Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

“At last.” I breathed a sigh of gratitude upon my first reading of Bishop Wilton Gregory’s presidential address at the November meeting of the bishops conference. At last they are no longer jumping through media hoops and giving the impression of scurrying about like scared executives in search of a public relations fix. At the June meeting in Dallas they were perceived by many as”in the memorable phrase of Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln, Nebraska”“this hapless bench of bishops.” Gregory’s address set a different tone. Haplessness was displaced by hopefulness, touched by a note of determination and even defiance. We are bishops of the Catholic Church, he told his brothers, and the events of the past year have called us back to the responsibilities that attend that dignity and responsibility.

He took his text from Isaiah: “Comfort, give comfort to my people, says your God.” To be comforted does not mean to be at ease, Gregory said, but is God’s gift of “a life of complete and active engagement with God in Jesus Christ.” “We bishops, by the grace of our sacramental consecration, are the authentic bearers of [Christ’s] mission . . . . Like the apostles whom we succeed, we have been sent to announce God’s word.” After a year of frequent floundering, of embarrassed pandering, and of pathetic excuse-making, Gregory’s message was that the bishops are prepared to reassume their office, recommit themselves to their tasks, and speak again in the distinctive language of the Church. At last.

There was much else that was heartening in the presidential address that set the tone for the meeting. Gregory underscored that the threefold office of the bishop is to teach, to sanctify, and to govern, and none of those responsibilities can be shirked or farmed out to others. The Church is not defined by the story line of the culture; the culture is defined by the story borne by the Church. “Only the light of Christ,” Gregory declared, “can fully reveal the truth of the world in which we live.” He noted that the June meeting had been totally given over to the sex abuse scandals. “We put in place measures to ensure the greatest protection of our children in the Church,” he said, and he expressed confidence that the revisions of those measures proposed by Rome and to be adopted by the November meeting would further strengthen what Dallas did.

At the same time, Gregory made clear that the mission of the Church and the attention of the bishops cannot be, and will not be, monopolized by sex abuse and scandals. He spoke of the other items of business before the meeting: a statement on violence in the home, a joint appeal with the Mexican bishops on the treatment of migrants, a declaration on overcoming poverty, and a strong affirmation of the Church’s defense of the unborn on the thirtieth anniversary of the infamous Roe v. Wade decision. He didn’t quite put it this way, but he seemed to be saying to the culture, and to the media in particular, “We appreciate your concern, but the Catholic Church doesn’t need to take lessons from you on caring about the vulnerable and marginal.” One might dispute some of the policy proposals adopted by the bishops, but Gregory struck a refreshing note of candor and even feistiness that we haven’t heard in a long time. At last.

“There are those outside the Church who are hostile to the very principles and teachings that the Church espouses,” he asserted, “and have chosen this moment to advance the acceptance of practices and ways of life that the Church cannot and will never condone.” He did not explicitly mention homosexuality, but one wonders what else might be meant by “practices and ways of life.” Before Dallas, Gregory was outspoken in his worry about the association between homosexuality and the priesthood. It appears he may again dare to speak the name of an undeniable factor in the sins and crimes that have come to light this year. It is known that Rome is preparing a document that will underscore the necessity of, among other things, not admitting homosexuals to holy orders. In any event, the reference to practices and ways of life that the Church cannot and will never condone met with strong approval from the assembled bishops. At last.

Aware that many priests have been demoralized or outraged, or both, by the way Dallas undermined the relationship of trust between priest and bishop, Gregory went out of his way to affirm “the overwhelming majority of priests [who] are faithful servants of the Lord.” “ God bless our priests! ” he declared, “ They have surely blessed us! ” He also said, “Priests today too often are being unfairly judged by the misdeeds of other priests, men often long departed from ministry or even deceased.” This was a carefully calibrated address, and one may infer from the second part of that statement a criticism of bishops who have promiscuously publicized confidential files about priests in order to demonstrate their achievement of the episcopal virtue du jour, “transparency.” Never mind whether accusations are substantiated or even credible: priestly vocations and the reputations of priests honorably retired or deceased are a small price to pray for a bishop to be media-certified as tough on sexual abuse. At least I hope Bishop Gregory intended a criticism of bishops who seem to take that view. If so, one says again: At last.

The chief business of the November meeting, it is fair to say, was to defend and reassert the Catholic teaching that the Church is, by divine constitution, governed by bishops. “Sadly,” Bishop Gregory observed, “even among the baptized there are those at extremes within the Church who have chosen to exploit the vulnerability of the bishops in this moment to advance their own agendas. One cannot fail to hear in the distance”and sometimes very nearby”the call of the false prophet, ‘Let us strike the shepherd and scatter the flock.’ We bishops need to recognize this call and to name it clearly for what it is.” At their Washington meeting in November, the bishops recognized and named the challenge to episcopal governance. To that, too, one wants to say, At last.

Allocating Shares in the Mission

And yet, in their actions, as well as in Bishop Gregory’s presidential address, there is evidence that the bishops may not fully understand the sources of the challenge to their authority. Not only “at extremes within the Church,” and not only at one extreme of right or left, there is the belief that somewhere near the heart of the evils exposed in the last year is the corruption called clericalism, with its attendant vices of clubbiness, secretiveness, and obsession with power. Clericalism is the policy and habit of maintaining or increasing the power of a religious hierarchy. Clericalism is about power, and therefore elicits aspirations to countervailing power. Clericalism is the opposite of priestly and episcopal grace, which is the grace of service. Clericalism is deaf to the words of the one who said that the greatest among you must be the servant of all, and offered himself as one who came “not to be served but to serve.”

This is not to suggest that bishops do not work very hard at what they believe to be serving the People of God. I have no doubt that they do. The critical misstep of clericalism is to think that the Church and her mission belong mainly, perhaps even exclusively, to the clergy, and especially to the bishops. Clericalism is the operative assumption that the clergy are the Church rather than the less than .01 percent of her members who are ordained to serve the others by helping them to serve the Lord. Episcopal and priestly servanthood invites the response of servanthood; episcopal and priestly clericalism provokes the reaction of anticlericalism.

