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From JP2 And BXVI To … Francis?

St. John Paul II -- what would he say about the confusion in today's Church? (Catholic Online)

Yesterday I posed this question, which had come to me through a conservative Evangelical friend who is shocked to see what’s going down in the Catholic Church under Pope Francis:

Remember when all the trad/conservative Catholics were confidently claiming that JP2 and B16 had transformed the church through their wise appointments and driven out the “Spirit of Vatican II” once and for all? So what happened? Why didn’t it work out that way? I have looked for answers and haven’t found any.

A Catholic priest friend saw that and responded as follows. This is really excellent:

A useful first place to look is the memoir John Paul II wrote towards the end of his life, “Arise, Let Us Go Forth.” In that book, as he looks back over the years, he admits that one thing of which he must accuse himself is having neglected the administration of the Church.

He had inherited a mess. Paul VI never recovered from the storm that greeted the birth control encyclical in 1968. There was no strong papal authority exercised in his last ten years. It is crucial to understand this: the Church was permanently marked by the Protestant revolt of the 1500s. She is always going to carefully deal with unrest in the Church so as not to cause schism (and where schism does occur, such as the Old Catholics in Europe or George Stallings’ Imani Temple here, she will ignore it in hopes that it dies of neglect). So, what was the first Polish Pope, the first non-Italian Pope in five hundred years, to do?

Wojtyla had a strongly mystical, sacramental concept of his role as Pope. Symbol is a very important part of Catholicism. He decided that he would be like Saint Paul: he would travel the highways and by-ways of the world bringing the Gospel to the farthest corner. He wanted to write, to teach, to travel, to work especially with youth: he devised a program that allowed him to do just that. The sheer symbolism of the Vicar of Christ traveling like Paul from place to place, country to country, was electrifying, was meant to convey the importance, the crucial centrality of Christ to a world in danger of forgetting Him. To be on Fifth Avenue when he first came to America, to be among the crowds outside – my cousin was working there at the time and she, a stylish young professional Manhattanite, said, “Never, I never experienced anything like the electricity of that crowd.”

Undeniably, it had an effect, in varying degrees and for various lengths of time in different places. But meanwhile, despite the fact that the media played up Cardinal Ratzinger as John Paul’s hatchet man beheading various dissenting theologians, there was little effort to achieve consistent discipline. A good example was the first encyclical John Paul wrote on the Eucharist early in his reign, which was issued accompanied by an instruction from Ratzinger’s doctrinal office identifying specific liturgical abuses to be corrected. Grrrrrrr, WOOF! WOOF! WOOF! Twenty years later he did exactly the same thing – Eucharistic Encyclical, Instruction on Liturgical abuses… nothing had changed because nothing was enforced. The same thing happened with the encyclical on the Catholic University, Ex Corde Ecclesiae; it was issued, it has been discussed and referenced in conservative Catholic scholarly circles, but the once-grand network of Catholic colleges and universities continued to decay into the patchwork of secularized institutions we see today.

Rome received during those years regular reports on what was going on in schools, chancery offices, Religious communities, from people like the great Father John Hardon, S.J. But most of these reports did not lead to action. To an unprecedented level of civil disobedience in the Church, the Holy See responded by carefully avoiding provoking the open rebellion which would be provoked by disciplinary action.

Benedict XVI had watched carefully during these years. He was not the extrovert the Polish Pope had been; his approach was different. He would correct by example. He would stress the continuity of the Church in various ways, demonstrating that Vatican II was not supposed to be a radical rupture from the past. So, his letter Summorum Pontificum (2007) eliminated the restrictions on the celebration of the traditional Latin Mass. He had his Master of Ceremonies bring out of the mothballs classic papal vestments (with sometimes ironic results, as when he resurrected the camauro, a red cap trimmed in white ermine which has the effect of making him look like one of Santa’s elves. The move was derided by progressive fashionistas, who apparently were unaware that the last Pope to have revived this arcane bit of pontifical haberdashery was… their “patron saint,” John XXIII).

Benedict’s gentle guide-by-example approach had a definite effect. There are many young seminarians and priests who today look to him as my Pope, the one whose influence they responded to. It was the hope and expectation of this parish priest that this approach would continue through a longer Benedict reign followed by a like-minded successor. I still believe the effect would have been profound. The Puff the Magic Dragon generation that has been running so many things in the Church could not have lived forever, although it now seems to have been granted another roll of the dice.

Benedict’s abdication was a tragedy. Never in my wildest nightmares could I have imagined what would follow. Nevertheless, there is reason to hope, for it is undeniable that what has been called forth by these circumstances is a strong, insistent reaction by faithful Catholics which is growing as the Vatican sinks into the mire of its own ineptitude and theological incoherence. With the appointing of officials tainted by sexual scandal, the loopy optics of the shaman-infested Amazon synod, and the surfacing of a good, old-fashioned money scandal, the Holy See has made of itself a tawdry, risible target for just about every responsible person on the face of the earth: orthodox Catholics, progressive Catholics, secular humanists, atheists. Never have we been more catholic – an object of universal scorn. It is in just such times that God raises up His saints in the Church.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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