Thoughts on “The New Pope”

The Neon Nuns will remain as perhaps the most striking visual component of this season. (Source)

I reproduce below an adaptation of the notes I took after each episode of The New Pope, which were then posted in a private Facebook group of like-minded Catholics dedicated to the series. Rather than give a full summary evaluation of The New Pope, I thought readers would find this more process-based approach to be interesting, as it shows how my reactions changed over time. That said, I may post something a bit more all-encompassing later. A word of warning: what follows is spoiler-heavy.

Thoughts on Episode 1:

1) It’s gorgeous as ever.
2) Somehow I don’t get the impression that Paolo Sorrentino is very impressed with this pontificate.
3) I guffawed at the video game scene.
4) Looks like this season is going to be, at least in part, an homage to Hadrian the Seventh.
5) I was surprised by how rooted this season is in Italy’s migration crisis
6) The music continues to be brilliant.
7) Silvio Orlando really is an underrated actor.
8) Honestly I thought to myself “Neon Baroque could be my new aesthetic.”

Voiello and companions on an uncharacteristically antique and ornate British train (Source)

Thoughts on Episode 2:

1) Sorrentino doesn’t understand the English. He has made Brannox into a French decadent, not an English ecclesiastical peer. Though this episode makes me want to see Malkovich as Huysmans.
2) Gutierrez remains the best character.
3) We start to see again Sorrentino’s spiritual tendency for short, sometimes aphoristic enunciations of truth.
4) The continuing importance of the terrorist message makes me suspect Brannox will end like Hadrian VII, only with a jihadist in place of an Ulsterman.
5) Speaking of which, interesting echoes of a lot of English Catholic literary tradition here: Hadrian the Seventh, Newman, Brideshead, even arguably Oscar Wilde.
6) I can’t tell whether the line about the Church “thinking” is a criticism or not. I suspect it’s like Greenland’s ice.
7) Loneliness remains one of the central themes of the series.

Thoughts on Episode 3:

1) The last scene(s) manage at once to be extremely Baroque and extremely Gothic. I was reminded of Ann Radcliffe and Matthew Lewis.
2) Malkopope has arrived, he’s screaming, and I am so here for it.
3) I remain surprised by Sorrentino’s political imagery here. The massacre in Somalia is not the sort of thing one is used to seeing on HBO.
4) Fabiano looks like Michael Jackson and reminded me of the Purple Man in The Violent Bear It Away.
5) It’s still all about loneliness.
6) JP3 is an interesting choice of name. In view of his two speeches, I wonder if the emphasis on “fragility” is in some sense evoking JP2 specifically. Regardless, I suspect it foreshadows something yet to come, or perhaps some secret we have yet to learn.
7) The Meghan Markle jokes were great. Sorrentino’s much funnier – or rather, telling a lot more jokes – in this season.
8 ) Love the dwarf abbess. I wonder if the scene where she’s smoking is a reference to Nasty Habits?

Thoughts on Episode 4:

1) Kind of a boring episode overall.
2) We’re in the slump of sin, where all the characters are at their lowest. Or at least will soon be.
3) Cardinal Assente dancing at the end was fun, but also strangely sad. He’s dancing alone. There is a poignant metaphor here – I was reminded of some of the sadder passages in Frédéric Martel.
4) The Marilyn Manson bit and the further Meghan Markle jokes were hilarious.
5) Return of the Willendorf Venus!
6) This is such a continental show.
7) Malkopope is really starting to grow on me.
8) Gutierrez remains the best because he repents of his sin immediately and receives sacramental absolution.
9) The scene with the gropey priest is like something out of a bad French novel of the 1760s.
10) With Sister Lisette et al., I think Sorrentino is satirizing activist nuns.

Not gonna lie, I want one of those hoodies. (Source)

Thoughts on Episode 5:

1) Really getting the impression that Sorrentino is a low-key reactionary. Giving a fair explanation of Catholic teaching on homosexuality, implicitly deriding the banality of contemporary Catholic artistic culture, discussion of jihadist attacks on Christians in Europe? Obviously this might reverse in future episodes, but it’s noticeable at this point.
2) Finally getting some proper Sorrentinean surrealism at last.
3) Favorite line in the whole episode came from Sophia – “The Pope produces symbols. The vulgar act of interpretation must fall to others.”
4) The scene with Girolamo and Don Mimmo was beautiful, and I thought, quite moving.
5) I just noticed that Sophia’s name is…well, Sophia. I’m starting to wonder if this is meaningful.
6) Pursuant to point (1) above, I think it’s telling that Gutierrez’s ongoing fling (affair?) with Freddy coincides with a relapse in his alcoholism. This is astounding, given that today the normal depiction of such a relationship would be as a celebration of liberation. Sorrentino suggests it’s the opposite.
7) Disappointed that the strategy is not to “punish” pedophiles, though perhaps the emphasis there was more on adult sexual scandals…?
8) Also Gutierrez in general has been sorely neglected on the whole. He’s not moving the plot anywhere. At all.
9) Based on what I’ve seen so far, I do think Sorrentino is commenting on church politics a good deal more here than he did in The Young Pope. Francis II, Sr. Lisette’s strike, JP3’s elevation of a manifestly corrupt Cardinal…these all have wider resonances in recent church history. And I do wonder whether the cult of Lenny Belardo is in some sense a moment where Sorrentino is reflecting on some of the reception of the show itself.
10) The “No!” at Lourdes reminds me of John Paul II’s “We want God” moment in Poland.

