There is an interesting convergence between some right-wing Catholics and some left-wing Catholics on the question of Pope Francis. He represents basically the same thing to both sides: For the former, he represents their darkest fears, and, for the latter, their highest hopes; but the content of the two visions is fundamentally identical. The most recent evidence is an article by conservative Catholic journalist John Vennari. (How conservative is Vennari? He has made a video deploring World Youth Day, for among other things, its use of rock music and the fact that young men and women actually camp out together. Vennari is as conservative as you can get within Catholicism, without going out the right-side exit, into sedevacantism.)
Vennari describes the similarities between opinions expressed by Pope Francis over the past nine months and those expressed by the late Carlo Maria Cardinal Martini, the Italian prelate who was lionized by Church liberals and was something of a hate figure for conservatives (one popular conservative blogger even urged Pope Benedict XVI to strip him of his cardinalate). Pope Francis, for his part, gave some support to this comparison by invoking the memory of Cardinal Martini and referring to him as “a father for the whole Church.”
The National Catholic Reporter — which I have heard referred to over the years, not entirely affectionately, by some conservatives as the Distorter, because it expresses liberal Catholic views — yesterday featured a post from editor-at-large Tom Roberts calling attention to Vennari’s article. Roberts refers to the article as “interesting” (twice) and “revealing” (once), with no negative adjectives whatsoever — which is, I suppose, as close as Vennari could ever hope to get to a full-throated endorsement from the NCR. (A quick Google search turns up no other example of Vennari’s ever being mentioned on that website.)
So do “Right” and “Left” agree, that — with Pope Francis – there is a dramatic reversal within the Church, toward Martinianism? Perhaps; but that does not quite settle the issue. Thomas Peters, who is a conservative and has written for NRO, says he finds “disturbing” the “extent to which many Catholics have adopted an apprehensive attitude” about the new pope. Peters is, I understand, in broad agreement with the priorities of conservative Catholics, but he views the work of Pope Francis in a positive light, as a provocation to Catholics settled in their faith:
While Pope Francis is no liberal, he also has no patience for traditional Catholics who let preferences and small-t traditions become a stumbling block to living out their faith fully.
If your love for the Extraordinary Form leads you to criticize your fellow Catholics who prefer the Novus Ordo instead of leading you to a more perfect life of charity, you’re doing it wrong. If you’ve spent more time reading articles claiming that Pope Francis has condemned capitalism in his latest exhortation instead of actually reading what he wrote, you’re doing it wrong.
. . .
So which is it going to be? Are we going to spend the next few years wringing our hands worried to death that all the accomplishments of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict are about to be undone, or are we going to take Pope Francis up on his challenge and live the Gospel more fully every day, in plain sight?
That’s the choice we face in 2014 and always.
So let’s fight, let’s fight for the church. It’s the only one we’ve got.
The first comment I saw in Peters’s combox accused him of erecting “straw men”: Who are these traditional Catholics who let small-t traditions impede their faith? But I think Peters has the right side of this, not because traditional Catholics are exceptionally self-righteous and pharisaical, but because the temptation to self-righteousness exists in every human heart, and religious controversy tends to bring it out. I have a fundamentally Protestant understanding of church bureaucracy — I think ecclesial leaders deserve no more exemption from criticism than any other people, which is to say, “If you think they’re wrong, you have every right to say so, but not the right [an important codicil for comboxers] to be a contemptible jerk about it.” And even within Catholicism there is a tradition of standing up to church authority when it is being unjust; a notable example was St. Catherine of Siena, who was known to rebuke the pope. But Peters is fundamentally right about the basic point: What is central to your faith? Do you think God put you on this earth to police the pope — or to love God and your neighbor? Of course, it will be objected that this is a false choice: “I am perfectly capable of doing both at the same time! I can watchdog the pope for signs of incipient heretical Martinianism and love God and my neighbor!” I cheerfully concede the point; all I ask is that those who disagree with Peters take a serious second look at the precise proportion in which they divide their energy between these tasks. Maybe the pope is as bad as you fear he is, maybe he isn’t. So what? The important question remains on the table: How then shall we live?
PS. Lest non-Catholics be tempted to chortle at this internecine Catholic strife, we would all do well to remember that similar problems exist within every religious point of view and every secular school of thought. The nominal leader of my own denomination is Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, who is an accomplished lady in some ways but is also capable of saying things that are head-shakingly dumb. If I devoted my life to scrutinizing her faults, would that be a wise use of my time? Would it build up my faith?
PPS. For some of the years that Martini was a cardinal, there were not one but two cardinals named Rossi. I searched (in vain, alas) for evidence of disagreement between Martini and these two other clerics, because the headline “Martini and Rossi on the Rocks” is irresistible . . .