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Roman—or Catholic?

The Francis papacy at ten.


Just a couple of months ago, we marked the tenth anniversary of Pope Francis’s election to the Holy See. And, like good Catholics, we marked it with a deluge of op-eds, blog posts, and millions upon millions of tweets. Everyone’s trying to predict the legacy that Francis will leave behind him. Which seems a bit cheeky, since the Holy Father is still, erm, alive. 

Anyway. I didn’t give my two cents, because I wasn’t sure I had anything worthwhile to add. Frankly, I’m not sure anyone had anything worthwhile to add. Whether they love him or whether they hate his, guts, all Church-watchers seem to agree on one point: Francis is fundamentally transforming the Catholic Church in ways we can’t yet fully understand.

The Holy Father is enabling “progressive” heretics in Germany while cracking down on “traditionalist” dissidents in the United States. He’s empowering episcopal synods while curtailing the authority of individual bishops. He’s threatening to overturn the (Western) consensus on hot-button issues like divorce, married priests, female deacons, and artificial contraception. 

Even if the radicals lose every single one of these battles, Catholics will never be able to look at the papacy the same way again. If nothing else, Francis is throwing the whole concept of papal authority into question.

And yet, for that very reason, I can’t help but wonder if he might not be an agent of Providence. Because, in the years since he took office, Catholics all over the world—be they liberal, conservative, or radtrad—have begun to realize that the Roman Catholic Church is a bit too… well, Roman.  

For instance, it’s popular to bag on the Novus Ordo. And with good reason. It feels like what it is: a hybrid liturgy composed largely by bureaucrats of the Roman Curia. Yes, it can be celebrated reverently. But, liturgically speaking, it’s still inferior. Even its most poetic lines (“… by sending down your Spirit upon them like the dewfall…”) can’t compare to the austere beauty of the Tridentine Use (“… blessed, approved, ratified, reasonable, and acceptable…”). 

Still, those of us who prefer the Tridentine Use may easy to forget that, when Pius V ratified the Council of Trent, he needlessly restricted local variations of the Roman Rite, such as the Ambrosian and the Dominican, while completely suppressing others. The most devistating loss, I think, was the Use of Sarum.

The Sarum Use of Roman Rite originated from Salisbury, England. Since the Neolithic Era, Salisbury has been the spiritual heart of the British Isles. And, true to form, the old Sarum missal contains some of the most stunning prayers in the history of Christendom:

Hail for evermore, Thou most holy Flesh of Christ; sweet to me before and beyond all things beside. To me a sinner may the Body of our Lord Jesus Christ be the Way and the Life.

And the “Sarum Prayer” is now well-known among Catholics, thanks to the St. Gregory’s Prayer Book:

God be in my head, and in my understanding
God be in my eyes, and in my looking
God be in my mouth, and in my speaking
God be in my heart, and in my thinking
God be at my end, and at my departing.

Anyone familiar wth the Anglican tradition will recognize something deeply, mystically, and gorgeously English about the prayers of Sarum. No matter how much you love the Latin Mass, you’ve got to admit, the death of Sarum was a tragedy. 

Here’s my point: both the Tridentine Use and the Novus Ordo were imposed upon Europe by Roman authorities. Then, as now, most Western Christians were expected to conform as closely as possible to the Vatican’s liturgical preferences. And this coformism hasn’t served the Church very well at all. 

In fact, before the Counter-Reformation, Rome took pride in the variety of her rites. We honor Sts. Cyril and Methodius for adapting the Byzantine Rite to the particular needs and preferences of the Slavs. In the ninth century, Pope Adrian II encouraged them to translate the Divine Liturgy into a Slavic language—even if they had to write one themselves. 

The Church’s ability to “go native” while remaining faithful to the fundamentals of faith and worship—a process known as inculturation—was taken as proof of her catholicity, her universality. Alone of all the world’s religions, Christianity not only accepts but celebrates the vast, God-given diversity of human people.

