Trans-Modern Church

That the Catholic Church is in a serious period of conflict and change is recognized by all her observers. The changes ahead for the Church can be analyzed by having recourse to four terms — modern, postmodern, anti-modern, and trans-modern. This last term is a new one, but it is very useful in understanding the path we are treading.

MODERN: By modern I mean the historical period and main ideas of the last 250 years. Modernism begins around the middle of the eighteenth century with the French Enlightenment. Key events in this period have been the French and American revolutions, the rise of modern science and technology, the industrial economy, and the modern city. It has been the period of mass intellectual movements such as democracy, communism, and fascism. Key ideas have been liberty, egalitarianism, rationalism, and the like. During this period, the Church has remained outside of these major movements and has clearly recognized modernism as a major threat — indeed, often a heresy. Nevertheless, the Church has made her peace with important positive modern contributions, such as religious liberty, science, and democracy.

POSTMODERN: The postmodern represents the major intellectual changes of the last fifty years. Postmodernism is a natural extension of modern ideas fueled by a hostility to the very ideas from which it springs. Postmodernism dissolves the modern certain ties, using modern logic itself. Postmodernism can best be understood as a kind of morbid modernism.

Nietzsche was perhaps the first modern thinker to lay the groundwork of post-modernism. Today’s postmodern theorists include such figures as Richard Rorty, who has claimed that “truth is what your colleagues will let you get away with saying.”

Although the Church officially holds on to its pre-modern orthodoxy, the practice of Catholicism has been, understandably enough, greatly affected for years by modern, and now postmodern, mentalities. The anti-hierarchical sentiments in the Church are classic expressions of modernism’s hostility to any form of authority. The pressure for the ordination of women is both modern and postmodern in its character; this movement’s anti-hierarchical and egalitarianism emphases are modernist, while their slippage toward anti-rationalist, anti-organizational goddess-worship has strong postmodern characteristics. The focus on sex education is a modern emphasis, while the rejection of any clear moral teaching of doctrine is postmodern.

ANTIMODERN: Anti-modern refers to contemporary ideas and movements that are rooted in the pre-modern historical period. A major anti-modern movement is fundamentalist Islam with its rejection of the West on the grounds that it is secular, corrupt, and immoral. This antipathy to the modern is also found in the Islamic failure to develop a modern economy. Unlike so many Asian nations, the Islamic countries have not entered the twentieth century; still less are they like the Asians for their interests in the technologies of the next century. Apparently a great deal of Islamic energy comes from the sheer magnitude of its battle with Western secular modernity.

There are many smaller expressions of the anti-modern mentality. In some respects, Protestant fundamentalism can be seen as an expression of the same phenomenon. Even clearer are the writings of the Protestant “Reconstructionists” who argue that Americans should reject the Constitution as secular and anti-Christian. They argue Christians should create a new America, based upon a biblical vision of society. In the Jewish world, much of the revival of Orthodoxy and Hasidism can be classified in the same anti-modern category.

Within Catholicism, there are also strong anti-modern currents starting to emerge in the social and political world. Here I would include groups, both lay and religious, devoted to the revival of the Latin Mass, like the Society of St. Peter. The Lefebvrites are another example, rather extreme, of an anti-modern movement that rejects the changes introduced by the Second Vatican Council. These anti-modern ideas and movements, in spite of their weaknesses, have a positive contribution to make both as counterweights to modern and postmodern thought, but also as preservers of important traditional and pre-modern culture.

In the world of politics, we see many anti-modern movements developing around the world, most of which are secessionist in character. These movements reject the implicit cultural homogenization of the modern state. Instead, there is an anti-modern identification with race or religion or culture or ethnic identity. Here one might include the Quebec movement, Scottish nationalism, the national sovereignty movement by the native Hawaiian people, not to mention the ethnic conflicts all through out the former Soviet Union. A bitter revival of this anti-modern mentality is the sad story of conflict in Yugoslavia.

TRANS-MODERN: The trans-modern refers to a historical period already on the horizon. It is a period that will transcend modernism and yet not reject all things modern. Trans-modern ideas will help make this a new and positive period after modernism is over. The Church’s major theorist of trans-modernism is Pope John Paul II, with his extensive writings on the person, the family, and the theology of the body. The pope is trans-modern in his combining of modern phenomenology with pre-modern Thomism in order to present a new philosophical theology of the person.

Much of Cardinal Ratzinger’s work as well as von Balthasar’s is also trans-modern in character. In music, three composers recently appreciated are also trans-modern — Gorecki, Part, and Tavener. All three were heavily involved in late modernist theory, stemming from Schoenberg. All three are serious Christians — one is Catholic, two are converts to Russian Orthodoxy — and all three have come through modernism to a new tonal and spiritual expression in music. They have, if you will, transcended modernism. This is not the place to list trans-modern theorists in other fields. The point is that a trans-modern mentality uses the modern, but clearly moves beyond it, by not returning to notions that are literally pre-modern in form. When the Holy Father speaks of “crossing the threshold of hope” to “a new civilization of love” he seems to have a vision of a trans-modern society.

