Neo-Orthodoxy Returns

There are at least a few parallels between the 1980s and fifty years ago. As Hitler’s might grew to match his at first incredible ambitions, American colleges and churches demonstrated for peace, the Oxford Union voted never to fight for King or country, and among the literary set homosexuality was praised as liberation. In religion, the 1930s were marked by a “turn right” — a digging deeper into the hard teachings of Scripture and tradition, on the one hand, and a realistic pricking of sentimental illusions and pious wishes in politics, on the other. This double trend, toward orthodoxy in religion and toward realism in politics, came to be called “Neo-Orthodoxy.” Through it, growing numbers in the churches made themselves ready for the swirling crisis in which world and church were being caught up by swiftly moving evil forces.

The editors of this new journal welcome today those events which restore the spiritual and intellectual realism of the Christian churches.

History, of course, never repeats itself exactly; a moving stream, it changes and is changed by its own hectic course across the decades, by new powers and new interests, and by countless human acts moving it to new paths. Between the 1930s and today, for example, a massive ecumenical movement has brought Catholics and Protestants together in ways unprecedented during four centuries; nuclear weapons have entered history; the immense economic boom which followed World War II has united the world through communications, transport, and exchange as never before. The 1980s are, in many respects, quite unlike the 1930s. Even in the life of the spirit, the Soviet Union has lost its power of attraction over Western European Marxists, and Marxist-Leninist ideas have lost their moral power in Eastern Europe.

Yet on two cardinal points, there are eerie similarities between the 1930s and today. First, the military power of the Soviet Union, far more awesome than Hitler’s at its height in World War II, is now being projected an every ocean and in every part of the world, while the ideological Mein Kampf of the Soviet ruling class remains “armed struggle,” until capitalism is decisively wiped from the face of the earth. This first similarity, constituted by military and ideological threat, invites as its proper response neither paranoia nor fanaticism, but cold, reasoned, effective realism.

The second similarity lies in a manifest hunger on the part of millions for the true waters of life. The innovation, openness and swinging exuberance of the 1920s seemed to come back again, in the 1960s; after both came hard economic times. Both in the 1930s and in the 1980s, the sense of sin became sharp and vivid; the sense of precariousness and crisis grew; and many human beings, wearying of flesh pots and novelties, began to seek more substantial spiritual food.

A new generation is again growing up on American campuses; it is less than enthusiastic about the passions of its elders, more sober, more questioning, more probing concerning prayer and the strength of the inner spirit. “Innovation” has become a tiresome word connoting illusion, whereas “tradition,” forgotten for a generation, is being rediscovered and appreciated.

In theology since the 1960s, there has been much emphasis upon openness, dialogue, and new horizons. There has been relatively little written about orthodoxy, authority, and the purity and discipline of authentic faith. Great efforts have been expended to make faith ever more “relevant” to ever more remote movements. There seemed to be nothing so ridiculous that it could not be embraced in “dialogue;” nothing so evil that it could not be used as a proof of “openness;” nothing so unrealistic that it could not be touted as “prophetic.” The point seemed to be not to confirm the faith but to expand it, not to strengthen believers but to shock and to berate them.

Pope John Paul II began to alter the worldwide flow of events, demonstrating once again the power (through the grace of God) of the single human person in history. Steadily, he began to alter the course of the Catholic Church. Quite suddenly, the ropes of the barque of Peter began to grow taut, shaking off the silver water as they leaped into the air from the waters in which they had lain slack. There has been some creaking on the decks as the ship began to move; small cries have been heard from some who, alarmed, wish to get off before the sails blew full.

When Rome began to question the Sisters of Mercy in the U.S.A., to challenge the Jesuits in Rome, and to watch strictly over the appointments of bishops; when Cardinal Ratzinger called a history- making press conference to announce that liberation theology which rests on Marxist analysis is not in accord with Catholic faith, and then re-quested Bishop Gerety to remove his imprimatur from a catechism highly popular in slacker times — when signs became unmistakable — one could hear such comments as these: “Here come the Roman ‘bully boys’ again;” “They’ve gone too far; they haven’t heard the end of this;” “They can’t go backwards; we won’t let them.”