“Hey, hey, hey, the gang’s all here!” (Source)

Thoughts on Episode 6:

1) Fr Leopold Essence is probably the devil but he mainly reminded me of the Cowboy from Mulholland Drive. He’s literally an accuser, and he accuses by drawing attention to distorted love.
2) He’s an American, too. The only other major American character in this show, without Sister Mary, is Lenny. Is Lenny then the most intelligent man on earth?
3) Wasn’t there some 19th c. Ultramontane who made a comment about the Pope being the most intelligent man on earth because of the charism of infused infallible knowledge?
4) So God is a millipede and the devil is a cockroach?
5) Relatedly, that opening scene is so well shot. It’s just a master class in cinematic art.
6) The dancing midget nun is giving Cardinal Essente a run for his money
7) Creepy old incest mom has a German accent. This seems potentially significant. Atanasio (interesting, unusual name) has had “Nature turn against him.” All of Esther’s storyline, up to now largely detached from the main plot, feels increasingly like a parable. In any other hands it would all seem really very trite like some cheap Victorian novel. But Sorrentino somehow elevates it.
8) Voiello’s sidelining under JP3 reminds me of the similarly disastrous personnel decisions made by JP2
9) The Kabul exile of Hernandez reminds me of Bugnini
10) “There is no room left for poetry” – a great line and a cutting diagnosis. Also, the fact that this line comes where it does in that scene confirms my hypothesis about the broader point of the nuns being a satire of activist sisters as well as liberal/feminist Catholics more generall
11) I wonder if that same line can be taken as a Sorrentinean commentary on gender relations writ large? The struggle for rights has deprived us of poetry…
12) What a surprise; wealthy incest lady is also a racist. She also has a perverse vision of sanctity based on “human warmth.” Interesting.
13) There’s an interesting parallel between Brannox’s interview and Lenny’s Venice speech. Both collapse in their separate ways while their disapproving parents are (potentially) watching.
14) I called the drug addiction early on.
15) This addiction puts Brannox in an interesting parallel with Gutierrez.
16) The moment when Atanasio embraces Esther is I think when that storyline really changed. It was such a terribly sad moment…one could suddenly see past the sexuality of it and instead perceive the fundamental tragedy of the situation, the total lack of human connection and the joyous simplicity of human touch. And yet it also reinforces the underlying loneliness of all parties involved.
17) Good to see Lenny’s still a Saint.
18) Spalletta, thy name is Dziwisz.
19) Increasingly I think Hernandez was invented to de-Sodanoize Voiello for the Italian audience. Voiello in Season 2 gets to engage in the heroic acts that Voiello in Season 1 (clearly modeled on Sodano and Bertone) never could.
20) Voiello really kinda is the center of the whole series isn’t he? In sort of the same way that the bureaucracy or the civil service outlasts pontificates.
21) Brannox on evil, like Brannox on tenderness, really reminds me of JP2 in his more anti-communist and moralistic moments.
22) Sex is so sad in this show.
23) It occurred to me for the first time how silly those Lenny sweatshirts are. He never allowed himself to be photographed, so how did they get a photo of him in cope and tiara? Little details that get overlooked…

“Follow the looove” – Leopold Essence’s arrival is Sorrentino at his most Lynchian, and his most enthralling. (Source)

Thoughts on Episode 7:

1) I was struck by how Sorrentino uses motion and stillness in this episode. When we meet the doctor’s wife, she is rigid and almost lifeless. As she becomes more open to happiness again, she’s able to walk like a model again – to walk beautifully, even artistically. Yet upon her return to her son, she returns to a statuesque stillness. The difference is that now, her stillness is itself artistic – a close imitation of the Pietà, seen a few times throughout the episode. It’s as if there’s a return to suffering, but now it has been transfigured into a kind of beauty (by grace?).
2) A Pope paralyzed by his own physiological problems, surrounded by evil counselors, and unable or unwilling to respond to crimes in the church? No wonder they named Malkopope John Paul III.
3) I’m somehow strangely reassured by the fact that Lenny is the same old Lenny.
4) Really getting tired of all the magical disabled people tropes. Eric is the fourth or fifth this season alone.
5) Venice at night is so typically Sorrentinean. I was reminded of “Youth.”
6) Gutierrez remains the soundest bearer of truth. His words in the confessional were, I thought, quite moving.
7) The “Purification” scene was aesthetically stunning. It was as if Gustav Klimt and Anselm Kiefer had collaborated on a film. The second time I watched it, I struggled not to get emotional. The silent desperation, the simplicity, the beauty – it’s all so moving.
8) Eric’s miracle is the inverse of Sister Antonia’s, I think – both find death at Lenny’s prayers, but one achieves heaven.
9) The opening scene on the heavenly beach was very funny. I also think it was a kind of reverse foreshadowing of the “Purification” scene, the other moment on a beach in this episode.
10) It occurred to me for the first time how fixated Sorrentino is with the upper classes. Almost all of his work focuses on elites. One wonders if he chooses such stories in part just to film in such gorgeous locations as the doctor’s palace.

