Is the Church Inherently Conservative?

The great issue that separates progressive from more traditionalist Catholics is whether the Church will return to type.

To answer that question “yes” is to say that the Church has an essential nature—a basic structure, set of beliefs, and way of functioning—that is sometimes obscured by corruptions or distortions but can be counted on to reassert itself in a purer and more vigorous form. In effect, it is to view the Church as a living being that retains her identity as she develops, and is subject to occasional infirmities but thereafter returns to health.

People attached to modern ideas of progress don’t expect and don’t want that to happen. Present-day thought doesn’t like types, and it likes the idea of returning to type even less. It rejects organic comparisons for institutions, and prefers to view them as constructions for consciously chosen goals rather than products of essential forms that exist and endure whether we like them or not. We are Church, such people often say, and how we do Church determines what Church is.

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Such claims have strong moral overtones. Belief in enduring forms is identified with stereotypical thinking of a kind that rejects change and difference in favor of an imaginary world of eternal essences. That kind of thinking, it is thought, lends itself to a reactionary and oppressive approach to politics and religion that denies human freedom and tries to force an abstract ideal based on an imaginary and idealized past on obdurate reality. Scratch a traditionalist, many people say, and you find a fascist.

On such a view, the Church becomes, if she is true to her vocation, the form taken from time to time by man’s response to God’s action in the world, or perhaps God’s action itself insofar as He acts through willing human instruments. It’s either what people are doing in response to God, or what God is doing through people He’s enlisted. Either way the Church disappears as a continuous and internally coherent institution, and becomes the happenstance outcome of some other force. Progressives say that the “other force” is the Holy Spirit, while skeptics are likely to identify it with various worldly projects that want to make use of the resources and popular prestige of the Church, or perhaps with a spirit that is far from holy.

In any case, the progressive conception means that faith in the one holy Catholic and apostolic Church, and with it the meaning of the word “Catholic,” lose clear definition. The life of religion loses the element of rational public and corporate conviction, and of looking to the past and holding to what has been found good and worthy of love and loyalty. Instead, it becomes a matter of launching into the unknown based on some personal insight or inner assurance, or more likely of following the guidance of prophets claiming special knowledge who say they will help us sing a new Church into being.

Such views may be modern, but they’re not new, since they’ve been held by antinomian visionaries throughout the ages. The twelfth century Calabrian abbot Joachim of Flora, who seems to have been personally holy although his views were officially condemned after his death, is famous for proposing that the Age of the Son, governed by the institutional Church, would soon give way to the Age of the Holy Spirit, based on the Gospel but transcending its letter as well as the need for disciplinary institutions. There have been numerous such figures over the centuries.

Our situation today does of course have features that distinguish it from previous times. One is that the technocratic understandings that dominate social life today promote the view that the world is simply what we make of it. That view undermines organic conceptions and the idea that institutions have essential forms to which they tend to return. Another is that mass higher education, and the resulting spread of modish ways of thought, make the conceptual dissolution of the Church into a loosely associated succession of situations seem normal to many churchgoers.

One result of such tendencies is that the dream of going beyond the authority of the institutional Church has become mainstream and bureaucratic. Instead of twelfth century abbots in rags, barefoot Franciscan spirituals, or Münster-style enthusiasts engaging in total violent revolution, we have conferences of academics and other mild-mannered bureaucratic functionaries with formal certifications and retirement plans.

The attitude toward hierarchical authority is nonetheless similar and must be judged by its fruits. We determine the value of understandings by whether they help us deal with the world, and of visions of the Church by their effect on her and her members. As things are, the Church has lasted 2000 years. It seems impossible to understand how she could have done so, humanly speaking, without a remarkably functional and well-integrated pattern of basic principles. Adaptability has no doubt been necessary for her survival, but if she were a happenstance agglomeration of people, beliefs, and practices she would have disappeared long ago.

Nor does God’s protection and guidance by itself seem an adequate explanation for her survival, since without continuity of basic form and principle there would be nothing distinct to have survived. We would not speak of the survival of the Church, but of a succession of historical situations with some overlapping features but no common identity.

From early times the Church has been hierarchical and authoritative. Antinomian and anti-institutional movements have been episodes in her life, but they haven’t lasted long or turned out well on their own terms, so they’ve evidently been at odds with the nature and necessities of Catholic life. Institutional form and function are not everything, but they are not nothing either, any more than the human body and its constitution, functioning, and well-being are nothing. Catholicism is a religion of incarnation. That means it recognizes without reserve the claims of the spirit, but also the necessity for the spirit to become concretely present in our world through the sorts of things—such as bodies and institutions—that make up the world. Such things may be unruly and backward at times, but they are basic to the world Christ came to redeem, so they can’t simply be rejected and suppressed.

The claim that belief in essential forms and natures is oppressive is odd. If such things don’t exist, the world becomes the shifting outcome of conflicting forces and there is nothing in it that is distinct enough to be oppressed. It is not possible to oppress a momentary configuration of eddies in a stream. Or if such things do exist, but they continually transform themselves, then politics becomes something for experts or visionaries who have a special gift for reading the signs of the times. It loses the connection to settled ways of thought needed for rational cooperative self-government. In either case politics becomes something that properly belongs to the few with little possibility for legitimate criticism by outsiders, and is likely to become oppressive in the usual manner of successful radical political movements.


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