Post-conciliar papacy back on track

In March of 1979, some five months into his papacy, Pope John Paul II issued his first Encyclical, Redemptor Hominis, setting forth the guiding principles that would inform his entire pontificate.

Thirty-four years later, this document is as relevant as ever for those wishing to gain insight into the mind of Pope Francis and the direction in which he intends to steer the Barque of St. Peter.

But what does this say for Pope Benedict and his influence on the current pontificate, one may ask?

Though he certainly held much in common with those who came before him, Benedict was an aberration among the post conciliar popes given his emphasis on establishing “continuity” between the Church of today and the Church of tradition. One might even say that the Benedictine papacy was in some measure focused on cleaning up the mess that had accumulated on the watch of his most recent predecessors.

Clearly, Pope Francis isn’t cut from the same brocade. He is the “make a mess” pope, who from his introduction onward has made clear his intention to plot a different course.

Even so, a limited review of Redemptor Hominis is sufficient to demonstrate that the pontificate of Pope Francis is not so much a break from Benedict as it is a return, a rather aggressive return, to the task of implementing the conciliar aggiornamento in all of its necrotizing glory, in particular as conceived in the vision of Pope John Paul II.

In the process, the image that emerges is one of kindred spirits; two men unshakably committed to the idea that the Council was the dawn of a new beginning; each one so heavily influenced by a personalist theology that the mission of converting the nations to Christ and His Holy Catholic Church comfortably gives way to a desire to simply accompany their fellow men upon whatever path they may have chosen, content to assume that the Spirit is active in leading humankind along many and diverse ways, which for those who but follow their conscience, ultimately converge in God, a concept closely allied with the Teilhardian theory of evolution toward the “Omega Point.”

We begin our examination of Redemptor Hominis in Article 3 wherein one discovers a number of critically important foundational propositions that are shared by both pontiffs.

Entrusting myself fully to the Spirit of truth, therefore, I am entering into the rich inheritance of the recent pontificates. This inheritance has struck deep roots in the awareness of the Church in an utterly new way, quite unknown previously, thanks to the Second Vatican Council, which John XXIII convened and opened and which was later successfully concluded and perseveringly put into effect by Paul VI, whose activity I was myself able to watch from close at hand.

Two noteworthy, and truly stunning, declarations stand out.

First is the Holy Father’s sense for what constitutes the “rich inheritance” of the Petrine ministry that he had just assumed; a treasury amassed over a period of just two tumultuous decades.  (A review of the footnotes to the encyclical further underscores the point, as one immediately recognizes the near exclusion of papal magisterium predating the Council.)

Secondly, and even more unsettling still, is the newly elected pontiff’s rather bold assertion that the Church since Vatican II understands herself in an “utterly new way, quite unknown previously.”

This new self-awareness necessarily extends to the Church’s missionary outlook, her understanding of who Jesus Christ is, His place in society and His ongoing role in the work of redemption, as we will see.

Who can deny that the “deep roots” of which John Paul II speaks are indeed remarkably shallow, extending into the soil of Catholic tradition only so far as Vatican II, as if the Council had definitively turned the page on the previous 1900 years?

What we see reflected very clearly already, still in the introductory articles of this very lengthy encyclical, is the “unchecked passion for novelty” (Pascendi 13) so characteristic of modernist thought; one that Pope Francis has arguably taken to even greater heights over a period of just seven months.

From the very first moments of his papacy, Francis has insisted on doing nearly everything in a new way – from his dress to his comportment, his manner of teaching and even his living quarters – novelty has been the primary distinguishing feature of his pontificate.

Likewise has Pope Francis made known, in terms very certain, the limited reach of his own roots, consistently launching scathing indictments against so-called “restorationists” whose only crime is failing to jettison the centuries old professions, practices and disciplines that predate Vatican Council II.

Picking up where we left off in Redemptor Hominis, John Paul II goes on to expresses his great admiration for Pope Paul VI, of whom he says:

I was constantly amazed at his profound wisdom and his courage and also by his constancy and patience in the difficult postconciliar period of his pontificate. As helmsman of the Church, the bark of Peter, he knew how to preserve a providential tranquillity and balance even in the most critical moments, when the Church seemed to be shaken from within, and he always maintained unhesitating hope in the Church’s solidity.

One notes that even as John Paul II felt compelled to mention, albeit obliquely, the upheaval that marked Catholic life during the pontificate of Paul VI, he fails to acknowledge his predecessor’s complicity in creating it; chiefly as it relates to his oversight of the so-called liturgical “reform.”   

While some may perhaps wish to point to the bedlam that ensued following promulgation of Humanae Vitae as an example of the “courage and constancy” to which John Paul II refers, this too overlooks the degree to which Paul VI invited the crisis thanks to the air of anticipation unnecessarily created by his appointment of a “commission” to study a “question,” the answer to which was already part of the universal ordinary magisterium of the Church and thus infallible.

In any case, deservedly so or not, Paul VI occupies a similar position of esteem and influence in the eyes of Pope Francis as well.

Speaking to pilgrims in Giovanni Battista Montini’s hometown of Brescia, Pope Francis offered effusive praise for the “great Pontiff,” saying, “In difficult years, Paul VI was able to bear witness to faith in Jesus Christ;” hailing his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi as “the greatest pastoral document that has ever been written to this day.” (In a future piece, we will take a closer look at this “greatest” of all pastoral documents for additional insight into mind of Pope Francis.)

Continuing in Redemptor Hominis, Art. 3, John Paul II states in reference to Vatican Council II:

What the Spirit said to the Church through the Council of our time, what the Spirit says in this Church to all the Churches cannot lead to anything else – in spite of momentary uneasinesses – but still more mature solidity of the whole People of God, aware of their salvific mission.