Sorrrentino never skimps on ecclesiastical finery. Would that our own prelates would take note! (Source)

Thoughts on Episode 8:

1) I applaud everything Lenny says to the nuns, which is absolutely spot-on. Sorrentino deserves more credit for his understanding of Catholicism.
2) Brannox’s comments on loneliness are one of the more movingly human moments of the series – as are the strange, not-quite-erotic snatches of intimacy between him and Sophia.
3) Voiello’s eulogy was a bit saccharine. Of all the three “speeches” in this episode, his was the weakest. But it was sort of a nice moment of growth for Voiello overall.
4) Assente is awful and I’m glad he got what was coming to him. Voiello proves himself to be that immortal archetype of Italian literature, the crafty, pragmatic priest who snatches victory from the jaws of defeat (I am reminded of Father Pirrone in “Il Gattopardo”).
5) I have reversed my evaluation of Essence. He and Bauer may instead be avenging angels rather than devils, especially in view of their ambush of Spalletta and Co.
6) Why does Bauer use such an outdated phone?
7) Sorrentino really manages to get some beautiful rooms as sets.
8) It really bothers me that the clergy were all wearing the wrong color at the funeral. Requiems – except for Popes – don’t use red! Also, the Latin was incorrect (right?), though I appreciated the effort.
9) One of the key motifs of this episode was the tease. We see moments of relational, almost erotic, teasing from Sophia in her interactions with Brannox at the chalet. Don Camillo’s trick with Assente is a kind of emotional teasing. Lenny teases Voiello with ostensible knowledge about the upcoming football season. There were, I think, a few other examples. I don’t know why Sorrentino relies upon this motif here, but it was really noticeable.

Malkopope and Cardinals in The New Pope, Episode 9. Featuring (l-r) Javier Camara, Ramon Garcia, Silvio Orlando, John Malkovich. (Source)

Thoughts on Episode 9:

1) That scene in the Sistine Chapel when Pius XIII is lined up with all the cardinals and John Paul III – an extremely powerful aesthetic. Matched only by the Neon Nuns in this season.
2) I really loved Malkovich’s speech from the balcony, which was the strongest in the episode. It was theologically rich, poetic, and delivered in that certain screaming je ne sais quoi that only Malkovich possesses.
3) It occurs to me that there are, as it were, four titular “New Popes” in this series. Francis II, John Paul III, the reformed Pius XIII, and Voiello.
4) The twist with the terrorists is a kind of inversion of Hadrian VII’s ending, which is interesting given the extent to which this season draws upon that narrative throughout.
5) Unclear to me whether Gutierrez (criminally underutilized in this season on the whole) and Brannox have in fact ended up betraying their vows of chastity? We can probably presume the young nun has. Is Sorrentino taking a left turn and endorsing love and sex for all? I don’t know. It would be uncharacteristic and a huge leap from the rest of the series. But perhaps the whole point is in the ambiguity. Isn’t that, after all, the ultimate message of Lenny’s last speech? We don’t have all the answers, and worrying about them too much spoils things.
6) Speaking of speeches, it seems that Sorrentino still doesn’t quite grasp how rhetorical binaries work. Lenny’s “Am I x or am I y” bit echoed the “Are we a or are we b” in the Venice speech on the Blessed Juana. And as then, I’m not sure it really worked.
7) Esther’s story was deeply sad. I’m not totally sure what to make of it – I no longer think it’s a parable (at least not from Episode 7 onward). But it does seem like a critique of a certain kind of an especially Italian devotionalism. It rhymes with his treatment of Tonino Pettola in Season 1, just as Francis II rhymes with Sister Antonia. Sorrentino seems to hate fanaticism.
8) On that note, I absolutely loved the Tonino Pettola call-back at the last shot.
9) I would have liked one last appearance from Leopold Essence since we got so much from Bauer. The scene with the American general was quite funny, though.
10) It seems that, in the end, most of the main characters ended their arc with some kind of love. Brannox gets his parents back. Lenny gets the love of the people, then dies and becomes a real saint. Sophia gets the love of a man she admires (though it’s unclear whether or not their love is sexual). Voiello has a new child to care for, the only love he really knows how to show. Gutierrez may be back with Freddy, but if nothing else, he seems to have kicked his alcoholism and is very happy. Our Romeo and Juliet of the Vatican are reunited with their child. The doctor and his wife are expecting a new baby. Even Bauer is going to marry his escort, like Hosea marrying a prostitute. Perhaps this is the point – the chief thing, the real happy ending, is love. If the question of the series is loneliness, the answer, insofar as we can find one (and Lenny would say the answer belongs to God), is love.
11) And thus, no one except Esther ends up lonely in the end. There seems to be a kind of narrative cruelty in this. But then again, don’t kill priests if you don’t want to go to prison.
12) What the hell was on the walls when Brannox and Lenny have their final confrontation? Very weird, disturbing art.
13) The insistence upon Don Antonio being a “good priest” is encouraging and, I think, representative of Sorrentino’s particular take on Catholicism. Alongside all the aestheticism and insistence on mystery (Pius XIII), there’s both a certain moderation when it comes to the rules (represented by both Voiello and John Paul III) as well as a recognition of real heroism and sacrifice (the various martyrs throughout this season).
14) That said, I think what I most missed in The New Pope was the witty spirituality, that sort of esprit d’escalier of the soul that Sorrentino peppered throughout The Young Pope. There were, to be sure, a few great zingers this season, but nothing that matches “The weight of God” or “Absence is presence” or “What’s under all that ice?” from The Young Pope. Which is odd, I think, since John Paul III seems like an aphoristic character.
15) I guess my other criticism of the season as a whole is that it was, at times, a little too diffuse. Part of what made TYP so powerful was the network of relations radiating out of the fascinatingly complex central character: the agon with his mentor, Cardinal Spencer, the loss of his brother, Dussolier, the foster-motherhood of Sister Mary, the rivalry with Voiello, the unfolding friendship with Gutierrez, and of course, the pain of his abandonment by the parents who leave him again in Venice. Although TYP hardly possesses a linear plot, it at least managed to dive deeply into the psychology and spiritual development of one character. It had a shape. It easily became iconic. But as good as The New Pope is, it doesn’t quite cohere in the same way. It loses itself at times, in part because it’s never quite clear whose story it is.
16) Even the surrealism has been weaker throughout. Remember, the very first scene of TYP is Lenny crawling out of a pyramid of babies at St. Mark’s Square. Where was the equivalent of the kangaroo? A dog doesn’t rise to nearly the same oddity and is thus a far weaker visual and narrative symbol. No one was lusting after the Willendorf Venus this time. No one saw all the Popes of history lined up in a semi-dream sequence (again, another great zinger – “Power is a banal platitude”), or anything like it. The closest we ever got was that absolutely wonderful, Lynchian scene with Leopold Essence and Sophia in the Vatican cantina. More of that would have been salutary.
17) On the whole, though, this was the best thing on television for the last few months, bar none. And even in view of its imperfections, I do think the show says something valuable about Catholicism, about loneliness, and about love. Although COVID certainly complicates this – and I’m not sure it’s strictly necessary – I think I would like to see a third season about Voiello’s papacy. We shall see.

