John Allen analyzes Pope Benedict’s outreach to SSPX and Anglicans

My friend John Allen, the nearly ubiquitous fair-minded columnist of the sadly ultra-liberal National Catholic Reporter has good analysis in his regular Friday piece.   Let’s have a look with my emphases and comments.


Benedict’s ongoing battle against secularism
by John L Allen Jr on Nov. 06, 2009

Much has been made lately [by liberals] of Pope Benedict XVI’s apparent lenience for "cafeteria Catholicism" on the right. Two developments have fed the perception: talks between the Vatican and the Society of St. Pius X, the "Lefebvrites," who broke with Rome in protest of liberalizing currents after the Second Vatican Council (1962-65); and new structures to allow Anglicans to become Catholic while preserving their heritage, with the most likely takers being conservative Anglicans opposed to homosexuality and women’s ordination.  [These are both nightmare scenarios for liberals.]

Though it’s not clear how many Lefebvrites or Anglicans will walk through the doors Rome has tried to open, the effect on both fronts will be to inject new pockets of traditionalist believers into the Catholic circulatory system.

What’s the underlying logic for such moves? While it may at first blush seem unrelated, [Allen makes a good connection here…] a controversial decision on Tuesday by the European Court of Human Rights, which held that displaying crucifixes in Italian public school classrooms violates freedom of conscience, can help provide some context.

In effect, Benedict’s outreach to Lefebvrites and dissident Anglicans forms part of a trend I’ve described as "evangelical Catholicism." One cornerstone is to reassert markers of Catholic distinctiveness  [good phrase] – such as Mass in Latin, and traditional moral teaching – as a means of ensuring that the church is not assimilated to secularism. At the policy-setting level of the church today, this defense of Catholic identity is job number one[Mr. Allen is right.  Pope Benedict has some goal for this pontificate.  If we are going to fight the dictatorship of relativism, we need a strong Catholic identity.  If we are going to evangelize, we need a strong Catholic identity.  If we are going to engage in true ecumenism, we need a strong Catholic identity.  Liturgy is the key component in his "Marshall Plan" for the Church.  Remember what the Marshall Plan was supposed to promote.  The parallel for the Church is clear.]

Historically, "evangelical Catholicism" is a creative impulse rather than something purely defensive, with roots in the papacy of Leo XIII in the late 19th century and his effort to bring a renewed Catholic tradition to bear on social and political life. [so that we, as Catholics, have an influence in the public square.] Nevertheless, fear that secularism may erode the faith from within is also a powerful current propelling evangelical Catholicism forward.

To over-simplify a bit, Benedict XVI is opening the door to the Lefebvrites and to traditionalist Anglicans in part because whatever else they may be, they are among the Christians least prone to end up, in the memorable phrase of Jacques Maritain, "kneeling before the world," meaning sold out to secularism[Not to mention the fact that they are Christians who are separated from clear unity with the Church.  Pope Benedict stresses the importance of his role as Pope as being one of promoting unity.  It is not just that they a Christians who tend to agree with him.  They are separated.  He is trying to reintegrate them.]

At this stage, some critics may be tempted to ask if the cure is perhaps worse than the disease — in other words, if secularism is really so bad.

Benedict XVI himself has talked about a "healthy secularism," which involves the separation of church and state and recognition of the essentially lay character of politics. Evangelical Catholics such as the late Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger of Paris actually see this kind of secularism as a precondition for authentic faith, because it forces Christianity to be a personal choice, rather than something imbibed from religiously homogenous cultures where faith and practice are buttressed by the state.

"We’re really at the dawn of Christianity," Lustiger used to say of the transition to a secular world.

Yet that’s not the perception of secularism that tends to drive the ecclesiastical train these days, especially in Europe. At senior levels of the church, there’s a growing conviction that a tipping point has been reached — that Western secularization is crossing the line from neutrality to outright hostility, toward religion in general and Catholicism in particular. Cardinal Renato Martino, the former President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, put things this way: "It looks like a new Inquisition. It is a lay Inquisition, but it is so nasty. You can freely insult and attack Catholics, and nobody will say anything."

All of which brings us back to the stunner this week from the European Court of Human Rights.

The court, based in Strasbourg, issued its ruling in response to a petition from an Italian woman [Finish woman] named Soile Lautsi, who lives near Padua and who claimed that having crucifixes in the public school classrooms attended by her two children violates the church/state separation provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights. The court agreed, awarding Lautsi 5,000 euros (roughly $7,400) in damages.

