Interested in discussing this article in your classroom, parish, reading group, or Commonweal Local Community? Click here for a free discussion guide.
In late December, I argued in the pages of America that the measures Pope Francis has recently taken against traditionalists—especially the motu proprio Traditionis custodes—seem to contravene his pontificate’s consistent emphasis on dialogue. “Whereas he has a long history of advocating for dialogue with adversaries, arguing that unity cannot be attained by the suppression of one group by another,” I wrote, “Francis appears now to be choosing just that—suppression.”
Austen Ivereigh, in response to my article, suggests that I suffer from naïveté when it comes to traditionalists—that I view them merely as “people with harmless if peculiar liturgical tastes.” What’s more, he argues that I don’t comprehend the sheer scale of corruption in the traditionalist movement, corruption that is so pervasive that dialogue should be abandoned: “Rather than dialogue, which would only serve to feed the corrupt person’s self-justification, the proper response is to put such a person in crisis.”
I made clear in my article that I’m not oblivious to the more dangerous aspects of traditionalism. Not only are too many traditionalists perilously close to rejecting the Second Vatican Council, but, relatedly, there are connections between traditionalism and that which is most vile in the history of the Church: racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, and the authoritarianism of today’s Catholic integralists, for example. The threat this style of traditionalism poses to ecclesial unity is real.
Still, I remained troubled by the discontinuity between Francis’s emphasis on dialogue and his actions vis-a-vis traditionalists, and if Ivereigh is correct that Francis views traditionalists as so corrupt as to deserve suppression, then I am even more troubled.
I cannot pretend to have studied Francis’s pre-papal life and writings as much as Ivereigh has, of course. But having read Massimo Borghesi’s depiction of Jorge Bergoglio’s theology and ecclesiology in The Mind of Pope Francis (for which Ivereigh wrote an endorsement), I can’t help but note the disjunction between the dialectical focus of Bergoglio’s thought both before and after he became pope and what is found in Traditionis custodes. In his book, Borghesi persuasively argues that, influenced by his reading of St. Ignatius of Loyola and theologians like Romano Guardini, Bergoglio understood that ecclesial unity could not be imposed from above—that there necessarily exists a polarity in the Church that can and should flower into a communion that doesn’t abolish tension but lives into it. “The Ignatian vision is the possibility of harmonizing opposites,” Bergoglio wrote in 1976, “of inviting to a common table concepts that seem irreconcilable, because it brings them to a higher plane where they can find their synthesis.” He continued: “Unity through reduction is relatively easy but not lasting. More difficult is to forge a unity that does not annul differences or reduce conflict.”