The Ratzinger Letter: A Failure

The Pope-Emeritus’s letter was a deeply unhelpful document on the whole. (Source)

In the ongoing sexual abuse crisis that has wracked the Roman Catholic Church, it is helpful to remember that the evil transpires on both spiritual and historical planes. That is to say, we can productively speak of sexual abuse as a spiritual attack upon the Church’s absolute purity, a purity she receives from Christ, her spouse and head. The violations committed by priests and religious is a stain upon that purity but nevertheless leaves the fundamental holiness of the Church intact. And this because the Church has no holiness that is not primarily the holiness of Jesus. All that is good in her flows from Him.

However, we can maintain this truth while simultaneously recognizing deep underlying structural problems in the Church’s culture and modus operandi. The holiness of the Church comes from above, not below; in the course of human history, we have often seen great evils nurtured within the very breast of the Church as a human institution. The sex abuse crisis is one such horror. Only a realistic attitude can bring us the reform that we so desperately need.

It’s because of this that I was disappointed to read Benedict XVI’s recent letter on the subject. There are certain passages that show the Pope-Emeritus’s continuing theological acumen. He writes movingly about the primacy of Faith, especially Faith in the Blessed Sacrament, as a foundational principle of renewal in our time. He also calls for a deeper ecclesial sensibility among the faithful. Catholics should meditate on these passages, which have a good deal of insight and even consoling power. His words on martyrdom are particularly profound and poignant, given his own impending mortality.

However, as a response to the egregious crimes committed by priests and other clerical personnel against innocents, the document represents a major failure.

This letter is a turgid, historically specious bit of sleight of hand. In treating the abuse crisis as a problem of laxity in moral teaching, the Pope turns sex abuse into a theological problem. He is closer to the heart of things when he discusses the evolution of the disciplinary measures in Canon Law and the various difficulties thrown up by legal “reforms” in the middle of the century. However, he also dissolves the very real psychological and social factors that permitted a culture of tolerance for pedophilia within the church to flourish for so long. Ratzinger writes, “Why did pedophilia reach such proportions? Ultimately, the reason is the absence of God.” This is, strictly speaking, a spiritual truth. Had the Pope-Emeritus treated this as a statement about the souls of the pedophiles, for whom God must be in some way ultimately unreal, the statement would be entirely defensible. However, Ratzinger is speaking historically. He immediately seems to attribute to the spread of pedophilia to secularization in Europe.

After the upheaval of the Second World War, we in Germany had still expressly placed our Constitution under the responsibility to God as a guiding principle. Half a century later, it was no longer possible to include responsibility to God as a guiding principle in the European constitution. God is regarded as the party concern of a small group and can no longer stand as the guiding principle for the community as a whole.

Joseph Ratzinger

The problem is relativism – namely, secular relativism as an other, as something outside the life of the Church. We read, “The long-prepared and ongoing process of dissolution of the Christian concept of morality was…marked by an unprecedented radicalism in the 1960s.” According to the Pope, “Part of the physiognomy of the Revolution of ‘68 was that pedophilia was then also diagnosed as allowed and appropriate…It was theorized only a short time ago as quite legitimate, but it has spread further and further.” He takes the cause of recent pedophilia, and thus of the scandals within the Church, to be the sexual revolution.

But apart from Gayle Rubin, the filmmakers who got Jodie Foster and Brooke Shields naked, and the perverts at NAMBLA, who exactly were the people trying to normalize pedophilia? C.C. Pecknold suggests it might be those activists in favor of “abolishing age-of-consent laws since the 1970s.” Possibly. At any rate, the Pope provides neither names nor sources. It’s a serious enough claim that he owes us that courtesy. To what extent were these efforts merely marginal phenomena? He seems to take them as a synecdoche of the broader movement, however implausibly.

By appealing to an established right-wing boogeyman (sixties revolutionaries), he dissolves the problem into a theological haze. He makes no mention of the complex psychological reasons for abuse, simply posits that relativism leads to sexual license. Nor does he prove any causes to tie together his case studies. He just asserts that various phenomena are connected without supplying proof. Given the genre of the piece, perhaps this brevity is to be expected. But is this schema really representative of Ratzinger’s mentality as he handled sex abuse cases in his tenure as head of the CDF and, later, as Pope? If so, no wonder things were so long mismanaged and so often minimized. Sex abuse is not a matter of which moral theologians you’re reading, and to treat it as such is profoundly irresponsible.

