Pope Francis, Dom Guéranger and the Christian sense of history

“Who am I to judge?” These words of Pope Francis, spoken on 28 July 2013 on the flight back from Brazil, in response to a journalist’s question about homosexuals, have gone down in history. They do not manifest the subjective attitude of mercy that every Catholic must have towards a sinner in a concrete case, but the refusal to express clearly his own judgment on an objective sin condemned by the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It is indeed true that “the ways of the Lord are mercy and truth” (Psalm 24:10), but mercy is to be applied to the concrete case only after the unequivocal affirmation of the truth. It is therefore no wonder that this phrase was interpreted around the world as a change — or an attenuation — of the Church’s doctrine on homosexuality. Presumably, that was not the pope’s intention, his statements being prompted by the political desire to please his interlocutors, but the result was disastrous.

The words of Pope Francis concerning China on 15 September 2022, on the return flight from Kazakhstan, in response to a journalist from Crux, express the same political line of compromise. In order to justify the Holy See’s dialogue with the communist regime of Xi Jinping, the pope refused to define China as an undemocratic country, downplaying the gravity of the trial against Cardinal Joseph Zen underway in Hong Kong. 

“Qualifying China as undemocratic, I do not identify with that, because it’s such a complex country … yes, it is true that there are things that seem undemocratic to us, that is true. Cardinal Zen is going to trial these days, I think. And he says what he feels, and you can see that there are limitations there. More than qualifying, because it is difficult, and I do wish to qualify, they are impressions, and I try to support the path of dialogue.”

Cardinal Gerhard Müller recently called the trial of Cardinal Zen “unjust” and “very grave”, lamenting that no word of solidarity with him has come from the dean of the cardinals, Cardinal Re, nor from Secretary of State Parolin, nor even from the pope. The 2022 reports of the main international institutions — World Watch, the UN and Amnesty International — call attention to the crimes against humanity for which China is responsible. For forty years it has imposed its one child policy through abortion, and still today there are about 9.5 million abortions a year, almost as many as the 10.6 million births registered in 2021. Technology is at the service of repression, and repression facilitates criminal activities, such as human organ trafficking. A study, published in 2020 and funded by the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, denounces — with numerous testimonies — the murder of political prisoners in China, aimed at supplying their organs to some of the hospitals which provide heart, liver, lung and kidney transplants for Chinese and foreign patients.

Pope Francis does not want to “characterise” the Chinese Communist dictatorship as undemocratic, but his task is precisely that of characterising, judging, defining, distinguishing the true from the false, the just from the unjust. This must take place according to a precise rule: the interests of the Church, founded by Jesus Christ, of whom the Supreme Pontiff is Vicar on earth. The criteria of judgment, for the pope, as for every Catholic, are not political, sociological or philosophical, but supernatural. This is what Dom Guéranger reminds us of in a brilliant and very topical little book, just translated into English, The Christian Sense of History (Calx Mariae Publishing, London 2022).

Dom Prosper Guéranger was born on 4 April 1805 near the former Benedictine abbey of Solesmes, (secularised in 1790 during the French Revolution) and died on 30 January 1875, after having restored the abbey — and the Benedictine order along with it. In 2005, the cause for his beatification was opened in the diocese of Le Mans. A few months after his death, Pius IX published a brief in his honour, stating that:

“endowed with a powerful genius and in possession of a marvellous erudition and extensive knowledge of the canonical rules, [Dom Guéranger] applied himself throughout the course of his life to courageously defending in his writings of the highest value the doctrine of the Catholic Church and the prerogatives of the Roman Pontiff.”

Ecclesiasticis viris (19 March 1875)

Dom Guéranger was an exponent of the ultramontane movement which, in France, included the names of Louis Veuillot and Cardinal Pie; in England, of Fr Fredrick Faber and Cardinal Manning; in Spain of St Anthony Mary Claret. The ultramontanists were those who enthusiastically supported the great acts of the pontificate of Blessed Pius IX: the proclamation of the Immaculate Conception (1854), the condemnation of liberalism, with the Syllabus (1864), and the definition of the dogmas of the primacy and infallibility of the Roman Pontiff (1870).

In The Christian Sense of History, Dom Guéranger vigorously affirms that the Catholic must not limit himself to a human and naturalistic interpretation of historical events, because we are called by God to a supernatural destiny. Reason, without faith, is unable to understand this destiny. 

“Supernatural revelation was not necessary in itself; man had no right to it: but God gave it and promulgated it, and thenceforth nature alone is not sufficient to explain man.”(p 21)

Therefore, according to Dom Guéranger, “every historical framework that sets aside the supernatural order, in its exposition and appreciation of the facts, is a false framework: it does not explain anything and leaves the annals of humanity in chaos and in permanent contradiction…” (p. 22)

The weaknesses and abuses of churchmen do not astonish the Catholic historian, who is able to recognise the direction, the spirit and the divine instinct of the Church. He does not consider the political side of events, but “he calls good what the Church judges to be good and evil what the Church judges to be evil.” (p. 27) 

“A Christian judges facts, men, and institutions from the point of view of the Church; he is not free to judge otherwise, and that is his strength.” (p. 52)

The Church is still standing, in spite of the attacks from within and without to which she is subjected. 

“Heresies, scandals, defections, conquests, revolutions: nothing has succeeded; pushed out of one country, she advances on another; always visible, always Catholic, always conquering and always under attack.” (p. 32)

On the pope’s return from Astana, where he participated in the seventh congress of the leaders of world religions, how can one fail to hear the truth of Dom Guéranger’s critical words towards “that neutral ground on which certain believers meet with unbelievers to hold a kind of congress, which everyone leaves in the same state he arrived”? (p. 70)

Society does not need multi-religious encounters, but coherent doctrines and uncompromising Catholics. 

“If society has a chance of salvation, it is through the more and more resolute attitude of Christians.” (p. 57)

There is indeed a grace “attached to the full confession of the faith” (p. 57): 

“The Christian not only has the duty to believe but also to confess what he believes.” (pp. 50-51) 

What the pope, bishops, priests should proclaim before the world is that Jesus Christ is the King of history and the only Saviour. 

“Let us look at humanity in its relations with Jesus Christ, its head; let us never isolate it, either in our judgments or in our narrative, and, when we consider a map of the world let us remember above all that we have before our eyes the empire of the Man-God and of His Church.” (p. 33)

In the age of naturalism and secularisation in which we live, the pages of Dom Guéranger remind us that the destiny of mankind is not earthly, but heavenly. Only the Church has the keys that open the doors of the supernatural destiny of men. All other paths are false and deceptive, however good may be the intentions of those who tread them.