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Chapter Two

We now come to the second of the two currents I mentioned at the beginning of the last chapter the rejection of the Church's teaching and authority, along with the attempt to substitute new beliefs.

There have been mass rejections of Catholic belief before, but never I think on the same scale. There is almost no point of Catholic teaching that has not been called into question or repudiated, from the divinity of Christ to belief in eternal life. Many have left the Church openly. But still more have remained on, in appearance at least "inside" the Church, where for over thirty-five years they have been sprcading their new beliefs among the rest of the now thoroughly confused faithful.

Warnings from the highest authorities have been continuous. Pope Paul's are epitomised in his well-known cry in 1972 that "the smoke of Satan" had entered into the Church. He also spoke of "the ravages being inflicted on the Christian people by . . . venturesome hypotheses" (Paul VI, Apostolic Exhortation, fifth anniversary of Council's closure, 1970).
Here are three more examples from the highest authorities.

"We must admit realistically . . . that the majority of Christians today feel bewildered, confused, perplexed, and even deceived: ideas contradicting revealed truth as taught from the beginning are liberally spread abroad; in the dogmatic and moral fields real heresies have been propagated, creating doubts, confusions, rebellions; even the liturgy has been manipulated" (John Paul II, address to priests, 6th February 1981).

"Not a few of today's attacks are going for the jugular, the very fundamentals of our faith: the divinity of Christ, the resurrection from the dead of his true Body, our own immortality and so forth" (Cardinal Oddi, former head of the. Congregation for the Clergy in Rome, symposium on catechetics, 15th May 1981).

"No one can deny that the last ten years have been harmful to the Church. Instead of the promised renewal, they have given us a process of decadence which to a large extent began in the name of the Council and has done nothing but discredit the  Council itself. We can therefore affirm that there will be no renewal in the Church until there is a change of course and an abandonment of the errors adopted after the council." (Cardinal Ratzinger, when Archbishop of Munich).

There has also been the evidence of statistics, newspaper reports, and direct experience. It has been a record of mass departures from the priesthood and religious life; a devastating drop in priestly and religious vocations; an equally devastating drop in attendance at Mass (the heart of Catholic Christianity), infant baptisms and conversions; the almost complete abandonment over wide areas of the sacrament of confession; in many places a stripping of churches and sale of their furnishings and sacred vessels reminiscent of the Protestant reformation; the closing down of countless schools, seminaries, religious houses, hospitals, and orphanages; a rocketing number of divorces and annulments; whole generations growing up in ignorance of the faith; and now in Latin American countries a mass exodus of Catholics into the fundamentalist sects because the latter continue to preach about the seriousness of sin, the reality of hell and salvation in another life. These things are now so well known that there is no need to labour them.1

Looking at the situation as a whole, one could describe it as a rebellion of intellectuals who have won the support of large numbers of the Western laity through an unspoken compact.

For reasons that will appear later, a proportion of the Catholic intelligentsia, having lost or partially lost their faith, wanted to alter Catholic doctrine. With the laity morals were usually the problem, especially the Church's teaching about marriage and procreation. So in return for being allowed to have contraception and divorce the majority of the Western laity have let theological rebels put much of the rest of Catholic teaching through the pulping machine. This is a simplification of events, but not one, I think, which distorts them.

In this great doctrinal-moral rebellion the trouble started well before the Council with theologians, thinkers and scholars who had been converted, or partially converted, to that latest in the long line of attempts to alter the religion of Christ to suit the opinions or convenience of men, called modernism.

Modernism can be considered a by-product of that more than a century-old movement for cultural and intellectual aggiornamento mentioned in the last chapter.

In the whole business of sifting and "baptising" secular ideas and practices, the significant word is lawfully. It marks the boundary between true and false aggiornamento. Genuine practitioners of aggiornamento are those who stay on  the right side of the boundary. But from the start of the movement around 1815, a trickle of thinkers, swept off their feet by the theories they were studying, began to lose their faith, cross the boundary line, and agitate for the baptism of ideas and practices the Church cannot lawfully baptise.

To begin with, those who crossed the boundary eventually broke with the Church. But as the 20th century succeeded the 19th and the subjects under study multiplied and grew more complicated, increasing numbers with doubts about this or that article of belief, stayed on inside the Church. The trickle eventually became a stream, and by the 1950s a small lake. Or, changing the metaphor, an heretical movement devoted to altering the meaning of the Church's belies developed like a cancer in the entrails of the movement for reform and aggiornamento.

