Priestly Celibacy – It’s Called, Grace

Boulevard Voltaire is a site whose political courage, including in the defense of Christianity, can only be praised. But the rather mediocre article by Arthur Herlin, on the book co-authored by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, reflects an error of thought which leads to an inane conclusion: celibacy is not a dogma.

Obviously, since this is a question about the organization of the Church and not of the content of faith. It is therefore necessary to do a bit of history, and in particular the history of the Gauls, if one wants to understand the question and stop uttering nonsense.

In the fourth century, the Church of France was Gallo-Roman; that is to say that its liturgical language was Latin. But the men who constituted it were also acculturated “Gauls.” Somewhat like Augustine was an acculturated “Punic” who spoke Latin, thought in Latin and prayed in Latin. They were part of the Greco-Latin culture which had been imposed when Gaul was subdued and had entered the orbis romanum. After the great persecutions, of which the frightful martyrdom of the group of Christians of Lyon (with the star of Saint Blandine at their center) was left as a memory in a letter well-known to the historians of ancient Christianity, and which attests to its antiquity, the Church of Gaul could finally organize itself, build monasteries, delimit dioceses and develop freely. From this fifth century, which was an apogee and an interval between the barbarian incursions and the conversion of a conquering Frankish king, we have a rich historiography that only the post-modern inculture of our devastated parishes has plunged into oblivion. It is enough to open and read, without omitting the footnotes, La Gaule chrétienne à l’époque romaine by E. Griffe to become aware of it. For those who doubt.

At the very top of the virtues that the Church demands of its priests is continence. When the new priest came from the world, it often happened that he was married. In this case, the same rule applied to him as to the bishop – he would have to renounce the custom of marriage and live with his wife as with a sister. The bishop’s wife was even called episcopa; the priest’s wife was called presbytera. These women played a major role, relieving their husbands of worldly tasks: “they render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, so that through their husbands they may give to God what is God’s.” And these tasks were not only cleaning the churches (which their maids did) or feeding the guests. They were concerned with the management of temporal matters in the broadest sense.

Such questions cause much debate from the very origins of the diocesan churches. By the fifth century, these imperative constraints had aroused criticism. In the region of Toulouse, a priest named Vigilance (sic) had criticized the continence imposed on priests. St. Jerome’s De septem ordinibus Ecclesiae and Contra Vigilantium attest that the discipline (not the dogma) of celibacy did not take hold among the clergy without reluctance. The authority of the Apostolic See, but above all the favor enjoyed by the monastic ideal among the faithful, contributed to the acceptance of this discipline. This monastic ideal was imposed during these centuries of unhindered development, supported in particular by a monk from the East (from Antioch), John Cassian, who brought the knowledge of the conventual organization of the monasteries of Egypt and contributed to its adoption, while the rule of Benedict of Nursia had yet to be formulated.

Abstinence is the visible face of a spiritual state called “chastity,” a term that our sexuality-crazed world (heterosexual as well as homosexual and soon transsexual) can hardly apprehend anymore and which it sees as an unattainable and destructive ideal of humanity. But this only reflects the state of decay of our post-modern world and in particular the deep contempt that our society feels for the human body, reduced to being only an object of enjoyment. Including, supreme indignity, not to say infamy, the body of children.

Things reveal their secrets with difficulty, and the sexual mystery less so than any other.

We all know, if we have read a little, or loved, that there can be no human love which does not normally include, at least in desire, carnal union. By renouncing it, even in desire, the religious who takes a vow of chastity sacrifices two things. He sacrifices what Augustine calls the flesh, and what constitutes one of its deepest instincts, the properly carnal instinct. But this is only the visible, always somewhat spectacular aspect of the religious state.

Whether he is aware of it or not – and it is better if he is aware of it – the priest or the monk makes a sacrifice which reaches the abyss of man’s natural aspirations. He sacrifices all possibility for him to desire and thus to reach that earthly paradise of nature whose dream haunts the unconscious of our human race and which Jacques Maritain has very nicely and justly described as the mad love between man and woman, that glory and heaven of here below, where a dream from the depths of the ages, consubstantial with human nature, becomes reality, and of which all the hymns sung down the centuries of yore have revealed the nostalgia inherent in poor humanity.

I will add to the list of hymns: the romances on M6 TV, the dramas of passion of the septième art, starting with the adaptations of Tristan and Yseult (although the potion that we made them drink partially absolves them). But this potion can also be understood as the metaphor of a power against which we can do nothing, this madness called amorous passion that can alienate all reason. Human madness which we value in great literary works, but especially in many tragedies. It is of such a renunciation that the vow of chastity is above all the sign. The priesthood, it is sacrificed masculinity.

The priesthood is not alone in being called to this discipline: marriage sanctifies this powerful carnal instinct. There is a marital chastity whose purpose is not primarily the regulation of births. By submitting to a partial continence, which is called a discipline and which is a specific form of the virtue of temperance – man confronts an instinct which is that of his species, an instinct that dwells in his person as a foreign dominator and that holds it and torments it with a tyrannical violence. All literature testifies to this, and Zola as well as Balzac have perceived and shown it with consummate art – a furious force, immensely older than the individual, through whom it passes, and that chastity defeats. I examined many years ago, during a strange colloquium on the Chaste and the Obscene, how Zola shows, in La Curée, the slow path from lechery to obscenity. Our world, which pretends not to hide anything anymore, is an obscene world.

Solely in natural order, chastity is a release and therefore a liberation.

In the spiritual order, it is a mystery, that is to say a super-intelligibility which requires, in order to be adequately understood and interpreted, a little bit of intelligence, reflection and, incidentally, culture.

In the 5th century, these renunciates, called, sancti, priests or laymen, contributed greatly to the evangelization of a Gaul that was largely Christian in number and in its network, but not necessarily yet deeply Christianized.

May (Heaven permit) the aspiration to spiritual chastity, of which continence is only the visible part, return to our Churches. If it is not the whole of holiness, if it does not guarantee purity of heart, it contributes admirably to it.

The priest does not come to the priesthood with a rope around his neck, forced and coerced – he responds to a call in the depths of his being and his flesh as a man.

Why should we doubt that this call will not profoundly transform his very flesh, and give his whole person the strength to assume this renunciation throughout his life? This has a name – sanctification. The man called to the priesthood receives a sacrament, a sign that works what it means. He receives it in the Name of Jesus, who said it himself – my yoke is light.

The brutal forces of the world which surround us, the degraded and degrading vision of human sexuality – everything contributes to make us forget, even to make us reject the basic fact of Christianity: an infinitely superior energy, a divine energy called Grace, communicated by the sacrifice of Jesus, eternally commemorated at each service.

It is because human energies (renewable, but with a lot of entropy) are transformed by this divine energy that the Grace of Baptism requires to be supported by the other sacraments. This is the only interest of ecclesiastical, monastic or other discipline – to allow the Christian to convert in himself this divine force which transforms him, in the God who nourishes him and on whom he nourishes; and this in a world that does not shine by its goodness, nor by its intelligence, let alone its justice.

Continence is a visible state that reveals an invisible state – that of chastity. The Virgin Mary is the most accomplished figure of it, and this is the reason why the priesthood nourishes a devotion to her. More discreet, even more silent, is the other great figure of this chaste humility which is given to us to contemplate in order to accomplish it in ourselves, according to what we are – the figure of Saint Joseph.


Marion Duvauchel is a historian of religions and holds a PhD in philosophy. She has published widely, and has taught in various places, including France, Morocco, Qatar, and Cambodia.


The featured image shows, “Christ Blessing,” by Fernando Gallego; painted ca. 1494-1496.

My Letter To Pope Francis

At the end of 2013, I wrote to Pope Francis suggesting we have a conversation about the fundamental questions facing Christians in the modern world. It was a naïve proposal, but it never reached him.

The main element and purpose of this article is actually the letter reproduced below, which I wrote to Pope Francis at the end of 2013, with a view to having it delivered by people I thought of as friends of mine who had access to him. It was written in the spirit of a politely-worded offer to assist the pope in clarifying things he had said in a number of recent interviews that appeared either to have been unintentional misspeaks or subject to misappropriation or misquotation. I also wished to dig deeper than any of those interviews had gone, asking the kinds of questions on the minds of serious Catholics rather than liberal-atheistic journalists, especially with regard to the problem of retaining faith in an increasingly pseudo-rational world. At the time I was convinced that he was simply being asked the wrong questions.

The idea was prompted by the first interview he gave to the veteran atheist Italian journalist Eugenio Scalfari, co-founder of the left-wing newspaper La Repubblica, which made the pope sound like an altar boy who had just served his first Mass. But this had been merely the final straw.

Whereas previous popes had tended to issue communications to the world through encyclicals, weekly homilies et cetera, Pope Francis pursued the kind of engagement more commonly identified with politicians — and a rather unconventional one at that. Sometimes, he made his most newsworthy statements apparently off-the-cuff — perhaps on a long plane journey, when he would approach the media section unannounced. Taken together, these interventions were presented as encapsulating his outlook on a range of important doctrinal matters.

From about September of 2013, just six months into his pontificate, the pope issued a series of rapid-fire pronouncements in a string of interviews, each of which seemed to outdo the last in disintegrating Catholic teaching on everything in sight. He apparently picked up the telephone and called Eugenio Scalfari, who had submitted, presumably, a routine request for an interview. “Why so surprised?” the pope asked Scalfari when he was put through. “You wrote me a letter asking to meet me in person. I had the same wish, so I’m calling to fix an appointment. Let me look at my diary: I can’t do Wednesday, nor Monday; would Tuesday suit you?”

In the wide-ranging interview that ensued, the pope spoke inter alia about the nature of good and evil, provoking whispered accusations of relativism from many surprised personages within the Church: “Everyone has his own idea of good and evil and must choose to follow the good and fight evil as he conceives them,” he told Scalfari. “That would be enough to make the world a better place.” Without naming names, the pope accused some of his predecessors of narcissism, and condemned “clericalism” as inimical to Christianity. He also informed Scalfari that he needn’t trouble himself with the “solemn nonsense” of traditionalists who insist that he “enter by the narrow gate.”

In the wake of the interview, the Vatican was forced into an official denial that Pope Francis had claimed to have abolished sin. Scalfari afterwards told the press: “{T]the most surprising thing he told me was: ‘God is not Catholic.'”

There was much commentary among “conservative” Catholic commentators on the question of whether the pope had been misrepresented. Scalfari never uses a recorder or takes notes. His style is to “recall” the conversations he has had with his subjects, and relate in his own words what he remembers. So far, having done multiple discrete interviews with Pope Francis, 99 per cent of what he has published as the Pope’s thoughts has gone uncontested. It has come to seem that, in speaking through Scalfari (an atheist and former fascist), the Pope was pursuing a deliberate strategy — whether for the purposes of sowing confusion or cultivating liberal approval remains a puzzle.

In a number of interviews just before the encounter with Scalfari, the pope had been musing publicly on the question of the Church’s priorities, postulating that it was too preoccupied with abortion and the destruction of the family. Some weeks earlier, an interview with La Civiltà Cattolica, in which he spoke in what appeared to be a similarly “non-judgmental” manner about a number of the headline “moral” issues, was hailed as the manifesto of a pope who had “broken with the past” by announcing new doctrinal initiatives on matters like homosexuality, atheism and women priests:

“We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.” Pope Francis’s point here appeared to be that emphasising “moralistic” themes serves to suffocate the deeper message of Christianity.

In Ireland, a spokesman for the (generally liberally-inclined) Association of Catholic Priests said he was “absolutely exhilarated” by the Pope’s words. He complained that his association had been criticised for not being more publicly supportive of the bishops during a recent controversy about abortion in Ireland, adding that the Catholic bishops, who had criticized the Irish Government’s proposal to liberalise anti-abortion legislation, had “overegged their case.” Now, he said, “I see that Pope Francis is saying something similar” [to the ACP].

In fact, even while his remarks in this and the Scalfari interview were being digested, events occurred, and were reported sotto voce, that appeared to convey an entirely different impression concerning the pope’s positions and intentions. During a Papal Audience with MaterCare International as part of the group’s 10th international conference in September 2013, Pope Francis spoke clearly on abortion to a group of obstetricians and genealogists, emphasising that they had a responsibility to make known the “transcendent dimension, the imprint of God’s creative work, in human life from the first instant of conception. And this is a commitment of new evangelisation that often requires going against the tide, paying a personal price. The Lord counts on you, too, to spread the Gospel of life.”

“Every child that isn’t born, but is unjustly condemned to be aborted,” he said, “has the face of Jesus Christ, has the face of the Lord.” He urged them to abide by Church teachings, saying: “Things have a price and can be for sale, but people have a dignity that is priceless and worth far more than things. […] In all its phases and at every age, human life is always sacred and always of quality. And not as a matter of faith, but of reason and science.”

This statement gained close to zero traction in the media, a fact that the pope must surely have noticed. Yet he seemed content to court the attentions of “progressive” journalists without ensuring that they provided a balanced account of his views. The cumulative effect was to create an impression of relaxation in respect of certain core aspects of Church teaching to a media delighted to report that the pope had finally come around to agree with what journalists had been saying all along. The idea that the pope should not talk about such matters “all the time” is hard to argue with, but was hardly the issue. The problem was with giving repeated interviews in which what appeared to be a downplaying of these issues became the headline every time, giving succour to actors and interests with radical intentions concerning Church teaching.

In the first year of his pontificate, Pope Francis announced no new doctrinal initiatives, nor was his emphasis significantly different to that of his predecessor, who had, in the eight years he spent as head of the Catholic Church, accrued no credits at all with the kind of people who lionised Francis as the saviour of Catholicism and the liberator of its dissenting elements. Yet, the “liberal pope” headlines kept on coming. Pope Francis was named Person of the Year by Time magazine, which praised him for his rejection of Church dogma. Not to be outdone, Advocate, an American magazine for homosexuals, also named Francis its 2013 Person of the Year, for the “compassion” he had shown to gay people.

When you examined more closely the total texts of various interviews he had given, it seemed that the pope’s words were being manipulated by selective emphasis. In several passages that gained far less attention, he seemed to tread a more subtle path than the headlines suggested.

For example, when asked in his interview with La Civiltà Cattolica what the Church needed most at this moment, what kind of Church he dreamed of, Pope Francis began by endorsing the humility and graciousness of his predecessor and then continued: “I see clearly that the thing the Church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the Church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds. . . And you have to start from the ground up.

“The Church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules. The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you. And the ministers of the Church must be ministers of mercy above all. The confessor, for example, is always in danger of being either too much of a rigorist or too lax. Neither is merciful, because neither of them really takes responsibility for the person. The rigorist washes his hands so that he leaves it to the commandment. The loose minister washes his hands by simply saying, ‘This is not a sin’ or something like that. In pastoral ministry we must accompany people, and we must heal their wounds.”

Superficially apprehended, it seemed that the problem ought to be dissipated by such passages, and yet it was not. As time passed and the pope became more identified with questioning Church doctrine than upholding it — and he himself remained silent when clarifications appeared to be necessary — the sense of a “progressive” papacy became more and more solidified.

Reading over a chapter I was invited to write for a compendium volume of articles on the Francis pontificate, and completed in February 2014, it is clear that I continued to struggle with these questions for some time even after I had completed the letter to Pope Francis. My contribution to the book was substantively a critique of attendant media culture and its responses to the new pope:

The media have chosen to turn the change of popes into a different kind of story — one that will sell newspapers or advertising space with a narrative of revolution and democratisation. . . Francis, like his predecessor, sees the human person in society as floundering in a mess of relativism and unhope, besieged by ideology and disinformation, driven away from the authentic course of the authentic human journey. Francis presents his explanations in the form of anecdote and analogy, placing the listener into a context where the meaning becomes clear on the basis of personal experience and the deep structural appetite for story that resides in every human heart.

In this passage and otherwise, my verdict on Francis himself might seven years later be described as naïve:

Pope Francis, then, is neither a “rigorist” nor a “loose minister.” He seeks to reconcile not merely those inside the Church with those who have fallen away, but also the necessary dogmatism that goes with Truth with the fluidity essential to a living, breathing faith. He is indeed a “breath of fresh air,” but not in the sense that journalists tend to report, or in the way those who oppose virtually everything the Church stands for would lead us to believe.

I had acquired something of a “special interest” in these matters. Over the first Pentecost weekend of his pontificate, on Saturday May 18th 2013, I stood alongside Pope Francis on the steps of St Peter’s and followed him in speaking to a crowd of 250,000 people, the assembled members of the world’s new evangelical movements. I was impressed with him on that occasion, just two months into his pontificate. I was also greatly moved by what seemed to be the latent power of his presence, the breadth of his charismatic skills in communicating. I was stuck in particular by his physicality — the way his whole body seems to be summoned towards the act of communication, and also by the way he spoke to the gathering as though to one person.

I was transported by his description of the necessity for the Church to move out of its stuffy room and take the risk of meeting the rest of humanity. “When the church becomes closed, it becomes sick, sick,” he said. “Think about a room closed up for a year. When someone finally enters there is an odour and nothing feels right. A closed church is the same way; it’s a sick church. If you go out in your car, you risk having an accident, but this is preferable to remaining closed up at home. We need to become courageous Christians, and go out and search for those who are the body of Christ!”

Catholics, he said, must “touch the body of Christ, take on the suffering of the poor. For Christians, poverty is not a sociological or philosophical or cultural category, it is a theological category,” because Christ made himself poor in order to walk the earth, suffer, die and rise to save humanity. “We cannot become stodgy Christians, so polite, who speak of theology calmly over tea. We have to become courageous Christians and seek out those who are the flesh of Christ.”

When I wrote subsequently about the Francis papacy, I leaned over backwards to extend him the fullest credit for the totality of these statements, concluding:

Those who love the Church know now, as they always have, that the “changes” being clamoured for in the world’s media are neither well-advised nor necessary. What is required, as always, is an ear attuned to the heartbeat of the world in time. This must remain the hope of sane people for the pontificate of Pope Francis. The question is: Can the pope stand firm in front of the Truth, against the dictatorship of apparent tolerance?

I was wrong in the substance of these assessments. As the months and years passed, it became clear that either of two things might be true: that the pope’s head had been turned by the favourable attentions of the world’s press (as he increasingly gave them what they wanted); or that he had been Janus-faced from the beginning and had been playing a game of subtle misdirection so as not to scare the traditionalist horses overmuch.

But, as time passed and the pope did almost nothing to disperse the growing disquiet among his own flock, the issue became more and more disconcerting for Catholics who were still disposed to take the Church’s teachings seriously.

One of the most vital questions, then, relates to the role Pope Francis himself may have played in the formation of the narrative surrounding him. At times, it has appeared that he was being, at best, naïve in failing to realize that the media would selectively report and manipulate his words. It also seemed that, in his emphasis on controversial issues, and his selection of sceptical, if not Catholic-averse journalists to communicate with the public, he seemed to be playing to the media’s obsession with issues like atheism, homosexuality, women priests et cetera. It was often unclear whether the confusion the pope left in his wake was a deliberate strategy or the consequence of a chaotic thinking process, but in any event he continued to give succour and comfort to those who hated the Church, while causing dismay to many of those who loved her.

More and more a side of him seemed to emerge that contradicted all attempts to place him in a line following on from Pope Benedict and Pope John Paul II. More and more he seemed to become a political figure, not just issuing gratuitous and ambiguous statements on the headline moral issues — to the extent that he did indeed appear to be “talking about them all the time” — but relocating the Church in a political context in which it had not hitherto appeared comfortable.

In 2015, in his second encyclical, Laudato si’ , he said: “There is urgent need of a true world political authority.” And later:

“When we acknowledge international organizations and we recognize their capacity to give judgment, on a global scale — for example the international tribunal in The Hague, or the United Nations — If we consider ourselves humanity, when they make statements, our duty is to obey. . . We must obey international institutions. The is why the United Nations were created.’

Very frequently, it becomes impossible to avoid that the pope has become, in effect, the ally of the gravediggers of Europe, extolling Islam to the detriment of Christianity and mocking those who regard Christianity as the cornerstone of European civilisation. It is not just that he regularly contradicted Catholic theology and doctrine, but that he appeared to dislike Catholics who took these things seriously. He was sometimes heard sneering at Catholics who are in his view excessively “orthodox.” He spoke of “diversity” and “enrichment” in the manner of a spotty teenager infatuated for the first time with the absurdities of Woke. He talked almost non-stop about “ecumenism” but often seemed actually to despise the faith he was supposed to be leading. Whenever he heard talk of the Christian roots of Europe, he said on more than one occasion, “I sometimes dread the tone, which can seem triumphalist or even vengeful.” He refused to condemn Islamic violence and on occasion equated Islamist jihadists with traditionalist Catholics. He lacerates Church leaders who spoke of an Islamic ‘invasion’ of Europe. As I suggested in an article on the resignation of Cardinal Sarah back in February, what the pope has said about mass migration is a travesty of Catholic teaching.

