At the end of last months installment of this continuing rumination on Catholic trials and tribulations, I spoke of the Catholic center, asserting that The center holds. Is that more than a rhetorical ploy? After all, people who take a position generally like to claim that their position constitutes the center. Having taken a stand at the center, one then defines the extremes, usually described in terms of left and right, liberal and conservative. To be sure, there are minorities who gladly identify themselves as being out of the mainstream and do not blanch at being called extreme. They style themselves revolutionaries or reactionaries, the avant garde or defenders of the ancien régime. But, as I say, they are a minority. For purposes of persuading others, and usually by conviction, most of us are inclined to present our position as considered, thoughtful, and moderate. Our moderation is certified by our making clear beyond doubt that we eschew this extreme, on the one hand, and that extreme, on the other. Le centre cest moi!
At the same time, we want it understood that ours is not the Laodicean center of Revelation 3. I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were cold or hot . . . . I will spew you out of my mouth. No, our center is”to borrow Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.s phrase with reference to American politics”the vital center. Conservatives insist that their adherence to magisterial teaching is a vibrant orthodoxy, while liberals describe their dissent as being in the Catholic tradition. Please, do not describe my position as hot, in the sense of overheated or fanatical. But neither is it cold, in the sense of conventional or unfeeling. It is warm, as in welcoming. It is cool, as in composed and unruffled. Tired of the contentiousness of extremes in conflict? Welcome to the center.
Once upon a time, before the Second Vatican Council, there were good Catholics and bad Catholics, but everybody knew what it meant to be a Catholic. Now it seems that everything is up for grabs, and in the resulting confusions contesting parties vie for the treasured turf called the center. On the left and on the right, we hear people claiming to be beyond the old categories of left and right, liberal and conservative. These are the beyondists. They are usually liberals running away from the sour smell of liberalism far beyond its sell“by date. And beyondists are sometimes conservatives wanting to distance themselves from the stereotypes of conservatism. In either case, they typically represent only more of what they say they are beyond. The language of beyondism has to do not with substance but with salesmanship. Beyondism keeps returning us to where the arguments began.
I often think its comical
How nature always does contrive
That every boy and every gal,
Thats born into the world alive,
Is either a little Liberal,
Or else a little Conservative!
W. S. Gilbert didnt have it quite right. We may not be born one way or the other, but having reached the point of taking sides, few of us get beyond it. Yes, it is true that in the 1960s I was viewed as a liberal, but I was a liberal for conservative reasons. When over a long period of time it was made clear to me that my position was untenable (I will not bore you with the details, but it had to do most importantly with the division of the house over abortion), I did not move beyond liberal and conservative. I became a conservative, or at least what some persist in calling a neoconservative. If someone proposes to you a position that is beyond left and right, you can be almost certain hes peddling a gussied“up liberalism or conservatism. Beyondism is a shell game.
Parties in Conflict
Disputes in the Church are different from disputes in the arena of secular politics, although not so different as one might like to think. I venture the suggestion, however, that, in trying to understand the intra“Catholic disputes of the forty years since the Council, it is more helpful to think in terms of two parties: the party of discontinuity and the party of continuity. The party of discontinuity has both right“wing and left“wing branches, but they are united in their agreement that the Council represented a decisive break in the story of the Catholic Church. The one sees the Council as deviation or even apostasy; the other sees the Council as liberation or even revolution. Both see the Council as a break from what had gone before; both speak of a pre“Vatican II Church and a post“Vatican II Church, as though there are two churches; both are highly critical of the Churchs leadership, and of this pontificate in particular”the one because John Paul II has failed to restore what was, and the other because it thinks he is trying to do just that. Such are the two branches of the party of discontinuity. We might call them the discontinuants.