Speaking of the Church’s mission, Bishop Gregory says, “We bishops, by the grace of our sacramental consecration, are the authentic bearers of that mission and the message it contains.” To be sure. But he might have added that all Christians, by the grace of Baptism, are also authentic bearers of that mission and message. On the troubles of the past year he says, “Moreover, we bishops ourselves have not been immune from disagreement and discord on this matter . . . . Whatever the differences we have experienced with one another this year, it is essential to our life in Christ that we address them appropriately and reconcile fully with one another.” To be sure, discord is not good, but one might suggest that honest disagreement among bishops is a healthy thing, not least in holding negligent and miscreant brothers to account. The needed thing is bishops who are teachers able to teach in their own voice, rather than being anonymous components of the bureaucratic collective that is the episcopal conference. Collegiality should not mean conformity. Nor should cooperation be confused with clubbability.

Bishop Gregory says, “The mission given us by the Lord is one in which all members of the Church have a proper share. That is especially true of those who are related to us in ministry by Sacred Ordination. It is also true of the religious and laity. When I think of those in my own diocese who assist me in fulfilling the mission that the Lord has given me, my heart’s eye turns toward all of my brother priests.” Bishops should, he says, “give both the religious and laity their rightful place and share in the mission of the Church. He goes on to describe how lay people render great service in various church offices and councils, saying, “The opportunities for the laity to assist us are great and we need to seize upon them in order to fulfill effectively the mission the Lord has given us.”

One understands that Bishop Gregory is intending to reaffirm the governing authority of the bishops, but one may be permitted to suggest that he frames that authority in a way that plays into the hands of those who are challenging it. Voice of the Faithful and other activists agitate for “power sharing,” which is to say they agitate for power. They agitate for power on the clericalist assumption that the Church and her mission belongs to the bishops. The disagreement between them and the bishops is over the extent of “their rightful place and share” in that mission. Bishop Gregory says the bishops “give” the laity their part in the mission, and some of the laity demand that they be given more. He says the laity have a “rightful” part, and some of the laity demand an expansion of their rights. Such are the confusions generated by conceiving the Church along clericalist lines. Similarly with priests. It is understood that bishops possess the fullness of priestly ordination, but if priests are only there to “assist” the bishop in his ministry, it encourages the mindset that successful assistants should aim at becoming bosses. That is to say, they should become bishops.

Most problematic is the implication that lay people find “their rightful place and share in the mission of the Church” by gaining positions of influence in ecclesiastical structures, or by being given a part of the bishop’s job. The Second Vatican Council underscores that the mission of the Church is the mission of Christ and belongs to all the faithful, for all participate in the mission of Christ. To be a lay person is the typical and ordinary way of participating in that mission. The vocation of the laity is not realized by obtaining a share of the vocation of the clergy, the Council insists, but by advancing Christ’s mission in the world. Not by being “Father’s little helper” (or the Bishop’s little helper) but by fulfilling their tasks in the temporal order do lay people respond to the call to holiness, which is a universal call. The place and share of bishops in the mission of the Church is indispensable. They are, the Council says, “teachers of doctrine, priests of sacred worship, and officers of good order.” That is the threefold responsibility, and the last refers to governance. Good order is assured when each member of the body is rightly ordered to his or her calling in the body, of which all are equally part.

“For you I am a bishop, with you I am a brother,” said St. Augustine. Some of our brothers who are bishops were not doing their job over a long period of time. Had they been doing their job, we would not have the present crisis. The remedy is for them to be more the bishops they were ordained to be, not less. The remedy is not in sharing their authority but in exercising their authority. Their first responsibility is to teach. In April’s historic meeting with the Pope in response to the crisis, the Holy Father accented the importance of “total commitment” to the Church’s teaching on human sexuality. In living in fidelity to that teaching and their sacred vows, he said, the laity need the example of bishops and priests who do the same.

Perhaps that lesson has been learned through the shame and sadness of the past year, although it must be said that there has been slight public reference by bishops to fidelity in teaching and life. Perhaps because insisting upon fidelity on the part of bishops and priests would be controversial, possibly resulting in disagreement and even “discord.” Perhaps because bishops charged with oversight are not aware of the many clerical infidelities, although that seems improbable. Or perhaps because it is thought that, if such infidelities pose no threat to minors and therefore pose no further threat to the Church’s reputation or purse, they pose no problem. It would be pleasant to say that the last possibility is not plausible.

Almost Business As Usual

The message of the November meeting was that the bishops are in charge. There was even an air of going about business as usual: receiving committee reports, passing resolutions on this and that. When people make a point of insisting that they’re in charge, they’re usually not. But, this being the Catholic Church, there is nobody else to be in charge. No doubt Our Lord will one day explain why he set things up this way. Perhaps to test our faith. Although some are outstanding in competence, holiness, and apostolic zeal, the Church, all things considered, deserves a better set of bishops. But then Our Lord deserves a better Church, meaning all of us. He got us, and we got one another. The problem, if that is what it is, began when he decided not to entrust his mission to the angels.

The bishops adopted “A Statement of Episcopal Commitment.” There has been much criticism that the bishops have had a great deal to say about errant priests but nothing about bishops who allowed, or were complicit in, wrongdoing. The statement, it is said, “manifests our accountability to God, to God’s people, and to one another.” “Participating together in the college of bishops, we are responsible to act in a manner that reflects both effective and affective collegiality, including fraternal support, fraternal challenge, and fraternal correction.” At last, one might say. But the particulars of the statement are pretty limp. If an allegation of sexual abuse is made against a bishop, the Metropolitan bishop will be informed. If the allegation is against the Metropolitan, the bishop next in seniority will be informed. That’s it. Nothing is said about what will be done. It does not even say that the papal nuncio will be informed. “You say Bishop Wasisname is accused of fiddling a teenage boy? Thanks for telling me.” That’s that. Some people may be excused for thinking this falls somewhat short of manifesting “accountability to God, to God’s people, and to one another.” The statement does not even touch on the main concern, which is not bishops guilty of sexual abuse but bishops guilty of facilitating sexual abusers. Of course the episcopal conference does not have direct authority over bishops who are heads of their local churches”and a good thing, too”but it might have been better not to adopt a statement on episcopal accountability at all than to adopt a statement so vacuous as this.