As time wore on, things grew worse and worse. In January 2017, LifeSiteNews published a comprehensive review of events over the previous year, which gives a robust sense of how things stood at that time.

In October 2019, the pope gave another interview to Scalfari in which he seems to have told him that Jesus was not divine.

Scalfari wrote of that conversation:

“Those who have had the chance, as I have had at different times, to meet him and speak to him with the greatest cultural confidence, know that Pope Francis conceives Christ as Jesus of Nazareth, a man, not God incarnate. Once incarnated, Jesus ceases to be a God and becomes a man until his death on the cross.

“When I happened to discuss these phrases, Pope Francis told me: ‘They are the definite proof that Jesus of Nazareth, once he became a man, even if he was a man of exceptional virtue, was not God at all.'”

This time, the Vatican issued what seemed like a robust denial: “As already stated on other occasions, the words that Dr. Eugenio Scalfari attributes in quotation marks to the Holy Father during conversations with him cannot be considered as a faithful account of what has actually been said, but rather represent a personal and free interpretation of what he has heard, as is quite evident from what has been written today about the divinity of Jesus Christ.”

Yet, the periodic “interviews” with Scalfari continued. The headline statements attributed to the pope — for example, that hell does not exist, that the souls of those who fail to achieve Heaven are simply annihilated rather than eternally punished — remained high up in the mix, while the “clarifications” were forgotten. The confusion of Catholics grew and grew.

Last year, at the height of the Covid-19 global scare, Pope Francis urged Catholics to follow the globalist directives and attacked those who protested against lockdowns. Interviewed for a book by one of his personal evangelists, Austen Ivereigh, he said:

“You’ll never find such people protesting the death of George Floyd, or joining a demonstration because there are shantytowns where children lack water or education, or because there are whole families who have lost their income.”

Did this statement — the holding up of a violent criminal as a worthy martyr and the avoidance of the fact that it was lockdown protestors precisely who drew attention to the escalating losses of incomes, education and hope — represent the real mind of Francis? It appeared so. Last year too, he endorsed the pro-abortion Joe Biden for the US presidency, over the incumbent Donald Trump, the most vocal anti-abortion president in recent history.

Increasingly it has seemed as if, in his own mind, the pope sees himself as something like a monarch or statesman, who contributes to discussion of the mix of forces in conflict in culture, but is in no way serious about the claims of Christianity from the beginning. How could he be serious about these, when he celebrates their antitheses and drops hints that the core teachings of the Church may be simply myths or fables?

My letter to Pope Francis requesting an interview, written as 2013 came to a close, was an act of naiveté on my part, at the time mistaking him for the naïve one. I thought to get to the pope at a time when it seemed he was being grossly manipulated and misrepresented, and, rather than dancing to the tune of the Church’s sworn enemies, have him speak about what was important for the role of the Church in the world.

My objective was not necessarily to have him contradict anything he had said, but to speak about more fundamental things that would not seem important to someone who was not a Christian or Catholic. But I also hoped to give him a chance to contextualise some of his more notorious statements, so that what I presumed at the time to be misquotations might be clarified for the benefit of increasingly confused Catholics.

In this endeavour, I believed I had the support of some senior people in a Catholic lay community, the Italian movement Comunione e Liberazione (CL/Communion and Liberation) which had strong links to the new pope. Although Wikipedia has it otherwise, I was not myself a member of CL, having simply accepted a series of invitations to speak to its membership all around the world over the course of a decade or so.

Initially, I raised my concerns with a senior member of the movement, who agreed with me about what was happening and actually made the suggestion of requesting an interview. At his instigation I wrote the letter, which he greeted with enthusiasm. I made it clear that I was not necessarily proposing myself as the interviewer — I spoke minimal Italian or Spanish, the pope spoke no English — but simply wanted to influence some kind of change in the way the pope was coming across, or at least provoke a more coherent sense of the connections between the pope’s refinements of the Church’s message and fundamentals of Christianity going much deeper than the most pronounced traditionalism. This “self-effacing” notion was repudiated: I should do the interview if it were granted.

The letter was presented to the leaders of CL in Italy, who immediately dismissed the idea — the first clear intimation I had that something more than papal naiveté was afoot. I remember subsequently speaking to the president of the movement, Father Julián Carrón, who told me that there was “no necessity” to clarify what the pope was saying: “Everyone is able to find out what the pope thinks. There is no confusion!” This response confused me a great deal. In due course I figured out that, since Fr Carrón had direct access to both Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Pope Francis, the chances were that the powers-that-be already knew that a change of wind had occurred and had decided they were not going to do anything that might risk the disfavour of the new boss. In any event, the letter was never delivered.

From that moment, my relationship with the movement began to undergo a radical cooling — from the CL side. This situation was somewhat confused by the fact that Ireland soon afterwards entered a lengthy period of public tumult concerning several of the kinds of issues the pope had seemed to be telling us were no longer important —marriage, parenthood, family, human life, and so forth — and I was to become visible in fighting these battles on what the pope would undoubtedly consider a “traditionalist” or “moralistic” platform.

I was also, very shortly afterwards, targeted by the increasingly virulent LGBT movement, which clearly regarded my presence at the centre of Irish journalism as a possible obstacle to its planned demolition of the Irish Constitution. In fact, although my views on these matters coincided with Catholic teaching, and I was myself a professed Catholic, these two circumstances were not interdependent. By then, my positions were well rooted in my own life experience, and would have survived even a total disenchantment with the Catholic Church.

I don’t know if I would answer to the name of “traditionalist” in any category. I believe in the power and value of tradition, but tend to think the “-ism” part leads to sclerosis, for example to a kind of theme-park Christianity that becomes more a hobby or identity-prop than anything else. As a boy in the last 1960s, I served the Latin Mass, and sang the High Mass in Latin at funerals. I believe the loss of Latin was a critical blow to the connection between the Church and the people. But my principal concern, as my letter to Francis abundantly conveys, was with the erosion of the transcendent imagination of the West, a factor that nobody, now the voice of Ratzinger/Benedict had fallen silent, appeared to be addressing.

The letter episode was more or less the beginning of the end of my relationship with CL. Invitations to speak at its events dried up overnight, apart from a handful of distant outposts where the memo did not arrive, and all of these have since succumbed. This caused me no little distress. I had been deeply attracted to the reasonable, Newmanesque elements of the movement’s founder, Don Giussani’s reflections on the meaning of Christ in the modern world, and also attracted to the spirit of cultural (not religious) modernity in his movement. When Francis arrived, this seemed to change overnight into full-on “progressivism.”

And since this letter of mine to the pope, I would in all modesty and gratitude say, might almost as plausibly have been written by Don Giussani, this left me in no doubt as to the total meaning and direction of things:


My Letter To Pope Francis

Holy Father,

I met you briefly last May, over the Pentecost weekend, when I made a short speech to the assembled members of the new evangelical movements, in your presence, and again next morning when we exchanged a greeting after breakfast.

I am an Irish journalist. For more than 20 yeas I have been a columnist with The Irish Times, which is Ireland’s equivalent of La Repubblica — a ‘liberal’ newspaper addressing the more educated elements of the population. During the time I have been writing for the newspaper, I have undergone many experiences, which I have tried to write about in my columns in as far as they relate to issues of a public nature or matters that may touch the lives of others. One of my themes has been my journey back to faith, which I have chronicled also in a book, Lapsed Agnostic, which I gave you on the morning of our second encounter last May. I perfectly understand that you may not have had time to read it, but the title conveys the general sense of its content. It is the reflection of someone who, having unthinkingly followed the course of the contemporary cultural slide towards unbelief, was arrested by circumstances and obliged to consider things more deeply.

We live in times that may be without parallel in human history. I have a daughter, aged 18, who is of a generation that has started out into a world radically different than the one I grew into a generation ago. Something fundamental has changed in our cultures, which appears to be related to leaps in communication — what technology appears capable of delivering for us now compared to even two decades ago. There is a sense that everything has changed, that some kind of cleaver has come down hard upon our culture, severing the lines of connection to the past — even to parts of the present. More and more people appear to be imprisoned within technological compounds in which their immediate desires and requirements are gratified, and yet their most basic questions are not merely ignored but actually denied, even suppressed. There is an escalating sense that people are slipping into an adjacent but unreal world, in which they can act out a fantasy of living while actually avoiding the reality.

These words of Gabriel Marcel seem apt: ‘At the very depth of ourselves, we don’t know what is happening. We don’t even know if anything is happening. We throw the net of our interpretations into depths that are impenetrable in every respect . . . We draw out only phantasms, or at least we cannot be sure that they may be anything else.’

In these conditions, what reality is has become distorted, so that both the plausibility of and the necessity for a belief in the transcendent have come into question. Faith seems superfluous to a life that might be made as comfortable and satisfying as humanly conceivable by the simple acceptance of a certain limited version of the human. Who needs hope? What is there to hope for? Why not abandon hope and live the moment instead?

In these conditions — which may have been implicit from the start but are certainly exacerbated in our times — it seems that the human person can connect truly with reality only in extreme youth, when what the world calls ‘innocence’ prevents him being caught up in the collective delusion, and in extreme proximity to death, when he realizes that nothing of what he has lived or learned in the cocoon of modernity serves his needs in those guttering moments. Without necessarily anyone planning it, we appear somehow to have generated a form of culture in which ‘not hoping’ appears to be the natural order, the most ‘reasonable’ response and the easiest way of ‘getting though’ life. Religion seems to offer only a desiccated certitude, a determined attempt to elide a total emptiness.

For several years now I have tried to elucidate the meaning of my own journey with a view to combatting these tendencies of our culture, but always struggling against the limits of language and the reductions which modern reality and its self-definitions and self-descriptions has succeeded in imposing on the great questions of existence. I have long felt that, simply by virtue of electing to speak of such things, one becomes trapped on one side of a veil of cultural prejudice, thus rendering it almost impossible to speak in ways that might alert and encourage the one who remains trapped behind that veil — still struggling to reconcile an ‘educated’ awareness of the modern world with an experience of being human that seems all the time to be excluded from everything that hurtles onwards as part of this caravan of modernity. I have tried to explain many times what I have experienced, what I have felt, what I have learned; but more and more it has seemed to me that I communicate only with those who believe they have already understood what I wish to say (and I’m rarely convinced that we speak the same language), whereas those whose realities most dramatically exhibit the conditions from which I have myself lately journeyed are too solidly settled in their assumptions, or too resistant to the kind of language I must necessarily use, to hear anything I might say.

If this syndrome could be said to afflict only myself and my attempts to explain my journey, it might not amount to a great problem. But I believe this condition is now widespread in what we think and speak of as ‘the modern world’. More and more, it seems, words and self-descriptions tend to trap us in definitions that really amount to no more than reactions, or counter-reactions, to phenomena that provoke, disturb or antagonise us. We become, more and more, political beings, whose self-descriptions and outward manifestations of our self-understandings tend to be off-the-peg identikits, which we inhabit by a process of willed certainty. We ‘invent’ ourselves by numbers so as to avoid the given nature of ourselves.

Our mysterious, given humanity, however, is a different matter. It remains bound inside the identikit personality, as though by an ideological girdle. Each of us is accompanied, whether we wish to focus on it or not, by the ineluctable idea of a total trajectory, a careering through the dizzying stratosphere of existence. That we can find no words for this does not change it. But what can indeed change it is the feeling — picked up from the common conversation — that, because we have no words for it, and because the words we do have seem to exclude it, this sense of a total trajectory in infinity must be an illusion. Only under the utmost pressure, or under conditions whereby reality encroaches with a radical determination, is the human person placed again in front of the questions that define him or her. We speak of our beliefs — or unbeliefs — but the language we use is necessarily of a collective conversation out of sync with both reality and with ourselves.

I have recently been re-reading Vaclav Havel’s speech to the 1989 Frankfurt Book Fair — delivered through the voice of the actor Maximilian Schell — when he won the German Booksellers’ Peace Prize that year (just a month before the Berlin Wall came down). Words, he said, ‘are a mysterious, ambiguous, ambivalent, and perfidious phenomenon.’ Were the words of Marx and Lenin, he asked, ultimately liberating or enslaving? Both at once, he hazarded. Were the words of Christ the beginnings of a new era of salvation or the seeds of the inquisitions? Both, too. The word ‘socialism’, he noted, had begun as ‘a mesmerising synonym for a just world’ into ‘an ordinary truncheon used by certain cynical, moneyed bureaucrats to bludgeon their liberal-minded fellow citizens from morning until night.

‘At one moment in history, courageous, liberal-minded people can be thrown into prison because a particular word means something to them, and at another moment, the same kind of people can be thrown into prison because that same word has ceased to mean anything to them, because it has changed from the symbol of a better world into the mumbo jumbo of a doltish dictator.’ No word, he said, comprises only the meaning assigned to it by an etymological dictionary. ‘Every word also reflects the person who utters it, the situation in which it is uttered, and the reason for its utterance. The same word can, at one moment, radiate great hope; at another, it can emit lethal rays. The same word can be true at one moment and false the next, at one moment illuminating, at another, deceptive. On one occasion it can open up glorious horizons, on another, it can lay down the tracks to an entire archipelago of concentration camps. The same word can at one time be the cornerstone of peace, while at another, machine-gun fire resounds in its every syllable . . .’

‘What a weird fate’, he declared, ‘can befall certain words!’

This tendency for words to change their meanings has always existed, but has recently been subjected to a kind of exponential acceleration due to the explosion of technological communication via the Internet etc. The periods of growth, vibrancy and disintegration experienced by particular kinds of words become more and more ‘speeded up’, due to the rapid-fire cultural processes and ubiquitous technologies available to modern culture. And these processes and technologies also have the power to provoke passivity — just as much as reactions — towards such developments in the hearts of observing humanity, and this has the potential to leave everyone behind while seeming to embrace whole races and peoples, for culture to exclude the heart of each man while seeming to address and speak for everyone.

I believe this question of the limits of language is one that needs to accompany us all the time when we seek to speak of what we believe and know. Don Giussani — for whom I know you have a great affection — spoke of finding ‘the least inadequate words’ (to describe the great mysteries of existence). Yet, our cultures and their collective conversations increasingly treat words as though in a courtroom, pinning meanings down to the point where nothing but the words is necessary. Modern societies tend more and more to regard words as if they were fixed and utterly reliable, or capable of becoming so. Positivism, the programme by which our public thought is processed, seeks to deny or ignore the organic nature of language. Ideology, in which not merely thought but also sentiment is disseminated, requires words to have fixed, legalistic meanings, aloof from life. This means that, by definition, we are all — each in his or her own cocoon — adrift from the understandings supposedly held in common, because each of us is mystery, especially to himself. (I would define mystery not as simply the unknown or even the potentially unknowable, but that which is ineluctable but beyond description — what we know but cannot show to someone who refuses to see.)

We use the least inadequate words. Words are really like loose stones that provide for makeshift paths across treacherous stretches of molten lava: If you move quickly you may be able to use them to reach your meaning. If you get stuck on a word, both you and your intentions are doomed. Really, we cannot ‘tell’ one another anything. We can but point, nudge, gesture and look for signs of recognition. If you try to hold one another to our words, they will disintegrate in front of our eyes. But if we take as read their ultimate unreliability to be anything other than stepping stones, we are at the point of take-off.

I am interested in talking with you about how we might go about overcoming these and other difficulties of the modern world. I have observed with great interest, and no little excitement, the manner in which you have entered into your pontificate. I have been struck in particular by your openness, your willingness to talk frankly and plainly about the crises facing the world, and the Church, and the connections between them. Much that you have said has moved me and encouraged me. But there has been, I feel, a certain lacuna, and this relates to what I have tried to outline in the few sentences above. I would describe this really as relating to the most fundamental question(s) of all.

The interviews you have given so far have been extremely helpful to many people — some Christian, some Catholic, but also some who have drifted from faith, or even reacted against it. But so far, I feel, the emphasis placed on the significance of your leadership has tended to dwell on matters doctrinal, political or even ideological. This has not been of your doing, I feel, but rather has to do with the selectivity and emphases with which your words have been presented by those who happened to be your mediators. Still, in spite of these limitations, you have made a striking entrance and caused many people to look up and consider again what might be missing from their lives.

And yet there are these blocks, which I referred to already, which I believe prevent your words penetrating as they need to, into the depths of present-day culture. I was greatly stuck on May 18th last, by your call to the Church to go ‘to the outskirts of existence’ to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The phrase seemed to me to gesture far beyond geography, or sociology, or ideology, or even the idea of allegiance to a faith, or even to faith itself. It struck me really as a call to me as a human being, a man, in my most fundamental essence – beneath everything I have learned, heard or come to believe — to call me to the question of who I am and what my destiny is.

This is why I would like to talk with you with a view to publishing our exchange. What I believe is required is a far more basic conversation, in which the most fundamental questions might be addressed with a clarity that, if I am right in what I sense about this moment, would cause the world to be struck in a new way.

I have in mind questions like this:

‘What is there to know?’

‘What prevents us from knowing?’

‘How do we reintegrate the mysteriousness of our own existence alongside our growing sense of knowledge about so many things that seem to propose a more concrete existence in the present moment, albeit an existence that leads nowhere?’

‘Even if I have arrived at the possibility that there is a “thou” who lives within me, how do I make what appears to be the considerable leap to calling this “thou” by the name of “Christ”?’

‘Is it possible for a modern, educated person to believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ?’ (The Dostoyevsky question).

‘When I speak of “the presence” of Christ, what do I hope to make visible that is not some sentimental construct, propelled by an insistent moralism? Can I speak truly, really, about such things and not think myself mad, let alone avoid being thought mad by others?’

‘What does it mean to pray? To whom do I speak — someone in the sky, someone within myself? How, in a world which insists on visualisation, do I make this reasonable to myself?’

These questions and many others occur to me. I am not a theologian. Neither am I someone with an agenda within the Church. I do not belong to any faction. I am neither a liberal nor a conservative. I am a man who wants to know, to find words to speak what I have discovered and to initiative conversations to help myself and others. I come to you only from the depths of my own humanity, seeking to formulate sentences which might allow me and others to see more clearly.

My questions are not about ‘the future of the Church’ but about the future of this man, that woman, the child not yet born. My obsession is not with doctrine, but with hope, not with politics but with life and what it may be. To conduct such a conversation would be very difficult, because it would be essential that the words used be of the utmost lightness, refusing the legalistic definitions usually imposed by the codes of journalism and the channels we use to say things.

This is where I believe the richness of Christianity remains vibrantly capable of speaking to the world. The word ‘Christ’ I would call a wordless word. It is a word that dissolves into the mystery it evokes. It takes us to that vanishing point and somehow suggests the possibility of accompaniment beyond. It names a man, but also defines the otherness which we know we belong to but cannot describe, and therefore risk dismissing. It names the Host who inhabits us, but also the Other towards Whom we walk in confidence and anticipation.

The word ‘Christ’ dissolves on the tongue. We can comprehend it in a literal, historical way, but we can also use it as a kind of rocket launcher, to take us elsewhere. It is a word capable of contradicting itself, as only a mystery can. But something strange has happened even to this word: Christ is capable still of animating our imaginations, of proposing a correspondence with our desires that has no equal in the world, and yet the very power of this hope is what causes it to be undermined because it so often seems that our skepticism — arising from our fear of hoping — is stronger, capable of destroying that which we sense can make us whole.

For me, then, the ‘outskirts of existence’ are to be found in each of us, at the extremities of what we think we know, and are able to speak — at that point where we are still able to state, in the most adequate words we can find, what we can say with clarity about what is and what might be. The trouble is that so few today feel equipped or emboldened enough to embark upon this journey, partly because we are incessantly told there is nothing to discover except darkness, and partly because our experience is that the words drag us into themselves, causing us to become lost in the literal and the concrete

There is, I believe, a way of going at these matters with words: to approach the use of words in a manner that will allow them to lift us off into the otherness beyond the literal and concrete, so that we leave all words behind. Any conversation about these matters must obviously bear this paradox in mind. In a sense, we speak words to take us to the vanishing point — to say what we are, what we believe, what we hope for — but then we continue, without words, into the wordless ether, free from everything, including our conventional selves.

So, I would like to go with you, to the very outskirts of human existence, to see what we can see, and see whether we can capture this in words. It is a difficult challenge, as I have outlined. But the very fact that we are aware of the difficulties may make them a little easier to overcome.

