I propose to write a cowardly column today. And to try to justify it, as I go along.
Let me begin with the blog of Sandro Magister in Rome. Let me guess that almost everyone reading this column, this morning, will already know what I’m on about. It is the rumor, from this usually reliable Vatican “insider,” that Raymond Leo Cardinal Burke is about to be demoted, from a very important office in the Curia, to a ceremonial position.
“Bumped upstairs” would be, I think, our American idiom. “Decapitated” was among the terms Magister used in his account. Cardinal Burke has been Prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura – in effect, the Supreme Court justice for canon law. If the report is true, he is about to become instead Cardinal Patron of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta.
I love the “SMOM,” and have loved it ever since I took up stamp collecting as a child. More recently, the idea it embodies, of a kind of extra-territorial citizenship for “real Catholics,” has appealed to my imagination. It is a sovereign order, so that as I understand, it may issue not only postage stamps, but passports. Moreover, it is a noble and chivalrous order.
As I have argued here and elsewhere for some time, a Catholic is NOT a citizen of the world. His allegiance to Christ is most certainly prior to ANY worldly tie. My conception of “Christendom” is likewise removed from allegiance to any specific earthly, territorial state, however small or large.
For the duration of my stay on this planet, whether it be long or short, I carry (it happens) a Canadian passport. I wouldn’t want to disparage that, yet I can easily imagine circumstances in which I would be forced to disparage it.
The very idea of the SMOM, with its historical roots not only in Catholic Christianity but the Crusades, and its association with St John of Jerusalem – well, what can I say? I’m classicist by disposition, but if I tried to explain it, readers might accuse me of romanticism.
Notwithstanding, when I read Magister’s article, I responded with what could almost be described as a fit of apoplexy, even greater than the little fits I have thrown after other recent Vatican appointments, or dis-appointments; or after several recent pronouncements and events.
Without reservation, I would say that Cardinal Burke is one of my heroes. I have often thought of him, of his profoundly Catholic sensibility, depth of learning, clarity of thought, and great courage, in moments when the behavior of other bishops has filled me with disgust. His elevation thrilled me, rather as the election of Pope Benedict thrilled me, for in that case a man I believed to be the greatest living human intellectual and spiritual force within the Church was suddenly called to the Throne of Peter.
And I was heartbroken when he resigned, searching for a way to explain to myself what had happened; how Benedict himself could countenance such a breach in custom.
Since, it has seemed to me as if the best men were going down, and mediocrities rising to replace them. It has even seemed to me that all the excruciating work, accomplished by the last two popes to save the Church from the tailspin in which they found her, is being undone, and we are repeating all the mistakes of the 1960s and ‘70s, as if nothing had been learned.
That is my opinion, and of course I could enlarge upon it, pointlessly. I think I could be characterized as a “conservative” or a “traditionalist” or even a “reactionary.” I am happy to wear the epithets, for I think these are the very qualities that have repeatedly saved the Church, in her interactions with the modern, i.e. post-Reformation, world.
Or from her beginning, for that matter; for in my understanding it is not the business of Holy Church to change with the times. It is her business to change the world, rather than be changed by it. To be “liberal” or “reformist” or “progressive” is to be – in most acceptations of those words – to be on the other side, entirely. We should think instead in terms of “recovery” and “restoration”; of “revolution” as return, not breaking out of orbit.
“Interesting if true” is the correct journalistic response to the “news” from Sandro Magister. We will see what actually happens. But the account was so plausible as to deliver in itself a kind of body blow to innumerable faithful Catholics, who have endured, with the Church, through very bad times.
We are in the realm of Aesop’s fables: the dog and its reflection. Gentle reader may recall that, while crossing a stream, it sees another dog with what appears to be a better bone, reflected in the water. So it drops the bone it has, and goes after the illusion.
In the body blow, one sees the tale re-enacted. The idea that men and women will be attracted to the Church, if the Church slackens her standards, and abandons the faithful she has, in the hope of seizing a much bigger prize, is foolish.
In my understanding of him, Cardinal Burke will set an example of how one should respond. He will obey, and have nothing to say on the matter. Young as he is, by archepiscopal standards, he will turn his energies to his new post, and make the best of his SMOM assignment.
As Pope Francis has said, wisely, on several another matters, “Of course, time will tell.” As we know from the long history of our Church, the mistakes men make are mysteriously corrected over time. Not by us, but by Christ.
The Devil wants our Church in schism. Dividing her into political camps is his means. By rebellion we assist him.
Patience. Obedience. Prayer. As a wise old Czech used to say, “Whatever they do in the Vatican, I’m staying Catholic.”