Inculturation went out of fashion in the Western Church from the 16th century through the 20th. Today, it’s enjoying a mini-renaissance. While Rome condemns the use of “liturgical dance” in the West, it positively encourages its use in Africa through the Zaire Use. Why? Because in Western cultures, dance is a recreational and even a sexual act. But African cultures, dancing and worship are inseparable. You can’t worship without dancing; you can’t dance without worshiping. (For a more ancient example, take a look at the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church.)

Personally, I think it’s good that Rome is trying to make the Mass more accessible to African peoples. It’s good that the Church is once again accomodating herself to the traditions and customs of her children. And yet, here in the West, conformism still trumps inculturation. 

Put it this way. For over a thousand years—more than half the Church’s history—Rome artificially propped up the use of Latin in the liturgy. Historians say that Latin became a “dead language” no later than 750 A.D. Still, the Vatican contined to insist that it be used in the Roman Rite until the 1960s. For better or worse, the Holy See defined the Latin language as a pillar of the Western Church.

(I say “for better or worse” because I want you, dear reader, to reserve judgment on that question. Whatever your own preferences, set them aside for a moment. Just consider that, for over twelve centuries, Catholics had it drilled into their heads that Latin = Catholic and Catholic = Latin.)

Then, around the time that the Second Vatican Council was convened, many churchmen began to feel that the Roman Church’s exclusive preference for Latin no longer served its purpose. They declared that, once again, Western Christians needed to hear the Mass in their own everyday speech. And I don’t disagree. Not necessarily. (Again, let’s suspend judgment.)

The trouble is that many, many Catholics still felt that Latin was integral to our Catholic heritage. For them, vernacular worship was the opposite of inculturation. Latin is our tradition. No, it it’s not an ethic or a national tradition. But it’s a religious tradition. It is our custom as Catholics

And yet, after Vatican II, the Roman Curia made virtually no accomodations for the pro-Latin faithful. 

Naturally, a good number of Catholics found this sudden about-face deeply disturbing. Most of them bit their tongue and followed orders. Others, like the Society of St. Pius X, simply refused to accept the Novus Ordo. As a reward for their fidelity, they were declared to be in “imperfect communion” with the Holy See. 

It soon became clear that Rome wasn’t actually interested in “meeting people where they are.” They didn’t care about making the Mass accessible to the greatest number of people. If they had, there would have been an indult parish in every large town and ten in every big city. 

No: the Vatican wanted vernacular worship because it fit the (then-)current regime’s vision for a less formal, more “interactive” liturgy. And if anyone felt it was wrong to drop that 1,200-year-old tradition like yesterday’s newspaper… well, too bad.  Roma locuta; causa finita est.

This neo-conformism finally met its match in Pope Benedict XVI, of blessed memory. In his motu proprio Summorum Pontificum, the late Holy Father established that all priests of the Roman Rite were entitled to celebrate the Mass according to the Tridentine Use. In a letter accompanying Summorum, he declared that, “What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful.” Amen.

And Benedict wasn’t content merely to restore the Tridentine Use. He also established the Anglican Ordinariates, permanently accomodating an Anglican Use of the Roman Rite. He said that the Ordinariates existed to “maintain the liturgical, spiritual and pastoral traditions of the Anglican Communion within the Catholic Church, as a precious gift nourishing the faith of the members of the Ordinariate and as a treasure to be shared.”

Just as Benedict pushed back against the Second Vatican Council in Summorum Pontificum, he also pushed back against the Council of Trent in Anglicanorum Coetibus. Where Summorum clearly expresses regret for the suppression of the Tridentine Use and other Roman traditions, Anglicanorumimplicitly regrets the suppression of the Sarum Use and other English traditions.

I’ve referred to Benedict as a “liberal traditionalist” because he sought to accomodate as many valid traditions as possible, including Latin, English, and Eastern Orthodox. (More on the Orthodox later.) Like Adrian II, Benedict XVI was a champion of inculturation.

Pope Francis, of course, has been working hard to undo Summorum, and is now supposed to be taking aim at Anglicanorum. This would seem to put him at odds with the “traditionalist” wing of the Roman Church. Then again, that depends on how you define tradition.