The rightists in the party of discontinuity are most graphically represented by the late Marcel Lefebvre and his followers. Having participated in the Council as a bishop, Lefebvre came to the conviction that the Council was heretical and he went into schism, being excommunicated by Rome, after the Holy Sees most arduous efforts to avoid a final break, in 1988. Lefebvrists in the Society of St. Pius X are to be found around the world, and have their American headquarters in Kansas City. Some on the right of the party of discontinuity are sedevacantists”from sede vacante , meaning the see is vacant. They believe John Paul II is an imposter, as was Paul VI before him. They have photos showing that the left ear lobe of Giovanni Battista Montini is very different from the left ear lobe shown in photos of Paul VI, or something like that. In the twilight zones of the Internet, sedevacantism is conveniently linked to websites about Elvis sightings.Discontinuants of a rightist bent are usually not so radical in their views. They include people who say, sotto voce, that Vatican II was a mistake; some thinking it was a catastrophe, others a wrong turn, and yet others a severe bump in the road. They say such things sotto voce because the Catholicism they want to repristinate provides no doctrinal resources to justify the claim that Vatican II was simply illegitimate. In their view, the Council was, at the very least, unnecessary. Two councils were quite enough: Trent to definitively rebut the Protestant heretics, and Vatican I to declare papal infallibility, which would then be sufficient for dealing with all future contingencies. John XXIIIs decision to call a council, they believe, was not an inspiration but a wild impulse that a wiser man would have stifled. Discontinuants of the right generally stay in the Church”there being nowhere to go except into the Lefebvre Land of schism”but not without a steady rumble of grumbling.
The Catholic Moment That Was
Representative is a recent column by Pat Buchanan, for whom Vatican II was somewhere between catastrophe and wrong turn. He lists all the things that have gone wrong in the Church since the Council, and it is an impressive list indeed. When in 1987 I published The Catholic Moment , Mr. Buchanan sent me a copy of a book he had just published with the inscription, I too believe in the Catholic moment. It was forty years ago and is not likely to happen again. That earlier Catholic moment, as his column says, was one of full seminaries and full convents, of a burgeoning system of health care and schools, of colleges and universities intellectually committed to Catholic truth, of crowded pews, big families, and a church celebrated by Hollywood and the world to the ringing of The Bells of St. Marys . Witness now a church dispirited and divided, riddled by scandal and led by bishops who, if they are not on the edge of resigning in disgrace, are sheepishly employed in giving depositions, trying to explain why they didnt do what they should have done about their clerical buddies who couldnt keep their pants zipped around little boys.
Buchanans depiction is very grim, so grim as to be a caricature. As also, many will protest, is his depiction of the good old days too glowing. But caricatures that carry weight with many thoughtful people are not woven out of whole cloth. In his critique of the Council, Buchanan and many others commit the fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc ”it happened after the Council, therefore it happened because of the Council. But the Council was not responsible for John F. Kennedy and the doctrine, approved by the Houston council of Baptist ministers, that a Catholic in public life should be indifferent to the teachings of the Church. The Council did not produce the sixties, although it did open the Churchs windows to the world just when the world was going crazy. An intriguing what if exercise is to ask what would have happened if the Council had been held ten years earlier. In any event, I am convinced that the discontinuants of the right are wrong to blame the Council. To say that a council is infallible, which it is, is not to say that a council is omniscient, which it isnt. There are a good many Council fathers who, in subsequent years, have made no secret of their wish that some documents had been worded differently in order to avoid misunderstanding and deliberate misconstrual. But the responsibility for what has gone wrong”and much has gone wrong, along with much that has gone right”rests solidly with the discontinuants of the left.
Think about it. For almost forty years, the leftist branch of the party of discontinuity has been agitating the same old issues, all of which come down to sex, power, and freedom understood as license. They have been at it so long that their cause has the stature of a tradition, of which they are the traditionalists. Originally fired by memories of the real or imagined oppressions and constrictions of the pre“Vatican II Church, in their senescence they grumble about conservative younger Catholics, including younger priests, who are excited by John Paul II and the challenge of living the high adventure of a Catholicism freshly discovered and two generations removed from the bitter quarrels between the Pat Buchanans and Richard McBriens over whether the years before the Council were the good old days or the bad old days. The traditionalists of the discontinuant left keep scratching the same old sores.
First there was contraception, and with the orchestrated assault on the 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae they won A Famous Victory. Not a victory in changing the Churchs teaching, of course, but a victory in persuading many, perhaps most, Catholics that they can ignore such teaching with spiritual impunity. In this they were greatly aided by supine prelates who learned to turn a blind eye to dissent and deviance more generally, one of the consequences of which is detailed in the files of your local prosecutor. After contraception, there was agitation for married priests, then for priestesses, then for the moral approval of buggery. And, all along, the demand for the democratizing of church government, sometimes called power“sharing, which, being translated, means the quest for power. Sex, power, and license drove the discontinuant cause of the left, which no doubt still inspires some as, toddling about the nursing home garden, they reminisce about grand battles past.
