Defending Vatican II: Has the Hermeneutic of Continuity Failed?

Before the advent of the papacy of Pope Francis it was possible to view the Church’s reception of the Second Vatican Council as one of creative continuity with the Tradition, derailed for a time in the post conciliar silly season, but now set right by two holy and brilliant popes.  Indeed, while still prefect of the CDF under Pope John Paul, Joseph Ratzinger appealed to just this idea and made a distinction between the “first phase” of the conciliar reception – – a phase characterized by media driven distortions of the Council, and a faithless secularizing among even the clergy themselves – – and the “second phase” of conciliar reception which had been initiated by John Paul – – a phase characterized by faithfulness to both the Tradition and the particular conciliar project of renewal.  And then, as Pope Benedict XVI, he continued this retrieval of the Council in its second phase, doubling down on what John Paul had accomplished while also adding his own unique theological voice to the retrieval.  For a time, therefore, the so-called “hermeneutic of continuity” had apparently prevailed over the “hermeneutic of rupture” that had dominated the theological landscape in the first phase of the conciliar reception.  Rahner was out. Balthasar was in.  The Council had been saved from the pottery chalice and denim vestments crowd of Catholic, Zen Master, Reiki massage therapist, innovators. Or so it seemed…

But something has changed with the arrival of the papacy of Pope Francis.  Some now argue that what we are witnessing is a third phase of conciliar reception, wherein many aspects of the Council which were downplayed or ignored by the two previous popes are now being retrieved for the first time.  A new narrative is emerging that views the papacies of John Paul and Benedict as actually being reactionary betrayals of the Council’s true spirit, betrayals which we must now reject as post-conciliar hiccups or blips on the ecclesiastical radar.  They were just the last gurgling, gasps of the moribund conservative Church, we are told, and now that we have a truly progressive Pope we can finally begin the process of implementing the Council.  We now have a “true pastor” at the Church’s helm who understands the need to accommodate our moral theology to the diaphanous subjectivity of the individual conscience as well as the need to focus on mercy rather than fixate on the arcane and alienating debates over “true doctrine”.  The hermeneutics of rupture has returned, if it indeed ever really went away (more on that in a bit), and the path is now clear to implement the Free Church Catholicism of white, suburban, bourgeois, comfort.  Fatima is out.  Our Lady of the cul de sac is in. The Church of the pharisees is dead!  The Church of the people is finally here! Bring out the fatted liturgical dancers and let’s “do” liturgy ….

Strangely, this emerging narrative finds an ally in the growing termite mound of Catholic traditionalists who agree with the hermeneutics of rupture and who maintain, along with their heroic champion Archbishop Vigano, that Vatican II was a monumental mistake that needs to be either radically corrected or entirely suppressed.  They too view the papacies of John Paul and Benedict as, collectively, a desperate and failed attempt to put lipstick on the conciliar pig.  They too view the Councilin both its spirit and in its letter, as a rupture with the great Tradition. In this regard they are even more radical than the progressives who see in the “letter” of the Council nothing but compromise with the very reactionary forces that the Council wanted to overcome. Hence their constant appeals to the “spirit” of the Council as an “event” that transcended the actual documents themselves, which can now be safely ignored.  The Traditionalists go even further and view the “spirit” of the Council as a conspiratorial plot by modernists and Freemasons to deliberately plant ambiguities and outright theological errors in the actual documents of the Council for later exploitation.  Furthermore, they direct their bilious rhetoric at the very heart of the conciliar project, with four main areas of irritation in particular:  Liturgy, religious freedom, ecumenism, and interreligious dialogue.  And of course, what I am describing are views shared by those traditionalists who are still in some kind of “communion” with Rome, however attenuated it might be, owing to their visceral rejection of Pope Francis.  But one must also keep in mind that this rejection of the Conciliar project in those four areas is also the longstanding view of the SSPX, as well as the far-Right, fringe, sedevacante Covens.  In other words, traditionalist worlds are colliding, and the full extent of the fallout has yet to make itself clear.

Nevertheless, the overall dynamics of what is happening here is really rather transparent.  A large segment of the conservative Catholic movement, disgruntled by the Francis papacy, has peeled off of the mainstream and veered into a practical alliance with the SSPX.  And the internet, clickbait purveyors of this movement have seized upon this conservative disaffection with Francis in order to gin-up a never-ending apocalyptic boil of conspiracies and scandals.  From allegations of repressed Fatima secrets to lurid details of the sexual habits of the Roman curia, we are inundated daily with “The Late Great Catholic Church” narrative of The Great Apostasy.  And in all of this they also constantly sneer at those “conservative” Catholics (such as Bishop Robert Barron, their bete noire) who continue to wallow in the mud of “continuity”. The traditionalists pride themselves on having showered off the muck of Vatican II with the pristine holy water of the grand Tradition from Trent to Pascendi.  Their writings and podcasts are a festering stew of unsubstantiated insinuations and the illogic of guilt by association. Their flat-earth theology is a self-contradicting appeal to the authority of previous popes and Councils in order to denigrate modern popes and Councils. Pope John Paul is out.  Archbishop Lefebvre is in.  So grab your Vigano bobbleheads fellas, and your “I hate Pachamama” emoji buttons, and let’s meet at the Tiber with our Freemason detector kits, stowed neatly under our MAGA hats.

Thus, the battle lines are drawn between the progressive champions of rupture, the traditionalist affirmation of the same (but from different motives), and those ressourcement thinkers who continue to insist that the Council has been misinterpreted and needs to be retrieved properly in continuity with the great Tradition even as doctrine is organically developed to meet modern challenges.  However, far from being a “third phase” of conciliar reception what we are instead witnessing is a return to the exact same contours of the debate that framed the first phase.  What is new here that we have not already seen going all the way back to the 1970’s?  In a word, nothing.  These are the same tiresome debates and the same protagonists that we saw in phase one, which is why the proponents of rupture have to discredit the papacies that supposedly put those debates to rest, rather than organically developing something new building on the achievements of John Paul and Benedict. What we are dealing with today are unreconstructed post Vatican II liberals and traditionalists who have returned with a renewed vengeance.  At age 62 I spent my formative years in the immediate aftermath of the Council.  And as a seminarian from 1978-1985 I experienced the full and fierce range of the internal ecclesiastical debates that were then raging between progressives, Lefevbre supporters, neo-scholastic restorationists, and the ressourcement proponents of continuity.  Based on that experience, and now armed with the insights gained from a career spent in the theological guild, I can only say that to me this is just deja vu all over again. 

