WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?
We have returned almost to the point where we began — the turmoil which broke out in the wake of Vatican II, which we compared to a sieve, separating the life-giving from the toxic elements in modern thought and in the reform party's agenda.
We could also compare it to a water filter. From the moment Pope John announced his plans for a Council, the faithful were deluged with a flood of ideas and opinions from theologians, scholars and writers of every description about what needed to be done, how the faith should be re-presented, or which elements of modern thought could safely be taken on board.
In so far as they were channelled through the conciliar decrees, or the Holy See's subsequent instructions about the way the decrees were to be understood, these ideas could be called "safe to drink" or swim in. But most of the flood-tide — whether conveyed in books, articles, lectures, sermons or workshops — swept around and over the filter plant, carrying the bulk of the Western faithful along with it into a vast uncharted ideological and theological lagoon, where the majority are still, spiritually, floundering or swimming. As a visible entity, they are held together by the boundaries of parish and diocese, but internally their beliefs can vary as widely as the species of the animal, insect, reptile and bird kingdoms. What they believe as individuals depends largely on which group of free-wheeling theologians or religious writers has most influenced them.
In examining the origins of this state of affairs, I hope I have managed to throw at least some light on how and why it all happened.
Symptoms of genuine renewal in the Western world, as I mentioned earlier, are chiefly to be seen in the "new movements". But Christ did not intend the Church to be a federation of movements. Movements and religious orders have always played an auxiliary role — by prayer, preaching, example and good works — to raise the spiritual level of the Church as a whole. Renewal only fully takes off when it begins to touch dioceses and parishes, and that presupposes a renewal of the episcopate of the kind brought about in the 16th and 17th centuries through the agency of great saints like St. Philip Neri, St. Charles Borromeo and his cousin Federico. A striking example of what can be achieved by a bishop truly faithful to his vocation are the reforms carried out by Pope John Paul II when he was Archbishop of Krakow. If the number of his imitators or equals in the West is not yet large, hope for the future lies in there being more and more of them
The hurdles immediately confronting the Church are: the growing pressure for ordaining women and making homosexual practice morally allowable; an ecumenism oriented almost exclusively towards liberal Protestants, which prizes togetherness above truth; and a revival of the plans scotched by Paul VI to cut down papal authority and transfer the bulk of it to national episcopal conferences. Each conference, it is thought, will then be free to adapt the faith to meet local majority demands. 1
There then remains the question, what does it all mean? Granted that God was not altogether satisfied with us as we were in the period before the Council, and that he required adjustments of some kind in our behaviour and thinking, why did he allow what he wanted to be said, to be written and presented to his people in a way that was almost certain to mislead large numbers of them? Why did he allow a flock of heterodox theologians to become to a great extent the most influential interpreters of the Council and its new orientations?
I suppose most of my readers have asked themselves this question at some time. As for myself, the only answer I can find is that, in the mystery of God's designs, the Council had a double purpose.
The main and long-term purpose, I suggest, was to lay down guidelines for an eventual renewal which would smooth the path for the newcomers of all nations and races who are going to come across the Church in the first centuries of the third millennium. These newcomers are going to be unlike any potential converts the Church has ever encountered before.
Let me explain. Through its formidable scientific, technical and scholarly achievements, the West is rapidly destroying all other cultures from the roots up. The attractions of Western know-how and the wealth that has so far accompanied its achievements, appear, for great masses of the world's populations, to be proving irresistible. But adopting a Western life-style, and still more a Western education, is next to impossible without imbibing a good measure of the philosophical ideas and mental attitudes on which the West's successes have to a great degree depended.
I believe that, once its members are exposed to Western industrial development and adopt a Western middle-class outlook, then every religion, Islam included, is going to have a modernist crisis — and it will be much tougher for them than for Christianity. Not only are the grounds for Christian belief more solid, but Christianity is much better equipped to cope with the Western spirit of rational inquiry, partly because it helped to give birth to it and has always been glad to use it.
This means that a high percentage of the 21st century's men and women of non-European origin are going to be children by adoption of the European Enlightenment, and to be a child of the Enlightenment means taking on board a whole lot of Christian ideas and attitudes uprooted from their Christian soil and replanted in secular or atheistic earth. The Enlightenment, having developed out of a centuries-old Christian civilisation, has, I believe, to be seen as a secularised Christian heresy. Because of this, they are not going to be like people meeting Christianity for the first time. They are going to be quasi ex-Christians without even knowing it. With their Western education they will have imbibed not only uprooted and distorted Christian ideas, but the typical Western secularist's incomprehension of Christianity, and many of his prejudices against it too.
That, I believe, is why it was necessary for the Church to embark on the wide-ranging aggiomamento initiated by Pope John and given its guidelines by the Second Vatican Council. It was necessary, if for no other reason, so that non-Westerners can understand how much of what they have absorbed from the West, and now take for granted, is compatible with the faith, how much conflicts with it, and how much is actually Christian in origin. It was necessary, too, for the sake of the majority of contemporary Westerners who are now ignorant about the origin of most of the ideas they live by and assume to be self-evident. As for the surviving Christians, they need this knowledge to equip them for their task as evangelists to these hosts of quasi ex-Christians.
