Reflections on Contemporary Catholicism

Many of the difficulties some Catholics now have over the present condition of the Church seem to rest upon a conclusion and a grievance. The conclusion is that what was said at the second Vatican Council, and all that led up to it, doesn’t change in any decisive way the self-understanding Catholics had before the pontificate of John XXIII came upon us. This conclusion rests in part upon a priori grounds — the Church is such that its life can’t change in such a way that it could even look as though there had been a break in its history or a going-back on what at a given time was thought to be a part of the essential position of Catholicism. Anything which seems to suggest a radical change has occurred must come from a false understanding. The grievance is that many Catholics — bishops, priests, religious male and female, and a variety of uppity laymen — are doing and saying things on the supposition that there have been radical changes in the mind of Catholicism. This supposition must be mistaken; and it is thought that perhaps John Paul II is the pontiff chosen by Providence to put everything back together again. After the author of disaster, John XXIII (what lay behind the choice of such a name, a recollection that John XXII was the last Pope to be censured for heresy?), and the Hamlet-like and often melancholy Paul VI, there comes this strong man from the East, tempered in the struggle against Communism, who enjoys the activity of presiding over the Church and brings prodigious energy to the discharging of the leading role of the Bishop of Rome.

I am confident that something like this grievance and this conclusion are held by those Catholics now discontented with the actuality of post-Vatican II Catholicism, discontented, or enraged, or bored, or sour, or all these things. Newman once said that to be deep in history is not to be a Protestant. I should like to adapt this saying and propose: to be deep in history is not to be an integriste, a prophet of doom, a malcontent, an embittered praiser of how it all used to be, in relation to how life goes in the (Latin) Church at the moment. I would go further, and add that if we consider how things were in the nineteenth century (before the pontificate of Leo XIII) and in the early twentieth century (the years preoccupied with the question of “Modernism”), any grounds there may be for deep discontent are much diminished, at least for Catholics whose professional lives, as historians or philosophers or what not, touch in one way or another ‘on ecclesiastical concerns. In so far as there is confusion over just what is going on, I am inclined to think it comes from a failure to settle our accounts with a particular view of the theological tradition, one that Anglo-Hibernian-American Catholicism was brought up on.

It is an axiom of all our theologies that Revelation ceased with the death of the last Apostle; that is, the Apostolic witness to the fact of Jesus of Nazareth is the norm under which the Church stands. It is also manifestly true that doctrine develops in such a way that expressions of belief at T3 would have been found surprising by those living at T2, just as expressions of doctrine at T2 would have surprised those living at Ti. If we look at Catholicism, East and West, there have been very remarkable changes.

It is evident that it was hard for many in the Apostolic age to accept that becoming a Christian did not entail becoming a convert to Judaism also.

Apostolic and sub-apostolic Christianity was largely innocent of philosophy. The development of the Church in the Hellenistic world involved an immense elaboration of the doctrines of faith in language borrowed from the philosophical word-book of the time. This is the age of the heresies, especially of the Christological heresies, and of the Councils.

The reception of Aristotle by the theologians of the thirteenth century in the West seemed to many a form of infidelity and this was expressed in a variety of ecclesiastical censures.

All the above examples show that “changes” are at first thought to threaten the integrity of the Faith, then are classified as “developments”, and these developments are accepted as norms in their turn. Some of those things accepted as norms, or genuine developments, are later discarded — silenced to death, as Karl Rahner says. The view taken by successive Popes, from Innocent III to Boniface VIII, as to the right relation between Church and State, is quietly dropped over the centuries. In the early days of the Biblical Commission, the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, the authorial unity of Isaiah, the Pauline authorship of Hebrews, and the factual character of the early chapters of Genesis, were all asserted. We now live in an age in which Catholic scholars bring out, for instance, the Jerome Biblical Commentary with ecclesiastical approval. Within living memory the late John Courtney Murray came under the severe displeasure of the Holy Office for holding the views later expressed in Dignitatis Humanae Personae, the Vatican II declaration on civil and religious liberty; and this declaration was a startling rejection of theses on the subject taught, and repeatedly taught, by all Popes and most theologians for many centuries.

The notion that there is a single integrated body of authoritative philosophic-theological teaching that descends from generation to generation within the Church seems hard to accept, except in some very refined and unnatural sense. How the content of the Deposit of Faith is to be sorted out and expressed is a teasing question once we submit it to reflection and take into account the languages of different periods and the presuppositions about history and anthropology entertained in these periods. This is why it is inescapable, as John XXIII made plain, that “(T)he substance of the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith is one thing, and the way it is presented is another”. Thus the Pope’s opening speech to the second Vatican Council on 11 October, 1962 (Abbott and Gallagher, The Documents of Vatican II, 1966, p.715).

