The news stories keep coming:
— the Irish referendum on May 22 on marriage (the Irish voted "Yes," to allow same-gender marriage);
— the upcoming papal encyclical on the environment (June);
— preparations for the Pope's trip to Cuba and the USA (September);
— the "Bishops' Synod, Part #2" (October);
— the opening of the Jubilee of Mercy (December)...
And, amid the ebb and flow of these and other stories, many Catholics, and others, are thinking and reflecting about the role of the Catholic faith and the Christian tradition in the increasingly post-Christian modern world... and about the role of Pope Francis in promoting and defending that faith under difficult circumstances.
Some today are sharply criticizing Francis for not speaking out more often and more strongly against the passage of the new marriage law in Ireland. These critics contend that Francis, by not speaking out, was partly to blame for the defeat of the Church's position on marriage at the ballot box.
Others (and on this point, note the remarks of Cardinal Burke below) continue to defend Francis, noting that his doctrinal teaching throughout his pontificate has been characterized by a full, eloquent, and often very persuasive explication and defense of perennial Church teaching.
What is often lost sight of in this debate — and this is the reason I close this Letter with the prophetic quotation at the end from Joseph Ratzinger — is that the "worldly powers" have become so influential over human consciences in the 20th and now the 21st centuries, that many traditional declarations of Church doctrine have become actually "counter-productive" when uttered by Church teachers and apologists, then depicted by the media as representing "impositions from on high" against "human freedom and individual dignity."
What Francis has done is place himself in a posture where the Christian doctrines he does preach, day in and day out, can be perceived by "the world" as utterances and encouragements, not from a distant "on high" authority, but from a "man like us," someone who understands human weaknesses and failings.
We must recall, when thinking and reflecting on these days between the two Synods on the Family — October 2014, followed by a year of discernment, and October 2015 — when the Church is attempting to weigh the requirements of fidelity to Christ's teaching alongside Christ's commandment to "feed my sheep," to care for both the righteous and the sinful members of the flock, that Pope Francis is very aware of the temptation by the devil to "give in" to the world. At the conclusion of the first session of the Extraordinary Synod on the Family last October, Francis, addressing the assembled Fathers, said that one of five temptations he and all the bishops needed to fight was "the temptation to come down off the Cross, to please the people, and not stay there, in order to fulfill the will of the Father; to bow down to a worldly spirit instead of purifying it and bending it to the Spirit of God."
Here below are three voices, and a fourth (who does not talk about Francis, but about the general fate of Christianity in our world in coming years), worth taking into consideration:
— Prof. Robert Spaemann, conservative Catholic from Germany (close to Pope Benedict);
— Martin Mosebach, prize-winning German Catholic writer (famous for defending the beauty and sacredness of the old Latin Mass);
—Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke (also well-known for his defense of the old liturgy, and for his generally "traditional" Catholic views).
And the fourth voice is:
—Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI (who was a radical progressive theologian at the Second Vatican Council, then became a more "tradition-oriented" theologian following the student revolts in Europe in 1968; he made the single most radical decision of any modern Pope when he announced he would resign his office two years ago, on February 11, 2013, and in so doing, in effect, "de-mystifying" the office of papacy in a way without precedent).
Mosebach's voice is important because he is an artist, a novelist, not a cleric, not a product of any particular Catholic school, but someone who -- like so many in the modern world -- has found his way back to the Church, and to a profound appreciation of the ancient liturgy, by a private, personal path. His emphasis on tradition has a philosophical basis; he does not believe it is of "this world." He sees it as part of a "transcendent" realm which cannot be contained within "earthly reality."
He expresses his view this way: "The Church must always go back to the foundations because it is an historical institution and refers to a specific time — the so-called fullness of time into which Jesus came. She must always strive in this direction because it is a matter of preserving the essence of the Faith. In the present time we are concerned with a reduction of religion: its transcendental dimension threatens to become invisible."
Mosebach, then, is sort of a "wild card," a brilliant German artist who, desperate to avoid the "dead end" of a "worldly prison," has become a defender and proponent of traditional Catholic faith and liturgy. His words do not reflect any group or "school" in the Church. His voice is a lonely, idiosyncratic one -- and precisely for this reason, I think, is worth taking into consideration.
Spaemann's voice is more "institutional." Spaemann is notable because he is a quite prominent German Catholic intellectual, and because he was very close to Pope Benedict. He has kept up a regular correspondence with the former Pope, has gone to visit him since his retirement, and, arguably, he "understands" Benedict as well as any Catholic intellectual in the world. Therefore, what he says about Benedict has a certain weight, a certain authority (though this is less so the case with regard to what he says about Francis, where his "insights" are not the result of a privileged relationship).
Spaemann, too, is concerned that the Church not become "trendy," that she not "water down" her doctrinal teaching to "please men." He says: "St. Paul says that there will come teachers who say things that sound beautiful for the ears and the people will follow them. But you, says St. Paul to Timothy, shall not be confounded. Pass on the treasure that you have received, in an unfalsified and unshortened manner."
And Spaemann actually sees Pope Francis, despite his humble manners and practices (his choice of shoes, cars, etc.) as more "papacy-centric" than Pope Benedict was.
To make his point, Spaemann argues as follows: "Pope Benedict was certainly one of the sharpest critics of papalism. Francis as a Jesuit [Note: The Jesuits take a special vow of loyalty to the Pope], however, stresses by all means the prominent position of the Pope. He made this very clear in his allocution to the Curia. The Pope has the unrestricted power of definition and also the full jurisdiction, something that Orthodoxy, for example, completely rejects. Francis stresses that he can directly intervene in every diocese of the world. If Benedict would have said something like that, there would have been an outcry. But with Francis, the powers of the Pope are again stressed in a stronger way. And no newspaper is upset."
So Spaemann has some thought-provoking things to say, and they are interesting because he is from Germany, and represents a German view that is very different from the view of many of the more progressive German bishops.
Then there is Cardinal Burke. He has been one of the "lightning rod" figures of this pontificate. And one gets the sense in this fairly recent interview, from about seven weeks ago, that Burke feels that he has been misunderstood. In this interview, he is at pains to express his loyalty to the Pope. He has been depicted as the leader of an "opposition party," and he says, very clearly, that that is not the case. “I have never said a single word against the Pope," Burke says. "I strive only to serve the truth, a task that we all have. I have always seen my talks and my activities as a support to the Petrine ministry. The people who know me well can witness to the fact I am not anti-papal. On the contrary, I have always been extremely loyal and wanted to serve the Holy Father, as I am doing now.”
But it is very interesting that Burke lets slip that some bishops are now forbidding him to speak in their dioceses. This is a sign of the fractionalization of the Church today, and is worrisome for all those who have at heart the unity of the Church.
And then there are the remarks of a young Joseph Ratzinger, published in 1970, when he was 43 — so, approximately halfway through his life, and half a lifetime ago.
In those remarks, Ratzinger — already aware of the rise of such "a-Christian" and anti-Christian movements as Nazism, Communism, Fascism, and Secular Humanism — makes a striking prophecy, all the more striking because he will be elected Pope, and then resign as Pope, just a few years later.
"From the crisis of today the Church of tomorrow will emerge — a Church that has lost much," he writes. "She will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning... And so it seems certain to me that the Church is facing very hard times.
"The real crisis has scarcely begun."
Robert B. Moynihan PhD is the editor of Inside the Vatican magazine.