What we are currently enduring therefore is not a natural and organic development of a true “third phase”, but rather, the reemergence and re-empowering of movements that never really went away.  In many ways the papacies of John Paul and Benedict were indeed “failures” insofar as the fractious divisions were never really healed, but merely glossed over with the thin patina of Roman teaching authority.  As a young theologian attending theological conferences at such venues as the annual meetings of the College Theology Society and the Catholic Theological Society of America I was dismayed to see that the guild was still dominated by the progressive wing of this divide. And this domination was not exercised charitably with a “big tent” view of the theological craft, but in a suffocating way that attempted to block the careers of anyone who dared challenge the reigning liberal orthodoxies.  When I expressed this dismay to many of my older peers who shared my concerns, I was told to bite my tongue and wait for the inevitable change that was on the horizon.  I was told that there was a new wave of “John Paul generation” lay Catholics and theologians who would soon displace the old guard of rigid and doctrinaire liberals.  Theological liberalism, I was told, was not self-replicating and would soon die out under the weight of its own hermeneutic of suspicion that undermined any reason for believing in the Church in the first place.

I didn’t believe them.  Yes, there were indeed a few younger theologians who could be described as John Paul Catholics.  But I trusted my own eyes and realized that their numbers were too few to engage in the renewal that I was promised was coming.  And as a professor who taught mostly undergraduates I saw little evidence that my students were on the cusp of a renewed vigor in the faith or that they were seeking a robust revival of Catholic living.  I believed then, as I believe now, to paraphrase Andrew Breitbart, that religion is downstream of culture and that the same cultural forces that created the post Vatican II divisions were not only not gone, but had intensified into a raging anti-Catholic storm.  I knew that the old divisions were still there, that the theological guild was still dominated by progressives, and that the average Catholic was no more prepared to buck the culture than they were in 1965. In short, the papacies of John Paul and Benedict did not sufficiently move the ecclesiastical needle in the right direction, leading me to conclude that we were only one progressive Pope away from the return of the old gods.

And that brings me to Pope Francis and the question that animates this essay.  In the light of the current papacy has the hermeneutic of continuity failed?  The answer to that question is a maddening “yes and no” type of response.  First, there is the issue of Pope Francis himself whose words, despite his sometimes loose, off the cuff comments, speak to an endorsement of a hermeneutic of continuity.  He has said that he is a “loyal son of the Church” and there is no reason to doubt this when one looks at the long list of progressive wishes he has not granted:  the discipline of mandatory celibacy for priests stands, the ordination of women to Holy Orders has not happened, he has not rolled-back or even “modified” the teaching against artificial contraception, he has not granted in an official way intercommunion with non-Catholic Christians, he has not rolled back Benedict’s permission for any priest to be able to celebrate the Traditional Latin Mass, and he has not changed the Church’s teaching on homosexuality or changed, as he did with the death penalty, the language of the Catechism which refers to homosexual acts as “intrinsically disordered.”  It would seem, therefore, that he is not on board with the agenda of the progressives even if he has gone slightly beyond John Paul on the issue of the death penalty and he has softened the Church’s pastoral response to those who are divorced and remarried.  This latter point is instructive since he could have merely changed the Eucharistic discipline of the Church in this matter but chose instead to simply “tweak” it a bit.  And you can quibble with my use of the word “tweak” if you like, but the main point I am making here is that he fell far short of what the progressive wing of the Church wanted in that matter.

However, he is a truly confusing Pope and very hard to pigeon-hole in any definitive way.  And even if he has not delivered to the progressives their full laundry list of desired changes he has re-empowered and emboldened them with his constant pitting of truth against mercy, doctrine against pastoral sensitivity, and “institutional rules” against love. Furthermore, he has appointed to high ecclesiastical office men who have just this mentality and who seem to have an animus against those Catholics who are actively and publicly engaged in what has come to be known as the “culture wars.”  He has refused to meet with the dubia Cardinals, or Cardinal Zen when he visited Rome, but had plenty of time to meet with NBA players to discuss the issue of systemic racism.  And, of course, the entire Synod on the Amazon was simply a coming out party for old, white, liberal, Germans who proceeded to cynically use the troubles of the Amazonian region, which they really don’t give a damn about, to blather on about enculturation and celibacy as if Brazil was Belgium in 1968. His post apostolic exhortation on the Synod was a tepid and empty endorsement of absolutely nothing beyond superficial bromides about economic injustice.  Conservatives cheered and sneered after the release of the exhortation since it seemed, in its silence, to be a papal slap-down to the progressives who manipulated the Synod into a group-hug for paganism, but in reality it was a vacuous document that makes one wonder what in the heck he thought would happen after he had stacked the synodal deck with a gaggle of Germanic Gnostics.  

In short, Pope Francis seems to sympathize with the progressive wing of the Church but does not have, in my view, a deep enough understanding of what their project really entails. He seems to have the mistaken view that Catholic liberals in 2020 are the same as liberals in 1958, and seems genuinely disappointed when they behave more like secular critical theory provocateurs rather than Yves Congar.  His whole thought-world seems to be that of a man who thinks the Church is still this insulated, neo-scholastic “fortress” whose walls need to be battered down, even as he stands astride their rubble.  He is fighting yesterday’s battles which underscores my point that we are most definitely not in a “third phase” of conciliar reception, but have instead been teleported by this papacy back to 1965 forcing those of us in the ressourcement camp to relitigate a case that was decided, with magisterial authority, by the previous two popes.  Perhaps this has been his end game all along.  Perhaps he is not as naïve as I think.  Perhaps he wants to reopen that case precisely because he wants it adjudicated differently but does not want to be the presiding judge, allowing “drift” to accomplish what papal fiat cannot. He is, after all, a Jesuit.