In origin at least, modernism can be regarded as a failed attempt at aggiornamento, its shadow side or occupational disease, aggiornamento itself being a thoroughly legitimate activity.

Most of the damage can be attributed to the kind of radical biblical scholarship, dating from the late 18th century, which cast varying degrees of doubt on the authenticity and truthfulness of the Bible. The doubts included the Resurrection. But if the Resurrection was not an historical fact, on what was Christianity based? This led to a new theory about the way God reveals himself.

For modernists there has been no revelation with an unchanging content given by God through specially appointed spokesmen and ending with the death of the last apostle St. John. In so far as God speaks to men he does so mainly or solely through personal religious experience, and what he says continually changes or is modified as the world and men's situations change. Today this idea is called "on-going revelation", and its interpretation by theologians "process theology".

From this it would follow that Christian doctrine only has a symbolic significance and must continually be reinterpreted. In its present form it represents the efforts of earlier less enlightened Christians to interpret what God was saying to them through their particular experiences. Similarly with the Bible.The Bible is basically a record of what the Jews and early Christians felt or thought about their inner experiences, not about what was actually said or happened to them. In modernism everything takes place in the mind, rather than externally.2

These two views of the way God reveals himself, the Catholic and the modernist, are often described, and contrasted, as the "deductive" and "inductive" approaches.

Deduction is the mental process by which we move from established facts or knowledge to their implications or consequences. This is what theologians do when they try to explain the more mysterious aspects of divine revelation. Since Christianity gets the greater part of what it knows directly from God, they are thinking deductively.

We think inductively when, starting from what we can touch and see (sense experience), we climb to a knowledge of the causes, laws and first principles underlying them. Natural religions, like Confucianism and Buddhism are based on inductive thinking. They are dependent solely on what the human mind can tease out of things. In giving primacy to the "inductive" approach modernism is pushing Christianity back to the status of a natural religion.

These theories made their first appearance in the Catholic Church between 1880 and 1907 when the movement was arrested, or was thought to have been, by St. Pius X's encyclical Pascendi. But they reappeared at the time of the Council apparently as strong as ever. Meanwhile, under the influence of contemporary secular ideas, they had received some important additions, justifying the title neo-modernism.

By the 1950s Christianity had ceased to be the majority religion in most Western countries. In so far as most Westerners could be said to have had a religion, it was some kind of belief in perpetual progress and an earthly paradise, in liberty, equality and fraternity as the indispensable ingredients of human happiness, and in democracy as the only means of achieving them. Neo-modernism is the incorporation of these ideas into the early modernist theory of revelation through personal experience.

If revelation is through personal experience, the Christian people are the final arbiters of what is to be believed and done. The government of the Church should therefore be remodelled more along the lines of a modern popular democracy. After an exchange of experiences the people reach a consensus, which, when sufficiently widely accepted, the bishops ratify, the consensus becoming the Church's official teaching for the time being.

The bishops are merely the people's delegates. However a closer look at the theory reveals that it is theologians, not the people, who hold the determining position. On their own, the people are unable to articulate their experiences properly. Only with the help of theologians can they discover what God is saying to them. Theologians are the midwives of popular experience.3

It also seems that, in revealing himself through the people's experiences, God is subject to the laws of Hegelian logic (truth can only be arrived at through argument   thesis, antithesis, synthesis).

At any given moment in the Church's history, the new ideas of theologians represent the experiences and insights of the believing community's most alert members, and therefore the Deity's most recent thoughts and instructions. These, however, will automatically be resisted by bishops. Bishops, being naturally conservative, will want to hang on to current teaching, although it in large part reflects past life situations and dead experiences. There follows a "creative clash", with theologians dissenting and bishops threatening anathemas. Eventually the bishops surrender and give the new ideas their approval. But once again they mistakenly imagine that what they have endorsed will remain official teaching forever. So when the faithful's life situations and experiences change once more, a further creative clash becomes necessary. And so on. This is how modernism understands the development of doctrine. Although the theory has a supposedly democratic basis, it in fact turns theologians into bishops and bishops into errand boys.

Neo-modernism also changes the concept of salvation. Salvation means being delivered from physical and spiritual misery in this world, not deliverance from sin in this world and its consequences in the next. "Transforming the world" materially and politically therefore replaces spreading the Gospel and sanctifying men as the heart of the Church's mission. Salvation in the next world is more or less a certainty.

