The Crisis within Catholicism: The Myths, the Facts and the Solution

The critical question raised by Paul VI ten years ago still needs answering: Do we believe what we preach?

Few Catholics like to speak of “schism” in connection with the present crisis in the Church, but “the break” with Church teaching and Church authority is real enough. We are not experiencing the benign neglect of the old faith by people who have come to take it for granted. There was good faith there, even if low performance, and hardly any of the contempt familiarity is alleged to breed. What we see now is denial and defiance by people whose faith should tell them better and a disdain in those quarters for Catholic institutions upon which the eternal salvation of professed believers supposedly depends. This situation is hardly healthy and surely not a mark of progress of faithful believers toward the City of God.

Understandably, high ecclesiastics are nervous about “schism,” even about the use of the word. They would prefer to hope that time and God’s help will cure the Church’s ills with a minimum of activity on their part. Dissenters and leaders of opposition to Rome also have good reason to underplay the significance of what is happening to Catholicism and, in pursuit of their objectives, to avoid blatant confrontations with ecclesiastics. They surround their efforts with an aura of liberation, renewal, and progress, all appealing catchwords to modern listeners. They stand for reform, their critics for reaction. They are the Vatican II Catholics, John Paul II is a Polish Catholic, and so forth.

But the Catholic crisis is not so complicated as the myths which engulf it. Some people’s myths are other people’s facts and what one sees depends on what side of the schism you happen to be. If you happen to look out on the Catholic scene with the eyes of the present pope and his advisers, then it is just possible that the mythology of contemporary schism might be understood somewhat as follows:

Myth: There is no tension between Rome and the U.S. Church

Fact — There is tension and it transcends the U.S. Church, extending throughout Western Christendom. In 1977 the new president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, John Quinn, called the papacy Catholicism’s first and foremost resource “in saving the faith and the Church.” This has become a pressing necessity as San Francisco’s archbishop deals, at the request of the pope, with the ongoing resistance of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious to Roman requirements for religious life. However, French catechists, German theologians, and Dutch bishops first set a tone of defiance with which Rome has had to grapple since 1965.

Myth: Tension is the natural by-product of the post-Vatican II collegial administration of the Church.

Fact — There has always been differences between national groupings of bishops and Rome, and some is to be expected in a Church as worldwide as Catholicism. Normally, differences have arisen in the U.S. over matters of local custom or discipline which a one-time Italian dominated Curia sometimes failed to recognize as legitimate variations of universal norms, e.g. whether to favor the appointment of an Apostolic Delegate, the value of Church-State separation, how far to go with intercredal cooperation, how non-pontifically recognized colleges can still be Catholic, etc. Today, an internationalized Roman Curia with extensive American in-put does not eliminate the possibility of differences on such matters, all of which can be resolved through better communication and negotiation. The U.S. church can do anything it wishes as long as it remains, in principle at least, fully Catholic in its teaching and sacramental life. However, the new issue is not collegiality but the soundness of doctrine taught and the implementation of well-established Church policies, including those initiated as a result of Vatican II. When local hierarchies permit bad theology and illicit worship to be disseminated under Church auspices as a result of neglectful supervision, it is not possible for Rome, exercising its proper function, to sit by indefinitely and preside over the disintegration of the apostolic faith.

On October 28, 1967 the first Synod of Bishops labeled the following as “dangerous opinions” which, two years after the Council’s end, were judged to be harming the spiritual life not only of the educated but of working classes as well: errors concerning “the knowledge we have of God, the person of, Christ and His Resurrection, the Eucharist, the Mystery of Original Sin, the enduring objectivity of the Moral Law and the perpetual virginity of the Blessed Virgin Mary.” Almost two decades later these errors still scandalize the U.S. faithful, especially when they are propagated by priests and religious. The tension, therefore, must be attributed to false teaching, not to the adaptations expected from collegiality.

Some bishops, notably in Holland, attribute the tension between Rome and local Churches to differences in theologies, or explain it as the result of the legitimacy given by Vatican II to particular expressions of the Catholic religious experience, not necessarily Roman any longer. But we are not dealing today with the traditional fight between Augustinians and Dominicans over a theological method, nor with the natural varieties of liturgy and discipline which separate Eastern Churches from the West, or which might in the future distinguish the Church of Africa. Whether Christ is really God’s Son and really present in the Eucharist, Mary is a Virgin, the Church is divinely instituted, sacramental marriage is indissoluble, fornication is immoral, heaven or hell is waiting us all, and so forth — these are Christian truths or they are not — for Augustinians as for Dominicans, for future African converts as for today’s Dutch Catholics.

