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Power Struggle in the Catholic Church

After nearly two decades of service to the Bicol Region, the Bicol Mail will cease publication. Shuttering of the weekly publication is really a sign of the times with the advent of the internet. Social media has filled the insatiable greed for instant news, stroking the ego, and thus news coming out at the end of the week were no longer breaking. Consequently, print media struggled for readership and advertising monies.

For its publication finale, I picked the other sign of the times to write about; the fissures in the Catholic Church are openly growing and dividing the faithful among political fault lines between traditionalists and modernists through wedge issues that threatens the unity of the Church and the specter of a third pope.

In the last few weeks, a couple of nasty rumors have originated from Italy that the pope is either dying or is resigning his papacy. Far from the truth but emblematic of what is going on at the Vatican. Pope Francis even joked when asked about it, that the conclave was convened when he was admitted to the hospital for a broken hip. When the pope was interviewed and asked if he is contemplating retirement, his responses elicited wild speculations that he is indeed retiring.

Since Jorge Mario Bergoglio became the head of the Catholic Church as Pope Francis in 2013, traditionalists have been impeding his actions to reform the Church and have openly disagreed with the Jesuit pope on several hot button issues such as abortion, same sex marriage, the restrictions on the celebration of the Traditional Latin Mass, and ecumenism with those who left the Catholic Church.

The leaked Supreme Court decision on abortion a couple of months ago emboldened some American bishops to up the Liturgical Wars by openly flaunting the awesome powers granted them by the Council of Trent. They are buoyed by the prospect that Same Sex Marriage will be overturned too. One traditionalist bishop took it one step further and denied the Eucharist from a very prominent political person, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, in open denial of the pope who himself celebrated the Eucharist with her at St. Peter’s Basilica. “I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word…” – and the bishop did say the word, “denied!”

Pope Francis is following the footsteps of Pope John Paul II and Pope John XXIII before him who initiated reforms through the convening of the Second Ecumenical Council. Commonly known as Vatican II, the reforms moved away from the Church’s Counter Reformation efforts versus the revolting Protestants over liturgical interpretations by the Council of Trent regarding the celebration of the Eucharist and the symbolism of the bread (host) and wine. Protestants believe that the bread and wine are symbols used to memorialize Jesus’ death and that Christ is present at the Eucharist.

The 16th century Council of Trent reinforced the word “transubstantiation“ by removing the metaphysical science aspect of it, to mean that the bread and wine changes the whole substance of the bread (Body of Christ) and wine (Blood of Christ) once ingested as aided by the Holy Spirit. Meaning, it is beyond the realm of human understanding, a mystery. And so the Catholic faithful were programmed to recite, “I believe.” Thus, the split (schism) between Catholics and Protestants.

Another schism occurred between the Eastern Orthodox Churches and the Catholic Church on the use of baking powder. The Patriarch of Constantinople, Michael Cerularius made a big deal of Poe Leo IX’s restriction on leavening the bread. Eastern Orthodox Churches believe that the leavening of the bread represents the Resurrection of Christ and is therefore, a big deal. The Latin Church believed otherwise, that the act of adding extra ingredients to the bread contaminates it.

There were actually more substantial liturgical disagreements but it was the bread (and wafer) that finally did it. Consequently, the pope excommunicated the patriarch and vice versa. Thus the beginning of the Big Schism.

Vatican II was an effort of reconciliation among those who left the Church. It allowed Catholics to pray with other Christian denominations, encouraged reaching out to other non-Christian faiths, and allowed the use of other languages and dialects, besides Latin, during the Mass. Pope John Paul II and Pope Francis continued such initiatives, but the pope in between, Pope Benedict, saw it differently and he resurrected the Tridentine Mass. He did not see Vatican II as a repudiation of Trent but rather, a continuation of the Catholic past.

So, the traditionalists are warning their followers that Pope Francis is allowing modernity to replace the beautiful tradition of the Catholic Church, and therefore, a threat to the viability and existence of the Catholic Church. In the olden days, such open acts of defiance would merit excommunication from the Church. Pope Francis’ reforms went further than Pope John Paul II. Francis removed some of the Italian bishops and cardinals involved in the financial mess of the Vatican Bank.

He also restructured the Roman Curia, the administrative departments of the Holy See. In particular, the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (old Inquisition Department) was restructured to include the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development and appointing a woman to head it. This move was prompted by the discovery that the Dicastery swept under the rug abuse cases of pedophile priests and that Pope Benedict knew about it.

These are the “good ‘ol boys” that have been affected by Pope Francis’ reforms. They’re accusing the pope of heresy for his openness to divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, outreach to the gay Catholics. In defense the pope says, “Who am I to judge?” Francis believes that many Catholics have not fully embraced Vatican II and would rather stick to traditional celebrations and dogmas.

Embracing modernity and a new normal is nothing new for the Catholic Church. The pandemics, world wars, and the schisms provide the Church opportunities to make it relevant. Over the life of the Church, it has always looked at what is happening in the world to make it relevant. The last three years have been a journey towards a synodal church, towards unity in Christ.

The irony of Pope Francis’ synodal journey is that it was the First Vatican Council 152 years ago who decreed that the pope has primacy over the Universal Church and the infallibility of the papal magisterium. Painful as it is, Vatican II has allowed traditionalists to question such decrees as if the popes were performing in a personal capacity and therefore, no longer supreme, even if spoken from the chair that St. Peter once “occupied,” to the truths of faith and morals.

As long as Pope Benedict emeritus wears the papal cassock and is allowed to keep his papal name; he will continue to evoke divisions among the faithful, make Pope Francis appear weak, and his hold on the papacy tenuous. When a pope resigns or retires, he becomes a private citizen and should therefore revert back to his old baptismal name.


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