The election of Pope Benedict XVI had great significance for the Church, not least, because one of the results of the election has been a clear indication that the liberal dream has not come to pass. The dream that so many held was that finally after the long pontificate of Pope John Paul II, a ''progressive'' pope would follow who would ''bring the Church into line with the modern world.''
The liberal spin on the Second Vatican Council signaled that the council had instituted a major ''change'' in the theology and practice of the Church and it would just take persistence to get the holdouts among the hierarchy to accept the new spin. Unfortunately for people in this ideological camp, Pope John Paul II never did accede to this-- mistaken-- reading and Pope Benedict XVI never will either.
I have used the word ''liberal'' twice and so I need to explain it. Historically the word comes from an Old French word meaning ''generous.'' It can also mean ''broadminded.'' But these clues from the dictionary do not tell the whole story! When the word ''liberal'' is used to label an ideology it indicates that the holders of this ideology believe that they approach Catholic issues in a broadminded and generous way and so they in turn will make the Church broadminded and generous.
One consequent premise of this ideology is that the mind of the Catholic Church as it is embodied in the teaching of the Tradition and the Magisterium is not broadminded and generous. Modern liberal thinking holds that present day western culture is broadminded and generous and so if only the Church would simply accept the modern western understanding of individual freedom and what institutions are and how they are supposed to function, then the Church too would be broadminded and generous.
Now if the Church is to find its meaning in modern western culture then it has to detach itself from the Tradition of the Church where it finds its meaning now. It means creating a discontinuity in history. We find many thinkers who wanted to create such discontinuities. We find them in Marx- ism, in Western Liberalism and also in the thinking of Martin Luther. The problem with this kind of thinking is that it misses something basic about man himself. By nature human beings are historical.
Human beings have a ''life assigned and a life to be assumed [and so] man cannot simply be thought of as self-sufficient and autonomous'' (Adolf Darlap). So while there might be discontinuities on the surface appearances of things as we deal with rifts in relationships and car accidents and so on, there are none at the deep levels of meaning. In other words, even on the natural level, man is inescapably rooted in his past. To take Karl Marx as an example: he wanted to claim a discontinuity with the past that would allow man to recreate himself and create a new world. Similarly, Martin Luther wanted to disconnect the Church from the Tradition and from the Magister- ium of the Church so he created a new ecclesial community.
In fact the dream of detaching oneself from the Tradition of the Church is not even a new one in the Church! Many people in through the ages have tried to modernize the Church. The word ''modern'' roughly means ''according to the present time.'' All through the ages, the Church has had people in it who wished that the Church would simply get modern, that is that it would get in line with some cultural trend or other and not continue being ''foolish'' by continuing to present the truth of revelation even when it is blatantly contradicted by the prevailing culture. The Church consistently has rejected any thinking that diminishes the true meaning of Jesus Christ and what it means to be human. The Church knows that we only know these things from Scripture and Tradi- tion. (See Vatican II's Constitution on Divine Revelation.) In the second century, St. Irenaeus had to challenge the thinking of the Gnostics who wanted to bring the Church into line with some of the pagan religions that dominated the culture of the time. The Council of Trent had to counter the progressivism of Luther and Calvin who wanted to simplify the Church by letting go of Tradition, simplifying the meaning of Scripture by reducing the meaning of Scripture to a purely personal interpretation and getting rid of a number of Sacraments to boot! These attempts and so many others meant that for the progressives Christianity was supposed to become a religion of small national groups tied to local cultures and separated from the international communion in the Tradition that characterizes authentic Catholicism. These national groups were to be tied to national interests and to reflect national cultural trends. According to them the Church was supposed to dissolve into just another institution in the culture with Church membership becoming just another membership among so many.
The First Vatican Council had to challenge the prevailing thinking in Europe that simply could not handle the discussions in the council about the infallibility of the pope. The doctrine of infallibility of the pope did not fit the views on power that were held by the rising nation states who were to all practical purposes agnostic in their outlook. At the beginning of the 20th century, the loosely formed group who would became known as the Modern- ists desperately wanted to redo theology according to the results of historical research, all the while forgetting that modern western historical study simply lacked many of the categories that were needed to properly describe the Christian phenomenon.
