What follows is my translation of the rather sensational article by Messrs. Gnocchi and Palmari, a pair of Italian Catholic intellectuals, in which the authors leveled profound and quite scathing public criticisms of the current pontificate under a title that could not be more provocative. After the article was published in the Italian daily Il Foglio on October 9, however, Pope Francis personally telephoned Palmaro to assure him “that he had understood that those criticisms had been made with love, and how important it had been for him to receive them.”
Let that be a lesson to the neo-Catholic proponents of abject silence and submission in the face of every papal word or deed—including those who run Radio Maria, which dismissed both authors from their positions as Catholic commentators immediately after the article appeared. Silence in the face of public scandal, even if it be the scandal of a Pope, has never been the Catholic way, as anyone with even a passing familiarity with the turbulent epochs of Church history would know.
Not only with that text, but with the text of the later apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, which in fact only repeats and even intensifies the same disturbing themes the Pope aired with Scalfari. Here too Catholics have a right and even a duty to raise objections, as this newspaper has done. (Cardinal Burke rather diplomatically observed that he does not think the exhortation should be considered part of the papal magisterium. He was rewarded for his candor by being removed from the Congregation for Bishops.)
By raising objections to the public scandal the Pope has caused with so many of his impromptu remarks, which have earned him the lavish praise of the worldwide media, Messrs. Gnocchi and Palmaro only did their duty as Catholics. And in so doing they were vindicated by the Pope himself. On the other hand, the neo-Catholic exponents of the conceit that the Pope Can Do No Wrong—or at least no wrong Catholics may criticize publicly—continue to shirk their duty to the Church and to truth itself. In this time of unparalleled crisis for both the Church and the world, their false notions of loyalty and obedience continue to undermine rather than serve the Petrine office.
We Do Not Like This Pope
His interviews and gestures are a sample case of moral and religious relativism. The attention of the media-ecclesiastical circuit is directed to Bergoglio and not Peter. The past is overthrown.
by Alessandro Gnocchi e Mario Palmaro
What the cost was for the impressive exhibition of poverty of which Pope Francis was the protagonist on October 4 in Assisi is not given to us to know. It is certain that, in times when fashion trends toward simplification, the historic day had very little of the Franciscan. A script well written and well played, if you will, but without the quid that made unique the spirit of Francis, the saint: the surprise that catches the world off guard. Francis, the Pope, who embraces the sick, who gets close to the crowd, who makes jokes, who speaks off the cuff, who climbs into the Panda [automobile], who releases the cardinals from lunch with the powers that be to go to the table of the poor—which was the most obvious thing that could be expected, and it promptly took place.
Naturally, with the great cooperation of the Catholic and para-Catholic press in exalting the humility of the gesture, with a sigh of relief that, this time, the Pope spoke of the encounter with Christ. And with the secular [press] to say that, now, yes, the Church is put in step with the times. All good stuff for the writer of medium-size headlines who wants to put the paper to bed in a hurry, and tomorrow one will see.
There was not even the surprise of the dramatic gesture. But even this would have been a very small thing, seeing how much Pope Bergoglio has said and done in only half a year of a pontificate that has culminated in the winks at Scalfari in the interview with Civiltà Cattolica.
The only ones to find themselves caught off guard, in this case, would have been the “normalists” [Italian equivalent of ‘Neo-Catholics’], those Catholics pathetically intent on convincing those around them, and even more pathetically themselves, that nothing has changed. And everything is normal, and, as usual, it is the fault of the newspapers that deliberately misrepresent the Pope, who is only saying in a different way the same truths taught by his predecessors.
As journalism is the oldest profession in the world, it is difficult to give credence to this thesis. “Your Holiness,” asks Scalfari during his interview, for example, “does there exist one unique vision of the Good? And who determines it?” “Each one of us,” responds the Pope, “has his own vision of Good and also of evil. We must encourage him to proceed toward that which he thinks is the Good.” Eugenio presses Jesuitically, eager for the expected response: “Your Holiness had already written this in the letter you sent to me. The conscience is autonomous, you said, each everyone must obey his own conscience. I think that that is one of the most courageous steps taken by a Pope. “And I repeat it here,” the Pope reiterates even more eagerly. “Everyone has his own idea of Good and of Evil and must choose to follow the good and fight evil as he conceives them. This would be enough to make the world a better place.”
With Vatican II already concluded and the postconciliar period more than well underway, in chapter 32 of Veritatis splendor, John Paul II, contesting “certain currents of modern thought,” wrote that “there are attributed to the individual conscience the prerogatives of a supreme tribunal of moral judgment, which decides questions of good and evil categorically and infallibly…so much so that one comes to a radically subjectivist conception of moral judgment.” Even the most creative “normalist” would find it difficult to reconcile Bergoglio 2013 with Wojtyla 1993.
