As my readers will have gathered by now, I worry about Catholics who think that the Magisterium of the Church is just one opinion among many, and that it is up to them to decide what a Catholic may or may not believe. But at least their view is comprehensible, if defective. To put it crudely, they may be Catholic; they’re just not Catholic enough.
I am much more puzzled by those who think that the Pope himself is open to criticism on the ground that he isn’t Catholic enough, and certainly much less Catholic than they are. Predictably, perhaps, the present Pope’s decision to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s meeting with leaders of other world religions to pray for peace has drawn fire from the SSPX, who have recalled Archbishop Lefebvre’s attack on that event: the Church, he pronounced, had never before been “humiliated to such an extent in the course of her history” and that “the scandal given to Catholic souls cannot be measured”. “The Church,” said the archbishop, “is shaken to its very foundations”.
Well, it was rubbish then and it‘s rubbish now. The Church wasn’t shaken to its foundations. On the contrary, John Paul II was the pope who, more than any other in this century, strengthened those foundations. I have to admit that I’m not particularly keen on what I have heard called “interfaith interface”. I think other religions are just wrong. But if those who adhere to them are sincerely praying for peace within their own religious traditions, however they may understand what the word “God” may mean, who am I to say that He, the one true God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, won’t listen to their prayers? I don’t know what good the Assisi meeting did, who can? But it can surely hardly be argued that it did any harm.
The fact is that Pope John Paul did more to defend Catholic orthodoxy than Lefebvre could have in a thousand years: for, the fact is that Lefebvre, in separating himself from the successor of Peter in the name of orthodox Catholic belief and practice, did nothing but encourage the notion that orthodoxy, far from being the same thing as ultimate sanity, is on the contrary the mark of the extremist and the nutter.
What is the Pope risking by praying with those whose beliefs he does not share? This isn’t an interfaith doctrinal negotiation: he won’t compromise a single Catholic teaching. This isn’t like inviting a Muslim to contribute a prayer in the context of the Mass (as has been done in Westminster Cathedral) on the ground that “we all worship the same God”, when clearly we don’t.
This is the way Pope Benedict understands this event: “I will make a pilgrimage to the town of St Francis,” he said, “inviting my Christian brethren of different confessions, leaders of the world’s religious traditions and, in their hearts, all men and women of good will, to join me on this journey in order to commemorate that important historical gesture of my predecessor, and solemnly to renew the commitment of believers of all religions to live their religious faith as a service to the cause of peace.”
Well? And how is that a betrayal of the Catholic faith? You may think I’m taking the SSPX too seriously. But there are plenty of people in communion with the Holy See who think they’re more Catholic than the pope on this and other issues; if you doubt that, just look at some of the half-crazed comments to be found under the Herald’s online story headlined “SSPX leader criticises Pope’s plan to hold inter-religious meeting”.
Being a Catholic means believing many things, some of them more important than others. But one core principle is surely indispensable. Quite simply, you trust the pope. For, once you start thinking you are a better and more faithful Catholic than he is, you are well on your way to the funny farm.