Rorate Caeli

Rorate Exclusive: A Memorandum by Publisher Neil McCaffrey on “Papal Cheerleaders,” from February 1976 — How History Repeats Itself Today

Rorate is pleased to publish, for the first time, a memorandum that was written by the late traditional Catholic publisher Neil McCaffrey in February 1976. Addressed to Fr. Edward J. Berbusse, S.J. (first chaplain of Christendom College), Fr. Robert Bradley, S.J., Fr. Vincent P. Miceli, S.J., Dr. & Mrs. Dietrich von Hildebrand, and Dr. & Mrs. William A. Marra, this memo reduces to shreds the "papolatry" that has become such a characteristic feature of neo-Catholicism. Though written almost 40 years ago, it is perhaps more pertinent today than ever. (Published with permission of Roger A. McCaffrey.)

                       February 25, 1976

Memo to:
       Fr. Berbusse
       Fr. Bradley
       Fr. Miceli
       Dr. and Mrs. von Hildebrand
       Dr. and Mrs. Marra

       Neil McCaffrey

Bill asked us to contribute a memo about our discussion. I’d like to offer mine on the subject on which we seemed to show the least consensus, criticism of the papacy.

1. Scripture makes no bones about the weaknesses of the Apostles and especially of Peter; which in any case were well known to the early Christians, whose faith survived the knowledge. Catholic history, from the age of the Fathers on down, provides us with the model. It was only in the 19th century that some Catholics found it necessary to refine the policies of the Holy Spirit.

2. The papacy is given primacy from the earliest years, yet there is little evidence of papolatry until we get to the last century. The papolaters of our day would have been regarded with astonishment by the Fathers, by Dante, by St. Catherine, by Bellarmine, by Suarez, by just about anyone you can name.

3. We can see papolatry in perspective when we put it beside its kin; and we can do that with a flying visit to Moscow or Peking. There too we are allowed to criticize underlings. Pravda does it every day. But the Leader, never.

4. Those orthodox Catholics who feel most comfortable with the spirit of Vatican II are least comfortable with its encouragement of free speech. John [XXIII] and Paul [VI] told us to relax and speak our minds. Perhaps they meant us to make an exception about speaking of themselves, but in fact they didn’t say so. So their admirers hasten to protect the Popes from themselves. (It seems, then, that popes can make mistakes; but only a privileged few are allowed to notice them.)

5. In this connection, the favored few allow themselves, and even an occasional unwashed Catholic, one indulgence. We are permitted to disagree with Paul’s Ostpolitik. I haven’t yet been able to divine why the Pope can be criticized about this but not about Church discipline or the liturgy or ecumania. So paradox piles upon paradox. It is possible to make a plausible (though far from compelling) case for papal policy toward Communism. We might argue that the Church expects to outline today’s tyrants; that she is trying to make life a bit easier for Catholics behind the Iron Curtain; that she no longer has any confidence that the West will defend itself; even that life in Eastern Europe is less lethal to souls than life in the West. Whereas I have never heard a good argument for the new liturgy or for the new laxity in discipline. Even the papal cheerleaders can’t muster an argument, for the excellent reason that there is no argument that would commend itself to the orthodox. All the arguments, such as they are, come from the infidels. The papal cheerleaders can only repeat their incantation: obedience, obedience, obedience. By which, ironically, they don’t really mean obedience. They mean something else. They mean: shut up. Is it necessary, in this circle, to spell out the distinction between obedience and calling black white? (By way of underscoring the bankruptcy of papal policy, have you noticed that nobody ever talks these days about devotion to the Mass? There are no more courses on the Mass, no more books, no more private studies so that we might assist more knowledgeably and devoutly. In fact, if you so much as call it the Mass, you are a reactionary. There is a message here for the apologists of the new liturgy. But they don’t want to hear it. That would be “disloyal”. As long as we polish up the reputation of the present Pope, it would seem, we can forget about what happens to the Mass.)

6. Which leads us ineluctably to the question of charity. I suggest that the papal cheerleaders are pursuing a policy that has the effect of destroying souls, but that masquerades as charity. They want to deny this Pope, or any living pope, the blessing of constructive criticism; and never mind what its absence may do to his soul. Never mind what the spiritual writers tell us about the duty of fraternal correction. Above all, never mind what its absence will do to the Church, and to the souls of the faithful. The caricatures that pass for charity in the Church today may be Satan’s most spectacular recent victory.

7. We heard a lot of talk Sunday about the importance of faith when authority misbehaves, all of it sound. I think faith involves a corresponding devotion to truth, even unpalatable truth. What does a Catholic have to fear from truth? Shrinking from the truth is an indecent posture for a Catholic. Granted, tender souls need not concern themselves with high policy, and with the blunders of those in authority. That does not exonerate the mature Catholic. Moreover, if nobody concerns himself with these blunders, nobody will criticize them; and evil will flourish, unopposed.

Not only that, but the papal cheerleaders are naive if they suppose they can silence criticism. All they succeed in doing is suppressing it among the orthodox. So the only criticism the Pope hears (except for coarse abuse from the unbalanced Right) is from the enemies of the papacy. When we reflect that this Pope is obsessed with public opinion (‘‘human respect,” the spiritual writers used to call it), it becomes double folly to choke off constructive criticism from the loyal orthodox. 

What makes the papal cheerleaders that way? Partly, as we have seen, a counterfeit charity. Partly, I think, an unappetizing elitism that makes them think even mature catholics can be affected in their faith if they admit to themselves that popes can suffer from the worst human weaknesses. And partly, it is fair to suspect, their own faith may not be seasoned enough to cope with this.

Neurotics make lousy parents. Sometimes they try to make their child healthy by giving him a germ-free environment. Which only makes him prey to the first disease he encounters. Do the papal cheerleaders really suppose that stomping out every whisper of criticism is going to fortify the faith of the people they presume to speak for? It only leaves them vulnerable. They have built up no antibodies. The intelligent and charitable policy is to show innocent souls that true devotion to the Church, and to the papacy, is not incompatible with constructive criticism; indeed, demands it.

The answer to immaturity is not perpetual childhood. A better cure is to grow up.

P.S. What the cheerleaders are really telling us is that this Pope (any Pope?) is too vain, too irascible to accept even constructive criticism; that he is incapable of growth; that he is a crippled human being; and that he must be treated not like a father but like an Oriental despot. Q.E.D.