Spiting the Church to Defend the Council

Let’s suppose you’re an orthodox Catholic surveying the last hundred years of Church history.  You notice that, before the Second Vatican Council, the Church seemed to be flourishing in many places–America, Quebec, Ireland–in terms of vocations, Mass attendence, clerical discipline, lay organization, etc.  Throughout the world, clergy were reliably orthodox, even to the point of martyrdom at the hands of the communists.  Then came Vatican II, and immediately afterwards, the faith and discipline of the Church collapsed everywhere, among both clergy and laity.  Now, you could say that this doesn’t prove anything, but it certainly suggests that calling the ecumenical council, at a time when there was no obvious pressing need for such an inherently disruptive act and at a time when the Church was under seige from hostile outside forces, was a big mistake.  However, orthodox Catholics generally don’t like to admit that the pope has made a mistake, even in a matter like this unrelated to faith and morals.  So they invent all sorts of reasons why, contrary to all appearances, the Church in the 1950’s was gravely sick and calling a Council was absolutely necessary.

You’ve probably heard many of these complaints about the pre-Vatican II Church yourself.  It’s worth reviewing them together, though, just to be struck by how perverse they are.

  • “Sure, Mass attendence and participation in lay organizations was higher then, but that was all just formal obedience.  People were just going through the motions because it was expected of them.  Now going to Mass is countercultural, so only the people who really want to be there go.” So, Catholics created a culture which encouraged piety, and we’re supposed to regard this as a bad thing?  And we are supposed to be happy that more impressionable souls are now carried off into apostasy?  The fact is that most people will always be too weak to stand against social pressure.  A culture is supposed to encourage good behavior to help the weaker ones along.
  • “Sure, there was less divorce, fornication, contraception, and abortion among Catholics back then, but they just thought of religion as a bunch of rules.  They weren’t motivated by an interior love of God.” How the hell can any of us know what went on in their souls?  Notice that the admitted evils of the post-VC II Church are matters of public record, while the alleged evils of the pre-VC II Church are unverifiable assertions about people’s spiritual states.  In fact, the only evidence there is of people’s love of God is their acts.  Remember, “You will live in my love if you keep my commandments…You are my friends if you do what I command you.” (John 15:10-14)
  • “Sure, there were lots of priests back then, but that was just because it was socially prestigious.” How awful that back then our priests were highly esteemed, even among the Protestants!  That’s one problem we’ve certainly fixed.  Four decades of the “Spirt of Vatican II” have brought the priesthood into complete disgrace.
  • “And they taught them Thomism using boring manuals in the seminaries.” This is such a frivolous complaint that I’m still baffled by it, even though I hear it over and over again.  Introductory textbooks are not meant to be great works of art.  If my parish priest were a trained Thomist, maybe he wouldn’t spend his homilies reading us children’s stories.
  • “And besides, they had a Manichean view of the body, and a negative attitude towards sex.  Now with Vatican II and the Theology of the Body, we recognize sex as a sacred part of God’s plan.” How does one behave towards something that one regards as sacred?  Do you joke about it?  Do you talk about it openly and casually?  Do you manipulate it for your own pleasure or profit?  Or do you shield it from profane gaze, addressing it discreetly and with due reverence for its mystery?  Are you careful only to use it in its appointed way?  The fact is that someone who really regarded the marriage bond and the conjugal act with reverence would behave like what we now derisively call a “prude”.
  • “Sure, most Catholics reject the Church’s teachings in most matters now, but doubt is a sign of spiritual maturity, right?” No, it’s a sign of a lack of faith.  Besides, there is no “doubt” among our modern Catholics–they are certain that utilitarian liberalism is right and the Church is wrong.
  • “Besides, back then Catholics just accepted the faith because they believed anything they were told.  Now they think for themselves.” B.S.  Catholics are embracing heresy and sin today because they mindlessly accept whatever the wider culture tells them.  Those growing up since the Council have never even had the orthodox Catholic point of view explained to them.
  • “Back then the Church had a seige mentality.”  An appropriate mentality to have, when you are actually under attack, as the Church was and is.