Yours in infinite curiosity,

John Waters


John Waters is an Irish writer and former journalist who was at the centre of his country’s cultural and political debate in the past 40 years of unprecedented onslaught on its culture and traditions. He is a playwright, songwriter and the author of 10 books, including two accounts of his efforts at spiritual survival in the encroaching secular tide, Lapsed Agnostic (2008) and Beyond Consolation (2010). His most recent book is Give Us Back the Bad Roads, an account of the unhinging of Ireland under the forces of cultural neo-colonialism (2018). He is a husband and father and lives between Dublin and the Wild West, where he was born.


The featured image shows, a portrait of Pope Francis.

Traditionis Custodes: Mistep Into Incomprehension

Incomprehension is what predominates when reading the motu proprio, Traditionis Custodes and the accompanying letter to the bishops. One does not understand the justification or the necessity of such a document, and all the more so because the Pope has legislated on the basis of an incomplete argument and false information.

The Incomplete Argument

To say that John Paul II’s motu proprio Ecclesia Dei was motivated only by “an ecclesial reason to recompose the unity of the Church” is not accurate. Certainly, that was a major reason, but there was another reason omitted by Francis: “All the Pastors and the other faithful have a new awareness, not only of the lawfulness but also of the richness for the Church of a diversity of charisms, traditions of spirituality and apostolate, which also constitutes the beauty of unity in variety: of that blended ‘harmony’ which the earthly Church raises up to Heaven under the impulse of the Holy Spirit” (Ecclesia Dei n. 5-a).

False Information

Pope Francis affirms that the generosity of John Paul II and Benedict XVI was used by the traditionalists to oppose the Mass of Paul VI and the Second Vatican Council, by putting in danger the unity of the Church. He has thus said: “The opportunity offered by St. John Paul II, and with even greater magnanimity by Benedict XVI, to restore the unity of the ecclesial body, while respecting the various liturgical sensibilities, has been used to increase distances, to harden differences and to build oppositions that wound the Church and hinder her progress, exposing her to the risk of division…. But I am also saddened by the instrumental use of the 1962 Missale Romanum, which is increasingly characterized by a growing rejection, not only of the liturgical reform, but of the Second Vatican Council, with the unfounded and untenable claim that it has betrayed Tradition and the ‘true Church’…. It is increasingly evident in the words and attitudes of many that there is a close relationship between the choice of celebrations according to the pre-Vatican II liturgical books and the rejection of the Church and its institutions in the name of what they consider to be the ‘true Church.’ This is behavior that contradicts communion, feeding this impulse to divide.”

The very vocabulary used by Francis is that of the Society of St. Pius X. The “true Church!” No traditionalist, faithful to Rome, uses it! So, his statement is true if we limit ourselves to the Society of St. Pius X. But it is false if we apply it to the vast majority of the “Ecclesia Dei” movement; that there are cases that correspond to what the Pope says is true, but they are very much in the minority: why apply a collective punishment for the fault of a few? Would it not have been enough to crack down on those? Obviously, we do not live in the same world as the Pope or his advisors, because their world simply does not correspond to reality; they see it as a homogeneous world that is in fact that of the Society of Saint Pius X alone! Who is advising and enlightening the Pope on these matters?

Based on biased information about the real situation, it is made to appear that the Pope is responding to a demand that is only that of a small minority who have always been fiercely hostile to the Extraordinary Form.

The Pope’s Objective…

…and its predictable dramatic consequences: “It is to defend the unity of the Body of Christ that I am obliged to revoke the faculty granted by my predecessors. The distorted use that has been made of it is contrary to the reasons that led them to grant the freedom to celebrate Mass with the 1962 Missale Romanum.”

In wanting to defend unity, this motu proprio will bring misunderstanding, confusion, drama and finally stir up divisions instead of reducing them. It will achieve the opposite of its objective! In one stroke of the pen, it sweeps away 35 years of efforts by John Paul II and Benedict XVI to calm the situation and bring about a peace that is imperfect but real. Even the synthesis of the CEF, though not very benevolent towards the traditionalist world, recognized that Summorum Pontificum had led globally to a “calmed situation,” which our investigation has largely confirmed.

It will reawaken the liturgical war, exacerbate the resistance of the traditionalists, and, above all, lead to a number of departures towards the Society of Saint Pius X (which must be delighted with this motu proprio which will feed their troops and confirm what they have been repeating since 1988, namely that Rome cannot be trusted; thus confirming their refusal of any reconciliation) – all precisely what John Paul II and Benedict XVI had been able to avoid by their attention to this traditionalist world. This risks becoming an immense mess.

Let us add an important remark from a historical and psychological point of view. Paul VI was ready to make concessions on the Mass, if Archbishop Lefebvre had not rejected Vatican II (it was the famous declaration of November 21, 1974 against the “modernist Rome” of the Council that caused the problem). But John Paul II and Benedict XVI understood that liturgical appeasement was the necessary condition for the most reserved traditionalists to open up to the Council and assimilate it. By tightening the grip on the Mass, Francis will achieve the opposite result to the one legitimately sought.

Double Standards?

The tone of the motu proprio and of the letter is so harsh and severe against the Traditionalists that one cannot help but think that there is a double standard. While Francis insists so often on mercy, leniency, forgiveness – while he is so patient with the Church of Germany which is on the verge of schism – he, the common Father, does not show even a hint of love or understanding for those who are nevertheless a small part of his flock! In these documents, the traditionalists appear as harmful, who are just being tolerated in “Indian reservations,” until they fall into line; the stated objective being to make them disappear (without ever questioning whether they could bring something to the Church, in terms of youth, dynamism, vocations). Are there so many convinced practicing Catholics in the West that it is necessary to drastically limit a part of them?

Recent history has shown that despising and persecuting the Traditionalists in this way does not help them to evolve. On the contrary, it stirs up the resistance of the most hardened. They become more rigid; and this goes against the desired goal of promoting unity.

Let us pay tribute here to the French Bishops’ Conference for their communiqué of July 17, which shows esteem for the “traditionalists:” “They [the bishops] wish to express to the faithful, who usually celebrate according to the missal of Saint John XXIII and to their pastors, their vigilance, the esteem they have for the spiritual zeal of these faithful, and their determination to pursue the mission together, in the communion of the Church and according to the norms in force.”

Contempt For The Great Work Of Benedict XVI

These two documents of the pope turn, without any nuance for the work of reconciliation of John Paul II, and especially of Benedict XVI, starting from an analysis of the facts which is false, and proceed right up to cancelling the essential contribution of the pope emeritus who had distinguished the two ordinary and extraordinary forms of the same Roman rite. In so doing, the Pope also eliminates the legal existence of the former Extraordinary Form (as if it no longer existed), thus plunging the Church back into an endless liturgical dispute over the legal status of the Mass of St. Pius V. We return to the regime of tolerance according to more severe modalities than those of 1988, that of the “merciful parenthesis…” which is hardly merciful anymore! That is to say, a setback of more than thirty years by a single act of government.

What Strategy Of Rome Can We See In The Background?

The two documents of Francis show very clearly that the Pope wants to eradicate the Traditionalist world in the Church, to make sure that the Mass of St. Pius V disappears – everything is done to prevent this movement from growing (prohibition of any new group and an obstacle course for the diocesan priest who would like to celebrate with the old Ordo). Everything is being done so that in the long run the traditional Mass will be celebrated only in the Society of Saint Pius X and its satellites.

It seems, therefore, that the Pope’s strategy is to push the recalcitrant towards the Society of St. Pius X, so that the whole of the Traditionalist world will find itself there – they will thus be perfectly controlled and isolated in an “Indian reservation,” cut off from Rome and the dioceses, but with which a minimum link can be maintained in order to avoid a formal schism. This explains why the Pope no longer seeks reconciliation with the Society of St. Pius X, but shows great generosity towards them by recognizing the full validity of marriages and confessions, by encouraging them to be received in churches during pilgrimages, etc. All this is consistent – and the exact opposite of all the past efforts of John Paul II and Benedict XVI – for the unity of the Church.

Liturgical Exclusivism?

Is this motu proprio not an opportunity for those institutes that refuse to celebrate the ordinary form (which, let us specify, are in the minority within the “Ecclesia Dei” galaxy) to question themselves very seriously about the liturgical, theological and ecclesial validity of this refusal?

Since 1988, the popes have invited us not to refuse the very principle of the celebration of the new Ordo (it is true that the positions of the Ecclesia Dei Commission have fluctuated on the subject, and not helping to clarify it), which in no way takes away from the charism proper to these institutes for the old Mass. Benedict XVI was very explicit in his 2007 letter to the bishops and, in this regard, it must be noted that the lines have hardly moved since then. By obeying the Pope on this crucial point, would not these institutes demonstrate, by their very example, that Francis is wrong in his analysis?

Conclusion

All this is sad because it is unjust; and it is therefore legitimate to complain about it, to argue, to ask tirelessly for a reform of this motu proprio, or for the most flexible application of this text possible, while respecting the authority and the function of the Pope. The bishops will have an essential role to play. Everything will depend on the way they apply this motu proprio – the first reactions observed are encouraging, and I thank those bishops who are concerned for their entire flock.

It is also up to them to bring back to Rome more accurate information about who the traditionalists really are. Recent history has shown that they are not used to letting themselves be done for without reacting. Let’s hope that most of them do not fall back into a “resistance” that turns into revolt and open disobedience. The example not to be followed is that of Archbishop Lefebvre and the Society of St. Pius X; and we can see where that leads. It is hard to suffer for the Church, but it cannot fail to bear fruit.


Christophe Geffroy publishes the magazine, La Nef.


The featured image shows the Madonna of Misericordia, by Piero della Francesca, ca. 1460.

Traditionis Custodes: To Guard And Defend Tradition?

Did you notice that the Holy Father affirmed extra ecclesiam nulla salus at the same time he set about limiting and ultimately extinguishing the Traditional Latin Mass? In his Letter to the Bishops accompanying Traditionis Custodes, Pope Francis wrote, “to remain in the Church not only ‘with the body’ but also ‘with the heart’ is a condition for salvation.”

The internal quoted material in that passage comes from an anti-Donatist work of Saint Augustine, which was itself quoted in the Vatican II (Lumen Gentium, chap. 2, par. 14): On Baptism, Against the Donatists, Book V, chap. 28, par. 39 (the last paragraph of that linked page).

As good is it is to see an affirmation of the necessity of the Church for salvation, the larger context is disturbing:

“In defense of the unity of the Body of Christ, I am constrained to revoke the faculty granted by my Predecessors [to offer the TLM]. The distorted use that has been made of this faculty is contrary to the intentions that led to granting the freedom to celebrate the Mass with the Missale Romanum of 1962. Because “liturgical celebrations are not private actions, but celebrations of the Church, which is the sacrament of unity”, [24] they must be carried out in communion with the Church. Vatican Council II, while it reaffirmed the external bonds of incorporation in the Church — the profession of faith, the sacraments, of communion — affirmed with St. Augustine that to remain in the Church not only “with the body” but also “with the heart” is a condition for salvation” [25].

Implicit in that passage is the terrifying notion that the Roman Church’s own liturgical tradition bears within it the seeds of schism. Such logic not only constitutes an unthinkable attack on the Church’s own sacred patrimony; it also affirms the argument of those who say that the new Mass of Paul VI is the lex orandi of an alien religion. And this in a document whose stated purpose is to build up ecclesial unity.

The former Cardinal Prefect of the CDF, Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, thinks that the use of the passage from Saint Augustine was inappropriately twisted for use in the Holy Father’s letter:

“The quotation from St. Augustine about membership in the Church “according to the body” and “according to the heart” (Lumen Gentium 14) refers to the full Church membership of the Catholic faith. It consists in the visible incorporation into the body of Christ (creedal, sacramental, ecclesiastical-hierarchical communion) as well as in the union of the heart, i.e. in the Holy Spirit. What this means, however, is not obedience to the pope and the bishops in the discipline of the sacraments [which is the meaning Pope Francis attaches to it in his letter], but sanctifying grace, which fully involves us in the invisible Church as communion with the Triune God” [explanatory bracketed comment mine].

Cardinal Mueller is not alone among bishops and cardinals in being openly critical of Pope Francis’ July 16 documents. He is joined by Cardinal Zen, Cardinal Burke, Bishop Athanasius Schneider, and the Dutch Bishop, Rob Mutsaerts.

Cardinal Burke asks and proceeds to answer a timely and important question regarding the authority of the Supreme Pontiff:

15. But can the Roman Pontiff juridically abrogate the UA? [Usus Antiquior (the more ancient use), which is what Cardinal Burke calls the TLM throughout his document –BAM] The fullness of power (plenitudo potestatis) of the Roman Pontiff is the power necessary to defend and promote the doctrine and discipline of the Church. It is not “absolute power” which would include the power to change doctrine or to eradicate a liturgical discipline which has been alive in the Church since the time of Pope Gregory the Great and even earlier. The correct interpretation of Article 1 cannot be the denial that the UA is an ever-vital expression of “the lex orandi of the Roman Rite.” Our Lord Who gave the wonderful gift of the UA will not permit it to be eradicated from the life of the Church.

The Dutch auxiliary bishop, Bishop Rob Mutsaerts, agrees, but is more blunt:

“Pope Francis is now pretending that his motu proprio belongs to the organic development of the Church, which utterly contradicts the reality. By making the Latin Mass practically impossible, he finally breaks with the age-old liturgical tradition of the Roman Catholic Church. Liturgy is not a toy of popes; it is the heritage of the Church. The Old Mass is not about nostalgia or taste. The pope should be the guardian of Tradition; the pope is a gardener, not a manufacturer. Canon law is not merely a matter of positive law; there is also such a thing as natural law and divine law, and, moreover, there is such a thing as Tradition that cannot simply be brushed aside.”

Many argue in favor of the Traditional Latin Mass using Quo Primum. This is good, but let us go deeper and realize that what Pope Saint Pius V did in that document was not only positive legislation. It was the Pope using his power to guard and defend tradition, and that tradition which long preexists Quo Primum still stands even if a pope were to have the temerity to attempt an explicit abrogation of Pius V’s bull.


Brother André Marie is Prior of St. Benedict Center, an apostolate of the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Richmond New Hampshire. He does a weekly Internet Radio show, Reconquest, which airs on the Veritas Radio Network’s Crusade Channel.


The featured image shows Pope Francis by Tony Rubino.

Mary And The Hebraic Tradition

The history of Israel is so rich in meaning that it is the key to understanding the origin of the world (Gen 2-3).

God, whom we can call with the great Hebrew tradition “Elohim,” or “Adonai,” took Adam and put him in the garden. Elohim took Israel from the house of slavery and put it in the land of Canaan.

Elohim made a covenant with Adam and Eve by the tree of life. Elohim made a covenant and gave his Torah to Israel upon the slopes of Mount Sinai. “And the whole people agreed, “Whatever Adonai (YHWH) has said, we will do it.”” (Exodus 19:8)

We have not been created without a purpose. Being and continuance in being is given to us for a positive, high purpose: a Covenant with the Most High, the Creator! The God of heaven makes man a counterpart whom he raises to himself. It is a gift, it is a grace, and it is completely out of the question to capture this equality of strength, since we are to receive it. And if the story of Genesis also tells of a prohibition, it is because the Covenant presupposes reciprocity.

The tree of life is the symbol of the Torah, the book of the Covenant of the Most High (Si 24:23), given through Moses.

The Tree of Life is the place of the Covenant. You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree of magical knowledge, of the so-called sacred prostitutions and of the sacrifices of children which are presumed to get a hold of the source that created you.

It is undoubtedly difficult when you are a Jew to talk about Mary with Catholics. The Talmud says, for example, that Christ is a bastard (Kallah 51 A), the offspring of a Jewish prostitute and a Roman soldier (Sanhedrin 106 A) and that he is plunged into hell in boiling excrement (Gittin 57 A).

As soon as the Jews find the Old Testament without the filter of the Talmud, everything becomes clear. For the prophets, virginity represents fidelity to the Covenant.

And this spiritual virginity was to be perfectly and bodily fulfilled one day, and it was the Virgin Mary, the Mother of Jesus, Myriam.

At the wedding feast of Cana in Galilee, while the wine runs out, Myriam invites us to obey the Lord: “Do whatever he tells you” (Jn 2:5). And Jesus changes the water (of the Torah) into wine (the wine of the Torah explained by the Messiah). This was the first sign that Jesus did.

Thus, we can renew the Covenant contract with the Most High in the presence of Mary, “in Mary.” In a poetic way, she is the tree of life, the place of the renewed Covenant.


Francoise Breynaert is a secular oblate of the Fraternity of Our Lady of the Desert (Belgium). A doctor of theology, she has published foundational works (biblical, Christological) and also Marian and spiritual works. She has also done theological research on the salvation of non-Christians and the Good News for the deceased, and on the Coming of Christ, which the West often confounds, unhappily, with the end of the world, and finally on the exegesis of orality in connection with the Christians of the East. Her works are recognized (imprimatur, episcopal prefaces) in France and abroad. Her research has interested Islamologists who, in turn, have made her part of their studies.


The featured image shows the “Madonna and Child with Saints,” by Girolamo dai Libri, ca. 1520.

Ancestors Of ‘Issa – Meaning Of History, Meaning Of Suffering

The Koran speaks of Moses (Moussa), and the Bible specifies his role in history. When Israel escaped from Pharaoh and left Egypt, God revealed Himself as the One who sees misery and who descends to deliver from the oppressor (Exodus 3, 7-8). He also summons to leave the idols produced by man and to leave occult systems that end up hiding the true God and enslaving people.

On Mount Sinai, Israel said, “Yes” (Exodus 19), and the people progressively came out of injustices, but also from magic (Exodus 22, 17-26). They stopped the sacrifices of infants and the prostitution linked to the magical rites of the Baals that the prophet Baruch qualified as a demonic cult (Baruch 4, 7). This new life was progressively organized in a kingdom, notably with King David (Daoud).

The Koran cites several biblical prophets, such as Nahum, Malachy, Jeremiah, Isaiah. Their era knew grave tribulations. The kingdom of Samaria fell in the hands of the Assyrians in the year 721 BC. There were to be no more victories to comfort believers; only interior signs henceforth were to guide man in his discernment of good and evil.

Jerusalem was burned in the year 598 BC. And God seemed to be silent. The prophets prayed. Were the people or their ancestors obliged to expiate a sin? This was the time to become more humble, infinitely more humble.

Maybe also the people had to live in exile to discover that God was greater than what they had understood up to now. Cyrus, the Persian, believed in one single and unique divinity, Ahura-Mazda, permitting him to peacefully centralize his empire and to unite philosophers and beliefs. But this was an abstract, impersonal divinity. The prophet Isaiah wasn’t impressed; rather, he acknowledged the idea of a unique God. But this God is the personal God revealed on Mount Sinai (Isaiah 44, 6).

One day the exiles came back to the land. The Temple was rebuilt. Some thought humbly that no one could pretend to understand the celestial light, not even the Sanhedrin, for sin too much clouded their hearts. There had to be a Temple for God not made by human hands, a celestial Temple, a new pardon, and then there would be light. “O that thou wouldst rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at thy presence” (Isaiah 64, 1).

The prophet Daniel announces the coming of Al-Massih, a Messiah “Holy of Holies,” who resides where God resides. He is also “Prince-Messiah;” hence king, but a “massacred Messiah” (Dn 9, 24-26). His prophecy counts seventy weeks which are read according to the numerical customs of the ancient Orient. Thus, very probably, the weeks are counted as years (Dn 9, 24-25), then counted as months (Dn 9, 26), then as days (Dn 9, 27), with a sum of 70 years; that is to say, for a period that covers the life of Maryam and her son Al-Massih.

The sage reflects on the error of the impious who say: “For if the righteous man is God’s son, he will help him and will deliver him from the hand of his adversaries. Let us test him with insult and torture, that we may find out how gentle he is, and make trial of his forbearance. Let us condemn him to a shameful death, for, according to what he says, he will be protected” (Wisdom 2, 18-20).

And the sage observes: “Thus they reasoned, but they were led astray, for their wickedness blinded them, and they did not know the secret purposes of God, or hope for the wages of holiness, nor discern the prize for blameless souls /…/ but through the devil’s envy death entered the world, and those who belong to his party experience it” (Wisdom 2, 21-24).


