Quodlibets: On Protesting Too Much


May 1, 1987

God did not become man in order that men might become theologians, as the saint said, nor did God choose to save his people by means of dialectic. Presumably, too, being in constant dispute with other Catholics is not of the essence of being a Catholic. But it sure is hard to avoid.

It was not clear to me four and a half years ago, when Mike Novak and I began this journal, how deep the divisions among Catholics were nor how much deeper they were destined to become. Nowadays, the very term “Catholic” has become equivocal.

Remembering Lincoln’s retort to the claim that “God is on our side,” our purpose had to be, not to get the Church, the Magisterium, Vatican II on our side, but to make certain that we were with the teaching Church. Disputes among Catholics would then amount to wondering which of two views really was in tune with the Magisterium, or wondering if the other view was in direct conflict with it. To be sure, it could turn out that both conflicting views were consonant with the Magisterium. That was the outcome we thought would result from discussing the themes of the peace pastoral and the economics pastoral. Of course, one might argue that his view was more consonant with the Magisterium, but that is a long way from claiming to hold the Catholic view on, say, compound interest, multinationals, or battering rams.

This way of viewing controversies among Catholics has been rendered quaint by events. The new Americanist Heresy is making it ever clearer that it rejects the notion of Magisterium as authoritative either doctrinally or from the point of view of discipline. Richard McBrien, of all people, has made himself the spokesman of scholarship and the intellectual life and, invoking Father Hesburg, has thrown down the gaunlet and threatened, still professing to speak for. Father Hesburg, that Notre Dame will surrender the designation “Catholic” before it will acknowledge that the Magisterium has the final word on doctrinal orthodoxy.

Cardinal Ratzinger is now routinely referred to as a Nazi and one hears references to those “characters in the Vatican.”

One could go on. My point is that the assumptions of the discussion have changed radically. Now one finds himself confronting Catholics for whom the Magisterium is the enemy, Rome pretty much what Luther thought it was, and the task before us that of defining the “American church” as more or less an independent entity. One must ask if countering such nonsense is any longer a dispute among Catholics.

A Protestant, Jerry Walls, who is completing three years as a graduate student at Notre Dame, has written that most of the Catholics he met there are what he called “functional Protestants.” For them, popes and councils have distorted the faith, Marian doctrines are regarded as doubtful, and as for the Church’s moral teaching, it is regarded as an invitation to debate and eventual rejection. Walls is genuinely puzzled and cannot see how in consistency such Christians, who seem as Protestant as he is, can call themselves Catholics. What they want to retain is the label, a nostalgic link with their personal past, you name it. Anything but the doctrine and discipline of the Roman Catholic Church. It looks as if the crisis is no longer within Catholicism.

Now if Walls has a point, and surely he does, things have come to a pretty pass among us Catholics. As often before, I am reminded of Newman’s “A Form of Infidelity of the Day.” The most insidious enemy is the enemy within, and the heretic who claims to be a Catholic. It is such people, we are told, who are now in charge — readers will remember Thomas Sheehan’s triumphalist victory statement on behalf of what he called the liberal consensus.

Wasn’t it Karl Rahner who said that it had become necessary to think of Hans Kung as a Protestant in order to make sense of him?

A few years ago I would never have described the foe in terms he now uses of himself. The days are far darker than once dreamed.

Well, the argument must go on. It is a tedious business, perhaps, but it is our fate as humans. We cannot let the arrant nonsense of the dissident theologians go unanswered. But there is consolation in the thought that dialectic is not the whole of it.

In The Ratzinger Report, when the Cardinal was asked if he had read the “secret of Fatima,” he replied that he had. The questioner presses on. What does it say? Why has it been kept secret? Why don’t you make it public? The answer to that last question is interesting. The Church would be accused of sensationalism if the secret were published.

Sensationalism? I have wondered how anything short of the imminent end of the world could compete with what has been going on in the Church. In any case, what we do know of the message of Fatima suggests that we are being punished. The remedy is not snappy refutations of theological nonsense, but prayer and fasting. That is the message of Fatima, of the Virgin of San Nicolas, of Medjugorje, perhaps of Chicago’s Weeping Madonna. The secret may be that there is no secret. Only that old time religion.


  • Ralph McInerny

    Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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