For example, historians of the period could not include the proper sense of the concept of faith and the effects of faith in their research. The discipline of history as it then stood was just not geared up for such a task. It was like trying to eat a steak through a straw. A knife and fork simply work better. It is more complicated to use a knife and a fork but with practice one gets it right!
The Modernists wanted to treat the developments in Catholicism over the years as mere arbitrary additions. Since they were arbitrary, then they could of course be changed according to the enlightened and progressive minds found in 20th century culture in Europe. The 20th century started out with a fascination with progress that would not be diminished until the horrors of the First World War had been unleashed. Unfortunately the attraction of the idea of progress with its foundation in the unbridled confidence in the abilities of man to solve all problems is still with us in some form in the 21st century.
Much more could be said but I hope that this all too brief sketch does indicate a routine cultural phenomenon that has occurred alongside the ''mainline'' thinking in the Church. This phenomenon is one of wishing to change the Church to make it more palatable and less demanding. But it is not simply a disagreement over the nature of the Church. It is a disagreement over the nature of man as well.
The prevailing idea among many of the cultural elite is that modern western culture does indeed have the answers to man's deepest questions. But, looking back, we will discover that Western culture has not really learned the lessons of two world wars. It has not learned from the Cold War. It has not learned from the Aids crisis. It has not learned from the struggle to write a European Constitution without mentioning God. The establishment of a totally secular culture with a foundation based on what is technologically possible still remains the ideology of the West, and one of the effects of this view has been that the Church has come to be seen as archaic.
The prevailing idea in the group that we are interested in here is that the Church cannot be an authentic modern institution appropriate to modern western culture unless it simply adopts the secular culture's blurring of gender differences, the notion of democratically deciding on doctrines and the adoption of a merely comfortable level of moral teaching that does not run counter to what is appropriate in modern western culture.
Of course the wish never panned out. The latest phase of this phenomenon started at the time of the Second Vatican Council. The fantasy was that the council had indeed turned the Church into just another cultural institution and had stopped all that nonsense about tradition and moral demands. Of course, to anyone who reads the documents of the council, it is clear that the documents simply restate the Tradition of the Church.
But, after the council, we had to repeatedly endure the concocted notion that we were supposed to follow the ''spirit of the council.'' To anyone who in fact read the documents it was clear that that did not mean following the letter of the council. The difficulties that the supporters of this trend had to contend with can be summed up in the names of Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II who made the work of their pontificates to implement the teaching of the council. However this did not slow the organizations working for the ordination of women or for the issuing of catechetical texts that furthered their view of what Catholicism really was about.
This did not stop some clergy from making up their own liturgies. Nor did it stop the formation of the individualized small group therapeutic style ''Christian'' communities that favored social justice over the mission of the Church. Culturally acceptable principles had to take precedence over the true and usually very un-cultural demands of sanctity.
The clergy also found themselves polarized by this movement, with many priests becoming more like Protestant ministers running their own private congregations independently of the Tradition and the order of the Church. They ignored or denied the real presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. They pooh-poohed the teaching of the pope and the local bishop. All the time they were waiting and longing for the coming of a progressive pope who would finally validate the values of their little outpost and make all that they had done seem worthwhile. They had withstood the ''repressive'' Church machine and now they could step forward to receive the accolades they had earned because they had stayed faithful to the ''church'' that they had manufactured.
In all my years of teaching and researching, I have never heard any mention of the devastating consequences of these actions. What about the people who trusted such clergy to lead valid liturgies or to teach the truth of the Church or to make a judgment in Confession about the real level of sin committed. Actually, you can scratch that last item.
They discarded Confession long ago! What about all of the homilies that were never preached on the sinfulness of men and women living together or of women having abortions? What about all the teaching that was not done about the way that contraception destroys marriage or the way that unity, the key to being Church, means, among other things, unity in the truth? Then many young men were turned away because they claimed to have vocations to the priesthood, and young women were discouraged from developing their vocations as religious sisters.
The terrible consequences of being trusted as priests or teachers of the Catholic faith and then delivering agnostic information that one can find on a TV sitcom or a movie, are unimaginable. This process has led, I believe, to the fact that there still is no national outrage at the abortion industry in this country. I believe that this is one of the main reasons that the divorce figures for Catholics are the same as those for non-Catholics. I believe that this is one of the main reasons why the Church has had to deal with the appalling scandals of the last 20 years.