Francoise Breynaert is a secular oblate of the Fraternity of Our Lady of the Desert (Belgium). A doctor of theology, she has published foundational works (biblical, Christological) and also Marian and spiritual works. She has also done theological research on the salvation of non-Christians and the Good News for the deceased, and on the Coming of Christ, which the West often confounds, unhappily, with the end of the world, and finally on the exegesis of orality in connection with the Christians of the East. Her works are recognized (imprimatur, episcopal prefaces) in France and abroad. Her research has interested Islamologists who, in turn, have made her part of their studies.


The featured image shows the Virgin and Child, Mughal, circa 1580.

Saint Aebba Of Coldingham

It is regrettable that only a few facts about the life of this great abbess who was venerated all over Scotland and northern England and esteemed by the Venerable Bede are known. Now that the interest in this holy woman is increasing among the Orthodox, let us recall her biography.

St. Aebba, also known as “Ebba the Elder,” was born in about 615, in the royal family of the Kingdom of Bernicia, in northern England. Her father was King Aethelfrith, who ruled Bernicia from 593, as well as Deira (from 604) until his death in 616 (the amalgamation of these two kingdoms was later to be called Northumbria).

Among her brothers were St. Oswald the martyr, and Oswiu, kings of Northumbria. After her father had been killed at the Battle of Bawtry, St. Aebba’s mother Acha took her children to the kingdom of Dalriada, situated in the north-west of Scotland and founded by Irish Gaelic settlers. Princess Aebba was a little girl then. Meanwhile, Edwin, St. Aebba’s maternal uncle, who converted to the faith much later, assumed the Northumbrian throne. At that time, Dalriada was a stronghold of Christianity (by contrast to the largely pagan Pictland in the rest of Scotland and Northumbria in England) – and numerous spiritual and monastic centers sprang up there, the most famous being the Monastery of Iona founded by the Irish St. Columba in 563.

Under the protection of Dalriadan kings, having absorbed the Irish spiritual tradition, St. Aebba and her kinsmen were converted to Christ and baptized.

In the 630s, when her brother St. Oswald became the king of Northumbria and a champion of the Orthodox faith, St. Aebba decided to return to her homeland and help him evangelize the Northumbrians, most of whom were still pagan. In 635, on St. Oswald’s initiative the Irish St. Aidan, a former student of Iona, was sent to Northumbria and founded Lindisfarne Monastery, which became a beacon of Orthodox monasticism, culture and learning.

St. Aebba was beautiful and had suitors, but the princess chose to become the bride of Christ and took the veil in about 640. According to late tradition, she was tonsured on Lindisfarne by St. Finan, who later became the successor of St. Aidan as its abbot and bishop. No doubt, St. Aidan himself was among St. Aebba’s spiritual mentors and friends.

Well instructed in monastic life, and with the assistance of her brothers St. Oswald and Oswiu, the maiden of God in due course established her famous double monastery in Coldingham (its original name, according to St. Bede, was urbs Coludi, meaning “Colud’s fort,” and later became known as Colodaesburg), with two communities of monks and nuns who lived separately and prayed in the same church. At that time, Coldingham was part of Northumbria in England; now it is in the Scottish Borders area of Scotland.

Alas, we know little about the activity of St. Aebba as abbess, but she was noted for her wisdom, exemplary holy life and preaching that contributed to the conversion to Orthodoxy of many pagans. It is likely that in governing Coldingham, St. Aebba imitated her celebrated contemporary St. Hilda, who was abbess of Whitby in Northumbria at the same time.

Aebba’s monastery was situated some twenty-five miles north of Lindisfarne in a very austere place: Coldingham sits on the North Sea coast off south-eastern Scotland, with cold weather, heavy storms and large waves. Until recently, historians argued as to where exactly St. Aebba’s monastery was located. Some maintained that it was in what is now the village of Coldingham, and others—that it was at the Kirkhill overlooking the rocky promontory of St. Abb’s Head (named after St. Aebba) in St. Abbs village with cliffs right by the sea. The archeological excavations led by DigVentures, and carried out from 2017 to 2019, proved that her monastery was in Coldingham—exactly where the present-day Coldingham Priory stands.

This royal establishment enjoyed the influence that may be compared with Lindisfarne. Alas, that prosperity did not last long after St. Aebbe’s death.

Some monks and nuns of Coldingham neglected vigils and prayers and towards the end of her abbacy it was hard for St. Aebba to keep discipline at the monastery. That is why she would ask the great ascetic St. Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, an illustrious pastor and wonderworker, to visit Coldingham and instruct its inhabitants. It was during one of those visits by St. Cuthbert that his famous miracle with the otters occurred. Let us cite from Bede’s Life of St. Cuthbert:

“When this holy man was acquiring renown by his virtues and miracles, Ebbe, a pious woman and handmaid of Christ, was the head of a monastery at a place called the city of Coludi, remarkable both for piety and noble birth, for she was sister of King Oswiu. She sent messengers to the man of God, entreating him to come and visit her monastery. This loving message from the handmaid of his Lord he could not treat with neglect, but, coming to the place and stopping several days there, he confirmed, by his life and conversation, the way of truth which he taught. Here, as elsewhere, he would go forth, when others were asleep, and having spent the night in watchfulness return home at the hour of morning prayer. One night, a brother of the monastery, seeing him go out alone followed him privately to see what he should do. But he when he left the monastery, went down to the sea, which flows beneath, and going into it, until the water reached his neck and arms, spent the night in praising God. When the dawn of day approached, he came out of the water, and, falling on his knees, began to pray again. Whilst he was doing this, two quadrupeds, called otters, came up from the sea, and, lying down before him on the sand, breathed upon his feet, and wiped them with their hair after which, having received his blessing, they returned to their native element. Cuthbert returned home in time to join in the accustomed hymns with the other brethren. The brother, who waited for him on the heights, was so terrified that he could hardly reach home; and early in the morning he came and fell at his feet, asking his pardon, for he did not doubt that Cuthbert was fully acquainted with all that had taken place. To whom Cuthbert replied, ‘What is the matter, my brother? What have you done? Did you follow me to see what I was about to do? I forgive you on one condition,—that you tell it to nobody before my death.’ In this he followed the example of our Lord, who, when He showed his glory to his disciples on the mountain, said, ‘See that you tell no man, until the Son of man be risen from the dead.’ When the brother had assented to this condition, he gave him his blessing, and released him from all his trouble. The man concealed this miracle during St. Cuthbert’s life; but, after his death, took care to tell it to as many persons as he was able.

From the 660s on St. Aebba had considerable influence on St. Etheldreda (Audrey), the future foundress and abbess of Ely Monastery in what is now Cambridgeshire. In 672, St. Etheldreda was separated from her nominal husband, King Ecgfrith of Northumbria (670—685; Aebba’s nephew), took the veil and for some time lived at Coldingham under St. Aebba’s guidance before travelling south to the Isle of Ely.

St. Aebba communicated with other contemporary saints too. She interceded for the great missionary, bishop and builder of churches St. Wilfrid of York, who more than once was treated unfairly by royalty. In 681 the same King Ecgfrith visited St. Aebba’s Monastery with his second spouse, Ermenburga, who was struck down by an illness after the unjust imprisonment of St. Wilfrid and the theft of the holy relics brought by Wilfrid. This episode is narrated in the earliest Life of St. Wilfrid by Stephen of Ripon, an extract from which we quote below:

“In the meantime the king and queen were making their progress through the cities, fortresses, and villages with worldly pomp and daily feasts and rejoicings, in the course of which they came to the nunnery of Coldingham. The abbess, King Oswiu’s sister Aebbe, was a very wise and holy woman. At this same place the queen was possessed by a devil during the night and, as in the case of Pilate’s wife, the attacks were so severe that she was hardly expected to last till day. As dawn was breaking the abbess came to the queen and found her lying with the muscles of her limbs all contracted and screwed up. Obviously she was dying. Off went Abbess Aebbe to the king and with tears in her eyes gave her opinion of the cause of the calamity. Indeed she rounded on him. ‘I know for a fact that you ejected Wilfrid from his see for no reason. He was driven into exile and went to Rome to seek redress. Now he has returned from that see that has the same power as St Peter himself in loosing and binding. And what have you done but despised its injunctions and despoiled the bishop? Then to pile injury on injury you have had him locked away in jail. Listen, my son, to your mother’s advice. Loosen his bonds. Restore the relics your queen has taken from his neck and carried round from city to city like the ark of the Lord to her own doom. Send a messenger with them. The best plan would be to reinstate him as bishop, but if you cannot bring yourself to do this, at least let him and his friends leave the kingdom and go where they will. Do this and you will live and your queen will recover. Disobey and, as God is my witness, you shall not escape punishment.’ The king obeyed the holy matron, freed our bishop, and let him depart with his relics and friends. And the queen recovered.”

During hat time there lived a holy recluse called Adomnan (Adam) in the Coldingham community of monks under St. Ebbe (feast: January 31). He was born in Ireland, ordained hieromonk, and during his pilgrimage to Scotland remained at Coldingham. (He shouldn’t be confused with his great namesake, St. Adomnan of Iona, the author of the Life of St. Columba).

Adomnan excelled in the ascetic life, the strict observance of all monastic rules and denounced those members of the community who behaved in a disorderly way. In a vision it was revealed to him that in the future the monastery would be destroyed by fire because of “the frequent gossip and frivolity” of some of its monks and nuns. Hearing this prophecy, the negligent monastics mended their ways, but not for long. After the deaths of St. Adomnan (c. 680) and St. Aebba a disaster befell the monastery – it was destroyed by fire in 686, though rebuilt soon afterwards.

After 870, monastic life was not resumed at Coldingham for a long time. Little by little the waves washed away the original beauty of Coldingham, St. Abb’s Head and Ebchester, but no waves could ever erase the memory of the virtues of their foundress, Aebba, in people’s hearts.

In the late eleventh century, after the Norman Conquest, the relics of St. Aebba were rediscovered and in 1098 King Edgar I of Scotland (1097–1107) endowed lands for the new Roman Catholic Benedictine Coldingham Priory in honor of the Virgin Mary, St. Cuthbert and St. Aebba (later often referred to as the Priory of the Virgin Mary). Its church was consecrated in 1100, but the priory was officially established under King David I of Scotland (1124–1153). The Priory brethren consisted of monks who came from Durham. It grew into one of the largest and most flourishing in Scotland and a center of the wool trade.

Thus the veneration of St. Aebba was revived all over Scotland and across northern England. Part of St. Aebba’s relics was kept at Coldingham, and another part in Durham. Among medieval figures associated with Coldingham, let us mention Monk Reginald of Durham († c. 1190), who composed his version of the lives of St. Godric of Finchale, St. Oswald of Northumbria, and wrote an account of St. Cuthbert’s miracles and preserved a sermon of St. Aebba of Coldingham, where he may have lived for some time. The Priory also produced Geoffrey of Coldingham (+ c. 1215), its sacristan and a chronicler, who recorded the history of Durham between the 1150s and 1215 and probably composed the lives of St. Bartholomew of Farne and St. Godric of Finchale.

A true gem is kept at the British Library in London. It is the Coldingham Breviary, created in the late thirteenth century, by a monk of Durham (Coldingham Priory was a cell of Durham Monastery and later of Dunfermline Abbey) for Coldingham Priory. This beautiful manuscript in Latin and French contains the calendar of local feasts and commemorations (such as the dedication of the altars of the Archangel Michael and St. Aebba at Coldingham Priory, the consecration of the church in Coldingham, etc.), along with the texts for the feasts read during the year, and hymns and psalms to be read weekly, complete with illuminations. Among the relics once kept by the priory were a tiny piece of the True Cross and a nail with which the Savior was bound to the Cross. However, the Priory was almost wiped off the face of the earth several times over its history—for example, by King John of England in 1216, during his punitive expedition to the north after signing the Magna Carta.

Coldingham Priory was of such great renown that King James IV of Scotland included revenues from this monastery among the gifts to his wife, Queen Mary Tudor, for their wedding in 1503.

In 1560, during the Scottish Reformation, Coldingham Priory was dissolved, the relics of St. Aebba and other holy objects destroyed, and its lands passed to a local landowner. The Priory’s demolition was completed in 1650, when Oliver Cromwell besieged it and drove out some Royalists who had taken refuge inside it. Later it was extensively used as a quarry by locals. In 1852 a splendid new church was constructed in Coldingham using the materials from the Coldingham Priory ruins. This church is open to this day. It belongs to the Presbyterian Church of Scotland and is called “Coldingham Priory”. Although the current church is huge, it comprises materials from only one section of the former monastery’s choir. Recently work to improve the state of the Priory ruins was carried out and theme gardens dedicated to its history were added. The remains of the original monastery of St. Aebba were unearthed beside this church in 2019. The radiocarbon analysis results showed that the fabric, materials and butchered animal bones are from the Anglo-Saxon period—between 660 and 860 A.D. Among the most impressive finds was the original ditch, or vallum, that surrounded St. Aebba’s Monastery.

Today only remains of the wall foundations, chapel ruins and a well survive from the supposed community of St. Aebba at St. Abb’s Head near Coldingham. Interestingly, no finds of any significance were made during excavations at St. Abb’s Head, as opposed to a wealth of discoveries at the Coldingham site. This indicates that there was no permanent community at St. Abb’s Head throughout its history, apart from the buildings whose ruins are mentioned in the article. Coldingham is slightly further inland, and it was logical if St. Aebba set up her main community there. As for St. Abb’s Head, the saint may have used it for quiet prayer and retreats.

The remains are concentrated on the headland called Kirkhill close to the lighthouse at St. Abb’s Head, a local landmark. The chapel was built in the Middle Ages by the neighboring Coldingham Priory to perpetuate the memory of their pre-Norman predecessors. This place was visited by many pilgrims in the late Middle Ages and miracles were worked. Thus, a girl who was blind in one eye and deaf in one ear was healed after praying at the chapel for fifteen nights.

In his work, Britain’s Holiest Places, Nick Mayhew-Smith mentions two small coves beside St. Abb’s Head; one of them was certainly used by St. Cuthbert for nocturnal prayer in the waters (the Horse Castle Bay). The other cove preserves a well chamber, which was popular among pilgrims in earlier days who came here to commemorate the local saints; another well which reportedly has water in it is close by and is dedicated to St. Aebba (this second bay is called the Well Mouth). This area offers spectacular views of the seashore, with recurring howling gales and waves crashing beneath, as in the time of St. Aebba.

The village of Ebchester in County Durham stands on the site of the Roman fort of Vindomora. It was believed that St. Aebba founded one of her monasteries here, but it was subsequently plundered by pirates and never restored. The village church is dedicated to St. Aebba and dates back to the eleventh or twelfth century, its foundations being pre-Norman. However, no traces of an earlier monastery have been found so far. In the Middle Ages this isolated and rural spot attracted many hermits and it was known as a haven for anchorites.

There is St. Aebba’s Church in Beadnell village in Northumberland, which has a stained glass window depicting Sts. Aebba and Oswald. The village sits on the North Sea coast not far from Bamburgh. The church was built as a chapel in the eighteenth century and rebuilt in the following century. Apart from this there is a narrow promontory called Ebb’s Nook on the edge of the village, where in 1853 a very ancient stone chapel was dug up. The chapel was dedicated to St. Ebba and dated back to the thirteenth century. During the latest excavations in 2012 many burials, much earlier remains and a series of earthworks were found around it, presumably of the seventh century, enabling historians to suggest that St. Ebba may have founded a hermitage/skete here and the later chapel was erected to commemorate her. Now the site is carefully preserved.

There is the Episcopalian St. Ebba’s Church in the fishing town of Eyemouth in the Scottish Borders of the Diocese of Edinburgh, built in 1887. There used to be a St. Abb’s holy well beside the famous Ayton Castle at Ayton village in the Scottish Borders.

Finally, a district, a street and a parish church in the city of Oxford are named after St. Aebba (“St. Ebbes”). Historically, it may have been the oldest parish church in this university city. Though its origins are unknown, it formed part of Eynsham Abbey in Oxfordshire in 1005, and even then it was referred to as “a very ancient church.” St. Aebba is depicted in it on an old stained glass window. According to one version, the presence of a St. Aebba’s Church so far in the south is explained by the fact that she may have accompanied her brother St. Oswald to the nearby Dorchester-on-Thames to attend the baptism of King Cynegils of Wessex by St. Birinus, the enlightener of this region. Thus this church may have been built to commemorate the holy maiden’s visit to the area. The present church was almost wholly rebuilt and enlarged in the nineteenth century, while retaining some medieval monuments, stained glass and communion plates; over its history it was connected with some outstanding figures.

Perhaps this holy princess, one of numerous seventh-century powerful early English women, should be revered on a par with her brother St. Oswald, who founded Lindisfarne Monastery, making history and enlightening the north-eastern England. Likewise, his sister, St. Aebba founded Coldingham, made history and contributed to the enlightenment of south-eastern Scotland. They truly are two stars—two of a large number—shining in the firmament of seventh-century Britain.

Holy Mother Aebba, pray to God for us!


Dmitry Lapa writes for Pravoslavie on Church history.


The featured image shows, St. Ebba in stained glass from St Ebba’s Church Beadnell, Northumberland.

The Second Vatican Council In Spain: Effects, Answers And Advice

1. The Second Vatican Council As An Event

The French philosopher Alain Badiou defines an event not merely as something important or significant that can occur in any of the different areas of social, political, artistic or scientific life. It is, rather, about a bankruptcy in the field of knowledge or politics, because with the event in question a new situation emerges. In the Catholic world, in general, and in Spain in particular, we can consider the Second Vatican Council as an authentic event. And, as such, as Michel Onfray has maintained, the Second Vatican Council was “the Christian May ’68.”

And, in this event, the new conciliar political theology, as it emerged from the dominant hermeneutic in the Vatican, turned out to be antithetical to the previously dominant one. It signified the triumph of ecumenism; the opening to the left, communism and Marxism included; the final acceptance of liberal democracy as a legitimate political framework for Catholics; the experience of worker-priests; the pacifist option and non-violence; the sweeping aggiornamento; ecumenism; cosmopolitanism; the radical modification of the liturgy; the new scenography of the Eucharistic process, and so and so forth. Commenting on these changes, Onfray, a militant atheist, pointed out that “the Church precipitated the forward movement that heralded its downfall.”

Likewise, at that time, fundamental principles of the Catholic creed were being questioned, such as, the principle of authority, the dogma of the Eucharist, celibacy, divorce, preconjugal sexual relations, orthodoxy itself; and, on a speculative level, the demystification of biblical texts, the appearance of theology without God, the “textual” exegesis of biblical texts, and so on.

However, it does not seem that the agnostic and left-wing intellectuals were very impressed by the new Vaticanist theology. In a profile of the famous Maurrasian traditional Catholic historian, Philippe Ariés, his friend Michel Foucault made reference to “the antics of the Second Vatican Council.”

In few societies like the Spanish one, the repercussions of the new Council were more decisive, especially in conservative and traditionalist sectors, but also for the progressivists and the left opposed to the political regime born of the Civil War. Because traditional Catholicism had been in a country that did not experience the Lutheran Reformation or the separation between Church and State, it was much more than a religion; it was a system of beliefs and morals that had marked the whole of society—its ideas, its mentalities, its politics, its habits of life, etc. For all these reasons, the crisis of traditional Catholicism was a truly national and, above all, a social and political crisis—a fact that also coincided with a decisive change in the economic and social structures of the country.

Under the aegis of the so-called “technocrats,” Spanish society underwent qualitative changes in its social and economic structures. As in the case of the productive structure, there was an incessant and contradictory process of “creative destruction” in the areas of morals, social values and mentalities. The doors were opened to cultural secularization. Tradition was losing its plausibility in the process, in which industrial society was consolidated and stripped of its paradigmatic character for today. As the theologian Olegario González de Cardedal pointed out: “Thus began a process of immanentization of reality with the resultant closure to the transcendent order and eschatological promises.”

“A poor Church, a poor Spain!” Exclaimed the priest, Aniceto de Castro Albarrán, a former contributor to Acción Española, in one of his writings. For the political regime born of the Civil War, the situation was enormously problematic. Its institutions and its civic culture clearly depended on the social doctrine of the Church, a doctrine that came from the era of Pius XI and even from Pius IX, a supporter of the confessional State, of the condemnation of liberalism that starting with the Syllabus and of social and political corporatism. In 1953, the Spanish State had signed a Concordat with the Vatican, which granted multiple privileges to the Catholic Church in educational, moral, social and political matters.