Given these categories to describe the present situation roughly, what is likely to lie ahead? The major impact of modernism and postmodernism in the Church has been felt in the diocesan structures: diocesan seminaries, chancery offices, religious education staff, and many of the traditional orders. For many Catholics, this is what comes to mind when they think of their Church. And it is this Church indeed that is in the gravest trouble, that is in decline. Most diocesan seminaries don’t have enough candidates to replace their retiring priests, the same diocesan clergy who have been most affected by modernist thought.

In addition, many dioceses are desperately wondering how to finance their diocesan obligations. In the late 1960s one diocese in the eastern United States had an endowment of more than $250 million; the same diocese now has an endowment of approximately $1 million. Huge sums have been wasted because of bad fiscal management and lawsuits — the latter usually due to serious sexual sins of priests who were protected by their bishops until legal damage settlements woke them up. Meanwhile, donations by the faithful have not replaced what was lost.

In dioceses all over the country, large outlays still go to support what were once Catholic hospitals. While Catholic schools are getting pretty good publicity, much of the education and many of the students in them are no longer Catholic. One Catholic school in New Jersey currently has a student body that is 90 percent Muslim. Large numbers of unchurched or Protestant minority students fill our inner-city schools. The new movement for choice in education is very likely to succeed; if so, many children now in the Catholic schools could very possibly leave. They are there now not because the schools are Catholic, but because these schools are the only low-cost option for parents disgusted with the public schools. Once other choices are available, parents will take advantage of them. In short, the present diocesan system is not only in trouble because of its modern and post-modern theology, but also for various economic reasons.

Given the challenges that lie ahead, what might some of the new, trans-modern structures of the Church look like? The evidence is already available, if one looks at the lively organizations already on the scene.

First, these organizations are primarily non-diocesan in character. Taking examples mostly from the US, one thinks of the Legionaries of Christ, Opus Dei, Focolare, Catholic Answers, the St. Joseph Foundation, Sodalitium Christianae Vitae, Catholics United for the Faith, the Missionaries of Charity, Daughters of St. Paul, Communion and Liberation, and even the new Covenant-Keepers. One could also include the Eternal Word Television Network, and the new orders that have developed in conjunction with it, as well as the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family in Rome, Washington, DC and recently with new branches elsewhere. In the intellectual world, there are publications such as First Things, New Oxford Review, and Crisis, and academic institutions like Thomas Aquinas College, Christendom College, Thomas More, and Franciscan University of Steubenville. All of these examples of renewal bring people together over much larger areas than a diocese.

Second, all of these organizations are either founded by the laity (often recent converts) or founded primarily to benefit the laity. The apostolate of the Legionaries of Christ is to the laity; Opus Dei is a lay movement, as are Communion and Liberation, Catholic Answers, and the St. Joseph Foundation. The Eternal Word Network is primarily run by lay people, and of course it speaks to the lay public, some-times over the heads of the bishops.

Third, all of these organizations are reliably orthodox in their theology, and all of them are growing. In the Protestant world, it has long been known that those denominations that are most traditional are those which grow. It is the fundamentalists and the evangelicals who are now a major cultural force. It is the old mainline and now very modern or postmodern denominations that are rapidly losing membership.

Modernism and postmodernism are the kiss of death for any church. Something similar to this is taking place in the Catholic world. The Catholic orders and even the diocesan seminaries that are orthodox and traditional are those that are growing. And it is the modern orders with their involvement in social work, and the postmodern ones with their Goddess worship and interest in female ordination that are becoming extinct.

A fourth characteristic of many of these organizations is their innovative use of new opportunities. If the old orders represent the dinosaurs, these are the new mammals. They are on the Internet; they are using all kinds of new methods, technologies, and procedures for expressing their apostolates. Amazing as it may seem — especially in light of all the money the bishops had at their disposal to set up a television network — EWTN, led by Mother Angelica, a traditional nun, and funded by donations mostly from laity, is the only significant Catholic voice in television.

All of this suggests that the emerging, much smaller, trans-modern Church will be dynamic and innovative, but largely outside the present and troubled diocesan system. New organizations and orders, enthusiastically orthodox, will provide their energy to the Church linked to each other and to Rome through the new media. But once the diocesan system has gone through its transition, once the dioceses have liquidated their theological and economic liabilities, then will the trans-modern groups support and reinvigorate a strong diocesan revival.

Although to some degree this will be a new phenomenon, it will also have strong similarities to previous periods of Church history. Early in the thirteenth century, for example, during a period of considerable turbulence and rising heresy, the mendicant orders of Saints Francis and Dominic were founded. They too were a radical departure from the accepted orders of the time, focused powerfully on the laity, especially the urban laity, and thoroughly, even aggressively, orthodox.

Perhaps such orthodox lay-focused movements have always been the sign of creative renewal and evangelization in the Church.


  • Paul C. Vitz

    Paul Vitz is a popular author and professor of psychology at New York University.

tagged as:

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on
Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...