In lucid moments, they know they have lost on the issues. The discipline of celibacy is precisely that, a discipline and not a doctrine. It conceivably could be made optional, in which case I believe it would be very exceptional and under the shadow of suspicion of sexual deviance. In the wake of the scandals the determination of the Churchs leadership, both here and in Rome, is to strengthen, not weaken, the discipline of celibacy understood as perfect and perpetual continence. On ordaining women, twenty centuries of tradition, reaffirmed by this pontificate in a manner that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith terms infallible, says that the Church is simply not authorized to do it. Even were there a doubt, the Church cannot ordain in doubt without jeopardizing the entire sacramental economy. And it would be the end of any hope for reconciliation with Orthodoxy, for, if there is anything certain in history, it is certain that the Orthodox will never ordain women. Likewise, to declare that homosexual acts are rightly ordered according to law both natural and divine would be a reversal of millennia of unanimous teaching. It will not happen. One says that with the same confidence that one says two plus two will never equal five, or that the sun will rise tomorrow, or that the Catholic Church will continue to be the Catholic Church, or that the promise of Jesus that he will send the Spirit to lead and keep the Church in the truth can be trusted.
So the leftist party of discontinuity has lost on its chosen issues. There is still power“sharing, however, and it is evident that over the centuries there have been varying rules and patterns of government in the Church. Bishops have been elected by popular acclaim. Remember Ambrose in Milan. But that was a very long time ago. I see that in a recent column Father Richard McBrien of Notre Dame writes, Those who advocate for a more accountable and responsible pastoral leadership are not innovators. For various reasons, this element got lost in the ecclesiastical shuffle during the Second Christian Millennium when the Catholic Church became more deliberately monarchical in structure. Now there is the voice of a true traditionalist. You do remember the ecclesiastical shuffle of the second millennium, dont you? One is reminded of unreconstructed Southerners who speak of the Civil War as the recent unpleasantness.
Of course one must agree that bishops should be more accountable and responsible. That is to say they should be better leaders, and the most important part of that is that they should lead with the zeal of the apostles whose successors they are. In the wake of the scandals the enhanced awareness is that the bishops should be more, not less, the bishops that they are ordained to be. The problem was timorous shepherds who failed to protect the flock, and especially the lambs, fearing to confront the wolves admitted to the sheepfold. But power“sharing understood as lay participation in decision making is not an issue to sustain a cause or stir the soul. Honey, remember tomorrow night you got the vicariat subcommittee on education finance. As Oscar Wilde said of socialism, the problem with power“sharing is that it leaves one with no free evenings.
The Church of Tomorrow
How can it be that”with issues so doomed or dull and with a hoary“headed leadership that has to dredge up grievances from a distant past unknown to anyone born in the last fifty years”the discontinuants of the left can still present themselves as the vanguard of change? Thats a very good question. Here, speaking just last month, is a bishop who belongs to the shrinking liberal caucus that was led by Rembert Weakland before he went down in flames: As priests in the Church we have a golden opportunity to become involved at the heart of this reawakening, of being forerunners of the Church of tomorrow, of being molders and builders of new theological language and ecclesial structures which speak to our contemporary society and which ensure a fresh hearing for the Christian message.
Bracing stuff, that. Some apparently still think so. Never mind that a bishop presides over a dispirited diocese of zero vocations, declining Mass attendance, closed schools, and an epidemic of scandals. Never mind that a bishop hasnt read a serious book of theology for twenty years or that his statement of the Christian message contains no reference to Christ. Never mind all that and much else; he is building the Church of tomorrow. Having made a shambles of the Church of past and present, he has no choice but to bet on tomorrow. He is loyal to the Church, meaning the Church of tomorrow. He is obedient to the pope, meaning the next pope or maybe the one after that. So how, in the midst of the ruins of its own making, does the cause of leftist discontinuity maintain its status as the vanguard? In large part, simply by repeating, until reiteration overwhelms powers of reflection, that it is the vanguard.
