Is it a mark of rigidity to accuse others of rigidity? A spiritual proposal concerning Pope Francis.

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Nov 15, 2016

Like a great many other Catholics, I was astonished by Pope Francis’ harsh dismissal of young people who prefer the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite. It is a dangerous business to assume that another person’s preferences constitute “rigidity”. And it is even more dangerous to claim, in effect, that anyone to whom we apply the term “rigid” must have a serious psychological problem which makes them incapable of love.

This issue arose in an interview during which Pope Francis made two comments that were, quite frankly, appalling. First, in affirming that the reformed liturgy developed after the Second Vatican Council is here to stay, the Pope stated that “to speak of a ‘reform of the reform’ is an error.” Second, in wondering aloud why some young people prefer the Extraordinary Form of the liturgy, he could not resist attributing this preference to a character flaw:

And I ask myself: Why so much rigidity? Dig, dig, this rigidity always hides something, insecurity or even something else. Rigidity is defensive. True love is not rigid.

I characterize these two statements as “appalling” for a different reason in each case. In the first instance, the expression “reform of the reform” comes from the reflections on the liturgy of Joseph Ratzinger before he became pope, and the concept was advocated by both John Paul II and Benedict XVI (Ratzinger). Both of these men were convinced that liturgical developments since 1965 had in some ways broken too sharply from the Catholic tradition, a problem which was particularly evident in the widespread liturgical abuses in the period following the introduction of the Novus Ordo. Considering that his two immediate predecessors had advocated a reform of the reform (and not only in the liturgy), it is rather daring of Pope Francis to proclaim this “an error.”

In the second instance, it beggars the imagination that any pope would see a fondness for any liturgical form as proof of psychological problems and/or spiritual deficiencies. Where does true “rigidity” lie? Is it found in those who happen to prefer a more traditional liturgical form, or in those who would have us believe that this preference can be explained only by serious character flaws?

Rigidity as a spiritual flaw

Pope Francis is surely correct in identifying rigidity as a spiritual flaw, if by rigidity we mean exactly what we ought to mean, namely an attachment to inessential religious ideas and practices to the detriment of what is essential, and a corresponding tendency to pass an adverse spiritual judgment on those who do not share these attachments. Similarly, rigidity can also be seen in those who rightly adhere strongly to essentials, but become so preoccupied with this adherence that they cannot treat those who do not share their convictions with understanding and charity. All of us have encountered this sort of rigidity.

But I suspect all of us have also noticed that those who constantly accuse others of “rigidity” typically recognize the problem only in its countercultural form. An inflexible adherence to the values of the dominant culture is seldom properly identified as a form of rigidity, and yet the spiritual problem of rigidity can express itself in two very different ways.

First, there is the rigidity of those who are so attached to past Catholic ways of doing and expressing things that they fail to distinguish the essential from the inessential, and condemn those who do not share their attachments as spiritually immature or even heretical. I take it as a given that anyone who refuses to accept either Magisterial statements or the spiritual jurisdiction of the pope and duly constituted bishops, owing to disagreements over Catholic tradition, is guilty of such rigidity. This is a grave spiritual deficiency, for it lies within the competence of the Pope alone to determine whether particular traditions are Divine in character and so beyond the Church’s power to change.

Second, however, there is the rigidity of those who, allowing themselves to be formed far too much by fashion and the pressure of contemporary culture, refuse to evaluate liturgical and doctrinal novelties in the light of Catholic Tradition, in order to more easily discern and avoid either particular errors or a generalized secularization. This attitude tends to be widespread within the Church in every age, based on the tendencies of the larger culture, by which Catholics are typically influenced far too much. It is particularly problematic in our own culture, which is at once hostile to Faith and enamored of fashion. This form of rigidity (though it is seldom identified by the term) is also a grave spiritual deficiency.

I hope it will be helpful to express this in the form of a generalized rule. When it comes to our appropriation of spiritual values, if we absolutize what is relative and reflexively condemn those who refuse to share this unbalanced commitment, then we are suffering from a form of rigidity. It is certainly possible that this rigidity has particular psychological roots which ought to be addressed. But it can also be the result of a pervasive spiritual error, the kind of error which flourishes most easily in what is called an “unexamined life”.

The examined life

To understand this concept of the examined (or unexamined) life, we need to understand that the normal path to holiness is through a growing ability to open ourselves to God so that He can help us to know our hidden faults. If we are living an examined life, we are constantly making the effort to recognize our own deficiencies in the light of Christ. A fundamental requirement of this effort is to live and pray always in the spirit of Psalm 19, which ends in these blessed words:

But who can discern his errors? Clear thou me from hidden faults. Keep back thy servant also from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me! Then I shall be blameless, and innocent of great transgression. Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in thy sight, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer. [Ps 19:12-14]

In praying this way, we recognize that we are all prone to self-deception in different ways, according to our personalities. If we are attracted to religious practices and what we might call the aura of holiness, we can confuse our own spiritual growth with a steadfast adherence to certain practices (like the old Pharisee, who thanks God that he does not ignore ritual observance, as do other men). But if we are creatures of our time, attracted by the idea of appearing wonderfully generous and up to date in all our judgments (like the new Pharisee who thanks God that he is not narrow and behind the times, as are other men), we can confuse spiritual growth with the formation of habits and attachments that “everyone” approves.

