The Pope, you have probably read, is ever-smiling, merciful and tolerant. Towards some, that might be true; for others, it’s a cruel joke. His treatment of traditional Catholics, to give just one example, is a case study in liberal hypocrisy.
Many trads are affiliated with an ancient liturgy we will call the Latin Mass, practised by most Catholics until the 1960s. Then the Church decided that things needed to be brought up to date. Out with Latin; in with the vernacular, new prayers, audience participation etc. The Latin Mass was driven underground.
But in 2007, recognising that the old rite posed no threat to the authority of Rome, was rather lovely and indisputably part of the Catholic tradition, Pope Benedict permitted it to be said again. My parish priest decided to give it a go and we learnt it together. I served at his altar, stuttering through schoolboy Latin, and afterwards a group of us would sit at his kitchen table, smoking cigarettes, discussing Benedict’s latest book. These were the happiest days of my spiritual life. It was as exhilarating as being in love.
The Latin Mass grew in popularity, particularly among students and young families, and for the 1960s liberals, this revival sparked an odd panic. The trads were “rigid”, said the Pope; he implied, psychologically ill. In July 2021, he issued Traditiones Custodes, which sought to cut the Latin Mass off at the root, permitting it to be practised where it already was, but to grow no further. One pro-Francis bishop took the opportunity to ban a certain kind of hat.
At a time when the Church was still reeling from Covid, still apologising for the child abuse scandal, this assault on liturgical choice seemed bizarrely unnecessary – and many bishops ignored the instructions. The Vatican doubled down. Last December, it tried to outlaw Latin Mass baptisms, marriages, funerals and blessings (outside of a few “personal parishes”), and even banned clerics from listing the times of Latin Masses in newsletters. The root was to be torn up, violently.
Why would the Pope who famously said “Who am I to judge?” of gay people and who had instituted a year of mercy – why would this liberal fellow persecute a harmless minority of his brothers and sisters?
One answer is that the mass media image of Francis is false, that a cleric who survived Argentina’s “Dirty War” cut his teeth in a culture in which one was either in power or in jail. In 2010, he was videoed answering questions on the war, and the novelist Colm Tóibin, in a must-read essay in the London Review of Books, described this Francis as “steely, distant and formidable, if somewhat impatient, even at moments arrogant”. Three years later, Tóibin noted: “Being elected Pope seemed to cheer [Francis] up immensely.”
Paradoxically, or maybe not, this “dictator Pope”, as one critic called him, is a devout believer in the spirit of the Sixties. Contemporary reformers wanted to return to the basics of Christ’s mission and the purity of the early Church, or the Church of the poor and the colonised (and when re-evaluating the historical sources or travelling down the Amazon in a canoe, how excited they were to find that what Jesus and the tribesmen really wanted was what they wanted, namely tambourines and a chorus of Kumbaya). Here was a formula for setting mankind free. Anyone who questioned it must be wicked or sick.
At first, theological liberals might have had a case; the establishment was arcane and oppressive, though not that oppressive because the liberals won with barely a shot fired, captured the institutions and became the establishment.
Liberalism, in the Church and elsewhere, has now mutated from a process by which we might seek our own definition of freedom into a model for how a free life should be lived. It is prescriptive. Today, trads are the ones arguing for diversity and choice; liberals, still at war with fascist phantoms, have become as rigid as steel. Hence a Latin Mass congregation that expands from one old lady to two old ladies and a pigeon fancier is seen as a totemic threat to the great project – better dead than trad! – especially in the embarrassing context of overall decline. After decades of trying to make the Church look more like the society it serves, society is turning away. Attendance and ordinations are falling across the West; the tree has little fruit.
The recent escalation of papal tyranny is thus easily explained: the old man is in a hurry to discredit and destroy a tradition so completely that when he goes, there will be nothing left to revive. The trads can only sit back and pray that he’s out of time, that his edicts will be reversed in a few years, and their spring will come.
“Thin pope, fat pope,” goes the saying: the Church has always yoyoed about, we have been through worse, and we always come out the other side, still recognisably ourselves. Some day, the Sixties will be acknowledged as a detour in Western history, not the direction, and we will view it the way we do a curious old house, behind red ropes with plaques acknowledging moral error, wondering at how people once lived and thought, and the funny notion they entertained that this was the way it would always be.
Man does not decide the future, the trads insist. The Holy Spirit does.