Pope Francis is right. The Catholic Church cannot go back.
Pope Francis leads Vespers with bishops, priests, deacons, consecrated persons, seminarians and pastoral workers in Notre Dame Cathedral in Quebec on July 28. “How are we doing when it comes to joy?” asked the pope during vespers. “Does our Church express the joy of the Gospel? Is there a faith in our communities that can attract by the joy it communicates? (SNC/Paul Haring)
During his press conference on the plane back to Rome from Canada, Pope Francis made a remark about so-called traditionalists that has baffled some conservative Catholics and confused others. “A Church that does not develop its thought in an ecclesial way is a Church that retreats,” the pope said. “That is the problem with many today who claim to be traditionalists. They are not traditionalists, they are ‘backward.’ Tradition is the root of inspiration to advance in the Church.”
The key word here, of course, is not ‘traditionalist’ or ‘backward’, although the latter is expressive and precise. The key word is “ecclesial”. And unlocking what the Pope means can be found in the text of the speech Francis gave at Vespers at the Cathedral Basilica of Notre-Dame de Québec. He gave the kind of Christocentric ecclesiological vision that the Second Vatican Council made normative.
Recalling his Programmatic Apostolic Exhortation of 2013, Evangelii Gaudiumthe pope said: “This also applies to Christian joy: it is a free gift, the certainty of knowing that we are loved, supported and embraced by Christ in all situations of life. Because it is he who frees from selfishness and sin, from the sadness of loneliness, from inner emptiness and fear, and gives us a new look at life and history: “With Christ, joy is constantly reborn” (FOR EXAMPLE1).”
Then, in his classic, blunt style, the Holy Father asked: “So let us ask ourselves a question: how are we doing in matters of joy? Does our Church express the joy of the Gospel? Is there a faith in our communities that can attract by the joy it communicates?
The church moves forward in time by renewing itself at the sources of its traditions and by paying attention to the spirit of Jesus Christ in our midst. Full stop.
The pope acknowledged that one of the things that “threatens the joy of faith” in our time is secularization, a forgetting of God. “God seems to have disappeared from the horizon, and his word no longer appears as a compass guiding our lives, our fundamental decisions, our human and social relationships,” the pope said. The truth of his observation cannot be denied: secularization has changed the cultural landscape in which the Church pursues its mission. It is what to do with this fact, and how to respond to it, where the differences between the “backward” point of view and what Francis designates as the “discerning” point of view emerge.
The first posture adopts a defensive posture. He sees faith “as a kind of ‘armor’ that defends us against the world,” he said. “This view bitterly complains that ‘the world is evil, sin reigns’, and thus risks becoming clothed in a ‘crusading spirit’.” If we indiscriminately adopt this negative response to the prevailing culture, “we will end up denying incarnation: we will flee reality, rather than incarnate it in ourselves. We will close in on ourselves, mourn our losses, constantly complain and fall. in obscurity and pessimism, which never comes from God.”
If you want a recent example of this worldview, proof positive that the Holy Father is not exaggerating in the least, watch Raymond Arroyo’s “The World Over” show on EWTN, which featured a segment with Catholic University theologian Chad Pecknold and Peter Kwasniewski of the St. Paul Center in Steubenville, Ohio. (The segment begins at 2:35 p.m. in the video.) The dialogue displays this “closed-off” quality, full of laments, complaints, sadness, and pessimism.
Pope Francis answers questions from reporters aboard his flight from Iqaluit, in the Canadian territory of Nunavut, to Rome on July 29. “A church that does not develop its thinking in an ecclesial way is a church that backs down,” the pope said during the plane ride. (SNC/Paul Haring)
What is more, they invoke tradition as certain fundamentalists invoke inerrancy. Years ago, when I was beginning to do research for what would become my second book, God’s Right Hand: How Jerry Falwell Made God a Republican and Baptized the American Right, what amazed me every time I met him was the fact that the fundamentalists seemed blithely unaware that their literal interpretation of the Bible was in fact somewhat new, even modern. When you pointed out in conversation the different ways the church fathers interpreted scripture, they were completely unfazed.
The Holy Father offers a different approach, the way of discernment. Explicitly relying on the important post-synodal exhortation of Pope Paul VI Evangelii Nuntiandi, Francis argues that secularization is a legitimate independence from ecclesial jurisdiction, and distinguishes it from secularism, which is an aggressive ideology. He writes:
Saint Paul VI distinguished secularization from secularism, a conception of life that totally separates a link with the Creator, so that God becomes “superfluous and cumbersome”, and generates “new forms of atheism” subtle and diverse: “the consumer society , the pursuit of pleasure erected as a supreme value, the desire for power and domination, and discrimination of all kinds” (ibid.). As a Church, and above all as pastors of the People of God, as “Consecrated men and women, seminarians and pastoral workers, it is up to us to make these distinctions, to make this discernment. If we give in to the negative gaze and judge superficially, we risk sending the wrong message, as if the criticism of secularization masked our nostalgia for a sacred world, for a bygone society in which the Church and its ministers had more power and social relevance.
It is essential to note that Paul — and Pope John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI too! — saw what so many American Catholic conservatives refuse to see: the connection between consumerism, pleasure, power, discrimination and secularism. Secularism only seems to bother conservative Catholics when it seeks to impose more liberal sexual norms on society. And, of course, liberal Catholics need to rethink how they too readily accept secularized, even libertarian, attitudes in discussions of sexual ethics, such as post-war.Dobbs the discussion has unfortunately demonstrated this.
François offers a different approach. “Secularization represents a challenge for our pastoral imaginationit is ‘an opportunity to restructure the spiritual life in new forms and new ways of existing,’ he said, quoting Charles Taylor’s 2007 book A secular era. The Pope suggested that the Church take up this challenge with joy and not with sadness, with testimonies and not words: “The Gospel must be proclaimed if we want to communicate the joy of faith to the men and women of today today. words, but with an abundant witness of gratuitous love, for this is God’s way with us. An announcement that must take shape in a personal and ecclesial style of life that can revive the desire of the Lord, instill hope and radiate confidence and credibility”.
The church moves forward in time by renewing itself at the sources of its traditions and by paying attention to the spirit of Jesus Christ in our midst. Full stop. The key to understanding the current reception of Vatican II lies precisely there: there is no renewal of the life of the Church without a return to the sources, a healing. But healing is not an end in itself. Tradition is not a memory on the coat gathering dust. Jesus Christ may be “the same yesterday, today, and forever,” but we are not, and so each generation of Christians must build on their church heritage and preach the gospel anew. “No one pours new wine into old wineskins” (Lk 5:37).
Francis’ remarkable address to the bishops, clergy and religious of Quebec was not only an invitation to the Church in Canada to renew itself, but an invitation to the universal Church. Jesus Christ is the ever new wine. It’s up to us to find new wineskins, and we’ll never find any going back.