Dissenting Catholics’ Modernity Problem

Judging from the hundreds of thousands of Germans who attended and watched Pope Benedict XVI’s September trip to his homeland (not to mention the tsunami of commentaries sparked by his Bundestag address), the pope’s visit was — once again — a success. And, once again, it was also an occasion for self-identified dissenting Catholics to inform the rest of us what the Church must do if it wants to remain “relevant.” To no-one’s surprise, their bottom-line remains the same. The Church is “out of touch.” Why? Because it’s insufficiently “modern.”

By “modernizing,” progressivist Catholic activists (who, incidentally, are increasingly hard to find below the age of 60 these days) aren’t normally proposing better ways to evangelize. Instead, they usually mean changing Catholic doctrines in ways that directly contradict what the Church has always taught so that the Church becomes more, well, modern.

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It would be all too easy to focus on some of the less-than-noble motivations underlying many such propositions. In many instances, it’s frankly a case of wanting the Church to affirm choices that it has always regarded as intrinsically evil. In other areas, it reveals a view of the sacraments as instruments of power rather than as what the Catechism calls “efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church.”

At another level, however, the “we-must-be-more-modern” argument reflects the workings of a logic that privileges whatever is considered “contemporary” (an ever-moving target) over the knowledge imparted by Christ to His Church from its very beginning.

Such reasoning often runs along the following lines. In modernity, X is considered not good; ergo, the Church must accept X is not good. Or, modern people regard X as good or licit; ergo, the Church should teach X is good or licit.

You don’t need to be a professional philosopher to recognize that these are what logicians call non sequiturs: arguments in which the conclusions don’t follow from the premises. The fact that something is considered modern tells us nothing about its goodness or evil, let alone whether it conforms to the truth found in Divine Revelation. It also produces very strange arguments such as the claim made in 1968 (of course) by the ex-Jesuit theologian John Giles Milhaven, that “modern people” (whoever they are) by virtue of their “modernity of spirit” (whatever that means) enjoyed a type of “standing dispensation” from God to pursue what they “feel” to be good.

Such talk could be easily dismissed as reflective of the heady days of the 1960s and 1970s. There is, however, an even deeper, specifically theological problem driving these non sequiturs: the substitution of Catholic faith with what might be called a “feeling faith.”

After Vatican II, many Catholic theologians began attaching enormous significance to people’s experiences or intuitions as part of the intellectual apparatus they deployed to explain why they now believed the Church’s settled teaching on any number of issues required “updating” (i.e., overturning).

Whatever their precise formulation, beneath the surface of such rationales we can detect post-Enlightenment tendencies to (1) locate the ultimate basis for one’s views on some combination of experience, intuition, and whatever one feels to be true; and (2) distrust reason’s ability to know more-than-empirical truth.

Experience, feelings and intuition are not unimportant. They can often incline us toward the good and against error. But they don’t provide us with reasons for believing and doing A rather than B. Nor does reference to feelings help us to resolve disagreement rationally. Instead, we’re left with my feelings, your intuitions, and everyone else’s experiences.

It’s not difficult to see the problems with reconciling such positions with the Catholic understanding of Christian faith. For one thing, they marginalize the conviction that the fullness of Christian truth is to be found in the reasonable faith entrusted to and proclaimed by the Church. And the faith of that Church goes beyond the particular views held by us today to embrace the right belief (orthosdoxa) of the whole communio of believers, the living and the dead, from the apostles onward — the truth of which is confirmed by the consensus of the Church Fathers, the lives of the saints, the witness of the martyrs, and the teaching authority of the successors of Peter and the other apostles.


This message was core to one of Benedict’s key addresses in Germany, in which he quietly highlighted the distinctly provincial understanding of Catholicism articulated by dissenting groups such as the “We Are Church” movement in Germany and Austria. To truly speak of the Church, Benedict insisted,

requires us always to look beyond the particular, limited “we” towards the great “we” that is the Church of all times and places: it requires that we do not make ourselves the sole criterion. When we say: “We are Church” — well, it is true: that is what we are…. But the “we” is more extensive than the group that asserts those words. The “we” is the whole community of believers, today and in all times and places. And so I always say: within the community of believers, yes, there is as it were the voice of the valid majority, but there can never be a majority against the apostles or against the saints: that would be a false majority.

A similar argument was at the core of Thomas More’s explanation of why he could not, in good conscience, accept Henry VIII’s separation of the Church in England from Rome.

More broadly, Benedict’s point illustrates that embracing the Catholic faith in its fullness means acknowledging the limits of the knowledge attainable by making the contemporary our primary reference point. Indeed, to assume that the “we” of today somehow enjoy insights that nullify what the Church has always believed on matters of faith and morals is to go some way toward denying that God ever revealed anything definitive to the Catholic Church at all. More honest dissenters have long recognized this as the logical trajectory of their position.

Of course, Catholicism doesn’t have an in-principle opposition to the post-Enlightenment world per se, any more than it allegedly locates everything that is good and true in the 13th century. Any effort to associate the fullness of Catholic faith with any one historical period risks relativizing those truths knowable by faith and reason that transcend time and bind Catholics across the ages.

Perhaps such a relativizing is what many dissenting Catholic activists want. If so, they should concede that this would mean making the Church in their own image rather than that of Christ the Logos. And there is no surer way of making the Church truly irrelevant in a modern world that desperately needs more reason and light than emotivism and darkness.


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