As Vatican II turns 50, one way to enter this Year of Faith might be to take part in a new and unstoppable discussion about the Catholic Church in modern culture.
One of the hazards of writing from behind these stone walls is that I’m often the last to know of the buzz going on in the Catholic online world. I have to wait for the printed word, and sometimes it’s slow in coming. It’s not called “snail mail” for nothing. My copy of the National Catholic Register (October 7-20) just arrived. I was glad to see that journalist Edward Pentin has an article entitled “50 Years After Vatican II” which made some of the same points I made in “Vatican II Turns Fifty: Catholic in an Age of Discontent” last week.
Edward Pentin seems to agree with me that the problem with Vatican II was not the theology of its decrees and documents, but rather its implementation and the environment in which that implementation took place. As Edward Pentin put it:
“[Vatican II] lacked adequate mechanisms for putting its decrees into effect, leaving their implementation open to misinterpretation and influence by ‘progressive’ movements that saw the Council as a rupture with Tradition. It was also hampered by its timing, arriving as the hedonistic social revolution of the 1960s was just beginning.”
Father John Zuhlsdorf also had a recent post about problems with the implementation of Vatican II entitled, “A new kind of discussion has begun about Vatican II and it cannot be stopped.” Let me stress that I do not question Vatican II, its Documents – which are beautifully written, by the way – or its importance for the Church. I question the Council’s implementation, and so, apparently, does Father Z who pointed out that such questions were unthinkable a few years ago. They were, as he put it, “the stuff of expulsion from seminaries, of crucifixion in chanceries.”
To see just how true Father Z’s statement was, I would like to ask TSW readers to revisit an older post of mine entitled “The Day the Earth Stood Still” written three years ago. The whole post is worth visiting anew for a sense of the era in which Vatican II took place, but I especially suggest scrolling to a sub-heading, “Dissent and Discontent” to read from there to the end of that post. You won’t regret it. The story it tells about an incident when I was a seminarian in 1979 is both remarkable and incomprehensible.
Even today, after “Marking Thirty Years of Priesthood,” I am able to look back on that story and see many subtle ways in which my defiance of the authority of dissenters attempting to impose their open rebellion against Tradition came back to haunt my priesthood. I was branded “an angry conservative.”
It was ironic, and could not possibly have been further from the truth at that time in my life. I grew up as a liberal Boston Irish Democrat in a family leaning so far to the left I thought they might topple. Even today, I am the only member of my family who does not dismiss the Catholic Church as a quaint anachronism in modern culture, a throwback to the Middle Ages that the world is slowly shedding to pave the way for true social progress. We were “Kennedy Catholics,” which today I know meant that being Catholic was something we wore around our necks, but penetrated no deeper.
When I entered religious life in 1974, my family thought I had gone insane. By the time I commenced graduate studies in theology, I was sold almost completely on the whole movement of the left, and the basic premise that the Church cannot move the modern world without fully accommodating the modern world.
I remember the round of enthusiastic applause from much (but not all) of the seminary student body when I described in 1979 – to the nodding approval of faculty – that Humanae Vitae might be one of the last gasps of a Church in the throes of death, clinging to an era long past while ignoring the needs of human nature. “Quoniam iniquitatem meam ego coqnosco: et peccatum meum contra me est semper.” (Psalm 51: 3).
That was my own dark wood of error, and those woods were dark indeed. My wake-up call was the incident involving Pope John Paul II and our seminary rector and faculty that I described in “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” What I learned about myself from that sordid story is that to be a good Catholic dissenter of the elitist left required that I also be a good follower, that I cease to think for myself and draw my own conclusions, that I accept without question an agenda of rebellion against authority imposed by others who would do my thinking for me. That agenda required me to commit to a version of Church and priesthood in which the Magisterium is a supremely obscene word to which I must never again refer or defer.
I could not be such a follower, and still can’t. In those days, our sponsoring dioceses assigned us to a seminary to which we had no choice but to attend. Academically, I excelled and that seemed all that mattered – that, and whether I would continue to toe the liberal line, falling into place with an intellectual refutation of Tradition when called upon.
I parted ways with that set of expectations when I witnessed a small group of seminarians from the Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska being taunted by some of my East Coast leftist peers one evening as they gathered to pray the rosary together in the seminary chapel. Such open displays of spiritual tradition were simply not done at St. Mary’s Seminary & University in the 1970s.
The next day, they and their traditionalism were placed on trial in a class in fundamental theology. It was to be a sort of lynching, but light finally dawned on Marblehead (at least, on my own marble head). I wasn’t having it, and came to their defense. I was branded a dissenter from the left, a traitor to the liberal cause.
