Calling on Catholic liberty… in the Catholic Church

Par l'abbé Claude Barthe

Français, italiano

The present pontificate, with all its confusion, could very well represent, if not the terminal phase of the post Vatican II era, at least a position leading right into it. That is, of course, as long as there are churchmen determined to drawn a line and start fresh.

Undoubtedly, we find ourselves today in an atmosphere of pre-conclave[1]. This doesn’t mean that cardinal electors will have to meet in the Sistine Chapel tomorrow, but when the day comes the Preparatory General Congregations will meet, we can only hope that a sincere assessment of the situation will be made, leading to a courageous examination of conscience. If not, can we at least count on a progressive approach to reality where the Catholic forces that are still alive today would be left in peace and allowed to grow.

A pessimist situation

We have pointed out in the past that among the highest-ranking prelates, not only conservatives but also some progressives, there is now a strong and very pessimist awareness of the secularization, seen as inevitable. The situation of the Church, in the Western world particularly, is of great concern, and with such decrease in the number of faithful and priests that in some countries Her presence is becoming almost invisible. This shows how much all that has been tried has failed, one solution after the other: the left and right reforms of Pope Montini, the tentatives of “restoration” under John-Paul II and Benedict XVI, the re-activation of a new unreserved conciliar spirit under Francis. Would any conclusion be drawn… For it is easy, indeed, to notice that ecumenism and Vatican II inter-religious dialogue have in part depreciated the Mission. No one argues openly that the orientations of this unusual council – non normative – have a lot to do with the catastrophic situation we see today. It is true that, only the most ideologist of the Bergoglians, like the Jesuits presently working on the preparation of the Synod of Synodality, consider that we should go further still and that secularization is actually a “blessing”.

Many high-ranking prelates today feel uneasy about the call to fight “clericalism”, which they consider truly harmful in regards to what remains of vocations. A call to fight which often includes canonical visits and sanctions against communities, seminaries, and dioceses deemed “clerical” which might have few deficiencies but where an influx of vocation still exists. They are also very concerned about the unbelievable propositions of the German Synodal Way, with which the Roman Assembly of the Synod on Synodality will most probably initiate a proven process of negotiation-capitulation, by making propositions which will fall short of the German’s but which will de-facto appear as a blank cheque, and certainly a failure to condemn.

Therefore, it isn’t difficult to imagine that when the General Congregation will gather, the open or screened criticism against the present chaos will be prevalent, including among progressive prelates: an exceptionally authoritarian government and not so much “synodal” at all, left and right decisions, no clear reform of the Curia, bitter failure of diplomacy in regards to China, and also a particularly worrisome financial situation (see Memorandum referenced in note 1 for detailed informations). As to the doctrinal critic of conservatives, it will be heard not only regarding the rift between Bergoglian and former teachings (not from before the Council but from previous post-conciliar popes): Amoris lætitia as it contradicts Familiaris consortia, Traditionis custodes as it re-writes Summorum Pontificum, but also regarding the rather basic theology found in the various exhortations and encyclicals of the pontificate. 

What are the parties involved?

Everyone can see that the College of Cardinals has been largely replaced under this pontificate, with a record number of new members, and that everything has been done to prevent them from meeting together, exchanging opinions and feeling at liberty to speak freely during the consistories. Thus, projections as to the weight of the various orientations in the Sacred College are more uncertain than ever, even if some whisper that the majority is clearly progressive. It is actually most likely that the nominations during the next consistory will seek to accentuate the progressive influence in the College.

But who will be their candidate? Around what personality would Parolin, Marx, Becciu ask their clientele to rally? Cardinal Tagle, 66 years old, Prefect of the Propaganda, who benefited from the unfailing support of the Jesuits, seems too close to Francis and does not demonstrate a great theological depth. Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, Archbishop of Luxembourg, besides the fact he is quite young (63 years old), is also a Jesuit which might not work in his favor. Sandro Magister, busied with the current affairs, calls him a “Second Francis”[2], which is not an advantageous title in the present situation. In fact, whatever chance he may have depends on the sort of somewhat naive moderation with which he lessens the intensity of his heterodox opinions: he is an advocate for married priest, but “in the long run”; he is not for women priests, but would definitely entrust them with appointments in positions of authority and with giving homilies at celebrations; he believes that “the positions of the Church in regards to the sinful character of homosexual relations are erroneous”, while refusing benedictions of homosexual “marriages”; he sees no problem with Protestants taking communion at mass, but he was horrified, after attending a protestant service, to see that what remained of the bread and wine was simply thrown away to the trash, that because he believes in the Real Presence (could It be at a protestant service?).

