OCT. 31, 2015
MY dear professors!
I read with interest your widely-publicized letter to my editors this week, in which you objected to my recent coverage of Roman Catholic controversies, complained that I was making unfounded accusations of heresy (both “subtly” and “openly”!), and deplored this newspaper’s willingness to let someone lacking theological credentials opine on debates within our church. I was appropriately impressed with the dozens of academic names who signed the letter on the Daily Theology site, and the distinguished institutions (Georgetown, Boston College, Villanova) represented on the list.
In my book, concerning such academic names and theological credentials, I noted:
When asked by Vittorio Messori in his famous interview with Cardinal Ratzinger about the fact that he once was associated with some theologians who have since run afoul with the CDF, the Cardinal’s reply sheds much light on this “spirit of Vatican II”:
It is not I who have changed, but others. At our very first meetings I pointed out two prerequisites to my colleagues. The first one: our group must not lapse into any kind of sectarianism or arrogance, as if we were the new, the true Church, an alternative magisterium [emphasis added] with a monopoly on the truth of Christianity. The second one: discussion has to be conducted without any individualistic flights forward, in confrontation with the reality of Vatican II with the true letter and the true spirit of the Council, not with an imaginary Vatican III. These prerequisites were increasingly less observed in the following period up to a turning point—which set in around 1973—when someone began to assert that the texts of Vatican II were no longer the point of reference for Catholic theology ….that the Council still belonged to the traditional, clerical moment of the Church and that it was not possible to move forward very much with such documents [emphasis added]. They must be surpassed.
It is important to understand the part played by neomodernism in bringing about this division within the ranks of the “new theology.” As I hope to show, it was the establishment of “an alternative magisterium” on the part of theologians who viewed the Vatican II documents as inadequate who demonstrated the pride warned against by Cardinal Ratzinger. I believe it consistent with Catholic teaching to see in the apostasy of this “anthropocentric society” the work of “the hidden enemy who sows errors and misfortune in human history.”
I have great respect for your vocation. Let me try to explain mine.
A columnist has two tasks: To explain and to provoke. The first requires giving readers a sense of the stakes in a given controversy, and why it might deserve a moment of their fragmenting attention span. The second requires taking a clear position on that controversy, the better to induce the feelings (solidarity, stimulation, blinding rage) that persuade people to read, return, and re-subscribe.
I hope we can agree that current controversies in Roman Catholicism cry out for explanation. And not only for Catholics: The world is fascinated — as it should be — by Pope Francis’ efforts to reshape our church. But the main parties in the church’s controversies have incentives to downplay the stakes. Conservative Catholics don’t want to concede that disruptive change is even possible. Liberal Catholics don’t want to admit that the pope might be leading the church into a crisis.
Let us cut through this obfuscation:
The crisis facing the Catholic Church today is not that of “liberal” versus “conservative” interpretations of the Second Vatican Council; it is silly to argue that one may be liberal or conservative on the Apostles’ Creed. The crisis is one that originated in an apostate rival magisterium successfully taking root within the Church in the United States, rebelliously asserting the right to teach heresy on the same level as the teaching of the successor of St. Peter and the bishops in union with him.
So in my columns, I’ve tried to cut through those obfuscations toward what seems like basic truth. There really is a high-stakes division, at the highest levels of the church, over whether to admit divorced and remarried Catholics to communion and what that change would mean. In this division, the pope clearly inclines toward the liberalizing view and has consistently maneuvered to advance it. At the recent synod, he was dealt a modest but genuine setback by conservatives.
And then to this description, I’ve added my own provoking view: Within the framework of Catholic tradition, the conservatives have by far the better of the argument.
The Magisterium has the best argument.
First, because if the church admits the remarried to communion without an annulment — while also instituting an expedited, no-fault process for getting an annulment, as the pope is poised to do — the ancient Catholic teaching that marriage is “indissoluble” would become an empty signifier.
Second, because changing the church’s teaching on marriage in this way would unweave the larger Catholic view of sexuality, sin and the sacraments — severing confession’s relationship to communion, and giving cohabitation, same-sex unions and polygamy entirely reasonable claims to be accepted by the church.