Needless to say, only a minority of Catholics, if we can call them that, adhere consciously to these hard-core modernist principles. Nevertheless their influence is widespread right down to the parish level. The chief effect has been to suggest that, in the words of a well-known member of a religious order, "everything is up for grabs". The most thorough-going attempts to put hard-core modernism into practice so far have, been in Holland and in the South American "base communities" inspired by liberation theology.4

The attempt to impose on Catholics or other Christians such a total reversal of what they have always believed can only be described as a revolution, which is in fact how its advocates and sympathisers admit to seeing it.

It is of course a revolution mainly of ideas and therefore without unpleasant or frightening physical consequences. There are no bombs or firing squads. The wheels of diocesan and parish life continue to turn, while the revolutionaries themselves, and their now numerous sympathisers well entrenched in most Western ecclesiastical bureaucracies, are respectable professional men and women with, for the most part, friendly smiles, agreeable manners and what they regard as the highest intentions, who talk the language of religion and use catch-phrases and theories rather than dynamite. Now therefore that the first shocks and excitements are over, many Catholics find it fairly easy to persuade themselves that nothing all that important has happened, or if it has, whatever it was is over. But a revolution, or attempted revolution it still is even if the transformations are now mostly worked out of sight in the minds and hearts of the faithful without their being aware of it.5

From theologians, the great revolt I have been describing spread to priests (not a few being drawn in by the expectation that the Church was going to be forced to change her laws about clerical celibacy), and from priests to lay people for the reasons noted earlier. On a large scale it was only later and more slowly joined by bishops. But, tragically, this also eventually happened.

When we find numbers of bishops permitting or even actively encouraging teaching at variance with that given by the Pope, and that given constantly by the Church through the centuries, one can only presume they have come to believe at least some of the doctrinal novelties. Inevitably many of the faithful have concluded either that heresy does not matter all that much, or that the Pope and a local hierarchy have equal authority and one can follow which teaching one pleases.

This episcopal revolt or collapse has been the second main cause of chaos and loss of faith.6

Why does Rome allow it? Why did Paul VI initiate a policy of teaching and giving warnings, while refraining (except in one instance) from disciplining or punishing? This is a question which it will be easier for future historians than for us to answer. But we can perhaps see the beginnings of an explanation in the Council's teachings on collegiality and ecumenism.

The doctrine of collegiality is about bishops taking a greater share in the government of the whole Church. To implement it the Holy See, immediately after the Council, embarked on a policy of decentralisation. With regard to dissenting theologians, Rome let it be known that it wanted local bishops to do the disciplining.

Ecumenism also made the use of strong measures difficult. How were good relations with separated Christians to be maintained if the Church started punishing or excommunicating theologians or bishops for holding views similar to those of the separated brethren themselves? 7

Another conciliar initiative was bringing about a rapprochement between the Church and "the modern world" (Western secular culture). This seems to have generated the desire to have the Church appear as much as possible the friend of freedom of opinion.

However the requirements of these three goals have not always been easy to harmonise. In 1968, for instance, Cardinal O'Boyle of Washington disciplined nineteen of his priests who had challenged the teaching of Paul  VI's recently issued encyclical Humanae Vitae upholding the Church's position on the unlawfulness of contraception. The priests appealed to Rome and, three years later, under pressure from the head of the Congregation for the Clergy, Cardinal O'Boyle reinstated those of the original nineteen who had not by this time left the priesthood. None of them was required to make a public retraction.

Similarly, in 1978, the Bishop of Baton Rouge, Louisiana was summoned to Rome and rebuked by the Congregation for Bishops, though this time it seems without the knowledge of the Holy Father, because he had forbidden the dissenting moral theologian Fr. Charles Curran from preaching in his diocese.

In both these cases, respect for liberal susceptibilities seems to have taken precedence over the principle of collegiality.

Whatever the pros and cons of the new policy and it may well be that by this time strong measures would push large numbers of Western Catholics into more openly expressed schism it has, nevertheless, been one of the most difficult things for the faithful loyal to the Holy Sec to understand. They had been taught to think of heresy as on a level with murder, theft and adultery. Yet here it was being tolerated apparently as if it were of little consequence. But just because they are loyal they remain so in spite of the strategy of headquarters being often beyond their understanding.8

In practice, by the end of Pope Paul's reign the revolutionary theologians had established a de facto right to teach their errors in the Church on a par with the teaching of the faith. They could thus be said to have won the first round in their campaign to take over the Church and change its constitution and teaching.