The bishops also adopted an eleven-page statement, “When I Call for Help: A Pastoral Response to Domestic Violence Against Women.” It is, with some updating, a recycling of a statement on that subject of ten years ago, and it may be welcomed by some advocacy groups if, at this point in history, they still think it helpful to invoke the moral authority of the bishops conference. Then there is the “Statement on Iraq.” The Catholic bishops of the country helpfully alert President Bush to the fact that war is attended by serious risks. “Thanks, I needed that,” one does not imagine him saying. It is not as bad a statement as the voluble Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, auxiliary of Detroit, and other pacifists wanted. It is mainly a rehearsal of the bishops’ concerns, anxieties, fears, etc., joined to a reflection on the pertinence of traditional just war doctrine. (For a clarification of aspects of the doctrine that the statement neglects, see George Weigel’s essay in this issue.) “There are no easy answers,” the bishops say. They acknowledge that they do not know all the facts pertinent to decision-making (they have been very busy with other matters this past year), but they pray that leaders “will find the will and the ways to step back from the brink of war.” Importantly, they do not downplay the threat of terrorism, they do not blame America or engage in “root causes” blather, and they do recognize that the final decisions rightly belong to civil authority. Given the bishops’ track record on questions of war and peace”if the U.S. had accepted their counsel during the Cold War, we would likely still be fighting it or its outcome might have gone the other way”the statement is more judicious than might have been expected.

Much more useful is “A Place at the Table,” a long statement on the Catholic recommitment to overcome poverty, both domestic and global. It engages in serious moral and theological reflection, underscoring both the opportunities and threats posed by globalization, and is refreshing in its proposal of a non-statist understanding of economics. The economic “table” mentioned in the title rests, the statement says, on four legs: 1) what families and individuals can do, 2) what community and religious institutions can do, 3) what the private sector [the free market] can do, and 4) what the government can do. The chief role of the government is to secure the legal and policy context within which the first three players can do their job. For the first time in a major statement by the episcopal conference, it appears that the arguments and conceptualizations advanced by the 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus have been seriously engaged. One might raise questions about this or that, but, all in all, “A Place at the Table” indicates a new and more promising direction in the conference’s pronouncements on political economy and moral discernment.

Welcome also is “A Matter of the Heart,” a strong statement occasioned by the thirtieth anniversary of Roe v. Wade , January 22, 2003. The statement clearly reaffirms Catholic teaching, and notes the ways in which, despite entrenched opposition, “the pro-life movement has grown year by year, in numbers and in vitality.” The infamous Supreme Court ruling has resulted in “forty million lives destroyed” and in “a long trail of broken hearts,” especially the broken hearts of women. But the statement notes that fewer abortions are being done each year, that more Americans now identify themselves as pro-life than as pro-choice, that there are a growing number of ministries helping women with crisis pregnancies, and that most state legislatures have enacted measures to protect the unborn. (Among hopeful signs, the bishops do not mention the pro-life position of the Bush Administration or the increase in pro-life legislators elected the week before their meeting. Perhaps such mention was thought too partisan.) “Above all,” the statement notes, “the pro-life movement is brimming with the vibrancy of youth.” The most pro-life part of the population is people under thirty, matched only by those over sixty-five. “We will speak out,” the bishops declare, “on behalf of the sanctity of each and every human life wherever it is threatened, from conception to natural death, and we urge all people of good will to do likewise.” The last sentence is short and to the point: “ Roe v. Wade must be reversed.”

Moreover, I am glad to say that I was wrong last month when I suggested that the proposal for a plenary council of the Church in the U.S. would probably get short shrift. It didn’t get a lot of attention, but it appears that the proposal is not dead. A discussion of the idea is on the agenda for the semi-annual meeting next spring. Bishops who worry that such a council would be “hijacked” because canon law requires the participation of many non-bishops are floating an alternative proposal: asking the Pope to convene a special Synod of Bishops just for the bishops of the U.S. Whether a council or a synod or a series of regional synods leading up to a council is the best way to go, it is imperative that the bishops find a way to solemnly and decisively receive the teaching of the Second Vatican Council as authoritatively interpreted by the Magisterium, to examine and act upon the corruptions of leadership now so flagrantly on public display, and, at last, to assume their full responsibility in leading toward “a holier episcopate, a holier priesthood, and a holier Church.”

The Price That Has Been Paid

And now I have not said much about the charter and revised norms dealing with sexual abuse. That is because there is not much to say. I have read the documents and the reams of commentary on the documents, but everything depends on what happens now. Rome reined in the panicked policies of the Dallas meeting, which is what some bishops were counting on and why they voted for those policies even as they admitted they were deeply flawed. For instance, the definition of sexual abuse is more precise. The Dallas definition (borrowed from the Canadian bishops) was so elastic that almost any adult could be found guilty of sex abuse. The new rules also return to the old-fashioned idea that even priests should not be pronounced guilty”should not have their life’s work shattered and their reputations trashed”without due process. Provisions for transferring priests from one jurisdiction to another are tightened, and it is clarified that the rules apply also to priests in religious orders. Contrary to some press reports, all credible accusations will still have to be reported according to civil law. Statutes of limitations in canon law may even provide some opening toward taking into account the possibility of repentance and transformation of life, a possibility that the Pope at that April meeting said must never be forgotten, but that the bishops, knowing it is public relations poison, have done their best to forget.