Francis Cardinal Spellman of New York, a voracious, predatory, and hypocritical homosexual who fostered a culture of abuse in his diocese in the 1950’s. Reports of him groping a West Point cadet during an interview have recently emerged. (Source)

The fact that Francis asked Benedict to prepare this statement suggests to me that it represents an attempt by both Popes to shoot the elephant (and scapegoat) in the room, namely, the homosexuality of the clergy. This phenomenon has become the cause célèbre of conservative and traditional Catholics trying to understand the sex abuse crisis. It has also been recently highlighted in a largely credible if somewhat sensationalist way by the gay activist Frédéric Martel, whose book on clerical homosexuality Catholics should read (if with a grain of salt). Too sharp a focus on homosexuality (a) doesn’t actually solve the problem of clerical sex abuse and (b) is too dangerous for all ideological camps (no pun intended) within the clerical establishment. Ratzinger’s letter here shifts the focus away from that particular systemic and more or less quantifiable phenomenon and onto an amorphous if politically-charged abstract. While I can’t be sure, the missive seems to be designed to influence Ratzinger’s own partisans and lead them away from the gay issue.

After all, the one narrative that Ratzinger doesn’t tell us is the one most favored by conservatives. Namely, as Pecknold puts it, “by the late 1980s the homosexual hierarchies that ruled now were descending, with greater frequency, into pedophilia.” But this is not what the Pope writes. In a passage worth quoting at length, Ratzinger tells us,

In various seminaries homosexual cliques were established, which acted more or less openly and significantly changed the climate in the seminaries. In one seminary in southern Germany, candidates for the priesthood and candidates for the lay ministry of the pastoral specialist [Pastoralreferent] lived together. At the common meals, seminarians and pastoral specialists ate together, the married among the laymen sometimes accompanied by their wives and children, and on occasion by their girlfriends. The climate in this seminary could not provide support for preparation to the priestly vocation. The Holy See knew of such problems, without being informed precisely. As a first step, an Apostolic Visitation was arranged of seminaries in the United States. As the criteria for the selection and appointment of bishops had also been changed after the Second Vatican Council, the relationship of bishops to their seminaries was very different, too. Above all, a criterion for the appointment of new bishops was now their “conciliarity,” which of course could be understood to mean rather different things. Indeed, in many parts of the Church, conciliar attitudes were understood to mean having a critical or negative attitude towards the hitherto existing tradition, which was now to be replaced by a new, radically open relationship with the world. One bishop, who had previously been seminary rector, had arranged for the seminarians to be shown pornographic films, allegedly with the intention of thus making them resistant to behavior contrary to the faith. There were — not only in the United States of America — individual bishops who rejected the Catholic tradition as a whole and sought to bring about a kind of new, modern “Catholicity” in their dioceses. Perhaps it is worth mentioning that in not a few seminaries, students caught reading my books were considered unsuitable for the priesthood. My books were hidden away, like bad literature, and only read under the desk. The Visitation that now took place brought no new insights, apparently because various powers had joined forces to conceal the true situation. A second Visitation was ordered and brought considerably more insights, but on the whole failed to achieve any outcomes. Nonetheless, since the 1970s the situation in seminaries has generally improved. And yet, only isolated cases of a new strengthening of priestly vocations came about as the overall situation had taken a different turn.

Joseph Ratzinger

That first line is the only explicit reference to homosexuality in the entire letter. In his his forceful First Things follow-up, Archbishop Chaput confirms this point:

He remains silent on what many see as the continuing resistance of Rome to candidly name the core issue of the clergy abuse problem, which is not primarily a matter of clerical privilege but rather a pattern of predatory homosexuality.

Archbishop Charles Chaput

Ratzinger is quick to move from the various gay circles among the seminarians of yesteryear to the presence of women in seminaries, and then on to theological liberalism in general. This is not the argument, put forward by so many, that homosexuality in the priesthood leads to sex abuse. It’s a broader case, one that sees homosexuality as only one part in a constellation of radicalism.

And it’s a radicalism that emphatically has its origins outside of the Church. Archbishop Chaput builds on Benedict, writing,

But priests and bishops have no miraculous immunity to the abnormality bubbling around them. Ratzinger locates the seed of the current crisis in the deliberate turn toward sexual anarchy that marked much of Europe in the 1960s, and the complete failure of Catholic moral theologians to counter it—a failure that more often resembled fellow-traveling.

Archbishop Charles Chaput

This is nothing less than an abdication of moral responsibility. The 1960’s did not produce pedophilia, ephebophilia, or the longstanding culture of omertà among the hierarchy (see the extensive research carried out by, inter alia, Richard Sipe). Indeed, predatory sexuality has been in the Church for a long time. I refer the reader to the cultures created by Cardinal Spellman in New York, Cardinal O’Connell in Boston, and Cardinal Wright in Worcester. The permissiveness in these dioceses was in place before the sexual revolution hit, and in each we see major flare-ups of the child sex abuse crisis. We could look back even further. There were pedophiles in the circle of St. Joseph Calasanz, and he died in 1648!

The cover-up, too, has a long life. As Ulrich Lehner has pointed out, the old practice used to be that religious orders had to destroy any incriminating files every five years; the use of special prisons for clergy and religious only added to the secrecy of the early modern ecclesiastical disciplinary apparatus. All of these points undermine the basic historical narrative Ratzinger tells us – namely, that the sexual revolution and subsequent buckling of Catholic moral theology lead to a simultaneous spread of pedophilia and a complete failure of the ecclesiastical establishment to respond.