Nevertheless, and whatever the case might be with regard to Pope Francis, the fractious fault lines of the Church are the same today as they were 60 years ago.  Therefore, those of us who are defenders of Vatican II as being in continuity with the past need to tighten our belts, stand up straight, take a deep breath, and say “Ok. Where were we? Let’s start again then shall we?” It is frustrating in a way similar to when one of my students would ask “Dr. Chapp, could you please explain again how Nicaea taught that Jesus was just a man and not really God?”  At that point you have a choice: either give up in defeated resignation, or begin again to rearticulate what seems to many of us to be obvious, but is not, apparently, to a host of others. The analogy limps, of course, because my students were genuinely ignorant of the facts, but in the current debate we are dealing with people who actually know the facts but deliberately choose to either ignore or distort them.  That adds to the level of frustration – even anger – – but, as the tired cliché goes – – “it is what it is” and we have to deal with it.  It is the primary reason I started this blog since I refuse to acquiesce or to cede the high ground to the forces of mendaciousness.

One can, therefore, have a measure of sympathy for those modern traditionalists who have moved further and further toward the position of Lefebvre out of an anguished reaction against the ambiguities of the current papacy.  But sympathy with these groups should only extend so far since they are unwittingly playing into the hands of the progressives insofar as they agree with their hermeneutics of rupture.  Sadly, they labor in a world of illusions where they indulge fantasies of a grand restoration of a past that never was.  The Council was absolutely necessary as the Church needed to address the question, so long delayed, of the Church’s relationship with modernity.  One could characterize the first millennium of the Church as a struggle to define who Christ is, and the second millenium as a struggle to define what, and who, the Church is. But the time had come for the Church to further address the issue of who Christ and His Church are for the non-Catholic world at large.  Traditionalists provide no answers to that question beyond a kind of watered-down Feeneyism, and are often uncharitable and mendacious in their own right, as they viciously attack the teaching authority, and those who defend that authority, of the very Church they claim to be defending.  Their approach is highly destructive, today just as it was in 1965, and their acid-fueled hallucinations of a restored Tridentine Catholicism are one bad trip.  Quite simply, they are annoying.

So has the hermeneutic of continuity failed?  The answer is yes, if one defines “success” in this matter as a definitive closure to the debate at hand, wherein most of the pertinent parties agree that the Council was not a rupture with the Tradition, in both letter and spirit, and further agree that the road forward must begin with a robust retrieval of just what it was that the Council actually said.  It is a failure unless all parties agree, as Joseph Ratzinger puts it, that:  “The spirit of the Council is its letter.”  However, at the end of the day, the answer to the above question is a resounding “no!” since the Council itself, in its actual documents (which I doubt most of its critics have read with any serious scrutiny) makes it manifestly clear that it is not in rupture with the past.  To be sure, like all Councils it introduces something new, like Nicaea’s thunder bomb use of the term “homoousios”, but does so quite explicitly in continuity with the past.  For example, Dignitatis Humanaedoes introduce a deepening of the Church’s thinking on the issue of religious freedom, defining it, as the Church had not done before, as a fundamental human right rooted in our common dignity as persons. But it did so not in the categories of political Liberalism, which it pointedly rejects, but rather in Christological categories drawn from the Church’s own treasure house of Revelation. The development is new, but organic, and flows naturally from the awareness that Truth is merely an abstraction if it is divorced from its appropriation in an uncoerced freedom, viewed as its only proper medium of reception.

Therefore, the hermeneutic of continuity has not failed, even if it has not completely succeeded in putting to bed all of its critics and misinterpreters.  But Church history is instructive here as well as we see clearly that all of the truly great Councils – – “great” because they were deciding matters of fundamental importance to the faith – – generated division, and not a little chaos, in their wake.  Just ask Athanasius if he thought the aftermath to Nicaea was a smooth go.  Therefore, as with Nicaea, so here too we must remain as steadfast as Athanasius in seeing that the hermeneutic of continuity is our only true and theologically appropriate path forward.  It alone remains rooted in the historic faith of the Church.  Neither progressive nor traditionalist ideologies will suffice since they are both animated, not by a proper ecclesially oriented theology, but by agendas alien to the faith.  I will be blunt and polemical here. Scratch the surface of a progressive and one uncovers a latently atheistic and nihilistic ethos. Scratch the surface of a traditionalist and one uncovers a latently fascistic romanticism.  Scratch the surface of the Second Vatican Council, and one finds Christ at its center.  Gaudium et Spes 22 contra mundum.   

This is not to say that the Second Vatican Council was perfect or that it is immune from legitimate criticism. No Council ever is.  Even Nicaea generated its share of unresolved Christological ambiguities.  To cite but one example, Vatican II famously called on the Church at large to “read the signs of the times” but then failed to do so properly itself.  Specifically, it grossly overestimated the internal strength and cohesiveness of the Church, and severely underestimated the toxic and anti-Christian nature of modernity.  Centuries of top down censure and clericalistic control had created the false impression that the Church really was this monolithic fortress of fidelity and masked the deep deficiencies in the Church’s internal spiritual life.  For, as I noted above, truth is only such in its fullness when appropriated freely, non-coercively, and with a deep understanding of what is at stake in its reception or rejection. But the combination of ethnic, cultural Catholicism and a dumbing down of the faith through the imposition of a stale orthodoxy that censured all critics, merely created a house of cards that collapsed as soon as Vatican II lifted the lid on the ecclesiastical libido.  Traditionalists never address this issue as they pursue the path of restoring the “glories” of this failed model.

Likewise, the Council simply whiffed on the matter of modernity’s true ethos, emphasizing a vague and ill-defined “openness” to a “world” that is never defined in any specific detail.   And once the windows of the Church were opened, what blew in was not fresh air, but, as Karl Barth famously observed, a hurricane. I disagree, therefore, with Joseph Ratzinger who said that the Council fathers cannot be faulted for not anticipating the great cultural revolution that was upon them.  The signs were indeed there if one could set aside the superficial optimism about the turn to the world that animated many of those at the Council.  Progressive Catholics today go even further and take this conciliar optimism as a green light to completely embrace the de facto secular atheistic ethos of modernity. And insofar as the Council really was overly optimistic about the latent Christian underpinnings of modernity, which the Council seemed to think were just waiting to be unleashed through a renewed “dialogue” with the Church, then it is at least partially to blame for much of the silliness that came later.  