The court did not order Italian schools to remove the crucifixes, in part because under European law it had no authority to do so. Lautsi had tried and failed to press the issue in Italian courts, which rejected her claim on the basis that crucifixes are symbols of Italy’s national identity.

The Vatican was predictably dismayed. Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesperson, issued a statement greeting the ruling with "astonishment and sorrow." Lombardi decried the effort to "cast out of the educational world a fundamental sign of the importance of religious values in Italian history and culture."

It’s tough not to regard the ruling as a way for European judges to grind an axe, since whatever else it may mean, it certainly does not augur the end of crucifixes in Italian classrooms. Italian authorities have said they will appeal, [What’s wrong with that statement….] and politicians of the left, right and center tripped over one another denouncing the ruling. Polls have consistently showed overwhelming public support for leaving the crucifixes in place.

"No one, and certainly not an ideological European court, will succeed in erasing our identity," said Italian Education Minister Mariastella Gelmini, a member of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s center-right coalition.

Perhaps the lone indisputable result of Tuesday’s ruling, therefore, is that it will cement impressions among many religious believers, and particularly among Catholics, that Europe’s secular elites are determined to drive religion out of public life — that the "nasty lay inquisition" to which Martino referred continues apace.

In that cultural milieu, one in which Catholic identity is perceived to be under assault — and, given Tuesday’s decision, it’s hard to fault church leaders for drawing that conclusion — it’s no surprise that defense of Catholic identity has become an idée fixe. [Do I hear an "Amen!"?] That includes efforts to welcome groups into the church who are ferociously committed to important markers of identity, such as traditional forms of liturgy and devotion and traditional moral teachings. [Not to mention the fact that they are separated and Christ prayed that we be one.]

One may, of course, dispute the wisdom of Benedict’s open-door policy for the Lefebvrites or disgruntled Anglicans. Yet to pretend that such moves are inexplicable apart from the personal predilections of a conservative pope is to ignore the social reality of contemporary Europe.  [And those people are also Christians who should be in unity with the Church.]

It’s not paranoia, in other words, if they really are out to get you.

* * *

I was in Spain this week, speaking at an international symposium organized by the Capuchins on the subject of "What Does Europe Believe In?" with the subtitle, "The Capuchins between Secularization and the Return of Religious Life."



You can read the rest of Mr. Allen’s article at that place over there.

Yes, there is no question that having the followers of the SSPX and traditional Anglicans will be helpful in bolstering a strong traditional Catholic identity.  But let us not simply reduce this to a pragmatic decision.   Opening the door to these groups is the right thing to do. 

And Pope Benedict is the Pope of Christian Unity.

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  1. Oneros says:

    “see this kind of secularism as a precondition for authentic faith, because it forces Christianity to be a personal choice, rather than something imbibed from religiously homogenous cultures where faith and practice are buttressed by the state.”

    Ah, but this is a very Individualist view, isnt it?

    Catholicism has traditionally been much more “communitarian” as it were. Not to sound trite, but it takes a village.

    There is nothing wrong with knowing and loving God because everyone around you, in your family and the state, promote knowing God and treat Him as a real trinity of Persons.

    Usually, that’s how we get to know people, through other people. What’s wrong with creating a situation politically that is favorable to maximizing the number of people who know God? Better to know God in a sort of apathetic conformist way as part of a social hegemony than to not know Him at all, I’d think!

    And I think we’re seeing that it is very true, “If they’re not for you, they’re against you”…there can be no “neutrality” towards religion on the part of the state. If it isnt promoting it, it will be inevitably working against it. Because we worship God as a community, not just as individuals. And as Plato said, it is much harder to be a good man in an unfavorable community, a good philosopher is useless to a bad state which will produce bad citizens.

    We are the products of our community, of our relationships, not some sort of Existentialist free-agents with some sort of absolute self-determination. Though the will remains free, it is much less likely to make the right choices in an unfavorable world where consciences are not formed correctly from youth.

  2. MarkJ says:

    I had the privilege of teaching an RCIA class last Wednesday. Part of what I spoke about was the concept of the Church being One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic. It was a good opportunity to emphasize to the RCIA candidates that Pope Benedict is known as the Pope of Christian unity, and to mention all the fronts he is waging this battle on… Unity with the Orthodox, with the SSPX, with the Anglicans, with the Lutherans… as well as his efforts to maintain and repair our Unity with the Past in the Liturgy and other areas of Tradition. Long may he reign.