In conclusion, I appreciate the effort to avoid acknowledging John XXIII’s blunder, but the cost seems to be trashing the nineteen centuries of the Church that preceded him.  This hardly seems the pious choice.  Better to admit that the pope made a stupid and reckless decision that brought ruin to the Bride of Christ.

8 Responses

  1. Certainly, the criticisms of the pre-Vatican II Church that you cite are either false or frivolous, but one cannot ignore the fact that the Council Fathers and their Periti were men, for the most part, formed in the seminaries and theological faculties of the 1920’s, 1930’s and 1940’s. It is not unreasonable, therefore, to seek the roots of the post-Vatican II Church in that period and in the preceding generation, too, when the minds of these men’s teachers and directors were formed.

    The Modernist crisis immeasurably weakened Catholic clerical education. After Lamentabili and Pascendi, the really first-rate minds amongst orthodox Catholic philosophers and theologians who could have successfully engaged with and refuted Modernist errors were themselves misunderstood and suspected by the Roman authorities. It is no accident that philosophers like Maritain and Gilson were laymen. Most seminary professors, seem to have felt that the only safe course for them lay in the rote teaching of traditional text-books and in ignoring the intellectual life of the world outside the seminary entirely (That is the truth behind the facile attacks on the manuals). In the Catholic universities, many scholars seem to have opted for specialties, like Biblical studies, Patristic studies, Church History, where, if they drew no implications for dogmatic theology from their researches, Rome was content to ignore their work.

    Ironically, this actually fostered an outlook that was thoroughly Modernist. For Modernists, after all, it was devotion, not speculation, that was the core of religion and dogma was only the expression of subjective experience, so not worth arguing over. That is why Modernists were so at home in the Liturgical Movement of the inter-War years. This ignoring of theology suited the general anti-intellectualism of many of the Catholic clergy, including that of the administrative class, from which the bishops were largely recruited.

    The Council merely precipitated a crisis that was long in the making.

  2. Hello Michael,

    Thank you for this thoughtful counter-argument. I suppose you must be at least partly right, and I at least partly wrong, because the integralist Church did fall. On the other hand, Vatican II proved that most theologians were heretic-traitors, so Rome was right to be suspicious, and Pius X’s disciplinary measures were absolutely necessary. They preserved the Church for a half-century. If they were not a permanent solution, then I fear there may not have been a permanent solution, and the Church was doomed the moment Modernism reared is ugly, stupid head.

    Vatican II does indeed prove that the conciliar episcopacy was, on the whole, quite stupid (Pope John XXIII was, I suspect, a man of great naivity and very weak intellect.) and cowardly in the face of the (liberal) press. On the other hand, I don’t think that the average Catholic bishop circa 1950 was stupider or more craven than the average leader in business or politics. It’s just that the church’s enemies (the communists, the liberals, the media, the Protestants, the Masons, etc) were incredibly powerful, so that any strategic mistakes could be exploited to tremendous effect.

    I disagree that rote teaching by Thomist manuals is a sign of anti-intellectualism. Firstly because Thomism is, if anything, a hyper-rationalist system. You are absolutely right to point out that Modernism is the true anti-intellectualism. Secondly, such things are nearly inevitable when one is trying to teach philosophy and theology to a large body of men, most of whom have no real aptitude for or interest in these or any other speculative subjects. Introductory college physics, history, or literature textbooks of the period would have hardly been more inspiring.

    Could they have done better? Yes, but probably not a whole lot better. What do you think? Was there any way to beat the Modernists?

  3. Counter-factual hypotheticals are always dangerous (There was a famous dispute, between the Dominicans and the Jesuits, as to whether even God “knows” what would have happened, if… ). The real question is, can the Church learn any lessons from the Modernist crisis of the early 20th century, in order to deal with the Modernist crisis of the 21st?

    Firstly, we need a theologically literate episcopate, who knows how to delegate t(but oversee) their administrative functions. Secondly, we need a clergy, well-grounded in dogma, but which is familiar with the currents of modern thought. Thirdly, we need to overcome the often well-grounded mutual suspicion of the theological faculties and the Roman dicasteries.