Fortunately, the Council itself provides us with the textual remedies to its own failures to read the signs of the times properly.  And as I said, it is our only fruitful path forward.  The Council’s failures were, in my opinion, largely confined to what it did not say. For example, it did not include a deep enough analysis of the deeply secular philosophical underpinnings of modernity, or that modernity’s origins reside precisely in a fundamental decision to reject the notion of “religion” as something that makes a public claim.  And even where it does deal with that issue, as in its treatment of Marxism, it is overly breezy and superficial.  

Be that as it may, the Council chose to focus on the only answer to the question of modernity that the Church can truly offer as its most treasured possession:  Christ the Lord. In every aspect of the conciliar documents we see a Christological concentration as the Council fathers chose to propose a reform of the Church that is, in reality, a repristination of her fundamentally Christological form.  Like ecclesiastical archeologists they sought to recover the freshness of the Christ of the gospels which had been obscured by the palimpsest of a moribund, neo-scholastic overlay. They developed a deepened Christological theological anthropology that was the basis of a true Christian humanism that alone can combat the false humanisms of modernity.  They developed a renewed ecclesiology deeply rooted in an Incarnational emphasis on the Church as the body of Christ, extended in time.  And they put forward a truly beautiful Marian theology wherein Mary is viewed in her only proper context as the Mother of that same Christologically recentered Church.  The list could go on and on, but the point is made.  Vatican II is a Christological Council and must, therefore, be read in continuity with all previous Christological councils.  

I will conclude with what is to me one of the most overlooked teachings of the Council: the renewed emphasis on the importance of the laity and the universal call to holiness.  Ignoring this aspect of the Council – – or misinterpreting it as a call to eliminate all sacral distinctions between the laity and the clergy – – is a grave oversight since it points to the only true “continuity” that the Church ever needs: sanctity.  What we need are not new “structures” but new saints.  What we need are not new “strategies” or “programs” but new confessional witnesses to the faith by those who live that faith in the intersection between the Church and the world.  In short, and this might seem trite, but it is a profound truth that is too often missed because it is so dadgum obvious:  you cannot have a genuine Catholic renewal without deeply convicted Catholics.  There are no substitutes for holiness as all ecclesial “projects” will crash and burn without it.  

Progressives and Traditionalists place their trust in the chariots of lesser kings.  Vatican II shouts to the world: “Laudetur Iesus Christus!”  Let us all do the same, in saecula saeculorum! Amen.  


In Defense of Vatican II: Religious Freedom and the Insouciant Silliness of the Neo-Integralists

Dr. Larry Chapp

In the interest of full disclosure I begin with an admission.  And that admission is that I am a hopeless Romantic who has read too much Tolkien and who longs to live in the sacral world of Middle Earth with its enchanted woods, priestly wizards, and noble Kings who rule by hereditary right, but who are also invested with a sacramental religious authority.  Beaten down by the unrelenting drab ugliness of modernity, with its dead, flat-lined metaphysics, its bleached, inert, and dead cosmos, its grotesque and elitist surveillance technocracy, its sham democracies, and its pornified view of what our naughty bits are for, I long for a holy Monarch who can, in union with Holy Mother Church, cover the world once again with elves, pixie dust, and good tobacco. 

But alas, we do not live in such a world.  And even Tolkien’s fantasy world is besotted with violence and saturated in blood, mirroring as it does his experiences in World War I, giving eloquent witness to the fact that even an enchanted world must give way to the reality of an ineradicable wickedness in the hearts of the free agents who populate his mythic landscape.  Thus does his world beckon us to the supernatural domain of Transcendence even as it counsels sobriety toward any false nostalgia for a utopian dominion of heroic Kings and the insulated, bucolic world of the Shire – – a world that never was and never will be this side of the eschaton.

The closest we have ever come, perhaps, to Tolkien’s fictional world is the amalgam of faith and civil order in the era of high Christendom.   Political Christendom was an attempt to create a social ordo on earth that mirrored the celestial ordo of Heaven.  Its vision was grandiose and all-encompassing, seeking to conquer the known world for Christ with a zeal for souls.  And its accomplishments are not to be ignored or downplayed.  In theology, philosophy, law, literature, architecture, agricultural technique, science (yes, science), education and visual art, Christendom created an unrivaled synthesis that gave us Dante and Notre Dame, Chaucer and Erasmus, Raphael, Francis, Dominic, Thomas, and a host of other luminaries too numerous to mention. And it also gave us something that is often ignored.  It gave us this thing called “Europe”.

Nevertheless, the political Christendom that reigned in Europe from the fourth to the nineteenth centuries is dead.  In point of fact it actually died centuries ago in the late medieval decline into corruption, with its carcass, like a dead and bloated whale on the beach, slowly eaten away by the carrion of the early modern world.  All that remains of its former glory are the bleached white bones of something long dead, but which still seems to beckon those of a nostalgic bent, like those modern neo-pagans who flock to Stonehenge every solstice to carry torches, dance, and then retire to Starbucks for a latte.  In other words, there is an air of pie-in-the sky play-acting in the writings of the Catholic neo-integralists who must know that the bones of the past are truly lifeless and are most likely to remain so. One can perhaps sympathize with such fantasies since, from a Catholic perspective, there is much to dislike about the modern world.  Nevertheless, there is a grave danger that such nostalgia will blind us to the lessons of history and put us on a course to repeat the mistakes of the past.

The fact of the matter is that Christendom failed.  And it failed because it embodied a view of the confessional State as an instrumentum salvationis that was wedded to worldly notions of coercive force. The confessional State, armed with the weaponized gospel that sought to suppress theological errors in the name of saving souls from perdition, and invigorated with a sense of divine right, imposed coercive fines, penal punishments, and even in some cases, death, upon Jews, pagans, and heterodox Christians.  And while it is indeed true that this repression has been greatly exaggerated in the literature on the topic, much of it generated by the Church’s enemies, both religious and political, nevertheless, as Brad Gregory documents so well in his book “The Unintended Reformation,” the repression was real and constituted a monumental failure of charity on the part of the Church.  But it also constituted a failure to understand that the Gospel is not something that should be imposed by force since the truth of Christ is constitutively ordered to its free acceptance.  In place of this view of freedom, political Christendom appealed instead to the notion of a sharply defined, and platonically hierarchical, sacral order into which the individual must “fit” or face negative consequences.

