The Lefebvre case is bringing orthodox American Catholics to a boil. The dispute, long simmering, centers on Pope Paul VI, but it concerns not only the merits of one individual pope. History is full of such ad hoc squabbles, and history deals with them in its own good time. The present dispute raises more basic questions. What, if any, are the limits of papal power? What does a living pope owe not merely to the doctrines of the Church but to its traditions? To its usages? What does he owe to the ideas and policies of his predecessors? What should be his relations to a world hostile to the Faith?
To one group—let’s call them the conservatives—the questions exist not as subjects for exploration but simply as points for affirmation, slogans for the troops. The pope can do no wrong (or, if he can, don’t mention it till he’s in the grave a safe century or so). Ours not to reason why, or question; ours but to rally round the papal flag, with the conservatives establishing the ground rules for Flag Day.
The opposition have no such simple formula to counter with. The opposition are groping—and bleeding. And the dispute is the more poignant, the more bitter, because most of the opposition until yesterday ranged themselves with the conservatives.
But then, reality broke through. For some years after the Council, the conventional line had been: the Pope is isolated/misled/uninformed/captive/what-haveyou. This position always depended on a vast innocence of Church and human affairs, and moreover needed occasional tokens that the Pope was really on their side. The pressure of catastrophe had to eat away at that position—particularly when the Pope was at pains to show that he does indeed know what is going on, that he is indeed the author of these policies, that he is no fool, and that he is not at all pleased with Catholics who oppose him.
When these facts began to hit home, less balanced Catholics reached for new explanations, and came up with kookery: the Pope is a Communist/Freemason/imposter…or was invalidly elected…or is drugged; and so on. Sensible Catholics, rejecting all this nonsense but still confronting the cruel fact of a pope hostile to much of what they hold sacred, had to enter upon what may be called, at least analogously, their dark night of the soul.
But if God is there, dark nights of the soul can be illuminating. Troubled Catholics began to consider seriously what had once been mere abstractions to them. Not every papal or conciliar statement is infallible, or even wise. Not every papal policy is prudent, or in the best interests of the Faith. No pope, St. Peter himself knows, is beyond error, and no humble pope refuses to correct his error. And, as Dante and St. John Chrysostom once told us, some popes do go to Hell.
These truths had almost to force themselves on many a conscientious Catholic. But once they did, these Catholics made a wondrous discovery: the truth had to set them free. They found to their delight that they had at last joined the Catholic mainstream of centuries. Now the traditions they revered meant so much more to them as they became more deeply a part of those traditions. They drew strength from those traditions. To be specific, they found in Catholic tradition almost universal respect, even reverence, for the pope as St. Peter’s successor—but nothing of the pope-can-do-no-wrong aberration. They found some courtier flattery of popes, but none from Catholics who had a decent respect for the pope, and for themselves. They found among real Catholics a widespread love for the pope as father, and almost no papolatry. (A good son loves and respects his father—but he doesn’t praise him for coming home drunk. Refuting Stephen Decatur’s “My country, right or wrong,” Chesterton once remarked that it was like saying, “My mother, drunk or sober.”)
God writes straight with crooked lines, and when disaster strikes the Church, Providence invariably seems to draw good from it. And why not? Christ, after all, has already conquered. Thus, the derelictions of the present papacy have forced thoughtful Catholics to reconsider the papolatry some had succumbed to in recent decades: a corrective badly needed in many quarters—just as, in the opposite direction, the Councils of Florence and Vatican I helped to right the balance after the Council of Constance had heaped indignities on the papacy. (Incidentally, I wonder how many edicts of Constance those council buffs among today’s conservatives would subscribe to. Or is the most recent Council the only one that counts?)
But enlightenment of the sort that squares with Catholic tradition does not bestow on the loyal opposition the easy one-dimensional formulas generated by the Vatican cheerleaders. Loyal to the pope? Of course—but not to Honorius I when he errs or Sergius III when he murders. Peter must be corrected by Paul, and Gregory XI did not lack for courtiers to assure him that he was doing right by staying in Avignon. But the girl who told him bluntly that his place was in Rome, and just as bluntly urged him to resign if he would not exercise his authority, is honored as one of the great women in Catholic history, St. Catherine of Siena.
My disagreement with some in the conservative Catholic media is twofold: they distort our present crisis, and are not even true to their own murky principles. They distort by suppressing news about the Pope–which is to say, they fail as Catholic journalists. They never report when the Pope receives a Communist leader, or Women’s Lib pioneer Betty Friedan, or mass murderer Idi Amin. They do not tell us that he refused to meet with an international pilgrimage of traditional Catholics even though they kept an all-night prayer vigil in St. Peter’s Square—though at the same time he was receiving three Portuguese revolutionaries. We could never have learned from them that the Pope joined with the international Left to condemn the Franco government for executing the Spanish terrorists. In papers that proclaim admiration for the Pope, why is news of so many of his key activities carefully excluded?