    Above all, we need Catholic thinkers of the first rank. To take a few examples, the monumental works of Henri Brémond on mystical theology, were a great prophylactic against the subjectivism of the Modernists. He reintroduced Catholics to the Church’s great treasury of writings on the interior life, like Augustine and Bernard, the Victorines, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Ruysbroek, Tauler and Suso (Typically, in that period, he was widely suspected of Modernism), Marie-Joseph Legrange (also suspected), who showed that the highest levels of biblical scholarship were compatible with Catholic orthodoxy and Henri de Lubac (suspected, until created a Cardinal), who restored the patristic and mediaeval tradition of the spiritual exegesis of scripture. Also, Bernard Lonergan, the founder of transcendental Thomism.

    It says a lot about the condition of the theological faculties, in the aftermath of the Council, that it fell to Elizabeth Anscombe, the pupil and literary editor of Wittgenstein and Regius Professor of Philosophy at Cambridge, (and the mother of eight children), to produce a spirited and coherent defence of Humanae Vitae and the whole Catholic doctrine of chastity (“Contraception and Chastity”) She even published a paper, laconically entitled, “On Transubstantiation,” exposing the incoherence of the then-popular doctrine of “Trans-signification.” Other Catholic philosophers, like her husband, Peter Geach and John Haldane also found themselves doing the theologians’ work for them, in their spare time. (She was my tutor and her earlier paper, “Modern Moral Philosophy,” is one of the most delightful ironical attacks on moral relativism ever written and introduced the word “consequentialism” to the language.)

    Again, in 1984, we find the Prefect of the CDF, (the present Holy Father) writing a masterly theological commentary on the CDF’s decree on Liberation Theology, because no other theologian had really addressed the underlying issues.

  4. Sorry it’s taken me so long to respond to this; I’ve been sick the last couple of days.

    Changing the division of labor is a very good suggestion. It does seem crazy that bishops spend most of their time on administration.

    I actually think that it’s a good thing for the laity to take the lead in defending the natural law; that should be our job, and, especially for professional philosophers like Anscombe, a part of their vocation as laymen. It is certainly not a good thing, though, that the clergy have proven so unable to defend the Church’s teachings on these matters. I fear that the main problem here is not lack of skill but lack of belief, though perhaps more first-rate Catholic thinkers could help here too. I find it very frustrating that modernism, consequentialism, etc. seem to be so compelling to so many.

  5. This is an interesting discussion, Bonald, if I may but in and make a couple points.

    I must say that I am more inclined to agree with the view that Dr. Paterson-Seymour takes in his first comment, to paraphrase: “something was rotten in the state” of the Church before Vatican II. A lot of the problems that appeared, to the average layman in the pews (the ecclesial version of the “man on the street”), to come out of nowhere immediately after the council had actually been percolating in seminaries and theological faculties for a long time.

    On the surface of things, the problems in the seminaries would seem to justify Rome’s move toward repression in the early 20th century. The problem with censorship, though, is quite simple: it is usually ineffective. No theologian or philosopher, of course, has the right to publish heretical writings. Nevertheless, as Dr. Paterson-Seymour rightly points out, heavy-handed censorship creates a climate of fear and actually discourages those who are most capable of correcting false ideas from participating in any discussions lest they be misunderstood by barely literate censors and consequently branded as heretics themselves. Not that censorship and the stripping of teaching faculties should be done away with entirely, but it should be reserved for the most egregious cases. The underlying reason for the ineffectiveness of censorship is that there is no risk-free way to pass on the truth; in the attempt to deepen our understanding of the truth, there is always a risk that something will be misunderstood. That’s just a risk we have to live with. If the Church comes to be seen as a cranky schoolmaster who always punishes disobedience with corporal punishment, but in the process loses the respect of his pupils and fails to impart any of the “splendor of the truth,” the Church will be in sorry shape. (I think this analysis of censorship in theological matters could be applied more widely to censorship in general, especially in politics.)