Will the charter and the revised norms work? Nobody can know. If by “work” one means that there will be nobody in the priesthood or any other ministry of the Church who poses a threat to children, I expect it will work as well as is humanly possible. If by “work” one means that this entire mess can now be put behind us, there are months and probably years of lawsuits and trials to come, and we cannot discount the possibility of further revelations of past misdeeds. If by “work” one means that all we have been through will result in, as the Holy Father put it in April, “a holier episcopate, a holier priesthood, and a holier Church,” that is the subject of earnest prayer. Keep in mind also that the revised rules are riddled with footnoted references to provisions of canon law, some of them quite obscure. Keep in mind above all that”apart from judgments in civil and criminal courts”the crucial decisions will still be made by bishops, whether here or in Rome. For those who find that not entirely reassuring, see above on the perduring puzzlement over why Christ constituted his Church as he did.

It can be argued that the bishops have, all in all, successfully weathered the troubles of 2002. The Catholic scandals are off the front pages and the evening news, and, although there was much negative commentary, the revisions of Dallas adopted at the November meeting have not reignited the media firestorm of the past year. It is hard to know how the storm could be reignited, although the possibility cannot be excluded. There is no doubt that the bishops are very serious about preventing the sexual abuse of minors, although it is possible a few bishops still do not get it. The public perception would seem to be that the bishops, after a long period of negligence and a few instances of complicity, are now back on the job. If Dallas and subsequent actions have done that, it is no little achievement.

The cost has been of monumental proportions. It will take years, and perhaps decades, for the bishops and, therefore, the Catholic Church to recover the moral credibility that has been lost. The past year has given long-lasting ammunition to the forces of anti-Catholicism in American life. Not so much among the Catholic faithful and people favorably disposed to the Church, but among the general public the positions and pronouncements of bishops will for years to come be met with ribald comments about clerics and little boys. The inestimable cost includes the historic failure of the bishops at Dallas to speak the gospel of Jesus Christ as it relates to sin and grace, repentance and restoration. Not perhaps for the general public, but for those who care about the Church’s witness and for those who write the histories of this period, the indelibly imprinted image of Dallas will be that of panicked executives abasing themselves before media inquisitors in order to save their skins.

Closely related to that, it will take years or decades to restore the former level of trust between priests and bishops. Priests will not soon forget that, come the crunch, too many bishops were all too ready to offer them, their vocations and their reputations, to appease the appetite of the public relations monster. Pro-lifers will not forget, nor should they forget, that, come the crunch, the bishops violated their own policies and solemn pronouncements by appointing notorious proponents of abortion to positions of oversight in the Church, as witness the National Review Board. And it may be many decades, if ever, before the respect of civil authorities for the Church’s right to govern itself ( libertas ecclesiae ) will be restored. In that connection, a little but telling incident: a bishop and a priest met about an accusation that had been made, and the bishop explained that the diocesan lawyer was present at the meeting “in order to protect the confidentiality of our conversation.” It is assumed that the civil authorities will show greater respect for a lawyer than for a bishop, for the rights of the legal profession than for the rights of the Church. Two years ago, such a thing was nearly inconceivable. We have hardly begun to appreciate the cost exacted by the Long Lent of 2002.

But as I wrote last month, there is undoubtedly a new sense of gravity and a widely shared determination to understand what went wrong and how to set it right, or at least to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Laurie Goodstein of the New York Times has been a generally fair and perceptive reporter of the troubles. Her story after the November meeting is titled “Tradition as Healer,” and she notes that the cause of those who have agitated for married clergy, women priests, gays in ministry, the approval of contraception, and other changes has been severely set back. The new mood of the bishops, she says, is reflected in the words of Allen Vigneron, auxiliary of Detroit: “These are things in the Church that are not policies. They are doctrines, and they aren’t ever going to be negotiable. For us to explain ourselves as a Church, we need to say that.” Goodstein writes: “A vast majority of bishops are company men, appointed by and loyal to Pope John Paul II. At the Washington meeting, they made it clear that those who were looking to them for innovation would be disappointed.” She concludes her account with this: “There is one antidote to the abuse crisis, the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus said at a recent forum. That, he said, is ‘Fidelity, fidelity, fidelity.’”

Ms. Goodstein got an important part of the story right. The gravity that I mentioned is the order of the day. For most, if not all, of the bishops, the silly season is over, the era of wink and nudge is definitively past, the bishops are back in charge. But, pace Ms. Goodstein, to be loyal to John Paul II is more than a matter of being a company man, and fidelity is about much more than toeing the line. Fidelity is the high adventure of following John Paul in effectively teaching the vibrant orthodoxy of the radical call to holiness. Fidelity requires change and, yes, innovation in obedience to the truth of the faith. Fidelity is the excitement of discovering and living the living tradition of the saints, past and present. Fidelity is the surrender of self to Christ and his Church. Fidelity is the courage to be different, to lovingly engage the culture and, when necessary, to be countercultural and even contra mundum. Fidelity is the alternative to the dreary conformism that produced this season of outrage and shame. Fidelity is conversion.

Jacques Maritain and Vatican Council II

When, many years ago, I first read Jacques Maritain’s The Peasant of the Garonne , I shared the general view that it was little more than the reactionary ramblings of a disgruntled old man. Now Ralph McInerny’s admirable and deservedly admiring biography of Maritain, The Very Rich Hours of Jacques Maritain: A Spiritual Life (forthcoming from Notre Dame), has prompted me to go back and read the book again. As with Mark Twain’s surprise when he reached his twenties at how, since he was a teenager, his father had become ever so much smarter, so I have changed my view of The Peasant of the Garonne . It is a reactionary book in large part, and it does ramble, and there is no doubt that Maritain was deeply disappointed and in many ways disgruntled, but I was surprised by wisdom I had not appreciated before, and by a prescience that is nothing short of stunning. The Peasant was written in the immediate aftermath of the Second Vatican Council, within a few months of its formal closing in December 1965. Maritain was then eighty-five years old, and long celebrated, along with Étienne Gilson, as the architect of a Thomistic revival that was thought to hold the promise of a veritable golden age of Catholic intellectual vitality. Heaped with honors in Europe and America, Maritain was viewed as the champion of that aggiornamento ”philosophical, theological, and pastoral”to which the Council aspired. Then came the publication of The Peasant . Some on the right were pleased to see a famous “man of the left” finally coming to his senses. From the left, there was a storm of reaction against Maritain’s putatively reactionary turn. He was in the judgment of some simply a traitor, while others, in a mix of charity and condescension, sadly shook their heads over an old man who had lost his grip. A reviewer in the New York Times said of the book, “It appears to call a halt to the modernist revolution that Maritain himself did much to inspire.” It was thought to be a pity that such a distinguished thinker, such a brilliant life, should end like this.