One of the less edifying elements in the letter is that Ratzinger took the time to engage in subtle if unmistakeable academic score-settling throughout. Speaking of an ethicist he disagreed with, Ratzinger writes,

I shall never forget how then-leading German moral theologian Franz Böckle, who, having returned to his native Switzerland after his retirement, announced in view of the possible decisions of the encyclical Veritatis splendor that if the encyclical should determine that there were actions which were always and under all circumstances to be classified as evil, he would challenge it with all the resources at his disposal. It was God, the Merciful, that spared him from having to put his resolution into practice; Böckle died on July 8, 1991.

Joseph Ratzinger

Leaving aside the question of whether Böckle was right (and he wasn’t), the slight chuckle with which Benedict describes his death is extraordinarily petty. What a tawdry, sorry, cynical intervention from the ailing pontiff.

The letter fails in its description of the sources of pedophilia and ephebophilia. Yet at least Ratzinger attempts to make a case for why the priesthood has seen such widespread sexualization, with such prominent lapses, over the course of the last few decades. His letter does not, however, address the cover-up at all. If anything, he seems to end the letter on a rather troubling note:

Today, the accusation against God is, above all, about characterizing His Church as entirely bad, and thus dissuading us from it. The idea of a better Church, created by ourselves, is in fact a proposal of the devil, with which he wants to lead us away from the living God, through a deceitful logic by which we are too easily duped. No, even today the Church is not just made up of bad fish and weeds. The Church of God also exists today, and today it is the very instrument through which God saves us.

Joseph Ratzinger

I suppose that, on the spiritual level, the Pope is not wrong here. But it does rather seem to me that he is perhaps too concerned with the reputation of the Church – a holy body, yes, but also one riddled with both sexual predators and the venal men who protect them. In trying to end on a hopeful message, the Pope sounds a false note. He seems to have erased the mysterium iniquitatis. The effect is one of minimization of grave evil rather than a proper and reforming zelus domus Domini.

Yet the most frustrating feature of this letter, beyond its occasional historical errors and indulgence in the petty sparring of academia, is that it feeds into a narrative that conservative Catholics have used for years to exonerate themselves in the sex abuse crisis. That narrative chalks up clerical sex abuse to post-conciliar laxity alongside the sexual revolution. If only, these conservatives and traditionalists say, if only we hadn’t gone off the rails in 1968. Sex abuse becomes the exclusive property of ecclesiastical liberals.

Fr. Marcial Maciel and Pope St. John Paul II, who admired and protected the Mexican sexual predator for years. (Source)

But this is a false narrative. It’s a lie – a half-truth, perhaps, but still a lie – that conceals the suffering of victims prior to that age as well as all those who have suffered abuse at the hands of conservative and traditionalist clergy. Men for whom the Revolution did not transpire. There are many examples of this kind of thing. One only needs to point to Marcial Maciel, Carlos Urrutigoity, Tony Anatrella, Fernando Karadima…the list goes on. None of these men were liberals. Some worked closely with John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Yet the narrative in this letter cheapens the experience of their victims and lulls conservatives and traditionalists into a false sense of self-righteous security – exactly the opposite of what we need if we are ever to get a handle on the problem of clerical sex abuse wherever it should rear its ugly head. It’s a narrative that helps us look the other way as more and more innocents get hurt. And it’s gravely irresponsible for the Pope-Emeritus to propagate this lie.

Thus passes a great theologian.

Pascal and Amoris Laetitia

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This man understood the Society of Jesus. (Source)

Amidst the various scandals roiling the Church right now, let us not forget that the Pope has still not resolved the controversy over communion for the the divorced and remarried. Amoris Laetitia continues to divide Catholics over sacramental discipline and the deeper theology of marriage it concerns.

I study early modern French Catholicism. Recently in my research, I was reading a passage out of Pascal’s Lettres Provinciales that seemed germane to the current debate.

“O father, how these maxims of yours will draw people to your confessionals!”

“Yes,” [the Jesuit] replied, “you would hardly believe what numbers are in the habit of frequenting them; ‘we are absolutely oppressed and overwhelmed, so to speak, under the crowd of our penitents — penitentium numero obruimur’— as is said in The Image of the First Century.”

“I could suggest a very simple method,” said I, “to escape from this inconvenient pressure. You have only to oblige sinners to avoid the proximate occasions of sin; that single expedient would afford you relief at once.”

“We have no wish for such a relief,” rejoined the [Jesuit] monk; “quite the reverse; for, as is observed in the same book, ‘the great end of our Society is to labor to establish the virtues, to wage war on the vices, and to save a great number of souls.’ Now, as there are very few souls inclined to quit the proximate occasions of sin, we have been obliged to define what a proximate occasion is. ‘That cannot be called a proximate occasion,’ says Escobar, ‘where one sins but rarely, or on a sudden transport — say three or four times a year’; or, as Father Bauny has it, once or twice in a month.’ Again, asks this author, ‘what is to be done in the case of masters and servants, or cousins, who, living under the same roof, are by this occasion tempted to sin?’”

“They ought to be separated,” said I.

“That is what he says, too, ‘if their relapses be very frequent: but if the parties offend rarely, and cannot be separated without trouble and loss, they may, according to Suarez and other authors, be absolved, provided they promise to sin no more, and are truly sorry for what is past.’”

