Pope Benedict is changing the conversation

His Holiness is changing the conversation.

For decades the progressivists have been able to shift the Church around slowly but surely more in line with their preferences because, first and foremost, they were able to set aside their minor differences and act more as a block.  Of course this is a simplification, but I think it is what happened.  On the other side, those with more traditional leanings tend to like to fight with each other over nuances, albeit important nuances.  The gross effect, however, is that these groups and individuals wind up fighting over their own trench and therefore cannot gain any real ground.  

Another way the progressivists have been able to get their own agendas through was the use of patience.  They use a sort of creeping incrementalism.  Use the "boiling the frog" analogy, if you like.  All they tried to do, craftily, was shift the paradigm we see things through a half degree at a time, every once in a while.  Occasionally give it a little bump.  After a few decades we wake up to find ourselves in a different Church.

The more traditional stamp of Catholic will often then demand that everything be brought back to the way it was, the way it ought to be, overnight.  "Why doesn’t the Holy Father just fix this?", they lament.  "Why doesn’t the bishop do something?", they repeat.  

Changes made incrementally often need to be walked back incrementally.

Furthermore, the ironic twist of being in a position of power and influence means that you are often quite dependent, even more so, on others to implement your vision for change.  The Pope is simply not capable of guiding the Church by fiat.  To implement a plan, you must have enough people on your side who will carry out your wishes, that there is a reasonable chance for success.  To launch a project, especially a large one, without the proper support from those who must actually do the work, could result in disaster, a real wound to your authority.

Pope John Paul II, over a period of almost three decades, slowly but surely, incrementally, shifted the fundamental alignment of the world’s episcopate.  He didn’t attempt to work to quickly in his assignments so as to provoke reactions ever harsher than he received.  He was patient in bearing even the promotions of men he probably knew were against his ideas.  He bore it and kept working.  Because of that patience, we have a very different body of bishops in, say, the United States.  Along with the demographic shift, the biological solution, a new generation of bright young people for whom the dreamy "spirit of Vatican II" is a yawner, there is reason for great hope in the United States.  And the rest of the world gets around to following.

Pope Benedict is now very wisely shifting the paradigms.  He is building on the long, patient preparatory work of his esteemed predecessor. For example, he understood that there was at last enough support around the world and in the Curia in key places for him to promulgate Summorum Pontificum.  In his years as a writer he provided a whole shelf of writings which explain his views.  He is now shifting the paradigm in another direction.  And even though it is an incremental shifting, his bumps are actually fairly dramatic. 

He is changing ongoing conversations and introducing new themes for discussion, looking especially to the good will and energy of a younger generation.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in Classic Posts, SESSIUNCULA. Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Matt Q says:

    I like the new password. Maniples. The others were getting kinda stale, Father. ;-)

    Father Z, I like your explanation above regarding the incremental changes of the Holy Father, and I understand the process. What I don’t understand, and I hope you can elaborate on it, is why he isn’t “capable of guiding the Church by fiat. To implement a plan,” he “must have enough people on your side who will carry out your wishes, that there is a reasonable chance for success.”

    The Pope being Pope and the bishops his servants, why not? Does GE or Time-Warner or any company have this difficulty? Hardly. It’s “Here’s the plan. Get it done or else you’re replaced.” No one yet has been able to explain why this Church is so hobbled in getting anything done is mind-boggling. The longer things go unexplained, the more acrimony develeops.

    Thanks, Father.

  2. Ann says:

    Thanks Father, for reminding us that these changes do take time. I need that every once in a while. I understand that the Pope, and even the Bishops each have to carefully choose their battles sometimes.

    But I also tend towards the sentiments that Matt has expressed. I see the Pope as “in charge” and I would love to see him just come out and explicitly state that such and such MUST now be done this way and no other, to correct all the abuses we have seen. I guess I wish that mostly because then when we get into battles on a local level, we could present his concrete instructions to back up our positions instead of having people ask us directly “if it is so serious, why doesn’t the Pope fix it? You are just to picky etc… as they attempt to interpret anything that might have a pin-sized loophole.