However, the regime tried to convert itself, under the new political and social contexts, into what the liberal philosopher John Rawls has called a “decent hierarchical political system,” which progressively accepted the principles of religious freedom, economics, equality before the law, etc. As the historian Juan Pablo Fusi has pointed out, from the 1960s Spanish society began to enjoy numerous “spaces of freedom,” especially at the level of intellectual debate and the possibility of founding new publishing houses, newspapers and media. In fact, the religious freedom projects promoted by Minister Fernando María Castiella were formulated before the convocation of the Council. In the Organic Law of the State, Spain continued to be confessionally Catholic. The new Spanish legislation was presented to the Pontiff, but its fundamental demands, such as the renunciation of the participation of the government in the appointment of bishops, the privilege of the Fuero, the presence of bishops and priests in official bodies and political institutions, were ignored by Franco.

In any case, for the most conscientious intellectuals and politicians of the regime, the new strategy of the Vatican and of the new pontiff, Giovanni Battista Montini, Paul VI, was clear – for he was a man trained in the doctrines of Jacques Maritain, devoted to the thesis of the “new Christianity,” son of a deputy of the People’s Party of Luigi Sturzo, secretary of the FUCI (Federazione Universitari Cattolici Italiana), supporter of the Christian Democracy, and one of whose teachers had been Father Giulio Bevilacqua, a prominent antifascist priest. Furthermore, the beginning of his pontificate had coincided with the shift to the left of the Christian Democrats, a prelude to the historic compromise. When he was Archbishop of Milan, Montini sent a letter to Franco, on behalf of Jorge Conill, an anarchist sentenced to death for his terrorist activities.

According to some testimonies, Montini had been in favor, after the end of World War II, of the restoration of the Monarchy and the elimination of Franco. Very controversial was the content of the pontifical address of June 24, 1969, in which Montini compared the situation in Spain with that of Vietnam, the Middle East and Nigeria; which caused a harsh reply from Emilio Romero, in the columns of the official Pueblo newspaper. The philosopher Leopoldo-Eulogio Palacios, formerly of Acción Española and author of El mito de la Nueva Cristiandad (The Myth of the New Christianity), a famous criticism of the doctrines of Jacques Maritain, argued that Paul VI was the one who had put into practice the project defended by the French philosopher in his writings. Upon being elected Pontiff, Franco welcomed him like “a bucket of cold water.” However, Franco added with his usual political realism: “He is no longer Cardinal Montini. Now he is Pope Paul VI.”

There could, therefore, not be the slightest doubt that Montini and his acolytes had as their project the end of the Spanish regime, in favor of a Spanish Catholic Church incardinated in the context of European liberal democracies. Actually, there was nothing strange about that attitude. The Vatican is a state with its own political interests, which it tries to impose on the nations of Catholic roots. And, in that sense, the Vatican hierarchy had long considered an authoritarian and confessional system, such as the Spanish one, to be dysfunctional. As Carl Schmitt pointed out, the political activity of the Catholic Church is characterized by “astonishing elasticity;” it is “a complexio oppositorum.” “There does not seem to be any contradiction that she is not able to encompass.” A clear example of this was its strategy throughout the twenties and thirties of the last century.

On the one hand, the condemnation of L’Action française, in 1926, accusing it of exacerbated nationalism, to reach a pact with the Third Republic; on the other, the Lateran Pacts with Mussolini’s fascist Italy. And, as Antonio Gramsci pointed out, “the Vatican is more realistic than Maurras and better conceives the formula of politique d’abord.” It was not, of course, a disruptive strategy at the social level; quite the opposite. To employ again a Gramscian conceptualization, it was a project of “passive revolution,” and the guarantor of a balance between the new social, political and religious forces. Or, what comes to the same thing – a guarantee, in a new political context, of the privileges of the Catholic Church, in social and educational matters, achieved throughout the Franco regime: Change what was considered an accessory, for what the ecclesiastical apparatus considered essential.

Although the Vatican’s project was objectively reformist, it received, as we will see, the help, sometimes direct and at other times indirect, from the emerging sectors of progressive and even revolutionary Spanish Catholicism and against the representatives of conservatism and traditionalism—and ultimately against the regime of General Franco.

Faced with these offensives, there was no unitary or common strategy, tactic or response on the part of the political and intellectual forces affected by the regime, or simply conservatives. And thus it is that considering the Franco regime as a homogeneous whole is wrong. Undoubtedly, there was a reaction that we could call traditionalist, which was the loudest; but it was not, nor could it be, the most effective. Likewise, there was an alternative, from the positions of a new positivist conservatism, consisting of assuming the secularizing process with all its consequences. And another, apart from the Vatican project overseen in Spain by Vicente Enrique y Tarancón, that was assumed from Catholic-conservative positions, namely, the principle of religious freedom.

2. The Progressive Offensive

Years later, the philosopher and theologian Adolfo Muñoz Alonso lamented, anticipating not the decline of the Falange as an effective political force, but that of the regime born of the Civil War: “…the political mistake of the confessional organizations that have shunned the clarity and the distinction of ideas and aspirations in the field of the specific apostolate ‘and’ the politicization of the Second Vatican Council combining heterogeneous factors.”

The progressive hermeneutics of the new papal encyclicals and of the theological-political content of the Second Vatican Council was, at least in certain political and intellectual spheres, decisive. Very significant, in this regard, was the interpretation of the content of the encyclical Pacem in Terris, by John XXIII, which was made by certain liberal, Christian Democrat and socialist sectors. The Taurus publishing house brought out, in 1963, a book entitled, Comentarios a la Pacem in Terris (Comments to the Pacem in Terris), in which Mariano Aguilar Navarro, José María Díez Alegría, Manuel Giménez Fernández, Eduardo García de Enterría, Lorenzo Martín Retortillo and others collaborated.

Giménez Fernández highlighted the eagerness of Juan XXIII for renewal. García de Enterría pointed out that the Catholic Church had abandoned “indifference to the forms of government” to explicitly embrace “the democratic principle” and with the definitive “abandonment of what the ancient doctrine called monarchy,” and of “political paternalism.” For his part, Martín Retortillo pointed out “the happy coincidence that exists in many of its points” between the pontifical doctrine and that of the French politician Pierre Mendès France in his book, A Modern French Republic, which was translated into Spanish by the Aguilar publishing house; and he concluded that in the encyclical the fundamental rights were not limited to the negative ones of a liberal nature, but also to the positive ones, such as, that of social security.

The doctrinal and intellectual offensive of the self-proclaimed progressive or conciliar Catholicism was decisive, especially in the university and intellectual fields and among the youth. Its main champions were theologians, such as, José María Díez Alegría and José María González Ruíz, and intellectuals, such as, José Luis López Aranguren. Its ideas were disseminated by prestigious publishers, such as, Taurus, Edicusa, Alianza, Peninsula and Guadarrama; and it was highlighted in magazines, such as, Cuadernos para el Diálogo (which was edited by Franco’s former minister Joaquín Ruíz Giménez), Triunfo and El Ciervo. There were some popularizers of Catholic progressivism, or of the so-called Liberation Theology, such as, Enrique Miret Magdalena. Significant was the publication by the Taurus publishing house of the complete works of the heterodox Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who had been accused of being a modernist by many Catholic theologians and by official science, but whose ideas were well received by progressive Catholic sectors.

Among Taurus’s first books was the work of José María Díez Alegría, who reinterpreted natural law, in which he showed himself to be a revisionist of Catholic natural law. In this respect, he understood that the norms of natural law were susceptible not only to exceptional variation, but to some historical variability, and thus the norms were limited by circumstantial determinations, and, in any case, subject to the double effect moral principle. Furthermore, natural law evolved historically in the ever more perfect knowledge of this principle and in its progressive application to social life.

The introducer in Spain of certain aspects of what would later be called Liberation Theology was Canon José María González Ruíz, by way of his book, El cristianismo no es un humanismo (Is Not Christianity A Humanism?), in whose pages he defended a “theology of the world.” It was an attempt to reconcile Christianity with worldly, social reality. His objective was dialogue with Marxism, especially for its criticism of religion as a system of alienation or “estrangement.” Faced with this interpretation, González Ruíz argued that Christianity in general, and Catholicism in particular, were “essentially materialistic;” that the Christian ethic was “primarily projected toward man rather than toward God;” and that the Catholic Church had to “make concrete and committed decisions in the face of individual and collective human situations.” In that sense, he mentioned “our Marxist brothers.” He interpreted the Second Vatican Council as a “monumental self-review.” And he advocated the encounter with Marxism on a “common ground.”

However, the most charismatic representative of Catholic progressivism was José Luis López Aranguren, who in his book, El marxismo como moral (Marxism as Moral) advocated, like González Ruíz, a dialogue between Christians and Marxists. For López Aranguren, Marxism was not a scientific doctrine, but “moral voluntarism,” which coincided with Christianity in its criticisms of capitalism, propitiating a “reaction to previous religious individualism.”

At the same time, López Aranguren was very critical of the reality of official Catholicism. In his understanding, a point of “total secularization” had been reached; that is, the destruction of the distinction between the sacred and the profane. A phenomenon that had had a powerful impact on the reality of the Catholic Church. Such a crisis had manifested itself in the pontificate of John XXIII and in the Second Vatican Council, and had an impact on theology itself, on the discussions around dogmas, on the very notion of orthodoxy, on biblical hermeneutics and of revelation, and so on. The social and political phenomenon par excellence was the “contest.” The paradox of a “theology without God” had even been reached. López Aranguren rejected the existence of religious orders and considered secular institutes “spiritually poor.” His pessimism about the future of Catholicism was very remarkable, because the Second Vatican Council had unleashed “forces that were very difficult to contain,” so that “humanly speaking, I cannot expect much from Catholicism.”

Along with these charismatic leaders of progressive or oppositional Catholicism, there were a series of epigones among which were the young theologians Enrique Miret Magdalena, Casiano Floristán, Enrique Iniesta, Antonio Aradillas, José María Llanos, Tomás Malagón, and José Luis Martín Vigil (author of a significant novel entitled, Los curas comunistas (The Communist Priests). Synthesizing the approaches of these priests, Miret Magdalena highlighted his animosity towards the idea of religious unity, which, in his view, was of “pagan and non-Christian origin;” the commitment to the working class; the defense of the fundamental values of Christianity, that is, just peace, social love, real freedom and respect for personal conscience. “And whoever does not accept these values, no matter how much he says he believes in all dogmas, he is not a Christian and, therefore, he cannot be a Catholic.”

In the same way, we must highlight the influence of the Instituto Fe y Secularidad, organized by Jesuits, such as, Alfonso Álvarez Bolado and José Gómez Caffarena, whose objective was to raise the dialogue between Christians and Marxists.

The phenomenon of worker priests was generalized in Spain in the 1960s. A pioneer was Father José María Llanos, who in 1955 settled in the neighborhood of El Pozo del Tío Raimundo, and later was a member of the PCE. Perhaps this phenomenon’s most charismatic representative was Francisco García Salve, a militant Jesuit of the Workers’ Commissions and the PCE.

In 1973 the group, Cristianos por el Socialismo (Christians for Socialism) appeared in Spain, founded by Juan N. García Nieto, Alfonso Carlos Comín, Pedro Ribera, Juan Pujades, Father José María Llanos and the historian, María del Carmen García Nieto. The most charismatic militant of this group was, without a doubt, José Carlos Comín, of Carlist descent, who managed to give a supposedly messianic image, with an eloquent and prophetic oratory, not exempt at times from a certain exhibitionism. His own face, that of a contemporary Jesus Christ, sought to give a new image of committed and revolutionary Christianity.

At the same time, new Christian-inspired unions appeared, such as, the Unión Sindical Obrera, which emerged from the Catholic Workers’ Youth. Likewise, emerged the first Workers’ Commissions, whose members came, generally, from Catholic sectors; and many Catholics were part of the Maoist Revolutionary Workers’ Organization. And the deeds of the revolutionary priest, Camilo Torres, those of Che Guevara, the new Christ resurrected, or the Chilean experiment in socialism, promoted by Salvador Allende, with the support of some left-wing Catholics, were glorified as examples. In this context, the homilies that were fined were abundant, the difficulties of the self-proclaimed grassroots Catholic movements were many, and the priestly fitting out of jails in Zamora significant.

Naturally, this process had to generate its own dialectic; and generate it did. Conservative and traditional groups had to seek an answer to the new context; but, as we have already pointed out, it was not a common answer, but a diverse one.

3. The Traditional Reaction

Previous to the Council, the traditional Spanish Catholic sectors had focused their attention on the criticism of figures, such as, Miguel de Unamuno and, above all, José Ortega y Gasset, prototypes of heterodoxy. Good proof of this was the content of magazines such as Arbor, in the 1940s, and then in the mid-1950s Punta Europa, financially supported by the Oriol family and edited by the traditionalist writer, Vicente Marrero Suárez.

Then, in the conciliar context, Verbo magazine came to existence, which gradually became the intellectual organ of Spanish traditionalist Catholicism. The new magazine was considered heir to Acción Española, although its model was La Cité Catholique, edited by the former Maurrasian, Jean Ousset. Among its founders were Eugenio Vegas Latapié, Juan Vallet de Goytisolo and Estanislao Cantero. Its most common contributors were Rafael Gambra, Álvaro D´Ors, Vicente Marrero, Francisco Javier Fernández de la Cigoña, Francisco Elías de Tejada, Blas Piñar López, Gabriel de Armas, Francisco Canals Vidal, Bernardo Monsegú, Julián Gil de Sagredo, Eustaquio Guerrero , Gabriel Alferez Callejón, José Guerra Campos, Jerónimo Cerdá Bañuls, and so forth; as well as French traditionalists, such as, Jean Madiran, Marcel Clement, Marcel de Corte, Michel Creuzet, Jean Ousset, or the Brazilian Plinio Correa de Oliveira.

Significantly, numerous writings of the Archbishop of Dakar, Marcel Lefebvre, known for his criticism of the doctrinal development of the Second Vatican Council, were published in the magazine. However, it never intended to break from the Vatican, so Verbo also published writings of the doubting Montini, in which the continuity between the doctrine of Vatican II and Catholic tradition was defended. Although, in one of its first issues, the Syllabus of Pius IX also appeared.

Verbo was always marked by nostalgia for past times. It was and still is a traditionalist, Thomistic magazine. Its political model was the traditional, Catholic and corporate monarchy of Acción Española. Eugenio Vegas Latapié rejected, following Charles Maurras, the concept of “organic democracy.” And Vallet de Goytisolo published numerous writings subjecting to criticism the doctrinal foundations of the technocracy, which he accused of being an ideology heir to the Enlightenment, secularizing, mechanistic and atheistic. In his works, Vallet de Goytisolo rejected mass society, which he reproached for its lack of its own hierarchical structure, which implied “the disappearance of intermediate bodies, the extension of functions, the progress of the technology of propaganda,” “religious uprooting,” “the destruction of traditions,” “dialectical materialism,” and the “elimination of the transcendent.” As an alternative, Vallet de Goytisolo advocated a return to classical natural law and traditional society; what he called “the natural legal order” and the “pluralism of natural or intermediate societies within which the State must limit itself to complying with the principle of subsidiarity.”

In 1965, Editorial Católica Española (the Spanish Catholic Publishing House) created the Vedruna Prize, endowed with 100,000 pesetas, “to promote the study of Catholic Unity as the political-social foundation of Spain, regardless of the theological order that exceeded that purpose.” The award jury was made up of Juan Iglesias Santos, Blas Piñar López, Raimundo de Miguel, Jesús María Liaño Pacheco and Jaime de Carlos and Gómez Rodulfo. The prize was awarded to the traditionalist philosopher, Rafael Gambra, author of the famous, Historia sencilla de la Filosofía (Simple History of Philosophy), for his book, La unidad religiosa y el derrotismo católico (Religious unity and Catholic Defeatism), published by Editorial Católica Española, with a foreword by Juan Vallet de Goytisolo. In the work, Gambra limited himself to defending the topics of traditionalism, with abundant quotations from Joseph de Maistre, Donoso Cortés and Menéndez Pelayo, whose foundation was the defense of Spanish Catholic unity as a platform for political, social and moral cohesion. For Gambra, a Catholic could not accept the separation of political power from the moral and religious order. The “regime of neutral coexistence” was an inheritor of the Lutheran Reformation and of “rationalism” and “statism,” which “are areligious and agnostic plants in the soil.” Secularism was synonymous with “apostasy.”

Some theologians collaborating with the Punta Europa magazine expressed themselves in identical terms when criticizing the exegesis of liberal or left-wing intellectuals and theologians. In an editorial, the magazine endeavored to demonstrate that the concept of freedom defended in Pacem in Terris was the same as that coined by Leo XIII in Libertas. Luis Vitoria denounced the confusion of some theologians, in particular, Enrique Miret Magdalena, with respect to pontifical innovations, because “only fidelity to the traditional makes true progress possible.”

However, the main issues were those of religious freedom and the confessional state. From his natural law perspective, Father Vitorino Rodríguez argued that under the concept of religious freedom very different meanings could be understood. In this regard, he denied that “false religions were assisted by a natural right to public profession and proselytism, because a religious attitude due to error…is incompatible with the hallmarks of natural law: universal, inviolable, printed in the nature of every man.”

At best, what a Catholic state could do was “tolerate,” for reasons of political prudence, the public presence of other religions. Along the same lines, the Jesuit Eustaquio Guerrero affirmed that there was no reason why, after the Council, Spanish society should abandon the confessional state and the principle of Catholic unity; there was only “the prejudice and passion of progress that seeks to reconcile the Church with the world through the burial of Constantinian Catholicism and the delivery, in the press, of Spain to the liberal and Protestant world.”

The Spanish Church was experiencing profound disagreements within itself. Between 1966 and 1968, the crisis of Acción Católica (Catholic Action) took place, which practically led to its disappearance. Meanwhile, on March 1, 1966, with the presence of the nuncio Riberi and the attendance of seventy bishops, the Spanish Episcopal Conference was established. Its first president was Cardinal Quiroga Palacios, with Morcillo as more or less its vice-president, and José Guerra Campos, its general secretary. All of them were faithful to Franco and traditional orthodoxy. However, the strategy of the Vatican soon became noticeable. From 1969 to 1971, the presidency fell to Casimiro Morcillo. But on his death, Vicente Enrique y Tarancón, Montini’s man in Spain, took office. During the Civil War, the Levantine priest had been a fervent champion of the “Crusade.” Later, he was appointed bishop of Solsona. Franco himself, as Tarancón recognized in his Confesiones (Confessions), wanted him to occupy the headquarters at Oviedo, Toledo and Madrid.

Then Tarancón was appointed secretary of the Conference of Metropolitans, predecessor of the Spanish Episcopal Conference, and rapporteur of the Synod of Bishops in Rome. He participated in the Second Vatican Council, where he met Montini. His pastoral work continued in Oviedo, where he was coadjutor archbishop. He acceded to the archbishopric of Burgos and later that of Toledo as Primate of Spain. Paul VI gave him the cardinal’s hat in 1969. Until then, he had not shown any progressive fickleness. At all times, he was a typical man of the ecclesiastical apparatus. In the context of the time, he managed to embody, at a strategic level, a relative “center” between progressives and traditionalists, to carry out Paul VI’s project of “passive revolution.” In public, he portrayed himself as a pragmatic and worldly man. His opinion of General Franco was always positive; he described him as “a nice man, very talkative… He spoke of Spain with passion and of the Church as if he were party to all her secrets.” He reproached Franco, however, for “not having understood the Council.”

Tarancón’s antagonistic opposite was the ascetic, José Guerra Campos, who soon became known, in traditional circles as, “The Bishop of Spain.” Tarancón was aware of this antagonism when, in an interview, he described Guerra Campos as “a deep man, a great researcher, somewhat extreme.” Guerra Campos showed himself above all be an intellectual, a theologian and a philosopher. He was not a pragmatist like Tarancón. Unlike other members of the clergy, he became familiar with Marxist philosophy, Kantism, and the evolutionism of Teilhard de Chardin. In a conference at the University of Santiago de Compostela, he lectured on Marx. This was positively valued by the Italian communist newspaper, L’Unitá. The Galician priest participated in the famous Gredos Talks. And he was a consultant to the Spanish Episcopate at the Council. Shortly after, he was appointed titular bishop of Mustia and auxiliary of Madrid-Alcalá in June 1964 and 1965. He participated in the sessions of the Council of 1964 and 1965, with a special intervention on Marxist atheism.