This required no explanation, for he had already informed me with what sort of evidence of contrition the confessor was bound to rest satisfied.

“And Father Bauny,” continued the monk, “permits those who are involved in the proximate occasions of sin, ‘to remain as they are, when they cannot avoid them without becoming the common talk of the world, or subjecting themselves to inconvenience.’ ‘A priest,’ he remarks in another work, ‘may and ought to absolve a woman who is guilty of living with a paramour, if she cannot put him away honourably, or has some reason for keeping him — si non potest honeste ejicere, aut habeat aliquam causam retinendi — provided she promises to act more virtuously for the future.’”

“Well, father,” cried I, “you have certainly succeeded in relaxing the obligation of avoiding the occasions of sin to a very comfortable extent, by dispensing with the duty as soon as it becomes inconvenient; but I should think your fathers will at least allow it be binding when there is no difficulty in the way of its performance?”

“Yes,” said the father, “though even then the rule is not without exceptions. For Father Bauny says, in the same place, ‘that any one may frequent profligate houses, with the view of converting their unfortunate inmates, though the probability should be that he fall into sin, having often experienced before that he has yielded to their fascinations. Some doctors do not approve of this opinion, and hold that no man may voluntarily put his salvation in peril to succour his neighbor; yet I decidedly embrace the opinion which they controvert.’”

“A novel sort of preachers these, father! But where does Father Bauny find any ground for investing them with such a mission?”

“It is upon one of his own principles,” he replied, “which he announces in the same place after Basil Ponce. I mentioned it to you before, and I presume you have not forgotten it. It is, ‘that one may seek an occasion of sin, directly and expressly — primo et per se — to promote the temporal or spiritual good of himself or his neighbour.’”

On hearing these passages, I felt so horrified that I was on the point of breaking out.

(Pascal, Lettres Provinciales, X)

Pascal was writing against morally lax Jesuits. Plus ça change.

There are, of course, those who would chide me for citing an avowed Jansenist in our present moment. But I worry that the advocates of the Church’s traditional teaching on communion for the divorced and remarried, and thus for her traditional teaching on marriage generally, are going the way of the Jansenists. They have a Pope set against them who is playing hardball. And a Jesuit, at that. Amoris Laetitia is reaching Unigenitus-level status with regards to popular outrage among the clergy and faithful. The entire discourse of a “smaller, purified Church” that comes up in conversations with “sound” Catholics all has an eerie ring to it. The Jansenists’ Figurist exegesis often spoke of a minority party of “true Christians” set against a corrupt, false church. If you were to open a copy of the Nouvelles ecclésiastiques from the 1730’s, you’d find populist polemical language similar to what passes on 1Peter5 or What’s Up With Francis-Church? or The Remnant or LifeSite or Rorate Caeli. If it hasn’t happened already, I wouldn’t be surprised to find any of these sites (or those like them) referring to Amoris Laetitia as “the Abomination in the Holy Place.”

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Unigenitus, or Amoris Laetitia? (Source)

The political divisions among the episcopate also remind me of that tumultuous time. The opposition to Unigenitus, like the opposition to Amoris, goes across cultural barriers. Jansenism was not just a French or Flemish aberration. It spread across Europe and even infiltrated the college of Cardinals. And popularly, much of the Jansenists’ ire was directed at the Jesuits. Likewise, today.

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Destruction of the Abbey of Port-Royal des Champs (Source).

We have our Nuns of Port-Royal in the Franciscans of the Immaculate and the Order of Malta. And what a coincidence that we, like the Jansenists, should valorize four bishops for challenging a Pope!

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The four “apellant” bishops who opposed Unigenitus by an appeal to an ecumenical council. Much like Cardinal Burke, Bishop Soanen of Senez, their leader, was exiled and left without either a see or responsibilities. (Source)

Of course, the whole axis on which this all turns is “frequent communion.” How like Antoine Arnaud does Cardinal Burke appear! Before he started opposing communion for the divorced and remarried, he opposed communion for politicians who publicly dissent from the Church’s teaching on abortion and same-sex marriage. I don’t offer this comparison as a criticism. Indeed, I agree with the Cardinal’s reading of the Canons and the Scriptures. But it is hard not to see the likeness.

There are differences. In the 18th century, there was no real liturgical fracas like what we’ve witnessed since Vatican II (if anything, our age is much worse on this score). The sex abuse scandal of our own days has no parallel in that era. And the very real political dangers posed by the competing “Catholic” monarchs likewise has no modern correspondent (though with a Pope friendly to the liberal order, who knows?). No civil authority is going to suppress sound Catholics – at least, sound on this precise issue – in the way that Louis XIV persecuted the Jansenists.

But the structural and discursive similarities worry me. They should worry you, too. It’s not enough to say “the Gates of Hell shall not prevail” and all that. That’s only eschatological. And in this context, it’s little more than putting one’s head in the sand. Something has to change at the organizational level. I don’t know what that would look like, or who in particular needs to act to ensure the preservation of the Truth. But I hope that we who accept Christ’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage don’t end up convulsing in “another – doubtless very different” cemetery of Saint-Médard.

ADDENDUM: I want to be very clear that I am not making a theological comparison, but a structural, Church-political one. I am not suggesting that the defenders of the Church’s teaching on marriage advance Jansenist principles, but that the shape of the controversy up to this point has developed in a concerning way by placing them in a discursive and political position that approximates that of the later Jansenists.