This, I believe, was the Council's main or long-term purpose, which will not, I think, be fully understood until most of those who took part in it, and their immediate successors, have gone to their reward.
It would be unjust and ungenerous not to give the reformers credit for having seen that the work needed to be done, and for having prepared the ground for it. Nor can the fact that a proportion of them fell into heresy in the process be blamed fairly on the party as a whole or used as grounds for dismissing the work as unnecessary. But, like the generality of reformers, in their eagerness to make their ideas prevail, they tended to exaggerate the gravity of the defects they meant to correct, and as a result created new imbalances, which have proved to be far more dangerous.
Their chief weakness, it soon became obvious, was their too uncritical admiration of the beauties and virtues of modernity. But it was this very modernity about which, shortly after the Council was over, the modern world itself began to have serious doubts, many of its younger members abandoning political engagement for transcendental meditation, and Western efficiency for hippy impracticality.
The reformers' lack of balance in this respect is what so often made them, and even more their followers, such poor judges of what it was important to preserve from the Church's past life and culture, and also as regards matters of faith and morals. It is not that one would want them to have condemned modern life in toto, rather to have had a greater sense of proportion about it.
This, I would say, is why the People of God have had to suffer so painfully while on the operating table. The operation was necessary. But the Divine Surgeon had to use instruments which — with some distinguished exceptions — were neither fine nor sharp enough. They seem not to have seen that the "eternal man", who lives under the skin of every man and woman who has ever existed, or will ever exist, can never be satisfied with modernity as such, except in a superficial way.
It is the voice of eternal man that we hear whenever the psalms are sung or recited. If it were not so, there would be no point in wearying God's ears with them; we could not make the psalmist's words and sentiments our own. It is the crimes, follies and miseries of the eternal man which we read about every day when we pick up the tabloids. They are essentially the same as those of Joseph's eleven brothers and Potiphar's wife. Karl Barth used to talk about the "strange world of the Bible". But the Bible will only seem strange to people who think that, with modernity, a new kind of human being has come into existence. Nothing but a similar myopia on the part of the reformers can explain the eagerness of so many of them to try to force-feed poor modern man with more and more of the kind of stuff that, in the depths of his soul, he already half-loathed even while he was wallowing in it.
If the Church, which is chiefly concerned with the eternal man, has adjusted her tone of voice or mode of expression from time to time throughout history, it is only so that her message can more easily penetrate the carapace of modernity in which the eternal man is forever encased, and resonate in those depths of his being which never alter. This is the sole reason why "modernity" as such has to be taken into account. In itself, modernity is always a passing phenomenon, the greater part of it being a matter of fads and fashions, as we can see from the speed with which particular fashions become unfashionable. Increases in knowledge do not alter the eternal man either. They can usefully enlarge his understanding of particular aspects of the things he studies. But they can equally fill him with illusions about himself, which hide from him the needs of his deepest being.
As with "modern man", so it was too often with the reformers' assessment of the "modern world". The modern world meant of course the industrialised Western world and, for the reasons we have just explained, it was important to clarify the Church's role in relation to its aims and ambitions. Unfortunately, many of those engaged in the undertaking ended by giving the impression that the modern world's aims and ambitions were all but identical with those of the Church. As a result, St. Augustine's vision of history as, at the deepest level, a battle between the forces of good and evil, has all but vanished from the faithful's consciousness, to be replaced by the conviction that personal salvation is not a matter of any consequence, and that there are no serious obstacles to building a better world together with men who hold radically different views about what "better" means. 3
It is imbalances like these which have so far delayed the full realisation of what I have suggested was the Council's long-term purpose.
But it was first to have an immediate or short-term purpose. Before the desired renewal could take place, God was going to subject his people to a test. By letting loose a flock of heterodox theologians and scholars who gave an alternative interpretation of the Council's teaching — an interpretation differing in major respects from that of the Church — the secrets of hearts were to be revealed. Which did his people want? God's version of the conciliar teaching, mediated in the final resort through his Vicar, or a modernist or semi-modernist version?
That has been the test for the majority of Catholics throughout the West. But, in one way or another, all of us, I believe, are being tested, regardless of rank, inclination or shade of opinion.
It is right to feel an abhorrence for heresy. It was the mark, as we saw Newman noting, of the faithful of the fourth century in their resistance to Arianism.The faith has to be defended. But there are better and worse ways of doing it, and if one is not careful, love of the Church and faith can become entangled with natural bellicosity or the spirit of domination. We can forget that our opponents need prayers more than maledictions. In our eagerness to stop an abuse or establish a truth, we can find ourselves unintentionally demanding or requiring more than the Church herself demands, or denigrating something which God wants promoted, even if it is not being done always or everywhere in the way that he wishes. The grace that we most need to pray for is the gift of discernment.