Guerra Campos always denied that Vatican II represented a break with traditional Catholic doctrine. His criticism focused on what he called the “noisy manipulation of the Council,” in clerical circles, with a “disregard for the basic texts,” and “with the interpretation of others in the light of some future, imaginary Vatican Councils II.” The very term aggiornamento did not mean revision according to the dominant spirit of the time, but within tradition, a “wise interpretation of the spirit of the Council that we have celebrated, and the final application of its norms.” For this reason, he rejected the obsession to revise or reject all the content of the tradition, concluding that the novelty was positive per se; and that the Church of other times was obtuse “when the Second Vatican Council has not substituted or suppressed a single truth of faith and a single moral principle of the previous catechisms.” Far from any relativism, the Council had defined Catholicism as the only true religion, because “God wanted to manifest himself fully in Christ, who reconciles all things to himself.” The Church was the bearer of “a revelation that constitutes at the same time, the call and the answer of God for those who seek… Christ is the totality of religious life, he is the only way of salvation.”

In contrast, Guerra Campos accused certain theologians of “imposing the dictatorship on matters of opinion, where the appreciations of the believers are free, while on the other hand all daring against dogmas is tolerated.” When criticizing the dissenters, Guerra Campos took advantage of Montini’s famous speech, delivered on June 29, 1972, in which it was stated that “the smoke of Satan has entered the Church,” to denounce the innovations that he considered dangerous such as “the Church’s retreat to the passions of the world… emptying the faith of its revealed contents… to practically confuse it with a current of opinion and desires of this time… reducing the mission of the Church to a temporary action, a revolutionary political action.” One of the mainstays of his speech was the defense of the Catholic confessional state: “The true religion (we call true religion not a human religion, but the one that springs from the manifestation of Christ, the revelation of God in History), has the maximum right, the exclusive right to be recognized as such and to be, as such, favored: not with coercion, but with positive help so that this message, which is a gift of God, really reaches to all men.”

For Guerra Campos, Christianity was the appropriate response to the two humanisms that were vying for hegemony in the modern world: exalted humanism, whose greatest exponent was Marxism; and the humanism of depression, represented above all by atheistic existentialism. Both led to “slavery.” Even less effective was “scientism,” which, according to the expositions of the biologist Jacques Monod, led to “the radical denial of freedom.” Guerra Campos was to be the doctrinal inspiration for some of the traditionalist groups that came to light as a response to the innovations of the moment.

Not by chance, on May 2, 1966, Fuerza Nueva appeared as a publishing company and, above all, as a political pressure group. Its leaning was clearly traditional Catholic. Its great promoter, Blas Piñar López, did not come from the Falange, nor from Carlism; nor was he a supporter of technocracy. Son of a military defender of the Alcázar of Toledo, Piñar came from Catholic Action. His ideology drew from the sources of Sardá and Salvany, Ramiro de Maeztu, Manuel García Morente convert, Juan Vázquez de Mella, José Antonio Primo de Rivera, and the Catholic propagandist, Manuel Siurot. The old Falangist writer, Ernes-to Giménez Caballero defined him as a champion of “a new Traditionalism, heir to what a Mella, an Aparisi and Guijarro defended.” Appointed director of the Institute of Hispanic Culture in 1957, he held the position until January 1962, when he was suddenly dismissed because of a newspaper article, entitled, “Hypocrites,” and published in ABC, in which he bitterly criticized the international policy of the United States, on the eve of negotiations concerning the permanence of North American bases in Spanish territory. However, Franco personally appointed him attorney in Cortes, one of the so-called Cuarenta de Ayete (Forty of Ayete—procuradors).

The first issue of Fuerza Nueva magazine appeared in December 1966, in which it set out its “reason for being,” and brought about by the progressive denaturalization of the regime born of the Civil War: “We understand that the ideological baggage of our Regime cannot be liquidated in a cheap auction, and that its deep roots, which have their life in the Spanish tradition and in the national revolution, demand that the ruling minorities act to further their evolution, their development, their perfection, their purity and their refined loyalty to the principles that were forged as their doctrinal foundation, but never to their mythologization, to their misleading and sometimes contradictory applications, and, ultimately, to their repeal or abandonment.”

And, thus, Piñar and his acolytes represented, at that time, a political project that no longer coincided, in its essential features, with the renewal pursued by the new ruling elites of the regime and their insertion into the international economic and political framework. Like the rest of the traditionalist sectors, Fuerza Nueva always suffered from what Svetlana Boym calls, “restorative nostalgia,” not a “reflexive” one. Piñar’s project was still that of the “Crusade”—traditional, corporate and confessional monarchy. Verbo traditionalists, Carlists, theologians, Thomist philosophers, military men and Falangists collaborated on the pages of the new magazine. Among its militants appeared the odd neo-fascist, as was the case of Ernesto Milá, soon expelled for his religious heterodoxy. According to Milá, in Fuerza Nueva an “almost Taliban fundamentalism” dominated, where “the religious phenomenon cornered every other element in Piñar’s personal equation.” Fuerza Nueva “aspired above all to carry out a pastoral task and to spread the Catholic religion much more than any political thought, even though for them Catholicism was, in itself, a political definition.”

The religious perspective of Piñar and other members of the regime could be seen in the parliamentary discussions on the project of religious freedom advocated by Minister Fernando María Castiella at the beginning of 1967, and which would be approved in June of that same year. According to the conservative journalist, Torcuato Luca de Tena, who at that time worked as a parliamentary chronicler, there were, on the issue of religious freedom, two parties: the fundamentalist and the progressive.

Of course, in the Spanish context, the so-called “progressives” were, in reality, “fundamentalists, but less.” The “fundamentalists” included, Coronel de Palma, Piñar, Sanz Orrio, Fagoaga, Oriol, Valero Bermejo, Gómez Aranda, and others. And the “progressives” were Lamo de Espinosa, Villegas Girón, Chozas Bermúdez, Mateu de Ros, Fernández Miranda, Martínez Esteruelas, and Herrero Tejedor. “The fundamentalists cited Pius XII, John XXIII and Paul VI in numerical and chronological order. The progressives, in reverse chronological order, cited Paul VI more than John XXIII, and the latter more than Pius XII. The fundamentalists were tenacious and audacious, but they were more of the former than of the latter. Progressives were tough and bold, but they were more of the latter than the former. The fundamentalists read works of Saint Augustine and consulted Aranzadi. The progressives read texts of Saint Thomas Aquinas and leafed through the Medina and Marañón. (Someone dared to quote Maritain, but I swear that only happened once).” The attorneys Bárcenas, Manglano, Piñar, Coronel de Palma, Valero Bermejo and Tena Artigas “fought with admirable tenacity to show the minds of those present the risks of a rupture in our Religious Unit.” While other attorneys, such as Alfredo López, affirmed that “it is not only about defending the possible risks of religious freedom, but about defending religious freedom itself.”

In his speeches, Piñar defended the confessional status of the state as a good; something that could not be identified with Catholic unity. The civil right to religious freedom should not promote religious pluralism, because religious pluralism was contrary to Catholic unity, initiating “apostasy;” it was “bad.”

Among the attorneys opposed to the new legislation were Agustín Asís Garrote, Baron de Cárcer, José María Codón, Luis Coronel de Palma, Miguel Fagoaga, Luis Gómez de Aranda, Fermín Izurdiaga, Jesús López Medel, Lucas María de Oriol, Fermín Sanz Orrio and Piñar himself.

Almost at the same time, the Spanish Priestly Brotherhood (Hermandad Sacerdotal de San Antonio María Claret and San Juan de Ávila) emerged, which was formed on November 19, 1968. It had received the approval of Casimiro Morcillo. And its Governing Board was formed by the Franciscan, Miguel Oltra, as president; Francisco Santa Cruz was vice-president; Venancio Marcos, secretary; and Pablo María de la Sierra was treasurer. Its main figure was Miguel Oltra.

The Brotherhood appeared in public on July 9, 1969, in Segovia, before the tomb of San Juan de la Cruz. Two months earlier, on May 12, the San Antonio María Claret Priests and Religious Association, which brought together hundreds of Catalan priests and religious, had met in Vic, and before the tomb of the famous confessor of Isabella II, they deposited their Declaration of Priestly Principles and Criteria. The Segovian act was attended by some five hundred priests, as well as the Cardinal Archbishop of Tarragona and some bishops.

In its Declaration of Principles, the Brotherhood declared its “firm adherence to the Chair of Peter.” Its doctrinal sources were Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium. It criticized progressivism, which was accused of marginalizing “the supernatural order or at least disfiguring it by wanting to replace it with a declericalized sociomorphism, which does not know what to do with the priestly mission in modern society.” The dignity of the priesthood lay in “the priestly function of Christ… intermediate between God and men,” the consequence of which was the resounding affirmation of celibacy. It denounced that in the seminars the great masters of theology had been replaced by “amateurs” and “minstrels,” at the “service of political subversion.” No less serious seemed to them “moral errors” and “general corruption of customs.” And this it was that there was “a great crisis of authority and obedience.” It criticized the insistence on responsibility and maturity: “Prudence has reason to be when it is put at the service of Faith, Hope and Charity.” It advocated “social justice,” but not at the cost of faith in the supernatural: “The supernatural and Revelation mark infinite solutions to temporality… Our pastoral care has to be exercised in connection with the divine. Any other temporalistic attitude degrades and desecrates the sacred mission that the Lord has entrusted to us.” In this sense, the condemnation of communism, liberalism and the so-called “Prophetic Groups” was radical: “It is our duty to denounce them and point the finger at them.” Against ecumenism, patriotism: “We consider Patriotism as a virtue included in the fourth commandment of the Law of God. Our apostolate is not exercised in the abstract but in concrete souls, in those close to us, and these are the Spanish. Our Patriotism becomes Catholic ecumenism if we channel our people to Christ.” The Brotherhood had as an organ of diffusion the magazine, Dios lo quiere (God Wills It).

The traditional front experienced a relative reinforcement with the emergence of another doctrinal organ, the Iglesia-Mundo magazine, whose first issue appeared on April 16, 1971, with the support of Archbishop Morcillo and the bulk of the conservative and traditional sector of the ecclesiastical hierarchy. It also enjoyed some support from the regime, particularly from Admiral Carrero Blanco. One of its inspirers was Guerra Campos. Its director was Jaime Caldevilla García-Villar, a Carlist fighter in the Civil War, a graduate in philosophy and the law, and a journalist. Its main contributors were linked to the Spanish Priestly Brotherhood, Verbo and Fuerza Nueva, namely, Victorino Rodríguez, Bernardo Monsegú, Luis Madrid Corcuera, José Ricart Torrens, Luis Vera, Gonzalo Vidal, Vicente Marrero, Vallet de Goytisolo or Adolfo Muñoz Alonso.

Less important was the magazine, Qué pasa? (What’s Happening?), edited by the extravagant convert Joaquín Pérez Madrigal, a true champion of fundamentalism; and El Alcázar, which has become the organ of the Spanish Confederation of Ex-Combatants.

4. Political And Symbolic Conflicts

At the beginning of the 1960s, conflicts between the regime and a part of the clergy were frequent, particularly in Catalonia and the Basque Country, where sectors of the Church continued to support nationalist demands. In this process, the Montserrat Monastery played an important role in Catalonia, where the famous magazine, Serra D´Or was published, which gradually became an organ of Catalanism and rebellious Catholicism. In the Basque Country, a sector of the clergy supported not the clandestine PNV, but the terrorist organization ETA.

However, the most decisive conflict arose years later, when the so-called Joint Assembly of Bishops and Priests was convened between September 13 and 18, 1971. Based on a series of surveys among priests, its objectives were reduced, in theory, to deal with the problems that affected the Spanish Church; to seek solutions and facilitate ways of dialogue between priests and bishops; and deepen the meaning of the priestly ministry. The surveys apparently reflected a deep malaise in the clergy, who appeared disoriented on issues such as morality, politics, priestly ministry, disillusionment with the results of the Council, problems of faith, punishment, criticism and rejection of the alliance with political power, and so on. In practice, its leitmotif was clearly political, that is, to go a step further in the disassociation of the Catholic Church from the Franco regime. According to Martín Descalzo, this was one of “the greatest hours” of Cardinal Tarancón’s life. Descalzo described the event as an Assembly “without extremists,” that is, without integrationists or progressives.

The traditionalist sectors criticized, from the first moment, the convocation. The canonist Salvador Muñoz Iglesias considered it “unnecessary [and] counterproductive… based on the results of a survey whose approach seems tendentious and whose data does not have the value that it is intended to give them.” Some bishops such as Guerra Campos, García Sierra, Cantero, Delgado Gómez and members of Opus Dei were equally adverse. Especially harsh were the criticisms of the Priestly Brotherhood: “With regard to the celebration of the Assembly, an adequate spiritual preparation is lacking.” The Brotherhood also denounced “the intimate feeling that the last lines of the Assembly were drawn beforehand and not precisely by the Episcopal Conference.

Whatever was said, nothing was going to alter the prefabricated result.” It was a “clerical movement of doubts, questions and problems.” In the same way, the Brotherhood condemned “its exaggerated and tendentious “democratism,” which does not harmonize with the hierarchical character of the Church; and its obsession with ‘extremism,’ which is not convincingly clarified or defined, to know what is and is not an evangelical requirement. Thus, they place themselves in fashionable ambivalences, leaning almost blatantly towards those who sound the loudest and get the most noise in the divided river of the Spanish clergyman.”

As a reply, the Priestly Brotherhood convened an alternative Assembly, which was held at the Residence for Religious of the Sagrada Familia de la Moraleja, with the participation of theologians such as Román Orbe, Francisco Paula Solá, Antonio Peinador Navarra, Jesús González Quevedo and Antonio Meseguer Montoya. Some sixty-two priests participated in the Assembly. In its conclusions, the documents on which the convocation of the Joint Assembly was based were rejected; its postponement and its “reorientation to safer theological and ecclesiastical bases” were demanded. It accused the conveners with defending their “own monologue” and of not playing “fair” in the designation of certain dioceses. Ecclesiastical celibacy and its traditional social function were defended; the philosophical, scriptural and theological training to be given in the seminaries was defined; the defense of the Church as a hierarchical society, evangelization, and so forth was asserted.

The conclusions reached by the Joint Assembly emphasized that the State stop intervening in the appointment of bishops, to have freedom of the press, religion, the right to conscientious objection, fundamental rights, and so on. However, the most controversial proposition was the one calling for forgiveness for the attitude of the Spanish Catholic Church during the Civil War: “We humbly acknowledge and ask forgiveness because we did not always know how to be ministers of reconciliation among the people divided by a war between brothers.” A statement as opportunistic as it is ahistorical, which made the strategy of the new hierarchies of the Church very clear. After the debates, the vote was as follows: 123 votes in favor; 113 against; and 10 null; which meant that it was not approved because it required two thirds majority. “I was in complete agreement with the substance of the proposal,” said Tarancón, “but I think it was not wise to refer so clearly to the war. That gave many weapons to begin their attack and in fact many changed their position and went from satisfaction to criticism. That politicized the assembly more than anything.”

In response, Miguel Oltra sent a letter to Tarancón, protesting the content of the proposal: “We are willing to suffer all the persecutions rather than deny our fidelity to the true Church of Christ, and to the ideals for which thirteen of our bishops were murdered and seven thousand priests.” Guerra Campos accused the Assembly of fomenting division in the clergy. And, regarding the issue of the Civil War, he accused the assembly of being “political and unjust… The accusation, which could be partially true in individual cases, is not fair when viewed globally. The hierarchy of the Catholic Church in the years preceding the war fostered, despite the persecutory climate of legislation and the streets, a spirit of compliance and collaboration with the constituted powers of the Republic … The movement the defense that took place in Spain, both to contain the dissolution of society and to save a series of spiritual values, sprang spontaneously from thousands and thousands of lay Catholics, who acted under their own responsibility. It is a fact that the hierarchy and the clergy in general did not induce armed action.”

Iglesia-Mundo highlighted the number of priests killed during the Civil War, along with images of the destruction of churches and religious objects. Archbishop Marcelino Olaechea objected that it was intended to bury the Church of the “Crusade” in “the night of oblivion.”

The historian Ricardo de la Cierva, Franco’s official biographer, commenting on the content of the Assembly, pointed out that the Church’s strategy sought, in the face of the conciliar phenomenon and given its reactionary historical trajectory, to recover lost time. As a Catholic historian, to Cierva it seemed “painful, incomprehensible and absurd,” and “a flat, absurd and inconsistent inversion, putting off such recovery sometime in the future.” In that sense, it seemed as if a kind of “anarcho-Christianity” was emerging. In that sense, it seemed as if a kind of “anarcho-Christianity” was emerging.

Faced with such onslaughts, the president of the government, Luis Carrero Blanco, himself a traditional Catholic, had nothing to do with criticizing what he considered a betrayal on the part of the Church. Not without reason, the admiral recalled the material aid given to the Catholic Church since the end of the Civil War by the state, which had spent “some 300,000 million pesetas in the construction of churches, seminaries, charity and teaching centers, maintenance of the faith, and so on.” Soon there was reference in the press to “Carrero the Big Fuss.”

In this context, the appearance of the Tácito group, which emerged in 1973, had special relevance, most of whose members came from Asociación Católica de Propagandistas (the Catholic Association of Propagandists), which, in those years, had downplayed the “National” part of its name, for it said it was “fleeing from national-Catholicism.” Its organ of expression was the newspaper YA, and its members included, José Luis Alvarez, Luis Apostua, Fernando Arias Salgado, Landelino Lavilla, Marcelino Oreja, Juan Manuel Otero Novas, Alfonso Osorio, and others. Its political project was defined as “legal reformism.” The Tacitans advocated a gradual evolution towards liberal democracy from the current legislation, through the incorporation of human rights, into the Spanish legal system, the repeal of laws incompatible with such rights, a legislative chamber elected by universal suffrage, jurisdictional unity, and the recognition of regional diversity. And all this backed by “a new pact between a faithful Prince and a free country.”

The traditionalist forces were losing the game. The Confraternity of Priests, Hermandad de Sacerdotes, had convened an International Priest Day in Zaragoza. However, the bishop of the city of the Ebro, Cantero Cuadrado, from the conservative sector, released a statement in which it was noted that the Episcopal Conference did not authorize the convocation. Significantly, Cantero Cuadrado pointed out that the Brotherhood had been warned that its Conferences would only be allowed if “the development of the themes were strictly spiritual and priestly,” and avoiding “any controversy and any confrontation of a personal nature.” For this reason, it was pointed out that the Conference was not authorized or endorsed.”

Father Miguel Oltra protested against the attitude of the hierarchy that contrasted with its permissiveness towards the left, having allowed a meeting, held in El Escorial, of the association Fe Cristiana y Cambio Social en Hispanoamérica (Christian Faith and Social Change in Latin America), which brought together supporters of the Liberation Theology and Christian-Marxist dialogue. Finally, the Conference was held, but without the support of the Episcopal Conference or the Vatican. Guerra Campos did not attend, although he sent a telegram of support. The Conference began on September 26 at the Basilica del Pilar. In the homily, Oltra criticized the politics of hierarchy, Liberation Theology, and more specifically the heterodox theologian, Hans Küng.

The Episcopal Conference was controlled by Tarancón. And, to a large extent, Guerra Campos was marginalized. On April 13, 1973, his appointment as the new archbishop of Cuenca was made public. The ceremony of entry into the diocese had a small number of attendees from among the hierarchies, highlighting the presence of Marcelo González Martín; which reflected the estrangement from the Episcopal Conference of the new bishop of Cuenca. In a note entitled, “Normas del obispado y acuerdos de la Conferencia Episcopal” (“Norms of the Bishopric and Agreements of the Episcopal Conference”), published in the Bulletin of the diocese, the powers of the Episcopal Conference regarding the actions of bishops were stated. This provoked new criticism from the followers of Tarancón, such as the magazine Vida Nueva.

The assassination of Admiral Carrero Blanco by the terrorist organization ETA on December 20, 1973 once again highlighted the discrepancies between the different sectors of the Church. His burial was the occasion for a noisy, but not excessively large, demonstration organized by members of the Confraternity of Priests, like Venancio Marcos, and Fuerza Nueva, with Blas Piñar at the forefront, where the Civil Guard, the Army were cheered and shouts of “Tarancón to the wall” given. The Levantine cardinal was in charge of officiating the funeral in a very tense atmosphere. One of the ministers, Julio Rodríguez, refused to shake the cardinal’s hand during the ceremony, which was later reproached by Franco himself.

Under the mandate of the new president of the government, Carlos Arias Navarro, the political and symbolic conflict did not cease; quite the opposite. It was not only the house arrest of the bishop of Bilbao, Antonio Añoveros and his projected expulsion from Spanish territory, for a homily in defense of Basque; which further worsened relations between the regime and the Catholic Church. Franco, apparently advised by Marcelo González, had his prime minister rectify matters; he did not want a direct conflict with the Vatican, which he knew he would lose. Added to this were the cultural and symbolic conflicts caused by the new “openness” policy promoted by the new minister, Pío Cabanillas.

