Home Page

Book Information

Reflections on Scripture

Back to Contents Page

Chapter Four

Before we move on, a word needs to be said about the terms "liberal" and "conservative", "progressive" and "traditionalist". Their use and abuse have contributed to the confusion too. Taken from politics, they have to do with change. Should there be much, or little, or none at all?

If "conservatism" only meant conserving what is good, and "liberalism" only changing what is bad or welcoming the good in what is new, every man and woman should and probably would be both conservative and liberal. But which of the many things that history has handed down or new times have presented are good and which bad? This is where the disagreements begin.

In the early days of the Council, the application of the two terms to describe the differing approaches of the participants still bore some relationship to what was happening. Things instituted or permitted by the Church under its authority to "bind and loose" — prayers, practices, methods of government or ways of presenting its teaching — can change, and there can be legitimate differences of opinion about what will be beneficial.

On the other hand, the idea that there can be "progressive" and "conservative" opinions about what God has revealed is on a level with thinking there can be "progressive" and "conservative" views about lying, the circulation of the blood, or the date of Napoleon's death.

When, therefore, it became apparent that there were two subjects of debate, not one, the first about reform, the second about belief, and that a proportion of the reformers were not reformers but religious revolutionaries, terms like "liberal" and “conservative", "progressive" and "traditionalist" became not only inadequate but positively misleading. In fact, the debates were often three-, four-, or five-way ones.

Take, for example, the simplification of the prayers of the Mass and the introduction of the vernacular. Bishop A, we will say, favoured change because he genuinely believed it would help the faithful understand and take part in the Mass more fruitfully, Bishop B because it would make the Mass sound more like a simple memorial meal of bread and wine, which is what he had now come to believe the Mass is, while Bishop C, though not in principle opposed to the vernacular and a degree of simplification, opposed the initiatives of Bishop B and his followers because he rightly suspected them of  trying to introduce a Protestant conception of the Mass, and Bishop D was against change because he believed the liturgy of the Mass to be satisfactory as it was.

This partly explains the uneven tenor of many passages in the conciliar decrees. It is normal for there to be different schools of thought and conflicts at a general council. It is different when the integrity of the faith becomes an issue.

Among those calling themselves Catholics today there are in fact not two but three recognizable bodies of belief or opinion. First, there are Catholics in the hitherto universally recognised sense; they accept all the Church's teachings. Then come the modernists or semi-modernists dedicated to altering some aspect of faith or morals. We can also call them innovators or dissenters. It seems the politest name consistent with accuracy. Finally, there are the followers of the French Archbishop, Marcel Lefebvre.

Circulating around, between or within these more consolidated groups are vast numbers of clergy and laity, Catholic in intention no doubt, but whose uncertain beliefs and wavering loyalties make them, in regard to belief at least, difficult to classify. After nearly 35 years of pick-and-choose religious instruction, many have been turned into either neo-Episcopalians (a liking for dignified worship is retained but each believes as much or as little as he chooses); praying Bible-reading Protestants; secularised "democratised" activists; adherents of a trivialised psychologised religion of togetherness with only two doctrines — "God loves you" and "everybody is basically nice"; or a mixture of two or more of these different "faiths". 1

Catholics in the recognised sense can be known by their willingness to follow the teaching of the successor of St. Peter. Why did Christ give St. Peter and his successors their special position if not for just such a situation? But though one in belief and obedience, they are often divided about how the reforms should be applied in practice when this has not been clearly laid down by Rome; or about the kind of accommodations with the times that are wise or possible. They may also feel different degrees of enthusiasm for the reforms. Disagreements of this sort can be partly a matter of temperament.2

In this area, talk about "progressives" and "conservatives" still makes some kind of sense

However, while some of those described by the media as "conservative" may be motivated largely by dislike of change, the majority are chiefly concerned with preventing change being used to alter belief.

At the same time, priests anxious to implement the Council's teaching as fully as they can are sometimes called "progressive" with the possible implication that they are unorthodox, when they are not.

The difficulty here is that neighbouring parish priests making the same changes, and therefore all called "progressive", may have different motives. The first may have removed the altar rails because he wants to make the distinction between clergy and laity less sharp, the second because he no longer believes there is any distinction. The activities of a third may be a mixture of authentic implementations of the reforms, and initiatives unconsciously inspired by heterodox influences. So even in connection with believing Catholics, the words "progressive" and "conservative" tend to be ambiguous.

