The Popes After Christianity
How does a Church navigate the dangers of a post-Christian Western world?
Pope Francis is living proof that within every great progressive there lurks a deep, abiding pessimism.
My friend Matthew Schmitz made that point very ably in these pages a few days ago. He points to the Holy Father’s stated belief that roughly half of all Catholic marriages are invalid, because the man and woman treat it like a “bourgeois ceremony,” not a sacrament of faith. Of course, Francis isn’t quite wrong. According to the U.S. bishops, a marriage can be declared null if one spouse lacks “the intention to marry for life, to be faithful to one another and be open to children.” Given the rates at which Catholics divorce and contracept, it’s possible that more than half of marriages aren’t valid.
This is a conservative (almost reactionary) argument. Yet it’s an argument you’ll never hear a conservative make. We have too much invested in marriage to kick its tires the way Francis does, just in case they fall off.
But clearly Francis doesn’t scorn matrimony itself. He isn’t trying to accommodate “the culture” by undermining monogamy, as some have accused him of doing. On the contrary. Like most pessimists, Francis has acclimated to a sense of dissolution, of decay. He sees it as his mission to pilot the Western Church as it returns to its lowest point since the Neronian persecutions.
For instance, in 2019, Francis used his annual Christmas message to brood on the future of the Church in this “post-Christian” West. “We are no longer under a Christian regime,” the Holy Father observed, “because the faith—especially in Europe, but also in much of the West—no longer constitutes an obvious premise of common life. On the contrary, it is even often denied, derided, marginalized, or ridiculed.”
Since he ascended the Chair of St. Peter, Francis has also repeatedly warned about the coming persecution of Christians in the West. “It’s a bit scary,” he says, “but it’s true.”
To confront this new post-Christian reality, Francis warns, “We need other maps, other paradigms, that might help us change our ways of thinking. We are not in Christianity anymore!”
What’s curious is that Francis’s predecessor, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, would largely agree. Over the course of his long career in the Church, Benedict predicted that the Church would undergo a trial unlike anything it has faced before, which he believes (like Francis) will reduce it to a position much like that of the Early Church.
For instance, in a 1969 radio address, Benedict predicted: “From the crisis of today the Church of tomorrow will emerge—a Church that has lost much. She will become small and will have to start afresh, more or less from the beginning. She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity.”
When a journalist asked him about this declinism in 1996, Benedict coolly replied, “If our Lord himself ends up on the Cross, one sees that God’s ways do not lead immediately to measurable success.”
For a time, at least, he also shares Francis’s view that a “new paradigm” was needed to confront the new, post-Christian order. As he said in the same 1996 interview,
Perhaps the time has come to say farewell to the idea of traditionally Catholic cultures. Maybe we are facing a new and different kind of epoch in the Church’s history, where Christianity will again be characterized more by the mustard seed, where it will exist in small, seemingly insignificant groups that nonetheless live an intensive struggle against evil and bring good into the world—that let God in.
While Francis is a pessimist, Benedict (like all conservatives) is an optimist. He may have doubts about the viability of “traditionally Catholic cultures” in the modern world, but he believes wholeheartedly that the Church must remain firmly grounded in its traditions, should it hope to weather the coming storm.
So, in 2007 he promulgated a motu proprio called Summorum Pontificum, which authorized every priest in the Western Church to celebrate the old Latin Mass, now known as the “Extraordinary Form.” In the decades since the Second Vatican Council declared the new Mass—the Novus Ordo, which is usually celebrated in the vernacular—to be the “Ordinary Form,” those few parishes that still offered the Latin Mass enjoyed remarkable growth. If the Extraordinary Form offered fertile ground to nourish the “mustard seed,” he was happy to step back and let it flourish.
Francis, however, is not. In the first year of his papacy, Francis gave an interview saying that, while he approved of Summorum Pontificum, he feared the “ideologization” of the Latin Mass. He was concerned that our attachment to the liturgy and customs forged at the height of Christendom would render us unable to reckon with the new post-Christian order. The “edifice built in prosperity” would become our tomb.
