Is Catholicism ‘Inadequate’?

There’s an old philosophical distinction about conditions that are necessary, but not sufficient to make something true. You might assert, for example, that the Church is a “field hospital,” and therefore it’s necessary for Her to have the intention of caring for the wounded and dying. But without necessary medical knowledge as well – and in this scenario full and accurate understanding of what the battle is all about, and how and why casualties are occurring – you won’t have an adequate course of treatment.

This distinction came to mind reading a recent interview with Archbishop (soon to be Cardinal and head of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith ) Víctor Manuel Fernández, who was asked directly what he thought about St. John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis splendor, “The Splendor of Truth.” As anyone who follows Catholic matters will know, that encyclical sought with great sophistication and force to show how the truths delivered to us via both reason and revelation undergird human freedom and moral acts. No solid truth, no true human dignity.

Archbishop Fernández’s response bears careful attention on several fronts since he will now run the Vatican’s doctrinal office:

Veritatis splendor is a great document, powerfully solid. Obviously, it denotes a particular concern – to set certain limits. For this reason it is not the most adequate text to encourage the development of theology. In fact, over the last decades, tell me how many theologians can we name with the stature of Rahner, Ratzinger, Congar or Von Balthasar? Not even that which they call “liberation theology” has theologians at the level of Gustavo Gutiérrez. Something has gone wrong. [Emphasis added.]

Except for the initial perfunctory bow to a great recent pope and saint, the rest of his comment is so wrong, obviously and deeply wrong in ways that would be apparent to any theology student – indeed, any competent reader of the text – that it’s hard to believe that the pope appointed a man with such a skewed perspective.

To begin with, as indicated above, the main concern of Veritatis splendor (henceforth VS) is not to set limits – a legitimate function, by the way – but to show the necessity of the fullness of truth to several crucial human things. Toward that end, it lays down principles. Otherwise, like the incoherence of our currently dominant cultural materialism, the Church will just make claims about human freedom and dignity without any basis for them.

And even before you take the deep dive into the philosophical, theological, and moral principles of VS, Fernández’s view of the recent history of theology is, to be charitable, “inadequate.” Is it really owing to the inadequacies of VS that no great theologians have arisen in recent decades?

The implication is that the “limits” set by VS have somehow intimidated otherwise daring theological minds. But how so? Theology departments in Catholic colleges and universities are not exactly noted for slavish orthodoxy, peer pressures to take a strict papal line, or succumbing to alleged threats from Rome. Indeed, organizations such as the Catholic Theological Society of America (CTSA) are reliable promoters of “welcoming” LGBT+ people, women’s ordination, and the kind of power-sharing sought by Catholic progressives.

If you find this hard to believe, look at the “convention theme” – Social Salvation – for the next CTSA convention (here), which among a few nods to some traditional concepts focuses more particularly on this:

At present, an effective challenge to the social sin of our time – be it in the form of racism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism, classism, anthropocentrism, colonialism, and on and on – requires an account of social salvation in keeping with God’s concern for the social order of the world. In this sense, social salvation addresses the ongoing human endeavor to recognize and resist social sin, in other words, to subvert structural evil in the interest of the ascendancy and visibility of the good.

If you had the will and time to waste, you could easily confirm that Veritatis splendor, God’s Rottweiler (Benedict XVI), and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith did little to “limit” this sort of thing for the past half-century. Indeed, the official theological guild has limited itself by embracing the usual tired litany of secular nostrums.

Cardinal Mueller has confirmed that, while he ran the CDF, there was a file on Fernández himself. And on the basis of the Argentine’s view of recent Catholic history, it’s no wonder.

Truths like those of Veritatis splendor helped defeat real-life monsters like the former USSR.

That’s the past. What of the future?

When asked about his – and Pope Francis’s – approach to morality, Fernández asserted:

1) The absolute primacy of grace and charity in Catholic moral theology.

2) The inalienable dignity of each human person, and the consequences of that.

3) The preferential option for the poor, the last, and those abandoned by society.

4) The individualistic, hedonistic and egocentric approaches to life that make the option for marriage, family and the common good difficult.

But we would be off to a bad start if we separated morality from theology.

There’s good here, properly understood, that VS itself would affirm. But we know that a lot of heterodox and “heterodox-adjacent” positions have found their way into the Church’s public stances under the aegis of charity and human dignity. And enabled the destructive public Catholicism of figures like the Bidens and Pelosis of the world.

As we’ve also seen in the run-up to the Synod on Synodality, “pastoral” applications of charity and human dignity are often being used to correct the “inadequacies” of earlier Catholicism on LGBTs and the whole panoply of progressive concerns.

And this suggests that we’re going to hear a lot more in coming days about how previous formulations of faith and morals are not so much wrong (a harsh word) as “inadequate.” That theological “development” (misusing St. John Henry Newman) requires outright reversals. That the Faith of the Ages is not, today, sufficient for us.


*Image: CNS photo/Joe Rimkus Jr./Catholic World Report

You may also enjoy:

Fr. Gerald E. Murray’s Pope Francis Must Stop the Madness

Stephen P. White’s Whose Synod, Which Synodality?

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.