Friday, August 22, 2014

A brotherly dissent: an open letter to Dave Armstrong on 'splainin' Pope Francis

I found myself a bit disappointed, Dave. You've written so many good things before this. I finally got around to reading your book Pope Francis Explained recently, and, I'm sorry, but I guess I was expecting something different. I don't question for a moment your goodwill towards the Holy Father, your fidelity to the Magisterium, or your zeal for Holy Mother Church. But I'm disappointed for at least two reasons. Not bad, really, just two.

First, although your book purports to explain how Pope Francis has been misunderstood and show how his words can be properly understood, in many cases you do not really do this. Rather, you quote passages from the Pope's writings and speeches where he clearly defends Church teaching. To your credit, such quotations might be of help to secular progressives or dissenting Catholics who actually dislike or don't know the Church's positions, if any of them were interested enough to read your book. But that's not the problem that many others see here. The problem, rather, is that many of the Pope's statements (not just their interpretations) are themselves ambiguous, and feed the fire of glee among the dissenters and alarm among the faithful; and simply smoothing over this problem by insisting on what you think the Pope surely must have meant does not address this problem.

Many of those who have expressed concern, if not alarm, over the ambiguities and confusions found in the Pope's own words are not “reactionaries” on the “extreme right” or only “a hair's breadth from schism,” or even “mainstream traditionalists” who “prefer the Tridentine Mass,” to quote you. Rather, they are men and women numbered among my own colleagues and friends – people like Dr. Janet Smith, Dr. Monica Miller, Dr. Robert Fastiggi, Dr. Eduardo Echeverria, Dr. Mark Latkovic, and others. None of them would think of accusing the Holy Father of heresy or not being the legitimate pope, but many of them have expressed (1) real concerns (especially in the beginning) as to whether he was securely “on board” with the Church's teachings on contraception, abortion, homosexuality, and so on, although these concerns were fairly quickly allayed by emerging publications and statements showing that the Pope has stalwartly defended the Church's perennial position on those issues (as you, too, have stressed); and many of them (2) continue to be concerned about ambiguities and conflicting signals, not merely mis-communicated by irresponsible media, but resident within the Pope's own often “off-the-cuff” remarks. Some of these concerns are summarized, for example, by Dr. Miller here and here.

In your treatment of the La Civiltà Cattolica interview, you don't really ever address the problem of these off-the-cuff remarks and the confusion they have caused. You admit that the style of delivery might differ significantly, but that the substance remains unchanged. Yet you don't acknowledge any sort of real problem. You cite Jimmy Akin's hypothesis that the Pope is trying to fight against being “stereotyped” by the liberal secular media. Whether this hypothesis is plausible or not is beside the point, however. The elephant in the room is the confusion provoked by the Holy Father's remarks among both agnostic secularists and Catholics. Even Jimmy Akin acknowledges this difficulty in a passage you quote (p. 117), where he writes: “Time will tell whether [the Pope's] 'fight the stereotypes, go with the central message' approach will lead to the results he desires ….” But you don't address this.

In your chapter devoted to “Pro-Life” issues, for example, you offer quotation-after-quotation from Pope Francis, calling to witness words with which he has clearly defended the Church's teaching on life issues. Not once, however, do you address the problems that provoked the serious dismay expressed by good Catholics like Dr. Monica Miller or Dr. Janet Smith, such as the Pope ostensibly dismissing pro-life concerns like contraception, abortion, and same-sex marriage as “obsessions” of those immersed in “small-minded rules.” Whatever the “strategy” that may have animated the Holy Father's words, he has nowhere made this known, and he has left multitudes in confusion, or, worse, confirmed in their errors. And your counsel that “those who are intended to get it [his meaning], will get it,” is hardly a viable hermeneutic.