In his biography, McInerny begins by acknowledging that The Peasant is Maritain’s “most controversial” book, but ends up declaring it a “great book,” and that for several reasons. What Maritain is attacking he frankly calls “neo-modernism.” At the time, and still to this day, the claim was made that the putative errors of “modernism” condemned in 1907 by Pius X had, under papal oppression, continued in an underground existence until they at long last came out into the open at Vatican II, where they were vindicated by the call for aggiornamento and the opening of windows to the world. Let it be admitted that there are traditionalist Catholics who, because they are traditionalists, cannot say that the Council was a mistake, but who are inclined to agree with the progressivist reading of the Council”although they draw the conclusion, expressed only sotto voce, that the Council was, all in all, a mistake. McInerny and Maritain are not among them. McInerny writes, “There is no question, of course, of [Maritain’s] rejecting or questioning any of the sixteen documents which make up the conciliar teaching. But he saw”better, he recognized, having seen it before”the spirit animating those who were trying to turn the Council to their own ends.”

A Measure of Ambivalence

There is, I think, a measure of ambivalence in Maritain’s view of the Council. There is no question of his obedience to the Magisterium”and in this connection The Peasant includes moving and insightful reflections on the “personality” of the Church which has her own memory and consciousness. Yet, while the Council cannot teach error, it was not as effective as it might have been in countering those who do. One detects a certain chagrin on Maritain’s part that it falls to him to elucidate, albeit in deference to the Council fathers, the true meaning of the Council against those who would, for their own purposes, exploit real or manufactured ambiguities in its teaching. McInerny writes:

In The Peasant of the Garonne , as throughout his career, it is clear that the pursuit of truth and clarity is not at the service merely of winning an argument or negatively appraising other efforts. As in few other thinkers, we are always conscious that a person is doing the thinking and that this person aspires to more than the perfection of the mind. From first to last, Maritain’s philosophizing is embedded in the contemplative life. He calls the Peasant an old man’s book, and it is true that in it he is a bit garrulous and repetitive, but it is a great book, the first to see and warn of what enormities would be perpetrated in the name of Vatican II.

While I agree with that assessment, Maritain’s words of reproach and warning with respect to the misinterpretations of the Council should not obscure his genuine enthusiasm for the Council’s teaching or his appreciation of the problems that teaching was intended to remedy. Maritain begins from the conventional premise that the Council “was in response to a providential design; for the historic task, the immense renewal that it had to bring about, had to do with progress in evangelical awareness and attitudes of the heart rather than with defining dogmas.” (One notes parenthetically that, while it is commonly said that Vatican II was not a dogmatic or doctrinal Council, there are those dogmatic constitutions that clearly represent developments of doctrine.) But I think there is nothing disingenuous in Maritain’s affirmation of what the Council achieved. He rejoices in the Council’s bold affirmation of human freedom, including political and religious freedom. He cites the 1964 statement of Paul VI that the Pope “neither wants to nor ought to exercise henceforth any power other than that of his spiritual keys.”

The Integrity of the Human

Avery Cardinal Dulles speaks of the “prophetic humanism” of the Council, especially as its teachings have been so vigorously advanced by the pontificate of John Paul II. Maritain notes Paul VI’s final address to the Council on December 7, 1965, in which he summed up its teaching in terms of the defense of the hominem integrum ”the integrity of the human. Maritain writes: “Here is accomplished the great reversal of virtue of which it is no longer the human which takes charge of defending the divine, but the divine which offers itself to defend the human (if the latter does not refuse the aid offered).” In its centuries of entanglement with earthly powers, and up through the providential loss of the papal states, the Church had sought alliances for the defense of what were called “the things of God.” Now at Vatican II, in a daring mix of confidence and humility, the Church declares her mission to be the defense of the things of man. As Maritain was keenly aware, this entailed a great risk, but it was a risk of faith. Everything depends upon our understanding of man, of anthropology, of what constitutes the hominem integrum . As John Paul II has said repeatedly, “Jesus Christ is the answer to which every human life is the question.” But all depends on our understanding the question that is our life.

Maritain welcomes also the Council’s opening to other Christians and other religions, while at the same time he cautions against superficial dialogues that are not dialogues in the service of the eternal truths borne by the Catholic Church. The Peasant includes an extended”and, I have to admit, somewhat unsatisfactory”reflection on how all people are “potential” members of the Church, a reflection reminiscent of Karl Rahner’s writing about “anonymous Christians,” although Rahner is not mentioned. Less ambiguous, indeed clear and wholehearted, is Maritain’s response to the Council’s rejection of the notion that the lay state is in some sense spiritually “imperfect” in relation to the greater perfection of the priestly and, especially, the religious life. He returns again and again to the point that Our Lord’s command to be “perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” applies to all, thus underscoring the universal call to holiness. Not for nothing is McInerny’s subtitle “A Spiritual Life.” For the “little community” of Jacques, his wife Raissa, and her sister Vera, the spiritual life had indisputable priority. The observation of their novelist friend Leon Bloy that finally the only sadness is not to be a saint marked the decisive turning point in their lives. They became Catholics in order to become saints.

Which brings us to the subject that occasions some of the sharpest, indeed caustic, criticisms in The Peasant : the effect of the Council”or, more precisely, of misrepresentations of the Council”on liturgy and piety. The Council urged that liturgy should be conscious, active, and devout, and Maritain complains that already some are forgetting the importance of devotion, and especially the highest form of devotion that is contemplation. Here again he cites Paul VI’s closing address to the Council, and one suspects that Maritain is among those who view that address as a kind of anticipatory correction of misunderstandings of the Council, both current and foreseen. According to Maritain, the Council statements on liturgy, and especially the Mass, in no way contradict but complement and confirm the insistence of Paul in his address that “contemplation is the most noble and the most perfect form of human activity, against which one measures, in the pyramid of human acts, the proper value of these acts, each according to its kind.”