For a time the principle of authority has been diminished. Yet Catholic faith, if it does not descend directly from God, passing for its confirmatory vigor through the humble human channels of a particular creed, a defined faith, a divinely appointed Vicar of Christ, and a line of teaching authority which is, in key respects, top-down, is not the Catholic faith. It loses its savor. It loses its incarnate concreteness. It loses its point. Without these we might as well be individual dissidents, freethinkers, of the same faith (or lack thereof) as every Tom, Dick and Harry. The lifeline of Catholic faith begins in God’s authority and flows to us in streams of living water down channels which are maintained clear and pure only by unrelenting effort. Such authority does not seep up, as from a swamp. Its source lies in God. The Pope through and with the bishops — neither they without him, nor he without them, and yet he with a distinct authority not entirely shared with them — is the poor, incarnate, human-sized instrument of authentic faith, to be apart from which is slowly to wither and decay.

A major theological discussion of the authority of faith, and a major public discussion of the power and urgency of orthodoxy, is now inevitable. Orthodoxy cuts like a two-edged sword. All of us, no doubt, will feel its pain. It will cut to left and to right, from bottom to top.

The roles of clergy and laity will, once again, require to be sorted out. In recent years, some have taken delight in intermixing them: lay persons taking over clerical, liturgical roles, while clergymen take over secular, contingent, worldly roles. Experimentation and innovation have, no doubt, turned up many good things; questioning the excrescences of the ages, orthodoxy has often been served, even though the discomforts of giving up some accreted traditions and conventions have brought forth some heartfelt wails and screams. Yet experimentation and innovation which do not serve orthodoxy are beside the point. The new question, and the correct question for today is: But is it orthodox? Does it, in fact, serve the true faith?

The days of “do-it-yourself” theology and liturgy are over; the days of “today I feel …” have been tested and proven shallow. After much exhausting but well-meant effort, the demand is less for feelings and more for judgment; less for opinion and more for realism; less for experimentation and more for verification; less for subjective prophecy and more for discrimination between false prophets and true; less for idiosyncratic utterance and more for an authoritative discernment of spirits. That slackness should give way to tautness is no sin against free inquiry, nor against an openness to truth wherever it may be found, nor against serious innovation. On the contrary, it is a proof that such virtuous activities are soberly intended, wisely executed, and aim to be effectively achieved.

For ourselves, the editors of Catholicism in Crisis will each in his or her own way welcome and explore this new current of neo-orthodoxy, which clearly emanates from Pope John Paul II himself. Liberals and conservatives alike have every reason to welcome a tide of orthodoxy. Whence, if not there, comes their inner strength as men and women of faith? For none of us makes up our own faith. “I will not call it my philosophy,” G.K. Chesterton set at the head of Orthodoxy, “for I did not make it. God and humanity made it; and it made me.”

In the dark days that may well lie ahead, in the long-drawn-out twilight between armed Marxism and a civilization in which Jewish and Christian faith lives still as yeast in dough, broken cisterns would squander living water, and clear streams of faith will be necessary to human survival. We welcome, then, a “return to tradition,” a renewed sense of the power of sin in this world and of the true sources of grace, a newly strengthened respect for life-giving authority, and a due respect for the proper vocation of each part of the Body of Christ.

Pope John Paul II has been sent to us just in time, for the hour is already late. But signs of spring are now abundant.


  • Lord Acton

    This anonymous Crisis writer is pretending to be John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, 1st Baron Acton, KCVO, DL (10 January 1834 – 19 June 1902), known as Sir John Dalberg-Acton, 8th Bt from 1837 to 1869 and usually referred to simply as Lord Acton, who was an English Catholic historian, politician, and writer. Lord Acton is famous for his remark, often misquoted: "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

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