The Prodigals and the Papa

I meant to spend Lent reflecting
on the Spiritual and Corporal Works of Mercy, but events have come vast and various. Between the collapse of our economy, the crisis of a major religious order, and the radioactive fallout from the pope’s own work of mercy toward Traditionalists, it has been tough to hunker down. Sex abuse, bailouts of bankrupt fatcats, and hints of Nazi scandal . . . this kind of thing bleeds, so it leads. This week I’ll make one last reflection on current events — then count on God in His wisdom to put a stop to them for 14 weeks, so I can finish my series. This three-month hiatus in happenings should prove a welcome breathing space for Catholics, and help me complete my book manuscript by summer — just in time to consider the pope’s upcoming encyclical on economics.

But this week, it’s worth reflecting on a letter Pope Benedict XVI surely wished he didn’t need to write, his note of explanation on why he lifted the excommunications of the four bishops of the Society of St. Pius X. What’s compelling about this letter isn’t so much what it tells us about the Vatican — that nobody in charge has heard of “Google,” and that tambourine-banging liturgists still lurk behind red velvet curtains in the Curia — as what it reveals about the man Josef Ratzinger. It tells us what a kind, courageous, wise, and compassionate father he is. Insofar as he shows us (through smoked Bavarian glass) the Father he works for, Il Papa makes us positively long to embrace Big Daddy.
Fatherhood, authority, patriarchy . . . these aren’t “happy” words anymore. Our civilization has spent two centuries repressing these primal realities, beginning in 1789 with France’s ritual murder of that nation’s earthly father. As the sometimes insightful madman D. H. Lawrence observed in his book on American literature, modernity can best be described as “killing all the fathers,” then wrestling with their ghosts. The so-called “death of God” didn’t end this killing spree, but kicked it into high gear. In Totem and Taboo, Freud equated divine authority with paternal force and fear, tracing our faith in a heavenly father figure to the slavish obeisance paid to tribal patriarchs who hogged all the women and wielded the power. Knock down the heavenly King, and every throne must shake — right down to Archie Bunker’s favorite chair. King James I once worried, “No bishops, no king.” To which we can safely add, “No God, no fathers.”
The converse is also the case. If our image of fatherhood is drawn after Homer Simpson, so we will picture Our Father in heaven — as I must confess I used to do, figuring that catastrophes like tsunamis, genocides, and altar girls could be traced to God snoring at the controls of Springfield’s nuclear reactor. This nap suits modern man just fine, impelled as he is by Descartes’ description of science — which transforms the term that once covered theology and philosophy into the narrow pursuit of practical means to make man “the master and possessor of nature.” In other words, we’re killing the King and dragging Mother Nature to bed by the hair. Sophocles, Sigmund, call your office.
All this comes to mind because this morning I taught my students a famous essay by Christopher Dawson, “The Patriarchal Family in History.” It’s worth a slow, careful read, and not just because it precedes Humanae Vitae by decades in predicting the catastrophic results of decoupling sexual pleasure from fidelity. The essay should be required of Catholic college students if only to teach them that “patriarchy” is something more than the feminist version of “fascist.” (As in, “That dogma is patriarchal,” or “This oatmeal is really fascist.”) In the essay, the distinguished Catholic historian reaches back into anthropological research and classical history to explain how the male-led, monogamous fertile family is the best means to tame the bucking stallion that is masculine sexuality and teach it to pull the plow for women and children. Had he lived longer, Dawson could have pointed to the disappearance of the family wage, the plummeting birthrate, the feminization of poverty, and the rise of the “baby daddy” as grim I-told-you-so’s. The state-dependent dyads left behind when men zip their pants and hit the road are too fragile to serve as the “basic units of society.” No fathers, no families.
Which brings me back to our earthly father, who’s struggling to keep his wayward family members on speaking terms with each other. (Imagine trying to run a Church that makes room for Roger Mahony . . . and Richard Williamson.) Many commentators have responded peevishly to the pope’s apparent naivete about the nuttiness of Bishop Williamson. No one on the pope’s staff tipped him off, and it seems the Holy Father spends less time surfing Trad crank Web sites than he should. Otherwise he might have found out just how unsavory are many of the bishop’s loudly expressed opinions — which range from doubts about the Holocaust to thoughts on the sinfulness of women wearing pants. (A lady colleague and graduate of Christendom College told me one of the favorite non-drinking games in the women’s dorms entailed reciting Williamson’s opinions on feminine education and couture.) There’s something deeply sinister about anyone willing to trivialize the mass murder of any race — much less the biological family of Our Lady and Our Lord. Walker Percy was right to observe that the ongoing, miraculous survival of the Jews (“Where are the Hittites?“) is the single most tangible sign of divine intervention in history — and that those who wished to erase the Jews were trying to rub out God’s fingerprints.
Rehabilitating a man who seems to traduce all this isn’t on the order of digging up Pope John Paul II and trying him for heresy — but it isn’t exactly politic. And the pope is humble enough to admit that he could have handled this matter better. Though it’s hard to imagine how. Would lifting three excommunications out of four have had the same effect on the men of the SSPX? This group is, to all appearances, cleaning house and displaying filial submission to the pope . . . not something the group is known for.
With touching candor, the pope admits in a manly way that he was wounded by the vicious hostility that greeted his mistakes:
At times one gets the impression that our society needs to have at least one group to which no tolerance may be shown; which one can easily attack and hate. And should someone dare to approach them, in this case the pope, he too loses any right to tolerance; he too can be treated hatefully, without misgiving or restraint.
But Benedict doesn’t linger on these outrageous insults to his person and his office — any more than the Man for Whom he vicars complained in the face of blows and spitting. Aware that much of the bad behavior displayed by Traditionalists can be traced to their long isolation and mistreatment at the hands of clergy and bishops (think of them as clerical abuse victims!), the pope calls both sides to repent. Traditionalists need to renounce some dark and cranky habits they developed over 30 years of internal exile, while to those who oppose them with equally un-Christian bitterness Benedict says:
[S]ome of those who put themselves forward as great defenders of the Council also need to be reminded that Vatican II embraces the entire doctrinal history of the Church. Anyone who wishes to be obedient to the Council has to accept the faith professed over the centuries, and cannot sever the roots from which the tree draws its life.
If sometimes Traditionalists seem like rotten, sour apples (the pope suggests), we might consider questioning those men in the mitres carrying chainsaws.
The pope’s tone is poignant and calls to mind the tale of the Prodigal Son. It’s easy to see that amiable Bavarian standing between the prodigal goofball and his pharisaical elder, negotiating a truce and calling both of them to the feast. Which is, after all, what faithful fathers do.

John Zmirak is the author, most recently, of the graphic novel The Grand Inquisitor and is Writer-in-Residence at Thomas More College in New Hampshire. He writes weekly for


John Zmirak is the author, most recently, of The Bad Catholic's Guide to the Seven Deadly Sins (Crossroad). He served from October 2011 to February 2012 as editor of Crisis.

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