ROME – So far this summer, there’ve been two big upheavals on the American Catholic landscape. They’re global Catholic questions that hardly apply only to the States, but which, for one reason or another, are felt with special intensity by Americans.
The role of Pope Francis in both cases is especially revealing.
The first tumult came in June, when the US bishops voted to move forward with a document on the Eucharist which potentially could set the stage for denying communion to pro-choice Catholic politicians. The second erupted Friday, when Pope Francis reversed Pope emeritus Benedict XVI’s liberalization of permission to celebrate the pre-Vatican II Latin Mass.
In the first instance, no other Catholic culture on earth focuses on abortion like the States, in part because it tends to be a mostly settled question elsewhere. In the second, the States are also home to the world’s largest Latin Mass network – according to the “Latin Mass Directory,” there are 657 venues in America that offer the pre-Vatican II Mass, three and half times more than the next highest country, France, with 199.
On communion, Pope Francis has discouraged any attempt by US bishops to use ecclesiastical authority to enforce discipline, while on the Latin Mass he’s doing so himself, insisting that celebration of the old Mass for now must be tightly circumscribed, and, with time, encouraged to die out.
Critics, naturally, would charge that the contrast is explained by politics. The common term, they’d say, is whose ox is being gored – many conservatives want the communion ban but not the Latin Mass restrictions, so, in both cases, they’d say, the pope is serving the interests of the liberals.
Yet assuming that politics only carry us so far, is there another way of explaining the apparent contradiction? Perhaps something that doesn’t entirely rule out the political interpretation, but also does better justice to what’s actually driving Francis?
To phrase the question differently, we know that Pope Francis is deeply pro-life; he’s compared abortion to hiring a hitman, and he’s also called it an “horrendous crime” and “very grave sin.” We also know Francis is passionately attached to the vision of the Second Vatican Council, including its reform of the liturgy.
So why is he willing to wield ecclesiastical authority on the latter but not the former? One explanation can be captured in a single word: “Weaponization.”
It’s revealing that in the run-up to the vote by the US bishops over the communion document, one of the pope’s closest friends and advisors, Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro, who directs the Jesuit-edited journal Civilità Cattolica, gave an interview to the New York Times in which he used that very language.
“The concern in the Vatican,” Spadaro told our colleague and friend Jason Horowitz in an article dated June 14, “is not to use access to the Eucharist as a political weapon.”
Underlying the “weaponization” complaint is an impression that many conservative Catholics in the States who want to see President Joe Biden, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and other Catholic Democrats, turned away in communion lines, feel that way not just out of concern for unborn lives but for much broader ideological reasons.
(As a footnote, it’s an interesting thought exercise to wonder how many American Catholics who voted for Donald Trump in 2020 would support Biden if he were to suddenly embrace the pro-life cause. Here’s hoping some pollster takes up the question.)
Similarly on the Latin Mass, one has the impression that at least part of Francis’s aversion is the impression that its devotees are attached to the older rite to make a political statement. By attending the pre-Vatican II liturgy, at least some aren’t simply making a spiritual or aesthetic choice but declaring where they stand in the church’s internal tussles – including, of course, what they think about Francis’s papacy.
This is where analogies between the Latin Mass and, say, liturgies in the Eastern churches, or the Ambrosian liturgy in the Archdiocese of Milan, break down. Nobody shows up for a Mass in the Syro-Malabar rite, or the Ambrosian rite, to make a political statement about Vatican II or anything else, but the same certainly cannot be said about the Tridentine rite.
In other words, the common term for Pope Francis in both the communion debate and the Latin Mass may be his allergy to the weaponization of the faith.
Of course, none of this means the pope is correct on substance. There’s a case to be made on the Latin Mass, for instance, for a Habsburg-style solution from the old Austro-Hungarian Empire – a devolved approach allowing subunits wide autonomy, in exchange for standing with the central authority to face external threats.
It’s also not to say Francis is entirely consistent. By aligning himself and the Church so clearly with Greta Thunberg and the anti-climate change movement, for instance, critics might charge that Francis himself has “weaponized” the faith, at least on that front.
Nevertheless, what we’re after here isn’t to decide who’s right, but rather to try to decipher what’s motivating Pope Francis.
That may be a fool’s errand, given that he’s not only a Jesuit but an Argentine Peronist, who resists being easily classified or predicted above almost all else – but in the present case, his aversion to perceived weaponization of the faith may be the best we’re going to do.
Follow John Allen on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr