A View From Rocco’s
Now, More than Ever, Every Man at His Post!
(The Remnant, December, 2013)
Well, here I am, finally writing once again from my Stammtisch at Rocco’s Pasticceria in New York. It isn’t as though I have ever physically abandoned working here. I simply took a rather lengthy sabbatical from this column in order to finish my book on Black Legends and then play needed “catch up” on fund raising for the Roman Forum. As sabbaticals go, this was a very fruitful one, but it seems crystal clear that it is now time to “come home” to do my journalistic duty. The reason for the homecoming is one that I think has a general significance for all of us: a belief that the facts of life of the pontificate of Pope Francis are such as to require every man, more than ever, to stay loyally at his normal post.
Why should remaining at one’s normal post be especially important now? Because just as I noted in my interview with Michael Matt on Remnant TV during the recent pilgrimage to Rome, of the three types of pontificates identified traditionally by Italians---the “holy”, the “scholarly”, and the “political”---this one seems to me as though it is going to be a politically charged reign. And politically charged pontificates---which are in no way new to Church History---can nevertheless entail wild roller coaster rides in which it is necessary first and foremost to hang on to one’s hat and seat.
By “politically charged”, I mean the type of reign where decisions are made primarily with reference to secular concerns that are perceived, rightly or wrongly, to be of great public importance; the type of reign where papal words are primarily addressed to the audiences stirred up by such issues and engaged socially in dealing with them. Such pontificates can be very bewildering in character. In their focus on immediate and mundane matters, they result in statements and actions that can, at times, seem to neglect and even undermine the unchanging faith and morals that they will inevitably also defend---even if such a defense may come only in perfunctory ways, as part of a divine institution’s “standard operating procedure”. Moreover, the confusion that the focus on the quotidian arouses can become all the greater when this primarily political approach is itself purely reactive in character, merely responding to public issues as “the world” enunciates them. Under these circumstances, Catholic men and women will search in vain for consistent signs of its “rightist” or “leftist” character. Quite frankly, such consistency will simply not exist.
Those cultivating the customary Catholic respect for Reason may well wonder how believers can function on two different tracks: one that is seemingly a-doctrinal and political in character, and the other that continues a support of faith and morals on the “standard operating procedural” level, through the declarations of the various Vatican dicasteries. I am not in any way arguing that such a two-track approach is rational. I am merely saying that students of Church History know that it reappears on a regular basis, and at every level of ecclesiastical life, both clerical and lay.
As I pound this article out, the figure of Cardinal Richelieu comes to mind: a man who was totally supportive of Tridentine Church reform inside France who nevertheless destroyed the chance for Catholic victory over Protestantism outside his nation due to his purely political opposition to the strength of the Hapsburg Family. But why go that far back and that far afield? All too many of our Catholic countrymen, conservatives and traditionalists alike, adopt the same two-track approach on a daily basis, vigorously affirming their commitment to orthodox truths---and then, simultaneously, the right of America to ignore those truths’ moral implications because of a devotion to our nation’s supposed “exceptionalism”.
As readers of The Remnant are all too consciously aware, conservative Neo-Catholics and Sedevacantists will try to “square the circle” and “rationalize the irrational” of the two-track approach. They both are bound to the idea of a pope and a pontificate unblemished in its words, actions, and overall wisdom. The only difference in their common vision of such a never-existing Papacy is that for the conservative Neo-Catholic everything that a reigning pontiff says and does must be praised and defended, while for the Sedevacantist the reality of unacceptable papal statements and actions indicates either that the pontiff’s election was invalid from the outset or that his fall from perfection indicates that he has lost his throne.