Furthermore, the confluence of Church and State involved the Church in a regime of acquisition wherein the Church also gained worldly sorts of temporal power as well as vast amounts of wealth.  And once gained, this power and wealth were not easily relinquished since they fell into the hands, as wealth and power always do, of men with small souls and mendacious minds.  The corruption that ensued should not be viewed, therefore, as an aberration but rather as the inevitable byproduct of this ecclesial spirit of grasping acquisition.  And while it might be romantic to conjure up images of “holy Kings” and so forth, the fact is the Church had little issue with the feudal system of indentured servitude that made the aristocratic governing structure of the time possible. To be sure, the Church did a lot for the poor, especially in its vast monastic system, but such efforts were largely palliative and did not address the systemic economic injustices that were eating away at the social fabric.  Indeed, the religious orders themselves, including the Franciscans, became fat with the worldly lard of land and treasure. 

Christ’s warning that you cannot serve both God and mammon should have alerted them to the fact that money is a demanding and dominating mistress who brooks no other suitors.  But as is always the case with faithless and feckless men, their spiritual rot consumed their minds with a silent, syphilitic rigor and caressed their will with the soothing allure of primal pleasures. Lost in their ribald revelry, they were made blind and could not see that the only path to a specifically Christian “glory” is the Christ of the cross – – a grotesque and humiliated figure of worldly defeat – – which is a path that we too, if we are truly seeking to live the gospel, must tread. Nor can we say that such insights, retrojected backward, are an anachronism unfairly imposed on the Church of that time.  Because there were numerous saintly voices in that era who were desperately shouting the same warning.  In short, the Church had the same gospels we do, replete with numerous Dominical sayings condemning wealth,  but it chose to ignore them.

Before I go any further I want to be clear in what it is that I am arguing against. It needs to be affirmed, as I point out below in my critique of Liberalism, that all governments are “integralist” in some fashion or another. All governments, in the ordo that they seek to facilitate, embody a set of implied metaphysical and anthropological claims. Strict neutrality, therefore, toward the deeper questions of existence is a dangerous illusion. All States are ultimately “confessional” and all citizens are some variety of an integralist. Therefore, my argument is not against integralism as such but against those forms that explicitly reject the teaching of Dignitatis Humanae on the issue of religious freedom. The schism between the SSPX and Rome revolved precisely around the former’s rejection of Dignitatis which they view as a contradiction with past magisterial teaching. Archbishop Vigano has recently expressed similar views and he has become increasingly popular with certain conservative Catholics who are sympathetic with this rejection of Dignitatis.

There are obviously many varieties of Catholic integralism with many laudable and noteworthy academics developing a critique of political Liberalism and who do not support the creation of a confessional State that rejects the notion of religious freedom as a fundamental civil right. But it would be wrong to assume from this that they represent the entirety of the integralist spectrum, which they most certainly do not. And my fear is that if there ever did come a day when Catholic confessional States once again became common, that it would not be the saner heads that would prevail.

To return then to the main line of the narrative, as political Christendom died the world groaned and in an agonistic paroxysm of violent reaction birthed, over several centuries, a new ordo.  Political Liberalism emerged, therefore, both out of the Christian cultural matrix and in reaction to it.  There were, of course, various shades of emphasis but the one thing all political Liberalisms had in common was a steadfast belief in the autonomy of individual freedom conceived of negatively as the mere absence of outside coercion, especially in matters of religion.  There did remain certain countries with “State Churches” (which remain to this day) but the trajectory was clear and decidedly in the direction of allowing for a wide swath of religious freedom.  Indeed, even those countries with established churches gradually saw those establishments become attenuated and largely ceremonial, with the principle of religious freedom enshrined in law, if not in constitutional principle.

What cannot be emphasized enough is that Liberalism cannot be understood outside of its historical context as a reaction against political Christendom.  And to that end, Liberalism championed the notion that the State must remain neutral with regard to all grand, metaphysical claims, and must especially remain neutral in matters concerning religion.  But of course, all governments, as I said above, are ultimately theological since whatever ordo they adopt always implies a metaphysics and an anthropology.  In other words, all governments ensconce some form of integralism, even if it is now a secular creed, and the strict neutrality toward religion that Liberalism asserts is, therefore, a shell game and a sham.  For if the claim is that the State must be indifferent toward religion, or between religion and irreligion, then it follows by an inexorable logic that Liberalism is claiming that religion is, at best, irrelevant to the social project of governing, and, at worst, a positive hindrance to the same.  All religions are “equal” because all religions are equally trivial and irrelevant – – a relic of our infantile and adolescent past, which we have now happily outgrown in the age of reason and science. 

This implied de facto atheism at the heart of the Liberal project was masked for centuries by the dominant cultural religiosity of the time.  But over time, the secular, atheistic soul of modernity took its toll, with religion now viewed as a boutique shop accessory complete with dream catchers, crystals, angel pins, and books on self-fulfillment by Poperah Winfrey.  But there is one thing religion must not do and that is step outside of the boundaries of this strip mall aesthetic and into conservative, political agitation. “Christianity” in a Leftist register is allowed into the political sphere largely because everyone knows that liberal Christianity is just secularism in religious drag.  John Lennon’s execrable song “Imagine” is indeed a modern anthem to this sensibility, the theme of which is reducible to “Don’t believe in anything and we can all get along.”  But get along with what?  Buying Lennon’s records I guess and the rest of the flotsam and jetsam produced by our culture of consumption.  It is a call for a “Pax consumptionis” where the binding spiritual glue of our society is nothing more than a collective of concupiscence.