The premieres of Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell once again scandalized the traditionalists. They did not take long to demand the prohibition of the two works and the intervention of the Episcopal Conference. In effect, from its perspective, a Jesus Christ was shown, “not as a son of God, but as a fearful social leader.” And the same happened with Godspell, in which Jesus appeared as “a hysterical and screaming rock opera singer. Surrounded by half-naked whores, mediocre apostles and a libidinous Magdalene who caresses Jesus continuously, highlighting her carnal appetites.” For the editors of Iglesia-Mundo, it was a sample of “blasphemous colonialism.” Julián Gil de Sagredo described Godspell as a “sacrilegious and blasphemous play.” The playwright Pablo Villamar, a member of Fuerza Nueva, presented as an alternative a play entitled, Jesucristo Libertador (Jesus Christ, Liberator).

For its part, the Confraternity of Priests convened a conference at the end of September 1974 in Cuenca, under the aegis of Guerra Campos. In the course of the Conference, the sympathetic press highlighted the figure of the priest and theologian, Luis Vera, canon of the Cathedral of Malaga. Vera accused the progressive theologians of being “the paratroopers the devil,” whose claim was “to give birth to new churches from five-star hotels.” At the end of the event, Vera, a short man, was hoisted up by some of his fellow priests, as highlighted in a photo by Pueblo newspaper.

For Vera, the new theologians were neither Spanish nor theologians, because “they do not use the weapons of Tradition and the Magisterium of the Church;” and they were limited to “copying foreigners.” He denounced “Philosophy” and then “Liberal Theology” as “Trojan horses” to subvert the Church from within. “Next to her, the subversion led by existentialism and Marxism.” He criticized González Ruíz and Díez Alegría, both of whom he accused of trying to sell us “a faith without faith, which wants to substitute God for man, charity for philanthropy and faith itself for revolution, violent if necessary.” Vera was especially hard on González Ruíz, who wanted to convince the Marxists that God was not a hindrance and ended up fabricating a God who, of course, “does not hinder anyone.”

Vera asked the Episcopal Conference to maintain religion classes at the University, institutes and schools; find solutions to the issue of Clergy Social Security. He also demanded clarification on the Justice and Peace Commission, chaired by Joaquín Ruíz Jiménez. He deemed it necessary to demand the anti-modernist oath from all who held office in the Church. He asked for the accounts of Cáritas Española, and reports on Christians for Socialism; and the control over emigrant chaplains, among whom “the anti-Spanish and the Marxists” abounded. The government demanded the defense of “the confessional State;” and that Jehovah’s Witnesses were not to be included in the Law of Religious Freedom as a Christian Church; and the monitoring of public morals.

The content of Vera’s lecture was well received by Fuerza Nueva. The canon of Malaga had “materially nailed the Jesuit Díez Alegría and his companion from Malaga, González Ruíz.” And Que pasa presented the Confraternity of Priests as “a dam against modern heresies.”

5. The Secular Conservative Alternative

At that time, and in response to the situation, a secular right-wing project emerged, the work of one of the regime’s thinkers, Gonzalo Fernández de la Mora, who in 1965 had published his controversial book, El crepúsculo se las ideologías (The Twilight of Ideologies), in whose pages not a few saw a legitimation of the technocratic elite that had run the state since the late 1950s. On his part, Fernández de la Mora never abandoned his youthful Catholicism. He was not an anti-religious thinker, although he clashed on more than one occasion with traditionalists and fundamentalists for his positive assessment of Ortega y Gasset and Xavier Zubiri. However, he clearly perceived, although not without displeasure at first, the changes undergone by Catholicism since Vatican II, judged them irreversible and drew his own conclusions. In the new context, the confessional nature of the State was indefensible. And he opposed any form of political theology or recourse to religious enthusiasm.

Mora’s alternative was a new secular conservatism. In El crepúsculo se las ideologías and other writings, Fernández de la Mora accepted modern consciousness, which was as much as saying the functional rationality of calculation and efficiency; the rationality accepted by the Weberian “disenchantment of the world,” and with it the fragmentation of worldviews, the loss of a unity of religious world-vision, and, above all, the experience of relativism. Consequently, his philosophy of history, taken directly from Augusto Comte, was decidedly progressive, “the laboratory of pathos to logos.” Progress was synonymous with the rationalization of the various social, political and cultural spheres. In the field of religions, at least in Europe and developed societies, there was the “internalization of beliefs,” that is, secularization. In that sense, alternatives, such as, Christian democracy were already anachronistic. In the new, scientific-industrial context, religion was increasingly displaced to the private sphere. Furthermore, revealed religiosity could not monopolize the content of ethics, since there was a rational and natural ethic, valid for all: “Revelation is the object of faith; the moral order is the object of rational acceptance.” Religion was not “primarily and fundamentally something communal; it is essentially a relationship with God, from which community consequences are derived;” it was “individuals and not nations that were the subjects of acts of faith.” Consequently, he was averse to the confessional state, which he considered a “historical anecdote:” “Pure religion is a solitude with God.” For this reason, he not only criticized the traditionalists, but the leftist theologians, like González Ruíz, who wanted a new politicization of the faith.

Naturally, such views did not appeal to the traditionalists. The one in charge of criticizing him was the American, Frederick D. Wilhelmsen, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Dallas and Extraordinary Professor at the University of Navarra. In his criticism, he accused Fernández de la Mora of having embraced “a clearly positivist policy,” whose main enemy was not liberalism or socialism, but “Catholic traditionalism in all its forms.” In his response, Fernández de la Mora called Wilhelmsen’s article “totally chaotic,” which could only be taken “relatively seriously.” In his plea, he reiterated his secularizing views: “What I think is that religiosity consists, fundamentally, in a relationship between man and God, not in a social pact or rhetoric.”

6. Catholic Neoconservatism And Religious Freedom

In January 1963, the first issue of the Atlántida magazine came out, a response to which fell to the historian, Florentino Pérez Embid. The magazine was edited by Rialp, a company closely linked to Opus Dei. At that time, the Andalusian historian distinguished three currents in the Spanish intelligentsia: traditionalism, Christian progressivism and universalist Catholicism. The description of the first seemed like a tirade against Punta Europa. It was a process faithful to Catholic orthodoxy, but it did not devote due attention to the development of “the answers that today are demanded by the new problems posed by thought and by life.” The second was manifested among Catholics adhering to what Pérez Embid called the “bourgeois left,” that is, La Institución Libre de Enseñanza (The Free Institution of Education), the “98” and Ortega y Gasset. Finally, “universal Catholicism,” the trend with which Embid himself identified, was characterized by “the breadth of horizons and a more energetic deepening in the permanent and living Catholic orthodoxy.” In this position were combined the renewal of the typical doctrines of traditional thought in philosophy and history, and “a careful attention to the orientations of contemporary science and thought, and a positive and open attitude towards the current transformation of social structures and of the forms of life.”

Atlántida positively received the declaration of religious freedom and the content of the Second Vatican Council. For Millán-Puelles, the principle of religious freedom was “a fundamentally positive sign,” “a good in itself.” And thus religious freedom was based on the dignity of the human person, “a person with whom God wants a free dialogue.” For his part, Recasens Siches—disciple of Ortega y Gasset and exiled after the Civil War—considered religious freedom as an essential right of the human person. It was, deep down, the only one of all freedoms that possessed an “absolute character.” In this sense, he considered that in Christian doctrine and the historical development of Christianity there had been a “hurtful contradiction” between religious intolerance, on the one hand, and the doctrine held by the majority of Christian philosophers, on the other. Fortunately, the theological and doctrinal foundations of intolerance had been “suppressed and buried by the Second Vatican Council.”

From the perspective of the Second Vatican Council, Gustave Thils analyzed pre-conciliar theories on religious freedom, concluding that the Catholic doctrine was historically very complex and that its apparent uniformity turned out to be more apparent than real. And it is that this doctrine had to be studied in different historical and social contexts and could not be interpreted or defended sub specie aeternitatis. Hence, it was necessary for the new generations “to invent in a certain way—under the influence of the holy spirit—the new type of relationship and the renewed form of encounter that is concretely imposed.”

7. Privilege, Secularization And Decadence

With the death of Francisco Franco, said the chronicler of the Ricardo de la Cierva regime, “an entire era” ended. Undoubtedly, the process of political change culminated in a kind of “agreed rupture.” However, on the social realm there was a perceptible continuity in many respects. And the Catholic Church was one of the institutions that managed to control, as far as possible, and for its own benefit, the transition. The “passive revolution” advocated by Montini and Tarancón can be said to have triumphed in its general aims. Significantly, while Marcelo González, and not Guerra Campos, officiated the funerals for the soul of Francisco Franco in the Plaza de Oriente, Tarancón, in the Church of Jerónimos Monastery, in a ceremony with a deep medieval aftertaste, lectured, paternally, Juan Carlos I on the characteristics and content that the new political situation should have.

Without the support of an increasingly exhausted regime, the traditionalist sectors were progressively ostracized. Miguel Oltra was “exiled” to Cullera and away from Madrid. Guerra Campos was confined to his headquarters in Cuenca. The Confraternity of Priests continued to exist, but was increasingly marginalized and isolated by the ecclesiastical hierarchy. Fuerza Nueva finally became a political party. After multiple failures, Piñar won a seat in Madrid in the 1979 elections. In March 1978 he presented, at the headquarters of his party, the schismatic bishop Marcel Lefebvre, who had published his book, Yo acuso al Concilio (I Accuse the Council), in Spain; which alienated him from the support of Catholics. These sectors, with great intellectual and political courage, but without any efficacy, opposed the Political Reform Law, the Constitution and secularizing laws, such as, divorce, and later abortion.

Meanwhile, Tarancón and his acolytes continued to apply the Maurrasian maxim of “politique d’abord.” As José Luis López Aranguren pointed out, despite appearances, the Levantine cardinal promoted a “center policy.” Basically, his party was Unión del Centro Democrático (the Union of the Democratic Center, the “Zentrum Católico,” where former Francoists, numerous Acenepistas [members of the National Catholic Association of Propagandists (ACNP); they are also called “propagandists” or “Christian Democrats”], and Tácito militants. Which marginalized not only fundamentalists, traditionalists or the extreme left, but genuine Christian Democrats, such as, Joaquín Ruíz Jiménez and José María Gil Robles.

In the 1978 Constitution, an important mention was made of the Catholic Church and none other (article 16.3). Without being explicitly confessional, it created the conditions for the State to be constitutionally obliged to “cooperate” with the Catholic Church. In addition, freedom of education and the right of children to receive religious and moral training that was in accordance with the convictions and preferences of their parents was guaranteed (27.3). The state was not actually secular, but non-denominational. Later, with the UCD government, came the 1979 agreements, in which religious assistance to the Armed Forces, the military service of clergy and religious, religious education, the financing of the clergy and the Church by the part of the state, and so on. These agreements demonstrated the dependence of the Church on financial aid from the state.

However, what seemed unstoppable was the process of secularization of Spanish society that began in the 1960s. As López Aranguren and Fernández de la Mora, each in their own way, anticipated, and later corroborated by not a few sociologists, religious and moral faith was privatized. However, the necessary secularization of institutions degenerated into what the philosopher Augusto del Noce has called “natural irreligion,” that is, a spiritual attitude characterized by “an absolute relativism, so that all ideas are seen in relation to the psychological and social situation of those who affirm them, and, therefore, valuable only from the utilitarian point of view of the stimulus for life.”

Furthermore, new winds were blowing in the Vatican. Paul VI died on August 6, 1978. And after the ephemeral period of Albino Luciani, John Paul I, an authentic restorative process was launched by the hand of the Polish Karol Wojtyla, John Paul II, a pontiff who had suffered the rigors of communism and so he did not understand, nor did he have to understand, dialogue with the Marxists, nor the ethical, moral and political permissiveness of the previous period. In the new context, Tarancón and his acolytes were upset. According to some sources, the new pontiff, upon receiving the Spanish cardinal who, at the age of seventy-five, presented his previous resignation, accused him of being responsible for the decline of Catholicism in Spain, “while we strive to subdue communism each time weaker.”

However, the advent of Wojtyla did not really mean a reinforcement of Spanish traditionalism. His restoration project had a different character and other intentions. Nevertheless, he promoted the beatification processes of the Catholics killed during the Civil War, something that Paul VI had always rejected. Significantly, when Wojtyla arrived in Spain on his first successful trip, the PSOE had won the 1982 elections by an overwhelming majority, and Miguel Oltra died in Madrid. Shortly after, on the emblematic date of November 20, Fuerza Nueva dissolved itself, after its electoral failure. Isolated and forgotten within the Catholic Church itself, José Guerra Campos, after his dismissal as bishop of Cuenca, settled in Madrid to care for a sick relative. Finally, he died in Barcelona, in an apartment at the María Inmaculada School, belonging to the Spanish Confraternity of Priests, on July 15, 1997.

John Paul II relied on a new generation of conservative bishops, among whom Ángel Suquía and Antonio María Rouco Varela stood out, rectifiers, as far as possible, of the previous situation. However, the secularizing process advanced irreversibly. The seminaries were empty; the number of practicing Catholics plummeted; and political life was established outside the Church. Good proof of this were the abortion and homosexual marriage laws of the government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, approved practically without public debate. In fact, it was something that, in the social imagination, had been taken for granted for a long time. So much so that when the Popular Party governed, under the leadership of Mariano Rajoy, none of those laws was repealed. And it is that in the ideology of the Spanish right, Catholicism or “Christian humanism” no longer appears as the dominant reference, but liberalism.

8. Spain: Land Of Mission

There is no doubt, then, that the situation of Catholicism in Spain is in a profound decline, although it continues to enjoy undoubted socio-economic privileges. Fernando Sebastián, Archbishop Emeritus of Pamplona and Tudela, considers that “in these years of democratic life, the Christian life of the Spanish has weakened… Since the 1970s, Spanish sacramental practice has dropped to less than half. During the last thirty or forty years we have been suffering from a severe vocational crisis that has drastically reduced the number of priests and religious in our churches and institutions, and the dominant trends are inclined towards secularism and moral permissiveness.” He wonders, at the same time, if all this was a consequence of the Second Vatican Council: “We do not know what would have happened with the continuity of the previous situation and without the celebration of the Council. Could Spain have continued for a long time as an island of Tridentine Catholicism in a liberal and secularized Europe? In any case, it is evident that the Catholic Church, “has been reduced to a minority of practicing members, has lost significance and social influence, lives in a rather marginal situation and is sometimes undervalued by opinion and by the public powers.”

Faced with this situation, there has been a tendency to focus on defending the Catholic corporate and institutional interests. However, the struggle between conservatives and progressives within Spanish Catholicism continues. And the conciliar spirit has revived, after the resignation of Josef Ratzinguer. Good proof of this has been the controversy of the exhumation of Francisco Franco’s mortal remains from his tomb in the Basilica of the Valley of the Fallen.

In May 2011, a so-called Committee of Experts for the Future of the Valley of the Fallen was created, chaired by the socialist, Ramón Jáuregui, commissioned by the PSOE for dialogue with progressive Catholic sectors. Among its members, left-wing Catholics, such as, Manuel Reyes Mate, Catalan nationalist priests like the historian Hilari Raguer, and Carlos García de Andoaín, federal coordinator of Christian Socialists. Cardinal Rouco Varela rejected the presence of ecclesiastics on the Commission. On the other hand, the conclusions were as expected: The Valley of the Fallen was the most significant monument of “national-Catholicism.” It had to relocate and resignify itself; and Franco’s corpse had to be taken out of its grave in the Basilica.

The conclusions had no political consequences, as the PSOE lost the 2011 elections. The government of Mariano Rajoy did nothing about it. However, in February 2013 Josef Ratzinguer resigned as Pontiff, and Peter’s chair was occupied by the Argentine Jesuit Jorge Mario Bergoglio. Reyes Mate and other leftist theologians expressed their hope regarding the political significance of the new pontificate. It was “the beginning of a new time.” It has not been the only one. A philosopher like Gianni Vattimo has stated that, with Bergoglio, the Catholic Church today represents the “emancipatory sense of religion,” “the struggle against imperialism and capitalist exploitation,” “a Communist International, today, can only be religious and Christian.”

The arrival to the government of the socialist Pedro Sánchez raised the question again. And, finally, after a series of conversations and pacts between the Spanish government and the Holy See, the mortal remains of Francisco Franco were taken out, on October 24, 2019, from his tomb in the Basilica of the Valley of the Fallen to the cemetery of Mingorrumbio, in El Pardo. Quite a symbolic event. Perhaps this is one of the last episodes of the consequences of the Second Vatican Council in the recent history of Spain.

Like Pontius Pilate, the Catholic Church tried to wash its hands. Of course, he did not succeed. In a display of typically clerical cynicism, Monsignor Luis Argüello, spokesman for the Episcopal Conference, affirmed that “It was one thing not to oppose him and another to say that the Church supports him.” Later, he said it was “time to look forward” and “seal the reconciliation.” Once the exhumation was done, he limited himself to reiterating the Church’s non-involvement in that political decision, although he criticized the content of the homily dedicated to Franco during the ceremony, which he described as hagiographic. This good man surely thinks he is subtle. But he is no more than a Pharisee. Or, what is worse, he underestimates us. He takes us for fools.

Bergoglio’s pontificate is assuming a true intellectual, political and moral regression, that is, a return to the eccentricities of the Second Vatican Council. Good proof of this is the content of the latest encyclical of the current pontiff, Fratelli tutti, whose content is a poorly digested amalgam of progressivism, ecology, political correctness and ecumenism: all seasoned by typical Vatican eclecticism – again, complexio oppositorum. In short, a mediocre, heavy, lumpy text that, except for the brief references to divinity, could have been signed by any member of a Masonic lodge. And it is, to a large extent, that the thought of the current pontiff is inserted in what the theologian Russell Ronald Reno has called “the ideological consensus of the postwar period,” that is to say, “the empire of the weak gods.”

On the other hand, the COVID-19 epidemic has highlighted even more, as the philosopher Giorgio Agamben pointed out, the crisis of Catholicism, by highlighting that European societies no longer believe in anything other than “naked life;” and, furthermore, the absolute hegemony of “the religion of science.” “First of all, the Church, which, becoming the servant of science, already converted into the true religion of our time, has radically abjured its most essential principles. The Church, under a Pope named Francis, has forgotten that Francis embraced lepers. She has forgotten that one of the works of mercy is visiting the sick. She has forgotten that the martyrs teach that one must be willing to sacrifice life before faith, and that renouncing one’s neighbor means renouncing faith.”

With regard to Spain, Bergoglio’s performance has been devastating. He has not bothered to visit our country, not even on the anniversary of Saint Teresa of Jesus. He ruthlessly criticized the discovery and evangelization of America. For years, the Catholic Church has become, especially in Catalonia and the Basque Country, a disruptive force at the service of peripheral nationalisms. Catholic is not synonymous with Spanish, and perhaps it never was, as Gonzalo Fernández de la Mora pointed out, in a specific criticism of Menéndez Pelayo’s thesis. Not long ago, Bergoglio welcomed Pedro Sánchez, a staunch atheist, grave robber, and a radical supporter of euthanasia and abortion. Of course, underneath this reception, there is the entire economic mess of the Spanish Catholic Church: concerted teaching, the IBI, the Cathedral of Córdoba, and so on and so forth. However, negotiating with a pathological liar can be a serious mistake. We will see that with the new education law drawn up by Isabel Celáa. I guess the Church hierarchy will get what it deserves.

Meanwhile, Spanish society, as we have already discussed, is a missional land. And faced with this dramatic situation, the Catholic Church is not capable of offering us more than the blandness of COPE or the mediocrity of TV13, whose main message is western films. Never has Spanish Catholicism been so decadent and socially insignificant. A puppet of a state that maintains it, in exchange for complicity and silence. But only a free Church will be able to exercise her mission in society.


This article was originally published in Razón Española, No. 224, February 2021. This translation appears through the kind courtesy and gracious permission of Gonzalo Fernandez de la Mora and Razón Española.


Pedro Carlos González Cuevas is professor of the history of political ideas and history of Spanish thought at UNED. He has been a fellow at the CSIC and at the Center for Political and Constitutional Studies. He is the author of several works on the history of the right wing and conservatism in Spain.


The featured image shows, “Spain pays homage to Religion and to the Church,” by Corrado Giaquinto, painted ca. 1759.

Christ And The Samaritan Woman At The Well

The relationship of man to woman is not just anything: it is particular. It is a fullness, replete with mystery. And it is something completely different for each man and each woman.

