Perplexity and service

It is rumoured that Pope Francis may soon issue some new document placing further restrictions upon the Usus antiquior or even prohibit it altogether. This rumour has naturally provoked considerable anxiety. How ought a Catholic sensible of the merits of the more ancient usage respond to such a prospect?

The simplest expedient would be to accept that the pope knows what he is about far more than any of us do and if he thinks it is for the good of the Church that the ancient Roman liturgy be extinguished forever then surely it is.

That might be a good response even if it is not, as it happens, for the good of the Church after all. 

Is it the only legitimate response? That would hardly be fair, not least for the pope, since it would mean that, once the pope’s decision had been taken, no Catholic in good conscience could suggest to him that he change his mind even if it would, in fact, be a good thing if he did change his mind. 

And what if the rumoured document contains restrictions which are not just a bad idea, but a catastrophically bad or even sinful idea? Hypothetically, if no one was able to exhort the Holy Father to reverse his decision without sinning then the pope would be in grave danger of going to his maker with this albatross around his neck.

Let us take an example of a papal decision that pretty much everyone agrees was terrible and which lasted for decades but with which saints quite clearly did not think they needed to agree or tacitly accept — the Avignon Papacy.

For more than seventy years, from 1305 to 1376, the popes resided in France. It was a disaster for the Church. The authority of the Holy See was gravely affected. Only one antipope was set up in Rome during that period but, after Gregory XI finally returned to Rome, the interests uniting the papacy to France were so strong that a rival Avignonese pope was elected in opposition to Pope Gregory’s successor, triggering a schism that lasted nearly forty years. St Catherine of Siena and St Bridget of Sweden stridently admonished the popes to return to their diocese. Faithful though she undoubtedly was to the Holy See, calling the pope our “Sweet Christ on Earth”, St Catherine did not hesitate to describe the advisors trying to persuade the pope to remain in France as “incarnate demons”.

An even more apposite example might be the dissolution of the Society of Jesus, Pope Francis’s own order. There had always been opposition to the Jesuits from the older religious orders. Scandalised by their extreme understanding of religious obedience, their refusal to sing the divine office in choir and the powers of their general, Pope Paul IV had tried to dissolve them almost as soon as they were founded. Their questionable ideas on predestination, the salvation of non-Christians and on being and essence provoked further hostility. When their dissolution came however, in 1773 under Clement XIV, it was for shameful reasons. The Jesuits were always careful to maintain the highest intellectual standards, well ahead of their secular rivals, and they prided themselves on their loyalty to the Holy See. With the poisonous atmosphere of secularism and royal absolutism abroad in the mid-eighteenth century, the Jesuits became the object of the deepest loathing from the very worst elements in decadent European society. Clement XIV abolished them “forever” and yet for all their vaunted obedience to the Holy See the members of the Society managed to find loopholes and exceptions for forty years in order to survive in pockets until 1814 when Pius VII raised them from the dead. 

The most extreme example of a screeching papal u-turn is surely the Second Council of Constantinople in 553. The emperor Justinian, desperate to heal the schism with the Miaphysites, was convinced that the rehabilitation of three highly questionable theologians (arguably on purely procedural grounds) at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 had permanently stigmatised that Council in the minds of many Christians as soft on Nestorianism. He was determined to have the writings of these men — the “Three Chapters” — condemned as heretical by a new council in order to show that the Church loyal to Chalcedon was faithful to the doctrine of the third ecumenical Council of Ephesus. Pope Vigilius, despite having ascended the throne of St Peter in highly questionable circumstances, due to the patronage of the government, was under extreme pressure in the West not to condemn the Three Chapters as it was thought that this reversal of the prudential judgment of Chalcedon would fatally undermine its ecumenical status. Justinian was taking no chances and abducted the pope and transported him to Constantinople. Vigilius refused to attend the Council and at one point even prepared a document upholding the Three Chapters which employs all the necessary formulae for an infallible definition laid down by the First Vatican Council in 1870. Only the fact that the decree was addressed to the emperor Justinian himself, who refused to open it and returned it unread and therefore unpromulgated, prevented the pope from infallibly defining an error. For an error it was, because the Second Council of Constantinople decreed precisely the opposite and struck Vigilius from the diptych (the wax tablets listing the hierarchs to be prayed for at the liturgy). A few months later, Vigilius caved in and issued a second constitutum infallibly endorsing the condemnations issued by the Council. The Second Council of Constantinople and its decrees were explicitly recognised and endorsed by four further Ecumenical Councils of the Catholic Church. As with Avignon a schism ensued with those who could not renounce their opposition to the condemnation of the Three Chapters.

