Catholics Talking Past One Another

By Timothy Kirchoff
June 30, 2017

Amoris Laetitia is the occasion for the latest battle between traditionalists and progressives, groups that have occupied opposite camps for decades. They do not talk to each other, but they can’t stop talking about each other. Each side articulates its mission primarily in contrast to the other’s. Traditionalists define themselves in contrast to the casual cafeteria Catholicism of the post-Vatican II Church, and progressives likewise invoke the failings of the stuffy, doctrinaire Church that preceded the Council to validate their approach to the Faith.

I confess that I didn't start following the controversy over communion and re-marriage until recently (during the Synod, I was preoccupied with analyzing its impact on LGBT issues), but if there is a substantive and productive debate going on, I haven’t stumbled across it yet. The stories I noticed during the synod and the articles I've read as I've tried to catch up have mostly revolved around personalities— Cardinal Burke for one side, Cardinal Kasper and Pope Francis for the other.

Although there are some people with no strong opinions about one or more of these bishops, I know of no one who thinks of all three simultaneously as heroic or praiseworthy figures; most of the Catholic commentariat seems to love Burke and hold the others in deep suspicion, or vice-versa. Articles revolve not around policies or answering theological arguments, but insinuations and questionable narratives about despised clerics' character or motives that readers eagerly snap up as reinforcements of their biases.

The are a number of essays that not only fail to move the conversation on Amoris Laetitia forward; they also deepen the long antagonism between traditionalists and progressives. A recent essay in Commonweal by Eric Brende indulges the progressive prejudice against Cardinal Burke, while Matthew Schmitz at First Things accuses Francis and Kasper of trying to “bury” Pope Benedict, and in the process demonstrates the self-reinforcing nature of the traditionalist-progressive divide. Both writers have the capacity to edify their respective audiences, but chose instead to flatter them.

The Deepening Breach

In Commonweal, Eric Brende begins by lamenting the ever-deepening breach within the Catholic Church, a breach that, as he puts it, jeopardizes “the unity implied in the very word ‘catholic.’” Although Brende professes to be a conservative who believes “the post–Vatican II lurch went too far,” most of what he says flatters the prejudices of Commonweal’s progressive audience. He caricatures the pre-Vatican II Church as following Henry Ford as its model rather than Jesus, impugns the character of traditionalist hero Cardinal Raymond Burke, and finally places the whole blame for the breach within Catholicism on a traditionalist “shadow church” that is exemplified by the neurotic and authoritarian community that maltreated him.

The bulk of Brende’s essay is taken up with the account of his maltreatment at the hands of the Institute of Christ the King, Sovereign Priest, which was invited into the Diocese of St. Louis by Cardinal Burke and with which Burke has maintained an amicable relationship since his transition to the Curia and beyond. Brende had been ejected from a homeschooling co-op through a tribunal led by an Institute priest. Brende appealed his case to Burke, who admitted privately that he thought that the accusations were exaggerated and the punishment disproportionate, but ultimately urged Brende to forgive and move on. Brende takes Burke’s refusal to correct the judgment against him as proof that “Burke’s vision of ecclesial governance [is that] the clergy are right even when they’re wrong.”

It is easy for me to forgive Brende for wanting to share his experience, and I see no reason to doubt his story. However, in extrapolating from his experience a questionable conclusion about Burke’s worldview and connecting it to the ongoing controversy about Amoris Laetitia, he crosses the line from disclosure into gossip and innuendo. He defines Burke and traditionalists by their worst moments and characteristics. Rather than giving Commonweal’s readership insights that will help them find common ground with Catholic traditionalists, he has given them further reasons to dislike and distrust their fellow Catholics.

Francis and His Co-Conspirators

Matthew Schmitz’ essay in First Things turns Francis’ admiration for Cardinal Kasper into proof that Francis is Kasper’s co-conspirator in undermining Benedict’s legacy, as if Cardinal Ratzinger’s position on communion for the re-married were a core element of Pope Benedict’s legacy. Throughout the essay, Schmitz describes Pope Benedict and his writing in the most glowing terms, but each statement in praise of Benedict is accompanied by a critical word about Kasper or Francis.

But of all the arguments he musters for his thesis about the conflict between Francis and Benedict, I find this one the most puzzling:

“No pope in living memory has so directly opposed his predecessor—who, in this instance, happens to live just up the hill. This is why supporters of Francis’s agenda become nervous whenever Benedict speaks, as he recently did in praise of Cardinal Sarah. Were the two men in genuine accord, partisans of Francis would not fear the learned, gentle German who walks the Vatican Gardens.”

That people who like Francis also dislike Benedict is proof for Schmitz that Francis and Benedict are opposed. But many Francis fans already disliked Benedict since his tenure in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Francis needn’t be actually opposed to Benedict for progressives to want to read him that way, but traditionalists by and large bought into that narrative without questioning it.  Progressive affection for Francis becomes further proof for traditionalists that Francis is not to be trusted (though they likely would have seized on virtually any new Pope as a welcome relief from Benedict), and that conservative mistrust of Francis only serves to reinforce progressive opinion in favor of Francis.

Schmitz’ invective against Francis is no more helpful than or Brende’s suggestion about Burke’s view of ecclesial governance or the allegations during the Synod that Cardinal Kasper advanced his agenda about the reception of communion because of financial concerns in the German Church. Such articles make it harder for people on either side to see their adversaries as members of the same church, or to find anything worthwhile or edifying in their liturgy or spirituality.

An appreciation for Benedict’s theology needn’t be an obstacle to finding something edifying in Francis’s example of Christian discipleship, and finding Kasper’s theology compelling shouldn’t make Burke’s liturgies inaccessible, but the way in which each side has cleaved to their chosen shepherds while denouncing the others as wolves-in-disguise makes it harder to discern how both sides are part of one flock.

To Follow Christ

In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, (1 Cor 3), he reprimands them for quarreling amongst themselves and identifying as followers of either Paul or Apollos rather than recognizing that Christ used both Paul and Apollos at different times to evangelize the Corinthians. We might say the same today about those who think themselves followers of Benedict or of Francis.

No one needs to read yet another article exaggerating the differences between Francis and Benedict. Show me instead a traditionalist who finds encouragement and validation in Francis, or a progressive who draws lessons from traditionalists’ desire for beauty and solemnity in liturgy or for a connection to the Catholic Church not only across the world, but throughout history as well. Show me a conservative reflecting on Benedict’s dedication to ecology, or a liberal contemplating what Pope Francis means when he refers to same-sex marriage as an “anthropological regression.”

Progressives and traditionalists need to strive to see each other as trying sincerely to follow Christ, not just as examples of how to do it wrong.  As long as these groups define themselves in terms of their opposition to the other, they will be continually drawn into deeper conflict.