Do traditionalist Catholics really want the Pope dead?

(Photo: Reuters)

In the early 1980s I slipped behind the Iron Curtain and travelled discreetly to Prague. My suitcases were light on clothing and full of books. I had been sent in as a smuggler of Bibles and theology books. The Marxist government had decreed that the Catholic Church was prohibited from conducting any future ordinations to the priesthood. With this policy in place they believed they could asphyxiate the Church within a generation. No priest, no mass; no mass, no Church.

I slipped in and out of homes where the Catholic resistance was building an underground Catholic Church. Their locations were a strict secret. No real names were used, only pseudonyms. Since then, I have never again met any of the Czech would-be priests who used my holy contraband on those journeys.

So I was particularly interested in the meetings Pope Francis held with his fellow Jesuits in Prague last month. Some of them were described as priests ordained as part of the underground Church during the period of my book smuggling.

For once there was no misreporting of the papal conversation. In the past there have been three factors making a tricky situation worse. Francis has a tendency to shoot from the hip when he talks. It is no doubt intended to make him and his office accessible, but it often results in excitable headlines which suffer both from being poor translations of what he said, and are also removed from the proper context. Although the media love him for it, no previous pope took the risks he takes.

Previously it was the practice to release papal statements through official sources after theological and in-house media scrutiny. But Pope Francis often prioritises the human touch over institutional caution.In Prague, the full text was released so it's easier to be confident of what he meant.

On this occasion, all 'talked-out' after a demanding programme, Pope Francis invited questions from his fellow Jesuits in Prague. They were a range of interesting questions producing a variety of responses on subjects as diverse as prayer, to Jewish-Christian relations. But the one that hit the headlines was "some people wanted me to die."

The actual exchange went like this:

A Jesuit asks, "How are you?"

He replies, "Still alive, even though some people wanted me to die. I know there were even meetings between prelates who thought the pope's condition was more serious than the official version. They were preparing for the conclave. Patience! Thank God, I'm all right."

"Preparing for the conclave" refers, of course, to the elections for a new pope when the present incumbent dies. The reason Francis refers to this is because he has recently launched an inter-Nicene war on the traditionalists in the Catholic Church by restricting the use of the Latin mass. He is aware that given his age, some of the targets of his campaign might be tempted to hope for help in the form of a new pope should Francis succumb in hospital during an operation like the one from which he has just emerged.

Describing the present civil war in the Catholic Church is more difficult than one might imagine. It is multi-layered and complex. But his conversation in Prague highlighted one important dimension of it.

Converts to Catholicism are often heard to express some frustration at the number of times they have been given the warning that they are simply 'jumping out of the frying pan into the fire'.

Because obviously the same culture wars that exist in secular society and have first split and then overwhelmed the Protestant Churches, are taking place within the Catholic Church. But the fault lines within Catholicism are harder to interpret and require some real spiritual discernment.

Cardinal Pell put it well recently when he described the three pontificates of John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis I as each having its own charism or character. 'Courage, intellect and compassion' were the three descriptions he offered.

And there is no doubt that Francis has become popular in the secular world which appreciates compassion, as he set out to loosen the stricter tenets of Catholic moral discipline.

There are for example, many Catholics whose marriages have crumpled, and who have good reason to be grateful to his declaring he wanted to ease the excommunication on re-marriage after divorce, stating that the Eucharist was food for the wounded and not a reward for good performance.

This conversation with his Czech Jesuit colleagues offers us an insight into some of these issues.

He is wholly sincere in wanting to declericalise and humanise the pastoral practice of the clergy. Catholic clergy can indeed be sometimes pastorally distant. He went on to encourage his fellow Jesuits to be close to the people:

"It's true that if we are men who really go to the crossroads and the frontiers, we will create problems. But what will save us from falling into stupid ideologies is closeness to the people of God. This allows us to go forward with an open heart."

But 'stupid ideologies' need not only to be sidestepped, they also need to be identified and evaluated.We need to be able to tell the difference between a life-giving ideology and a demonic one. Being 'close to the people' is good for healing the wounds of bruising institutionalism, but will not automatically save the Church from being sucked into heterodoxy; especially if the people we are close to have a fondness or a taste for it.

He attacks one aspect of woke theory, specifically third wave feminism and its relativizing of gender, but yet in the same breath he defended another aspect of progressive culture, the social rehabilitation or promotion of homosexual partnerships:

"Ideology always has a diabolical appeal, as you say, because it is not embodied. Right now we live in a civilization of ideologies, that's true. We need to expose them at their roots. The 'gender' ideology of which you speak is dangerous, yes. As I understand it, it is so because it is abstract with respect to the concrete life of a person, as if a person could decide abstractly at will if and when to be a man or a woman. Abstraction is always a problem for me.

