Friday, December 01, 2017

De Chirico: Rome will Absorb “Pope Francis”

Marking Time
In an article with the same title, Leonardo De Chirico asks, “What Happens If Catholics Think the Pope Is a Heretic?” The short answer is found at the end of the article:

Nothing is going to break abruptly and, more importantly, no biblical reformation is possible under these conditions. Roman Catholicism will be stretched and go through a stress test, but will be able to handle both Francis’ catholicity and his critics’ insistence on the Roman component. The synthesis will be expanded, but the gospel will not be allowed to change Rome. This is the reason why the Reformation is not over.

The article primarily catalogues the ruckus that has been going on in the controversies surrounding “Amoris Laetitia” and the subsequent protests, first from the Dubia Cardinals, then from the “Filial Correction” crowd (Roman Catholic priests and theologians), and finally from Fr Thomas Weinandy, who wrote an open letter to Bergoglio stating, “a chronic confusion seems to mark your pontificate obscured by the ambiguity of your words and actions.”

De Chirico asks, “What is happening in the Roman Catholic Church? Is Rome on the eve of an internal breaking point with disastrous consequences?”

Interestingly, he frames the issue as one of “Roman” elements vs “catholic” ones. “Pope Francis” and “Vatican II” on the “catholic” side (De Chirico uses the word “Catholic” with a capital “C” from time to time, but I think he means small-c “catholic).

He suggests, however, that the “inner and constitutive dynamics of Roman Catholicism” – and the synthesis of “Roman” and “Catholic” will enable the system to survive, because the system was created in order to accommodate various swings back and forth between both.

Here is his larger explanation:

What is happening with Pope Francis is to be understood against the background of the tensions between the Roman and Catholic poles within Roman Catholicism. Francis is strongly pushing the “catholic” agenda of Rome, embracing all, affirming all, expanding the boundaries of the Church, and expanding its traditional boundaries.

Some traditionalist circles are reacting strongly because they see the danger of losing the Roman elements represented by the well-established teachings and practices of the Church. They see the Catholic swallowing the Roman. They see the risk of the Catholic taking precedence over the Roman and therefore severing the dynamic link that has characterized Roman Catholicism for centuries.

Whereas with the previous Pope (Benedict XVI), the overall balance was more in favor of the Roman than the Catholic, with Francis the Roman Catholic pendulum is swinging towards the catholicity of Rome. Francis’s critics believe that he has gone too far and want the pendulum to reverse towards more reassuring Roman elements.

He then asks, “Can there be a Biblical Reformation in Roman Catholicism?”

Luther took issue with the Pope and his theology and practice of dispensing God’s pardon through indulgences. Luther’s standard was the biblical gospel, and he challenged the Church to embrace afresh the gospel. Rome responded by absorbing some of Luther’s concerns about grace and faith within the sacramental system largely shaped around Roman elements and within its synergistic theology significantly marked by Catholic components, thus reinforcing the overall Roman Catholic synthesis rather than reforming it according to the Word of God.

Ever since, the Roman Catholic system has been swinging and bending one way or another to accommodate either progressive or traditional trends, either reiterating Roman emphases or introducing Catholic ones, and then rebalancing the whole. But the Church was not reformed because it did not recognize the external and supreme authority of Scripture and the gospel of salvation by faith alone. As it stands, it will never be renewed according to the Word of God. It will certainly accommodate “Catholic” movements like the Charismatic renewal and “Roman” movements like the Marian groups, and then re-fix the overall synthesis. It will even accommodate an emphasis on biblical literacy, as well as commend unbiblical devotions and beliefs: both-and, Roman and Catholic!

What is happening now with the criticism of Pope Francis is business as usual in the Roman Catholic Church: at times the pendulum swings one way before readdressing the overall balance. It could be argued that the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) was a great push towards the Catholic element and the reigns of John Paul II and Benedict XVI were subsequent attempts to moderate it in terms of reinforcing the Roman elements. With Francis the Catholic is again winning the day. These tensions will go on as long as Roman Catholicism exists. They are inner movements within the system. If one looks at Roman Catholicism as a system, then even the doubts of the cardinals, the criticism of priests and intellectuals, and even their charges of heresy against the Pope become easier to come to terms with. Roman Catholicism is both Roman and Catholic, and will always be so.