The Denial of the Transcendent

It would, I think, be fair to say that all the criticisms expressed in The Peasant ”and it is a very critical book”can be summed up in one comprehensive criticism: namely, the denial or suppression of the transcendent”of life understood as premised upon what Maritain calls “the intuition of being” and the ordering of humanity to the Being who is God. Of all religions and philosophies, he writes, Catholicism “is most steadfast in recognizing and affirming the reality”irreducibly, splendidly, generously in itself”of the beings whom the Creator has made, and the transcendence of this Other, who is the Truth in person and Being itself subsisting by itself, in whom we live and move and have our being, the living God by whose strength we live, and who loves us and whom we love.” Repeatedly, he returns to the biblical truth that “God is love.” This he posits against those who, in his judgment, are suggesting that God is history, or God is evolutionary development, or God is cosmic fulfillment, or God is worldly effectiveness, or God is political justice, or God is psychological well-being.

Of course, Teilhard de Chardin gets a most particular drubbing in The Peasant . For the benefit of readers who might think that the drubbing is excessive, McInerny notes that it is difficult to overestimate his influence at the time Maritain was writing. I would suggest that Teilhard was and is representative of a denial of transcendence that is at least equally influential in our own time. The reduction of the transcendent to the immanent, of the eternal to the temporal, and of the spiritual to the material is an error endemic to the modern theological project up to the present. That is the claim vigorously advanced in a recent book, Ascension and Ecclesia , by the Protestant theologian Douglas Farrow. Maritain would have little patience with Farrow’s relentless, almost ruthless, Barthianism, but I have no doubt that he would share my delight in Farrow’s concluding and devastating observation that all such modern theologies end up in our “arriving at Damascus without incident.”

On his way to Damascus, Maritain was knocked off his despairing pretensions and turned toward sainthood. And, for Maritain, the incidents keep on happening in the life of the Church. He writes:

At a certain moment during the Mass (and that is why the “sacred silence” is then demanded), there is a kind of divine flash of lightning; at the words of the double consecration (which, from the fact that it sacramentally separates the body of the Lord from his blood, is an efficient sign of his death on the cross), Jesus makes himself present on the altar in the state of a victim: suddenly and mysteriously, during a few minutes of our lives, the sacrifice in which he gave himself for us is there before us, his supreme offering of himself to the Father, the act by which he won for all men the grace of redemption.

And the incidents kept on happening in his own life of contemplation, and especially in the spiritual experiences of his beloved Raissa. McInerny rightly notes that it is not easy for us to share what sometimes seems to be Maritain’s extravagant reverence for Raissa’s spirituality, even to the point of attributing to her the primary inspiration for his own thought and spiritual understanding. There is, it seems to me, a similar problem in understanding Hans Urs von Balthasar’s extraordinary statements about his indebtedness to Adrienne von Speyr. In both cases, there is something intensely and intimately personal that cannot readily be communicated to others. But for both men, and for both women, it is obvious that the greatest sadness would be to arrive at Damascus without incident. Which is but another way of saying that one had spent one’s life on something less than becoming a saint.

In The Peasant , as elsewhere in his writings, Maritain traces the radically wrong philosophical turn back to Descartes, who turned almost all”I believe Maritain would say all”philosophy called modern from thinking about reality to thinking about thinking. He does temper his criticism of Descartes, and I believe appropriately so, by noting that Descartes, as a devout Catholic, did not intend all that others have done with his radical turn. The greater blame he lays at the door of the idealism entrenched by Immanuel Kant, whom he describes as “the thinking-master who still reigns over the world of professors . . . an elderly meditative clockmaker laboriously tracing, in his head and on paper, the outline of the mechanisms of a transcendental clock destined to make the stars move in their courses.” He continues:

The Judeo-Christian revelation is the strongest, the most insolently self-assured testimony rendered to the reality in itself of being”the being of things, and Being subsisting by itself”I say being dwelling in the glory of existence in total independence of the mind that knows it. Christianity professes with a tranquil impudence what in the philosophical vocabulary is known as realism. I said previously that a Christian cannot be a relativist. One must say, and this goes much further, that a Christian cannot be an idealist.

The Intuition of Being

Of course, as Maritain was well aware, the philosophical turning of the mind in upon itself, and the consequent denial of certainty about a connection between reality and rational reflection on the experience of the senses, goes back far before Kant and far before Descartes. In the sixth century b.c., thinkers such as Parmenides of Elea had apparently cut the ground out from under human knowing by demonstrating, at least to their satisfaction, that the real world is quite unlike anything knowable to us by the senses and reason, and Parmenides’ disciple Zeno claimed to have shown that even the postulates of mathematics are mutually contradictory. Socrates, Plato, and, most important, Aristotle reconstituted confidence in human knowing, a confidence brought to the fullness of its explanatory force in the great achievement of Thomas. More than in his other writings, or perhaps it simply struck me more forcefully upon this rereading, The Peasant depicts the entirety of human reflection”in philosophy, religion, and mythology”as falling on one side or the other of the great divide that is the “intuition of being” illuminated by Thomas. Here Maritain does not hesitate to speak of “the Christian philosophy,” while he recognizes the risk of “clericalizing” a way of thought and thus compromising its universality and necessary measure of independence from revealed truth as expressed in the Church’s doctrine.