Second, although your book claims to steer a path between the extremes of “progressives” on the left and “reactionaries” on the right, it also tends to group under the heading of “reactionaries” any Catholics who are publicly critical of the Holy Father's often confusing remarks. Your definition of those who are “radically Catholic reactionary” is:
... a rigorist, divisive group completely separate from mainstream “traditionalism” that continually, vociferously, and vitriolically (as marked characteristic or defining trait) bashes and trashes popes, Vatican II, the New Mass, and ecumenism (the “big four”): going as far as they can go without technically crossing over the canonical line of schism. In effect, they become their own popes: exercising private judgment in an unsavory fashion, much as (quite ironically) Catholic liberals do, and as Luther and Calvin did when they rebelled against the Church... [I used to think that, until I realized they were voicing the views of Popes like St. Pius X]. They must assume a condescending “superior-subordinate” orientation.
Strong language, to say the least.

Yet your distinction between “radical reactionary” and “mainstream traditionalist” Catholics, while well-intentioned, is anything but tidy in application. How would you classify Michael Voris, who refuses to criticize the Pope but has produced exposés sharply critical of (a) “liturgical reforms” following Vatican II (“Weapons of MASS Destruction”), (b) the way Communion in the hand was introduced in the west (“Reception Deception”), (c) and of many other facets of the contemporary “church of nice,” and (d) bishops like Cardinal Dolan who waffle in their public statements about gays, Muslims, etc.? How would you classify someone who published statements like the following?
What happened after the Council was something else entirely: in the place of liturgy as the fruit of development came fabricated liturgy. We abandoned the organic, living process of growth and development over centuries, and replaced it -- as in a manufacturing process -- with a fabrication, a banal on-the-spot product.
The passage, of course is from former Cardinal Ratzinger's Introduction to Msgr. Klaus Gamber's Reform of the Roman Liturgy, describing the Mass cobbled together by Fr. Bugnini's Consilium, which Fr. Joseph Gelineau, S.J. famously called the “permanent workshop” of liturgical innovation. Would you classify him as “a rigorist,” “divisive,” someone who “vociferously, and vitriolically … trashes Vatican II and the New Mass?”

Furthermore, your poster boy for your definition of “radical Catholic reactionary” is the blog Rorate Caeli, which, according to your definition, represents a perspective that is “completely separate from mainstream 'traditionalism' that continually, vociferously, and vitriolically … bashes and trashes popes, Vatican II, the New Mass, and ecumenism … etc.” Yet Rorate Caeli, which you acknowledge as “one of the most influential [traditionalist] blogs” online, features numerous guest editorials by priests and other authors from all over the world, with frequent features of spiritual writing from Church history, promotions of prayer for various causes (Purgatorial Society Masses, etc.), along with many exposés of various goings-on that should concern faithful Catholics everywhere. To suggest, because of its haste in sounding alarms or a “gotcha” moment of guilt-by-association with a source whose unrelated writings may be objectionable, that Rorate Caeli is “completely separate from the mainstream 'traditionalism',” or that it “continually vociferously, and vitriolically bashes and trashes popes, Vatican II, the New Mass, ecumenism” etc., is not simply uncharitable, but untrue.