It could be argued that Francis is, in fact, more of a traditionalist than Benedict, because he emphasizes the traditional authority of Rome to impose its own liturgical preferences on then whole Church, (allegedly) in the Church’s own interests. In that way, Francis is much closer to the spirit of Trent than Benedict.

Anyway, that’s how Francis sees it. Hence, when he decided to crack down on the Latin Mass, he gave his motu proprio the name Traditionis Custodes, or “Guardians of Tradition.”  At least since Trent, “tradition” in the Roman Church—especially in regards to liturgy—is determined by curial decree, not local custom. 

In Traditionis, Francis even said claimed to “take comfort in this decision from the fact that, after the Council of Trent, St. Pius V also abrogated all the rites that could not claim a proven antiquity, establishing for the whole Latin Church a single Missale Romanum.” Like Pius, he insists that the Church have “‘a single and identical prayer,’ that expressed her unity.” Not only Pius but the huge majority of pontiffs in the last five centuries have agreed.

Personally, I’m not sold. But, then, this boils down to a much lager question: What does it mean for the Church to be catholic, to be universal? 

Is it her ability to preserve the fundamentals of Christian faith and worship while accomodating diverse expressions of those fundamentals, out of respect for the God-given diversity of the human race, and the integral authority of her local bishops? 

Or is it the universal authority of the Roman Pontiff to impose his own preferences and opinions on every Christian, everywere in the world?

This seems like a loaded question, but it’s not. Think of all the old-world maxims surrounding the papacy.  Roma locuta, causa finita est. “Where Peter is, there is the Church.” For the last thousand years or so, the Roman Church has equated catholicity with Romanitas, or Romanism. 

Yes, there are exceptions. But they’ll always prove the rule. 

It’s not just the liturgy, either.  The original text of the fourth-century Nicene Creed declared that the Holy Spirit proceeded “from the Father.” Yet, today, most Catholics would say that the Spirit proceeds “from the Father and the Son”—in Latin, qui ex Patre Filioque procedit.

As far as we know, the the Filioque was first added to the Nicene Creed in 589 A.D. by the Third Council of Toledo (a local council of the Church in Spain) as a safeguard against the Arian heresy. During the council, King Reccared I—who had himself converted from Arianism to Catholicism just two years prior—declared that “the Holy Spirit also should be confessed by us and taught to proceed from the Father and the Son”.

In any event, use of the Filioque slowly spread from Spain to France, and from France to Germany. The rest of the Western Church continued to use the original form of the Creed, as did the whole of the Christian East. It wasn’t until the ninth century that supporters of the Filioque began lobbying Rome officially to adopt the clause. The court of Charlemagne in particular was a hub of pro-Filioque hardliners. 

In 808 A.D., Pope Leo III wrote to the Frankish king refusing to accept the Filioque. As it happens, Leo agreed wholeheartedly that the Spirit proceeds from the Son as well as the Father. Yet he balked at the idea of amending the Church’s official creeds. The council fathers—acting under the guidance of the same Holy Spirit—had said all they meant to say. It would be wrong to put words in their mouths, even if those words happened to be true. 

Actually, Leo quite staunchy believed that the Spirit proceeds from the Son. He said that it was “forbidden not to believe such a great mystery of the faith.” As well he might. Augustine, the greatest of the Latin Fathers, makes a gorgeous argument for the procession in his masterpiece De Trinitate

Yet Leo was equally disturbed by this strange desire to rewrite history. So, after sending his letter to Charlemagne, he commissioned a plaque to be hung in St. Peter’s Basilica. The whole text of the Nicene Creed was engraved on a silver plate… with the Filioque conspicuously omitted.

Fast-forward to the year 1054. More and more, the Western Church is rallying around the Filioque. For this reason (among others), relations between the West and the East are deteriorating. In a last-ditch effort to keep the peace, Pope Leo IX sends three envoys to Michael I Cerularius, Patriarch of Constantinople. 

Their first meeting is a disaster. The envoys refuse to show Michael the deference customarily owed by bishops to a patriarch. Afterwards, Michael refused to meet with them again.