In the presence of such a turnabout, the newspapers do their honest and predictable job: taking up the phrases of Pope Francis in evident contrast with what the Popes and the Church have always taught and converting them into headlines for page one. And then the “normalist,” who always and everywhere says what Osservatore Romano thinks, brings up the context. Phrases extrapolated from the blessed context would not respect the mens of he who has pronounced them. But—and this is the history of the Church that teaches it—certain phrases with a complete sense make sense and can be judged regardless. If during a long interview someone sustains that “Hitler was a benefactor of humanity,” he will hardly be able to get away with invoking the context before the world. If a Pope says during an interview “I believe in God, not in a Catholic God,” the damage is done regardless. For two thousand years the Church has judged doctrinal affirmations in isolation from their context. In 1713, Clement XI published the Constitution Unigenitus Dei Filius in which he condemned 101 propositions of the theologian Pasquier Quesnel. In 1864, Pius IX published in the Syllabus a list of erroneous propositions. In 1907, Saint Pius X appended to his Pascendi dominici gregis, 65 phrases incompatible with Catholicism. And these are only a few examples to show that error, when error there is, is recognized by the naked eye. A review of Denzinger would not do any harm.
Moreover, in the case of the interviews of Bergoglio, analysis of context can make things even worse. When, for example, Pope Francis says to Scalfari “proselytism is solemn nonsense,” the “normalist” immediately explains that he was speaking of the aggressive proselytism of the South American sects. Unfortunately, in the interview Bergoglio says to Scalfari “I do not wish to convert you.” It follows that, in the authentic interpretation, when one defines proselytism as “solemn nonsense,” one means the work done by the Church to convert souls to Catholicism.
It would be difficult to interpret the concept otherwise, in light of the wedding of the Gospel and the world that Francis blessed in the interview with Civiltà Cattolica. “Vatican II,” explains the Pope “was a rereading of the Gospel in the light of contemporary culture. It produced a movement of renewal that simply comes from the same Gospel. The fruits are enormous. It suffices to recall the liturgy. The work of the liturgical reform was a service to the people of God as a rereading of the Gospel from a concrete historical situation. Yes, there are hermeneutics of continuity and discontinuity, but one thing is clear: the dynamic of reading the Gospel, actualizing its message for today—which was typical of Vatican II—is absolutely irreversible.” Just so: no longer is the world formed in light of Gospel, but the Gospel is deformed in light of the world, of contemporary culture. And who knows how many times this will have to happen, at every turn of cultural change, each time putting into default the preceding rereading: nothing other than the permanent council theorized by Carlo Maria Montini.
In the wake of this is rising on the horizon the idea of a new Church, “the field hospital” evoked in the interview with Civiltà Cattolica, where it seems the doctors until now have not practiced their profession well. “I think of the situation of a woman with a failed marriage in her past and who also had an abortion,” the Pope always says. “Then this woman remarries, and she is now happy and has five children. That abortion in her past weighs heavily on her conscience and she sincerely regrets it. She would like to move forward in her Christian life. What is the confessor to do?”
A discourse cleverly constructed to be concluded by a question after which one moves on and changes the subject, almost as if to underline the Church’s inability to respond. A disconcerting passage if one considers that the Church has answered this question for two thousand years with a rule that permits absolution of the sinner, provided she is repentant and commits not to remain in sin. Yet, overcome by the overflowing personality of Pope Bergoglio, legions of Catholics have imbibed the fable of a problem that in reality has never existed. All of them are there, with a sense of guilt for two thousand years of supposed outrages against poor sinners, to thank the bishop come “from the end of the world,” not for solving a problem that wasn’t, but for having invented it.
The disquieting aspect of the thought underlying such affirmations is the idea of an irremediable alternative between doctrinal rigor and mercy: if there is one, there cannot be the other. But the Church has always taught and lived exactly the contrary. It is the awareness of sin and repentance for having committed it, together with the intention to avoid it in the future, that render possible the forgiveness of God. Jesus saves the adulteress from stoning, absolves her, but dismisses her saying: “Go, and sin no more.” He does not say to her: “Go, and be at peace that my Church will not exercise any spiritual interference in your personal life.”
Seeing the practically unanimous consensus of the Catholic people and the love of the world, against which the Gospel should put us on our guard, one could say that six months of Francis have altered an era. In reality, one witnesses the phenomenon of a leader who says to the crowd precisely what the crowd wants to hear him say. But it is undeniable that this is done with great talent and craft. Communication with the people, which has become the people of God where in fact there is no longer any distinction between believers and non-believers, is only in the slightest part direct and spontaneous.
