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  • Robert Busek | The Daily Knight

When Dealing with Pope Francis, Traditional Catholics Must Be “As Shrewd As Serpents.”

Robert Busek | The Daily Knight

(Photo Cred: Advent Messenger)


The pope’s efforts to restrict the Latin Mass gives traditionalists the chance to practice the little-known virtue of epikeia.


The year of Our Lord 2021 was not a good one for Catholics who celebrate the Traditional Latin Mass (TLM). In July, Pope Francis issued his motu proprio entitled Traditionis Custodes, which essentially reversed Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s efforts to encourage the TLM. Francis claimed that his decision was based on the results of a survey of the bishops (the results of which have never been made public) which convinced him that his predecessor’s decree Summorum Pontificum was exploited to widen the gaps, reinforce the divergences, and encourage disagreements that injure the Church, block her path, and expose her to the peril of division.”


The bishops’ initial reaction to Francis’s decree was somewhat muted, which is probably why the Vatican issued a response to the eleven most commonly asked questions (called dubia) about the decree in early December. In the dubia, Pope Francis expanded the scope of his motu proprio by, among other things, preventing parishes from advertising Latin Masses in their bulletins and forbidding the rites of confirmation and ordination according to the old rite.


So far, this year has seen some small positive developments on this front, such as Pope Francis’s decree preserving the Fraternity of St. Peter’s right to celebrate the sacraments in the Latin Rite. However, that decree also contained the pope’s suggestion “that, as far as possible, the provisions of the motu proprio Traditionis Custodes be taken into account as well,” which reminds everyone that what the Holy Father gives, he can take away just as easily.


All of this has left traditional Catholics in a difficult bind. Our recognition of the authority of the successor of St. Peter is now at odds with our desire to protect and defend the Church’s teachings as reflected in its original liturgy. The key to resolving this conflict is to practice the little-known virtue of epikeia.


Epikeia: The Virtue of Flexibility


Fr. John Hardon’s Modern Catholic Dictionary defines the term thus:


A liberal interpretation of law in instances not provided by the letter of the law. It presupposes sincerity in wanting to observe the law, and interprets the mind of the lawgiver in supplying his presumed intent to include a situation that is not covered by the law. It favors the liberty of the interpreter without contradicting the express will of the lawgiver.


Put simply, epikeia is the virtue of recognizing that, in certain cases, obeying the letter of the law contradicts the spirit which the lawgiver is trying to encourage. The most famous example of this principle comes from Christ Himself in Luke 14:1-6:


One Sabbath, when Jesus went to eat in the house of a prominent Pharisee, he was being carefully watched. There in front of him was a man suffering from abnormal swelling of his body. Jesus asked the Pharisees and experts in the law, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath or not?” But they remained silent. So taking hold of the man, he healed him and sent him on his way.


Then he asked them, “If one of you has a child or an ox that falls into a well on the Sabbath day, will you not immediately pull it out?” And they had nothing to say.


Here, Christ deals handily with the legalism of the Pharisees by reminding them that the law against work on the Sabbath must yield to basic common sense if the intention of the Lawgiver is to be truly fulfilled.


In his discussion on whether or not epikeia is a virtue, St. Thomas Aquinas expands on this theme by reminding his readers that obedience to the law is not an end in itself, but has the higher purpose of securing justice and the common good:


Thus the law requires deposits to be restored, because in the majority of cases this is just. Yet it happens sometimes to be injurious—for instance, if a madman were to put his sword in deposit, and demand its delivery while in a state of madness, or if a man were to seek the return of his deposit in order to fight against his country. On these and like cases it is bad to follow the law, and it is good to set aside the letter of the law and to follow the dictates of justice and the common good.


Therefore, if following a law or other stricture in particular circumstances results in injustice or harm to the common good, then one should feel free to ignore the letter of the law in that particular instance.


Neglecting the Good Sheep


Leaving aside the ongoing debate over the legality of Pope Francis’s injunctions against the TLM, the key issue for our purposes is whether or not they represent the interests of justice and the common good. By any objective measure of the situation, they do not. The numbers simply do not lie:


· In the United States, regular Mass attendance is at an all-time low except among attendees of the TLM, which is particularly attractive to Catholics between the ages of 18 and 39.

· TLM attendees are far better educated in the basic doctrines of the Faith (such as the Real Presence in the Eucharist) than the average Catholic who attends the Novus Ordo (NO).

· As the decades-long “vocations crisis” continues in most NO parishes, vocations to the religious life are growing in traditionalist circles.


By these metrics, traditional Catholics are arguably some of the best sheep in the flock, yet our current shepherd seems uninterested in supporting a movement that is actually preserving and growing the Faith. It’s difficult to imagine how Pope Francis’s policy could possibly reflect a concern for justice and the common good. And yet he is the pope, so how can traditional Catholics effectively oppose him in good conscience?


Putting Epikeia into Practice


In Matthew 10:16, Christ tells his disciples, “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as serpents and as innocent as doves.” As the Vatican attempts to enforce Traditionis Custodes, traditional Catholics must embrace the virtue of epikeia to survive these assaults.


First, we must remember that it’s often best to let sleeping bishops lie. Judging by the unofficial numbers, many of our spiritual leaders are loathe to take the pope’s hardline against TLM parishes, so we should support their efforts at “benign neglect.” In this case, epikeia demands that we not ask these bishops to publicly declare whether they are with us or against us; they will need as much plausible deniability as possible in the months to come.


If traditionalists are unlucky enough to live under a bishop who is hostile to tradition (such as Cardinal Cupich in Chicago), then more active forms of epikeia are necessary. Since the Vatican is seeking to limit our ability to promote the TLM, we will need to find more subtle and independent means of communicating. The best approach, of course, is to work within our circle of NO Catholic friends and neighbors by inviting them to see what they have been missing. Pope Francis’s recent salvos might actually help us in this regard by stimulating interest in the TLM. After all, as the experience of our first parents shows, that which is forbidden becomes instantly more attractive.


We should also hit the more zealous enforcers of Traditionis Custodes where it really hurts: their wallets. Traditional Catholics are under no obligation to tithe to a diocese that limits the TLM, so they should find other, more worthy recipients for that wealth, such as traditional monastic orders. Perhaps a loss of income will succeed in changing hearts and minds where reasoned argument and appeals to charity have failed.


Above all else, we must resist the understandable urge to practice epikeia out of malice or bitterness towards the pope and those bishops who support his efforts against us. As St. Paul reminded the Corinthians, if our efforts to preserve and extend the TLM lack love, then they are worth nothing.


Pope Francis obviously believes that traditional Catholics’ respect for his authority will force them to meekly surrender to his will. But he’s forgotten that though the meek may inherit the Earth, traditionalists are seeking a heavenly crown. By applying the virtue of epikeia, we can be the loyal opposition that encourages the pope to turn aside from the dangerous spiritual road that he is taking the Church down.


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