Now, before we judge envoys too harshy, they had a reason for being standoffish. Michael had begun to omit the Bishop of Rome from his diptychs. The diptychs are a litany of patriarchs recited during pontifical liturgues in the Eastern Churches. When one patriarch omits another patriarch from his diptych, it is understood as a de facto excommunication. (In 1996, the Patriarch of Moscow ceased to include the Patriarch of Constantinople in his diptych, sparking the latest schism between the Russian and Greek churches.) 

So, the Pope’s diplomats weren’t expecting a warm welcome. But their handling of the situation wasn’t exactly diplomatic, either. “Mistakes were made,” as the saying goes.

Then, on July 16, one of the envoys—Cardinal Humbert of Moyenmoutier—enters the Church of Hagia Sophia, seat of the Patriarch of Constantinople. During the celebration of the Divine Liturgy, he strides up to the altar and slaps down a papal bull of excommunication against Michael. Among other things, Michael is accused of “omitting” the Filioque from the Nicene Creed.

The bull declares Michael and another Byzantine bishop (who is also, confusingly, named Leo) to be “anathema maranatha. . . . with all heretics, and with the devil and his angels, unless they repent.”

Pope Leo had given his envoys the signed bull before they had left Rome, instructing them only to use it as a final resort. Incidentally, he had died on April 19 of that year. There’s a serious (and lingering) question as to the validity of his bull. Nevertheless, this date—July 16, 1054—is usually taken as the beginning of the Great Schism between the Catholic Church in the West and the Orthodox Church in the East. Full communion has yet to be restored.

Now, among Catholics, debate about the East/West riff tends to focus on the reign of Leo IX. But we should really take a closer look at the reign of Leo III.

In the elder Leo’s letter to Charlemagne, there are three questions in play: (1) Is the Filioque true? (2) Can any creed, which has been ratified by a Council of the Church, be amended post facto? (3) May the Bishop of Rome peform such an amendment unilaterally?

For Leo, the answer to the first question is yes; to the other three, no. Why? Because one is a question of theology; the other two, of ecclesiology. Leo supports the Filioque, and yet he feels that Ecumenical Councils possess their own integral authority. What’s more, he denies that the Bishop of Rome’s authority is equal to that of a Council; hence his refusal to declare the dogma of the Filioque unilaterally.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but Leo felt as strongly about his answers to (2) and (3) as he did to his answer to (1). He’s a passionate supporter of the procession from the Son—and yet, by hanging those silver plaques, he obviously takes an almost trollish delight in slapping down the Frenchies who want to change the Creed. 

Today, the Roman Catholic Church would say that Leo was wrong on questions (2) and (3). Creeds can be amended, and popes can amend them unilaterally

To be fair, the modern Roman Church wouldn’t necessarily fault Leo for failing to appreciate his own ability to modify Church teaching single-handedly. This is an example of what Roman Catholics call the “development of dogma.” The Church (they would say) grew into a deeper appreciation for papal authority between 808 and 1054.

Now, for the sake of argument, let’s grant that point. Let’s say that Leo IX, in his dispute with Michael I Cerularius, was well within his rights both to impose the Filioque and alter the Creed.

Assuming all of that, does this sound like a reasonable way to “develop” such dogmas? Is it possible that Michael had good reason to be skeptical of Leo IX’s authority, especially given how modest his predecessors (such as Leo III) had been? At the very least, does anyone really believe Michael was acting from sheer malice towards God, equal to that of Satan and his demons? Does anyone really believe that he deserves to burn in Hell forever?

What makes this all so much more tragic is that, today, there are twenty-three Eastern Catholic churches in communion with the Holy See. The great majority of their 18 million members neither use the Filioque when reciting the Creed nor believe that the Spirit proceeds from the Son—at least, not as Rome understands it. And, in fact, both as Prefect of the CDF and as Pope of Rome, Pope Benedict XVI was happy to omit the Filioque.

So, from the Vatican’s perspective—at least for the past 500 years or so, when the Eastern churches began returning to communion with Rome—the Great Schism was totally unnecessary. There was no reason for Rome to break with Constantinople over these changes to the Creed. Michael I Cerularius did absolutely nothing wrong by “omitting” the Filioque from the Creed.

