Bad Taste

With apologies to Leo Tolstoy: All faithful Catholics are alike; every unfaithful Catholic is unfaithful in his own way. To be faithful is to give heart-and-soul assent to the Church; to popes, to Creed, and to Magisterium.

A traditionalist argues that the Church has veered off course, as a ship would when captain and crew have abandoned their duties, and the traditionalist and his confreres see themselves engaged in a kind of first-class passengers’ mutiny. Meanwhile, down in steerage, restless liberationists – convinced the ship has gone full stop – are jettisoning everything they consider dead weight.

“Catholic” dissent is about course correction – it is anyway in the minds of the dissenters, right or left. And both agree the course we’re on was set by Vatican II. So: “Turn hard starboard!” say the traddies.“Tack hard to port!” say the libs. To them the Church some sort of yacht or cargo ship.

Actually, the Church is an ark, floating in the flood. But enough of nautical analogies.

Traditionalists would roll back the “reforms” of Vatican II and the liberationists would push on in the “spirit of” Vatican II. Both agree that recent popes have been misguided. On the far edges, you have sedevacantists and revolutionaries: the outright vertical and the downright horizontal. Both are deeply nostalgic – one for an ancien régime, the other for a dream deferred.

Nobody has better analyzed this discontent than our dear, late The Catholic Thing colleague Ralph McInerny. In What Went Wrong with Vatican II?, written thirty years after the Council ended, Professor McInerny made clear his opinion that the four Dogmatic Constitutions, three Declarations, and nine Decrees of the Second Vatican Council do not represent a break with Sacred Tradition. And he had a message for traditionalists:

That which makes Vatican II valid is what made Vatican I, the Council of Trent, and every other council valid. To accept one council is to accept them all; to reject one . . . is to reject . . . all; we cannot have pick-and-choose conciliarism.
The teachings of Vatican II are as official as the others, which is what makes the Lefebvrite dissent “incoherent.”

Concerning what I’m calling liberationists, the larger body of dissenters, McInerny insisted the work of the Council is not at all the genesis of their frustrations. Humanae Vitae is; not so much because of the encyclical’s content – although that is often assumed to be the case – as because of the assault on papal authority that attended its publication.

What Humanae Vitae did was reconfirm the Church’s teaching about human sexuality, including the prohibition against artificial birth control. But a panel of lay and clerical advisors (assigned by John XXIII – and expanded by Paul VI – to consider the issue in light of modern science) had recommended that the prohibition be rescinded. When Paul VI left it in place, “progressives” were outraged.

“Great cultural changes,” wrote Jacques Barzun, “begin in affectation and end in routine.” Paul VI knew this. Sexuality was being sundered from its rootedness in natural law, and the pope did his best to forestall an emerging conventional hedonism. But contrary forces were at work; Satan no doubt among them.

Ralph McInerny

Neither John XXIII nor Paul VI, neither any subsequent popes nor Vatican II, are to blame for the “crisis” dissenters bewail. The Roman Catholic Church didn’t create the historical and cultural situation in which its teachings came to be considered out of step and which it tried to address at Vatican II. The Council itself officially changed very little – even including the reformed Mass, although the sacrament certainly became less beautiful (but Christ is there!). Still the Council became, alike for it-went-too-far Lefebvrites and it-didn’t-go-far-enough Liberation Theologians, an excuse to assume equality with papal and conciliar authority, to become shadow churches.

John Paul II convened a Second Extraordinary Assembly of  the Synod of Bishops  in 1985 on the twentieth anniversary of the end of Vatican II with the clear intent – and this is its ongoing legacy – of beginning to put right the mistaken interpretations and innovations that arose from the perfectly sound teaching of Vatican II. The Synod initiated a new Catechism of the Catholic Church and made important changes in canon law, all overseen by Joseph Ratzinger. Other loving steps have been taken by the Vatican to correct the dissidents (see John Paul II’s Ad Tuendam Fidem and Benedict XVI’s letter to SSPX), but the schismatics seem more numerous and more intransigent than ever.

In my opinion, this has principally to do with poor catechesis.

There are 65 million Catholics in the United States today with a little over 2 million children enrolled in Catholic schools. By contrast, there were 44 million American Catholics in 1965, more than 5 million of them Catholic school kids. I was unable to find data about enrollment in catechism classes for children not in Catholic schools, but I’d be stunned to learn that the numbers have gone up in the last forty years. When you get your . . . impressions of Catholicism from dissenters, chances are you’re not consuming Christ’s new wine or the Bread of Life, so beware: Thou shalt not drink of the Châteauneuf-du-Pape of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, neither shall thou eat the sourdough of Professor Hans Küng.

As Ralph McInerny wrote: “The choice is not between arguments. The choice is between authorities.” So choose wisely.

Brad Miner is the Senior Editor of The Catholic Thing and a Senior Fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute. He is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His most recent book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. His The Compleat Gentleman is now available in a third, revised edition from Regnery Gateway and is also available in an Audible audio edition (read by Bob Souer). Mr. Miner has served as a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA and also on the Selective Service System draft board in Westchester County, NY.