Relentless futurism provides unlimited escapes from the counterevidence of the present. This works in all kinds of wondrous ways. Remember, for instance, how the Jesuits were once noted for their fierce loyalty to the papacy. They are still loyal, but with a futurist twist of discontinuant devising. Thus the very influential Karl Rahner, in one of his less judicious moments, told his fellow Jesuits: You must remain loyal to the papacy in theology and in practice, because that is part of your heritage to a special degree, but because the actual form of the papacy remains subject, in the future too, to an historical process of change, your theology and ecclesiastical law has above all to serve the papacy as it will be in the future. Jesuit Paul Shaughnessy comments: Jesuits are all loyal to the papacy, but to the future papacy”that of Pope Chelsea XII, perhaps”and their support for contraception, gay sex, and divorce proceeds from humble obedience to this conveniently protean pontiff. Shaughnessy goes too far, of course. There are still some admirably loyal Jesuits. But you see the move. As with the above“mentioned bishop, all things are permitted when one is a forerunner of the Church of tomorrow. Being a faithful Catholic is becoming now what Catholic will mean when faithfulness is redefined. Liberated by the spirit of Vatican II from past and present, discontinuants of the left hold themselves rigorously accountable to a future of their own desiring.
A New Yorker cartoon has executives sitting around the board room table on which is a box of soap emblazoned with the word NEW!!! The chairman is saying, What do you mean whats new about it? The New!!! on the box is new. For almost forty long, weary years, the left has managed to sell itself as the Church of the future by incessantly announcing that it is the Church of the future. And the pitch does sell, in part because it appears to be news. It is pseudo“news, of course, but it is welcome news to those who dislike the Church of the past and the present. This is crucial to understanding the success of the leftist party of discontinuity. From the beginning, from John XXIIIs announcement of a council, the story line was established that there must be something very wrong with the Church of the past and present or else the Pope would not have called a council to set things right.
We Got a Great Church
It is impossible to overestimate the influence of Xavier Rynne (aka Fr. Francis X. Murphy) in establishing that story line. Almost all Catholics get their news about the Church from the general media, and all the media followed the story line set by Rynne in his voluminous reports in the New Yorker . The first piece of the story line to be put into place is that the Church is an institution like any other, with a self“protective power structure dominated by conservatives and challenged by courageous liberals. Theological language about the Church”as in We believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church”is, in this view, a smokescreen employed to hide the real questions, which are questions of privilege and power. To be sure, the Church is a thoroughly, but not exhaustively, human and social institution. But if she is not what she claims to be in language inescapably theological and sacramental, she is no more than another institutional it among many institutional its, albeit a very big and old and venerable it.
This de“theologizing and de“sacramentalizing of our understanding of the Church is now very widespread. Consider a small but telling incident. An archbishop in the Northeast is addressing lay leaders on the years of scandal and wants to end on an upbeat note. With a warm and winning smile, he declares, Im here to tell you we got a great church! This is a bishop of the Catholic Church. Imagine, if you can, Ambrose or Aquinas or John Paul II saying, We got a great church. I know, you cant. Neither can I. What kind of operative ecclesiology is in the archbishops mind and heart? Maybe The Catholic Church, Inc. Or the voluntary association with the biggest and best niche in the religious marketplace. Like a basketball coach during a losing streak: Im here to tell you we got a great team! Yes, its a little incident, but implicit in it are the ravages wreaked by the construal of Vatican II in discontinuity from the story of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.But I hear someone raise the objection that, while I started out saying there is a party of continuity (the Catholic center) and a party of discontinuity, with the latter having left and right branches, I have so far been speaking mainly about the left branch of the party of discontinuity. There is a good reason for that. From the very first session of the Council, beginning October 11, 1962, the perception of the Council was controlled by Rynne and other reporters, and they soon imposed upon it the master template that there were only two parties in play”the liberals and the conservatives. The right“wing discontinuants were simply conservative extremists who were beyond the pale and unworthy of notice, except when it was convenient to depict all conservatives as extremists. This was a masterful move, and it continues to be the dominant story line in explaining the Second Vatican Council. Leftist discontinuants constituted the force of progress that prevailed against the party of continuity and against rightists deploring discontinuity, both of the latter being portrayed as the party of conservative resistance.