Toward the end of his life, it seems, Maritain is less inhibited in taking that risk. On one side of the great divide are all the idealisms, relativisms, and what even then he called “perspectivisms” produced by the epistemological obsessions of thinking about thinking, and on the other side is Christianity, and more specifically Catholicism, finding its fullest philosophical expression in Thomism, “the Christian philosophy.” McInerny’s study helps us understand why this should be so. Again, his subtitle is “A Spiritual Life””not, as some might have thought more appropriate, “A Philosophical Life.” For Maritain, the chief business of life was the business of the spirit, to become a saint; and to become a saint is to know the truth, and, ultimately, the Truth. The great truth of Thomas is a certain way of knowing that lower case truth and upper case Truth are inseparable. And that way of knowing is proclaimed, vindicated, and defended by Catholic Christianity. In and around the Council”but not in the Council’s Spirit-guided teaching”Maritain saw the forces from the other side of the great divide infiltrating the life and thought of the Church. They were attempting, and succeeding, in using aggiornamento as a bridge across the great divide. The result was a subjection of philosophy and theology to ways of thinking marked by what Maritain described as “kneeling before the world.”

The abandonment of the intuition of being, and of Being, resulted in a philosophy and theology wholly collapsed into, and captive to, the immanent. The “truth” was put into quotation marks and made, without remainder, instrumental to our human projects. This, Maritain was convinced, was in clear contradiction to the intention and the teachings of the Council. As I indicated earlier, and as is suggested by the repeated citation of Paul VI’s final address to the Council, Maritain does imply, ever so gently, that the Council fathers might have more effectively prevented the misuse of aggiornamento to build a bridge of infiltration across the great divide, but it would seem that his understanding of ecclesial docility prevents him from saying that explicitly.

In any event, there is no hesitance or ambivalence in his affirmation of the great achievements of the Council in, inter alia, clarifying that the Church’s mission is premised upon spiritual rather than worldly power, affirming her irrevocable commitment to religious and political freedom, opening herself to engagement with other Christians and other religions, renewing the call to evangelization in which all have a part, and underscoring the dignity and responsibility of the laity, with particular reference to the universal call to holiness. In these and other respects, there is no doubt that Maritain believed the Council was a great gift of the Holy Spirit. I said earlier that The Peasant is stunningly prescient. In substance, form, and rhetoric, there is hardly a distortion of Vatican II that has appeared in the past decades that Maritain did not see or anticipate in 1965. About one thing, however, he was not prescient. “Clearly,” he wrote, “all such pieces of foolery will pass away as quickly as they have appeared.” I suppose it depends on what is meant by quickly.

Whether the Council Failed

In 1975, the noted sociologist of religion Peter Berger and I convened a gathering of influential Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox theologians and philosophers in Hartford, Connecticut, to consider the state of Christian faith and life in America. From that intense conversation came “The Hartford Appeal for Theological Affirmation,” which occasioned some considerable controversy at the time. Ralph McInerny was part of the Hartford meeting and it was only after my recent rereading of The Peasant that I realized how much, through McInerny, Jacques Maritain was there as well. The Hartford Appeal specified a number of theological ideas that were “pervasive, false, and debilitating.” The foundational error in all these ideas, Hartford said, is the denial of the transcendent. In other words, Christianity, in both its academic and popular presentation, was becoming increasingly expert in helping people get to Damascus without incident.

I cannot say for sure that Jacques Maritain would have signed the Hartford Appeal, but I would not be entirely surprised if Ralph McInerny entertained the thought that he was signing on Maritain’s behalf. In any event, the “pieces of foolery” that the peasant of the Garonne thought would pass away quickly have not passed away yet, and an argument can be made that today, almost forty years later, they are more firmly entrenched.

We might well ask whether today Maritain would think, or whether we should think, that the Second Vatican Council failed. It is no secret that some have long since reached that conclusion. A Council may, of course, fail”not in its validity but in its efficacy. Of the twenty-one ecumenical councils recognized by the Church, historians generally view the thirteenth-century councils of Lateran IV and Lyons I and II, along with the fifteenth-century councils of Constance and Basel, and the sixteenth-century Lateran V, as more or less failures in their reforming intentions. At least in the second Christian millennium, a successful council seems to be more the exception than the rule. Our thinking on these matters has been skewed by the remarkable success of the Council of Trent and its implementation by heroic figures such as Charles Borromeo and the Society of Jesus in its earlier fidelity to the charism of Ignatius. There was not so much a Counter-Reformation, as it is commonly called, as an authentic Catholic Reformation, beginning already in the fifteenth century, and finding its council in Trent and its champions in those who boldly advanced the reforming vision of Trent.

There should be no doubt, or so it seems to me, that reform is very much needed today. What might be called a Second Catholic Reformation has its council in Vatican II and has many champions, the foremost of whom is John Paul II. He is, through and through, “a man of the Council,” having been a major participant in those deliberations and decisions most cheered by Jacques Maritain. As Archbishop of Krakow and for twenty-four years as pope, he has relentlessly pressed the conciliar reforms touching on almost every aspect of the Church’s faith and life. And yet we cannot avoid asking whether, fifty or a hundred years from now, it will be judged that the Second Vatican Council was a failure, and, as a consequence, the Second Catholic Reformation a vain hope. Despite Maritain’s somewhat insouciant statements about all the “foolery” passing quickly, one detects in the somber reflections of the peasant of the Garonne a haunting suspicion that the damage done by the misunderstanding and misinterpretation of the Council will be with the Church for a very long time.

The “Champions” of the Council

But he does not surrender himself to that suspicion. The deniers of transcendence”represented for Maritain primarily by Teilhard’s “cosmic Christ” and its conflation of salvation with the evolutionary process”claim to have been vindicated, or at least encouraged, by the Council. But, says Maritain, “With a magnanimous serenity, the Council utterly and completely ignored this great effort at a ‘better Christianity.’ . . . They will have to wait for a new Council, and another, and Lord knows how many after that. Or else, if their patience wears thin, will they go so far as to form themselves into a separate sect, as did Marcion and his disciples, at the risk of making Père Teilhard rise from his grave to condemn them?” One notes that in the main text of The Peasant , Maritain tries to be personally gentle with Teilhard, attributing his philosophical and theological confusions to his uncontrolled “lyrical” genius. In an appendix, however, he has second thoughts, leading one to think that Teilhard may not rise from the grave to condemn his sectarian followers, being a sectarian himself.