In the modernist or innovating camp — the second body of belief or opinion — there is no absolute unity of belief. The only unifying factors are opposition to Rome, and the conviction that many of the Church's teachings can no longer mean what they appear to mean and must be altered accordingly.

The crucial conflict is between these first two groups, the Catholics and the theological innovators, about the very substance of Catholic belief, not about legitimately different ways of interpreting and implementing the Council. It is a struggle which varies in intensity from region to region. Where orthodox bishops and clergy have the upper hand it may be barely noticeable. But wherever it goes on, however confusedly and obscurely, it takes place at every level — parish, school, university, diocese, religious order, even within the Roman curia.

Our third body of belief or opinion, the followers of the late French Archbishop Lefebvre, represents, by comparison, a kind of skirmishing on the perimeter. Beginning as a justifiable attempt to resist modernism, Lefebvrism went off the rails largely, I would say, because so many authorised guardians of the faith did little or nothing to protect it.

Scandalised by their negligence, the Lefebvrist reaction could be summed up as: "since change and heresy came in together, change nothing. Stick to tradition." However, they include under "tradition", not only what has always been believed or was instituted by Christ (Tradition in the strict sense, or with a big "T", which is indeed unchangeable), but a great deal of what, however good in itself, the Church does have power to modify or adapt (tradition in the looser sense — tradition with a small "t"). Fidelity to the old liturgy became the focus of their opposition to change, because the new liturgy was instantly seized upon by the innovators as their principal instrument for altering belief at the parish level.

The fact that Pope Paul singled out Archbishop Lefebvre for disciplinary action while leaving uncensored cardinals and bishops tolerating rampant heresies, inevitably increased traditionalist suspicions, hardened their opposition, and drove them increasingly to question the Council as such? 3

However, the idea that, as a schismatic "rebellion of the right", Lefebvrism is a danger to the Church comparable in size and importance to the modernist "rebellion of the left" does not remotely correspond with the facts.

Confusion is compounded by the use of the term "traditionalist". The Lefebvrists regard themselves as or call themselves "traditionalists". But so often do Catholics who remain obedient to the Pope but attached to the old liturgy and doubtful about the wisdom or necessity of most of the reforms.

Under these circumstances, talk about "liberals" and "conservatives", "progressives" and "traditionalists", though difficult to avoid altogether, has worked almost exclusively to the advantage of the innovators.

Giving the impression, as it does, that there is only one subject under debate (reform), with only two parties to it, the innovators are able to pass themselves off as merely an "extreme left" of the reform party whose attempts to alter the meaning of belief are a legitimate contribution to aggiornamento, while branding as a "conservative" anyone who opposes those attempts, the Pope included. What else can the Pope be but a "conservative" if they are merely "liberals"? What the Church has taught for twenty centuries on the one hand, and what modernism now says those teachings mean on the other, are made to appear as equally valid versions of the Catholic faith, to either of which Catholics may assent. Defending the traditional meaning of the Church's teachings is merely the peculiarity of one brand of Catholics, the "conservative" brand, while altering their meaning is a legitimate "liberal" or "progressive" alternative.

I shall, therefore, make as little use of these terms as possible. The word "liberal" when it does appear will have its long-established sense. It will refer to Catholics who since the beginning of the 19th century have been anxious to have the Church approve as much as she can in contemporary life, and allow the greatest degree of freedom compatible with the maintenance of belief. For those who want to alter belief, I will mainly use the term "dissenters".

Returning for a moment to the fully believing Catholics, the weakness of their opposition to false teaching has certainly been another reason for the rebellion's successes. With many, this may be due to lack of interest. But it is also, I think, to be explained by habit, training and belief.

They know that obedience to lawful authority is a virtue. Their religion also tells them to be charitable and not to judge. All this makes them fearful of sinning against these virtues. The "other side" plays on these susceptibilities  to undermine their resistance. They want, too, as the saying goes to "think with the mind of the Church". They recognise in a general way the possibilities for good in the reforms. But in the prevailing confusion it is often all but impossible for them to discover precisely what the mind of the Church is; to distinguish between genuine and spurious interpretations of the decrees; or when faced with some change, to determine whether it really has the backing of Rome or not. The Catholic press will not enlighten them. The greater part has accepted the dissenters' interpretation of the Council, or performs a balancing act, trying to please all comers.

Such are the circumstances in which the Church has for 35 years been trying to implement the Second Vatican Council's decrees.

