A wild lack of prayer
Pope Francis got the attention of the lapsed Catholics and non-Catholics who greatly outnumber those of us who persist. He answers questions with questions, it seems— just like that kind of teacher which idle pupils find frustrating and barrack but whom genuine students appreciate.
Wedge issues in politics — those which drive a wedge between one person and another, as between a door and a doorway, and allow someone else to prise them apart — are matters like migration. Those strike people within a single class in different, conflicting ways. Wedge issues in the Church tend to concern sexuality. Pope Francis has tried to ignore them.
Then there are brand issues, those problems which voters find relevant and which a certain political party seems to own. In the Church, appallingly, the liturgy became a brand issue. It became a badge of belonging, whether you went to Mass in Latin or in English. Latin Mass-goers were branded as taking one party line, and Mass-goers in the vernacular, another line.
If there were now two badges, there was already a wedge. Belonging to one party or the other is not belonging to one another, and to Christ, as the Church. What the partisans seem not to grasp is that by their ‘party spirit’, they reduce their own Church membership. In politics, to careerists, this is unimportant, because they form other parties, or ‘rat’ and ‘re-rat’. But in religion it does. The wedge which all these divisions drive home is their mockery of communion.
There is no other Church. There is the one Church from which all things have followed, the only Church whose historical date of origin is unknown, and there have been the various schisms and departures, each of them dateable, of Christian communities no longer now in full communion. They are not alternatives, but parts of a fracture. That is it. There is nowhere else to go.
Forming a new Church is not an option — it would never be the Church that Christ founded, whatever you think of Catholicism— and schism is stomach-churning for Christians exactly because it creates divisions within a belonging that still exists. There is usually schism after councils, and American interests now are reviving still more powerfully the schism that took place with Lefebvre and which as a result, will not after all have gone after away. Candidates to be the Americans’ Lefebvre line up in tweeted messages. The activists deploy the name and image of the aged Benedict as freely as they used John Paul’s name, when John Paul II was terminally ill.
The difference is this (between the French case and the American). American neoconservatives backed John Paul II and Benedict, and inventions like ‘Whig Thomism’ followed — despite the pronouncedly social democratic tenor of the two popes’ actual teaching from Laborem Exercens to Caritas in Veritate. Lefebvrism built on ready-made allegiances but, allegiances which were dying in French society. Yet American money has not been dying. The network of neocon and far-right contacts which has been growing for twenty years is not dying out like the monarchists and Orleanists of France.
Americans found it possible to co-opt the popes for conservatism in a way that with Francis, just will not work. Instead, some activists hoped for influence in the Order of Malta, which has the unique and ambiguous status of a wealthy sovereign power that is at the same time answerable to the Pope. Capturing this sovereign might have led to turning it against the sovereignty of the Pope.
Happily, a Grand Master in 2017 declined to force the issue. Deprived of a base there, deprived of a base in the Latin Mass which Benedict had generously and pastorally extended but which the political Catholics made into a badge of division once again, those who have a schismatic mind are looking round wildly for new wedges and for fresh ways to be disrespectful of the Pope.
These are the very people who used to be more papal than the pope, and ‘ultramontane’! Making a lot of fractious noise is itself a strategy to frustrate that new hearing which Pope Francis gained for the Church. If Francis does not step down to that level, and define ‘positions’ clearly as though he were the leader of only another Church ‘party’ — if he does not do what his detractors criticise him for ‘failing’ to do — he is surely wise, not to step into the baited trap.
The sleight of hand after 1978 was managed by means of those wedge sexuality issues. Sexuality was mostly what we heard in those decades — not social justice, not even the Gospel (except insofar as it overlapped with sex). But this will not work with Francis, either. ‘Who am I to judge?’, he replied, when invited to drive a wedge issue further — frankly not at all dissimilarly to our Lord when he drew in the sand with a stick and would not cast a stone.
So instead, when Pope Francis points out that besides adultery, there are grave sins to do with money not sex, there have been outlets happy to say that he has claimed adultery is no sin. People are prepared simply to say these things: things not just decontextualised but false. There are people of schismatic mind who have been happy to cast up accusations of heresy. And yet Gaudium evangelii, and the Apparecida document that lies behind it, are quite, quite traditional. Simply, however: they speak of love, not neoconservatism, and against bureaucracy, not people. They are the real deal, and not the rewritten USA neocon package.
The synodal process in my own area has immediately triggered activist-style emails which provide me with a writing frame to express ‘my’ views through, instead of encouraging prayer for discernment so that I can become quite sure what my view should be. These are just the sort of cut-and-paste, fill-name-in-here templates that political campaigns use. There is in all this a wild lack of prayer, the great danger of which must be, not one ‘platform’ or another but: playing politics with, that is, desecrating, what is holy — the Church.