Rorate Caeli

“For a Catholic freedom... in the Catholic Church”: Fr Claude Barthe on the prospects of a different era to come

(Originally published in French at Res Novae on April 1, 2022)

The present pontificate, with its turmoil, could well constitute, if not the terminal phase of the post-Vatican II era, at least the approach of its end. Provided, of course, that there are men of the Church who have the necessary determination to turn the page.

Unquestionably, today we find ourselves in a pre-conclave atmosphere[1]. This does not mean that the cardinal electors will be meeting tomorrow in the Sistine Chapel. But when the day comes for the preparatory General Congregations to meet, one can only hope that a sincere assessment will be made, opening the way to a courageous examination of conscience. If not, can we hope for the adoption of a kind of interim realism, in virtue of which the Catholic forces that still exist would be allowed to live and develop?

The pessimistic context

We have already had occasion to note that among the highest prelates, not only those of the conservative wing but also for a part of those of various progressive movements, there is now a very lively and pessimistic awareness of secularization, seen as fatal: the situation of the Church, especially in the West, with such a reduction in the number of faithful and priests that it is becoming almost invisible in some countries. This makes them realize that all the solutions tried since the Council have failed, one after the other: reforms at all costs under Pope Montini, attempts at "restoration" under John Paul II and Benedict XVI, reactivation of an unbridled conciliarism under Francis. It is easy to see that the ecumenism and interreligious dialogue of Vatican II have contributed to the devaluation of the Church's mission. No one, however, dares to say openly that the orientations of this non-standard, anormative Council have played a large part in the catastrophe we see today. It is true that only the most ideological of the Bergoglians, such as the Jesuits who are currently working on the preparation of the Synod on Synods, consider that it is necessary to go even further and that, moreover, secularization is actually a "blessing."

Many high prelates feel uneasy today about the campaign against "clericalism", which is devastating for the vocations that remain and then is followed by canonical visits and sanctions against communities, seminaries, "clerical" dioceses, which may have their weaknesses, but where vocations still exist. They are also very disturbed by the delirious proposals of the German Synodal Way, with which the assembly of the Roman Synod on synodality is likely to engage in a proven mechanism of negotiation-capitulation, making proposals that fall short of the German proposals but which will have the de facto value of a blank check, of non-condemnation.

It is therefore not difficult to foresee that when the General Congregations meet before the next conclave, overt or subdued criticism of the current chaos will be dominant, including among progressive prelates: a supremely authoritarian government that is as unsynodal as possible, zigzagging decisions, an unreadable reform of the Curia, a resounding failure of diplomacy with China, and a particularly worrisome financial situation (see the well-informed details of the memorandum cited in note 1). As for the doctrinal criticism of the conservatives, it will be heard, not only with regard to the discrepancies between the Bergoglian teaching and the previous teaching (not just what was taught before the Council, but even what has been taught by the previous postconciliar popes!): Amoris laetitia contradicting Familiaris consortio, Traditionis custodes rewriting Summorum Pontificum, as well as the sketchy theology of the pontificate's exhortations and encyclicals.

The forces at work?

Everyone notes that the College of Cardinals has been largely replaced during this pontificate by a record number of new members and that these members have been prevented from meeting, discussing, and giving their opinions freely in consistories. Predictions about the weight of the trends in the Sacred College are therefore more uncertain than ever, even if one assumes that the majority is clearly progressive. It is likely that the nominations in the next consistory will seek to tilt the balance even more in this direction.

