The meaning of Pope Francis’ silence
December 7, 2016 (LMS Chairman) -- Silence is not necessarily a neutral response to a question. There is an interesting discussion of it in the courtroom scene in A Man for All Seasons. Silence implies consent: but consent to what depends on the context. Silence can imply approval and complaisance, or the opposite: contempt, or a complete lack of interest.
In any case, the question of meaning is separate from the question of motivation. Motives for actions may be hidden deep in the heart; meanings are public, and are set by the public understandings of words, gestures, and the context in which they occur. That’s not to say that any one person’s understanding of the meaning of a statement, or a symbolic action, or omission, is infallible; it is just to point out the obvious, that it is not open to anyone to use the word ‘no’ to mean ‘yes’ simply by a mental act inaccessible to anyone else. His statement may be insincere, but it still means ‘no’.
With Pope Francis, it is hard not to be reminded of politicians’ use of the phrase ‘my position is very clear’, which is generally followed by a pre-prepared statement which does not answer the question. We may say that the Pope’s position is ‘very clear’, in a similar way. The path to the present crisis is strewn with references to how the teaching on the indissolubility of marriage is maintained. But no less insistent is the claim that Amoris laetitia has not simply left things as they were before. Something has changed, something which will make a big difference to a large number of people, something which makes it possible for many people formerly considered, officially, ineligible for Holy Communion, able to receive now, after they and their friendly local priest have ‘discerned’ this.
The level of confusion is such that it is not clear even to those welcoming the new situation what category of people is covered by this new dispensation. One ‘Bergoglian’ tells us it is all about people who are at the fringes of moral responsibility – people driven close to insanity (one might think) by the blackmail of hellish second partners. Another Bergoglian tells us that it is people in grace-filled and happy second unions who can discern their way back to the communion rail. Both views can point to hints in the document, but not all of Pope Francis’ self-appointed partisans are ready to go the whole hog.
Into this cauldron of confusion Pope Francis declines to intervene. The confusion has been created by his statements, his documents, and his chosen spokesmen and associates, so it is natural enough that he does not want to intervene, at least until it has served its purpose. But what could be its purpose, then, and what does it all mean?
One thing to note is that Pope Francis’ native political culture is Peronist, in which the artful creation, maintenance, and timely dissolution of ambiguity and internal conflict – crisis management - is a perfectly familiar way of getting things done. Indeed, you don’t need to be a Peronist to see the advantages of this approach. People will accept things as the price to resolve an escalating crisis, which they will not accept under normal conditions. If you want to reconcile two entrenched parties, or push through painful reforms, or suspend the rule of law, it might be the only way of doing it.
The second thing to note is that the culture of ecclesial politics since Vatican II is somewhat complementary to this. The collapse of belief in the Real Presence, and of the practice of Confession, to take just two examples, are the direct consequence of what Catholics have been taught to do and to think, all the while the Church’s official documents have told us that ‘the teaching of Trent remains intact’, while not actually asserting that teaching with a great deal of conviction. The ambiguities and evasions of the most authoritative documents are glossed with nods and winks at the next level down, the level of Papal speeches and curial Instructions and Directories. These nods and winks become stern instructions to avoid mentioning the traditional teaching at the next level, the level of Bishops’ Conferences and seminary curriculums. At the parish level, on-message priests can preach openly against the old teaching.
Let me illustrate.
Step 1: The Second Vatican Council said that the vernacular could be used for some of Mass, because it may ‘frequently may be of great advantage to the people’.
Step 2: Pope Paul VI said in an allocution that the vernacular would be the ‘the principal language of the Mass’, if (isn’t it wonderful? the key sentence is in the subjunctive) Latin ‘kept us apart from the children, from youth, from the world of labour and of affairs’ like a ‘dark screen’.
Step 3: Bishops’ conferences around the world ceased to make provision for the teaching of seminarians to celebrate Mass in Latin. I was told recently that Allen Hall, the Seminary of the Archdiocese of Westminster, does not have a copy of the Novus Ordo Missal in Latin.The American bishops were excused from the obligation, still in Canon Law, to teach Latin to seminarians because, they explained, they have to teach their priests Spanish.
Step 4: A parish priest can today publish in a parish newsletter (I have a recent example) an attack on the idea of Latin liturgy as utterly absurd.
Oh but this is not about doctrine! I hear readers say. Really? Well, here is Canon IX of the Council of Trent:
If any one saith, ..that the mass ought to be celebrated in the vulgar tongue only; … let him be anathema.
Yes, the sincere but not especially high-brow priest who comes out and says, in his newsletter, what his highers and betters have only hinted and winked at has actually been betrayed into heresy: into a direct contradiction of an infallible teaching by a General Council.
For practical purposes there has been a ‘back flip’ (in Cardinal Pell’s phrase) of teaching, but this can’t be said clearly at the highest level, at least at first. When the new position has been implied by layer after layer official ambiguity, semi-official hints and nudges, and unofficial teaching and practice, then they’ll be ready to come out openly and say it officially: at least, I assume that this was the plan, or at least the hope.
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The situation with Amoris laetitia isn’t so very hard to understand, when seen against this background. On the one hand, there is a well-trodden path of allowing conflict and confusion to make something which is totally unacceptable first imaginable, then possible, and then actually the best we can hope for to avoid complete disaster. On the other hand, there is an even better-trodden path of saying officially something which is arguably not at odds with the traditional teaching of the Church; which will be glossed semi-officially as, you know, pointing in a particular direction, and let’s just not say anything about the old teaching; which will be taken by priests at the coal-face, genuinely seeking the good of souls, in a way which simply and plainly contradicts—never mind Trent—the words of Our Blessed Saviour.
Are we going to get a clarification? Only if there is a policy reversal—not to be expected under Pope Francis—or, alternatively, if the policy ceases to attract opposition. While there is some opposition to speak of, while there is anyone of significance annoying enough to point at those old texts setting out the old teaching, and taking them seriously, then it will not yet be the right time to disambiguate the situation at the official level.
Is this a cynical reading of recent history? I think it is a charitable reading. I’m not saying anyone involved has had any but the best intentions. The stakes are high; the opposition entrenched; time is pressing. What would you do? Jesus called his disciples to be as cunning as serpents; there has always been manoeuvring and politicking in Rome. The trouble is that if He said anything at all, if He gave the Church any teaching to guide her children, then we need to take more seriously those old notions and texts, than this kind of policy does. And, bearing in mind that the Pope is unwilling to come out and say openly that Jesus was wrong about divorce, I feel duty-bound to oppose his so-called supporters who do.
Reprinted with permission from LMS Chairman.