If there is a theme of criticism of these sorts of things, it is not because of any incipient rejection or rebellion against the institution of the Papacy, or against the authority of an ecumenical council like Vatican II, or against the licitness or validity of the new Mass, or the importance of ecumenical overtures toward reunion of the Eastern Orthodox or Protestants with Rome, but because of genuine problems that attach to the understanding and implementation of each of these in our own times. Why does a book that purports to explain Pope Francis not address these problems? Problems like (1) the democratization of the ecclesial hierarchy that seems to have reduced the role of the Vicar of Christ to that of a rock star and public news commentator; or (2) the misunderstandings fostered by passages in Vatican II documents (like Sacrosanctum Concilium, Nostra Aetate, and Gaudium et Spes) that, according to Cardinal Kasper, include deliberate ambiguities inserted as “compromises” into the text capable of diverse interpretations, provoking Bishop Athanasius Schneider, at a conference in Rome, to call for a new “Syllabus of Errors” to clarify the proper interpretation of Vatican II; or (3) what Pope Benedict XVI has called the “trivialization” of the Mass, not to mention the mainstreaming of numerous innovations nowhere mandated by Vatican II, such as having the priest turn his back on God in order to face the people, tearing down magnificent altars and replacing them with tables, removing altar rails, introducing lay lectors, lay Eucharistic “ministers,” Communion in the hand while standing rather than kneeling, substituting banal “praise music” for Gregorian chant and polyphany, and the marketplace vernacular for Latin, etc.; and (4) the effective sabotaging of the New Evangelization by an “ecumenism” that suggests, in effect, that all may be saved, and that there is certainly no pressing urgency to formal membership in the Catholic Church (as when the Holy Father advised Tony Palmer against converting, or when, without definition, he called proselytism “solemn nonsense”)?

I know the “explanations” that are brought forward for all of these troubling developments, explanations intended to show how, when all is said and done, they actually conform hand-in-glove with Church teaching. I also know how the enterprise of offering such explanations has become something of a major growth industry among conservative Catholics in the United States. What I fear, however, is that these ultimately tend to “explain away” rather than “explain,” because they don't address the real damage these problems are causing.

Hitherto when I heard accusations of “neo-Ultramontanism or “papolatry” hurled toward faithful Catholics such as yourself in the “explanation” industry, I dismissed them as excessive. However, when efforts to defend the Holy Father, Vatican II, the new Mass, and ecumenism (to take what you call the “big four”) turn into an exercise in seeing no evil, hearing no evil, and saying no evil about these things (where evils in fact exist), these efforts seem a trifle disingenuous. Rather than demonizing those who see problems here, why wouldn't it be the more prudent and virtuous course to supplement your defense of Church teaching with an honest acknowledgment of the genuine problems where they do exist. To do so would not mean to impugn the authority of the Pope or the Second Vatican Council, or to question the legitimacy or validity of the new Mass or ecumenical initiatives (properly understood). In fact, it would mean a more credible and robust defense of Church authority and defense of the Holy Father. Maybe you don't consider tackling such problems part of your apostolate, and I'd understand that. But even a nod of the head in recognition that there are some genuine problems here might make your efforts to “explain” Pope Francis a lot more successful and credible.

Kind regards, PP


Netmilsmom said...

Oh my goodness! Thank you.
I bought this book and didn't make it all the way through. The name calling was amazing. I WANTED an explanation. I wanted to feel better and I ended up feeling worse. I regret ever buying it because I was one of the people he was name calling. It's sad.

I'm an Amateur Brain Surgeon said...

Hmmm.. One wonders what Mr. Armstrong would have to say about this pro-mahometan reactionary who attacked Pope Benedict XVI after his Regensburg Speech:

Anonymous said...

Why would anyone buy anything from this man?

David in T.O.

Steve Dalton said...

I lost confidence in Dave Armstrong years ago when I saw he would attack anyone who would not mindlessly kowtow to the party line. His attitude is, if the Pope or the majority of bishops says it's true, it must be true. If the Pope or the bishops are quoting the deposit of faith correctly, fine and dandy. But when the Pope of the bishops speak or write in a confusing, ambiguous, manner, why is it that we're the ones who can see the problem, and the so-called 'experts' like Armstrong, Shea, and Akin, can't? I think the main problem is that all of these guys came into the Church during the fabled springtime of Vatican II. Traditional theology wasn't being emphasized during that period. Traditional liturgy was gone. Priest and other religious were leaving their vocations. Members were leaving in droves. These guys came into a church that was reeling punch drunk with a growing liberalism in the clergy and laity. They were never emerged in the Catholicism that existed before Vatican II. They were exposed to it, but their primary contact with Catholicism was with the Vatican II Church. This is the church they know and stand up for. Also, none of these gentlemen have any formal training in Catholic theology. They're all basically self taught. I believe if they were exposed to traditional Catholic theology in a classroom setting, their understanding of the problems that the church faces would be enhanced.