  3. Great points, Mark. Hopefully other orthodox RCIA teachers will follow your example and point out to those in the process of becoming Catholic why this is so important.

    I’ve hoped and prayed all my life for traditional, historical, apostolic Christianity to be re-united (Orthodox, Catholic, traditional Anglicans, etc.). Now we’re actually taking bold steps toward that reunification under the guidance and vision of our great Pope of Christian Unity. It’s very exciting!

  4. germangreek says:

    I wonder sometimes why the generally fair-minded and thoughtful Allen continues to write for that anti-Catholic rag? But anyway, my one quibble is his early reference to Pope Benedict’s ‘apparent lenience for “cafeteria Catholicism” on the right’. This seems to me a bit too much of an effort to “appear” fair-minded by implying an equivalency of heterodoxy between the Catholic ‘left’ and the Catholic ‘right’. Which doctrinal distinctives are the Lefebvrites and TACs ignoring (and who’s ignoring the Pope is presumably prepared to ignore) that allows them to be characterized as cafeteria Catholics on the right?

  5. moon1234 says:

    Benedict XVI himself has talked about a “healthy secularism,” which involves the separation of church and state and recognition of the essentially lay character of politics.

    This is one of the very points that SSPX has a problem with. They do not accept a seperation of Church and State. All secular laws must not be in conflict with Church/Divine/Natural law. Rather, secular laws should be a natural enhancement of liturgical/divine law. Remember what happened to king David and his people? The PEOPLE chose to have an EARTHLY king and they suffered for that choice.

    We have but one king. He rules from his throne in heaven. We should NEVER allow a seperation of church and state. The state MUST respect the laws of the church and of heaven. To put forth otherwise is to tempt God to punish us just as he did king David.

    Many people get the “right of the individual of to choose to belong to the one true Church” confused with the so called “Right to believe whatever they want”. The state may *tolerate* non-believers, but it should never actively support those ideas and persons that campaign aginst the truth.

    A God fearing, loyal, faithful Monarch would be much preferable to any “Democracy”. Ohh, and I AM an American.

  6. greg the beachcomber says:

    I once worked for a Christian non-profit, and as part of a “leadership exercise” I had to retell a story based on small parts each other attendee had added. One of my colleagues had contributed, “we blur the line between Church and State.” When I came to that part of the story, I said, “We blur the line between Church and State, but I’m Catholic, so we believe one day the Church WILL be the State.”

    The Protestants howled with laughter, while the Catholics were mortified. Folks, non-Catholics still believe everything about Catholicism that Catholics are too squeamish to embrace. I hate to second-guess the Holy Father, but maybe “healthy secularism” is an oxymoron.

  7. Mike says:

    Nice article, but I am leery of the “markers of Catholic identity” thing, as if this sociological tag were somehow profounder, than, well, the truth?

  8. Supertradmom says:

    Please remember that the Catholic Teaching Magisterium does not teach complete separation of Church and State. This may be an American ideal, but it has never been an ideal of the Catholic Church. According to the Popes in the last 150 years, it is the duty of the State to protect the Catholic Church, as the one, true Church, and to see that She is not persecuted. The Italian officials are correct on two points: one, that the Crucifix is a symbol of Catholic identity, and that, second: it is a symbol of the Christian State of Italy, which was created because of the Faith. Markers of Catholic identity help all of us stay aware and grateful for our Christian heritage. Europe is the Faith, and the Faith is Europe, said Hilaire Belloc. This combination of faith, culture, history, and identity will not be lost if all Catholics support the governments of the individual nations as against the European Union. Sadly, pragmatism has replaced truth, but I pray the tide turns. May I quote the great Belloc:

    Whether we call it “The
    Modern Attack” or “anti-Christ” it is all one; there is a clear issue now
    joined between the retention of Catholic morals, tradition, and authority
    on the one side, and the active effort to destroy them on the other. The
    modern attack will not tolerate us. It will attempt to destroy us. Nor
    can we tolerate it. We must attempt to destroy it as being the fully
    equipped and ardent enemy of the Truth by which men live. The duel is to
    the death.

    Men sometimes call the modern attack “a return to Paganism.” That
    definition is true if we mean by paganism a denial of Catholic truth: if
    we mean by Paganism a denial of the Incarnation, of human immortality, of
    the unity and personality of God, of man’s direct responsibility to God,
    and all that body of thought, feeling, doctrine and culture which is
    summed up in the word “Catholic,” then, and in that sense, the modern
    attack is a return to Paganism.

