BRIAN BRINDLEY on the visionaries, fantasists and fake popes who lurk on the fringes of American Catholicism
The Smoke of Satan: Conservative and Traditionalist Dissent in Contemporary American Catholicism by Michael Cuneo, Oxford University Press £22.50.
IN 1899, LE() XIII PUT OUT HIS encyclical Testem benevolentiae, in which he condemned the heresy of "Americanism". The Catholic Church in the USA responded dutifully and for the next 60 years was the most obedient, the most correct, and the most introverted in the world.
This made the explosion following the Second Vatican Council all the more predictable and, to many, all the more unwelcome. The Church became liturgically innovative, doctrinally hazy, and morally tolerant; "Americanism" had come into its own at last. It has been cheerfully adopted by the majority, though never as enthusiastically by the laity as by the clergy; but it has produced a substantial rearguard movement, which looks back to the 1950s, the era of Going My Way and Bishop Fulton Sheen, as a Golden Age. Michael Cuneo's book is subtitled "Conservative and Traditionalist Dissent in Contemporary American Catholicism". It does not make cheerful reading: one's reaction must be "Thank God for making me a Catholic; but thank God for not making me an American Catholic".
By "Conservatives" the author refers to those, mostly laypeople, who remain within the Church, grumbling about the changes in liturgy and lifestyle and expressing soliclarity with the "old"Catholicism by fierce opposition to abortion, contraception and other departures from the sexual norm. An interesting distinction may be drawn here: if you are a British Catholic, whatever your views on liturgical matters, you are certain to be totally opposed to abortion, though a surprising number of traditionalist Catholics in this country are indifferent to the question of contraception and the rest; in America, it is a mark of the traditionalist to be very strongly opposed to the whole package of sexual innovations, while more "moderate" Catholics are, alas, as relaxed about abortion as they are about contraception.
American Catholic conservatives have a legitimate grievance, as do their counterparts here: their pastors do not give them the religious teaching and practice to which they are entitled. What makes their opposition somehow unattractive is the American tendency to organise, to join things, and to publish. English traditionalists keep themselves to themselves, at the back of the church, praying the Rosary, or stay away altogether, emerging only when they have, by merciful episcopal dispensation, a chance of hearing Mass according to the rite of 1570. Although this position is attractive to some young people, and not least to some young priests, it probably has built-in obsolescence.
As "Separatists", on the other hand, Cuneo describes those who have cut themselves off, de facto or de jure, from the local bishop, and in consequence from the Holy See. There is an inherent difficulty in their position: a Roman Catholic is defined as one who is in communion with the Bishop of Rome; the Bishop of Rome is John Paul II, who can be seen, when he is not travelling, in Rome, giving the Apostolic Blessing from the windows of the Vatican Palace. I may be a good Catholic or a bad Catholic, a contented or a disaffected one, but if I am not in communion with that Bishop I am in schism.
The schismatics have all sorts of fantastic explanations for their anomalous position: that Paul VI was kidnapped and his place taken by an imposter whose face was altered by plastic surgery; or that two successive Conclaves had not really elected the person who appeared on the loggia of St Peter's as the new Pope, but another cardinal who was kept hidden from view The Pope in the Iron Mask.
"Sedevacantists" are those who believe that the Holy See is vacant: the Pope is infallible, they say; therefore, if someone calling himself the Pope does what is wrong, he cannot really be the Pope. For most of them, the introduction of the new Missal is evidence enough a strange inversion of the maxim Roma locuta est, cause finita est. I perceive two arguments against this position. First, the dismantling of the old Missal was begun as long ago as 1951, and that by Pius XII. Secondly, I have seen (on television) the announcement of the election of all his successors. Everyone knows that there is a Pope, and who he is. There is to be sure the possibility that a pope may lose his reason, when the Holy See will become vacant; or that a pope may abdicate, as did Gregory XII; or a pope may drift into heresy, in which case he can be deposed. But all these procedures, unused since the Middle Ages, must be public acts of the whole Church, not the actions of individuals or small groups. In America just now there are two "popes", Gregory XVII and Clement V; one should not flatter them by describing them as antipopes, for they have neither cardinals nor curia, and have not been elected by anybody, but owe their assumption of papal dignity to direct revelation of the Holy Spirit. (They seem to get on quite well with one another.) Surprisingly, one of them ordains women priests, though they are only permitted to say Mass in secret. All these groups flirt suspiciously with those episcopi vaganres, who have been supplying supposedly valid orders to disaffected Anglicans since 1870. Into such strange by-ways can strict adherence to traditional Catholicism lead the unwary.
Dr Cuneo's third classification is "Mystical Marianists and Apocalypticists" in which he makes merry (as he is entitled to do) with the absurdities of pretended revelation. We are on difficult ground here: the Church is rightly cautious about accepting the veridicity of new and strange revelations. Medjugorje's is is not the only vision that is still under investigation today. It is very easy and convenient for groups of dissident Catholics to receive a vision and a "message" which they feel obliged to follow; we need to remember that, of all reputed "visions", the majority never receive ecclesiastical approval, and that it is of those that are fantastical or self-serving that we should be most wary.
I cannot say I care for Michael Cuneo as a writer: he affects a slangy, conversational style, and is gratuitously rude to the wretched subjects of his interviews. Nevertheless, what he has to say is of the utmost importance, and his book should be read by those in England who are uneasy about conservative Catholics; but I would commend it also, as an awful warning, to all those who call themselves traditionalists.