Notes to Chapter Two

1. Divorce followed by remarriage is not allowed in the Catholic Church. But in many areas, divorced remarried couples are quietly allowed to receive Holy Communion, which amounts to its being locally sanctioned in practice, while annulments (declarations that there was not a valid marriage in the first place). are often given for insufficient reasons, leaving the impression that they are just a Catholic form of divorce.

2. Parents will recognise here the origins of "experiential" catechesis religion classes in which, rather than being taught the truths of the faith, the children are encouraged to write or discuss what they think or feel about God, his world and the way to please Him. As a result over the last thirty years the majority of young Catholics in the West have grown up largely ignorant of their faith. The experience of living our beliefs can deepen our understanding of them but does not alter or add to them. Similarly, mystical theology makes use of the experiences of the saints in their prayer life, but without regarding those experiences as a rival revelation.

3. See, for example Bernard Lonergan SJ., Method in Theology, especially chapter 5, where it is suggested that the starting point for theology should not be divine revelation but "Christian living", and doctrines are apparently judged worthwhile according to whether they promote or impede Christian living of the "best kind".

4. "These denials, which I have described with all the severity of their consequences, are seldom spoken of so openly. The movements, however, are clear and they do not confine themselves to the realm of theology alone" (Cardinal Ratringer addressing the presidents of European doctrinal commission in the winter of 1992-3) Indeed, the cardinal continued, they are "even more pronounced" in preaching and catechesis "than in strictly theological literature".

5. In the winter of 1982-83, the London Catholic weekly The Tablet, ran a series of articles on the meaning of the Second Vatican Council called The Vatican II Revolution. When the present writer suggested to the editor that a revolution means replacing what exists by something altogether different and that this was not the Council's object, he continued to insist that the word "revolution" accurately described the Council's work. Oxford English Dictionary definition of revolution: "complete change, turning upside down, great reversal of conditions, fundamental reconstruction, esp. forcible substitution by subjects of a new ruler or policy for the old".

6. It should be said in fairness that in the period following the Council, many bishops.
and many priests later to become bishops, were put through updating courses by experts, often either heterodox or confused themselves.

7. There seems to be reason to think that at the time of the Council the highest authorities were persuaded that had Luther not been excommunicated, the reformation would never have happened. A little more dialogue and Luther and his followers would have returned to the fold. This would explain the handling of Fr. Hans Küng. Ironically. Fr. Küng has shown every sign of wanting to be a new Luther. He has done everything in his power to get himself excommunicated. However the Holy See seems equally determined not to oblige him. He must be a deeply disappointed man.

8. Explaining the new policy over a decade and a half ago, the then secretary of a Roman congregation (now the cardinal prefect of a different one), told the author that, rather than condemning errors, the Holy See today preferred to "swamp errors with truth", or in the words of John Paul II to Andre Frossard, allow "error to destroy itself" (Catholic World Report, Nov. 1995). This is simply an extension of Pope John's principle "it is better to use the means of mercy than of condemnation". Most Catholics thought Pope John was talking about its use at the Council. They did not realise the principle would continue to be applied more or less indefinitely. However, Cardinal Ratzinger has thrown the clearest light on the origins of the new policy in his Principles of Catholic Theology (Ignatius Press, 1987, p. 229: German original, 1982). After speaking of the "great tension and turmoil" in the Church, of the demand by many of the faithful for "a clear drawing of lines", and the inability of "the Pope and bishops as yet to decide in favour of such an action", he attributes it to "the resentment that has grown up in the last half century because of innumerable faulty decisions, and above all because of the  too narrow handling of Church discipline (in the past)", a resentment he describes as "like an inward-growing boil on the ecclesial conscience" that "has created an allergy to condemnation, from which we can more readily expect an increase of the ill than its cure". As to whether truth will succeed in swamping error in the long run, the cardinal confines himself to the cautious statement "we shall have to see whether . . . this approach to discipline in matters of doctrine can serve as a model for the future."

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Copyright © Philip Trower 2003, 2017

Version: 7th March 2017

This book was originally published by Family Publications which has now ceased trading. The copyright has reverted to the author, Philip Trower who has given permission for this book to be placed on this website.

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Reflections on Scripture