Is there a Providential trajectory in the last seven popes?
The Church is suffering a crisis of leadership at the top during the current pontificate, but I also think we can see elements of a Divine plan as we survey the last seven pontificates which mark the transition from a stable but fairly stagnant Counter Reformation Church to what will hopefully become a more apostolic Church that no longer takes cultural receptivity for granted. Please note that this is not because I think Pope Francis is more apostolic. It is rather just the opposite. He is so obviously unapostolic that I believe he is triggering a backlash of deeper commitment in the clergy whom God wants to renew the Church in the coming generations.
Let me oversimplify to make this possible Providential trajectory clear:
- Pius XII: The last Counter Reformation pope just before the collapse of Faith in the West
- John XXIII: The pope who saw the need to shake the Church out of what we might call its “cut and dried” lethargy
- Paul VI: A holy and theologically sound pope who was so poor an administrator that he presided over a Church in which the new secularism warred openly against the Faith
- John Paul I: A blip on the Church’s screen whose immediate death made it possible to elect John Paul II
- John Paul II: A remarkably strong and vigorous pope who both projected and stimulated a deepening of sound Catholic commitment throughout the Church, correcting many errors and inspiring both the laity and a vibrant new generation of young priests
- Benedict XVI: A brilliant theologian who extended the period of doctrinal stability and deep faith commitment while increasing the Catholic understanding of the surrounding dictatorship of relativism, a theme he preached on immediately preceding his election
- Francis: The pope who likes to make a mess, and who has made it in a Church already so much influenced by the previous trajectory that, whereas fresh vocations and apostolic commitments had resulted previously from the leadership of John Paul II and Benedict, now fresh vocations and apostolic commitment are spurred still further throughout the Church, and with an even greater sense of responsibility, precisely because of the dramatic failure of the Francis papacy
In the world you have trouble...
I think most of my readers will agree that the pontificate of Francis is indeed a massive failure, a failure seemingly designed to increase the secularism of the remaining susceptible clergy and laity throughout the Church. But whereas the leadership at the top under John Paul II encouraged a new generation of priests and bishops, the failure of leadership at the top under Francis has had two equally important effects: First, it has made a great many bishops recognize that they are not called to be branch managers of a multi-national corporation, but are called instead to be vicars of Christ in their own dioceses, with the courage to provide the leadership their dioceses need for a strengthening of Catholic faith, understanding and apostolic commitment.
Moreover, whereas under John Paul II many embraced the call to the priesthood and the lay apostolate because they were inspired by this great pope who so obviously “had their backs”, under Francis many are embracing the priesthood and lay apostolate precisely because the current pope is such an obvious Catholic failure that they believe they must step into the breach themselves. One significant element of proof for this thesis is this recent news story: Major survey finds ‘conservative’ and ‘orthodox’ priests on the rise in the US. Even granted that the “do-it-yourself” attitude is still often stronger in American culture than in many other places, this highlights a trend in many places around the world in which not only increasing numbers of laity but more and more potential new priests and bishops have realized that they must step up to genuine leadership roles precisely because of the spiritual bankruptcy of the current pontificate.
In what is almost a comic turn, larger and larger percentages of brand new priests, older priests, and bishops are realizing that the true concept of synodality is not constant consultation and blather designed to open the Church to the dominant culture, but the determination of each diocese (and therefore each parish) in the Church to become a strong and vibrant local Church that salvages the whole simply by being a healthy Church in miniature right here, right now, in this place, on this ground.
My thesis, then, is a simple one: Pope Francis, in his very failure, is providing the Providential kick in the pants which is awakening more and more people at all levels to take active responsibility for their own local churches—and therefore, from the ground up, for the universal Church. Under John Paul II and Benedict, a top-down impetus became very evident. But through Francis, God has demonstrated that a top-down Church is never enough, and has Providentially triggered a resurgence from below.
...but I have overcome the world.
Providence is always at work in the Church, of course, just as it is everywhere in the world. But the Divine trajectory is more obvious at some times than at others, or at least more obvious to those who understand what it means to read the signs of the times without assuming they are all good. There are periods in which worldly distractions, whether seemingly positive or negative, blind us to the means by which God is purifying and reshaping His Mystical Body. But we in the West today, despite our growing civilizational problems, are generally free enough from physical and material pain and distress to notice endemic spiritual problems, and this “noticing” extends to the current nightmarish quality of the Church’s leadership at the very top—I mean its blundering weakness, pragmatic infidelity, and singular incompetence.
It should not surprise us that such a crisis of fidelity at the top provides a powerful motive to take greater responsibility for strengthening and extending fidelity from the bottom. A great many lay people are doing this, contributing to the rise of a new generation of priests, who are most often attracted to ministry in precisely those dioceses whose bishops no longer consider themselves corporate branch managers in a bankrupt company. In a great many cases, these have become new ecclesiastical rallying points, not just further examples of the laity on the outside looking in.
So let me end by praising those successors of the apostles who assume a serious ecclesial responsibility for the local church they have been appointed to serve, strengthen and guard. And let me praise the countless priests, deacons, religious and laity who have extended a new and vibrant apostolic spirit into an over-tired world. I really do think this is a valid reading of our times, though I understand how spotty this renewal can seem, especially depending on where one lives. But if I am correct, then let us get ourselves even more firmly on board, and praise God for His own authentic renewal in the hearts of highly committed Catholics, each and every day.
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Posted by: loumiamo4057 -
Nov. 11, 2023 7:12 AM ET USA
Welcome to the party Dr.Jeff. Many of ur readers saw after only 18 months the "obvious Catholic failure...because of the spiritual bankruptcy of the current pontificate...its blundering weakness, pragmatic infidelity, and singular incompetence." Those were so good they deserved repeating. I have posted this before, the the best way for the H.S. to show a doubting world that He is still in charge is to put in a disastrous pope who tries to do damage but ultimately fails. A big thank you, H.S.
Posted by: annc -
Nov. 11, 2023 6:59 AM ET USA
Thank you, Jeff, for this thought-provoking and insightful commentary. At an appropriate time, I will pass it on to the Seton community and use it in my classes.
Posted by: JimKcda -
Nov. 10, 2023 7:59 PM ET USA
Nice article Jeff! But what about the firmly entrenched sexual abusers, embezzlers and homosexuals in the clergy that continue to pop up in our news almost every week? I think these “bad guys” of all stripes have simply gone back into their closets, but are now working harder than ever to destroy the Church in meetings such as the Synod - all with Francis’ blessing. I wish I had your optimism and I hope and pray you are correct about our current situation. God Bless you & Catholic Culture!
Posted by: Randal Mandock -
Nov. 10, 2023 7:14 PM ET USA