Pope Francis, Biden and “post-institutional” Catholics


What will be the effects of Joe Biden’s election on the life of the Church? Biden is the second Catholic President in the history of the United States after John Fitzgerald Kennedy, but as Massimo Faggioli  notes in his recent book Joe Biden e il cattolicesimo negli Stati Uniti (Scholé, Brescia 2021), he finds himself in a reversed situation.

Kennedy had the problem of reconciling his religious faith with a country in which the upper-class had always been Protestant and Catholics were considered an external body, tending to be poorly educated and more faithful to the Pope than democratic liberty. Today, on the contrary, Catholics are incorporated into the establishment, from the Government to the Supreme Court and Biden’s problem is that of dealing with the division existing inside the Catholic world, polarized by two political and religious spectrums. This polarization was accentuated after the defeat of Hilary Clinton in 2016, when Pope Francis became the icon of the international left and Donald Trump was forced to present himself as an alternative figure to his papacy.

Now Trump is out of the picture and Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, who gave voice to American Anti-Bergolianism,  is weaker, while Pope Francis’s position has been reinforced and the new President, Biden, no longer has an enemy but an ally. Therefore Francis’s recent declarations are not surprising and though they might herald new condemnations for his internal opponents, they also raise many questions.

In his audience of January 30, 2021, while addressing the members of the Catechetical Office of the Italian Bishop’s Conference, Pope Francis affirmed that the Second Vatican Council “is the magisterium of  the Church. Either you are with the Church and therefore you follow the Council, and if you do not follow the Council or you interpret it in your own way, as you wish, you are not with the Church. We must be demanding and strict on this point. The Council should not be negotiated.” 

By these affirmations we have the impression that according to Pope Francis, those who criticize the Second Vatican Council put themselves outside the Church. However, today the criticisms about the Second Vatican Council do not come from an obstinate minority of traditionalists, but from a growing sphere of Catholics, who have recognized the catastrophic consequences of Vatican II. Massimo Faggioli writes in his book that “since the ‘80s and 90s in the U.S.A (and not only) there have been a growing number of Catholics critical about the Second Vatican Council and its apertures”;  “a new generation of  Catholics is reexamining what happened in the Church between the ‘50s and ‘70s  and is reacting against the theology produced by the Second Vatican Council.” (p.64). Is this sphere of thought the contentious objective of Pope Francis?

Furthermore, regarding the traditionalists, a letter from the Ecclesia Dei Commission dated March 25, 2017, signed by Cardinal Gerald Müller, communicated Pope Francis’s decision to grant all the priests of the Fraternity of St. Pius X “ the faculty to administer validly the Sacrament of Penance to the faithful such as to ensure the validity and liceity of the Sacrament,” and authorized local bishops with “the possibility of granting faculties for the celebration of marriages of the faithful who follow the pastoral activity of the Society.” How do we reconcile this benevolence towards the Fraternity of St. Pius X, the religious institute which has more decisively than any other rejected the Second Vatican Council, with declarations in which those who criticize Vatican II are outside the Church?

Moreover, what does “follow Vatican II” mean? Adhering strictly to its documents? Yet these documents are widely disregarded, starting with the indications in liturgical matters from the constitution Sacrosanctum concilium. Other council documents are unclear and are open to opposing interpretations. Does Pope Francis share Pope Benedict’s “hermeneutic of continuity” whereby these documents should be interpreted in coherence with the Tradition of the Church, or should the documents be interpreted according to the “spirit of the Council” as the School of Bologna would like? In this second case should also Benedict XVI’s hermeneutic be considered outside the Church?   

In his declaration of January 30, Pope Francis said that opposition to Vatican II made him think of “of a group of bishops who, after Vatican I, left, a group of lay people, to continue the “true doctrine” that was not that of Vatican I: “We are the true Catholics”. Today they ordain women. The strictest attitude, to guard the faith without the Magisterium of the Church, leads you to ruin. Please, no concessions to those who try to present a catechesis that does not agree with the Magisterium of the Church.

Pope Francis’s historical reference is to the so-called “old Catholics” who in 1870, rejected the dogma of papal primacy, were excommunicated and left the Church.  However some ultra-progressive theologians like Andrea Grillo, did not appreciate Pope Francis’s criticism of those dissident Catholics.* Grillo opposes their disobedience with the “obedience” of the German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck who accepted instrumentally the position of Vatican I, to better control the German bishops.

Bismarck’s position, according to Grillo, “indicated a possible shift: that of  reducing all authority in the Church to the Pope. Something that, almost a century later, Vatican II took great care to revise.” “Here then is the point. Obedience to Vatican II –  is the structural  acquisition of its “pastoral nature”. That is to say, a difference between “the substance of tradition” and “the developing of  its position”.  The great season inaugurated by the Second Vatican Council –  which we are just at the beginning of – involves profound rethinking of the “institutional forms” in relationship to “the substance of tradition”. “So we might discover that a few of the elements that led some people 150 years ago “not to accept” Vatican I, today, in the light of Vatican II, may have become common patrimony.

The “rethinking of institutional forms” that Grillo is hoping for, is the same one Faggioli criticizes in his book, denouncing the losing strategy of those he defines as “post-institutional Catholics”. Both Grillo and Faggioli belong to the ranks of the Catholic Left, but Faggioli rejects “the post-institutional option” in American progressivism and hopes that Biden may bring back liberal Catholicism into the institutional riverbed to curb the advance of the conservatives.

“Post-institutionalism”, however, is a dead end not only for the progressives, but also for the conservatives and traditionalists. As long as the critics of the Second Vatican Council respect, in form and substance, the Church’s hierarchy, their condemnation cannot go beyond a mediatic chiding.  For a canonical censure the logical prerequisites are missing, even before those of a juridical nature. It would be a different case with those wanting to assume an extra-institutional position, by inciting open revolt against the ecclesiastic hierarchy. In this case, it would not be difficult to find the pretexts for a condemnation, which, despite being limited canonically to the act of disobedience, on the mediatic level, it would be falsely extended to all the opponents of the Second Vatican Council.

The reason we must respect the institutional dimension of the Church is not political, but supernatural. It is legitimate, on certain occasions, to correct filially the men of the Church, including the Pope, but in the Mystical Body of Christ, the soul cannot be separated from the body; the spiritual element cannot be separated from the juridical aspect, the invisible from the visible. This is the profound but life-giving mystery of the Catholic Church.