Saturday, February 11, 2017

La Civiltà Cattolica and the “Spirit of the Age”

Rev. Antonio Spadaro, SJ. (Photo: Magyar Kurír.)
Brace yourselves. Once again, someone in the Vatican has challenged Church doctrine in a way that implicates Pope Francis, on an issue about which he has already spoken — women’s ordination to the priesthood. (Surprise, surprise, the culprit is a Jesuit.) Arguably, the last pope to have total control over his staff was St. Gregory the Great. Certainly, it’s dubious whether any pope since Pius XII has had a curia and bureaucracy that were all striving to the same end. But even the most doughty of papal defenders must occasionally find himself irritated by Francis’ seeming unwillingness to ride herd on the Vatican administration.

This is Where We Came In …

On Tuesday, February 7, Sandro Magister reported on an article published in the Italian Jesuit magazine La Civiltà Cattolica, written by Fr. Giancarlo Pani, SJ. Titled “La Donna e il Diacono,” Magister claims that in the article, “Fr. Pani calmly rips to shreds the ‘last clear word’ — meaning the flat no — that John Paul II spoke against women’s priesthood.”

Yawn, you say; haven’t we seen this movie before, during the reigns of Benedict XVI and St. John Paul himself? Ah, says Magister, but this is different! You see, the Holy See inspects and authorizes every line it publishes! Plus, the editor is none other than papal confidant Fr. Antonio Spadaro, and Fr. Pani is not only a deputy editor but his closest colleague!

And Francis is the first “not to limit himself to what is already known, but wants to delve into a complex and relevant field, so that it may be the Spirit who guides the Church,” concludes La Civiltà Cattolica, evidently with the pope’s imprimatur.

The first rule in dealing with news from the Vatican: Not everybody in the Vatican is on the same page. In fact, going off-script is almost an intramural sport. Most bureaucracies have functionaries whose agendas differ from the person supposedly in charge of the mess. The Vatican differs only in that the subversion is more rampant and sometimes more blatant. Since Pius XII, the popes have as often had to work against the bureaucracy as with it. Nobody should assume that anybody in the Holy See does anything unusual with the full knowledge of the Pope, or even with the minimum knowledge of the next person up the food chain.

Causa Finita Est

To say that “the Holy See” inspects every line of La Civiltà Cattolica is not the same as to say Pope Francis reads a single word of it. In fact, the inspecting authority is the Secretariat of State’s Substitute for General Affairs, Abp. Giovanni Angelo Becciu, a Benedict appointee. But whatever inspection takes place is more likely done by the Assessor for General Affairs, Msgr. Paolo Borgia (no kidding!), or the Assessor’s subordinate. Either of these functionaries could have signed off on Pani’s piece without Francis’ knowledge, or even without having fully read it themselves.

“But … but Spadaro! Papal confidante!” you sputter angrily. Shrug; so what? It doesn’t follow that the confidences are mutual. Pani’s article could be a Franciscan trial balloon. However, La Civiltà Cattolica wasn’t completely orthodox even when Benedict sat in the Fisherman’s chair; the Secretariat hasn’t been a diligent censor of the magazine for many years. Magister wants to believe Francis is behind it because, like many people on both sides of the divide, Magister wants to believe the Pope is more progressive than he admits to. Francis said that Ordinatio Sacerdotalis “holds”, and said it without even an implicit “for now”. Why not take him at his word?