It is precisely this pseudo-neutralist posturing of political Liberalism that most exercised the 19th century popes and it is against this historical backdrop that their various fulminations against democracy and religious freedom must be read. Sadly, there is also not a little clinging to the carcass of that dead and desiccated whale in many of these statements as well, as the popes desperately clung to the Papal States and the shopworn and outdated notion that unless a Pope has temporal power he could not wield his spiritual power freely.  As political Christendom was breathing its last, in the gurgling death throes of its terminal condition, the Vatican desperately fought rear-guard actions in a flurry of diplomatic concordats with various governments, seeking to protect (rightly, of course) the liberty and freedom of the Church in the new secular order. The doctrine of papal infallibility was defined during this era as well, as the Church fought against a surging tide of Gallicanist rebellions, as well as new forms of the old doctrine “cuius regio, eius religio” (but this time with secular religions) which found expression in places like Germany with its Kulturkampf against the Church of Rome as a “foreign power”.

The upshot of all of this was that the Church was in a bit of a sociopolitical pickle and did not have a clear vision of how to move forward without simply reverting to the impossible dream of a restored Christendom.  I am reminded of a scene from the movie “O Brother Where Art Thou” where the lead character, Everett (played by George Clooney), an escaped convict with two other escapees, exclaims in response to the three of them being trapped in a barn and surrounded by the police “Damn. We are in a tight spot here!”.  In many ways the analogy is an apt one because the Church of the early 20th century did seem like an escaped convict from an earlier era, hemmed-in and cornered on all fronts by a bevy of enemies, both real and imagined, with no real plan for how to get out of the “tight spot” it found itself in.  The temptation, of course, was for the Church to dig in its heels and double-down on dreams of a new King Louis IX emerging out of the ashes to save the day.  Thankfully, the Church did not do this. Whether out of a true realization that the past was flawed and not to be retrieved, or out of a simple observation that there were just too many Orcs at the gates, I cannot say.  But one thing was clear:  political Christendom was dead and it was not coming back.

All of the foregoing is the historical backdrop to the issues that confronted the fathers of the Second Vatican Council.  The Declaration on Religious Freedom (Dignitatis Humanae) was the most controversial document the Council produced garnering the most negative votes (70) of any conciliar document.  And it is the document most reviled by the neo-integralists of our own day, echoing the earlier rejection of Dignitatis by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre who founded what later became the schismatic Society of Saint Pius X.  What they all have in common is a belief that Dignitatis contradicts earlier magisterial teaching on religious freedom and that its adoption of the idea that religious freedom is a fundamental human right grounded in the dignity of the human person fosters a dangerous religious relativism.

But all of that is, as we say in Nebraska, horse hockey. Given all of the thorny issues involved, Dignitatis, which is, after all, a very brief document, made no pretense that it was offering a complete “theory” on anything, least of all a complete theory on Church-State relations. It begins by explicitly stating that all previous magisterial teaching on the topic remains intact. It remains largely silent on the issue of “confessional States”. And it also remains silent on the topic of the establishment or disestablishment of religion in the constitutional order.  The critics of Dignitatis are, therefore, guilty of reading the document through the lens of what came after in civil society (Liberal indifference to religion) and counting it as guilty by association.  The logic seems to be as follows:  Vatican II taught that we must accept the principle of religious freedom.  Modern Liberal regimes also teach religious freedom.  Therefore, Vatican II has endorsed Liberalism.

But Dignitatis did nothing of the sort and to claim that it does is just hyperbolic hysterics at best, and/or an ideologically driven willful distortion of the facts at worst.   The Council forcefully reiterates the moral obligation of both individuals and societies to use our freedom to seek the truth about God.  Freedom is thus defined, as it has always been defined by the Church, as a freedom to pursue the truth owing to the constitutive orientation of all freedom to the truth.  There is no hint in Dignitatis of a view of freedom as a raw autonomy wherein the individual is morally free to seek anything he or she so desires.  The traditional view is that rights imply obligations and everything in Dignitatis points in that same direction. Freedom, therefore, is not viewed by the Council as a negative freedom defined by the mere absence of coercion.  And so the Council pointedly rejects the model of Liberal indifference and relativism. 

It is very clear, therefore, to any fair observer, that the Council is charting a course between two extremes.  On the one hand it eschews any romantic nostalgia for a return to the good old days of a “hard integralism” with its banned books, penal Inquisitions, and the entire sclerotic apparatus of clericalist social control so historically prevalent in predominantly Catholic countries.  On the other hand it also rejects, as already noted, the false metaphysical neutrality of Liberalism as well as its nihilistic, and manifestly self-contradicting, epistemic “humility” toward the question of God.  Dignitatis offers no clear blueprint for what kind of social order needs to emerge in the light of the foregoing rejections and leaves such adjudications for future theologians to unpack, well aware that a simplistic, one-size-fits-all approach is no longer viable. 

What then did Dignitatis affirm that gets the neo-integralists into such a lather?  It is the fact that it teaches that even in a confessional Catholic State religious freedom is more than a mere “toleration” of error for the sake of public order. And despite the best efforts of some to spin the interpretation of Dignitatis Humanae in this direction, the Council, to its credit, went with the French bishops who, with the support of folks like theologian Ratzinger and bishop Wojtyla, taught that religious freedom must be respected in a civil sense because freedom is oriented to truth, and that all human beings have a moral obligation to seek the truth about God.  But of equal importance, as Ratzinger notes, is that truth is oriented to freedom as its only proper medium of reception.  Therefore, what we see is that the Council endorsed a fully orthodox view of freedom as a “right” that is rooted in a prior “obligation,” which entails a Christologically grounded positive view of freedom rather than a purely formal Liberal notion of freedom as a neutral entity that merely needs to be “left alone.” It also rejects, therefore, the integralist’s view that the State has the right to coerce people into the faith “for their own good”.

Thus does Vatican II endorse both the older view of the moral obligation of freedom to seek truth, as well as a deepening of this view, through a Christocentric theological anthropology that sees all truth as a mere abstraction until it is rooted in the relational dignity of a person. As such Dignitatis Humanae represents an enormous step forward, and a key linchpin in Vatican II’s broader project of renewing Catholic theology through a Christological concentration.

Furthermore, it is imperative that we read Dignitatis in relation to the Council’s voluminous statements on the dignity of the laity and its proper role in the Christianizing of the civil sphere.  If the Council did offer any hint of how a modern State with a majority of Catholics would operate it would be a social order animated by a concern for human rights, human dignity, freedom of conscience, moral truth, and a concern for the poor, but with a strong “leavening” of the democratic process through the contributions of a vibrant and educated laity.  And in a society without a Catholic majority, the role of the laity is to provide a constant witness to the truth in the civil sphere – – a witness that will increasingly take on a martyrological form as the full arsenal of Liberalism’s “benign neutrality” is brought to bear against those recalcitrant few who continue to believe in Transcendent truth and, more to the point, its intelligible knowability. 