By the second session, everybody knew that the Council was about an archconservative Catholic Church set against the modern world belatedly and reluctantly being dragged into the twentieth century. Indeed”wonder of wonders”Catholicism was becoming the champion of liberalisms tale of historical progress. Popularizing theologians who fit this master template were made the experts on the Council. Those who disagreed were routinely dismissed as the conservative resistance. A priest friend recalls going to a press conference at the Gregorian University where the great Fr. John Courtney Murray, who had a major influence on the Councils teaching on religious freedom, was trying to explain to the media the complexities of what had happened at the Council that day. He was followed by Fr. Charles Davis, then a leftist popularizer who later had the integrity to leave the Church when he recognized that he was no longer a Catholic. Fr. Davis began, Well, its really quite simple. The conservatives . . . My friend looked over at Murray who was sadly shaking his head in disagreement. But the progressive vs. conservative story line was by then set in media concrete.
And so it has been ever since. The great leaders of the theological, liturgical, ecumenical, and pastoral movements of renewal affirmed by the Council are, I expect, still”if sadness is permitted in heaven”sadly shaking their heads in disagreement. One hears them saying, That is not what the Council said. That is not what it said at all. While they were still with us, Hans Küng, later officially decertified as a Catholic theologian, rejected Karl Rahners criticism of his ecclesiology as being essentially Protestant. Leslie Dewart, later associated with death of God theology, rejected Bernard Lonergans criticism of his work as a false de“hellenization of doctrine. The Jesuit provincials rejected the pleas of Murray and Lonergan to maintain the tradition of serious intellectual formation. In the name of the spirit of the Council, liberal French theologians, following the revolutionary ritual of turning against the fathers, dismissed as impossibly outdated the giants who had prepared the way for the Council: Jean Daniélou, Yves Congar, Henri de Lubac, Louis Bouyer, and Jacques Maritain. It was a clean sweep for the discontinuants of the left.
Bishops and religious superiors turned to the popularizers to implement the Council, with the mostly sorry results still with us today in theology, liturgy, catechesis, and much else. As mentioned earlier, Humanae Vitae s attempted exercise of papal teaching authority in 1968 was handily turned back. The media portrayed that initiative of Paul VI as an effort to break the master template, to return to the bad old days of what was by then called the pre“Vatican II Church. Even today, after almost twenty“five years of the pontificate of John Paul II, who is preeminently a man of the Council, the template is in place. But it is cracking.
It was at a conference in the mid“eighties that I listened to Hans Küng hold forth in triumphalist tones on the victory of the progressives. We control, he announced, the seminaries, the academic departments of theology, the catechetical and liturgical institutions, the publishing houses, the magazines that matter, and the chanceries. Most of the bishops, he said, are now on our side, and those who arent have been neutralized. Anyone who wants a future in the hierarchy or the Catholic academy has no choice but to cooperate, he observed. It was a clean sweep; all that was left were a few details; the disgruntled band of risibly reactionary dissidents from the new order didnt understand what had happened and couldnt do much about it.
It was an impressive speech. Almost nobody on the left is talking that way today. They are still largely in control of major institutions, notably the academy and some religious orders, but the more astute among them know that they are increasingly on the defensive. (See my The Persistence of the Catholic Moment, FT, February). Their most reliable allies today, as in 1962, are people in the media who continue to see the Catholic Church as a reactionary and threatening institution, the great and not“to“be“tolerated dissenter from the gospel of liberal progress. For such people, the only good Catholic is a bad Catholic. The anti“Catholic media need the discontinuant left, and it needs them. Without this alliance of mutual need, the master template is shattered.