    I’m sure that my tendency is emotion driven and that your explanation is more sensible, but I am certainly waiting anxiously for him to drop the gavel, so to speak, once and for all. I know this might sound bad, but even if half the people walked away from the Church in disagreement at least the half that stay will be faithful and on the right track. After all, Jesus lost pretty much everyone after the Eucharistic discourse, didn’t he? It’s my nature to look for a really good shake up on the side of truth. all this wishy-washyness that I see happening in my area is just nauseating :-)

  3. Michael says:

    Father Z, you are right, Matt and Ann aren’t. In theory – it is actually a dogma – the Pope has a supreme power over all of us, but when it come to exercising that power there is nothing he can do if we choose not to cooperate. A manager in a business is considered incompetently over – ambicious if he so organises a work that more than five individuals are directly responsible to him, and even that depends on their cooperation. And the Pope is supposed to manage directly 3000 bishops. If he issues a ruling and 300 of them refuse to cooperate, he needs a week only to learn who they are. If he dismisses some, what if they refuse to go; or if those concerned claim that they do cooperate although they do not. For the sake of justice an endless process would have to be initiated, and the Church would turn into a trial church, wasting its energies on these matters.

    What he can do, however, is to appoint sufragans to metropolitan sees to care for groups who are loyal to him; he can set up ex-territorial dioceses, or dioceses composed of mini-fragments of the existing dioceses, with the same aim, to which dioceses those who want would be entitled to ennrole.

    Let us not be naïve. If left to diocesan liturgical guru-s we will continuously have a Cardiff like incidents. The only reasonable way out of this prospect is a Tridentine Rite Catholic Church, on the pattern of the Eastern Catholic Churches, established, of course, by the Pope.


  4. Lacrimarum Valle says:

    Shepherds don’t shout, order, impose or dictate; they know how stupid sheep are and how quickly they take fright.

    A good shepherd moves a very little at a time; calm, unhurried, and ever so gently puling back the wanderers with his crook.

    I thinnk Benedict is a very, very good shepherd.

  5. And, don’t forget, no good deed goes unpunished. Those who are willing suffer. The blood of the martyrs waters the seedbed of faith, or something like that. This martyrdom can also be marginalization, etc. Mercy is founded on the justice of one remaining in union with our Lord in trying circumstances. I know many priests who long for the day when we will be able to thank our Lord for the gift of many martyrs. These priests know what they are talking about from the suffering side of things.

    In other words, our Lord won’t save us without us, or something like that.

  6. Jacques says:

    I like this much: “young people for whom the dreamy “spirit of Vatican II” is a yawner”
    I am 58 y.o. it always was a yawner for me.

  7. The Abbot says:

    Boil a frog? Egads, Father Z. Who on Earth would want to boil a frog?

    As we in New England say it, it is “boil a lobster.”

    Much tastier.

  8. Luca says:

    Great, father! Thank you! But… Che Dio ci lasci papa Benedetto a lungo!

  9. Father Z:

    Thank you for your excellent analysis.

    Matt Q and Ann:

    All I can say is, despite what you may think and hope, it just doesn’t work the way you may like. I would further say that GE and Time Warner–i.e., businesses and other organizations–do indeed have the same problem. A manager (yes, of course the Holy Father is more than that, but…) issues a directive. The subordinate not only has to know how to do it, s/he has to believe in it sufficiently or at least be willing to carry it out with gusto.

    I have worked in a variety of settings, before working as a pastor, and people are people. A good manager and leader works, over time, to develop a good team who s/he leads, to train and motivate that team, and to have a team that will carry out the vision not merely because the boss says so, but because — and this is critical but so many miss this — because the team members believe in it themselves. There are people who will pursue a vision not because they believe in it, but because they are ethical people, and they were hired to do a job. But they are rare.

    There are so many ways someone can sabotage a project and you simply can’t be on top of it all. They won’t necessarily sabotage it, they just will pursue it without zeal, and you, as the leader, aren’t going to be able to keep on top of that person sufficiently.

    Or, let’s put it this way; it can be done, but it’s an exhausting and highly confrontational way to do it; whereas, the “personnel is policy” approach makes far more sense…

    Especially as, if you are not just aiming at the present, but the future, what do you do to ensure your vision survives you? You can send out memos and directives all day long, and you can enforce them very rigorously; but when you, as pope, depart this mortal coil, what will perpetuate your work?

    GE and Time Warner can fire a bunch of insufficiently zealous managers who “don’t get it,” but they won’t–it takes great time and energy to hire and train new folks, and if the new ones come in, with the right spirit and vision but without seasoning, a lot of things can go badly wrong, very fast. Same with the Church.