Even the huge crowds in Saint Peter’s Square, at World Youth Day, at Lampedusa or at Assisi are filtered by the media, which take charge of providing the events together with their interpretation.
The Francis phenomenon does not depart from the fundamental rule of the media game, but, on the contrary, uses it to become almost innate. The mechanism was defined with great efficacy in the eighties by Mario Alighiero Manacorda in an enjoyable little book with the most enjoyable title “The language of television. Or the deranged anadiplosis.” Anadiplosis is a figure of speech in which, as occurs in this line, the sentence begins with the principal term contained in the preceding sentence. According to Manacorda, this rhetorical artifice has become the essence of media language. “These modes are purely formal, redundant, unnecessary and incomprehensible as to the substance,” he said, “inducing the listener to follow the formal part, which is the figure of speech, and to forget the substantial part.”
With time, mass communication has ended by definitively substituting the formal for the substantial aspect, the appearance for the truth. And it has done so, in particular, thanks to the rhetorical devices of synecdoche and metonymy by which a part is represented as the whole. The ever more dizzying velocity of information imposes neglect of the whole and leads to a focus on some particular, chosen with expertise to give a reading of the complex phenomenon. Ever more frequently, newspapers, TV, websites, sum up great events in a detail.
From this point of view, it seems that Pope Francis was made for the mass media and that the mass media were made for Pope Francis. It suffices to cite the lone example of the man dressed in white who climbs the stairs to the airplane door carrying a torn black leather bag: the perfect use of synecdoche and metonymy together. The figure of the Pope is absorbed by that black bag, which annuls the sacred image handed down through the centuries by replacing it with a completely new and worldly one: the Pope, the new Pope, exists entirely in that particular, which exalts poverty, humility, dedication, work, contemporaneity, the quotidian, the closest proximity to what is more worldly that one can imagine.
The ultimate effect of this process leads to the location in the background of the impersonal concept of the papacy and the simultaneous rise to prominence of the person who embodies it. The effect is all the more disturbing if one observes that the recipients of the message receive exactly the opposite meaning: they hail the great humility of the man and think that these things bring luster to the papacy.
From the effect of synecdoche and metonymy, the next step consists in identifying the person of the Pope with the Pope: a part for the whole, and Simon has overthrown Peter. This phenomenon is such that Bergoglio, while expressing himself formally as a private doctor, in fact transforms any of his words and gestures into an act of the Magisterium. If one then considers that most Catholics are convinced that whatever the Pope says is only and always infallible, the game is over. However one might protest that a letter to Scalfari or an interview with whomever are even less than the opinion of a private doctor, in the age of the mass media the effect they will produce will be immeasurably greater than any solemn pronouncement. On the contrary, the more the gesture or speech will be formally small and insignificant, the more it will have effect and be considered unassailable and above criticism.
Not by accident the symbolism that sustains this phenomenon is comprised of lowly quotidian things. The black bag carried by hand on the airplane is an example. But also when one speaks of the pectoral cross, the ring, the altar, the sacred vessels and vestments, one speaks of the material of which they are made and no longer of what they represent: the formless matter takes precedence over the form. De facto, Jesus is no longer found on the Cross the Pope wears on his neck because the people are induced to contemplate the iron with which the object was produced. Yet again the part devours the whole, which here is written with a lower-case “w.” And “the flesh of Christ” is to be sought elsewhere and each one ends by identifying the Holocaust that best suits him. In these days, at Lampedusa, tomorrow who knows?
And the outcome is that the wisdom of the world, which Saint Paul dismissed as foolishness, is today employed to reread the Gospel with the eyes of the TV. But already in 1969, Marshall McLuhan had written to Jacques Maritain: “The environments of electronic information, which have been completely ethereal, nourish the illusion of the world as a spiritual substance. This is a reasonable facsimile of the Mystical Body, a deafening manifestation of the Antichrist. After all, the prince of this world is a great electrical engineer.”
Sooner or later we shall have to awake from the great mass media dream and return to contending with reality. And it will be necessary to learn true humility, which consists in submitting ourselves to Someone greater who is manifested through immutable laws, even for the Vicar of Christ. And it will be necessary to regain the courage to say that a Catholic can only feel himself lost before a dialogue in which everyone, in homage to the pretended autonomy of conscience, is encouraged to proceed toward his own personal vision of good and evil. Because Christ cannot be one option among many. At least for his vicar.