The Art of Amoris Laetitia

Many of the great controversies of the Faith’s history have been played out in its visual culture. From the iconoclast mosaics of Hagia Irene to the Tridentine monuments of Bernini to the Jansenist portraits of Philippe de Champaigne and beyond, we find clear expressions of theological tensions throughout the centuries. So it should be no surprise to find the present troubles in the Church reflected in art.

I was recently in Ireland and came across a curious sight. In both of the Catholic Churches I entered during my stay, I found copies of the National Icon of the Holy Family, also known as the Amoris Laetitia Icon.

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The Amoris Laetitia Icon. (Source)

On a purely aesthetic level, the icon is visually striking. It was clearly written by an iconographer who knew his craft. Specially commissioned for the 2018 World Meeting of Families in Ireland, the icon presents the Holy Family seated at table (in imitation of the the Rublev Trinity), flanked on either side by scenes from the Gospel.

I won’t trouble my readers with the wider ecclesiastical context, as I assume most will already be familiar with the present unpleasantness in the Church. I would, however, point out two significant irregularities in the icon, both in its construction and in its reception.

To the best of my knowledge, it is highly unusual for documents to be the subjects of icons. Only the Creeds of the Church are ordinarily enshrined in the iconographic canon.

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An icon of the Nicene Creed. (Source)

To treat Amoris Laetitia as a worthy subject for inclusion in iconography is deeply problematic. An Apostolic Exhortation is nowhere near as magisterial as a Creed of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church speaking in her undivided voice. Icons are meant to manifest the transfigured reality of the Eschaton and lead us to contemplate the presence of divinized persons. Insofar as Creeds are foundational manifestations of the theanthropic Tradition, they are of one piece with the iconographic canon. Thus, we can write icons about them. But to write an icon about a document of quasi-magisterial status and, at best, uncertain orthodoxy is to do violence to the canon itself. I suppose there are those who would defend the icon by saying it primarily represents the Holy Family, and not the Apostolic Exhortation at all. The rather ostentatious title at the foot of the icon vitiates this interpretation.

The other issue with the Amoris Laetitia icon is the way it is being received. Or rather, imposed. The icon itself is currently making the rounds of the Irish dioceses, almost as if it were the Kursk Root Icon or some other wonder-working image. I found laminated copies on a side-altar in one church, and before the ambo in another (not to mention the pocket-sized editions at the back of the church; even these have the words Amoris Laetitia at the bottom). I’m not sure whether either case was really appropriate. I do know that both looked very tacky. And aside from the theological issues I have already described, there is another reason why I find it all so unnerving. It is a political icon, manifestly written and deployed to suppress dissent from the official line when it comes to the interpretation of AL. The image belongs to the Church’s present crisis of confidence, and cannot be read apart from it.

But the Kasperite triptych is not the only recent translation of the Church’s internal divisions into visual media. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. And who should come to the defense of Tradition, but our old friend Giovanni Gasparro? I am still puzzled as to how Mr. Gasparro could have been accused of Modernism, as he continues to produce a body of Caravaggiste work that speaks very clearly to the priorities of Traditional Catholics. Case in point, his new painting.

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Amoris Laetitia. St. John the Baptist admonishing the adultery of Herod Antipas and Herodias. Giovanni Gasparro, 2018. (Source)

Like the AL icon, this painting must be read in light of the ongoing disputes within the Church. It would be simplistic, however, to see it as a merely ironic jab at the Pope’s Apostolic Exhortation. St. John the Baptist’s expression is not one of anger or rebuke. We can read in its calm confidence the firm authority that comes from knowledge of the Truth, as well as the gentleness of love. The Forerunner is not a Pharisee.

I would add that the stark stylistic difference with the Amoris Laetitia icon speaks to an important distinction in sensibilities. In the first case, it occurs to me that the selection of iconography is a very deliberate choice. It borrows the authority of the East – and all its Ecumenical associations – to implicitly justify its theology. I suppose we oughtn’t be too surprised. The dispute over Amoris is in large part a question of whether the Latin Church can accept a theology and praxis of marriage that more closely resembles the Eastern custom. And the man who started it all, Cardinal Kasper, was, of course, at one time in charge of the Vatican’s ecumenical relations with the Orthodox. Yet Mr. Gasparro’s painting is clearly situated within the Baroque, and thus Tridentine, aesthetic. His use of chiaroscuro, his slightly orientalist costuming, and the exaggerated theatricality of his gestures are all emblematic of the conventions of Early Modern sacred art.

In these two representative paintings and their disparate stylistic choices, we see two ways of thinking about Doctrinal Development: horizontal and vertical. The AL icon dramatizes the horizontal view of development. Doctrine can change through ecumenical encounter. Catholicism can move forward by learning from the experience of sister churches (or, in its most extreme iteration, other religions entirely). The Gasparro painting, on the other hand, stands for the vertical notion of development: the faith remains essentially the same through time, and is only clarified or deepened as the ages pass. There are, of course, elements of both views that are true. But the vertical view is the established theory of Tradition that, with some important developments (e.g. Newman), was put forth consistently from Trent to the Second Vatican Council. The question of which model will prevail is the center of the argument about Amoris.

Of course, someone will chime in and object to me reading any meaning into either image from the church political context in which they were produced. Fair enough. But while we should always start with the object in itself, it is not always possible in interpretation to keep art hermetically sealed off from the circumstances of its own creation. To do so in the case of either the AL icon or the Gasparro painting would be to ignore what is, I wager, a crucial context. And if we admit that important factor, we can start to see how the arts are speaking to the wider life of the Church in our own moment.