By now, whatever it is considered can be done by external means has been done. The practical adaptations have been made. And among orthodox Catholics scattered about the world — though they are not usually those who speak loudest about reform or renewal   — there are signs that the Council's true work is beginning to bear fruit. A genuine spiritual revival seems to be underway. The signs are chiefly noticeable in the new lay, or lay and priestly religious communities founded in the 20th century, some before the Council, but also growing numbers since. There are also many conversions in Africa and countries like Korea.

But in most of the West these new beginnings are like the first shoots of plant life in early spring held back by the persisting frosts and the debris littering the ground after a succession of hurricanes. The number of outsiders that the reforms have succeeded in attracting to the Church is still small compared with the numbers of the faithful whom revolution and dissent have been sweeping away from Catholic belief.

For any Pope, the situation would plainly require the most delicate handling. John Paul II's estimate of it, like Pius XII's over Hitler and the Jews, would seem to be that strong measures — however much apparently the right thing — would at this point only make matters worse. For nearly thirty-five years the Church has been living with the beginnings of a second reformation. Can he defuse the bomb without detonating it? Can he detach errant bishops from the rebel theologians, with whom so many of them seem to be in love? Can the rebel theologians be drawn back before irrevocable breaks with Rome?

How many, too, of the straying laity can he recover? How many can he persuade to listen to him rather than to the rebels? The principal purpose of his many journeys abroad would seem to be get at the people where necessary over the heads of the local theological establishment.

At the same time he is clearly determined to let it be seen that combating the abuses and false teaching does not mean putting the Council into the lumber room. This is not just a matter of tactics. He is in every sense a "man of the Council", by which I mean an unquestionable believer in its value and importance, as anyone realises who knows the part he played at the Council or has read his Sources of Renewal, written for the guidance of his priests when he was Archbishop of Krakow. One knows of no other bishop who made such conscientious efforts to understand what God wanted from the Council and to apply it.

His numerous sermons and addresses can be seen as a catechism course for the whole Church, anchoring the new orientations and initiatives in the bed rock of traditional Catholic belief so that they no longer float about in an ocean of modernist and semi-modernist ambiguities. 4

The Catechism of Catholic Church (CCC) has the same purpose. Requested by Cardinal Law at the end of the 1985 Synod to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the closing of Vatican II, it first appeared in French in 1992, to be followed by an official Latin version in 1997. 5 Ever since the Council, modernists had opposed the composition of such a catechism. A catechism, of its very nature, limits private interpretation.

Although the conflict is far from over, with the publication of the Catechism the Church could be said to have won the second round in its struggle with modernism.

The question that now faces us is why large numbers of the faithful surrendered so rapidly to the siren songs of the innovators.

Notes to Chapter Four

1. According to a German poll in the mid-1980s. 23% of German Catholics regard papal decisions as binding, and 64% are said to regard them as binding when they agree with them! (Allensbach Institute Poll, cited by The Tablet, 7th Dec. 1985).

2. Practices which are changeable in principle may nevertheless be important safeguards of belief. The abandonment throughout most of the West, for instance, of Corpus Christi and May processions — often rather snobbishly referred to as "popular devotions —  have contributed to the weakening of belief in the Real Presence and the intercessory power of Our Lady.

3. In 1976 Pope Paul suspended the Archbishop a divinis, that is from the exercise of his priestly and episcopal powers, for ordaining more priests after he had been ordered to close his seminary. He was already well known for his opposition to the liturgical reforms and questioning of the conciliar decree on religious liberty. His excommunication  in the summer of 1988 was the result of his illegal consecration of four bishops to carry on his work after his death. Under canon law, any bishop who consecrates another bishop against the command of the reigning pope is automatically excommunicated. Modernist animosity towards the archbishop is due to his having been responsible during the Council for checking a number of their more questionable initiatives. He also represented a French right-wing socio-political tradition opposed to the "left-inclining-socio-political views of the French reformers.

4. In January 1985 he began his extended series of addresses on the Creed, now published in book form (six volumes) by Pauline Press, Boston, Mass.

5. Cardinal Law would appear to have been responding to the wishes of the Pope. According to the Jesuit editor of a U.S. periodical, there had been requests for a new catechism incorporating the teachings of Vatican II at every episcopal synod in Rome from 1974. But not until 1985 did Rome feel it had enough episcopal support to take action. The editor in question had reported every Synod since 1974.


Back to Contents Page

Copyright © Philip Trower 2003, 2017

Version: 11th March 2017


Home Page

Book Information

Reflections on Scripture