On the side of the conservatives, it seems rather improbable, at least to this day, that a candidate (Robert Sarah or, with a larger base of support, Peter Erdö, 69 years old, Archbishop of Budapest) could gather 2/3 of the votes. But some support from the conservatives will be necessary in the election to bring a candidate everyone could agree on, a liberal left who would necessarily be able to listen to their wishes. An example, only to give an idea of the profile of a realistic and comforting candidate, is Jean-Pierre Ricard, Archbishop Emeritus of Bordeaux, 77 years old, a liberal progressive all around. In the present state of things, it is Matteo Zuppi, 66 years old, Archbishop of Bologna, supported by the very powerful lobby of Sant’Egidio which would fit the requirements. Could other similar candidates appear at a later time?

Calling on Catholic liberty… in the Catholic Church

In the XIX century, the French political system had come to this paradoxical situation: the most firm partisans of the monarchical restoration, enemies in principle to modern liberties brought by the Revolution, have yet always advocated liberty. They have in short requested, not without danger, that they be left a forum for liberty: freedom of press, freedom of education (yet they did not see how to take advantage of the occasions that this forum gave them to change the order of things).

All other things being equal, in the ecclesial system of the XXI century… In a Catholic point of view, the perspective to pursue is, in the end, one of a “restoration” more profound than the one wanted by Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI: a return to a Magisterium with full authority so to re-engage in active mission, separating in the name of Christ what is true from what is false over all the sensitive questions of family law and ecumenism, etc. Separating not only what is Catholic from what is not, but also separating Catholics from those who claim to be but in reality are not: for it is terrible for the visibility of the Church, undermined by a latent schism or rather submerged by a sort of neo-Catholicism without dogma, that we can no longer discern what is of the Church and what is not.

But, as for now, it seems all that could be obtained is a loosening of the ideological despotism – not only the one, sort of last conciliar stand, of the present pontificate -, but one that rest deeper, weighting on the Church since a lax way of believing and praying was forced on Her. This despotism establishes that for the sake of “communion” one has to submit, to a lesser or greater degree, to a Council and a liturgical reform erected as new Tables of the Law.

The step would be that a pontificate of transition would give full liberty to all the lively forces of the Church. To speak strictly of the situation in France, though it could serve by way of analogy as a matrix for the whole Church, the Catholic element that “works” today, meaning that fills churches, notably with young people and large families, that gives priestly and religious vocations, and prompts conversions, resides in two areas of the French Church. On one side, we find a new conservatism. It includes the Emmanuel Community, the Saint Martin Community (100 seminarians presently, that is more than all the French diocesan seminaries together), the Saint John Community, and flourishing monasteries of men and women religious contemplatives. Elsewhere in the world, they are religious communities, vigorous dioceses, and a number of seminaries. On the other side, we find the traditionalist world, with its two entities one “official” and the other in the realm of Archbishop Lefebvre’s work, with its places of worship (450 about in France), its schools, its seminaries (in 2020, 15% of the French priests ordained belonged to traditional communities). One would object that a “blank cheque”, even in favor of those who bare fruits from their mission still does not prevent from any risk of drifting. As such, it can only be a valid option for as long as some areas of magisterial amplitude remain unclear and uncertain.

Everyone yet realizes that, whether desired or feared (cf. the motivations for Traditionis custodes), it is this traditional world, on account of its symbolic weight, with full liberty to live and grow, that can provide the most helpful opportunities for those prelates ready to “turn the tables”.

Fr. Claude Barthe

[1] See the memorandum published by Sandro Magister on his blog, Settimo Cielo, written by Demos : A Memorandum on the Next Conclave Is Circulating Among the Cardinals. Here It Is – Settimo Cielo – Blog – L’Espresso (repubblica.it).
[2] If the Conclave Wants a Second Francis, Here Is the Name and the Program – Settimo Cielo – Blog – L’Espresso (repubblica.it)