But who will be their candidate? For whom will Cardinals Parolin, Marx, Becciu, ultimately have their constituencies vote? Cardinal Tagle, 66, Prefect of Propaganda, who has enjoyed the unwavering support of the Jesuits, seems too close to Francis and does not show much theological depth. The weakness of Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, Archbishop of Luxembourg, besides the fact that he is very young (63), is that he is a Jesuit. Sandro Magister, who is currently redoubling his activity, calls him "Francis II"[2], which is a bitter term in the current context. In fact, his chances, if he has any, lie in the kind of naive moderation with which he tempers his heterodoxy: he is for married priests, but "in the long run"; he is not for women as priests, but would gladly entrust them with positions of authority and homily in celebrations; he believes that "the Church's positions on the sinfulness of homosexual relationships are erroneous," yet he refuses to bless homosexual "marriages"; he has no problem with Protestants coming to Mass for communion, but was horrified when he attended a Protestant communion service and saw the bread and wine being thrown away afterwards, because apparently he believes in the real presence (among Protestants?).

On the conservative side, it seems rather unlikely, at least at this time, that a candidate (Robert Sarah, or with a broader base Peter Erdö, 69 years old, archbishop of Budapest) could collect 2/3 of the votes. But the conservative vote will be necessary for the election of a candidate everyone can agree on, namely, someone from the liberal camp who will necessarily have to listen to their wishes. We can mention, but only to give a sketch of a realistic and reassuring candidate, Jean-Pierre Ricard, former archbishop of Bordeaux, 77 years old, of a liberal progressivism all around. As it stands, Matteo Zuppi, 66, archbishop of Bologna, supported by the very powerful Sant'Egidio pressure group, would meet the conditions. Might others emerge?

For a Catholic freedom... in the Catholic Church

In the nineteenth century, the following paradoxical situation emerged in the French political system: the strongest supporters of the monarchical Restoration, enemies in principle of the modern freedoms brought about by the Revolution, nevertheless constantly advocated freedom: they demanded, not without risk, that they be allowed a space for life and expression, with freedom of the press and freedom of education (but they did not, however, know how to take advantage of the opportunities that this space gave them to turn the liberal order of things upside down).

All things being equal, in the 21st-century ecclesial system... From a Catholic point of view, the perspective to be pursued is, in the long run, that of a more profound "restoration" than that sought by Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI: a return, in order to reactivate an active mission, to a magisterium of full authority, separating in the name of Christ the true from the false on all the controversial questions of family morality, ecumenism, etc. For it is devastating for the visibility of the Church that one no longer knows what or who is inside of the Church and what or who is outside of it, in a body undermined by a latent schism, or rather, submerged by a kind of neo-Catholicism without dogma.

But, more immediately, it seems that all that can be achieved is a loosening of the ideological despotism -- not only that of the present pontificate, which is a kind of conciliar last stand, but of the deeper despotism that has been weighing on the Church since a soft way of believing and praying was imposed on it. It is a despotism which means that, in the name of "communion," it is necessary to submit more or less to a Council and to a liturgical reform which are posed as new Tables of the Law.

The way forward would be for a transitional pontificate to give full freedom to all the living forces of the Church. If we stick to the French situation (which can by analogy be used as a grid of analysis in the whole Church), functional Catholicism today -- that is to say, Catholicism that fills the churches with faithful, notably young people, large families, that produces priestly and religious vocations, that provokes conversions -- can be summed up in two large areas. On the one hand, there is what might be called the new conservatism, with the Emmanuel community, the Saint-Martin community (100 seminarians at present, more than all the French diocesan seminaries put together!), the Community of Saint John, and the flourishing monasteries of contemplative religious; elsewhere in the world, there will be similarly successful religious communities, vigorous dioceses, a few seminaries. And on the other hand, there is the traditionalist world, with its two components, one "official," the other Lefebvrian, its places of worship (about 450 in France alone), its schools, its seminaries (in 2020, 15% of ordained French priests belonged to traditional communities).

It will be objected that a policy of "laissez faire, laisser passer," even if it is in favor of what produces the fruits of the mission, is also full of risks of drifting. That is true; a laissez faire policy is only desirable as long as we remain in the current grey and uncertain magisterial zones.

However, everyone is aware, either because they desire it or because they fear it (cf. the motivations of Traditionis custodes), that it is in the traditional world, because of its symbolic weight, that this full freedom to live and to grow can give the prelates who decide to "turn the tables" the greatest possibilities.