The Corner

Francis, Pope of Catholic Unity

Holding together a community of over a billion people in meaningful (as opposed to nominal) unity is no easy task, but I think this effort is a key focus of the pontificate of Pope Francis. The indispensable John Allen, who has hit the ground running in his new job over at the Boston Globe, addresses this issue in his column of yesterday — about why the pope has kept Cardinal-designate Müller on as head of the Vatican’s doctrinal office, when Müller appears in some regards to have a different perspective than Francis on doctrinal issues.

Allen draws a valuable analogy to some of the liturgical controversies of the John Paul II era:

The same question used to arise under Pope John Paul II, particularly during the 1990s when he had a strong progressive organizing his own liturgies and an archconservative heading the Vatican department that set the rules for Catholic worship. Then, too, many observers saw that juxtaposition as mere incoherence.

Yet there’s another way of looking at things, inspired by an adage of Pope John XXIII who once said, “I have to be pope both for those with their foot on the gas and those with their foot on the brake.”

In his day, John Paul II wanted to push the envelope in his own liturgical celebrations, especially when he went on the road and tried to blend in elements of local worship in whatever society he was visiting. For precisely that reason, he wanted a hard-liner back in Rome making sure that the church didn’t throw the baby out with the liturgical bathwater.

This wasn’t incoherence, in other words. In John Paul’s mind, at least, it was a creative tension.

This “creative tension” is, I think, on even starker display on liturgical issues in our own time. Many Traditionalists are skeptical of, and even hostile to, Pope Francis’s lack of interest in the pre-1960s Catholic liturgy. They were especially concerned when he expressed, last September, his worry about “the risk of the ideologization of the [old Mass], its exploitation.”

On Friday, the pope appeared to play into these fears, by speaking of the current use of the pre-Vatican II Mass as a “fashion” or even a “fad”:

When I search more thoroughly . . . I find that it is rather a kind of fashion [in Czech: ‘móda,’ Italian ‘moda’]. And if it is a fashion, therefore it is a matter that does not need that much attention. It is just necessary to show some patience and kindness to people who are addicted to a certain fashion. But I consider greatly important to go deep into things, because if we do not go deep, no liturgical form, this or that one, can save us.

Of course this is not quite as dismissive of the old Mass as the website I linked to makes it sound: Who, after all, no matter what style of liturgy they favor, would disagree that it’s important to go deep into things, as opposed to fetishizing the superficial? It’s the Eucharist, no matter whether there are guitars there or Gregorian chant. But the pope also said something on another occasion last week – a homily at his Mass last Monday – that indicates how deeply he values traditional Catholic eucharistic theology. As reported by Italian Vaticanista Sandro Magister:


Pope Jorge Mario Bergoglio said that “in the Eucharistic liturgy God is present” in a way even “closer” than in the cloud in the temple, his “is a real presence.”

And he continued:

“When I speak of the liturgy I am mainly referring to the holy Mass. The Mass is not a representation, it is something else. It is living once again the redemptive passion and death of the Lord. It is a theophany: The Lord makes himself present on the altar in order to be offered to the Father for the salvation of the world.”

Further on the pope said:

“The liturgy is the time of God and space of God, and we must put ourselves there in the time of God, in the space of God, and not look at our watches. The liturgy is nothing less than entering into the mystery of God, allowing ourselves to be carried to the mystery and to be in the mystery. It is the cloud of God that envelops us all.”

And looking back on one of his childhood memories:

“I recall that as a child, when they were preparing us for first communion, they had us sing: ‘O holy altar guarded by the angels,’ and this made us understand that the altar was truly guarded by the angels, it gave us the sense of the glory of God, of the space of God, of the time of God.”

Coming to the conclusion, Francis invited those present to “ask the Lord today to give all of us this sense of the sacred. . . . Let us ask for this grace: that the Lord may teach us to enter into the mystery of God.”

(Emphasis added.) To oversimplify — but not, I think, excessively — the chief intellectual tension within Catholic theology of the Eucharist in the past century has been between those who focus on the Eucharist as the Real Presence of Christ in a communal meal with and for his people, and those who stress that the Mass is the Church’s presentation of the sacrificed Christ to His Father for the redemption of mankind. As with so many Catholic disputes, this is a both/and as opposed to an either/or. But I don’t think that Pope Francis, in his words last Monday, could have been any clearer that he views the Mass as the people’s entering into Jesus’s redemptive sacrifice, a key theological point emphasized by church “conservatives.”

Speaking of that terminology derived from politics: In this terrific panel discussion, John Allen expresses frustration, even annoyance, with those who scrutinize Pope Francis’s statements to assess how “liberal” or “conservative” they are. (I strongly recommend that panel discussion, because it goes deeper into the issues than many other such discussions have gone. It also stars distinguished New York Times columnist — and NR film critic — Ross Douthat.) I think that such scrutiny is inevitable, at least in the short term, because liberals have in recent years become unused to getting a lot of support from the Vatican, and conservatives are likewise suspicious of what looks to them like a dangerous tilt toward their opponents. But I think that with the passage of time, when Pope Francis lays out his thought more fully — as he did on the liturgy last week — people will start to get over their hair-trigger propensity to politicize him. Is Pope Francis a liberal or a conservative? He’s both and neither; he’s devoted to an ancient and ever-new truth, which makes him a radical . . . and a small-t traditionalist.


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