Why it is Worth Worrying: On the Brink of a New Pontificate
Along with one billion other Catholics, I have been consumed with reading about and thinking about the news of yesterday. After getting over the initial shock and having some time to reflect on the weeks ahead, I have noticed a trend among many Catholic commentators. It is best summed up with the recently re-popularized British World War II slogan, “Keep Calm and Carry On.”
Granted, the slogan is often accompanied by sound theology, typically phrased as, “The Holy Spirit will guide the Church through this,” or, “The Church will continue. We have the promise of Christ that it will survive.” All of this is true, of course. We do believe that the Holy Spirit will work through the conclave, and we certainly believe the the Church will stand the test of time and endure until the end. Nevertheless, I think it is slightly naive to think that there is nothing about which we should worry. On the contrary, I think there is quite a bit of legitimate concern. To understand this, however, we need to make a distinction between the supernatural virtue of hope in those things eternal and a natural hope in those things temporal.
Authentic Christian hope is the theological virtue by which we find solace, comfort, and confidence in the fact that the outcome of the spiritual war in which we are engaged is already known. Christ has conquered evil and death, and has done so definitively. We know where all of this is headed, and so there is no reason for despair. If we accept our vocation and work for personal holiness and the holiness of those with whom we have been entrusted, then we will assuredly play our part and will be welcomed into the victory that is the beatific vision.
Because of Christian hope, we know that the Church has been built upon Peter and that the gates of Hell will not prevail against her. What’s more, this promise is not simply a defensive promise in which we are assured that evil will not conquer the Church. If that were the case, Christ would have said, “The power of Hell will not prevail against the gates of heaven.” Instead, the Gospel records that the gates of Hell will not prevail against the Church. This promise is more of a promise of successful attack in which we are assured of the ultimate victory that God will enjoy over the evils of Hell. In other words, the other side will be decimated. The war will be won, not negotiated by treaty.
Because of Christian hope, we know that the Holy Father by virtue of infallibility is protected against officially promulgating error. Regardless of who is elected, we will not see a reversal in the Church’s teaching on an all male priesthood, contraception, the Immaculate Conception, and the whole litany of infallible teachings.
Because of Christian hope, we know that the validity of the Mass and the other Sacraments will be held in tact. Actual grace will continue to be poured out through the hands of priests and bishops, and by this grace the faithful will be able to fulfill the charge of their vocations. By the guarantee of sacramental grace we will be able to take up our own posts in this spiritual warfare. This, together with the assurance of victory, gives us the supernatural hope of our own salvation so that we will be able to stand in front of Christ and hear those words, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.” Granted, this requires an continual act of acceptance on our part; it will require us, along with St. Paul, to run the race to the end. Yet the guarantee of sacramental grace makes this race just a little easier to run.
Natural hope in temporal things is something altogether different. I have hope in the reality of heaven and the protection afforded to the Church because these things are guaranteed. This is something quite different than the hope I have that my five-month old will sleep through the night this week. We exercise the natural virtue of hope because the of the simultaneous possibilities that something very well may or may not happen. In other words, all events can be broken down into three categories: there are those things that are impossible, there are those things that are assured, and there are those things that are neither impossible nor assured. For those things impossible, we express no hope at all, either natural or supernatural. For those thing guaranteed, we have the supernatural virtue of hope. (Here I should admit that the actual definition of the theological virtue of hope is a hope that deals with ultimate realities concerning the divine. While it is another topic for another time, I think this is essentially convertible with the definition “those things assured supernaturally.” Regardless, this is not necessary for the points I am making in this post.) Then there is middle category: those things that may or may not happen. What’s more, some of these things very much concern the Church, and some specifically the papacy. With that, let’s take a look at things that are not guaranteed.
We have no guarantee that the new pope will be a pillar of holiness. There have been a handful of popes in history that are steeped in scandal. In fact, those of us who are often defending the gift of infallibility are often making this exact point: a distinction between being infallible on official teachings and being of impeccable moral character. We have been very fortunate in our time to have been blessed with a string of popes that are of high moral quality, as have been most popes throughout history. The fact remains, though, that this is no guarantee.
We have no guarantee that the new pope will not promote teachings contrary to the faith. While we have the promise that no error will be officially promulgated by the pope, the Holy Spirit does not give him the gift of infallibility during every speaking engagement. There are certainly bishops in the world right now that don’t always have an orthodox opinion on critical and controversial matters. Of course, let this not detract from us the supernatural hope that we have that orthodoxy cannot be officially reversed. At the same time, in a world in which the media records, trims, and replays every public statement of world leaders, and in a world in which most people do not understand the subtle distinctions that exist within the concept of infallibility, I am concerned that even unofficial errors can be extremely damaging.
We have no guarantee that the sacred liturgy will be promoted and celebrated according to the will of God the Father. While the sacraments will remain intact, the last sixty years have shown us just how damaged the liturgy can become, both as promulgated by Rome and as practiced in the parish. While I respect Pope Paul VI precisely as a successor of St. Peter, under his watch the liturgy devolved into something that barely resembles the liturgical patrimony of our Church. Pope Benedict has worked tirelessly for the restoration of the sacred liturgy, and yet there is so much more that needs to be done. I am quite concerned that the new pope will fail to continue this work, or worse, may even reverse some of it.
We have no guarantee that various pockets of the Church will stand the test of time. While Christ gives us the promise that the Church herself will endure, there is no promise about the presence of the Church in all areas of the world. For instance, we have no supernatural guarantee that the Church will continue to exist in the United States. There are certainly areas of the world that were once Christian strongholds that now have virtually no presence of practicing Christians. Pope Benedict deeply understood this as evidenced by his writings on the decline of Europe’s Christian identity. He didn’t, of course, solve this problem, for it is a problem that is certainly unsolvable within eight years, but he did begin the conversation. In our own country with the rise of secular liberalism and the dismantling of religious freedom, this is something that should greatly concern us. We will need a voice that can pierce the noise of culture and media in the same way that John Paul II did in Poland before the fall of communism.
Lest I be misunderstood, I am not in despair over any of this. The theological virtue of hope in those things eternal gives me ultimate comfort and confidence. I am not even saying that the above concerns are likely. If I had to guess, the next Holy Father will be cut from the same theological cloth as his predecessor. I am simply making the point that it would be folly to think that there is nothing about which to worry. There is much about which we should be concerned. The Holy Spirit will guide the conclave, but the Holy Spirit cannot force a decision upon the Cardinals, and still less can he protect the man elected from scandal, errors, moral mistakes, or bad governance. The Cardinals and the pope are in fact men with free will. The Holy Spirit and the grace of God can only work if these men are open and carefully discern the will of God.
Here we arrive at the crux of the matter: it is precisely because of the possibility of temporal disaster even amidst eternal assurance that we pray. If all things were protected from sin and evil, there would be little need for prayer.
Pray, dear friends, for the Cardinals as they begin this month of discernment. Pray, dear friends, for the new Holy Father, whoever he may be, that he may truly discern the will of God and guide the Church accordingly. Pray, dear friends, that the Church may adequately endure the pressures, mischaracterizations, and ideologies of the secular media.
In our prayer, we should have the gratitude to thank God for those things in which we have supernatural hope, the fortitude to beg ceaselessly for protection against those things that are not guaranteed, and the wisdom to know the difference.
Sancte Petre, ora pro nobis.