The woman is the haunting of a man: a spiritual dimension that both Dante Alighieri and Don Quixote intuited and recognized as central to their quests for being, as men. What would the immortal Christian pilgrim be without his Beatrice? And what would the famous mad knight be without his Dulcinea? How could even the world-changing phenomenon of Christ have been possible without the participation of a mere girl in the Incarnation? “Woman intervenes in history infinitely more than is generally believed or suspected,” says José Ortega y Gasset. One can see this in noir cinema: the more mysterious the woman, the more compelled the man feels. Perhaps every woman is a potential femme fatale for every man is interested in seeing (really seeing) the reality of the woman as completely different from him, facing him and challenging, him but also intriguing him at the same time. Vive la différence!

But the haunting quality is one way: a man is not a haunting for a woman. Instead, a woman carries the image of the beloved in her heart well before she meets the actual man who may match it in real life. For a woman to feel “aflame with love” after a “casual contact” with a particular man, “a secret and tacit surrender of her being to that model of a man which she has always carried within herself” has to have “preceded” the event of falling in love with him. The man simply fulfils the romantic prophecy somehow instilled in the woman long ago, once she recognizes him. The man is thus always a known quantity that the woman expects and awaits. The mystery for the woman is in the romantic process of discovery of her own feelings, and not so much in the man himself. Hence the mythic scene of mutual recognition in Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot when Nastasya Filippovna first beholds Prince Myshkin, and he first beholds her: what is revealed is different for each of them. The woman understands something new about herself, while the man dwells on the mystery of the woman.

But something else happens entirely when the man is Christ.

The Samaritan woman meets Christ at the well (John 4: 1-42)–the preordained place for Old Testament betrothals known as “Jacob’s Well” (Isaac with Rebecca, Jacob with Rachel, Moses with Tsiporah). There is thus a romantic expectation surrounding any conversation that takes place here–an understanding that something of life-altering import will occur precisely here, in this place of time-hallowed tradition allowing for sudden matchmaking.

The Samaritan woman is bold, flirtatious, and experienced: there is nothing innocent about her. She has not come to draw water with blushing dreams of a bridegroom, since she has had five husbands, And yet she will meet precisely that: the Bridegroom of all bridegrooms: and He will shake all of her assumptions, challenge all of her brash self-confidence, by meeting her (it would seem) on the only ground she is prepared to understand—the ground of acknowledged sexual maturity, sealed in marriage—a sacrament she has already violated five times.

The Samaritan woman’s arrival at the well where Christ has paused, “wearied with his journey,” must have been provocative. How or why does He say to her, “Give me to drink?” One can imagine a peremptory tone of command—a sexual note of attraction or interest—or an exhausted expression of thirst in the heat of the day, “about the sixth hour” (meaning noon or midday when the sun is at its hottest directly overhead). Perhaps all three at once.

What is fascinating about this dialogue is the length of it, focused as it is for a full twenty verses on just Jesus Christ and an anonymous woman of Samaria. There is no other conversation with a woman as long as this in any of the four Gospels. Dramatically, the exchange is unequalled because it builds on a sexual charge that explicitly includes women in Christ’s ministry to the world. Like the woman taken in adultery (John 8: 1-11), Christ forgives her—for the Samaritan woman too is guilty of adultery (Matthew 19: 9; Mark 10: 2-12; Luke 17: 18)—serial monogamy is still adultery. Of all the sins in specifically female terms of experience, adultery is surely the most common. And even though it takes two to tango, it is the female partner in crime who has always been seen as bearing the full sinful brunt for both. For if Man is fallen, Woman is fallen in a more particular way. The New Testament abounds with references to sinful temptresses who become penitent, from the Magdalene (“healed of seven devils”) to the Mary who anoints Christ’s head and washes His feet with her tears, drying them with her hair (John 12: 1-8). But only the Samaritan woman is given a voice, a personality, in the course of a complete and sustained dialogue.

In fact, the Samaritan woman never gives Christ what He requests: a simple drink of water from the well. This ironic denial is striking. After observing that the stranger accosting her is not following the social conventions, and noticing that he does not have any water jug of his own to fill in the same way as everyone else, she begins to consider the enigma in front of her with a mixture of confusion and curiosity. Who is this strange Jew who ignores that she is from Samaria (when all Jews do not normally consort with Samaritans)? And why does he speak to her in riddles about “living water?”

There cometh a woman of Samaria to draw water: Jesus saith unto her, Give me to drink.
(For his disciples were gone away unto the city to buy meat).

This parenthetical proof that Christ is alone by the well confirms the intimacy of the encounter. He is alone with her, a stranger to His own tribe, and He dares to address her. She is not expecting anything like this and yet she appears calm and collected—completely equal to the situation.

Then saith the woman of Samaria unto Him, How is it that thou, being a Jew, askest drink of me, which am a woman of Samaria? For the Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans.

The defensive tone, together with her surprise, suggests that she is ready to cut the conversation short. She does not seem to like His attention.

But if her mysterious interlocutor has succeeded in throwing her off balance just by initiating the conversation, then the woman of Samaria will find herself still more flummoxed by the cryptic way He answers her questions.

Jesus answered and said unto her, If thou knewest the gift of God, and who it is saith to thee, Give me to drink; thou wouldest have asked of him, and he would have given thee living water.

So, He is not thirsty, after all! Now He is turning the tables and saying that He has the best of all water to offer her, but she does not know it. The request for water has only served as a pretext for Him to draw her in—to provoke her as much as she has perhaps felt provoked by Him—to set aside not only the conventions but the situation of the well itself, in order to seduce her into seeing some higher truth. The echo of Moses giving his children manna in the desert and striking a rock to provide water is behind these words: the miraculous God-given water and food from above. The well is still the sign of the seduction scene, but Christ’s emphasis on “the gift of God” elevates them both suddenly from the earthly to the heavenly plane. Listening to Him, the woman of Samaria is increasingly seduced. She lets herself rise up alongside Him, the better to understand the strange words she is hearing. She wants to understand now: what is more, she will address Him three times now as “Sir.”

The woman saith unto Him, Sir, thou hast nothing to draw with, and the well is deep: from whence then hast thou that living water?
Art thou greater than our father Jacob, which gave us the well, and drank thereof himself, and his children, and his cattle.

The prompt alacrity of her response shows her to be a woman of quick wit and self-confidence. She is not afraid to confront Him with a reasonable doubt, and she is courteous with Him. Her naming of the well’s creator also attests to her piety, which she seems proud to communicate. Yet the stranger listening to her in turn is steadily unconcerned with tired conventionalities, such as clan loyalties or rote pieties. The way He will steer their conversation next is calculated to deepen the woman’s sense of mystery, and to appeal to the woman’s truer relationship to God. He will keep her hooked on His voice because He knows she is thirsty too, in her own way, for something she has only dimly intimated in the course of her chaotic life.

Jesus answered and said unto her, Whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again:
But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life.

The Johannine Gospel is especially replete with this water imagery that stands for immortality of the human soul. “He that believeth on me shall never thirst,” Christ tells his disciples—explaining how Moses gave perishable gifts, “but my Father giveth you the true bread from heaven,” which He calls “the bread of life” (John 6). And on the last day of the Jews’ feast of tabernacles, Christ again proclaims, “If any man thirst, let him come unto me, and drink. He that believeth on me, as the scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water” (John 7: 37-38). This “living water” is of the Spirit, or the Holy Ghost, which will be released upon Christ’s crucifixion and glorification after death. This is the Mystery that is in suspension, awaiting fulfilment. “It is expedient for you that I go away: for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send him unto you” (John 16: 7). All of this “living water” will come to clarify and heal everything dead and dying from sin in the world, at a certain God-appointed time.

But the woman of Samaria cannot know or understand what Christ’s own disciples will struggle to understand: she can only intuit “the Spirit of Truth,” the Holy Spirit, as a principle of larger and enlivening joy to come. She can only guess that the mysterious stranger means what He says, and that she can perhaps profit from this vague boon that He is promising. The way she carefully extends Him credit, without herself giving anything away, is a prodigy of psychology, so true to human life: intent on salvaging self-respect by clinging to self-interest, she shelters behind a prudence which she hopes is convincing:

The woman saith unto him, Sir, give me this water, that I thirst not, neither come hither to draw.

She does not sound convinced: she only sounds polite. But she does not want to foolishly forfeit some benefit that seems to be in the offing, either. She also sounds firm: as if to say, all right—if you really have these goods, let’s see you hand some over—do you have any samples of your wares? She is congratulating herself on her own cleverness: there, she thinks, now I’ve called your bluff. I hadn’t come to buy this here, but I’ll give your water a fair chance, if it even exists.

The response she receives to her attempt to remain cool and self-enclosed is masterful. In one stroke, the stranger touches her one weak spot that betrays all pretense of self-control or self-sufficiency. He mentions a husband as the conventional authority for her to consult in order to condone any such purchasing transaction.

Jesus saith unto her, Go, call thy husband, and come hither.

The woman is thunderstruck by the revelation that so swiftly and simply unmasks her true situation.

The woman answered and said, I have no husband.

She is suddenly aware, overwhelmed with shame, and she wonders how the stranger could have known – for He immediately says to her, with startling clairvoyance and relentless honesty:

Thou hast well said, I have no husband;
For thou hast had five husbands;
And he whom thou now hast is not thy husband; in that saidst thou truly.

Her current adulterous condition, which is not even papered over with any pretense of a sixth marriage, is what cuts her to the quick. How can this stranger have known the secrets of her whole lifetime, right up to the present moment? It is as if she is standing spiritually naked before Him: there is nowhere she can hide, and no lie she can tell anymore, either to Him or to herself. She is devastated. All she can utter is a last weak attempt at saving her self-esteem, through a jesting sort of observation that underlines the uncanniness of everything she is feeling.

The woman saith unto him, Sir, I perceive that thou art a prophet.

And then, regaining more composure by seeking some refuge in conventionality again:

Our fathers worshipped in this mountain; and ye say, that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.

By saying this, she is trying to demonstrate that she knows what the religious rules are, and that men are bound by more serious obligations that she, a weak and sinful woman, cannot be expected to observe or count for as much, seriously.

But the stranger still listening to her, watching her, and speaking to her with the utmost seriousness—He is not condemning her. He still wants to win her respect, her trust—ultimately, her love—because the only love that will save her is the love she can begin to genuinely feel for God. So, He continues to talk to her frankly, as freely and frankly as He knows she can stand, with rigor but also with tact. He sees the potential in her to change, to melt for the better, to make something honorable and true yet out of the emotional waste of her life. He resolutely keeps her whole tremulous being in view, leading her step by step to comprehend the majesty that is within her to overcome all the shame and the brokenness that she has been feeling before. But she had to be reduced to this vulnerability, for Him to be able to reach her at all, to guide her in this way; otherwise she might never have heard, never have realized, where this conversation with Him was supposed to be leading her.

Jesus saith unto her, Woman, believe me, the hour cometh, when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father.

By this He asks her to see that righteousness and redemption and worship are more independent of place and tradition than she might think: for God is a living God, not bound to the dead letter but invoked by tongues of living fire. “The Kingdom of Heaven is within you”—this is the first great step for the woman to take, into the silence and solitude of her soul before the presence of God. Then He chastises her ignorance, gently:

Ye worship ye know not what: we know what we worship: for salvation is of the Jews.

God made a covenant with His chosen people in the Old Testament, and it is from these roots that the new divine dispensation will be ordered and proceed. Historic time, God’s sense of history, began with the Jews. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—Jacob’s well—all the long line of patriarchs and all their seed, who met and married at this very well—they are all silent witnesses of this very moment of their conversation, a historic and life-changing conversation for the woman listening to Him.

But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship Him.

Now the possibility of salvation is more clearly explained: just as a change is required within this woman, to die to her old ways and to embrace something new and true, so is the path to God to be cleared away and reordered in a radically new way. Nothing can stay the way it was. God is waiting, just as much as this woman is waiting; there is a suspense, a desire, for a mutual unveiling and disclosure. But the humble creature must make the first move towards the Creator, in a way so new that it could never be written down and made into the dead letter of any law. This is a movement of love, of surrender, of vulnerability on top of vulnerability, a humility that dares not raise its eyes in the presence of God, after so many offenses and disappointments and wastage of precious time—how can the soul hope for anything? And yet it must hope against hope—take the leap of love and faith, or die – abandon itself to the Father, “in spirit and in truth,” because there is no other saving place for the suffering soul left to stand.

God is a Spirit: and they that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth.

This last emphasis on the Spirit—the Holy Spirit—is that last precious space to which the woman of Samaria knows she can retreat. Not even the Father anymore, nor even the Son speaking directly to her now—but the Spirit which is thoroughly in both, and beyond both. The woman accepts what the stranger is telling her because she wants to explain her own understanding of what ultimately matters, in what is perhaps her first and fully honest response to Him:

The woman saith unto Him, I know that the Messias cometh, which is called Christ: when He is come, He will tell us all things.

And then, with a disarming directness that she was not until that very last moment prepared to believe, the stranger reveals Himself:

Jesus saith unto her, I that speak unto thee am he.

“I am he” (ani hu) is a phrase of unique power: a kind of uncloaking of divinity which brings everything dramatically to a stop. One recognizes these same words “I am he” pronounced by Christ as He is being arrested, with the immediate effect of overwhelming those who would seek to arrest Him: “As soon therefore as he said to them: I am he, they went backward and fell to the ground” (John 18. 5-6). One can surmise a similar effect is transpiring now for the woman as the Christ reveals Himself suddenly to her.

There is no gap in the narrative here, but there must surely have passed an interval for the woman of Samaria as she beholds the face of Christ—a wordless interval, a piece of eternity—a confirmation of the impossible telescoping of the infinite into the finite and back again—glimpsed and then transforming the woman forever after that glimpse.

And upon this came His disciples, and marveled that He talked with the woman: yet no man said, What seekest thou? Or, Why talkest thou with her?

As with other souls touched and changed in Christ’s wake, the disciples watch the woman of Samaria move and speak in the company of their master in an entirely new way.

The woman then left her waterpot, and went her way into the city, and saith to the men,
Come, see a man, which told me all things that ever I did: is not this the Christ?
Then they went out of the city, and came unto Him.

“Come and see”—more words of power, the first words Christ speaks to the disciples—a phrase that the woman of Samaria adopts now as her own, marks her as a changed woman imbued with a new confidence and joy. Something she never dreamed as being possible before has now suddenly come to pass, and she must now tell the world all about it.


Maia Stepenberg is a Professor of Humanities at Dawson College in Montreal. She is the author of Against Nihilism: Nietzsche Meets Dostoevsky and numerous research articles on Russian and Ukrainian literature. She is currently working on a comparative study of Don Quixote and La Divina Commedia. She lives with her husband and three children in Canada and Argentina.


The featured image shows, “Christus und die Samariterin am Brunnen” (Christ and the Samaritan Woman at the Well”), by Lorenzo Lippi, painted in 1644.

Cathoscope 2021

The craving for foreseeing future events is a temptation as old as humankind and can be regarded as the continuation of the sin of Adam and Eve trying to equal man to God. In modern times, everything is readily available, cheap and easy, and forecasting the future through a horoscope for some people is a daily exercise. However, at the beginning of every year, fortune tellers and astrologists are so pervasive in the media that you can hardly escape charlatans telling you what the new year will look like for health, money and love.

It is some centuries now that the Church has officially condemned astrology, the horoscope and future divination in general as contrary to genuine Catholic teaching. Nevertheless, it is connatural with the gift of prophecy we receive in the Baptism for reading and interpreting the signs of the present age to surely and safely take our way through future events.

By reading recent and present events in the light of our faith, we can outline the Cathoscope for the year 2021, that is, the Catholic horoscope. We are believers and we know that our fate does not belong to the hectic movement of gipsy planets and stars, so it does not make any difference as to the date, month and year in which you were born; the Cathoscope is good for all individuals alike, since our ephemeris (God, Christ, the angels, the Virgin and the saints) are forever fixed and immutable.

Let us see what we can expect in the year 2021.

Health And Wellness

In 2021, the Covid pandemic will still preside over our lives; so, take care of your health. Be cautious; respect confinement and general hygienic prescription – but above all, do not forget to pray for your health and for your dear ones.

During plagues and epidemics in the past centuries, Christianity has always called upon the strong advocacy of Saint Michael, our Lady of Sorrows, Saint Sebastian and Saint Roch. And do not forget to worry about your eternal health, more and more important in time when death is knocking on every other door. It is not by chance that the Latin word for salvation, Salus, means either earthly health and eternal deliverance – taking care of both is the winning choice.

Love And Relationship

This is the very year when you have the possibility to make your own choice in matters of the heart and love. At the outburst of the pandemic last March, Italy was fully packed with handmade many-colored signs hanging from every single window in the country: We will do it: we love our heroes, nurses and doctors. Do not be afraid. Everything is going to be all right. Even ads on TV displayed compassionate and loving communications of mutual support and brotherly love. Everybody conceded, from the Pope to the Italian Premier, from artists to my neighbour, that anything will be the same after Covid – and this thing has changed our lives for the better and forever.

One year later the picture is depressing and disheartening at the very best. We got used to the pandemic and to the daily death toll and we went back to our usual quarrelsome lifestyle. All the colours of those signs have faded away, and ads on TV have reverted to showing how to make easy and quick money through stocks. Compassion, support and shared affection cannot be found any longer anywhere.

We do not need Venus entering Scorpio to revive love and compassion – just look up at our older brothers and sisters, who exercised and taught love and mercy their entire lives: Saint Teresa of Calcutta, Saint Maximilian Kolbe, Saint Vincent de Paul, and legions of others. Let us start modelling our lives after their teachings under the shelter of our Lady of Mercy.

Career And Money

Unless you are among the lucky 1% possessing 40% of western wealth, the coming year is going to be very tough on the business side. Pandemic pending, the unemployment rate will continue to grow, ushering a vast portion of the middle class into poverty.

When hopefully Covid is defeated, the economy will certainly rally back, providing relief to the exhausted western working class, and at the same time putting billions of billions in the coffers of the new superpowers of third millennium (the lucky 1%, as you know them). When you feel Saturn is particularly unfair opposing your natal point, think of your children and grandchildren, who will pay the whopping price tag of the gigantic subsidiary programs most countries have put in place.

Greed is our nemesis star, not Saturn. Think of Saint Martin of Tours who tore his cloak into two halves to provide a little comfort to himself and to the poor. Remember the words of St. John Paul II after the fall of the Berlin wall and the end of the Cold War: communism was defeated but capitalism is not the response to an equal and just distribution of the wealth in our world. May Saint Joseph the Carpenter and his Holy Assistant inculcate into us the way of honest economy and shared wealth.

Considering the vast interest that escalated after Pope Francis encyclical, Laudato si’, we feel it is necessary to add a new column dedicated to:

The Environment

Mixed expectations in year 2021 on the environment front. Despite rampant Thunbergism, the fight against the pandemic has called and will call for a lot of extra pollution (face mask, disposable personal protection gears, etc.) and even the massive vaccine production and distribution will have an environmental cost.

On the other hand, Covid 19 will continue to reduce human mobility, and this is a great news for the environment, because it is without question that tourism and travel are among the greatest polluting human activities. Bad news for airways and those countries who heavily rely on tourism (Italy included) – but maybe it is the right time to ponder the abused adjective sustainable, which the predominant mainstreamers understand as exclusive.

I can hardly believe that crossing the Atlantic on board a multimillion carbon-fiber, hypertech, solar-powered sailing boat can be regarded as the future of sustainable tourism. Unless we want to go back to the good old days when English aristocracy solely toured across Europe for diversion -and thus invented tourism. As the only remedy against noxious elite environmentalism (the notorious 1%) – we claim the intercession of Saint Francis and urge everyone to spread his message, the whole message, glorifying God, man and nature. In that order.

And as a final footnote to our Year 2021 Cathoscope, we send a special greeting to all the children that will be born in this new year: whatever is the belief or disbelief of your parents, you are heartly welcome into this world – we badly need you. And a prayer for those conceived but not born in the current year, your aid from heaven is even more precious and more needed.

Maurizio Mandelli is a businessman by trade and enthusiastic amateur scholar of local history and the arts. He has published two books (War of the Spanish Succession in Lombardy and The Italian Campaign of Napoleon III). He is a regular contributor to local magazines on religion, ethics, society, history and the arts.

The featured image shows, “Mary Help of Christians,” located in the Basilica of Our Lady Help of Christians, Turin, Italy, painted by Tommaso Andrea Lorenzone, ca. 1867.