As it happens, however, almost forty years later those whom Maritain criticized are, with few exceptions, not inclined to form a new church for their “better Christianity,” since they feel quite at home in, if not entirely in control of, the Church as it is”at least with respect to academic philosophy and theology and the Church’s catechetical directions. But it is true that those whom Maritain viewed as the enemies of transcendence wait and work for another council, and another after that, and after that maybe a permanent council in which what Maritain calls the “personality” and “memory” of the Church will be displaced by a process of endless revision. It is a great oddity that many of those who declare themselves to be most enthusiastic about Vatican II”who routinely speak of the “pre-Vatican II Church” and the “post-Vatican II Church,” as though they are two churches”are the same people who press for the convoking of Vatican Council III. They declare themselves eager to “think with the Church””sentire cum ecclesia”always stipulating that the mind of the Church will be properly articulated by the next council and the next pope, or the council and the pope after that. Theirs is an anticipatory fidelity, faithful to a Magisterium that will one day come around to agreeing with them.

One senses a certain puzzlement in The Peasant that those most determined to undermine the teaching of the Council succeed in presenting themselves as the great champions of the Council. Their insistence on the need for Vatican III”which, they say, would “complete” the work of Vatican II”clearly suggests that Vatican II did not do what they think it should have done. Yet one must ask why it is that those who, in fact, reject the Council’s teachings have been so successful in posing as the Council’s champions. One answer, it seems to me, is that many who understand and affirm the Council’s teachings have been so lukewarm in the Council’s defense. Many are inclined to the view that John XXIII’s convocation of a council was, if not a mistake, at least unnecessary. There was, they say, no crisis that required a major initiative of reform; the Church was, all in all, vibrant and flourishing on her current course.

That way of thinking receives, I believe, no encouragement from the peasant of the Garonne. Maritain’s list of what needed to be reformed in the Church prior to the Council is simply the flip side of the above-mentioned conciliar reforms that he so strongly approved. Key to his analysis are the many meanings of the word “world.” If those who tried to hijack the intention of aggiornamento were guilty of uncritically “kneeling before the world,” they were, in part, simply overreacting against the Manicheism, the contempt for the world, that was so prominent before the Council. Maritain writes:

The hostility of a civilization in which Christianity”and especially such a disfigured Christianity”was called to question on all sides, and where science was held to be the enemy of religion; . . . the modernist crisis, with its first epidemic of itching ears and piously intended errors; . . . the indispensable struggle against these errors, the almost exclusive recourse to disciplinary measures; the spiritual impoverishment of a Christian laity, who continued in general to imagine that the call to the perfection of charity, with what it implies of life, of prayer, and, as much as possible, of contemplative recollection, was the exclusive concern of the monks; . . . All this was going to build up, in the unconscious of a great many Christians, clerics and laymen, an enormous weight of frustration, disillusionment, repressed doubts, resentment, bitterness, healthy desires sacrificed, with all the anxieties and pent-up aspirations of the unhappy conscience. Comes the aggiornamento . Why be astonished that at the very announcement of a Council, then in the surrounding of it, and now after it, the enormous unconscious weight which I have just mentioned burst into the open in a kind of explosion that does no honor to the human intelligence? Thus the Council appears as an island guarded by the Spirit of God in the middle of an ocean which is overturning everything, the true and the false, pell-mell.

There is no doubt, then, that Maritain thought reform was needed, and he welcomed the Council’s Spirit-guided response to that need. I think it fair to say that his disappointment, indeed his bitterness, over the confusions and distortions that threatened, and still threaten, to overwhelm the Council is but a measure of the high hopes he had for the reforms of the Council. Against both Manicheism and an idolatrous “kneeling before the world,” the Council proposed the Church’s critical engagement with the history of which it is part, knowing that the key to that history is the intuition of being, and of Being, without which mankind arrives at Damascus without incident”with the result that lives beyond number terminate in the greatest sadness, that of not being a saint.

Voting What You Believe

Republicans are the party of the religious, while Democrats are the party of secularists. That, you may well protest, puts the matter altogether too simply. You are right. But the foregoing generalization is not far off the mark, and is getting closer. Such are the findings of an important article in the Public Interest , “Our Secularist Democratic Party,” by Louis Bolce and Gerald De Maio, two social scientists at Baruch College, New York. The dramatic shift was first evident in the Democratic Convention of 1972, when over a third of white delegates fit the definition of secularist, compared with only five percent of the general population falling into that category. For purposes of the study, a “secularist” is someone who rejects scriptural authority, has no religious affiliation, never attends a religious service or prays, and says religion provides no guidance in his daily life. A “traditionalist” is defined by the obverse on each of those scores. (The majority of Americans, it should be noted, are designated as “religious moderates” who fall between the secularist and traditionalist camps.)

The authors call the difference between secularists and traditionalists “the religious gap.” “The religious gap among white voters in the 1992, 1996, and 2000 presidential elections was more important than other demographic and social cleavages in the electorate; it was much larger than the gender gap and more significant than any combination of differences in education, income, occupation, age, marital status, and regional groupings.” A quarter of white respondents in the study have strongly negative feelings toward “the religious right” and “fundamentalists.” The authors write: “The results indicate that over the past decade persons who intensely dislike fundamentalist Christians have found a partisan home in the Democratic Party. Clinton captured 80 percent of these voters in his victories over President Bush in 1992 and over Senator Robert Dole four years later; Gore picked up 70 percent of the anti-fundamentalist vote in the 2000 election. One has to reach back to pre-New Deal America, when the political divisions between Catholics and Protestants encapsulated local ethno-cultural cleavages over prohibition, immigration, public education, and blue laws, to find a period when voting behavior was influenced by this degree of antipathy toward a religious group.”

From 1990 to 2000, the New York Times and the Washington Pos

Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before July 1.

First Things is a proudly reader-supported enterprise. The gifts of readers like you— often of $50, $100, or $250—make articles like the one you just read possible.

This Spring Campaign—one of our two annual reader giving drives—comes at a pivotal season for America and the church. With your support, many more people will turn to First Things for thoughtful religious perspectives on pressing issues of politics, culture, and public life.

All thanks to you. Will you answer the call?

Make My Gift