July 7th marks the eleventh anniversary of the promulgation of Pope Benedict XVI’s motu proprio Summorum Pontificum, which has yielded countless fruits but is still ignored by all too many, who will have to answer to God for their lack of responsiveness to this wise initiative and their lack of compassion for the people of God who are thirsty for liturgy that is palpably sacred.
In light of the unfolding (or perhaps one should say unraveling) of Pope Francis’s pontificate, we should revisit words once spoken by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, predating and anticipating Summorum—words that now have an alarming portentousness:
I am of the opinion, to be sure, that the old rite should be granted much more generously to all those who desire it. It’s impossible to see what could be dangerous or unacceptable about that. A community is calling its very being into question when it suddenly declares that what until now was its holiest and highest possession is strictly forbidden, and when it makes the longing for it seem downright indecent. Can it be trusted any more about anything else? Won’t it proscribe tomorrow what it prescribes today? (Salt of the Earth, 1997)
He has asked a question to which, so far, no honest answer has been given by the Church’s leaders. The reason is not hard to see. Ratzinger dared to say that the Church’s very being had been called into question when Paul VI declared the old Mass forbidden—which in fact he repeatedly did, in response to attempts to maintain a liturgy the Church had celebrated for 500 years, and in its essentials, for 1,000 years, and in the core of it, for 1,500 years. The longing for this treasure of faith was mocked, stepped on, suppressed, treated as a form of disobedience, arrogance, or neurosis. And the haunting question rises up: “Can the Church be trusted any more about anything else? Won’t it proscribe tomorrow what it prescribes today?”
If Paul VI in 1969 can abolish the oldest liturgical rite of Christendom and replace it with a new-fangled rite fashioned by committee according to modern ideas, with the two rites having very little in common when one looks at their details, why can’t Francis today modify the Ten Commandments or the Gospels? They, too, are awfully old, rejected by vast numbers of people as irrelevant to modern times, extremely provocative, and rather narrow in their fixation on obeying God or else. Don’t we need to update and modernize the whole of Christianity? If we can do this with what is our holiest and highest possession, namely the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, we can do it across the board, top to bottom. What is permitted, what is forbidden, what is to be construed as good, what is to be rejected as evil, is simply up to the will of the reigning pontiff.
“Wait a minute,” you say. “Aren’t you exaggerating things?” No. Have we not seen, in the most dramatic way possible, how that which was yesterday universally taught and understood to be intrinsically evil, namely, attempted remarriage after divorce, is now deemed a step in the right direction, the best some people can do, worthy of reconciliation and holy communion—as if, for all the world, Our Lord Jesus Christ, the apostles, the Church Fathers, and innumerable saints had never condemned divorce and remarriage? Moreover, have we not seen how that which was yesterday universally taught and understood to be permissible under certain circumstances—the death penalty—is now being deemed intrinsically evil?
One could paraphrase Ratzinger this way: “A community is calling its very being into question when it suddenly declares that its holiest and highest sacrament, so far from requiring moral rectitude in the observance of the commandments as always previously taught, may now be received by anyone who, in his or her own mind, feels sorry and sincere, and when it makes the longing for Penance and the Eucharist seem always decent and fulfillable, regardless of what their recipients intend to do next.” Yes, that is exactly what is going on, and we are either going to fight against it with all our might, or sign off on the self-destruction of the only institution left in the world that stands for the intrinsic good of marriage and family and the intrinsic evil of all that opposes them.
As Cardinal Bellarmine states:
In order to resist and defend oneself no authority is required. . . . Therefore, as it is lawful to resist the Pope, if he assaulted a man’s person, so it is lawful to resist him, if he assaulted souls, or troubled the state, and much more if he strove to destroy the Church. It is lawful, I say, to resist him, by not doing what he commands, and hindering the execution of his will. (De Rom. Pont. ii.29, quoted by John Henry Newman in his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk)
In 1969 the community centered around Paul VI began its wearisome journey down the road of calling its very being into question, as it chopped away century after century of development in pursuit of an illusory updating that was impossibly supposed to be, at the same time, a return to roots. Where would it all lead? From 2013 onwards, the community centered around Francis has completed this journey by renouncing continuity and non-contradiction. As Ratzinger implied, it cannot be trusted. Those who are looking for a rock of strength rather than a postmodern void had better look elsewhere—namely, to Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition as received and taught by the Catholic Church in her authentic Magisterium, which equally binds the lofty and the lowly.