What Path for the Church?
The publication of the book From the depths of our hearts, written by pope Benedict XVI and Cardinal Sarah, and the intense polemic which immediately followed, have abruptly put back in the spot light the incongruity of the present situation of the Church: we notice at the top a sitting pope next to a pope emeritus, living only a few hundred meters away from each other, who just took different sides, not to say opposite sides, on an institutional issue of the gravest importance, the discipline of priestly celibacy in the Latin Church. Maybe, Pope Francis has not yet expressively pronounced himself in favor of what would constitute a breach in celibacy, but no one doubts that the wish of the last assembly of the Synod, which suggest the possibility to confer priestly ordination to married deacons in a context of shortage of priests (a context belonging to the Amazon, for now), expresses his thoughts.
The problem, truthfully, is not so much that it could appear like there are two popes at the head of the Church, but mostly that none of the two is successful in deciding the matter.
In our book What path for the Church? published by Hora Decima, in September 2004, some six months before the election of Benedict XVI, we dedicated a chapter to imagine what could happen after the ending pontificate of John Paul II, a chapter titled: “ “Last pope” or pope of transition?”
The first hypothesis, the “last pope” hypothesis, examined the possibility of the election of a man coming from the liberal side of the Church, that of Cardinal Martini, for a significant progression of the “spirit of the Council” and a greater affinity of the Church with the modern democracies. It would have been about a “progress of Vatican II in the sense of an institutional evolution”, we wrote. The emphasis on “collegiality” and “decentralization” (“synodality” was not often spoken about in that time) allowing “the adoption without reluctance of the consensual debate at the top and the government of pressure groups “in line”.”
The other hypothesis was one of a “pope of transition”. “In the case of the election of a restorationist, we could then go from the “last pope” hypothesis, that is to say the hypothesis of an way out more or less quickly of the traditional structure of the papacy, to a symmetrically opposed hypothesis, one of a pope of transition, that is to say a progressive way out from the post-conciliar papacy”. We did not innocently imagine that the election of a ratzingarian pope, eventually the one of Joseph Ratzinger himself, would automatically lead to a process of exiting the Council, but we thought it could establish the conditions of a movement in that sense, notably in regards to the doctrinal oppositions more and more pronounced, which are like the bombshell of a schism always ready to explode.
We were right twice, and wrong twice. Indeed, both hypothesis successively took place, the second one in 2005, the first one in 2013, but in both cases not in this abrupt way we described but in a dole way, proper to our time of timorous catholicism.
The great act in a sense of transition out of the conciliar era will have been, for Pope Ratzinger, the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum which, as its detractors saw it, had for effect to reinvest of a full legitimacy the liturgy from before Vatican II as lex orandi, in competition with the lex orandi from after Vatican II. But as to the rest, what we watched was rather, one must say, a non-government of the Church and of the Curia.
As to the management of Pope Bergoglio, much more dynamic, it seems it is not capable of going further than the moral openness carried by the assembly of the Synod on the Family, and the institutional openness prepared by the assembly of the Synod on the Amazon. The close circle of the pontiff does not hide the fact that it considers Pope Francis does nothing else than setting small stones for a future pontificate that would truly engage in reforms.
In other words, we are today, in 2020, at the same place we were in 2005, except that both possible experiments have been attempted and both have failed. They have failed in regards to the fruits that can be expected of an ecclesiastical reform, if we consider that the Church of Peter is still in the same state, and even worst, now that fifteen years have passed during which, in the Western world at least, the churches have continued to empty, the Credo of the priests and the faithful to become more diverse and the number of vocations to collapse.
But, most of all, doctrinal problems and institutional problems adjacent to doctrine are left unresolved. To the contrary, the succession of these two pontificates, and now, their sort of co-existence with the story of the book From the depths of our hearts, makes it so that post-conciliar teaching shows more than ever the intrinsic weakness of his pastoral character, a teaching never totally normative, where what is defined is in reality only temporary. In this way, Familiaris consortio, of John Paul II, is counter balanced by Amoris lætitia; Sacerdotalis cælibatus, of Paul VI, is played down by the assembly of the Synod on the Amazon.
Until the expression of the faith, for the bishops as much as for the pope corresponds again to the “Whoever listens to you listens to me”, of Luke 10, 16. The pope, to whom Christ promised he would not fail when he would “confirm his brothers.” This is why he is pope: so to confirm his brothers.