And that brings me to my final point.  Namely, the necessity of putting aside once and for all the idea, so beloved by the integralists, that the social Kingship of Christ implies the necessity of authoritarian forms of government. They speak as if the ascension of our Lord signaled the end of Christ’s cruciform modality and that this form of his existence is now totally eclipsed by his glorification.  Christ is indeed vindicated in the resurrection and ascension, but to listen to the integralists it is a vindication perched now on the precipice of revenge with a view of Christ as a kind of Schwarzenegger Pantocrator.  Like a celestial Terminator he vows “I’ll be baaack” and this time he will be pissed.  Of course, that is a bit of snark and a caricature, but it essentially characterizes accurately the neo-integralist emphasis on a Christ of dominating power as well as the concomitant emphasis on his earthly regents in the civil sphere mimetically instantiating the same kind of coercive power.

Thus, the integralists are wrong on four fronts.  First, they get Dignitatis Humanae wrong, and in my view, deliberately so because their ideologically driven agenda demands that the distortions that crept into the post Vatican II Church be placed directly on its shoulders, no matter the evidence to the contrary.  Second, they get wrong the true nature of the social Kingship of Christ.  The New Testament clearly portrays the risen and ascended Christ as “The Lamb who was slain.”  The resurrection narratives emphasize the continuity between the risen and crucified Christ, with his resurrected bodily modality still bearing the marks of his torture.  And as the great cloud of martyrs testifies, it is a cruciform modality that is still the primary mark of the true Christian. Third – – following in line with its misunderstanding of the social Kingship of Christ – – it misconstrues the nature of authority in any putatively Christian State.  Christ gave us a model for “authority” and that model is the path of kenotic love where service is defined as a death to the egoistic self for the sake of others.  The last shall be first and the first shall be last, as we humbly submit ourselves to the indignity of washing the feet of our “inferiors”.  Such a model is decidedly against any formulation of Christian civil power as a regime of top-down coercion in matters of religious conscience.  And finally, the integralists are wrong in their tout court rejection of all things modern.  As many modern theologians have noted (e.g. Balthasar, Ratzinger, Guardini, among others) there is much to commend in the modern emphasis on the importance of human subjectivity.  The Church’s longstanding emphasis upon objective truth is extremely important, especially today, but it is just a fact that this emphasis has caused the Church to ignore the role played by human subjectivity in the reception of that truth.  Therefore, while it is true that “error has no rights” it is also true, as many others have noted, that those who are in error do.

In Augustine’s great masterwork, “The City God”, the great saint highlighted the earthly struggle between the libido dominandi and the amor Dei.  But he did not posit this struggle as one between the Church and the world, between the religious and the non-religious, between the Christian and the non-Christian. Rather, he saw this struggle as cutting through the heart of every individual, in the agonistic subjectivity of their souls, as we all struggle to pursue the Good. And it also must not be forgotten that he penned his masterpiece as a response to the anxiety many Christians were feeling as the Pax Romana crumbled around them.  Thus, his work, rather than being viewed as an endorsement for a coercive regime to put Humpty Dumpty back together again, should be viewed instead as a grand reminder that Christians should avoid placing too much hope in any regime of worldly power, reminding us that the Kingdom of Christ is, ultimately, “not of this world”. 

We do indeed, in our contemporary situation, find ourselves in a “tight spot”.  But the insouciant, ideological, play-acting of the neo-integralists is a superficial, reactionary, and thoroughly unrealistic fantasy.  And as such it is a dangerous diversion from the task at hand.  In short, it isn’t a serious attempt at anything and it helps us not one wit to get out of this tight spot.  Dignitatis Humanae, on the other hand, is a serious attempt, by serious men, to at least begin the conversation again, with fresh eyes and a historically chastened memory.  The Christological form looms large in their counsels, and it is a cruciform model that privileges service, kenosis, and the witness of martyrdom in our secular age, over the model of a regime of coercive force.

I for one do not want to live in the world imagined by the integralists.  And despite Vigano’s ravings to the contrary, Vatican II does give us a Christological path out of our tight spot. 


The McCarrick Report and the De Facto Atheism of the Church

Several people have asked me to comment on the recently released McCarrick report and so I thought I would offer the following brief comments.  I will return to my series on Vatican II and will have a new blog post on the Conciliar document Dignitatis Humanae by the end of the week.  So stay tuned….

As I have mentioned before, when I was in the seminary at Mount Saint Mary’s (Emmitsburg, Maryland) from 1981-85 I knew several seminarians from the diocese of Metuchen during the time that McCarrick was bishop there.  In fact, one of them was my roommate for a year.  And he and others told me that McCarrick had a habit of inviting seminarians to his beach home at the Jersey shore for little weekend parties wherein McCarrick was constantly drunk and was very prone to groping people inappropriately while drunk and that he routinely selected one of the seminarians to share a bed with him for the night.  Therefore, to say that it was an open secret that McCarrick was a pervert is a gross understatement.  Because it was no secret at all.  Everyone knew about these “rumors” and everybody joked about it.  Indeed, even one of the seminary professors, a priest, upon hearing that McCarrick was going to visit the seminary warned many of us to stay away from “Bishop Howdy Doody” as he called him.  

I eventually left the seminary and moved on with my career as an academic, but I always kept one eye on the rise of McCarrick to high office.  And when he was made Archbishop of Washington, and then later a Cardinal, I just could not fathom, in my naivete, why somebody had not blown the whistle on the guy.  I could not get my mind around how such a manifest sexual deviant and drunken ecclesiastical party boy, had gotten so far.  And I worried that the entire thing was a train wreck waiting to happen – – a fear that was deepened when in 2002 Bill O’Reilly of Fox News, off-camera after I had filmed a segment with him on priestly sex abuse, told me that they were investigating a leading American Cardinal for sexually inappropriate behavior with adults.  I said to him “You mean McCarrick.”  He just grinned from ear to ear, leaned back in his chair and replied, “have a safe trip home Dr. Chapp.”  But nothing ever came of their investigation and so I can only surmise that they ran into the same problem that everyone else had. Namely, that you could not get anyone to go on the record and that McCarrick was being protected by some powerful American prelates who were masters of deflection.

