Within moments of Pope Benedict’s announcement that he was abdicating the Chair of St. Peter, secularists began demanding that the College of Cardinals choose a less rigid, more progressive pontiff; in other words, a pope who would repudiate Church teachings on chastity, same-sex “marriage,” divorce, contraception, abortion, and priestly celibacy.
Leading the charge was The New York Times, which devoted plenty of front page, above-the-fold space to castigating the Church and Benedict. The op-ed editor published, ad nauseam, the usual tired-old Catholic critics, including Garry Wills and Hans Küng.
And the moment secularists realized that Pope Francis is not a South American liberation theologian, but a bona fide Roman Catholic, a smear campaign against him commenced. He was falsely accused of being sympathetic to authoritarian Argentine governments and responsible for the deaths of two outspoken anti-government Jesuits (who were liberation theologians).
We should not be discouraged by this viciousness: attacks on the Church and demands that it abandon dogmas are hardly new. Secularist objections to many Church teachings go back generations and in some cases centuries.
To get a sense of these age-old battles, I recommend readers turn to the writings of the British convert Monsignor Ronald Knox.
Ronald Arbuthnott Knox (1885-1957) was the son and grandson of Anglican bishops, attended Eton and Oxford, became a fellow at Trinity College, and then an Anglican cleric in 1912. While serving as a chaplain at Oxford, he embraced Catholicism in 1917, and two years later was ordained a priest. A noted preacher, essayist, and literary stylist, he published numerous collections of sermons, retreat talks, and radio broadcasts.
Like his contemporaries, G.K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, and Martin D’Arcy, Knox was a champion of what T.S. Eliot called the “permanent things.” He believed that to effectively combat modernists one must merely “trust orthodox tradition to determine what he is to believe, and common sense to determine what is orthodox tradition.”
The forebears of contemporary Modernism, who today promote pantheism in cosmology and voluntarism in ethics, were peddling a similar agenda in Knox’s time. He wrote that there existed:
philosophers who question the adequacy of thought itself as a method of arriving at speculative truth; there are psychologists who deny the reality of human free will; there are anthropologists who would explain away religion as an illusion of the nursery; and meanwhile, aiming their shafts more directly at the Church to which I belong, historians are for ever turning up flaws in our title-deeds, and prophets of the age arraign our narrow outlook before the tribunal of human progress.
To counter these and other assaults on faith, Knox penned a work of classic apologetics entitled The Belief of Catholics (1927).
Msgr. Ronald Knox
In the first chapter, “The Modern Distaste For Religion,” he concedes that “agitators, publicists and quack physicians” have had a negative impact, with the result that religion “as a factor in English public life has steadily and visibly declined.”
For instance, the early twentieth-century Church of England experienced declining clerical vocations, falling charitable donations, weakening “Churchmanship” in the public square, and declining numbers of laity in the pews. In reaction, High Anglican churches panicked and abandoned many doctrines inherited from Catholic antiquity. They not only tolerated “the expression of views which their fathers would have branded as unorthodox” but became “infected by the contagion of their surroundings, and los[t] the substance of theology while they embrace[d] its shadow.”
To accommodate the latest secular trends, fundamental Christian dogmas were “subjected more and more to criticism and restatement.” Broadminded Anglican ministers preached that hell no longer existed and said very nearly the same about sin. Their churches became places one visited, not to hear a Gospel message, but to listen to good music and be served tea and cookies afterwards.
Knox concluded that the decline in church membership goes hand in hand with the decline in dogma: “The average citizen expects any religion which makes claims upon him to be a revealed religion; and if the doctrine of Christianity is a revealed doctrine, why all the perennial need of discussion and restatement? Is the stock [he put the question in a commercial context] really a sound investment, when those who hold it are so anxious to unload it on any terms?”
This is precisely what has happened to U.S. mainline Protestant denominations. The reducing of their doctrines to fashionable platitudes has not attracted people back to the pews, but instead has driven people out of institutions that seem now to stand for nothing much at all.
American Catholicism suffered similar losses after Vatican II for some of the same reasons. Vacillating bishops, rebellious priests and nuns, and revisionist theologians caused confusion in parishes, Church schools, and Catholic colleges. As a result, weekly Church attendance, 75 percent in 1960, dropped to 25 percent by 1980.
During the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, the Church once again promoted and defended its core teachings, and the results are promising: the Church is growing by leaps and bounds in Africa and Asia; a generation of “John Paul II priests” has been ordained; orders of nuns loyal to the Magisterium, have waiting lists; and trendy bishops of the Seventies have mostly been replaced with orthodox ones.
But the effort to re-instill the doctrine that God, not man, is the measure of all things is far from complete. It will take years of patience and hard work to undo two generations of damage.
No doubt Pope Francis will carry on the work of his two predecessors and would agree with Monsignor Knox’s observation that as Catholics, “we shall have to face, more and more, the glare of the world’s hostility. For that reason, we must rally closer than ever round our bishops, our clergy, our churches, our schools; we must be active Catholics, instructed Catholics, if need be combative Catholics, to meet the demands of the new age.”