This essay first appeared in the May 7, 1966 issue of the Tablet and is reprinted with permission.
After the Council? Yes; but unless the world is due to end suddenly, we are presumably living through a pre-conciliar epoch as well. This beloved Now, so real and special to ourselves, is already slithering off into “the dark backward and abysm of time”: Soon it will be something odd-seeming and remote, an historical period, an object for detached criticism, for a later generation’s reforming zeal.
What will be the atmosphere, the agenda of Vatican III?—though of course we don’t even know that much about the future: The next Council may be summoned to Minneapolis or Peking, it may have a regenerate world at its feet, it may consist only of half-a-dozen wild-eyed unshaven men in a cellar. But it seems safe to guess that, when the time comes, reform and development will be in the air, a sense of forgotten truth to be reasserted, of imbalance to be corrected; also, that if the Church’s garden then seems to need weeding, some at least of the weeds will be of our generation’s planting. Ecclesia semper reformanda is neither a new discovery nor a passing phase: If we sometimes speak in patronizing tones of the Tridentine era, then our descendants will be equally justified in shaking their heads over the euphoric triumphalism of the present time, our happy self-congratulation, our certainty that we in this generation had broken through at last to true wisdom.
Through the dusty and yellowing files they will go, the intellectuals of that day, anxious to temper their natural reforming zeal with some sympathetic understanding of how Catholics felt and behaved in the late 1960s. They will make allowances. We were men of the twentieth century, carried along (unless we struggled heroically) by very powerful psychological currents: We tended, therefore, to follow the contingent trend of the moment as though it were an absolute; we over-dramatized the apparent novelty of our condition; we indulged a kind of collective Oedipus complex, resenting and rejecting whatever smacked of the past. Making kindly allowance for all such aspects of the general twentieth-century neurosis, our descendants will still find, in the record of our Catholic life, an astonishing formalism. Here, it will seem, was a Catholic intelligentsia obsessed with ecclesiastical arrangements, with structures and patterns and plans of every kind—papal, conciliar, episcopal, parochial; priestly and laical, liturgical, canonical, inter-denominational, cultural, social, political. Here (they will think) was a people who behaved as though the interesting and important thing about the Mass was the prospect of restyling the package; as though sin and folly resulted from a bad condition of the ecclesiastical machine; as though, given only a rending of garments according to current fashion and theory, our cold hearts would warm up naturally and painlessly.
Such an impression will of course be misleading, the consequence of taking the printed record too seriously, and it will not be total: Here and there in the general excited buzz, there will be visible an outcrop of the unchanging reality beneath, some out-of-date old cleric still raising a stubborn voice about the love of God, the burden of sin, the pain of Christ, the love of our neighbor, the pilgrimage of this life, and the Four Last Things. But in general we shall seem to have surrendered pretty completely to the political and activist illusion of the time, placing our trust in policy and insight and arrangement, in the human wisdom of our managerial elite, in our new fine cleverness.
Brows will be furrowed, analyses undertaken, theses written. It may become a cliché to speak of our generation as having enacted a further chapter to Knox’s Enthusiasm. The ghost of Abbot Joachim was walking again, and we were restless for a new Pentecost in the fullest sense, impatient with the mixed and imperfect character of the Son’s dispensation; and with these things came the inevitable antinomian tendency, leading good men to propose obscenities in the name of love. More generally, we showed a remarkable lack of interest in balance, in trimming the boat. The ark had certainly been listing to starboard for a few centuries, a situation that called for some balancing action, tempered and cautious; but when this fact was officially admitted we smelt a trend, an intoxicating prospect of change, and we all crowded across to port in high excitement. The ark tilted the other way, and more sharply; many of us climbed and swung on the port railings, each trying to be further out than his neighbour; some gazed longingly overboard, in love with visionary calentures, privately suspecting that we could now walk upon water and needed this shabby old tub no more.
This imbalance, this fretful one-sidedness, will be capable of endless illustration. Theologically, we shall seem to have gone absurdly far in a Pelagian direction; and all the more so if our descendants have been driven the other way by the grief and pressure of events, and have come to remember that this religion of the Resurrection starts with the Cross, has evil and suffering and death as its raw material, its prime subject-matter. In other and particular matters, great and small, we shall be remembered as a generation that saw only one side of things. We loved “becoming” and hated “being”: We cherished the idea of an emergent and evolutionary Christianity, and looked in some apathy upon the faith once delivered to the saints. We stressed the priesthood of all believers and played down the particularity of order; we indulged a passion of ecumenicism, and hushed up the painful fact that schism and heresy are still sins. We wanted the Church’s outward seeming to reflect the poverty of Christ, never his majesty. We stressed the spiritual and symbolic, at the expense of gross incarnational fact: Hence, we played down the material element in morality, the ex opere operato aspect of the sacraments, the biological purpose of sex, the concrete burden of the historic Church. We asserted freedom, at the expense of responsibility; we asserted the corporate aspect of worship so overwhelmingly as to suggest that the individual had somehow ceased to carry his own conscience, that prayer and (especially) fasting had become back numbers. We cheerfully asserted the goodness of the world, seldom its taint, its spoiling, its death wish: We were always ready to judge the Church by the world’s standard, reluctant to do the opposite.
