The word “rigid” has become something of a pejorative term in the common parlance of some clerics and theologians in recent years. The Holy Father himself suggested that young Catholics who prefer the Traditional Latin Mass suffer from a psychological rigidity that must be encountered and healed through a process of “digging.” Another example of the pejorative use of rigidity (though not explicitly but by implication) is that of the Superior General of the Jesuits, Fr. Arturo Sosa Abascal. Fr. Abascal is quoted as saying that he does not like the word doctrine because it “brings with it the image of the hardness of stone.” He says that “instead the human reality is much more nuanced.”
The Church is in Need of Rigidity
Now, what is one to make of all this? It seems that there are a couple things that need to be both clarified. First, what exactly does it mean to be “rigid”? Second, is rigidity always bad—always to be avoided? Or, can rigidity be good in certain contexts? It is my intention to show that the Church is in need of rigidity today given present circumstances.
So, what does the charge of rigidity amount to? Pope Francis responded to some critics of Amoris Laetitia by saying that some “persist in seeing only white or black, when rather one ought to discern in the flow of life.” The Pope has also commented in several places that those (particularly clerics) who are rigid tend to be “worldly,” “sick,” “lead a double life,” and they are “hypocrites.” Francis also compares such rigid clerics to the Pharisees of Jesus’ day. In contrasting Jesus’ attitude towards ministry with a more rigid attitude the Pope remarks, “It is not Catholic (to say) ‘this or nothing:’ This is not Catholic, this is heretical. Jesus always knows how to accompany us, he gives us the ideal, he accompanies us towards the ideal, He frees us from the chains of the laws’ rigidity and tells us: ‘But do that up to the point that you are capable.’ And he understands us very well. He is our Lord and this is what he teaches us.”
I take the allusion to the Pharisees to be instructive in how we ought to understand what rigidity is. According to the above quotes, it seems that to be rigid is to manifest a lifestyle that is characterized by hypocrisy and sanctimony. A rigid person wants everyone to know that he is a moral man, and he has high moral expectations to which he holds others. However, in reality, the rigid person does not live the life he preaches and is out of touch with the realities of day to day life and human weakness. Jesus allows us to do only what we are ‘capable’ of doing, according to Pope Francis, but the rigid man strictly holds us to the ideal and has no patience for accompaniment. A rigid man is a hard-liner in love with the traditions of the past and the hard demands of the law, while the non-rigid man is attentive to the needs and desires of people in the here-and-now and accommodates them accordingly so that they are not pushed beyond what they can bear.
I do not think there is much doubt that to be rigid in the above sense is something to be avoided, and it is right and good to notice it and root it out. However, is there another type of rigidity? Is there a way to live that can incorporate traditional elements (such as the Latin Mass), and strict adherence to the law, with mercy and accommodation? I believe there is a way to live such a life and that there are many examples of this. I shall give just one example below.
Dietrich von Hildebrand
Dietrich von Hildebrand was one of the great philosophers of the 20th century. His conversion to Catholicism as a young man in the university was the result of God’s grace working upon von Hildebrand’s naturally inquisitive and pious spirit guided by many important experiences in his life. When the threat of Nazism became apparent to von Hildebrand he was compelled to take action to stop that evil ideology in the name of Christ and His Church. He started to publish a weekly Christian magazine in Vienna that denounced Nazism. Von Hildebrand drew in a plethora of criticism and hate for this action. He was the recipient of many death threats, suffered bankruptcy as the result of the many roadblocks put in the way of his publication, and he and his family were nearly rounded up and sent to a concentration camp by the SS before a harrowing escape from Europe.