Of course we can pray that the statements made and the actions taken by a politically charged Papacy will somehow have the ultimate effect of defending the faith. Nevertheless, the experience of the last fifty years in dialoguing with “the world” over issues which are in no way capable of being harmonized with Catholic Truth does not give much grounds for encouragement in that regard. Still, what I most fear is that as this pontificate moves along, solid traditionalists will be tempted down one or the other of the paths taken by the Siamese twins mentioned above. What most frightens me is that in their honest efforts to make complete and harmonious sense out of what will most likely be the wild roller coaster ride that political pontificates entail, some traditionalists overwhelmed by the inconsistency of it all may end up swelling the ranks of the Sedevacantists. Meanwhile, others desperate to have some good news may actually veer into the camp of the pollyanna Neo-Catholics.
This brings me to the specific reason why I, personally, am returning to my regular post at Rocco’s. I need to use that post, first and foremost, to show my fellow believers that there is absolutely no need to use the excuse of contemporary confusion to take the pathway to the Cloud Cuckoo Land inhabited by the idolaters of the non-existent Church of Perfect Pontificates. And, secondly, I need to use my post---this column---to indicate to them, that their job is to man their normal posts during the current roller coaster ride with commitment and vigilance as well.
A View From Rocco’s allows me to do my duty in the only way I have any ability to offer some meaningful contribution to Catholic life: through reference to the “teaching” that comes from Church History. What I intend to do in each column, in each subsequent issue of The Remnant, is to address some immediate problem of the Church in general, and this pontificate in particular, in the light of related crises in past eras of the Church. In doing so, I know that I can drive home---and in the repeated way that all of us holding onto our seats and our hats will very much need---a variety of clear points: that the Church, despite all appearances to the contrary, is still alive; that we have a true reigning pope; that roller coaster rides are to be found in every epoch of the past, even if the one that we have in many respects been on for more than fifty years is a particularly bumpy one; that we have every right to criticize and warn of dangers coming from current policies to our hearts content without being frightened by the excommunications thundered from on high by the inhabitants of Cloud Cuckoo Land; and that we can learn to go about our defense of Tradition all the more justly, charitably, patiently, and effectively from what we learn of the trials of our brothers in faith gone long before us to their eternal rewards. But in order for my work to be effective, its message needs to be digested by my fellow Catholics, and kept in mind to maintain their courage in manning their own posts, and in manning them properly, without false optimism and without false pessimism.
After 43 years of fighting The Tradition Wars I have almost given up the hope of getting the ear of either the Sedevacantists or the Neo-Catholics, and convincing them to admit that there has never been a de fide teaching indicating that the Holy Spirit directly chooses the pope, and that every use of the Holy Father’s vocal chords is either willed by God or infallible in character. For many of the members of these two camps their error seems invincible, and capable of being cast out only by prayer and fasting.
Nevertheless, the fact that many Neo-Catholics work with a mysterious Statute of Limitations that allows for criticism of past pontiffs for their mistakes and downright stupidities still gives me some grounds for thinking that they might eventually be willing to move the date that permission for legitimate rational questioning kicks in closer to the present. And I cannot help but cling to the dream that the many intelligent people whom I personally know to belong to the Neo-Catholic army due to a misplaced Führerprinzip requiring obedience to each and every thought of The Leader can be awakened to the truth that they are themselves regularly duped by neo-conservative proponents of the two-track approach that I noted at the start of this article: the one that raises the banner of Catholic Obedience, while using it to demand room for American Exceptionalism to wreak havoc with faith and morals.
In the final analysis, however, the columns to come are primarily aimed at solid Traditionalists, along with those future converts who can be attracted into our ranks. It is them that I have the greatest hope of strengthening in the Remnant issues to come in an attitude of “full steam ahead” in our long-standing liturgical, educational, and moral projects of such sacred and exalted character. We have been engaged in such labors too long to give up now. There is no need for us to throw up our hands in despair. Roller coaster that we may be forced to ride, it is still a roller coaster that is built upon a track that has a divine foundation. We may all know that truth in theory, but what I want to do now, with historical vignette after historical vignette---and from every age of Church History, even those which many traditionalists mistakenly think to have been unmarred in their glory---is to instill the courage to put our theory into action in our day to day lives, where we are needed, and with charity, patience, and humor as we fix our bayonets in place. Now, more than ever, every man at his post!