It has become a cliché with a slightly dark comedic undertone: the perfect family Christmas card photo, with artfully mis-matched clothing, a beach or forest background, and everyone gazing at the same imaginary point in the middle distance. What hides behind the slightly stressed smiles and too-casual-for-comfort poses? The accompanying yearly letter probably won’t mention Dad’s gambling habit or Mom’s drinking, both of which get a little more out of hand each year; it is not obvious from the picture that the teenager is on both academic and behavioral probation at his private school or that the use of a professional photographer means growing debt, rather than financial success. No, this picture is proof of a perfectly happy, perfectly functional family!
This is the image that came to mind as I tried to process the news surrounding Traditionis Custodes, and especially, as I struggled to comprehend that this is all being done for the purpose of “unity.” Disunity certainly seems to be a problem in the Church, and one that I agree the Holy Father should do something about – but a mandate from on high, taking away a legitimate devotion from millions of people, seems like an odd way to go about it. In my mind, I hear the pope gritting his teeth, threatening his children to look at the camera and smile; only unlike the mother in the scenario above, I suppose he is threatening us with excommunication and eternal damnation, rather than the loss of dinner, if we fail to cooperate adequately. Unity, like happiness, or peace, seems like something you can’t truly threaten or coerce or command into being – unless you are the pope.
There is no question that he has a point. If the Church is a family, it is a deeply dysfunctional one. Our bishops are divided on whether or not it is morally acceptable to promote legislation that makes it easier to dismember babies; several rather prominent members of the clergy are perpetually confused on questions pertaining to the Eucharist that any First Communicant is required to be prepared to answer. Those sitting in the pews (and not infrequently those in the sanctuary as well) feel perfectly free to discard any teachings on human sexuality that strike them as obsolete. A person can walk into five different churches in the same diocese and hear five different takes on any of a number of doctrinal points. Liturgical abuses abound to the extent that it is far more likely one will encounter them in any given Novus Ordo Mass than that one would not. (This last is even alluded to in the pontiff’s letter, which should raise the question of why we have not seen a similarly strict motu proprio directed at Age of Aquarius Masses.)