It is perhaps no great secret that the Catholic Church in the U.S. is facing something of an identity crisis. On the one hand, there are those who interpret Pope Francis’s leadership as a license to reshape the entire Catholic Church — men such as Jesuit James Martin promote LGBT ideology as a form of God-given virtue and prelates such as Chicago’s cardinal Blase Cupich and Newark’s cardinal Joseph Tobin align themselves with pro-abortion politicians and not Christ truly present in the Blessed Sacrament. On the other hand, there is a growing contingency of American Catholics who devote themselves to customs and traditions the Church has held for hundreds of years, who favor either a reform of the Church or a return to the glory she once had (instead of the revolution advocated by the leftists in her ranks), who cautiously interpret the Pope’s more confusing statements in the light of longstanding doctrine and well-established theology. (READ MORE: Is Pope Francis Trying to Kill Catholicism?)
While speaking to his fellow Jesuits in Portugal last week, Pope Francis addressed this American Catholic identity crisis, and his assessment was not altogether favorable to the non-revolutionaries. A Portuguese Jesuit mentioned that, while visiting the States last year, he was surprised to hear even some bishops speak critically (or cautiously) of the Francis pontificate, and asked if Francis misses the days when the Jesuits were the Pope’s fiercest critics. The Pope responded:
You have seen that in the United States the situation is not easy: there is a very strong reactionary attitude.… I would like to remind those people that indietrismo (being backward-looking) is useless and we need to understand that there is an appropriate evolution in the understanding of matters of faith and morals.
Comments of this sort are not new territory for the present pontiff; he has frequently referred to traditionalist Catholics and devotees of the Tridentine Mass as “rigid” and “backwards.” But Francis did offer some context and even some degree of clarity to his comments this time. The Pope cited Vincent of Lérins and his criteria for the evolution of doctrine: “that it may be consolidated by years, expanded by time, exalted by age.”
Francis explains that this means that “doctrine also progresses, expands, and consolidates with time and becomes firmer, but is always progressing. Change develops from the roots upward, growing in accord with these three criteria.” This is surprisingly close to thoughts expressed by the late Pope Benedict XVI both in his foreword to the book “The Organic Development of the Liturgy” and in his motu proprio “Summorum Pontificum,” liberalizing celebration of the Tridentine Mass. (READ MORE: Pope Watch: Buckle Up for the End Times)
But Francis applies these principles differently than Benedict did, and thus draws different conclusions. He says, “The view of Church doctrine as monolithic is erroneous.” He explained further, likely alluding to Catholics still devoted to the Tridentine Mass, that “some people opt out; they go backward; they are what I call ‘indietristi.’ When you go backward, you form something closed, disconnected from the roots of the Church and you lose the sap of revelation.” He says that the effects of this mindset on morality are “devastating.” He tells his fellow Jesuit:
You have been to the United States and you say you have felt a climate of closure. Yes, this climate can be experienced in some situations. And there you can lose the true tradition and turn to ideologies for support. In other words, ideology replaces faith, membership of a sector of the Church replaces membership of the Church.
In other words, Francis is disregarding the thought developed by his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, who is broadly considered one of the most insightful and ingenious theologians of the past hundred years, and garnered a reputation as a stalwart defender of moral doctrine. Benedict’s writings make clear that he sees the Church’s wealth of doctrine very much like a tree, always growing upward, as Francis says, but still maintaining its roots. Sometimes the branches of that tree may be in need of pruning when they become warped, gnarled, or dead, as was the case when then-cardinal Joseph Ratzinger quashed Brazilian liberation theology for embracing Marxism and truly replacing faith with ideology.
The view Francis has taken, which is nowhere clearer than in his derisive treatment of the Tridentine Mass and those who adhere to it, is that the branches must never be questioned or pruned — the Synod on Synodality can and must carry on in toying with LGBT ideology and female ordinations to the priesthood — but the very roots of the tree may need to be abandoned and left behind. If this line of thinking is followed to its natural conclusion, the tree which the Church is will be left rootless, dug up from its moorings, and will topple.