In both cases, we become increasingly convinced of our own rectitude. It is just this that proves that we are not living an examined life. We have begun with the assumption that we are good, and we never ask God to help us to see ourselves as we really are. But the result is always the same. Those who live unexamined lives, since they are supremely conscious of their own goodness, are always quick to pass judgment on others who do not share the same set of habits—the very spiritual habits which have prevented the necessary self-examination.

Where does this leave us?

You would expect to find this lack of self-examination to be rare among priests, bishops and popes. It is hard to see how, with so much experience of spiritual things, they can avoid making great strides along the path of holiness. But both history and personal experience prove that this is not rare at all. Within the Church, such persons preach their personal gospel without recognizing that it is only a carefully selected portion of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and sometimes even a distorted portion at that.

Such persons have in common an intense satisfaction that they are not like other men. Each one makes an outward show of great virtue in very predictable ways—the ways that best illustrate, once again, the particular illusions which have prevented the necessary self-examination in the first place. In one case, we may seek always to appear pious through a meticulous adherence to certain religious practices. In another, we may make a great point of solidarity with the poor, but without much personal sacrifice. In yet another, we may pose as great reformers, pursuing within the Church those values which the surrounding secular world honors the most.

Now, am I saying that Pope Francis frequently says and does things that suggest the lack of an examined life? In his frequent careless remarks, so dear to those who regard Christ as a stumbling block, he has actually provided abundant evidence of this possibility. No modern pope has more consistently given voice to what our dominant culture wants to hear, right down to his frequent criticism of Catholics courageous enough to live deliberately counter-cultural lives. Moreover, the frequency of such very questionable remarks seems to be steadily increasing.

I admit that such speculation is dangerous, for none of us is close enough to the Holy Father to form this kind of judgment. But I am convinced that the following statement is absolutely fair and just: We have more evidence on which to question either the spiritual or psychological health of Pope Francis than he does to question the spiritual or psychological health of the entire class of young people who treasure the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite. Longtime readers know, by the way, that I have no personal attachment to the Extraordinary Form, so this is not special pleading. It is simply the sad reality of our current situation in the Church.

Working unto good

We are hardly alone in finding Pope Francis troubling. Yesterday we learned that a group of four cardinals had begged the Holy Father, with no response, for important clarifications. But I am fond of reminding everyone of what St. Paul wrote to the Romans: “Everything works together unto good for those who love God” (8:28). Moreover, those who have followed my writings on Pope Francis know that I am a strong advocate of using even his most bizarre statements as an occasion for self-examination, to see how we can turn this or that remark into an opportunity to grow closer to Christ.

As I wrote a little over a week ago, I would rather find an error in myself than in the Pope. That goes double for a spiritual deficiency. I am happy to take each incautious remark as a personal rebuke, and I am more than willing to use each one as another opportunity for exactly the kind of prayerful self-examination I have been discussing here.

But every Catholic should be concerned about the Pope’s spiritual health. Within the scope of our spiritual concern, the Pope should be second only to ourselves and those particularly close to us. If we are not lifting up our pastors in prayer, we still have much to learn about what it means to be a member of the Church. Prayer makes us part of the solution. The failure to pray makes us part of the problem. With this in mind, I would like to recommend a particular habit of prayer, a habit which will enable us to take advantage of our deep concern to practice the presence of God in a particularly effective way.

I suggest that we memorize the three verses of Psalm 19 quoted above. Then, every time Pope Francis annoys us—which I believe happens with sufficient frequency for the purpose—I suggest that we use our annoyance as a reminder to pray these verses, offering our prayer for both ourselves and the Holy Father. We need not judge that the Pope needs these verses more than ourselves. It is sufficient to know that all of us, including the Pope, must treasure them in our hearts. Once again, here are the words I mean:

But who can discern his errors? Clear thou me from hidden faults. Keep back thy servant also from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me! Then I shall be blameless, and innocent of great transgression. Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in thy sight, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

Sound Off! CatholicCulture.org supporters weigh in.

All comments are moderated. To lighten our editing burden, only current donors are allowed to Sound Off. If you are a donor, log in to see the comment form; otherwise please support our work, and Sound Off!

Show 5 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Nov. 17, 2016 2:13 PM ET USA

    "Longtime readers know...I have no personal attachment to the Extraordinary Form." Strange as it may seem to some, although I have been attending the EF of the Roman Rite nearly exclusively for the last 20 years, I have no emotional attachment to it. My true attachment is twofold: (1) intellectual, and (2) fraternal. My intellectual attachment stems from the depth of the liturgical movements and words. My fraternal attachment is to the seriousness of the catholicity of many who attend this form.

  • Posted by: amber3287 - Nov. 16, 2016 10:45 AM ET USA

    Well said. Psalm 19 will be the next psalm my kids and I will memorize. I've been trying to decide this week which one it would be, and you have made the choice easy.

  • Posted by: dover beachcomber - Nov. 15, 2016 9:28 PM ET USA

    Well put.

  • Posted by: MWCooney - Nov. 15, 2016 8:50 PM ET USA

    Outstanding points. Thank you.

  • Posted by: Catholic in Seattle - Nov. 15, 2016 6:54 PM ET USA

    Sadly, I have to agree with this article. What started out as a very promising pontificate has morphed into a confusing and sometimes scandalous side-show. Where will it all end? It is good to be reminded to pray for the Holy Father.