Myth: The U.S. church should not be criticized because it is in better institutional condition than the Catholic Church of Continental Europe.

Fact — If one compares the post-Vatican II U.S. Church with itself 1938-62, Catholic leakage in the U.S. is far more significant than anything experienced on the Continent during the same time period. Comparisons with Continental Catholicism, which has been under the domination of anti-clericals, Protestant or Communist forces for more than a century, are invalid. By contrast, the U.S. Church, perhaps the fastest growing and vital arm of Catholicism by 1962, has since then suffered serious setbacks. For example, from the outbreak of World War II to the opening of the recent council — a single generation — we doubled our Catholic population (from 20 to 40 million), our priests (from 20 to 50,000), our school enrollment (from 2 to 4 million), etc. The piety, adherence to doctrine, apostolic involvement and social influence of Catholics grew accordingly. Seventy-five percent of Catholics attended Sunday Mass weekly and during this period 90 percent of Catholic teen -agers as well. To accept in 1984 a Sunday Mass rate of only 50 percent (perhaps less than a third of teen-agers, for a weekly loss of perhaps 10,000,000 Church-goers) is hardly an index of traditional U.S. Catholic vitality, especially since even a majority of Church-goers are now at variance with Catholic faith and moral standards on substantial points of Catholic doctrine. Furthermore, if one removes from consideration Catholics 50 years and over, including priests and religious in this age group, the U.S. picture becomes more troublesome. All one need do is to attend a typical Catholic university chapel on a given morning, even during holy seasons like Lent, to find evidence that present day Catholic youth will not be the force in church or society that their parents were at a comparable age, and still remain.

Myth: “John Paul II has been unduly influenced by right-wing American groups that pepper the Roman Curia with wild tales of doctrinal deviation” (Newsweek).

Fact — Rome need have done no more over twenty years than follow the press accounts in the National Catholic Reporter, the U.S. Catholic, The London Tablet, any one of a variety of publications by religious communities, notably of American nuns and Jesuits of many countries, or Newsweek itself, to grasp the nature and extent of deviance within the U.S. Church. Furthermore, members of these religious communities, and not a few pastors — long before so-called “right-wing groups” achieved a certain public status, and a nuisance value as well — sought guidance from Rome when faced with the contradictions between Church documents and unresolved local confrontations going on within their own communities and parishes. The rush for guidance from Rome prompted Cardinal Seper as far back as 1972 to tell petitioners that Rome could not solve every problem. What do you think we can do here in Rome, he asked, if local authorities do not do what they are sup-posed to do? In those early years every major Roman Cardinal — Cicognani, Villot, Seper himself, Antoniutti, Pirronio, Wright, Garrone, etc. — were confronted face to face by dissenting forces. Every official clarification or correction of deviance was dialogued to death, permitting the denials and disobedience to remain where they were in the first place. John XXIII was known to be unhappy with the way the Council was being used by dissenters, mostly Europeans in his time. Paul VI regularly found himself distressed by the scandals perpetrated by those who were determined to dismantle or alienate Catholic institutions. Does anyone think his “Credo” was a response to right-wing groups? John Paul I, according to some reports, would have been a sterner disciplinarian than John Paul II, the Polish cardinal elected pope with the view that he would restore balance to a Church being called upon to deny its own foundations and doctrines.

Granted, “extremist” enemies of dissent quickly came to the fore, often with such bitter commentaries on the Catholic situation that their very tone and language made them poor allies of the Magisterium. (This very “extremism” alienated Roman officials as much as it infuriated dissenters who thought they had captured the Church.) But during the brawling among extremists, the ordinary faithful, found no one around to correct the obvious evils with which they were forced to live.

Myth — Rome is misinformed (suggested by Newsweek).