    Finally, as a short comment on Dr. Paterson-Seymour’s call for clergy who are “familiar with the currents of modern thought”: Too often in the Church’s recent history, this call for the clergy to become engaged with contemporary intellectual life–which is in itself a good thing–has become an excuse for philosophers and theologians to revive currents of thought that have already been discredited and discarded even by non-Catholics. A good example of that, I would argue, is actually what commonly goes under the name of “transcendental Thomism.” (I don’t know much about Lonergan specifically, but weren’t there Catholic theologians trying to combine Thomas with Kant and Descartes before Lonergan, such as those whom Gilson criticizes in Thomist Realism and the Critique of Knowledge?) Thomists should certainly engage with other streams of thought, but I (in my admittedly amateur opinion) fail to see how a hefty helping of half-baked Kantianism or Cartesianism will really strengthen the Church. Educating an intellectually-engaged clergy is a worthy goal but quite difficult to achieve, given this tendency to adopt the worst of modern thought.

  6. Hello Stephen,

    Thanks for joining this discussion. It has turned up some interesting points.

    I, as people know from my Defense of Censorship, am a big fan of censorship and climates of fear. Cencorship may not be perfectly effective in maintaining the truth, but the free exchange of ideas seems to be perfectly effective in turning a community toward pig-headed atheist hedonism. In the Darwinian struggle of memes for survival, those ideas always win out that flatter our pride, excuse our vices, and refrain from challenging our intellects. If anyone doesn’t believe this, they can look at the experiment performed on the twentieth-century Catholic Church. Cencorship gave the Church an imperfect but tolerable life. Free expression has brought us utter ruin. Very few orthodox geniuses emerged to defend the faith, and those that did were ignored for pseudo-scholars offering the faithful social acceptability and condoms.

    I also have mixed feelings about “engaging modern thought”. I have no problem with what Paterson-Seymour means by it–appropriating the true advances in modern philosophy, history, etc. One can find traces of Kant, Hegel, Husserl, and Durkheim on this blog, integralist though I am. Here, though, the fact that these thinkers are “modern” is not important, only the fact that they had valid insights. As you point out, “engaging modern thought” has been taken to mean things less benign. Sometimes it means accepting whatever schools of thought happen to be dominant in the academy (e.g. feminist theology). Sometimes, as in your example, it means mixing Thomism with some modern school merely for the sake of being up to date rather than for the sake of being true. These are, of course, avenues not worth pursuing. Finally, sometimes people mean by this “engagement” a pastoral strategy, not utilizing modern thought to improve theology in any substantial way, but merely translating the faith into an idiom more easily understood by moderns. This can be a good and necessary undertaking. However, we must always remember that if a person’s categories of thought are inadequate for the orthodox faith, one’s ultimate goal must be to help him acquire a more adequate mental framework. One should think of much modern thought as a linguistic conspiracy, a debasing of vocabulary, that tries to make Christian truths unspeakable and therefore unthinkable.

  7. A few words on censorship: I see the need for routine censorship as a sign of the failure of authority to inculcate the truth in those who should be learning it. The root reason, in probably the majority of cases, why someone speaks out against authority is a lack of respect for the specific person in authority, rather than principled disagreement. Using censorship over clashes of personality always comes across as petty.

    The best analogy I can come up is the one I used above: the schoolmaster. This analogy makes sense to me after going through an all-boys school and hearing similar stories from my older male relatives. My experience, and that of my relatives, was that the most effective teachers, the ones from whom we learned the most, were the ones who rarely had to resort to more drastic forms of discipline such as sending the offender to the principal or (in the old days) corporal punishment. A teacher who did have to discipline his students often may have upheld his authority–which is something–but he also made his weakness plain for all to see. For adolescent boys, it was a clash of personalities, not of first principles, and resorting to drastic forms of discipline too often just built up resentment among the class and rarely helped the students actually learn.

  8. Hi Stephen,

    Okay, perhaps our disagreement isn’t so large. Certainly it is better to convince than to silence. The two do not always conflict: often I am silencing A so that I can convince B. I think the main difference is that I have a very pessimistic sense of the ability of good and truth to win out, or, if you will, of human nature to embrace them when given a choice. No doubt this contributes to my frequent bouts of despair on matters political and eccelsiological. Thank you for sharing your experiences.

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