Now, I think there is no doubt that Anglo-Hibernian-American Catholicism inherited a particular theological tradition, that preferred by the Roman congregations and schools under Pius IX and Pius X (in this respect the pontificate of Leo XIII was a strange interlude: Edmund Bishop wrote of Leo XIII: “It was a good thing, a great privilege, to have lived under so great a Pontiff as Leo XIII: `life’ was livable under him”). In modern American idiom, Catholic faith and theology constituted a “package-deal”. It is an irony that so much of this was placed under the patronage of St. Thomas, who fell foul of the purveyors of the package-deal of his own day, that of men who couldn’t accept that the Augustinian-Platonic model of discourse should be disrupted by ideas and arguments drawn from the newly discovered works of Aristotle. At any rate, the package-deal represented the intellectual attitude that made so much of Newman’s Catholic life wretched for him — I mean psychologically: his spiritual, devotional life never ceased to be a source of deep happiness to him —, and others may have suffered even more. It is as though all the diverse traditions of Catholicism, the schools of thought represented by such names as Erasmus and More, Fisher, Colet, Astruc, Richard Simon, Mabillon, Petau, Fenelon, Moehler, Newman, were set aside as a half-Catholicism, to be replaced by what was taken to be the authentic, the authoritative tradition, represented by Manning and Louis Veuillot. Everything came to a climax with the campaign against “Modernism”. I am not here concerned with all the things that came under this remarkably broad umbrella. It is now commonly recognized that immense injustices were done to historians and Biblical scholars at this time. More important than the individual acts of injustice was the intellectual paralysis induced by the campaign against Modernism, the general tendency to play for safety in any matter that seemed likely to attract the interest of the Holy Office. If anyone should think this too strong, he should consider the following passage from a letter written in 1922 by Cuthbert Butler, the Abbot of Downside and the historian of the first Vatican Council, to Friedrich von Hugel.

“In regard to what you say about your regret that I am not giving myself up to Early Xtian things, years ago I recognized that these things — Xtian Origins, New Testament, History of Dogma &c — have been made impossible for a priest, except on the most narrow apologetic lines. A priest can publish nothing without “imprimatur”. The only freedom in Biblical things & the rest is that of a tram, to go ahead as fast as you like on rails, but if you try to arrive at any station not on the line, you are derailed. Textual criticism of the most technical kind is the only form of biblical study open, the case of patristics is not much better.

And so, I say, years ago, when (the) biblical Comm (ission) got under way, & the Lamentabili & Pascendi were issued, I deliberately turned away from all this work…”

Butler’s case is certainly representative.

To have emerged from such a period — and we have been emerging from it, step by step, since long before Vatican II — is surely a great gain, morally as well as intellectually. It is a pity that the discarding of the positions that cramped Butler’s work has so often been “tacit”. We have not really been prepared to make a public reckoning with the Modernist crisis. The silent discarding of untenable positions is always the easiest course, and often seems the most charitable. But the silence has produced a number of Catholic groups, some of them sectarian and schismatic, as with Archbishop Lefebvre and his followers, some who haven’t gone quite so far but insist that the Roman teachings of the pontificate of Pius X are still an unassailable criterion of orthodoxy.

Nevertheless, something plainly has gone wrong. One must guard against romanticizing the life in our own time or in the past — imagine what it was like to be a serious Catholic at the time of the Great Schism! —, but it is grim to find so many reflective and earnest Catholics in a state of sour hospitality to the predominant moods and policies of post-Vatican II Catholicism.

A part of what has happened I would summarize in the following way. In American Catholicism the idea of the package-deal was so strong, that once it was seen that the idea had been rejected, or radically reinterpreted, it was thought by many foolish clergy and laity that there were no longer any theological norms, that, so to speak, to change the idiom of theological discourse was to change or abandon articles of belief. This was not, of course, peculiar to the United States, but I think the excesses of say-what-you-like theology were more stridently expressed in North America than elsewhere. Because seminaries and Catholic universities had, with few exceptions, been the captives of a single theological school (what is sometimes polemically called Ultramontanism), or had often been at bottom uninterested in theology, there was nothing left when the package disintegrated. (I leave on one side the history of the controversy over “Americanism”; this certainly had as one of its consequences the strengthening of Ultramontanism; though it is amusing to note today that it is conservative Catholics who often seem to adhere most strongly to the moral and political positions then censured by Rome. One might almost say, following Dignitatis Humanae Personae, we are all Americanists now.)

