A few weeks ago, any number of Catholic commentators wildly applauded Pope Francis’ letter to Archbishop Marchetto, trumpeting it as proof positive that the current pontificate is committed to Pope Benedict’s approach to Vatican II, some even going so far as to proclaim that Francis clearly shares his predecessor’s vision for the Church. I disagreed.
More recently, even some tradition-minded Catholics are making similar hay over a letter Pope Francis sent to Cardinal Walter Brandmuller, in which he once again affirmed Benedict’s so-called “hermeneutic of continuity” while also offering praise for the Council of Trent. (Translated text available at Rorate Caeli.)
Of the Tridentine council, Pope Francis said in part:
No doubt, with the Holy Ghost inspiring and suggesting, it especially concerned the Fathers [of Trent] not only to guard the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine, but also to more clearly enlighten mankind, so that the saving work of the Lord may be poured out onto the whole world and the Gospel be spread through the entire world.
Graciously hearing the very same Holy Ghost, the Holy Church of our age, even now, continues to restore and meditate upon the most abundant doctrine of Trent. As a matter of fact, the “hermeneutic of renewal” (interpretatio renovationis) which Our Predecessor Benedict XVI explained in 2005 before the Roman Curia, refers not only to the Tridentine Council but also to the Vatican Council. The mode of interpretation, certainly, places one honourable characteristic of the Church in a brighter light that is given by the Same Lord (Benedict XVI): “She is a subject which increases in time and develops, yet always remaining the same, the one subject of the journeying People of God” (Christmas Address to the Roman Curia).
Once again, I feel compelled to caution that this may not be the wonderful news it’s being made out to be.
Before I get to the letter itself, let me first say that there’s a disturbing trend developing among some Catholics “on the right” of late, wherein the pontificate of Pope Benedict is being looked upon in hindsight as though it represents “glory days” for the Church. While we certainly have things to recall fondly (very fondly in the case of Summorum Pontificum), how soon we forget Assisi III!
Sure, I get it, relative to the madness of the last eight months, Benedict can begin to resemble Pius X in the nostalgic mind’s eye, but that’s not reality.
Even after seven years at the helm, Benedict’s “hermeneutic of reform in continuity” failed to provide clarity relative to Vatican II, and it did so for the simple reason that the entire program is constructed upon the false premise that everything the Council proposed dovetails nicely with the Faith that comes to us from the Apostles if only it be read a certain way.
For a dose of reality, one might do well to revisit one of the Holy Father’s most detailed reflections on the Council, published on Oct. 11, 2012 in L’Osservatore Romano. (A remarkable text that I commented upon here.)
Undeterred, some will continue grasping for traditional straws saying, But Francis lauded Trent! Surely that’s terrific news!
Really? Is that how far we’ve fallen? Only in severely unhealthy times can it be major news when the Roman Pontiff offers praise for the greatest ecumenical council in the last five hundred years.
Beyond this, every commentator that I have read thus far seems to be missing the most salient point of all relative to the pope’s letter to Cardinal Brandmuller:
Not only does Pope Francis laud the Council of Trent and the First Vatican Council, he intimates that he considers Vatican Council II to be on par with them!
He is, after all, only being consistent. One may recall that the first time Pope Francis publicly commented upon Vatican II, he did so saying:
The Council was a beautiful work of the Holy Spirit. But, after 50 years, have we done everything that the Holy Spirit told us in the Council? In the continuity of the growth of the Church that the Council was? No. We celebrate this anniversary, we make a monument, but do not bother. We do not want to change. And there is more: there are calls [voci, also ‘voices’] wanting to move back.
In other words, for Pope Francis, the content of Vatican II, just like the content of Trent and Vatican I, is the voice “of the very same Holy Ghost.”
This, my friends, is perhaps the most unrealistic, and flat out dangerous, approach to the Council that the pope could possibly take.