Why Pope Francis’ new document on Scripture gives reasons for concern
October 8, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) — On September 30, the feast of St. Jerome, Pope Francis released the text of a motu proprio titled Aperuit Illis, instituting the so-called “Sunday of the Word of God.”
This motu proprio was oddly timed, appearing right before the creation of new cardinals and the start of the controversial Synod on the Amazon Region. Given the circumstances, one might be forgiven for thinking the motu proprio was meant to be overlooked or undervalued. There has been almost no commentary on it. A few conservatives thought it sufficient to say: “This document is orthodox in content, therefore we can breathe easily. No Amoris Laetitia moment has occurred. Potential bullet dodged.”
Such an approach is understandable but problematic. Those who remain at the level of the “truth of the text” in an abstract sense are ignoring the context for this intervention. Why this document, and why right now? Was there some pressing crisis or dispute Pope Francis stepped in to resolve? Errors on Scripture have been rife for the past fifty years and more, and previous popes have responded more adequately to them than this brief document does. For far too long, conservatives have been isolating each papal act and X-raying it for its truth value, not recognizing that we have allowed ourselves to be reduced to a pathetic caricature of Catholicism if the best we can say of a papal act is that it does not contradict the Deposit of Faith!
Instead, we must look at cumulative patterns and tendencies in order to understand how each piece fits in: not just text, but context. Unfortunately, as with most of Pope Francis’s “conservative” statements, it is much more likely that Aperuit Illis is part of a calculated strategy to keep the conservatives on board as long as possible, using them for the ultimate triumph of papal progressivism.
Perhaps the most striking thing about this motu proprio is the astonishing cynicism of the timing of it, coming right before the start of a synod that represents, in its planning and already in its execution, a standing insult to the Word of God (both written and incarnate). Pope Francis is throwing a bone to the conservatives, who will fawn all over this motu proprio because it’s basically orthodox and even quotes Church Fathers — as if the Vatican cares at all nowadays about continuity with tradition. Anyone who has studied the past six years of this pontificate can see all the classic signs of a clever propaganda move: keep clueless people guessing as to your real intentions and beliefs, by taking two steps to the left, then one step to the right. If only the remaining conservatives would wake up and see the bigger picture, they would recognize that they’re being “had.” And then we could get on with the work of rebuilding authentic Catholicism with such ingredients as the ancient one-year lectionary that has been read in the Church, in one form or another, for 1,500 years.
Nevertheless, Aperuit Illis is not a document without problems, and these we need to understand in order to fit this latest piece into the puzzle.
The motu proprio drives a new wedge between the traditional worship of the Church and the modern papal rite by instituting yet another feast (of sorts) in the Novus Ordo calendar: “the Sunday of the Word of God,” to take place on the Third Sunday of Ordinary Time. Each Sunday is already, and has always been, a day of the Word of God, inasmuch as the Bible is proclaimed and the Word Incarnate, whom the Bible announces, comes to be present on our altars. This new observance is either superfluous or moving in a different direction from the Catholic understanding of Scripture in the liturgy. As Gregory DiPippo explains, the goods the pope says he wants are already present in the Church’s tradition — something the pope acts as if he doesn’t know (and maybe he doesn’t!).
Some might object in the pope’s favor that the Catholic liturgy has always added feasts over the centuries to celebrate this or that particular mystery (e.g., Corpus Christi). In reality, however, the Christian liturgy exists to celebrate the mysteries of Christ and His saints. From this point of view, a generic exhortation to celebrate “the Word of God” in the sense of Scripture is regressive, since the Church already celebrates the Word of God made flesh on March 25 and December 25, and the Word of God permeating the Church on Pentecost and its entire season. In fact, since the motu proprio emphasizes the role of the Holy Spirit in reading and assimilating Scripture, the pope ought to have admitted that the Green Sundays deserve to be called once again, as they had been for over fifteen centuries, “Sundays after Pentecost,” which reminds the Church of the intimate bond among Christ, His Word, and His Spirit of Love and Truth, rather than “Sundays of Ordinary Time.”
The Mass is not a Scripture study à la Protestant Bible services, but a sacrificial offering in which readings occupy a preparatory and subservient role, as “verbal incense” offered in the presence of God, lifting the people to praise Him for His mighty deeds of deliverance. This latreutic function of Scripture is very clear in the ancient liturgies both Eastern and Western, but quite obscured in the Novus Ordo (a point that has been discussed in a number of articles, such as this one).
Although it often names its Sundays after Gospel pericopes, the Byzantine church would never have a “Sunday of the Word of God” in the sense in which it is defined in Aperuit Illis, which has nothing to do with liturgical tradition, with icons or mysteries in the life of Christ. Those who love the Word of God want to venerate it in the ways that traditional liturgies already venerate it. The Tridentine Mass gives far greater ceremonial weight and honor to the proclamation of Scripture than the Novus Ordo does. My own love of lectio divina has come from and been nourished by an ever deeper experience of the traditional Latin liturgy, which meditatively weaves passages of Scripture together in a manner that is comparable to lectio divina as practiced by a true master of Scripture like St. Bernard of Clairvaux.
One of the most harmful aspects of the Novus Ordo is its cult of the new and improved (with the new calendar as a shining example, by which centuries of deeply rooted customs and devotions in the Church were swept away). The traditional liturgy shows great stability over many centuries, and the new feasts grow organically from within it. This “Sunday of the Word of God,” on the contrary, looks like another “I woke up this morning and had a good idea” sort of thing. And how vague it all is — not like the sharply defined feast of Christ the King, which was originally instituted in relation with All Saints. (It has subsequently been modernized into a Teilhardian feast of “Christ the King of the Universe.”) One result of the new motu proprio is indisputable: it helps us to see more clearly that the whole conception of what a feast is and how it is to be celebrated is different in the old missal and in the new.