    And while some would love the pope to “fire” a bunch of bishops, that raises very important theological questions, as well as ecumenical ones, not to mention precedent, not to mention the risk of schism, so there are bunch of very sound reasons for the last pope and this one to judge, prudentially, against such a step.

    And a bunch of “baby bishops” brought in as the new team, who share the pope’s vision on these matters of liturgy and catechesis can still foul things up in a lot of other ways, which serves to discredit the pope and set back the agenda.

    Nope, I think Fr. Z’s account is on the mark, as is the way the Holy See has handled it, per this account.

    Heck, as a pastor, it takes far more time to do relatively simple things…you cannot imagine!

  10. I too agree with the analysis on how the progressives have worked, but I’m with Cassandra on Pope John Paul II: we are where we are because of his failure to act and the fuel he gave through his actions to some of the worst aspects of the progressive agenda. Appointing liberal bishops opposed to his views in particular doesn’t seem like patience to me, rather a move that served to entrench the progressives.

    I do agree though on the need to build support rather than move too quickly (although one can debate just what too quickly means). Even the great saint didn’t get their reforms through overnight (or without opposition).

    What is important to note about past great reform movements is that they rarely if ever happened entirely from above – rather reforming Popes build on the groundswell created by reforming monastic movements, great saints, and lay action. Think for example of Cluny and the reforms around the beginning of the first millenium; the historical context for St Francis, St Catherine, and indeed the saints of the counter-reformation such as St Phillip Neri and St Teresa.

    I’m not so convinced about the argument that bishops shouldn’t be deposed in extreme cases. It seems to me that notwithstanding the grave seriousness of such an action, one or two demonstration cases would be salutary. Instead at the moment we have phenomena like Australia’s Bishop Robinson publishing books containing erroneous teachings, and promoting them on book tours in defiance of the Vatican and the bishops whose territory he is visiting.

    Certainly in the era perhaps most akin to our own, after Nicaea, the process of reclaiming the Church from Arianism depended primarily on a combination of the stubborn persistence of great saints such as St Athanasius and action to remove heretical bishops from above (albeit not on the part of the Pope!), both of which contributed to the slow re-emergence of a consensus on what constituted orthodoxy.

    What is needed now is surely a combination of continuing leadership from above, and charismatic action from below.

    The Pope can act faster if we show our support for what he is doing in sufficient numbers and in clear ways that resistant bishops cannot ignore.

    Lay people need to take advantage of their rights to demand the TLM, to be able to kneel and receive on the tongue, to attend a mass where the rubrics are followed, to have the traditional devotions, and so forth. They need to work to convert their their friends, families and colleagues.

    Traditionally minded priests need to teach their confreres the traditional mass and encourage them to offer it. They need to help try and bring in ‘independent’ and SSPX priests. And they need to put aside the theological and personal differences that so often seem to divide those attached to the TLM within dioceses, and support each other against persecutors.

    We all need, where appropriate, to make known our views on matters concerning the Church to our pastors (including bishops) under canon 212.

    And we all need to offer our prayers and sacrifices.

  11. Ann says:


    I tried to be clear in my post that I was sure my tendencies were emotion driven- Yes, I would love to see some you-know-what hit the fan, but I am not saying that that is what the Pope should do. I would not presume to tell him what to do. But if and when he does anything, even little things, I am cheering.

    Fr. Martin Fox:

    I understand what you are saying. Slow and steady wins the race…I just realize how much we are missing and I don’t really want to spend the rest of my life waiting for it to be fixed. However, that might well be God’s plan for me.


    I understand your points and I agree that it is up to all of us to do our part in showing support for the Pope and spreading the truths that we have. As a lay person stuck in an area where there are no options for Mass except the one we attend, I struggle to exercise my canonical “rights” as one of the Catholic faithful. I want to follow Rome but there are a lot of middle-men in between the Pope and myself. As for trying to educate & convert our friends, when you belong to a parish of people who either don’t know what it is supposed to be like or who take the approach that the priest should be supported and not criticized, it is impossible to spread knowledge of Church teaching or documents, rubrics, etc. because one is constantly asked “so you are saying that our priest is wrong, then?” and there is no way to respond to that question without speaking negatively about what he is doing. Then, who are the bad guys? Us, because we don’t “appreciate” the fact that we have a priest in our parish when many do not, because we are “legalistic” and not “loving”, seeing the negative instead of the positive, etc. etc. etc. I have heard it all. How does a lay person surrounded by parishes where priests are doing similar things, attempt to get anything changed?