The Grandchildren of the Revolution
It is no secret that the initiative today is with the center. For younger clergy and seminarians, the so“called bad old days are the olden days that their grandparents talked about. They are inspired by John Paul II, the only pope they have ever known, as are the many renewal movements that feed into and draw from the millions of young people gathered by, for instance, the World Youth Days. Chancel dancers in leotards and Clown Masses are increasingly a thing of the past. The silly season is almost over, although elements of the discontinuant right find it useful to generate outrage by pretending that it is still in full swing. For its annual trips down the memory lane of radicalisms past, Call to Action will soon be convening in Florida. True, what passes for theology in many nominally Catholic colleges is a tiresome deconstruction of orthodoxy, but that, I expect, leads many students to want to explore an orthodoxy that they never learned and is deemed worthy of such intense attack. In Washington, D.C., in New York, in Boston, and elsewhere, there are growing and vibrant networks of young professionals excited about being Catholic. Many are discerning a vocation to the priesthood or religious life. In the marvelous phrase of Archbishop Timothy Dolan of Milwaukee, young people will give their lives for a mystery but not for a question mark. By way of sharpest contrast, the discontinuant left is dying because there is no successor generation. It cannot replicate the bad old days, which to protest is its only reason for being.
Consider the absurdities to which some are reduced. In Commonweal and the London Tablet , reviewers of George Weigels bracing book The Courage To Be Catholic try to argue that the center is somewhere between Weigel and Garry Wills. Among discontinuant leftists, Wills is a radical. Hes not waiting for Vatican III or the next pope. His position is that Vatican II dismantled once and for all the Magisterium and, with it, the teaching authority of the Church. (See my Mr. Wills for the Prosecution, Public Square, November 2002). To save him embarrassment, I will call the Commonweal reviewer Mr. B. He has a carefully cultivated reputation as a moderate liberal. Mr. B says that his position is the broad middle between Weigel and Wills. What can this possibly mean?
Weigel stands foursquare with millennia of tradition as set forth by the Council and interpreted by a pope whom he calls John Paul the Great. Wills says that that tradition is a structure of deceit and John Paul is an authoritarian throwback who is attempting a coup against the Council. Where does that leave Mr. B and his broad middle? The successor of Peter, who is certainly not the successor of Peter, is using a liberal council for reactionary purposes, but, despite the deceit, has a winning personality and is, all in all, John Paul the Not All Bad? Weigel, to cite another example, greatly admires John Pauls theology of the body. Wills says magisterial teaching on sexuality is just silly, and he approves of contraception, gay rights, and a womans right to choose. I will leave it to Mr. B to explain the broad middle between Weigel and Wills on those and other questions.
It is said a liberal is someone who refuses to take his own side in an argument. Mr. B does not even have a side, or, if he does, it is an imagined space between clashing contradictions. To such nonsense the master template of liberal vs. conservative reduces differences of momentous consequence. Mr. B and many others are moderate members of the party of discontinuity of which Garry Wills is a radical member. They have in common that, for them, the center (i.e., the Magisterium) is the right. They are not on speaking terms with, they hardly deign to recognize the existence of, their ideological cousins in the rightist branch of the party of discontinuity, for whom the center (i.e., the Magisterium) is the left. Yet the cousins are in agreement that a choice must be made between the pre“Vatican II Church and the post“Vatican II Church, differing only in the choices they have made. Both insist that the Council was a radical break with the tradition, the difference being that the right deplores and the left celebrates the putative break.
The party of continuity is the center. From the Council of Jerusalem to Vatican II, from Peter to John Paul II, there is”the variations, deviations, and ambiguities of history notwithstanding”a continuing and identifiable community that is the Catholic Church. There have over the centuries been much more powerful parties of discontinuity than we have experienced these past forty years. But it is to the continuing community that Jesus promised he would send the Spirit to lead us into and keep us in the truth. Even if one does not believe that promise, can anyone really believe that the likes of Garry Wills or the Society of St. Pius X are the future of the Catholic Church? The extreme discontinuants of the left are angry because their understanding of Vatican IIs promise of a preferred future, a promise that was never made, has been broken. The extreme discontinuants of the right are angry because they believe Vatican II broke a promise with a preferred past. Both live off their anger; both live off the Church that they condemn. As for the Laodicean moderates such as Mr. B and his counterparts on the right, they will, in their broadly middle way, continue to grumble incoherently about this and that. But I expect they are secretly grateful for the people who”inspired by the Second Vatican Council and in continuing communion with Peter”see visions and dream dreams for the renewal of the one Church that was, is, and will be until Our Lord returns in glory. Parties of discontinuity we will have with us always, but the center holds.