I must begin by confessing that what follows is merely an elaboration on an idea expressed by a Roman Catholic priest friend of mine, somewhere over continental Europe. Perhaps he caught the alpine rays as we flew by. In any case, the language he used nicely summarises a problem against which, I think, we need to be on our guard. I speak, of course, about the New Ultramontanism.
Over the span of Pope John Paul’s pontificate, followed closely by Pope Benedict’s, priests and bishops across the globe transformed ‘turning a blind eye’ into an art form. For any number of reasons, what these two popes had to say or teach was often ignored at best and maligned at worst, and almost certainly never understood. After all, their words, respective to each of them, and their example, especially in terms of the Liturgy (and yes, I include Pope John Paul in this), had nary an effect in countless parishes. Each of their particular blend of fidelity to Tradition and personal holiness was, in my experience, trumped by the ego(s) of the local community, and saw limited roll-out and application across the Church.
No one should be under the illusion that it could have been any other way. As Chesterton said, where orthodoxy is made optional, it soon becomes proscribed. Once reception of the Second Vatican Council passed from text to ‘spirit’, and individuals began to appoint themselves as arbiters of that spirit, it became inevitable that a clear, objective, and faithful manifestation of the Church’s Tradition would get drowned out by the din of manifold, subjective approaches.
The irony is that now, in light of Pope Francis’ election, subjectivists and liberals are turning their attention to the example of the man they see, at least in liturgical terms, as championing their messy cause over and against the pontificate of the last eight years. Suddenly, in their minds, Rome has authority again, and can be cited in support of their rejection of all other authority. They act like children who, having been fed on a diet of nutritional, albeit challenging, food, are now being visited by another parent who has greeted them with chocolate and sweets, and from whom they are hoping for more of the same.
Fortunately for the Church, then, neither the institution of the papacy, nor the individual Pope Francis works that way. Instead, it is incumbent on all people of faith to read the teaching of one pope in light of the previous one, and the one before that, and the one before that. Fortunately for the Church, our faith does not rest on the actions of one individual, whether that individual is a saint, or the devil incarnate. As a result, it seems absolutely necessary to resist the New (and convenient) Ultramontanism of those wishful revolutionaries that see in Pope Francis a kindred spirit and are suddenly interested in citing his authority, and instead to continue doing what we have always been obliged to do: to read the teaching and example of every successor of Peter in the context of the Church’s theological Tradition; to pursue the spiritual life in a way consistent with one of the Church’s authentic traditions and practice; and to humbly subordinate our own interpretation of the ‘spirit’ of Vatican II (or any other personal hobbyhorse born of the zeitgeist) to the transcendent and eternally true.
Our task now, as always, will be, as Fr John Zuhlsdorf continually puts it, to ‘read Francis through Benedict’.