The priests and religious and laity who have been holding on to the liberal dream in the vain hope that the next pope would validate them really seem to have only three options: they can either continue making their in-group comfortable for themselves until they pass on or they can stop representing themselves as members of the Church or they can convert and rejoin the mainstream of the Church.
The first option is the saddest because those who decide for it are hanging on to a forlorn hope. They are also dwindling in number as they abort and contracept themselves out of existence. They are on their way out of the Church because they are becoming indistinguishable from the culture at large and so every year there are fewer and fewer reasons why anyone should listen to what they say. The last hold that the clergy in this group have is that that some of their followers still want to have a ritual at their marriage or at a family funeral. On the other hand, those young people in the United States who are looking for faith are certainly to the right of the members of this group. They want to meet a faithful priest. They do want to be held accountable for their faith and they want convincing content. They know that their culture is not a convincing source of the truth and they are looking for more. They know that the people who hold to this first option cannot provide what they are seeking.
Nevertheless, those holders of the liberal dream who exercise the first option have a lot to lose because many of them have worked their way into the administrative structures of the Church and, from these niches in the administration, they have been able to blunt the work of the mainstream Church.
They have been able to influence the choice of catechetical materials and block dissemination of the Church's teaching. They have been able to influence the selection of bishops, clergy assignments and the implementation of diocesan policy. The question is whether the delaying action should continue even when it is futile. It is becoming more evident that their stand looks like a project in self-establishment than a service to the Church.
The people who choose the option of leaving the Church will be doing the Church a service on a number of levels. First they would be acting in accord with principles larger than themselves, which is a fundamental principle in the Church. Second, they will no longer be subverting the work of the Church.
Third, they will stop living the lie. The departure of such people from their various positions in the Church would also allow the new incumbents to fulfill the responsibilities that are actually entailed by their positions. Every single position in the Church is there only to make sure that people encounter the truth and grace of Jesus Christ. Up to the point where they leave, the people who are the concern of this article have not only been interfering with that encounter, but also they have ensured that the people for whom they were responsible have not been exposed to the full possibilities of such an authentic encounter with Jesus Christ.
'A Faith that We Make Up...'
The third option involves those who choose to rejoin the mainstream of the Church. This is the most principled action of all because it means choosing a truth larger than oneself and submitting to it with all of its consequences. It means letting oneself be shaped by a truth which one has not made up for oneself. As Pope Benedict XVI said, while he was still a cardinal, 'a faith that we make up is not a faith at all.' In simple terms, the truth of the mainstream of the Church has been delineated by the teaching of the Second Vatican Council and -- and this is a crucial ''and'' -- by the interpretation of the teaching of the council that is indicated by subsequent magisterial teaching. The texts of the council have come to us with an ''instruction manual,'' so to speak. Because they were written in the Tradition of the Church, they can be best understood by reading them in the light of the Tradition that went before them and the Tradition that came after them. The council teachings were not laid out cafeteria-style for us to pick and choose what we are ''comfortable'' with. The teachings have a very clear and detailed context, and that context shows us what the text means.
Now, in John's first letter, it says: ''let us love not in word or speech but in deed and truth'' (1 Jn 3:18). This means that being a Christian involves both right thinking (truth) and right action (deed). So for the sake of completeness, since we have noted the liberal way to confuse orthodoxy (right thinking) by detaching oneself from the Tradition, we should also note the aberration of knowing the truth but using it for the wrong reasons. I think at the root of both aberrations lies the ultimate human sin, selfishness, which at its base is, of course, idolatry. One can drift out of orthodoxy by setting up one's own truth and one's own community (the liberal option) or one can drift out of orthopraxis (right action) by using the truth of the Church to establish oneself, get oneself a job in the Church or just to support the conviction that one is somehow superior to lesser mortals, in other words a kind of paternalism. There are some in the Church who, although very orthodox, sometimes use their orthodoxy to establish careers and exercise a kind of paternalism much like that of the Pharisees in the New Testament who were vicious in action while knowing the truth. As Jesus noted in Matthew's Gospel: ''The scribes and the Pharisees have taken their seat on the chair of Moses. Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example. For they preach but they do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on people's shoulders, but they will not lift a finger to move them'' (Mt 23:3-4). An entire article could be devoted to this subject, but, in brief, Pharisaism in action is just as destructive to the Church as the playing out of the liberal dream. TP
Father Bramwell, O.M.I., writes from Naples, Fla.