Cardinal control: Is the Church’s future at stake?
Not being God, my interpretation of what God Himself is accomplishing through the current pontificate may at the very best illuminate a tiny portion of the Divine plan, and could well be utterly worthless. Nonetheless, I am moved to this exercise by a desire to offer consolation in the wake of today’s perceptive commentary by Phil Lawler, “The new cardinals: Pope Francis bids for ‘irreversible change’”.
Providence at work in my lifetime
In broad outlines, my perception of Divine Providence—which always concerns the Body of Christ—is based on a simple faith that, since Catholic renewal is the most important goal of our time (or of any time), Our Lord is far more aware of its need than I. If this is true—as in fact it must necessarily be true—then I am bound to interpret history by asking what God is doing to purify and renew His Church. The answer certainly includes many things that I cannot or do not see, and at least some things that no man or woman living on this earth sees. But here are a few things that I do see:
God has recently raised up a series of saints to effect a renewal of the Church, which was already very much needed (once again) by the dawn of the twentieth century. He raised up Pope Saint John XXIII to recognize how much the Church reflected the serious deficiencies of the established post-war European order and to put the concept of renewal back in the Catholic institutional lexicon. He raised up Pope Saint Paul VI to gain incomparable graces for the Church by suffering a prolonged experience of helplessness as his every effort at renewal was derailed by Western secularism among Catholics themselves—especially the leadership groups of bishops, clergy, religious, and academics. He raised up Pope Saint John Paul II to recover the lost vision of the Second Vatican Council and inspire a new generation to a deeper commitment of Faith. It will surprise nobody if Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI is eventually canonized as a confirmation of the renewal of Catholic theology over which he presided for nearly thirty-five years.
At the same time, in my lifetime God’s Providence has permitted the long decline of Christianity in the West to reach a level so catastrophic as to make it obvious to the meanest intelligence that the Church can no longer embody the values of the dominant culture and still remain Catholic in any way whatsoever. This, in addition to a period of widespread betrayal by priests, religious and Catholic academics, has made it obvious to huge numbers of highly-committed lay persons that they must themselves engage directly in both renewal and public witness.
The result of the Providential gifts of sanctity already enumerated, and of the human response to them, was an immense strengthening of the episcopate and the priesthood in a great many of the local churches, sufficient at long last for Catholics to begin to believe and teach and preach that Christ calls His faithful to a radical rejection of the values of this world. But important as this change was over a period of fifty years, the local churches at every level (bishops, priests and laity) remained excessively dependent on sound guidance from Rome, almost as if they could not take up either the episcopal fullness or even the ordinary baptismal powers to teach, rule and sanctify without detailed guidance from the Vatican.
But with the resignation of Benedict XVI and the election of Jorge Bergoglio as Pope Francis in 2013, it rapidly became very clear that sound direction from Rome could not be expected. This meant that the bishops in particular had to learn in practice what the Second Vatican Council and Pope Saint John Paul II had tried to teach them in theory, namely that they are established as vicars of Christ in their own dioceses—and nothing can excuse them from their responsibility to foster, lead and guide the authentic mission of Christ in their own flocks. Some bishops and episcopal conferences have responded badly thus far to this challenge, but others have already begun to form strong local churches. What many of us would call the scourge of Pope Francis has hastened these developments, as increasing numbers of Catholics in influential positions have learned that they cannot lead by following anyone but Christ.
Finally, throughout this whole Providential sequence, the secular rottenness which has been gradually increasing its hold on the Church over the past hundred years or so—in political matters, in concern for institutional power largely based on a secular model, in an excessive ecclesiastical stratification, in its labyrinthine ties to power and wealth, in the poisoning of nearly all of its academic wells, in the facile cultural assumptions of its leaders, and ultimately in their gravest sins—has been permitted to emerge in its full horror in the abuse crisis, which has finally produced a reaction which furthers the difficult but serious cleansing of Catholic institutions, from bottom to top.
Where we are now
The Church’s Augean stables can never be cleansed completely (for the Church is necessarily populated by sinful members), and even the constant goal of improvement—which we call renewal—can be effected in any given period only partially and painfully. But I am convinced that the pontificate of Pope Francis has been Providentially permitted to demonstrate the depths to which the center of ecclesiastical power has fallen, and to impress upon all the local churches the need to take far more responsibility for the advance of the Gospel in their own regions.
Thus a renewal initially understood and promoted by a very few can be embraced as the logical consequence of the baptism of all Catholics. The Church, especially in the West, may initially shrink as a result of this increasing awareness of what it means to accept the outrageous claims of Jesus Christ, but it is precisely the function of Divine Providence to purge away spiritual dross, releasing energy and strength in those who, through such purification, learn at last what it means to be happy.
No fear of human plans
Therefore, I have no fear of the “stacking” of the College of Cardinals by Pope Francis, which Phil Lawler recorded for all of us today, not only accurately but insightfully and altogether appropriately. Forewarned is forearmed. But read the headline again: “The new cardinals: Pope Francis bids for ‘irreversible change’”. Phil covers the news not only with incomparable dedication and skill but with an unparalleled Catholic intelligence. Trust me on this: If the sky were falling, that would have been his headline.
Instead, everything, including the College of Cardinals, is a tool of Providence, and grace remains at work even in the least likely situations and groups. Moreover, I will give three very human reasons for not worrying overmuch about the various political machinations used even by bishops and popes to secure their own legacies. The truth of these reasons is substantiated by the election of Jorge Bergoglio himself.
First, the cardinals do not know themselves very well. Bergoglio himself was most likely elected because he established a reputation for wanting the authentic Vatican renewal which Benedict had not the strength to achieve. Yet he proved to be anything but what most of those who voted for him expected.
Second, popes do not know most of the cardinals very well (or even the men they choose to make new cardinals); nor can they accurately predict what any cardinal will be like, once the mask of even a legitimate subservience is removed, when an elected successor embarks on his own program.
Third, God knows—as surely as we do not—what immediate and pressing concerns will surround the next conclave, and how these concerns will influence the election. In addition, it is quite possible for a man who will become both a holy and an effective pope to be elected for reasons astonishingly irrelevant to either his holiness or his effectiveness. Apart from Divine inspiration, nobody predicts the future accurately, not even with all the information available in this world.
Many popes have attempted to control the election of their successors. The only successful one we know about was Peter, when (as we believe) he hand-picked Linus—and only those in heaven know whether Peter was himself satisfied with the result. It is fitting, then, to end where we began, with Divine Providence. In a commentary designed to interpret it, I can only hope my reading has some points in its favor. But then I am hoping from my own point of view, am I not? So again, Divine Providence. Ultimately, I am content with it. I hope you are too. Nothing is more calculated to eliminate worry about all those horrible outcomes—all those many futures—which remain infinitely beyond our abilities to foresee.
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