When will the test stop? No one can say. All we do know is that, after the outbreak of any major heresy in the Church, it is quite usual to find both Catholics and those who have adopted the new ideas living jumbled together in what appears to be the same fold for several generations, before things sort themselves out. It happened in the Roman empire in the fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth centuries, and in Europe for part of the 16th century; and in the 20th-21st century, a comparable state of affairs has been going on for nearly forty years. There will certainly be an end to the situation, because the Church could not survive if she allowed truth and falsehood to have equal rights in her pulpits and seats of learning forever. But exactly when and how unity of belief and stability will be restored is at present impossible to foresee. History and logic seem to allow for one of two possibilities.
There have been occasions when the bulk of those adhering to a new heresy have abandoned it and been absorbed back into the Church. Such was the case with the fourth-century Arians, with the seventh-century monothelites, and with the eighth-century iconoclasts. This is one possibility. But in the instances just mentioned, the state, having first promoted the heresy, after a change of ruler helped to bring it to an end. Today no state regards itself as having such a duty.
The alternative to re-absorption is separation. The dynamism with which all heresies are imbued — they would scarcely succeed without it — ends by carrying their members out of the Church. Once they find they cannot take it over, they set themselves up more or less permanently as a separate entity, as did the Nestorian and Monophysites in the fifth and sixth centuries, the Waldensians in the twelfth century, and the Protestants in the sixteenth. The Church will then break off communion. But long before that, the dissenting body will have shown it had no real desire for communion.
Today the situation is different. The Christian world is already divided into three great bodies (Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant), and in all of them modernism has established itself just as they were beginning to try to reconcile their differences. However, in other respects, the possibilities for the future remain more or less the same. Either the modernist leadership will have a change of heart and let itself be re-absorbed into the parent bodies, or it will continue its efforts to take them over. In the case of the Catholic Church, we believe this second alternative can never succeed and, for the time being, the Orthodox hierarchies and traditional Protestants seem even more resolute in their determination not to be "taken over".
The most likely future would therefore seem to be the emergence of modernism as an independent "fourth denomination", made up of liberal Protestants, ex-Catholics, and anyone else with a taste for a "Christianity" without substance. And this is what actually appears to be happening. Already the World Council of Churches acts as a kind of modernist international headquarters, while much that goes on under the name of ecumenism, in contrast to genuine ecumenism, looks like the coming together not of Christians to discuss their disagreements, but of modernists who already share the same beliefs — even if most of those beliefs consist of denials. Once publicly established as a separate institution and belief system, one can see this new fourth denomination having a longish career as a protégé of Western secular governments — a Western version of the Chinese patriotic church.
But we have not yet reached that point. Nor, I think, is it likely to come soon, if only because, for reasons already explained, the Catholic Church has committed herself to a policy of reconciliation through dialogue for as long as is humanly and supernaturally allowable. 4
This being so, I suggest that anyone over forty will be wise to accept the fact that the present confused situation is the one in which they are going to have to practise their faith for the rest of their lives.
Should this be a cause for nostalgia and regrets? Not, I believe, if we understand our faith properly. The practice of Christianity has never been dependent on ideal political, social or even ecclesiastical conditions. Even in the most unpromising conditions, there is nothing to prevent Christians from doing more fervently the necessary things: loving, praising and thanking God at all times and in all places; deepening our spiritual lives; fulfilling the duties of our state more faithfully; trying to be apostles of our environment; seizing all the opportunities for small acts of charity, mercy, forgiveness and penance that the present circumstances provide in abundance. And if we are tempted to regard all this as not likely to achieve anything of world-shaking importance, we have the teaching and example of the latest saint to be made a doctor of the Church, St.Thérèse of the Child Jesus, to remind us that it is through trifles such as these — or what the world regards as trifles — that, if done with sufficient love, God works major miracles like the salvation of great sinners and the conversion of whole nations.
One of the only two things we know with certainty about the future is that, before Christ comes again, the Gospel must first be preached to all nations; and who can say that that has yet happened to most of the peoples of Asia, except in a rudimentary form? They are the 'islands' referred to in Scripture that are still awaiting Christ's light and his law, and in the fashion I have just described we can contribute to bringing them that light and that law, even if we live in the Bronx or in Bermondsey. Then indeed shall 'many islands be glad'.
Notes to Chapter Twenty-Three
1. See "Battle for the Keys". Inside the Vatican. June-July 2002. The "plans" have been outlined in a four-part series of articles in the Italian clergy magazine Rocca ("The Fortress"), by an influential Italian journalist, author and "Vatican expert", Giancarlo Zizola.
2. Bismarck's Kulturkampf (1871-1878) included the expulsion of religious orders and the imprisonment of several priests and bishops.
3. At the 1999 Synod for Europe, Cardinal Varela of Madrid made a direct connection between the crisis in the Church and interpreting the faith "in a secular way as a strategy for better organising the things of this world" (Challenge, Canada, December 1999).
4. In the fourth century, no one can have cared more about the faith or suffered more at the hands of the Arians than St. Athanasius. But as Newman makes a point of showing in the last chapters of his Arians of the Fourth Century, the saint was conspicuous in his efforts to make it as easy as possible for his one-time opponents in the episcopate to return to the Church.
Copyright © Philip Trower 2003, 2011, 2017
Version: 1st December 2017