JM said...

In the modern Church, Pope John is made a saint, and Pope Francis gets book length defenses of his contested Catholicity. Meanwhile, Cardinal-authors of the CCC install practicing gays on their parish boards, and defiant nuns lecture the Vatican on chauvinism. All while we hear more cheerleading for the "New Evangelization," and brace ourselves for an encyclical on the much neglected topic of the ecology. Maybe Mark Shea can do the brotherly duty of writing the defense of that probable humdinger!

Dave Armstrong said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Too many converts from evangelicalism never made the full transition from Sola Scriptura. Their mind is spirit is constantly looking for something to replace it, and for some, like Armstrong, what it is a weird, historically truncated sense of the "magisterium." They continue proof-texting except now with various papal statements interpreted through the lens of VAtican II, only and always.

The Bones said...

This is excellent.

Pertinacious Papist said...

Hello Dave,

The Rules for my blog (adapted by permission from Jimmy Akin) proscribe "rudeness," though not disagreement.

If there is a history between you and Mr. Dalton, it's one of which I am unaware. I see no evidence of rudeness on his part, though if there is mis-information, you are of course free to correct that, as you appear to have done already.

To accuse a reader of "lying" is to take up fairly harsh language. Again, if there were lying, I would not be privy to that. I would prefer to keep these comboxes free of accusations like "lying" and focus on data and interpretation.

Let's treat one another like baptized brethren here.

Kind regards, -- PP

New Catholic said...

Last Anonymous,

I think you are quite correct in your assessment. Islam, of course, has this same defect, and Protestantism repeats it, giving to the Bible a kind of status that the Koran (whatever is its real history, but at least already in the form that prevailed by Caliph order 2 centuries after the Muslim conquests) has in most Islamic schools.

As a convert myself, this attitude of "checking out reason" characteristic of Islam and Protestantism is always in my mind as something to be avoided, we are all servants of the Truth, including the Pope, who is also its first guardian.


P.S. Thank you, PP, for your defense of Rorate.

Dave Armstrong said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Pertinacious Papist said...

Hello Dave,

Which comments of Mr. Dalton, exactly, do you object to? If his facts about your theological education were in error, you've apparently corrected those.

Are there other remarks made at your expense? I don't follow. I don't see any evidence of rudeness in his comments. Do you?

I'm busy with a post of my own on another subject tonight, but I look forward to seeing your remarks on my "brotherly dissent" in the near future.

In our Lord and Lady, -- PP

Dave Armstrong said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Pertinacious Papist said...


I'm not going to talk about this anymore beyond this present comment, because I've said my piece sincerely, and these last several exchanges have nothing to do with the issues. They're about personal relationships. If there's "baggage" from "bad blood" between you and Mr. Dalton from another venue, I'd prefer that not be brought to the table here.

The closest I can see to anything offensive might be his remark that he has "lost confidence" in you, because you "would attack anyone who would not mindlessly kowtow to the party line," that your "attitude" is one of ignoring or failing to see anything less than prima facie clear in what the pope or bishops have said. Yet, not being well acquainted with Mr. Dalton, I could not say that any of this sounded "rude."

The only comments I see that repeatedly get PERSONAL in this combox, at least from my limited perspective, are your repeated charges that Dalton is "lying," guilty of "character assassination," and the "sordid" history of his remarks on your blog.

But again, here I'm concerned with THIS comment box; and although I see vigorous disagreement, I see no evidence of rudeness or character assassination (unless it were your own ad hominems against Dalton).

So let's proceed to address the issues and keep the personal out of it. If I do see any evidence of rudeness, please be assured that I'd deal with it. (I have refused to post rude remarks in the past, I have edited others, and I've also banned certain individuals from this site).

God bless, -- PP