disputes, codifying no new dogma, and, all in all, quite unnecessary. However, no shortage of sins were committed afterwards in the name of this new “pastoralism,” more than decimating the ranks of the clergy and religious, leaving the liturgy and sacred art and music pale echoes of their previous states, and watering down homiletics and catechesis so much that a whole generation grew up with a very weak grasp on the faith that they ostensibly professed. All the while, Pope Paul VI, unable to stem the tide, seemed more a prisoner of the Vatican than Pius IX ever was.
And then we had our philosopher-kings. John Paul II began to reverse the decline, challenging the heresies that had been developing over the dark times and teaching the faith clearly and concisely. Some might say that he didn’t go far enough, that his lack of attention to the liturgy led to further decline or that many of his episcopal appointments left something to be desired. To this I’d respond that he left the Church in a much better state than he found it, championed traditional devotions, and opposed modernistic trends. His liturgical style wasn’t my cup of tea (indeed, I found it painful at times), but he had that rare talent of ingratiating himself among almost all the segments of the faithful. For all of this, to say nothing of his role in the fall of communism in Europe, his pontificate must be considered a smashing success.
Then Benedict XVI was elected, eminent theologian, prolific writer, doctrinal czar under John Paul for nearly a quarter-century. If the Wojtyla papacy was the upsurge from the conciliar chaos, the Ratzinger papacy was the triumph. Every word that man said was pure gold. Hearing him speak must have been like hearing Gregory the Great speak, and I don’t deny that we will one day speak of him as a Doctor of the Church. His promotion of the traditional rite of the Mass, his high liturgies intended to give an example for reverence to the rest of the Church, even his choice of vestments could give one the impression that the chaotic post-conciliar days were but a passing memory, and the Church is now no longer blighted by novelties, but continuing forward as though this unpleasantness had never happened, the same as she had ever been. I doubt there is a public figure I’d ever seen in my life whom I had admired more than Pope Benedict XVI.
However, under Francis we now see another novelty daily. We see perhaps imprudent statements to the press that are taken out of context to attack the doctrines of the Church. We get no meaty doctrine, but vacuous platitudes. I’ll admit that Benedict was a hard act to follow, and that I’d likely have been a little disappointed by his successor anyway, but this is too much, or dare I say too little. He reminds me a lot of some of the parish priests I had when I was a lad: kind and genial, no doubt, but uninspiring and commonplace. For all of his much-lauded humility, however, he seems rather stubborn to me. He wants to do things his way, whether it’s washing girls’ feet on Holy Thursday or refusing any of the trappings of office. By flaunting canon law and showing little respect for tradition, he’s showing a determination to do things his way. I thought that a lot of the trouble with the Church over the past half-century was the arrogance of clergy who just wanted to follow their own fancy. That’s the very antithesis of humility.
It pains me to see this. I wonder if this much-lauded “pastoralism” simply means a sort of saccharine niceness, while at the same time a vagueness that will allow any statement to be taken in any way. People respect Pope Francis much in the same way as they respect the Dalai Lama, and I don’t think too many of those who respect the Dalai Lama know anything about Tibetan Buddhism.
I don’t want to feel this way, though. I really want to like the Holy Father, but he’s making it very hard for me. Everything about this pontificate seems like a rejection of the Pope Benedict’s that came before, and that just feels like a slap in the face. Moreover, I worry about the type of bishops he will appoint, and how their dioceses will be affected. I worry that he might consider those fond of the Traditional Mass to be merely a bunch of Lefebvrists, and that this might underlie the investigation of the Franciscans of the Immaculate. I question, at times, his grasp of doctrine and of canon law. In all, Francis just feels less like a father, and more like a stepfather to whom we’ll never quite warm. A type of benign neglect could be the best likelihood in this case.
Yet, I prepare for the worst, for a revolutionary return to the iconoclasm of the 1970s. We could suffer a lot through this pontificate. So did the saints before us. The one consolation I have is that the Holy Spirit works all things to the good of the faithful, and that we might have the honour of joining our suffering to the Passion of Christ for the life of the world.
Or then again, I could simply be reading far too much into this. Any thoughts are welcome.