Fact — This charge, though a variation of the previous allegation that Rome’s sources are tainted, is an adroit attempt to cover-up a bad situation. If secular states credit Rome with having the best information on complicated political developments world-wide, matters in which the Church has only a peripheral competence, it seems jejune, to say the very least, that the Holy See’s information on its own internal religious affairs is untrustworthy. To be sure, Rome receives a fair share of “wild tales” (Newsweek‘s term) but never acts on anyone of them. The Vatican sees events “sub specie aeternitatis,” which makes the enforcement of its own laws a ponderous project. Sometimes Rome fails to act on good information for another reason. The “wild tales” cannot be told because the whole story is unprintable. But a misinformed Rome? No.

Myth — The Catholic Church will prosper only if it accepts contraception, the validity of Protestant ministry, women priests, married clergy, etc. (Hans Kung)

Fact — All of the so-called “advanced” churches which have adopted these courses, are empty of worshippers save at concert time. The Catholic Church can legitimately make certain adaptations (e.g. married clergy) to better serve new needs but may not compromise God’s Word (e.g. women priests, contraception, etc.), even at the risk of having followers walk away. Quite oppositely, as Dean Kelly has demonstrated, the only Churches growing in members and adherence are those preaching their historic message.

The New Code: The Way Out

The proper implementation of the New Code of Canon Law looks like the only way out of the present Catholic divisions. John XXIII called Vatican II into session twenty years ago for the purpose of updating Church law and now we have it. It falls then to John Paul II and Catholic bishops everywhere to see that the New Code underpins Catholic life in all corners of the Church to which it applies. Law, of course, is not life but without law there is only a jungle of one kind or another. And Christ surely did not intend his Church to be a jungle.

When John Paul announced the promulgation of the New code (January 25, 1983) he gave it a single purpose — “that of restoring Christian living.” The prescribed “rules and norms of action” were intended to institutionalize important doctrines of Vatican II. The Pope asked that these canonical laws “be observed by their very nature” concluding with the prayer that “what is commanded by the head may be obeyed by the body.”

Will the New Code bring stability to the Church so that Catholics can develop in peace and security the holiness needed to give them promise of eternal salvation? Only time will tell. Enforced law is a good teacher, as we all know. Contrariwise, permissive societies tend to have high crime rates or — by Christian standards — inferior behavior patterns. People accustomed by culture to go their own way develop resistance to exacting social norms. But the solution to Catholic dissidence is more elusive than a renewed spirit of obedience. If press accounts are any measure, some important priests and religious do not believe what the Church teaches and so tell anyone interested in listening. The first order of Catholic reform, therefore, must be discipline among those who lead the Church’s ministry. It will take longer time — perhaps scores of years — to re-teach the Catholic faithful that when they say Credo and mean it, a certain way of life should, indeed must, follow. This is especially true for priests and religious.

But discipline alone is not the complete answer, as some like to believe, even if we grant that its purpose, going back to gospel times, is to provide an identifiable way of Catholic life. Even excommunication, which is apostolic in origin, does not always heal a schism. (The case of Henry VIII comes to mind.) Expelling a wicked man from the Church is sometimes required, as St. Paul said, for the good of the Christian community (1 Cor: 5:13). And the new Code does include sanctions against those who would undermine the Church’s faith, moral code, and unity. These sanctions surely draw a line between what is truly Catholic and what is not.

But the same apostle to the Gentiles said reinforced teaching is more important than sanctions. Sound teaching in and out of season is the important corrective to heresy and semi-heresy. To Timothy Paul said: “There are things you must teach and preach.” (I 6:2) John Paul II agrees and in Catechesi Tradendae (No. 32) he told religious and laity alike to teach without embarrassment the “fullness of revealed truths and of the means of salvation instituted by Christ,” those which are to be “found in the Catholic Church.” Especially Paul VI’s Creed of the People of God.

Part of sound teaching involves dealing with error. At some point those who say “Credo” must face up to error, if it is commonplace and especially in matters which “present greater difficulty or risk being ignored” (CT No. 28). The Lord himself told his apostles: Speak up: “Don’t let them intimidate you” (Mt. 10:26). The Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in one recent letter (August 6, 1983) told bishops to denounce erroneous opinions spread either in catechetics or the teaching of theology. This certainly is an important and sometimes neglected aspect of the teaching office. Strangely, however, if one only follows the press accounts, it would seem that pastors are more likely to criticize or isolate articulate faithful who bring such errors or religious misbehavior to their attention.