If the pope really wanted Scripture to be exalted among Christians, the best way of doing that would be to ensure the proper celebration of the liturgy in which Scripture is embedded. Offering the Mass worthily, reverently, and beautifully does more to lift the faithful’s appreciation of and reverence toward the written Word of God than any amount of preaching, or artificial and piecemeal spotlights like “enthroning the Gospel book” (when, at the same liturgy, non-vested lay people will just walk up out of the nave and read a vernacular text at the ambo, which kills any sacrality that that moment might have had). As Fr. Zuhlsdorf likes to say, “a rising tide lifts all boats.” Make the liturgy great again, and the Bible will rise with it. If the liturgy is dumbed down, superficial, horizontal, the perception of the Bible will sink with it.
Along these lines, the document praises postconciliar lector praxis, in spite of the fact that it has been a powerful force for the Protestantizing of Catholic perceptions of both Scripture and liturgy, as I have argued elsewhere. Moreover, the role of lector, which is a legitimate liturgical function (albeit historically reserved to those who had received at least the minor order of lector), is placed alongside the fabricated and much abused function of “extraordinary ministers of holy communion,” which has greatly contributed to the lessening of belief in and reverence for the Blessed Sacrament. In this way, Aperuit Illis lends support to abusive liturgical praxis, shoring up one unnecessary and untraditional lay ministry by means of another. The “progressives” in the Church have long been agitating for female-instituted lectors and acolytes (as further steps toward deaconesses and priestesses), and when the moment arrives, you can be sure that Aperuit Illis will be footnoted as a “magisterial” precedent.
Then there is a simple psychological point. If anyone seriously thinks setting aside a Sunday in which clergy will ramble on from the pulpit about Scripture — as they already mostly do, Sunday after Sunday, thanks to a mechanical application of the idea that preaching should always be based on the readings — will increase Catholics’ appreciation for the Bible, he is more to be pitied than censured. What would really make a difference in the life of the Church is if the pope himself obeyed the Word of God in his teaching and life, defending the doctrine of Christ and fighting corruption in the ranks, especially in the Vatican. Instead, he contradicts the Word of God and not only dines with corrupt clergy, but promotes them in their corruption.
It is therefore not a little alarming when Francis, in Aperuit Illis, quotes Benedict XVI that “the letter [of Scripture] needs to be transcended” (n. 15). One immediately thinks not of medieval exegesis, but of Modernism. For indeed, Pope Francis has become an expert in “transcending the letter” of Scripture — although perhaps the verb “transgressing” would be more appropriate in this connection.
For the Church Fathers, the “letter” of Scripture, its historical or first-level meaning, is inspired and inerrant and always true, although it also opens out onto spiritual meanings — allegorical, moral, and anagogical — i.e., pointing to the mystery of Christ, telling us how we are to live today in imitation of Him, and illuminating our final destiny in Heaven with Him. When we see the spiritual meaning of a passage, we do not transcend its letter by leaving it behind; we see into the letter more deeply. Yet it is precisely the campaign of proponents of the “new paradigm” to “transcend the letter” when it comes to things like commandments and prohibitions. For example, we have to transcend the absolute prohibition of adultery to find the real meaning, which is that we have to “love one another.” That’s the only thing God had in mind, see? No one should be left without expressions of affection, to which everyone has a right. So the transcendental meaning is, adultery is okay as long as the partners “love” one another. “Love is love,” after all.
When I shared my misgivings about the motu proprio with a priest, he said to me: “Would you criticize this document if it had come from Benedict XVI?” — the implication being that I am criticizing it only because it comes from Francis. That is simply not true. I would say the same things regardless of who the author was. The bare orthodoxy of a document, its avoidance of gross and explicit heresy, is not the only consideration in the world, and in many ways, practically, not even the most important. For example, one could have a liturgy that does not contradict Catholic faith and morals but nevertheless damages the spiritual lives of the faithful by being impoverished in its expression of Catholicism, riddled with options, horizontal, and anthropocentric. The fact that a liturgy is free from error does not, in and of itself, make it beneficial for building up the life of the Church. Orthodoxy isn’t enough; one needs an adequate expression of orthodoxy, in continuity with tradition, and girt about with unassailable reverence.
Returning to my point of departure — namely, that we have to consider how Aperuit Illis fits into the Bergoglian pattern — I would like to paraphrase the poignant words of a friend:
The motu proprio follows a trend: celebrate something in order to denigrate and forget it. The Year of the Priest: a year where more priests than ever before are thrown under the bus by their bishops. The Year of Mercy, to remind everyone that those guilty of clericalism can’t be saved and that there’s no mercy for traditionally-minded Catholics. Synodality, to express that you have no voice; only the Pope, Coccopalmerio, Cocopalmerio’s boyfriend, and his friends do. Issue a document to “end all abuses” before tolerating or spurring on more of them. Canonize John Paul II and then forget about his teaching in Familiaris Consortio. Canonize Paul VI and dismiss Humanae Vitae. Canonize John Henry Newman and solemnly distort his views on the development of doctrine and why the Catholic Church is the one true Church. Now, with Aperuit Illis, celebrate the Word of God — so as to ignore the Word of God.
We are witnessing here the consummately Machiavellian application of the old expression promoveatur ut amoveatur, let him/her/it be promoted so that he/she/it may be removed or shunted away. Surpassing the Jewish leaders excoriated by Christ (cf. Lk 11:47), Pope Francis, the canonizer of John Paul II, Paul VI, and John Henry Newman, both kills the prophets and builds them splendid tombs.