I think this is true so far as it goes, that the Roman Catholic system itself is irreparably not able to be reformed in a Biblical way. But that doesn’t mean that the system itself won’t fall. That swinging of the pendulum represents two forces within Roman Catholicism, but there is a third outside pressure – that of a growing secularism which considers that neither of these questions are important.

That third pressure is manifested by the the shortage of priests that I described here, which puts pressure to consolidate financially and in terms of a shrinking population base, and also the ongoing feuding at the street level by those competing “progressive” and “traditionalist” elements (that are fighting over liturgical style now, which Bergoglio has also cast into the wind). This kind of shrinkage puts further tremendous real-world pressure on both of the two components that De Chirico cites. The “Roman” and “Catholic” elements are built up out of largely unverifiable Roman claims, but the population shrinkage and resultant financial pressures will be too much to bear, I think.


  1. One issue is whether the successors of Francis lock in his positions and continue along the same trajectory. Francis is simply mirroring positions of the Catholic intelligentsia and large swaths of the clergy.

    1. I think that's the big thing to watch. He seems to be in relatively good health for his age, and relatively active. I think he's even stated that as his goal (to lock in his successors). To appoint enough Cardinals that will elect another pope cut from the same cloth.

    2. John, I don't know much about this, but how conservative was Benedict XVI? If he was conservative, how did pope Francis get elected? It seems that this a kind of lottery, you can't guess what kind of pope the church of Rome is going to have.

    3. The young Joseph Ratzinger was fairly liberal, but after 25 years as Prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he became known for his conservativism.

      It is almost a lottery. It is said that Bergoglio was the second-place finisher in the 2005 conclave. No one is supposed to know this, but somehow it was released that Ratzinger got maybe 2/3-3/4 of the votes, electing him at that point, and Bergoglio had most of the remainders. So Bergoglio's following had a good "core" of votes going into 2013.

      Realistically, if a pope lives a long time, he can put his own people in. Not sure how that didn't work with JPII. Maybe the liberalism was spread widely enough that he put all the "conservatives" in, and that still wasn't enough.

  2. My feeling is that Roman Catholicism is on the trajectory of Mainline Protestantism, just maybe 50 or so years behind. Maybe they are trying hard to catch up. And their progressives are using the same playbook.

    Say something the conservatives can interpret that won't upset them but push a progressive meaning.

    The main problem the conservatives have is that they think Rome is infallible so while they are beginning to realize what's going on they don't think they can lose. And for the average conservative in the pew who isn't as connected, I think the situation is worse.

    My one relatively conservative friend is what I have in mind. He's devout. He's not into polemics. He just intuitively trusts the pope because he's the pope. Those people are not going to push back on anything. They are going to go with the flow.

    I think I see that trend in PC(USA) churches I've attended. People are relatively devout. They are generally in the minority in their denomination but not in particular PC(USA) churches (except for explicitly traditionalist churches I doubt any conservatives are in the majority in any normal Roman Catholic Church in the entire country). They don't pay attention to church politics at the denominational level by and large. The parent denomination gets more and more liberal over time.

    You add the Catholic tendency (at least of the conservatives I'm speaking of although a better term may be needed) to believe their pope and church are correct (and they haven't thought about the finer points and caveats of infallibility)... they are going to get rolled.

    1. ///My feeling is that Roman Catholicism is on the trajectory of Mainline Protestantism, just maybe 50 or so years behind. Maybe they are trying hard to catch up. And their progressives are using the same playbook.///

      Geoff, I think you are right about this ... but on the other side of it, I think that there are some militant "conservatives" (and traditionalists) who won't countenance it. The inner system does have some resiliance, as De Chirico says -- they built both progressive and conservative into the conciliar language (which is all that counts with them). I've got an article that I'm hoping to post shortly about one of these "parish consolidations" where the traditionalists and the progressives just couldn't get along. That's where the real fighting is going to be -- on the street level, where these conservative folks you are talking about can see things in their own communities. That will get messy.

    2. I need to clarify. There are the conservatives like the apologist-types we debate on the Internet. And there's just the normal devout people who live along side all the nominal Catholics. Those second type of conservatives aren't really down for the fight. How many of the first group are there? Very few I think in terms of percentages.