Among these various riddles that our one-sidedness will offer to historical curiosity, this last matter—of the Church and the world—will perhaps stand out in some eminence. This mid-twentieth century will have gone on record as a time of great scriptural revival: How then was it possible (men will ask) that we should so energetically play down that theme most dominant all through the Bible? Were we too democratically-minded to relish such images as the ark, the faithful remnant, the chosen people? Did we smell apartheid in any distinction between wheat and cockle, between the eatable fish and the nasty, caught in the same net? The scholars will frown, baffled: The records show no great threat of Manichaeanism, needing to be countered by a simple insistence on the world’s goodness. Had we forgotten about original sin, the Kingdom not of this world, the sharp sundering and reorientation of our baptism? Did it cause us no disquiet that our own excitement about aggiornamento and the Council should have been shared and echoed so approvingly by a world indifferent to Christ? Had the siege really been lifted? Perhaps we had lost our nerve: It was certainly a daunting commission, that we should teach all nations and call them to repent, to be different. In a world longing for peace and tolerance, such fighting talk seemed out of place; it would make for a quieter life if we appeared content to listen to all nations, to offer sympathetic and constructive echoes of whatever they happened to be saying already, to play down that old imperialistic claim that Christ is with us in special, unique, and necessary fashion.
Those scholars of the future will be disposed, in charity, not to interpret our present behaviour in simple terms of weakened faith; and they will presumably be on their guard against the mistake of judging the whole Church by the published writings of an intellectual minority—a minority tending to be “moved by the slightest breath of modern opinion” (as Pope Paul said recently), and notably vocal. Making all such allowances, they may still detect in the Church of our time a certain gullibility, a readiness to take things too easily at their face value. Our modern world (as they will see more clearly) was frantic with uncertainty, with lack of purpose and direction: It whistled in the dark, therefore, tried to reassure itself in loud desperation, thumped its chest and roared. And we Christians stood by, awe-stricken, as though we were in the presence of something formidable and assured; we gave anxious promises of sympathy and collaboration, when the thing sought and needed was escape; we showed our fellow-feeling for the drowning man by jumping into the water along with him. The hungry sheep looked up and were not fed: We assured them, in the best contemporary vernacular, that feeling hungry was a vital and significant part of the twentieth-century experience.
So it may seem, at least to that future student who concentrates his attention upon what our intellectuals were saying, our charientes, our periti: their intrusive and domineering voices audible even at the highest level. To one more theologically inclined, the decisive factor may seem to be our unbalanced attention to God’s immanence, our lack of concern for his transcendence. In psychological terms, it will be easy enough to trace back to this habit of mind a certain poverty in our basic religious sense—a lack of pietas, a shrivelled sense of creaturely awe before the numinous. Given that situation, it will seem natural (though infinitely sad) that we should maul the holy liturgy so rudely, that our new churches should be built smart and heartless, that we should chatter so brightly and forget silence, that we should carry on in general as though the following of Christ crucified had been restyled into an exciting gay adventure for getaway people.
Verbum Domini manet, as we were reminded in that same address of Pope Paul, given before the Curia in April; and at any time, the reform of the spirit must have an importance that quite overshadows all outward and secondary kinds of conversio morum, though these may be more exhilarating, more newsworthy, better fun in every way. The Church goes rocking and floating down the centuries, always imperfect, seeming (in the infinite patience of God) to get nowhere at all: an ark that makes for no obvious harbour, having only the task of staying afloat until the waters subside so that drowning men may be helped aboard, certain to disappoint those who want the thrill of a speedboat trip. We are told of the fullness and the Second Coming, but of the nature of these things and their relation to the historical process we have no idea whatever: In the only sense that our imaginations can grasp, the task starts all over again with every baptism, every birth, and reaches its eschatological consummation on every deathbed. Reforms and backslidings and developments there will be, distantly touching the individual in ways not easy to assess: For the most part, our Christian life will always be an uphill carrying of the Cross, its terms not varying in any important way between one century and another. Those who whip up excitement, teaching men to expect otherwise, bear a heavy responsibility. There is still only one thing necessary, we still have no hope but the Cross, and the Promised Land is where it always was, over the hills and far away.
Christopher Derrick (1921–2007) was educated by the Benedictine monks of Douai Abbey in Berkshire, then at Magdalen College, Oxford, under the tutorship of C. S. Lewis. He served as an R.A.F. pilot during World War II and was the author of many articles and books.