    Though this Modern Attack, as I have said, is not a heresy in the
    old sense of the word, nor a sort of synthesis of heresies having in
    common a hatred of the Faith (such as the Protestant movement was), it is
    even more profound, and its consequences more devastating than any of
    these. It is essentially atheist, even when the atheism is not overtly
    predicated. It regards man as sufficient to himself, prayer as mere
    self-suggestion and_the fundamental point_God as no more than a figment of
    the imagination, an image of man’s self thrown by man on the universe; a
    phantasm and no reality.

  9. JMody says:

    Hmm, three things here:
    First, I respectfully assert that the Holy Father’s primary motive is that of unity — welcoming to the Church all who honestly seek admittance. The SSPX are essentially folks who claim that the Church has forgotten herself — they are clearly disobedient, but they clearly practice Catholic worship, teach Christian values, and look to the Pope as the man who can fix the situation. The TAC are essentially folks who teach Catholic morals, practice High Anglican (Calvinism-looking-as-much-like-Trent-as-it-can) dignified worship, and have come to realize that the Archbishop of Canterbury is NOT the man or office that can fix the situation. The fact that liberals see the first motive as “allowing in more Traditionalism” is an interesting peek behind their curtain, so to speak.

    Second, the “cafeteria” crack really doesn’t fit. That phrase used to mean those who would pick and choose from the teachings of the Church, pastoral, discipline AND DOGMA — it’d be hard to show, and interesting to read, how the SSPX have exhibited this behavior with respect to morals. It’d also be interesting to see how the TAC, desiring to be part of a Christian community with dogmas, could be accused of “cafeterialism” — they are trying to leave a cafeteria that is looking more and more like a taco stand.

    Third, Father, slavishly accurate English in your commentary –> “Finish” is to end, complete, or conclude. Folks like the plaintiff in Italy orginally born in Finland are “Finnish”.

  10. JMody says:

    And I forgot:
    Reading today, it seems the response in Italy is ranging from erecting giant Crucifixes on the border facing north the Strasbourg, to setting up funds at City Halls to cover any and all fines that the police dare to issue for non-compliance, to requiring all public spaces to put up Crucifixes in every room of every building.

    Here’s hoping this is a pebble to start an avalanche!

  11. moon1234 says:

    Unfortunately the only way any nation in Europe will regain its sovereignty will be to leave the European Union. They were duped into joining a confederation that seeks to destroy the member states and become one super state to rule them all. Those that rule the European Union seek power for themselves. The only way they can achieve this is thru the destruction of all of those institutions that represent a threat to their power.

    The Catholic Church, The independent countries, the Monarchs, etc. These are all threats to their power. They have all but destroyed the independent countries. They deposed the last Monarch with any sort of power (Grand Duke Henri, Luxembourg). Ironically he was deposed BECAUSE of his devotion to his Catholic faith. Parliament in that country voted to legalize euthanasia. According to their constitution the Monarch decided whether to approve or deny any law passed by Parliament. He would not approve the new law.

    So what did the parliament do? They changed the constitution to strip the Monarch of any true power he had. This is the same danger that the European Union represents to the Catholic church and to those countries that hold dear to the truth. The next step will be for some figurehead in the European Union to start dictating all sorts of anti-catholic, anti-truth requirements. What will a country do? It has two choices:

    1. Ignore the order and face economic sanctions
    2: Compromise its values.

    Either choice is a losing choice.

  12. robkphd says:

    Father, I know that you like Mr Allen, and I respect that. However, I often find his analysis focusing on the political. Certainly in a more sophisticated way than the more vociferous of our time, but political none the less.

    While the Pope’s move clearly does have welcome ramifications in the secular world, I suspect that the motive of unity is a more substantial motive. That he is doing so in a way that does not compromise the truth rather than through more typical ecumenical modes that obscure genuine differences, speaks to the importance of charity AND truth.

  13. An American Mother says:


    Without attempting to delve into the intricacies of Anglican polity or politics — something that I was unhappily exposed to for some 45 years — I disagree that “High Anglican” is “Calvinism-looking-as-much-like-Trent-as-it-can”. There IS a segment of the Anglicans that simply likes the pageantry and trappings and ignores the rest (‘Smoky Mary’s’ in NYC comes to mind) but they have no intention of leaving their (to them) happy little sinecure. TAC members are truly Catholic in all but name. I know, because I WAS a high-churcher for years (we studiously ignored the XXXIX).

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