Thursday, November 1, 2007

Good Pope, bad assessment

No sooner do I post an article praising the wonderful legacy left by Bl. Pope John XXIII, especially his calling of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, than does he come in for criticism from no less than Giacomo Cardinal Biffi, archbishop emeritus of Bologna, Italy. Cardinal Biffi has long been known for his feistiness, his keen intellect, good humor, as well as for clearly speaking his mind in public and private. As he approaches his eightieth birthday, he has published a memoir entitled Memorie e digressioni di un italiano cardinale (Memories and Digressions of an Italian Cardinal). In his book, as one might well imagine, published as it is just prior to his superannuation as member of the Sacred College and a few years after his retirement as Bologna’s shepherd, Cardinal Biffi pulls few punches. Among the punches he does not throw, according to Sandro Magister, on whose peerless webpage Chiesa, excerpts of His Eminence’s book appears, Biffi, adhering to the axiom we all learned from our mothers, says almost nothing rather write anything terribly critical about his former archbishop, whom he served as an auxiliary in Milan, the great biblical scholar, Carlo Maria Cardinal Martini, SJ, a man with whom Biffi has little in common, personally, theologically, or pastorally. It is interesting to note that Cardinal Martini was the only challenger to then-Cardinal Ratzinger in the conclave of 2005.

It may surprise some to learn (not those who know me personally) that I am in agreement with many conservative critiques of the post Vatican II Church. The two reforms of the Council I am least open to criticisms of are the definition of the Church as the People of God and the reform of the liturgy, which gives concrete form to this crucial definition of the Church. I am also pretty committed to the Church’s engagement with the world, which Cardinal Biffi often sees, sometimes accurately, as Church capitulating to the world. Engagement with the world is tricky and does mean often challenging the world, especially on ethical and moral issues. In the not too distant past I posted a critique, taken from Romano Amerio’s book Iota Unum on the anthropology of Gaudium et Spes, particularly the new man. So, it was with a small sense of irony (i.e., using it in both positive and negative ways) that I used the first line of this one and only Pastoral Constitution, which makes it a strange and unique canonical document, the status of which remains a matter of debate, for my post on Ché, who was himself committed to the creation of the new socialist man.

Good Pope, good teacher, bad interpreter
When it comes to John XXIII Biffi seems to be content to set up and kick over straw men, assuming the excerpts web-published by Magister are accurate. In the first instance Cardinal Biffi, in a section entitled John XXIII: a good pope, a bad teacher equates the prophets of doom referred to by Il Papa Buono in his great address called Gaudet Mater Ecclesia, given to open the first session of Vatican II, with the prophets of the Bible, including Jesus himself, who gave warning first to Israel and then to the Church about the consequences of deviating from the Truth revealed by God. But, it is most helpful to point out that the Pope is not speaking to or about those who we might revere as prophets in our day. Rather, he tells his audience that he is referring to those who see in our day "nothing but prevarication and ruin. They say that our era, in comparison with past eras, is getting worse, and they behave as though they had learned nothing from history, which is, none the less, the teacher of life. They behave as though at the time of former Councils everything was a full triumph for the Christian idea and life and for proper religious liberty". It helps to point out that Pope John XXIII, as an academic historian and professor of Church history prior to entering the Holy See’s diplomatic service, knew whereof he spoke. His special area of expertise was the Council of Trent, focusing on the greatest figure of that great Council, St. Charles Borromeo, who Biffi, as a native of Milan, the diocese for which he was ordained first a priest and then a bishop, prior his becoming the ordinary of Bologna, greatly reveres.

In a further section Cardinal Biffi first praises and then criticizes Pope John's maxim "Distinction must be made between error and the person in error". This is to say that a distinction must be made between sin and the sinner, between heresy and the heretic, etc. His criticism takes the form of saying that when condemning error, which the Church has continued to do even after Vatican II, the Church does not condemn an abstraction, but also the person who teaches error. What is puzzling is that Biffi himself ends this correction with these words: "The Christian people must be put on guard and defended against those who actually sow error, without ceasing to seek out his true well-being, and without judging anyone's subjective responsibility, which is known to God alone". This is puzzling because it merely re-states what Pope John XXIII said and meant in the first place. So, it seems to me, based on reading these excerpts, that perhaps Cardinal Biffi could have been a bit more generous in reading and interpreting the words and pontificate of Pope John XXIII. Another odd thing about all this is that Biffi seems to be playing to his public persona, something Cardinal Martini, who is in many ways his nemesis, also gets accused of doing.

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