So, he took to calling us Latin-Massers “rigid.” We’re unwilling (he says) to embrace the simpler, more spartan way of life necessitated by the coming persecution. This fear of “rigidity,” of being unable to bend without breaking, has come to preoccupy his papacy.
And so, last Friday, the Holy Father promulgated a new motu proprio called Traditionis Custodes, placing new restrictions on the Latin Mass. If Traditionis is implemented faithfully by all the Church’s bishops and not repealed within a hundred years or so (both of which are highly unlikely), it could mean the end of the Latin Mass forever.
Needless to say, Traditionis has not been well-received in all circles. Having attended the Latin Mass almost exclusively since I became a Catholic in 2015, it certainly came as a blow to me. Still, it’s worth asking why the Holy Father felt that such measures were necessary in the first place.
In a letter accompanying Summorum, Benedict made certain promises on behalf of the Latin-Massers. These would allow the Church to maintain unity despite the liturgical and cultural differences between the Novus Ordo and Latin Mass communities. According to Benedict, we “traditionalists” would:
- Recognize that “The Roman Missal promulgated by Pope Paul VI [after Vatican II] is the ordinary expression of the lex orandi (rule of prayer) of the Catholic Church in the Latin rite.”
- Give no reason to doubt that we “clearly accepted the binding character of Vatican Council II and were faithful to the Pope and to the Bishops.”
- Be “attentive that everything would proceed in peace and serenity.”
The vast majority of Latin-Massers lived up to Benedict XVI’s expectations. Alas, those who did not tended to be the most visible—on blogs, YouTube, and especially social media. If one’s only experience of our community came via the internet, it would be easy to conclude that Latin-Massers reject Vatican II, disdain the hierarchy, and enjoy sowing division in the Church. This seems to be Francis’s impression, and so he’s concerned that we lack the discipline to provide a united front against the post-Christian (or, more likely, anti-Christian) order.
Predictably, most Latin-Massers also tend to lean right on political and social issues. Most of us are rather attached to those “traditionally Catholic cultures” Pope Benedict feared might slow us down. (Over my desk hangs a portrait of the Bonnie Prince, the Young Pretender. To the right of my laptop there’s a bust of Blessed Emperor Karl of Austria. To my right are the Mastercraft pipes owned by my great-grandfather, Baron Francois Marie Raoul Janssens.) Again, Francis is afraid that, by expending all of our energies defending the externals of Catholic tradition, we won’t have the energy to defend Christianity’s vital heart.
Now, you might disagree with him. I certainly do. But I also think we’d be foolish to dismiss his concerns out of hand. And I’m sure Pope Benedict would, too.
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Before we go further, we should point out that the idea of a post-Christian order isn’t unique to either pontiff. Thinkers as varied as Joseph de Maistre, Soren Kierkegaard, Hilaire Belloc, Charles Peguy, Ivan Ilyin, Dorothy Day, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and Malcolm Muggeridge have all of them grappled mightily with the question of how the Church would function in a society that not only rejected but despised the Christian faith.
Curiously, Benedict and Francis are both drawn to a (now obscure) novel called Lord of the World, which offers an especially dire vision of a Europe that has turned against Christianity. Its author, Robert Hugh Benson, was the son of the archbishop of Canterbury. Widely expected to succeed his father as archbishop, Benson shocked the nation by swimming the Tiber and becoming a Catholic priest.
Lord of the World tells the story of a young priest named Fr. Franklin Percy who happens to become pope during the reign of the Antichrist. The Vatican is bombed to smithereens; the Catholic remnant is being lynched by angry mobs and shipped off to government pogroms.