Through all of his experiences, von Hildebrand attended daily Mass and spent many hours each day in prayer. During a meeting with the then-Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli (who later became Pope Pius XII), in 1935 von Hildebrand said, “Is your Eminence aware that a historic moment has taken place in Germany, the like of which happens only every three or four hundred years, a moment in which (possibly) millions of Protestants and Socialists would have found their way to the Church if all the bishops in Germany—without any compromise—had opposed Nazism with the words Non possumus, if they had built a wall against Nazism and denounced all of its crimes, if they had pronounced a total anathema against Nazism?” Cardinal Pacelli replied, “Indeed, but martyrdom is something the Church cannot command. It must be freely chosen.”[i]
Notice how von Hildebrand does not condemn or seek to anathematize or build a wall around any particular person. Rather, he sought to form an embargo around Nazi ideology to cut it off from the world. He sought the conversion of souls and the destruction of evil. In his efforts he risked life, limb, and fortune; and he offered up unceasing prayers. That is not the rigidity of the Pharisees, but the rigidity of final perseverance and of walking the narrow path. Von Hildebrand understood well the words of Archbishop Fulton Sheen who said, “Tolerance applies only to persons…intolerance applies only to truth.”[ii] That is to say, error must be condemned and not allowed to spread while the person who errs must be forgiven and taught the truth with charity. Dietrich von Hildebrand’s life exemplifies the rigidity of the house that is built on solid rock. The winds of Nazism buffeted him with all their might, but they did not prevail. He was able to hold to the doctrine of the Church while taking account of the nuances of life.
So we now have a clear example of a person who could be considered rigid given his strong and unwavering adherence to doctrine. However, he emphatically does not manifest the characteristics of the rigidity that the Pope and others rightly condemn. Rather, von Hildebrand’s example shows us that it is possible and necessary to be unwavering in matters of truth while being accommodating and patient with persons who need the truth. In order, then, to distinguish these types of rigidity I shall call the negative type of rigidity pharisaical rigidity and the positive type I shall call perseverance.
The Church is in grave need of perseverance today. As St. Paul tells us, God has appointed some to be apostles, some teachers, and others prophets so that we may not be “driven before the wind of each new doctrine” (Ephesians 4: 11-14). Today there are divergent doctrines being presented within the Church Herself that has caused great confusion. In the wake of the publication of Amoris Laetitia several conferences of bishops have issued divergent interpretations of the document. The Bishops of Malta have required that only feeling at peace with God is sufficient for divorced and remarried couples to receive the Eucharist, while the Bishops of Poland continue to deny the Eucharist to those divorced and remarried who have neither repented in the confessional nor have amended their lives. Divergent interpretations of the document have also been given by other individual bishops and bishops conferences.
Two Types of Rigidity
The danger of this current situation coupled with the condemnations of rigidity above is very serious. If rigidity is condemned as a pharisaical characteristic and there is little or no praise or explanation of the type of rigidity that someone like Dietrich von Hildebrand embodied, then those who manifest perseverance are very likely to be called Pharisees instead of servants of God. In that case, those who sternly adhere to the truth may have their intolerance towards truth be misunderstood as intolerance towards persons. That creates a scenario where one who would defend an unchanging truth or question whether a change in tone or wording would be of best service to the truth is in danger of being misunderstood as an out of touch Pharisee who stringently imposes upon people high demands without taking into account the circumstances in which people may find themselves.
Such a situation must be avoided if the Church is to teach the truth with clarity. After all, who can doubt that the life of Dietrich von Hildebrand was clearly one of great virtue, devotion to the Lord, and service to his fellow man? But, if we do not distinguish between the two types of rigidity we may begin to lose sight of his virtue and the value of adhering steadfastly to sound doctrine. We must, therefore, emphasize and promote perseverance as much as pharisaical rigidity is denounced.
Our Lord did not come to condemn the word, but to save it (John 3:17). And, in order to save it, He gave us His commandments and His grace so that the wages of sin would be ours no more. We must follow in His footsteps and persevere until the end, always forgiving and loving our neighbor while zealously refusing to be removed from the narrow path of life. Let us pray that our Pope and Bishops who have been entrusted to us by the Lord’s command will also exemplify this perseverance that they may calm the winds of doctrine swirling around us and lovingly guide their flock to the Good Shepherd.
[i] von Hildebrand, Alice. The Soul of a Lion: Dietrich von Hildebrand. Ignatius Press, 2000. p285-86.
[ii] Sheen, Fulton. Old Errors and New Labels. St Pauls/Alba House, 2007. p66.