  12. Dougall says:

    “I like this much: “young people for whom the dreamy “spirit of Vatican II” is a yawner”
    I am 58 y.o. it always was a yawner for me.”

    I really like the above statement. I didn’t discover Tradition until after the SP, but thanks to these new developments, I have the privilege to be a part.

    It’s not like youngsters came to these conclusions on their own. Some might have noticed the abuses on their own, but if they are like me, they sought the guidance of established traditionalists.

    When I think about the traditionalists of the past 40 years, it amazes me, because they were so pushed to the fringe that I didn’t know about them a year ago, and I erroneously considered myself “informed” about the Church. I just took what I was taught at the local parish as all there was.

    Seriously. How did people do it? I don’t think I would have had the fortitude, and been able to endure being marginalized for so long.All the attacks, false charges of schismatic and everything. That kind of courage is thin on the ground.

    I guess I should take it as a lesson? That if you stand up for something and that stand is right, it will eventually yield good fruit?

    Kinda reminds me of the Israelites in the desert.

  13. EDG says:

    Australiaincognita and Cassandra and St. Jacques:

    I agree with you regarding JPII as pope, although I think he was probably personally a very holy man (like Celestine V…). But I think we’ve just got to leave him to God and go on with the next step.

    I’m 4 years older than St Jacques, and I remember reading about the opening session of VatII in the New York Times, where it occupied the entire front page. This was a big deal. And I remember being very happy about it (although please remember that I was a teenager at the time!).

    Russell Shaw’s new book might be of interest to you. It was an eye opener for me. The book is about the cult of secrecy and its effect on exacerbating the “pedophile” crisis (which was generally not pedophilia, but gay adult predation of teenage boys). However, he suddenly made me remember why everyone was thrilled by VatII: It was an attack on the bureaucracy and was meant to reform the administrative area of the Church. It was not a doctrinal council and initially was not expected to have anything to do with liturgy other than rubber-stamping things such as the – at that time, new – inclusion of Gregorian in parish masses. Looked at from that point of view, it’s entirely different. Granted, all its goals failed or were hijacked and became disasters in the long run. But maybe that just shows you the resiliency of bureaucracy, which is exactly what BXVI is facing now.

  14. Ann,

    Actually sometimes you do just have to say that something is wrong. People won’t like it. Too bad, neither did the pharisees.

    But have your ammunition ready in the form of the relevant documents (Redemptionis Sacramentum etc). And try and convert not everyone, but one or two like minded people at first.

    There are lots of lessons to be learnt from those who have gone down the path in the past in the face of opposition, perhaps now is the time to share some of these…

  15. Brian Day says:

    Overall, the analysis is spot on. What I would like to know is how to answer someone of the more traditional stripe who would say something to the effect of, “Well, Pope St Pius X, didn’t take decades to do “X”. He did “Y” and “Z” within months of becoming pope.”

    Granted, the times are different. But didn’t St Pius X lead by fiat? Why not JP2 or B16?

  16. Cassanda says:

    Okay, just so people don’t think I don’t have a sense of humor.

    I’m pushing for the TLM at my parish. I’m going to start praying to JPII for it. If we get the TLM, I’ll submit it to my bishop as a miracle for his cause.

    Maybe we could all do that. It would drive the postulator crazy.

  17. Richard says:

    Thanks again to Fr. Z for yet another solid analysis.

    I am inclined to qualify ever so slightly by agreeing with the concerns posted by some about John Paul II – at least to better distinguish his governance from that of Benedict. Even in Krakow, administration was widely acknowledged not to be the greatest of Karol Wojtyla’s virtues. As a true alien to the curia, John Paul had an even more formidable challenge. And his usual response was to do an end run – around dicasteries, episcopal conferences, chanceries – and go out to speak to the flock directly. And this was not without results.

    Nonetheless, I think it also true that personnel was not a real focus for John Paul, even as we recognize that had limited material to work with. And fundamentally – because his own post-conciliar experience in Poland was more positive – John Paul was perhaps somewhat (I hesitate to overstate the difference, but I do think there is a difference) more optimistic about the Church’s prospects than Benedict XVI.