I told my fellow seminarians that the problem here was not one of liberal versus conservative theology, but rather one of maturity and a failure to be leaders instead of followers. “A real conservative,” I said, “embraces tradition out of love, not fear, while a true liberal is free enough to allow a conservative to be conservative without feeling threatened by it.” From that day forward, it was clear to me that I was no longer welcome in the theologically leftist club. I was never in my life so happy to be thrown out of something.
THE REQUIREMENTS OF A CATHOLIC CONSCIENCE
I believe that all Catholics are perfectly free to think for themselves and to draw their own informed conclusions. But at the end of the day, I also believe that Catholics have a duty of conscience to defer to the authority of the Church in all things regarding faith and morals. You will never again hear me, as a priest, publicly pronounce and defend an errant view on Humanae Vitae. It is the teaching of our Church, and I have a duty of conscience to recognize the authority of the Church to teach it.
It matters not whether the current culture sees the contraception debate as frivolous, nor does it matter how many Catholics dismiss it as a lost cause. The challenge posed by the current American government is not whether a particular Catholic moral ideal is valid. It is whether this Government is willing to even uphold our Church’s right to hold forth a moral ideal at all. Be careful what you accommodate. Religious liberty is a fundamental freedom in grave danger of being squandered.
It is one thing for a Catholic to determine in conscience that an insufficient strength of will prevents him/her from observing perfectly and at all times a moral ideal. It is something else entirely for any Catholic to demand that the Church alter that teaching to accommodate the pressures of this hedonistic culture.
It’s a point I made in “Accommodations in the Garden of Good and Evil.” The “me first” generation of the 1960s and 1970s is passing. There is now underway, as Father John Zuhlsdorf pointed out above, a new discussion going on for a new implementation of Vatican II for a new generation of Catholics, and it cannot be stopped. These are the young Catholics I wrote of in “Faith Trumps Relativism: Pope Benedict XVI at World Youth Day,” and my generation must not fear them, but rather must create for them a straight path. They have the task of rescuing our Church from the grip of culture that has held Her captive for a half century.
They have their work cut out for them, a fact brought home to me in a recent letter from some friends and TSW readers who decided to relocate to Australia. After a month or two, they abandoned their plans. Here’s an excerpt of the letter:
“We could not find a faithful Catholic church. Much theological dissent, grave liturgical abuse, and anti-papal dissent from bishops, priests, and laity are overtly on display. We travelled over 1,000 miles throughout Queensland and New South Wales only to find a hard-core of disobedient priests . . . The laity, most modernists, attend Mass as a social gathering, very irreverent and very secular. Many churches have no tabernacles, kneelers, or pews. The music books are full of Protestant songs. In the Catholic schools, the health texts promote contraception, abortion, and alternative lifestyles. If we were to remain in Australia, it would have been without the Church.”
After reading this letter, I learned with disappointment, but no surprise, that the Archdiocese of Sydney, Australia has published a policy decision that no accused Catholic priest will receive any assistance whatsoever from the Archdiocese to defend himself. This decision comes from an Archdiocese with a well-known Cardinal who was himself falsely and unjustly accused, who defended against the accusation tenaciously, and who survived it intact. That same justice, it seems, is not to be afforded other priests.
And this, too, is no surprise, for as I learned long ago when Pope John Paul II visited America in 1979, Catholics who openly embrace dissent also openly discard charity. This is by no means a problem solely of the Church in Australia. David Pierre at The Media Report recently covered the latest national conference of Voice of the Faithful in the United States, and reported on a set of broad demands that the Church accommodate modern culture with sweeping changes. It’s troubling from a lay organization solidly ensconced in leftist ideology, but also claiming the competence to recognize integrity in the priesthood. Of course, the only priests with integrity are the ones who agree with them, and, sadly, there are some, but they too are growing quite gray.
In Part I of “Vatican II Turns Fifty” last week, I made a case for how much the value system of the world changed since the decade of Vatican II. It is the duty of our time as we commence this Year of Faith to liberate the implementation of the Second Vatican Council from 1968 where it has been trapped for a generation.
If you read to the end of my November, 2009 post, “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” then you’ve noticed that I gave the last word to none other than Father Benedict Groeschel himself. Speaking on 50 years of priesthood and his new book on Purgatory, After This Life, Fr. Groeschel reflected:
“I’m looking forward to Purgatory, I’m from Jersey City and it’s just like Purgatory. I’ll be right at home.”
Well, I’m not looking forward to Purgatory at all, and I won’t be at home. My Purgatory, I fear, might be a lot worse than being from Jersey City. It might be like being stuck in 1968 with all its accommodations and truces. It’s the year that the Catholic Church drank the poison of this world. If my Purgatory is to be stuck in 1968, it will be a corner of Purgatory with a panoramic view of hell.
EDITOR’S NOTE – Four religious orders bring much hope to Catholics in Australia: