In Defense of Pope Francis and “Traditionis Custodes” by Luke Lauretano

Michael Brendan Dougherty’s op-ed in the August 12 edition of the New York Times cries out for a rebuttal. Under the headline “Pope Francis Is Tearing the Catholic Church Apart,” Mr. Dougherty attacks Pope Francis’s document Traditionis Custodes, which limits the use of the Latin Mass. He states that the document will “push . . . families and communities . . . toward a belief that the new Mass represents a new religion, one dedicated to the unity of man on earth rather than the love of Christ.”

Mr. Dougherty interprets the document as creating an either-or situation. The truth, however, is in the middle. The principle “in medio stat virtus” applies here. Theologians down through the ages have adhered to this axiom, most recently Rev. Richard McBrien of happy memory. It means that virtue or truth is in the middle, not in the extremes.

In his document, Francis is emphasizing the love of Christ and the unity of man on earth. It isn’t a case of either-or. He is not “tearing the church apart” (an unfortunate choice of words for a headline).

The reformed Mass of Vatican II is a return to the basic principle that the church is the people, united in the love of Christ. Francis is trying to heal a wounded, divided body. It is unfortunate that the healing process often causes pain. Sewing up a wound results in pain. Some of the body’s members will feel pain, both those of the human body and the body of the church. Francis is guiding us to the virtuous middle, getting us back to center. He is maintaining a moderate balance between the old and the new.

Mr. Dougherty represents a “modestly growing contingent of Catholics” (his words) who cannot let go of the past. This violates a very important teaching about creation, namely that God created and continues to create as the evolution of the cosmos goes on. All creation continues to evolve. We accept evolution in a general way, gladly welcoming, for example, all its advances which we are fortunate to enjoy.

Unfortunately, some draw a line around the church and its teaching, excluding them from the evolution of the cosmos. The reality is that all things change—“Panta rhei,” in the words of Greek philosopher, Heraclitus: “Everything flows.” That goes for the church and its theology; it’s just the way things are.

Looking back to the old days appeals to our emotions with nostalgia, but the facts are undeniable. Difficult as it is for some to accept, evolution affects everything, including theology. Pope Francis is trying to keep us in the flow, right in the center where we find truth and virtue.

I can, I suppose, sympathize with Mr. Dougherty. I was ordained a Catholic priest in 1962, just before the Second Vatican Council. I was trained to celebrate the Mass in Latin. I have never lost my love of the Latin liturgy. I understand how it is for him as he remembers the “long silence” that “fell upon my heart, like sunshine landing on the bud of prayer.” He could crawl into himself and enjoy the warm, safe feeling of silence and “space for our own prayer and contemplation.” It is a very warm, emotional experience, especially when enhanced by incense and occasionally Gregorian chant.

But this is not the Mass. It is private prayer. The celebration of the Eucharist is not an occasion for private prayer. Rather, it was and is an action of priest and people together, a united giving thanks, a euxaristein, the Greek verb meaning the action of giving thanks. It was and still is meant to be a communal action by all of us together. Mr. Dougherty has missed this point entirely.

Apart from my theological objections to the op-ed is one that is possibly moral, probably journalistic. I find the careless use of hyperbole—expressions such as “tearing apart,” the “survival” of the Latin mass, the “ferocity” of Francis’ effort, and a reference to Vatican II as “worst spasm of iconoclasm in the church’s history,” for example—not just distasteful, but misleading. One thing is for sure. If Mr. Dougherty was ever a seminarian (and he may have been), I doubt that he would have got past my homiletics professor.

I am not a journalist. I’m just a person who happens to be Catholic in spite of the difficulties of being one. As such, I was deeply offended by Mr. Dougherty’s piece and felt a necessity to respond.

Luke Lauretano is a retired licensed clinical social worker who lives in Wallingford, Connecticut. He offers these words in memory of “my good friend and classmate, a theologian who loved the church, Richard McBrien, a true centrist.”                                 

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