"This has nothing to do with the homosexual issue, though. If there is a homosexual couple, we can do pastoral work with them, move forward in our encounter with Christ. When I talk about ideology, I'm talking about the idea, the abstraction in which everything is possible, not about the concrete life of people and their real situation."

His commitment to the pastoral care of gay people is one of the repeated leitmotifs of his papacy, first launched when he shrugged his shoulders on being asked to comment on the homosexuality of a particular figure with "who am I to judge?"

And this is where the fault lines become hard to disentangle. Because the pastoral imperative that rightly refuses to judge in an individual case can become dangerous when detached from the prophetic imperative that identifies and warns about corrupting ideologies. You might say that as a rule of thumb, the more pastoral one gets, the less prophetically astute one becomes.

His critics say that the time Francis flourished best was in the 1970-90s, and indeed that he may have become stuck in that time frame. Many of us do get stuck in earlier periods of our life when we thought we knew what we were doing. These critics fear that from within these constraints he has been unable to identify what the issues that endanger the Church in the new millennium have turned out to be. And indeed, contemporary culture is changing with a disorientating speed and energy.

But there is a dangerous paradox that has developed emerging from these swirling undercurrents.

The very situation Pope Francis wants to deal with compassionately, the accompanying of the same-sex attracted, has unexpectedly to some developed into a full-blown political assault on Christianity itself.

It is no longer the gay couples who are the excluded, victimised minority; it is faithful Catholics who cannot subscribe to the LGBT agenda and lose their jobs for it. The Pope may be behind the discernment curve.

It is the Catholic adoption agencies for example that are now the victimised, and the vulnerable. They have been unilaterally closed down by the people whom the Pope wants to accompany. It is the children they cared for and sheltered who are excluded and abandoned, as the LGBT ideology morphs from victim to tyrant.

The traditionalists express the wish that Francis would discover the need to move from 'not judging' in matters of pastoral personal care, to very much offering a judgement in terms of identifying the forces, energies and spirits that are crushing Catholics in the public space.

In other words, the Church is in at least as great a need, perhaps greater, of a prophetic discernment in this time of complex competing energies and spirits, than the kindness of pastoral care.

The pastorally minded have not noticed that the crisis of the present moment is a vacuum of prophetic insight and discriminating judgement, allowing the enemies of Christendom to maintain their disguise of pretended moral virtue.

It may constitute a tragedy that the very people Francis identifies as the problem, the traditionalists who gather round the Latin mass, and are categorised in his mind as 'rigid', have part of the spiritual solution to the metaphysical warfare that is raging.

To him they are hampering what he hopes to achieve in the humanising of Catholicism in the spirit of the ambitions that Vatican II had, to celebrate the vernacular and the local. And yet perhaps unexpectedly, it is often among the traditionalists that the prophetic vision so badly needed in offering a spiritual interpretation of cultural and political forces, is to be found.

In this analysis, forensic, metaphysical and prophetic clarity has been misdiagnosed as 'rigidity'. A mindset prioritising the pastoral formed by the 1960s and 70s has not yet adjusted to the developments of the 2020s which require a prophetic insight to understand and evaluate.

And this may be the real crisis that the Catholic Church is facing.

Instead of uniting its formidable resources which stretch from transcendence to immanence, from the Apostolic to the ever-contemporaneousness of the Holy Spirit, it has stumbled into a civil war between the pastoral and prophetic; when actually the deeper task is to combine them both.

The diabolical assault of Marxism 1.0, which ground Prague and the whole of the Iron Curtain under its heel, crushing the Church, collapsed in 1989. But it has taken on a fresh form in Marxism 2.0 – the woke upgrade, and with its weapons of progressive relativism and critical theory it is squeezing the life out of Christian witness - and the Church out of the public square and, if nothing changes, back into the catacombs.

What the Church may need as much as compassion is the gift of prophetic discernment which can strip secular utopianism of its best disguise - that is, the pretence of compassion and the deception of prioritising the victim.

So, far from wanting him dead, it is more likely that faithful Catholics are praying for their Pope to become as alive in prophetic discernment as he is tender in compassion.

For the Catholic Church in the second decade of the third millennium is more in need of prophets and spiritual discernment, than it is of social justice warriors and equality.

Dr Gavin Ashenden is a former chaplain to the Queen. He blogs at Ashenden.org