In other words, yes, yawn, because we have seen this movie before. At least once every one or two years, some Frightfully Important Theologian “rips [Ordinatio Sacerdotalis] to shreds,” along with the CDF’s ad dubium declaring its teaching infallible. This isn’t the only question on which Rome’s last word is treated as merely the latest, nor is it a recent phenomenon. On an issue involving grace, St. Augustine griped, “Two councils have been sent on this question to the Apostolic See, and rescripts have come from there as well. The matter is at an end; would that error too might sometime come to an end!” (Sermon 131, 10)

Recycled Garbage

Unfortunately, Magister doesn’t give us Pani’s full argument; even if the La Civiltà Cattolica article weren’t behind a paywall, I’m not conversant in Italian, let alone fluent. However, the points Pani brings up in Magister’s extract, the passage Magister believes is crucial, are hardly original or unanswerable: This is the twenty-first century. Everything has changed; everything old has been challenged and questioned; and we twenty-first-century theologians are certainly better informed than the nineteen centuries’ worth of saints, bishops, and popes who preceded us. They only appear to be stronger now because of the appearance of Vatican approval, which may or may not be only a matter of Vatican inattention.

But OS isn’t the only target in Pani’s sights. “Difficulties with the answer’s reception have created ‘tensions’ in relations between magisterium and theology over the connected problems. These are pertinent to the fundamental theology on infallibility.” Pani doesn’t explain himself further — or at least Magister’s extract doesn’t — except to say the ad dubium appealed to Lumen Gentium 25 for “the first time in history,” as if whether the appeal were the first or the forty-first made a difference in LG’s authoritative weight. The implication is that, unless an apostolic declaration passes muster with the ruck of academic theologians, it renders the Church’s doctrine on infallibility untenable.

Of course, the Catholic Church’s argument against ordaining women isn’t simply that she has never done so before. Read the CDF document Inter Insigniores, to which St. John Paul II referred in OS, for a fuller explanation. To the accusation that the refusal of ordination lowers women’s dignity, the pope countered with the example of the Blessed Virgin Mother, who “received neither the mission proper to the Apostles nor the ministerial priesthood” yet who bears dignity and reverence above all angels and saints (OS 3). Indeed, to tie women’s dignity and worth to their ability to be ordained is to give a left-handed tribute to clericalism.

The “Spirit of the Age”

Call it the appeal to novelty, or call it chronological snobbery. They’re two sides of the same coin: the fallacious assumption that what’s old is false or bad by dint of being old and what’s new is true and good for being new. Under such an assumption, any challenge is presumed prima faciae evidence that the old needs to be junked and the new installed in its place. And no such challenge is complete without the assertion that the Holy Spirit is leading the charge, often under the guise of the “spirit of the age”.

“One cannot always resort to the past,” Pani declaims, “as if only in the past are there indications of the Spirit.” But the point of tradition is the vital continuity between the teachings of today and the teachings of the apostles, not merely a blind reverence for bygone ways. We’re committed to preaching Christ’s gospel, not the latest fads and fashions of the academic world, and especially not those premised on a false anthropology in which the dignity of persons is contingent upon their access to political or economic power. If anything, the gospel proclaims the dignity of the powerless.

The “spirit of the age” is always trying to substitute the Conventional Wisdom for the apostolic tradition because it always finds in the Church’s doctrine and discipline a sign to be spoken against (cf. Luke 2:34). But going against the grain of the Conventional Wisdom is an essential part of spreading the gospel. “For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles …. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Corinthians 1:22-25).

Sign of Contradiction

The Catholic Church’s idea of the priest is intimately connected with her understanding of the Eucharist, the center of Catholic sacramental and liturgical life, and of the role of signs in the sacramental economy. If that understanding doesn’t square with current notions of truth about men and women, what of it? It’s part of the Church’s mission on earth to be a sign of contradiction and not to seek the world’s approval. The Church reserves her worship for God; she doesn’t need to sacrifice at the altars of Conventional Wisdom and Scholarly Opinion.

Candidly, my impression of Pope Francis is that, whatever his deficiencies are, he strives too hard for personal transparency to take deliberate advantage of the plausible deniability offered by Vatican internal politics. But I also question his judgment about the people with which he surrounds himself; particularly, Fr. Spadaro. Because if “La Donna e il Diacono” isn’t Francis’ own trial balloon, then we must question Spadaro’s agenda, as well as those of Abp. Becciu and Msgr. Borgia. The Pope needs a confidante who is on the same page as he is, not striving to undermine his papacy.