On the basis of the recent record, three chief obstacles to Vatican II renewal through new Church law are likely to be: (1) secularized colleges and theologians, once Catholic; (2) disobedient religious communities; and (3) a Catholic elite unfaithful by intent and determination to the doctrinal and moral requirements of membership in the Catholic Church.

Canons 796-821 of the New Code specify that no school can claim the name Catholic without the consent of competent ecclesiastical authority; those who teach Catholic theology at the college level or above need a mandate from the same authority; bishops have the obligation to take care that the principles of Catholic doctrine are faithfully observed in those institutions.

One of the longest sections legislates about religious life. These 160 canons deal with the necessity of community life (including the importance of contemplation), the ecclesial nature of the corporate commitment, a religious habit as a witness to the religious consecration, vows of chastity, poverty, obedience understood traditionally, and the overview responsibilities of bishops and pope.

Scattered throughout the new Code are demands that the faithful follow in obedience the teachings and rulings of bishops (c. 212); that doctrine be taught according to the mind of the Church (c. 226); required compliance to the

Magisterium of the Church (c. 218), defense of Catholic teaching (c. 229); “avoiding innovations based on worldly novelty and false knowledge” (c. 279), with the pope’s decrees and sentences considered the last word (cc 331 ff.).

Will the New Code work? How well or poorly it does depends on its implementation/ enforcement, and this calls for particular determinations by all those who work (under John Paul II) in positions of responsibility. But if society cannot solve social problems by throwing money at them, the Church is not likely to solve ecclesial problems by throwing papal documents at them. There must be consistent and graced performance by those entrusted with the life of Christ’s Mystical Body. And this Body — that Church — must be approached with reverence due its sacred character. The Church is not the House of Savoy nor Tammany Hall and pastors must not allow her to be treated as such. Canon 1373 of the New Code reads: “A person who publicly incites his or her subjects to hatred or animosity against the Apostolic See or the Ordinary because of some act of ecclesiastical authority, or who provokes the subjects to disobedience against them, is to be punished by interdict or other just penalties.” the next canon in order calls for similar punishment of persons who belong to an association which plots against the Church.

What we need above all today is to see that the 1752 Canons of the 1983 Code are taken seriously in a spirit of faith and obedience. No one can legislate those virtues, but a Church, of all social groupings, ought to show high marks both in faith and obedience, especially among its priests, brothers, and sisters. If it does not, then law must take its course. Law does not presume virtue; it fashions and directs public conduct. Law, even Church law, achieves its purpose when society’s purposes and norms are respected by most of the people most of the time. What is called good order comes about because public authority restrains public crime as earnestly as it protects citizens from public health hazards. In the Church’s case, the common good is represented primarily by the holiness of believers and their salvation. It is the function of those entrusted with the execution of the New Code to see that the Church’s requirements concerning faith and morals, liturgy and sacraments, parochial and diocesan life, organizations of bishops, priests, religious and faithful, etc. conform to approved Catholic norms. It is the function of canon law, too, and when necessary, to inhibit the evilly disposed or the maliciously unfaithful from interfering with the holiness and salvation of the Church’s believers.

How well the New Code contributes to the Church’s essential mission remains to be seen. At the optimum level the New Code should promote the eternal purpose John XXIII had in mind when he convoked the Council. At the least those purposes should not be frustrated by the change from old code to new. However, the Church’s problems are more serious than they were in 1963 when the jolly pope died. Underground controversies during the first Council year about the legitimacy of contraception were followed later by theologians questioning the Church’s entire sexual ethic, by doubts or denials in the name of Vatican II about important Catholic doctrines or their relevance to the Christian experience. So now in 1984 many Catholics, not surprisingly the young, go their own way accepting Catholicism, if they do, more as a cultural tradition than a commitment to God and revealed truth.

The critical question raised by Paul VI ten years ago still needs answering: Do we believe what we preach? If we do, then the New Code becomes an essential means through which we might regain general fidelity to the doctrines of the Church. But for that, says John Paul II, we at the local level need the bishop.


  • Msgr. George A. Kelly

    A native of New York City, George A. Kelly (1916-2004) was ordained for that Archdiocese in 1942. After receiving a Ph.D. from Catholic University, he worked in parish life, administration, and academia in New York. He was one of the founders of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars and author of many books, including The Battle for the American Church (1979). In the 1980s, Msgr. Kelly was at St. John's University in New York City.

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