    Which is to say that I think because Joseph Ratzinger has had a more realistic appreciation of the challenges the Church faces, especially in Europe (and especially as regards its liturgical life), he has a clearer plan – a “Marshall Plan” – than did John Paul, and spends more time trying to put it into practice, especially in selecting personnel who really support it. And (in JPII’s defense, to some extent) it must be said that the demographic and theological terrain in the Church is more favorable for such a project than was the case in 1978 (or 1988), when the progressives’ strength waxed to its maximum.

    I still confess some impatience, and not merely because His Holiness is at an age where one does not buy green bananas and we have no guarantees that his successsor will share his outlook. But I like to think that much of what he has done will not be easily undone – not least because there are more and more of us, in the laity, in the episcopacy, even in the curia, that share his vision (or much of it).

  18. TerryC says:

    I do not fear much that the next pope will not share Benedict’s vision. JPII appointed the balance of the college of cardinals,and they elected Papa Ratzinger. He is now appointing cardinals. Do you think he is appointing men who do not to some extent share his vision?
    I think that the appointments to the college were one of John Paul’s end runs. He waited to appoint liberal bishops until they were too old to vote. So they got the hat but no say in the next pope. He appointed enough orthodox bishops to ensure someone like Benedict was elected.
    All of which does not contradict the role of the Holy Spirit in the choice. I think God has decided things have gone far enough. Time to clean house. A smaller, stronger Church to face the culture of death.

  19. G says:

    “Then, who are the bad guys”

    May I respectfully submit that the reason the Holy Father’s way is the right way, is that there ARE no “bad guys”?
    The people standing in his way are not our enemies, they are our PATIENTS.
    We don’t want them to be given a “my way or the highway” choice, because some may take the highway, and their souls be lost.
    PapaRatz prays, and works toward the … how shall I put it? the veil to be lifted from their eyes.

    (Save the Liturgy, Save the World)

  20. G – The problem is that as bishops they may be leading others to perdition. Even retired, their opinions have weight (consider the current efforts of Australian Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, touring the US and advocating for women priests etc).

    EDG – I haven’t read Shaw’s new book yet, but from what I have read it sounds like there is a fair amount of continuity with what he has previously said. I don’t know enough of the history to argue with his take on the idea of Vatican II as an attack on the bureaucracy. But I have read enough of his stuff to know that his advocacy of a new model of church decision making relies very much on a hermaneutic of rupture. I generally find that there is an element of truth in what he is getting at, but it is so muddled up in advocacy of things that have been actively rejected by the Church in the past, that its usefulness becomes questionable.

  21. Kris says:

    Influence has replaced direction as the primary means of organizational change
    in business as well as Church guidance. It’s a more pastoral approach, and it
    recognizes that most people only perform well when they feel a sense of
    ownership and accountability for the decisions they are implementing.

    Rule by fiat may please some people who simply want recalcitrant
    “progressives” brought into line, but such an approach will create more
    conflict than it will resolve.

  22. Ann says:


    If you are referring to my post about “who are the bad guys”, let me assure you that I am not speaking of others that way, I am referring to what happens when I try to speak up for what is right and others see ME as the bad guy because I am not simply agreeing with whatever the priest thinks should be done. I agree that there are no “bad” guys, just people who are misinformed and misled in various directions.


    Yes, sometimes we do just have to say that something is wrong, and take the flack for it. And yes, I have documents to back up what I am trying to say. But even then I am told that I am too rigid and not able to welcome other people’s ideas. The priests we have had in the past were grateful to have people who actually cared about and supported tradition and reverence in the liturgy, but my concerns are now dismissed as “rigid”. If people want to learn by example instead of having documents quoted to them, I am simply going to start asking the question “Is that how it is done during a Mass in Rome when the Holy Father officiates?” and see what kind of response I get.

    Our whole family is ready to go to another parish, but unfortunately, there isn’t one nearby that would offer us anything more than what we have and we are an hour and a half from the city where there are options. I look forward to my first TLM in the city in a couple of weeks when we will actually be able to get there and experience something really awesome!

  23. Sam Schmitt says:

    Brian wrote:

    “Overall, the analysis is spot on. What I would like to know is how to answer someone of the more traditional stripe who would say something to the effect of, “Well, Pope St Pius X, didn’t take decades to do “X”. He did “Y” and “Z” within months of becoming pope.”

    Granted, the times are different. But didn’t St Pius X lead by fiat? Why not JP2 or B16?”

    It could be argued that Pius X’s actions against modernism were largely undone within a generation or two after his death – witness its resurgence in the Church in the 1960s – so they were not really effective in the long term.

Comments are closed.