These days, Catholics and Orthodox argue constantly about papal infallibility. Yet the Pope didn’t issue his first infallble, ex-cathedra statement until 1854. That’s not to trilivialize the Orthodox objection to infallibilism. Not by any means! But V1-style infallibilism wasn’t the cause of the Great Schism. Rather, the Schism was precipitated by Romanism: the assumption that every opinion held by the current pope is binding to all Christians, everywhere in the world. 

And Romanism has done as much damage to the Western Church as it has to our brothers in the East. 

The most glaring example came in 2018, courtesy of the Pope’s friend and advisor Thomas Rosica, S.J. 

For those who don’t recall, Father Rosica (in)famously declared that, under Francis, the Church is “openly ruled by an individual rather than by the authority of Scripture alone or even its own dictates of tradition plus Scripture.” The Holy Father “breaks Catholic traditions whenever he wants” because he is “free from disordered attachments.”

Statements like this ought to horrify all Christians who cling to the orthodox and catholic Faith. Yet what is Father Rosica but a latter-day Cardinal Hubert? 

As in liturgy, so too in theology. For the Humberts and Rosicas, the Catholic Church isn’t universal not because she is able to contain multitudes. She isn’t universal because she is capable of holding in communion Christians who have good-faith disagreements over theological niceties. No: the Church is universal because the Pope wields a dictatorial authority over all believers. Our unity is defined by our deference to his every utterance—even if those utterances contradict the utterances of his predecessors. 

That, of course, is madness. And yet it’s how Catholics have thought about our Faith for over a millennium.

I just read that Pope Francis was extremely ill during his recent visit to Hungary. Part of me feels like it’s wrong to publish so much criticism of the Holy Father when, more than anything, he needs our prayers. However, I will say this: sometimes, it seems that Francis himself is painfully aware of the Church’s hyper-Romanness.

For instance, the Holy Father has gone out of his way to appoint new cardinals from the developing world—especially South America, Africa, and Asia. He has also made some extraordinary gestures of friendship towards the Orthodox. In 2019, he gave certain relics of St. Peter to Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, the 168th successor to Michael I Cerularius.

Yet what really stands out (at least in my mind) is that, when Francis was first elected in 2013, he insisted on being reffered to, not as the Vicar of Christ or Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, but only as the Bishop of Rome.

Maybe this was a bit of performative humility. Or maybe it wasn’t. Francis’s predecessor, Benedict XVI, formally suppressed the papal title of “Patriarch of the West.” Clearly, this was a clear gesture of friendship to the Orthodox. But the title itself was also a nonsense. A patriarch is known by the city that contains his cathedral/seat, regardless of how vast or how small his jurisdiction may be. (The Patriarch of Moscow’s authority definitely isn’t limited to Russian capital.)

Too often, popes have afforded themselves such honors merely to assert their own position at the center of the Church. Benedict dedicated much of his papacy to undoing this unhealthy papal-centric attitude. I think that Francis, in his way, has tried to do the same. 

To be sure, I’m not totally at ease with his vision for more “synodal” Church. Yet, clearly, he’s motivated by a desire to reverse the centralization of Church authority. In some ways, his understanding of papal authority is more like Leo III’s. At least in theory, he prefers to achieve a concensus among bishops—all the bishops, everywhere in the world—than to issue diktats from St. Peter’s throne.

That’s what I mean when I say that Francis may be an agent of Providence. No single pontiff could be expected to overturn a thousand years of Romanism. And of course, when you find yourself being hailed the Successor to the Prince of the Apostles, the power will sometimes go to your head. 

On the main, though, I believe that Francis is trying to follow in Benedict’s footsteps. He, too, has a radical vision for the papacy—one that is more ancient, more modest, and more sane.

Put it this way. Benedict sought to decentralize the Church’s approach to liturgy and theology. Francis now seeks to decentralize the Church’s approach to ecclesiology. 

No doubt both projects are imperfect. I suspect that one is more imperfect than the other. And I’m sure that, for every two steps forward, we’ll take one step back. But the overall trend is heartening. Slowly but but, the Church is becoming less Roman, but more catholic. And thank God for that.

About abyssum

I am a retired Roman Catholic Bishop, Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas
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