A little-publicized event with not-so-little significance took place recently in St. Louis. At a Catholic church near downtown, Cardinal Raymond Burke said the traditional Latin Mass on a Saturday morning for a youthful contingent rallying around him. Many of these youth are closely tied to a traditional religious order whose older members Burke also travels to St. Louis to shepherd. Burke is one of four cardinals openly contesting the wisdom of new church policies under Pope Francis.
For those who haven’t been following the debate, Burke (along with Walter Brandmüller, Carlo Caffarra, and Joachim Meisner) has made public a question first posed privately to the pope in response to his recent revision of church practices regarding Communion and divorced couples. The changes allow more latitude to local bishops in setting policies that take greater account of individual circumstances. If, say, an abandoned spouse without an annulment wants to return to full participation in the church after having remarried, there may now be new pastoral options. Previously, such a person was banished from Communion unless she resolved to live as a celibate. In his apostolic exhortation Amoris laetitia, Pope Francis seemed to invite his fellow bishops to allow more wiggle room.
Burke and the other three cardinals asked whether or not this change, besides contradicting past church teaching, would make the faith too subjective and open to the vagaries of conscience. The pope refrained from answering directly, although other cardinals have criticized the questioners for undermining Francis. Pundits on the other side criticize the pope for his silence and for failing to rein in what they view as attempts to stifle discussion among church prelates.
But the real question goes beyond these ecclesial skirmishes: What is the nature of the institution we call the Catholic Church? And what is the proper relationship between the hierarchy and the laity? Are uniformity and top-down authority all-or-nothing propositions? Should the pope and bishops consider themselves engineers of a kind of machine built of interchangeable human parts? Or might it be better to think of the church as a living organism, whose human members exercise a certain latitude befitting their free will and personal circumstance? Which model does the clergy follow: Henry Ford or Jesus?
Until the Second Vatican Council of the early 1960s, the church tilted decidedly in the former direction, functioning much like a spiritual vending machine that dispensed everything from vouchers to heaven in return for reciting a specified number of Hail Marys, to writs of excommunication for overdue books at the Vatican library. Since that time, the church has sometimes lurched to the other extreme. In the era of Pope Francis, the question is all about balance. I do believe the post–Vatican II lurch went too far—many in the church would identify me as a “conservative”—but at this moment, I side with Francis and against Burke. In fact, as a parishioner of the church where Burke recently came to say Mass, I recently walked out in protest over his appearance. I know, alas too well, how he operates. I have an inkling of the sort of church he envisions, and it is even more depressing than the old spiritual vending machine.