This essay by Larry Chapp is one of two duelling takes on Cardinal Raniero Cantalamessa’s Good Friday sermon. The other is Paul Fahey’s “Cantalamessa’s Talking to You” and is available here.
The preacher of the papal household, Raniero Cantalamessa, had some rather pointed things to say to the Church’s pastors in his Good Friday sermon at the Vatican. He warned them against contributing to “political” divisions in the Church which arise out of some kind of “ideology” rather than from genuinely ecclesial concerns rooted in obedience to the Church’s magisterium.
I have been a big fan of his through the years, benefitting greatly from his theological clarity and his ability to cut to the chase in matters spiritual. However, his words on Good Friday were anything but clear and have the tonality of a message that was a riff on a topic given to him by his boss.
It certainly had the typical finger-wagging scold of Pope Francis when speaking to clerics, as well as his trademark vagueness as to just who in the heck he is addressing or even what in the heck he is actually saying. He was right in his analysis, but did not address them to the one who should have been their main subject. He was preaching to the wrong person.
The expected take away from his sermon is that the Vatican is now deeply concerned with the growing rift between the Roman magisterium and various internal factions that have recently become increasingly vocal in their criticisms of the Church and are now, for whatever reason, freshly emboldened to press their agenda for radical ecclesial change. We are led to believe that the Vatican is suddenly concerned with the possibility of one or more schisms in the Church.
Cardinal Cantalamessa’s Good Friday homily had Pope Francis’s typical finger-wagging scolding of Pope Francis when speaking to clerics, as well as his trademark vagueness as to just who he’s addressing or what he’s actually saying. He was preaching to the wrong person.
But to whom does this warning apply? The Germans and their “binding” synodal path of appeasement to Teutonic secularity? Archbishop Vigano with his Freemason flying monkey conspiracy theories and the cult of rightwing celebrity that has arisen around him, seemingly with his approval? The angry American “traditionalists” and their spittle-flecked, rage-baiting YouTube empire? All of the above?
We simply don’t know and are left guessing as to who these anonymous schismatics might be. Perhaps the apostle’s question at the Last Supper — “Is it I Lord?” — is the sought after response here, calling each of us to examine our own complicity in these intra ecclesial pie in the face contests. But I doubt it.
I am originally from Nebraska and so an old and clichéd agricultural metaphor comes to mind. This whole thing strikes me as a classic example of trying to close the barn door long after you have left it open for weeks and the horses are free-ranging in greener pastures far from home.
This is a pope who has been speaking for years about a more “synodal” Church without ever bothering to define what he means by that term. He has spoken of a Church decentered from Roman authority with new and real governing powers farmed out to the bishops, but without indicating how far those governing powers reach. Into matters of settled moral teaching? Doctrine? Eucharistic discipline? Parish Monte Carlo nights?
He himself engineered the various rigged synods in Rome, larding them with liberal German types. They were more than happy cynically to use the Amazonian peoples in order to ride their own theological hobby horses, complete with the ham-handed optics of the Pachamama debacle. Cardinal Kasper was happy to remind us in the first synod that the pursuit of holiness is not possible for “ordinary Christians” and so we must make compromises with modern divorce culture.
And so now the Germans are taking these papal gestures of support and running with them. They are calling the pope’s bluff and are saying, in effect, “You have been a big tease. Let’s see if you are serious about the main event.” Now, far too late, the pope is rising up and saying that the Germans are going too far, that this isn’t what he meant by “synodality,” and that they need to be obedient to a magisterial teaching that he himself has done his best to neuter through conspicuous ambiguity and needless provocations in the media.
And with regard to possible schism from the theological Right, it is my observation that the exceedingly small and insignificant faction of radical Catholic traditionalists only surged into greater prominence and influence after it became clear that the papacy of Pope Francis seemed designed to re-empower unreconstructed post-Vatican II liberals.
There were, to be sure, grumblers among the traditionalists during the pontificates of JPII and Benedict, but they seemed largely content to be left alone to do their thing. Now the grumblers have mainstreamed and have become the leaders of a whole new movement of pitchfork wielding, torch brigade Catholics.
They accuse Pope Francis of heresy, which is both wrong and silly. But Francis reminds me of a man being stalked by a bear who largely ignores the beast hoping it will go away, but who then stops every five steps to poke the bear in the eye with a pointy stick. This pope, for all his talk of “dialogue,” seems singularly capable of ignoring the traditional wing of the Church and of deliberately aggravating it.
He had time to meet with NBA stars to discuss racism, and a memory-challenged octogenarian atheist/journalist with dubious motives. But he had no time to meet with Cardinal Zen? He bans all private masses in St. Peter’s, then refuses to answer questions about it, and then celebrates a private Mass on Holy Thursday with a disgraced curial cardinal accused of money laundering and embezzlement. Lots of pointy sticks.
In short, Pope Francis seems to sympathize with the progressive wing of the Church, thus provoking the suspicion of the rightwing nutters, but he does not have, in my view, a deep enough understanding of what their project really entails. He seems to have the mistaken view that Catholic progressives in 2021 are the same as liberals in 1958, and seems genuinely disappointed when they behave more like secular critical theory provocateurs than Yves Congar.
His whole thought-world seems to be that of a man who thinks the Church is still this insulated, neo-scholastic “fortress” whose walls need to be battered down, even as he stands astride the rubble. He is fighting yesterday’s battles.
Pope Francis seems to sympathize with the progressive wing of the Church, but he does not have a deep enough understanding of what their project really entails. His thinks the Church is still this insulated, neo-scholastic “fortress” whose walls need to be battered down, even as he stands astride the rubble. He is fighting yesterday’s battles.
We seem to have been teleported by this papacy back to 1965, forcing those of us in the ressourcement camp to relitigate a case that was decided, with magisterial authority, by the previous two popes. They made it clear that the Council is to be received as an effort at reform by returning to neglected areas of the tradition (e.g., the Fathers) as a means of widening the Church’s vision. The Council is in deep continuity with the Tradition and is in no way to be interpreted as a rupture with that Tradition in the modality of modern secular Liberalism.
But Pope Francis, while paying lip service to this idea, seems intent on promoting prelates who agree with rupture over continuity. Perhaps this has been his end game all along. Perhaps he is not as misinformed as I think. Perhaps he wants to reopen that case precisely because he wants it adjudicated differently, but does not want to be the presiding judge. Perhaps he wants to allow “drift” to accomplish what papal fiat cannot.
But “drift” is a strategy custom-made to foment confusion and, therefore, division. If there are newly energized factions in the Church who threaten to balkanize the Church’s unity, it is largely the result of this pope’s missteps.
Cardinal Cantalamessa rightly begins his talk by reminding us that one of the most important charisms that God has granted to the Catholic Church is the charism of unity, centered in the Petrine ministry of the bishop of Rome. But then comes immediately the finger wagging at those fomenting division. Would that he had turned his pulpit around and said the same to the pope.
For an alternative happier with the cardinal’s criticism, see Paul Fahey’s Cantalamessa’s Talking to You.
Larry Chapp taught theology at DeSales University for nineteen years. He now runs the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker Farm with his wife, Carrie, near Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania. He blogs at Gaudiumetspes22. His previous article was A Different Kind of Storm, about the Church’s “theological cytokine storm,” in which certain factions see the virus of modernism and dangerously over-react.
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