To meet the dire challenge of this anti-Christian regime, the Pope is forced to “streamline” the Church considerably:
He instanced the abolition of all local usages, including those so long cherished by the East, the establishment of the Cardinal-Protectorates in Rome, the enforced merging of all friars into one Order, though retaining their familiar names, under the authority of the supreme General; all monks, with the exception of the Carthusians, the Carmelites and the Trappists, into another; of the three excepted into a third; and the classification of nuns after the same plan. Further, he remarked on the more recent decrees, establishing the sense of the Vatican decision on infallibility, the new version of Canon Law, the immense simplification that had taken place in ecclesiastical government, the hierarchy, rubrics and the affairs of missionary countries, with the new and extraordinary privileges granted to mission priests.
To read that passage and consider what it might really be like for the Church to “say farewell” to its traditions—to lose the Vatican, its cathedrals and parish churches, and the glorious variety of its religious orders and liturgical rites—is heartbreaking, even a little sickening. Yet Benedict and Francis both called Lord of the World prophetic. Both could imagine the whole Church being driven underground, back to the catacombs, reduced to only the most essential functions: preaching the Gospel, dispensing the Sacraments, and saving souls.
One gets the sense that Francis is preemptively building the more spartan and regimented Church envisioned by Fr. Benson. Benedict was more concerned with maintaining continuity with the old Christendom, thereby guaranteeing authenticity and stability. I suppose one could choose to focus on their differences, and so contrast the two popes’ legacies.
Far more important to my mind, though, is how seriously these two men fought to reckon with the new realities faced by the Church in her third millennium. No doubt both got plenty wrong. Yet both also drew attention to real weaknesses in the Church’s response to the modern world. Benedict’s emphasis on continuity—on keeping the Church grounded in her ancient liturgy and perennial teachings—is important. So is Francis’s emphasis on “flexibility,” so the Church can recapture her apostolic spirit.
Both are essential for evangelizing the “nones,” the religiously indifferent who are coming to dominate the Western world. These are the folks Belloc referred to as the New Pagans, born to nations where “every shred of Catholicism is lost” and “the Christian spirit has wholly failed.”
Taken together, the legacies of Benedict and Francis look remarkably like the movement Ross Douthat calls the “benedictines,” named after Rod Dreher’s book The Benedict Option. The benedictines are perhaps the only group of American Christians seriously reckoning with the post-Christian order. We can’t restore Christendom by electoral fiat. That can only be accomplished by a broad spiritual renewal in the West, a total heart-and-soul reversion to the Christian faith.
More importantly, they understand that traditions aren’t something we learn about from books. They can’t be preserved. Traditions are lived. They’re like fire: once they go out, they’re out. And so traditions must be handed down live from one generation to the next.
The benedictines emphasize sacrificing a certain amount of wealth, comfort, and prestige so that Christians may keep those traditions alive by living them together. From these outposts, these “intentional communities,” a new generation of apostles will be commissioned to evangelize the New Pagans and win back the West for Christ. I expect Benedict and Francis would both agree with this strategy wholeheartedly.
So, as Christians in a post-Christian West—“strangers in a strange land”—we’ll have to heed Francis’s warning, that “Rigidity arises from fear of change and ends up strewing the ground of the common good with stakes and obstacles, turning it into a minefield of lack of communication and hatred.” We’ll also have to follow Benedict’s injunction from 1969: “The Church will be a more spiritual Church, not presuming upon a political mandate, flirting as little with the Left as with the Right.”
That’s the Church of the future—the mustard seed that drops from the flower of Christendom. It’s ancient, yet vital. It’s rooted firmly in the solid earth of tradition, though it’s not inflexible. It may bend, but it won’t break.
That will be the legacy of both Francis (the progressive, the pessimist) and Benedict (the conservative, the optimist). They’re imperfect teachers, and their lessons are hard enough to swallow. But they’ve worked earnestly to prepare Christians for the fresh trials we’ll face in this Third Millennium. The Church will be stronger for their leadership.
And smaller, perhaps. Still, if our Lord himself ends up on the Cross…