One could go on indefinitely with these illustrations of situations in which the supreme authority in the Church has reversed its prudential judgement on matters of the greatest moment. One might reasonably suppose that the abolition of the Jesuits was actually a good idea if undertaken for the wrong reasons. I have never encountered anyone who thought the papacy ought to have stayed in Avignon and Vigilius must have been wrong about the Three Chapters, because it is the infallible teaching of Vigilius himself that they are worthy of condemnation. 

Must we not then pay tribute to the emperor Justinian, St Catherine, St Bridget and even the Jesuit remnant in Prussia and Russia for persevering in their Spirit-guided disagreement, until the supreme pontiffs were persuaded and reversed their decisions?

Benedict XVI famously described the reformed liturgy as “a banal on-the-spot product” and stated in 1976 that “I can say with certainty, based on my knowledge of the conciliar debates and my repeated reading of the speeches made by the Council Fathers, that this does not correspond to the intentions of the Second Vatican Council.” According to Archbishop Gänswein, Traditionis Custodes “broke Pope Benedict’s heart”.

Pope Francis in contrast believes implicitly that the liturgical reform of Paul VI is absolutely that mandated by the Second Vatican Council and that it can be and is the only “expression of the lex orandi of the Roman Rite”.

Who is right? Both men thought the matter extremely important as did Paul VI. Paul VI thought the reform important enough to reject the verdict of the Synod of Bishops he summoned in 1967 to consider the new Mass. Benedict XVI considered it important enough to undo the restrictions which had prevailed upon the former liturgy for the previous forty years. Pope Francis thought it important enough to turn again. Presumably each thought the matter important enough to keep to their own counsel in the face of the contrary judgment of the previously reigning pontiff. As with Avignon and Vigilius, the question is ultimately a matter of theological fact which passes beyond the power of mere prudence to “make it so”.

As the Catechism of the Catholic Church insists,

“[N]o sacramental rite may be modified or manipulated at the will of the minister or the community. Even the supreme authority in the Church may not change the liturgy arbitrarily, but only in the obedience of faith and with religious respect for the mystery of the liturgy.”

No. 1125

Obviously, it is the office of the pope and the bishops to make prudential judgments for the Church and therefore God will have furnished the graces necessary to make them correctly. It would be rash to imagine one’s own judgment superior to that of all the bishops of the world or the pope. But popes do not always agree with popes and councils do not always agree with popes or with other councils. In the end, Constantinople II was right and Vigilius was wrong. Presumably, it was not God’s will that seven successive popes fail to reside in their own diocese. It is hard to imagine the murderers and debauchees who disgraced the throne of St Peter in the tenth century were entirely guided from above. More than one faithful Catholic has wondered if the Fifth Lateran Council could not have done a little more to avert the Protestant Reformation. The sessions of Constance that the popes refused to confirm may have left a little to be desired and the greatest enthusiasts for the prudential judgment of Vatican II seldom wax lyrical about the crusades and inquisitions mandated by all those other councils. Personally, I strongly agree with Nicaea I that no bishop, priest or deacon should be allowed to move diocese, but very little attention seems to have been paid to its strictures for the last thousand years or so. Lateran IV in 1215 insisted that there should be no new religious orders and once again, who can fault them, but plenty of popes have ignored them.

Not everyone who opposed the condemnation of the Three Chapters was a sinner or a heretic. Likewise, not everyone who sought the dissolution of the Jesuits or favoured the sojourn of the popes in Avignon was a knave or a schismatic. Those who keep the faith, stay faithful to the sacraments and remain in communion with the Roman Pontiff need have no fear if charity is their guide. In necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas — “in essentials, unity; in doubtful matters, liberty; in all things, charity”.1 As St John Henry Newman observed:

“God has created me to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission. I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. He has not created me for naught. I shall do good; I shall do His work. I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it if I do but keep His commandments. Therefore, I will trust Him, whatever I am, I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him, in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him. If I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him. He does nothing in vain. He knows what He is about. He may take away my friends. He may throw me among strangers. He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide my future from me. Still, He knows what He is about.”

1. John XXIII, Ad Petri Cathedram (1959), no 72.