The Last Fifty Years
Recently The Catholic Herald, one of our most reliable English Catholic weeklies, carried an article by George Weigel on Vatican II and the subsequent 50 years called Mission Abandoned, and carrying on the cover the phrase ‘George Weigel says we’ve wasted the last 50 years on infighting.’
Professor Weigel is one of our most distinguished Catholic writers who over the years has done great work in the service of the Church. This in itself makes me hesitate to take issue with him. But in addition is the fact that if I do I shall expose myself to the charge of carrying on the ‘infighting’.
However there is one serious omission in his article which, if it remains unmentioned, will do a serious injustice to all those Catholics, like writers and readers of The Wanderer, who, over a period of fifty years, have done their best to uphold the faith and authentic magisterial teaching often in far from easy circumstances.
Of course I know that Prof.Weigel would say nothing of the sort in regard to the 4th century, but it seems to me his article comes close at times to implying that today’s Catholics, finding themselves in a similar situation, should have done just that. This is because he seems to ignore the existence of modernism although it has been a heresy as invasive and widespread as Arianism was in its day. Over the last 50 years the only alternative to ‘infighting’ for any Catholics who could see that a doctrine was under attack would have been compromising. Was supporting Humanae Vitae or opposing ‘on-going revelation’ just a matter of ‘infighting’?
Of course the words ‘liberal and conservative’ can legitimately be applied to matters of policy or pastoral practice, things which the magisterium has authority to change. They were legitimately used in this way in the 19th century for a time. But when applied to the content of faith, they become lethal. We see the difference in the case of women priests and married clergy. The former is an impossibility. We have St John Paul II’s Ordinatio Sacerdotalis to remind us of the fact. The latter, as every reasonably well-instructed Catholics knows, is allowable.
However to say or imply that all the controversies of the last 50 years have been nothing but conflicts about allowable changes and therefore a waste of time seems to me equivalent to saying that the work of post-Nicaean fathers like St Athanasius, St Ambrose or St Hilary of Poitiers was a waste of time too. Modernism is or has been no less deadly than Arianism.
Given the debt of gratitude we all owe to Professor Weigel, I deeply regret feeling obliged to say all this. His article, which is mainly about what Pope John wanted from the Council, the new evangelisation it was to prepare the way for, and why it didn’t take place sooner, is in every other respect as excellent and enlightening as one would expect.
In a sense, Catholics of the kind I have been describing --- and Professor Weigal is one of them --- cannot be described in any meaningful way as either ‘liberals’ or ‘conservatives’. They are simply members of the Church who, through the mercy of God, have managed to hang on to their sensus fidelium throughout a major doctrinal upheaval, in the same way that, as Newman tells us, many of the ordinary faithful did during the Arian crisis, when bishops and high-powered theologians fell away.
Recognizing all this has nothing or should have nothing to do with being self-righteous or feeling superior. It is simply a question a fact. Either you continue to give your assent to all the Church proposes for belief or you don’t. In a non-political sense, every Catholic has to be ‘conservative’ about the content of the deposit of faith, if not always about the way a particular doctrine is formulated at a particular time.
If one should be tempted to feel self-righteous or to pharisaicism of any kind we now, through the mercy of God, have a Holy Father who will not allow us to stay long in that deplorable state in any comfort.
It is certainly true that it is not easy to engage in controversy of any kind with perfect charity or without at moments feeling better that one’s opponent because one knows one is right. But here we can I think take comfort from some words of Belloc. ( I think I have got them right though at 92 my memory is not what it was). In any intellectual free-for-all, he says somewhere, especially if it is in defense of the Church or the faith, he is sure God forgives a few blows below the belt provided they are not premeditated. God does not approve of the blows themselves, but he understands the circumstances.
Coming back to the last 50 years there are other reasons, I believe, for regarding them in a less exclusively negative light than Professor Weigal does in addition to the fact that they saw modernism contained if not altogether overthrown. They produced the CCC or new catechism which can be said among other things to have fulfilled one of St John XXIII’s principle aims in calling the Council; that without altering the meaning of the Church’s teachings it should present them in a way more easy for our contemporaries to understand.
Then there is St John Paul II’s ‘theology of the body’. Provoked by the conflicts and circumstances of the time as was so much of the writings of the fathers of the fourth century, this is a major contribution to the patrimony of the Church’s theological understanding.
Another plus has been the rise of what are called the new movements --- mainly lay movements to stimulate a more missionary spirit. Similar movements were of course already in existence from well before the Council. They were then usually classified as ‘Catholic Action’. But, as we all know, they multiplied greatly in the wake of the Council.
Nor should we omit the heroic work of the pro-life movements. Without them, not only would millions more babies have been aborted. Millions more Catholics would have been propagandised into accepting abortion as something morally possible.
Future historians will also I believe have kind words for those who have worked to preserve the old liturgy. I only occasionally go to mass in the old liturgy myself. But I believe its complete abolition would have come to be seen by future generations as an act of barbarism equivalent to pulling down St Peters or Brunelleschi’s dome in Florence. Beauty, like love, can be a missionary tool as well as words and good deeds. Its preservation should also contribute to easing relations with the Orthodox churches.
In all these ways then, and in spite of the massive defections from Christian belief of every kind wherever the spirit of the secularised west predominates, I believe we can see God at work over the last fifty years preparing the ground for his new evangelisation, and demonstrating that those years have been anything but a meaningless wasteland.
Version: 10th December 2015