Religious and philosophical education was, in Catholic universities and seminaries, for the most part of the textbooks, often rather poor ones. Their idiom was that of neo-scholasticism. Philosophical positions were curiously mingled with the problems of theology. (I recall an undergraduate student presenting me with a quiz given to him by his teacher in a class on “Religion”; it contained the astonishing question, to which there was, I was assured, a one-sentence correct answer: “What is mobile being?”) There was a general preoccupation with apologetic concerns – the priest or the religious or the Catholic layman was to be instructed how to defend his/her faith. It was assumed that there was a company of irresistible arguments that could be acquired by the student and marshaled in such a way that the unbeliever or the heretic could be reduced to confusion. What was lacking was a modest attempt to understand the substance of the Faith, as distinct from the jargon in which it had come to be clothed. Few pre- Conciliar theologians who had shown how theology could be thought and written outside the jargon I have in mind such theologians and historians as Congar, Karl Adam, Romano Guardini, de Lubac, Karl Rahner, Joseph Lortz, Hans Urs von Balthasar — were well-known in the seminaries; there was therefore no strong example of how to do theology in the educated vernacular, and with a concern for the best scholarship, to offer an alternative model to that provided by the school theologians. If to this lack we join the ebullience and gusto so characteristic of American life, then the explosion of pop theology, in all its superficiality and its reckless incorporation of (frequently misunderstood) ideas brought in from sociology and the various schools of psychology, and of the fashionable and, as we now see, ephemeral theories current in the great divinity schools of North America — Death of God talk and the great boum-boum profundities plucked out of Tillich — , all this isn’t surprising.

What we now have — and this is alarming — is a confrontation of ideologies and not a fruitful discussion. The ideology of the progressives is that of many non-believers, educated, middle-class, affluent, in western societies. The ideology of the conservatives is that of the philistine rulers and masses of these western societies, of the toasts of the locker rooms and the country clubs — such rulers as President Reagan and Mrs. Thatcher and the current Secretary of the Interior whose name always escapes me. The theological components of these ideologies are tailored to fit in with concerns that are not in the least religious. This is shown when the progressives stop their ears when the present Pope speaks on sexual morals, the conservatives make nothing of his encyclical on human labor, the progressives hate what he has to say on celibacy and the ordination of women; the conservatives resent the plain fact that, like his two predecessors, John XXIII and Paul VI, he refuses to identify himself with the crusade against Communism. Neither party takes seriously what the Pope has to say about consumerism, an eager acceptance of the material way of life of the West, for they are both trapped within this way of life. I don’t say this pharisaically: most of us are trapped and don’t dislike the experience too much. But American Catholicism has been blessed with some holy men and women who somehow contrive, to the spiritual profit of the rest of us, mediocrities as we are, to stay outside the trap. I have in mind such persons as Dorothy Day and John Howard Griffin, and of course many monks and nuns and other religious who go against this current of modern life and thus help to pay the spiritual debts of the rest of us.

It is impossible not to say something about the character and outlook of our present Pope. Parties within the Church try to turn him into a special patron of their particular outlooks. There is no reason to suppose that the man who travels so widely and speaks so much about the temporal and spiritual difficulties of the world, who one day shows his fraternal feelings by embracing the individual members of the Anglican episcopate in Canterbury Cathedral and shortly after that joins in the popular devotion at the Shrine of Fatima, who denounces the violations of Indian rights under the military regimes of central America and confers a peculiar privilege upon Opus Dei, can possibly be a party leader. It is also plain that in the present atmosphere he is not likely to resent, or to think it improper, for any of his fellow-Catholics in communion with him as Bishop of Rome, that See which is the great sign of unity and orthodoxy, to look at his words and actions and reflect upon them. I was especially interested in what he had to say, in an address to a conference on “The Christian Roots of the European Nations”, in 1981.

“Europe needs Christ . . . We have to understand that the Church willed and founded by him has as its only purpose to transmit and guarantee the truth revealed by him, and keep alive and relevant today the means of salvation he instituted, that is, the sacraments and Prayer. This was grasped by chosen and thoughtful spirits such as Pascal, Newman, Rosmini, Solovyev and Norwid (a Polish poet) (cited by John Coulson, in The Tablet (London), 22 May 1982, pp. 506, 508).”

It seems unlikely the Pope just plucked these examples out of the air, without consideration. But they are startling and may cause all of us to think twice. Pascal, the Jansenist; Newman, who lived under Rome’s heavy displeasure for so much of his Catholic life; Rosmini, Italian nationalist, an important figure in the history of Italian Modernism, suspected of “ontologism”; Solovyev, who spent most of his adult life suspended between Rome and Russian Orthodoxy. (I’m sorry I don’t know about Norwid.) It seems almost as though the Pope is trying to tell us something about our own period.


  • J. M. Cameron

    In 1983, J. M. Cameron was professor emeritus at St. Michael's College in the University of Toronto.

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