I recall that among Paul VI's telltale signs of a diabolic presence were doubt, uncertainty, questioning, dissatisfaction, and confrontation — all hallmarks in the story of the reception of Catholic sexual moral teaching following promulgation of Humanae Vitae in the United States. Contraceptive practice, taught from the beginning of the Church as serious sin, in Paul’s thinking became the occasion and the effect of interference by the “hidden enemy who sows errors,” who undermines our moral equilibrium — the Devil. In Paul’s teaching The Devil is the clever tempter who makes his way into man through the sensual, the libido, a “crack” through which the Evil One attempts to prevail against the Church.
Now this is, as you note, merely a columnist’s opinion. So I have listened carefully when credentialed theologians make the liberalizing case. What I have heard are three main claims. The first is that the changes being debated would be merely “pastoral” rather than “doctrinal,” and that so long as the church continues to say that marriage is indissoluble, nothing revolutionary will have transpired.
It was the infamlous Xavier Rynne who offered the world in his coverage of Vatican II a fantasy of what 'the spirit of the Council' was all about. According to Rynne, the entire council was pastoral, but not dogmatic. How then to explain those dogmatic constitutions on the church and on relevation, with all those troublesome endorsements of Trent and Vatican I? According to Rynne and those molder by the "spirit of Vatican II", the council was about openness, freedom, and tolerance. But the Council's claim of the Catholic Church to be the true Church founded by Christ and of the duty for all Catholics to assent to the teaching of the magisterium on faith and morals somehow gets lost.
But this seems rather like claiming that China has not, in fact, undergone a market revolution because it’s still governed by self-described Marxists. No: In politics and religion alike, a doctrine emptied in practice is actually emptied, whatever official rhetoric suggests.
When this point is raised, reformers pivot to the idea that, well, maybe the proposed changes really are effectively doctrinal, but not every doctrinal issue is equally important, and anyway Catholic doctrine can develop over time.
But the development of doctrine is supposed to deepen church teaching, not reverse or contradict it. This distinction allows for many gray areas, admittedly. But effacing Jesus’ own words on the not-exactly-minor topics of marriage and sexuality certainly looks more like a major reversal than an organic, doctrinally-deepening shift
At which point we come to the third argument, which makes an appearance in your letter: You don’t understand, you’re not a theologian. As indeed I am not. But neither is Catholicism supposed to be an esoteric religion, its teachings accessible only to academic adepts. And the impression left by this moving target, I’m afraid, is that some reformers are downplaying their real position in the hopes of bringing conservatives gradually along.
What is that real position? That almost anything Catholic can change when the times require it, and “developing” doctrine just means keeping up with capital-H History, no matter how much of the New Testament is left behind.
The Church’s encountering new ideas and modes of thinking do not require changes in doctrine, but may involve the development of doctrine. This is the teaching of the Church that revelation is understood in the full depth of its meaning only in stages over time, made clearer by the Church (often in the form of defining doctrine). This is not new doctrine or new revelation, but rather a development, a magnification of doctrine toward a more profound understanding of truth. Development of doctrine serves to adapt Church teaching to the needs of the people of a particular culture, made necessary at present because of the smokescreen of ideas and ideologies confronting Catholics referenced in my first chapter.
As I noted earlier, the columnist’s task is to be provocative. So I must tell you, openly and not subtly, that this view sounds like heresy by any reasonable definition of the term.
Now it may be that today’s heretics are prophets, the church will indeed be revolutionized, and my objections will be ground under with the rest of conservative Catholicism. But if that happens, it will take hard grinding, not just soft words and academic rank-pulling. It will require a bitter civil war.
And so, my dear professors: Welcome to the battlefield.
In this immortal combat, St. Paul cautions us that we have spiritual enemies: “principalities,” “powers,” and “spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” Jesus too spoke of this, for when Peter rebuked Our Lord for talking of Calvary and the Cross, “he turned and said to Peter, Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me; for you are not on the side of God, but of men.” Jesus could see that his closest disciple had allowed himself to become the Enemy’s mouthpiece. So, in teaching us that the gates of hell shall not prevail against His Church, Jesus warns that the Devil and his minions will continue to make war on His disciples, the offspring of “the woman,” who is the bride of Christ.