The answer may be that the conservative Catholic press finds these activities shameful. But doesn’t this repugnance really speak well for it? I think not. First of all, Catholic newspapers must print Catholic news honestly, or they fail in their first duty. But more than that, suppressing news about the Pope says something interesting about one’s professed admiration for him. If it cannot bring itself to report activities it finds shameful, why does the conservative Catholic press at the same time pretend that the Pope is blameless?
There is one other alternative: the conservative Catholic press shares the Pope’s penchant for revolutionaries, but dares not let on for fear of losing its readers. But this explanation is absurd on the face of it. The first alternative is the only one that rings true. The conservative Catholic press is the prisoner of its own inconsistency, trapped in it by a liberal Pope.
Of course they don’t have to be trapped. What they can do, what I hope some day they will do, is to subject their premises to a good dose of Catholic history, swear off papolatry, and take the cure. It may pinch, but adversity is the price of growth, and a channel of grace.
The situation of papal-loyalist organizations differs in one way from that of the press: they are not newspapers. They therefore have no obligation to report awkward facts—though they do have an obligation to face them. I believe they, and the likeminded Catholic press, resist the facts, and here also fall short of their own principles.
Their position is familiar: the conciliar documents are blameless; the Pope is just as blameless as guardian of the Faith and tradition; everything bad that has happened has happened in spite of the Pope and the Council.
Who can deny the enormous emotional appeal of this position? Almost every orthodox Catholic used to hold it, if he doesn’t now. Every orthodox Catholic wishes he could hold it. There is only one argument against it: it isn’t true.
Among other things, the argument is jejune. As if Church councils are only judged by their documents! People who think this have no sense of the texture of human affairs, hence of history. If we judge the Council of Constance merely off the handful of disciplinary measures it passed and Martin V signed, we would yawn and give it a paragraph in Church history. How different was the reality—an anti-papal orgy the like of which the Church has never seen (save perhaps in the last fifteen years), whose effects dogged the Church for more than four centuries.
Not surprisingly, Pope Paul VI understands his Council far better than his conservative admirers. He has never disguised his conviction that the Council was the gateway to change in the Church, and was meant to be. And he has underscored this, pointing out that Gaudium et Spes was a break with the old Catholic view of the world held by many of the saints. (He could with greater accuracy have said all of the saints—not to mention the authors of the Epistles, and our Lord Himself.)
As for the conciliar documents themselves, they require an exegesis that could fill a bookshelf. But they do breathe a spirit, especially where they deal with temporal problems, that clashes with the strictures of earlier popes on liberalism and humanism.
It is no accident that liberals the world over sang hymns to the Council. Were they all wrong? The children of this world are wise in their generation. The liberals know their own. In particular, they know that the Council moved their way on religious liberty—whereas they despised the views of earlier popes (who, in turn, were simply repeating what had been the unvarying attitude of the Church since the Apostolic Age). If the Council did not offer a wholly novel view of religious liberty (novel, that is, for the Church; it is old hat for liberals), then words have lost all meaning. This, I suspect, is one reason why Archbishop Lefebvre is denied his hearing. The Vatican is loathe to defend a hopeless case, even in its own court.
But the Pope himself has given us the final refutation of the conservative position, in condemning Archbishop Lefebvre. Among other things the Pope demands that the Archbishop accept the post-conciliar “orientations” of the Church—which are, by definition new, or else the Pope, the Archbishop, and the rest of us would be arguing over—nothing.
Which leads to my point that the conservative axis is here again betraying its own position. Why do they decline to follow the post-conciliar orientations? The Pope has endorsed them. Why do they resist the pentecostal wave? The Pope smiles on it. Why do they shy away from the revolutionary activities of papal appointees in the Third World? Why do they quarrel with theological ideas that are taught in Rome’s pontifical seminaries? Why do they argue with catechisms imposed by nearly all the bishops of the world? These bishops, after all, are answerable to the Pope; most are appointees; and the caliber of the appointments has remained constant over fourteen years.
I think I know why. Scratch a conservative—and more often than not you’ll find a traditionalist. But a traditionalist who shrinks from resolving the ambiguity of his own position. This is not surprising. It hurts to change.
Which is just what we’ve been telling our father, the Pope. Who isn’t listening, and doesn’t care.
Neil McCaffrey (1925-1994) was the founder of Conservative Book Club and Arlington House Publishers, which he ran for decades, and a respected behind the scenes political organizer (cf. Buchanan, The Greatest Comeback: How Richard Nixon Rose from Defeat to Create the New Majority, Crown, 2014). Prior to their launch, he worked at Doubleday-Image Books under its founder, John Delaney, and was an executive at Macmillan Publishing Company. While there he shepherded a handful of national bestsellers into prominence. A graduate of Fordham University’s journalism program, he was a product of the Archdiocese of New York’s educational system, possibly the best in North America at the time.