One notes the degree to which this view tends toward dogmatizing the Council, attributing to its decrees without distinction the voice of the Holy Spirit.

Pope Francis employed similar language in his homily of April 16, taking the opportunity to denounce anyone who may be inclined to resist the Council’s novelties:

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.

Note the stark contrast between the suggestion that the directives of Vatican II are tantamount to the breath of the Holy Ghost, and the future Pope Benedict’s well-known caution against treating the Council as a “super-dogma,” a warning that gave impetus to the direction of his papacy.

Turning our attention back to Redemptor Hominis, we’ll conclude this examination by looking at a limited number of propositions that point to the aforementioned influence of personalism, wherein it is presumed that all men of good conscience, though they may be of diverse confessions, or no confession at all, are already traveling on a path that leads to God, a notion that precludes the necessity of calling anyone to conversion to the one true Faith. Indeed, this could be a topic unto itself.

The Fathers of the Church rightly saw in the various religions as it were so many reflections of the one truth, “seeds of the Word”67, attesting that, though the routes taken may be different, there is but a single goal to which is directed the deepest aspiration of the human spirit as expressed in its quest for God and also in its quest, through its tending towards God, for the full dimension of its humanity, or in other words for the full meaning of human life.

At this, it bears mention that the footnote following “seeds of the Word” points to works by St. Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria. These references were presumably chosen to demonstrate patristic support for the idea that “various religions” may rightly be considered, as a function of “the human spirit,” to be “different routes that tend toward God.” Those who take the time review them, however, will discover that they offer nothing of the kind.

In both cases the Church Fathers are speaking of the presence of the Word throughout human history, in particular in those elements of truth that are discernible in the ancient philosophies that predated Christ.  Neither one lends the support implied, but rather the contrary.

I will offer but one quote taken directly from the references provided in the footnote:

Now he who has fallen into heresy passes through an arid wilderness, abandoning the only true God, destitute of God, seeking waterless water, reaching an uninhabited and thirsty land, collecting sterility with his hands. – Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, Book I, Ch. 19

This disturbing misrepresentation of the Church Fathers aside, the present point is that John Paul II presumes to imply that all men – Catholic, non-Catholic, heathen, heretic and Jew alike – are simply traveling different routes, all of which lead to God.

This is a view undoubtedly shared by Pope Francis who publicly encouraged the practice of Islam as a vehicle of “spiritual fruit” and proclaimed that “religious diversity” is a “gift.”

How can such a notion possibly be justified? John Paul II continues:

This man is the way for the Church-a way that, in a sense, is the basis of all the other ways that the Church must walk-because man-every man without any exception whatever-has been redeemed by Christ, and because with man-with each man without any exception whatever-Christ is in a way united, even when man is unaware of it: “Christ, who died and was raised up for all, provides man”-each man and every man- “with the light and the strength to measure up to his supreme calling.”

First, take note of the inverted concept of mission so evident here. Rather than Christ, present in the world via His Mystical Body, the Church, being the Way for every man; now it is man who is the way for the Church.

At this, one may recall Cardinal Bergoglio’s curious comments to the General Congregation of Cardinals prior to the conclave that elected him, wherein he spoke of evangelization as that through which “the Church gains life,” a similar inversion of the traditional understanding that it is the Church who gives life to the world by carrying out her mission of converting the nations to Christ who is the Life!

Furthermore, John Paul II speaks of man as having “been redeemed” by Christ who is “in some way” united to each and every one, as if this redemption is a fait accompli. Absent from this treatment is any indication that Christ in the here-and-now offers to mankind, through His Church, the redemption that is complete in Himself.

As such, one may reasonably ask why, if “the light and the strength” necessary to “measure up to his supreme calling” is already provided to “each and every man” is it even necessary to call those outside of the Church to convert to the Holy Catholic Faith?

Well, all indications are that Francis, like John Paul II before him, does not believe that it is truly necessary. This is why the current Holy Father is perfectly comfortable saying:

Do you need to convince the other to become Catholic? No, no, no! Go out and meet him, he is your brother. This is enough. Go out and help him and Jesus will do the rest. (Pope Francis, as reported by CNS, August 7, 2013)

You see, it is this conviction, expressed by John Paul II, that Christ is united to each and every man, already having been redeemed perhaps even unawares, that justifies reducing the mission of the Church, in the words of Pope Francis, “to listening to the needs, aspirations, disappointments, desperation and hopes” of those outside the Church.

What then of Baptism?

Remarkably, throughout the entirety of this 23,000+ word Encyclical on the “Redeemer of man” there is but one mention of Baptism, the necessary means of obtaining the fruits of our redemption.

The Eucharist is the centre and summit of the whole of sacramental life, through which each Christian receives the saving power of the Redemption, beginning with the mystery of Baptism, in which we are buried into the death of Christ, in order to become sharers in his Resurrection…

This solitary reference to Baptism, given within a treatment on the Most Holy Eucharist, may perhaps be viewed as solid evidence of traditional thought; however, one should take notice of the qualification “through which each Christian.”

Yes, this is true enough, but the more fundamental truth; the truth that the world most needs to hear, is that Baptism is the way through which each and every human person is availed of the fruits of redemption such as they are dispensed in all of their fullness in the Holy Catholic Church alone.

Indeed, this is the only way that Our Blessed Lord has given to us, and yet this most fundamental of Christian teachings is deliberately left unsaid.

Disturbing? Indeed it is, but it is perfectly consistent with a worldview that it cultivated in the shallow soil of that “utterly new” ecclesial self-awareness that one finds interwoven throughout Redemptor Hominis; a view that is shared by Pope Francis, the influence of which one may reasonably expect to make itself increasingly known over the course of his pontificate.

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