Well, the train wreck did eventually happen and now we have the long delayed “McCarrick Report” which will, most likely, be interpreted through the lens of the various ideological rip currents in the Church.  Liberals will seize the opportunity to criticize Pope John Paul and exonerate Pope Francis with an eye toward delegitimizing John Paul’s papacy as the “last gasp” of the reactionary Church.  Conservatives will see the entire affair as just further evidence of the existence of a “lavender mafia” in the Church that needs to be eliminated by implementing even stricter protocols for weeding out homosexual seminarians.  Less ideologically inclined folks will lean toward an analysis heavy on criticism of the Church’s clerical culture of secrecy, lack of transparency, and its sclerotic bureaucratic  apparatus – – an apparatus that has an inbuilt tendency to chart a trajectory through safe waters and to avoid at all costs any boat rocking by whistleblowers.

There is an element of truth in many of these approaches. It pains me to say it but Saint Pope John Paul II made some egregious mistakes in these matters and his negligence allowed the rise of McCarrick to prominence.  Nor was this a one-off mistake since he also did it with others – – most notably Marcial Maciel.  I think John Paul is a saint and he remains one of my heroes.  But he was human and flawed and does bear a great deal of blame here.  He seems to have had more than a tin ear for this issue.  It is better described as a deaf ear, which is deeply disappointing. Likewise, there are indeed a lot of homosexuals, both celibate and not-so-celibate, in the clerical ranks.  And with all due respect to those good priests who are homosexual but chastely so, the presence of such a critical mass of homosexuals in the clergy has created a large subculture of sexually active gay priests who cover for each other and whose epicurean lifestyle is a scandal.  On that latter point, McCarrick and Bishop Bransfield are “exhibits A and B.”  Finally, there is, of course, a need to institute new protocols for greater accountability and transparency in the Church in order, at the very least, to bring justice to the victims of sexual abuse.

However, even after taking all of that into account, I also think such analyses fall short of the mark because they do not analyze the actions that were taken with regard to McCarrick by his fellow prelates through the lens of a performative reduction.  And by that I mean that our tendency is to analyze such things too abstractly and our questioning never rises to the level of asking the concrete question of what the performative actions of the prelates in question tells us about what it is they truly believe – – or, as the case may be, what they do NOT believe.  Because if we know one thing for certain after the revelations of massive priestly sexual abuse and its cover up, it is that this is not a problem peculiar to either liberals or conservatives and it cuts across the ideological spectrum like a hot, searing, scalpel that lacerates to the bone.  Nor is it reducible to the inaction of a single pope or popes, who failed to “govern” the Church with due diligence.  Nor is this an issue that is largely a matter of “bad policies” that can be fixed with “charters” and absurd “Virtus training programs” for lay people who, for crying out loud, are not the core of the problem. In fact, the presence of Virtus training programs is actually a symptom of the problem insofar as it represents nothing more than a nod to the lawyers and insurance companies.  It is also a cynical exercise in deflection.  Cynical, because they don’t really think it will work (nor do I think that they care if it does or does not).  And “deflection” because it is merely an attempt to foster the illusion that “something is being done.”

My claim is actually more shocking – – some would even say “dark”. My claim is that the concrete actions taken with regard to McCarrick in particular, and the entire sexual abuse issue in general, tells us that many (most?) of our priests and bishops are de facto atheists.  They may overtly give public statements of faith, perform the Sacraments, kneel dutifully before the Blessed Sacrament, bless boats and homes and pets, all the while being “men without chests” as C.S. Lewis puts it. I would further add the following: most lay people in the American Church today are also de facto atheists who, therefore, swim in the same cultural soup of cultivated spiritual mediocrity.  “My parish is bored” says the young curate in The Diary of a Country Priest, which was Bernanos’s way of saying that nobody really believed anymore.  Because the boredom being described in the novel, and against which the non self-aware holiness of the curate is in contrast, is not the everyday boredom one feels at eating the same leftovers three days in a row or doing the same tasks every day, but rather is the deeper existential boredom of acedia.  And as the novel makes clear, it is a spiritual rot, a form of atheism, that pervaded the entirety of the French Church, both lay and clerical.  

Isn’t all of this rather judgmental you might ask?  Well… perhaps.  But in reality I think it closer to the truth to say that this claim of mine represents not a judgmental finger-wagging at those “others” whose faith does not rise to the purity of my own, but rather represents an extrapolation from my own de facto atheism.  I sense it in others connaturally since I have already experienced it in my own attenuated modern soul.  Ours is not an age of faith.  Our cultural horizon rarely stretches further than the local Vape shop and focuses our attention almost exclusively on the pursuit of worldly ends.  And many of those worldly ends are perfectly fine, but our cultural tendency is to stop there.  Like the old Irishman I once met at a pub in Galway who marked his whisky bottle with his ring in order remind himself, as he put it, to drink “thus far and no further”.  And just as with his pursuit of sobriety, our stopping short at perfectly legitimate worldly ends, without ever pressing further into the “deep waters” of supernatural faith, is our Lockean hangover wherein we deem such deeper pursuits to be fraught with the dangers of an inebriated fanaticism that is best nipped in the bud.  

Nor am I talking here about something akin to Newman’s distinction between notional and real assent. Because my claim is that even our notional assent is deeply lacking even “notional” levels of conviction and is riddled with the kinds of doubts that paralyze any growth in the spiritual life and which lead, as Augusto del Noce points out, to the accommodating compromises we have all made with our bourgeois culture of well-being.  And as del Noce further notes, at the core of our culture today – – a culture that affects and afflicts believers as well, in almost equal measure to the non-believers – – is a nihilistic soul the likes of which the world has never seen before. We live in an era of metaphysical negation which is marked by a degraded reductionistic naturalism that considers all previous ages to our own to have been mere infantile and adolescent stages of intellectual growth, but which we have now surpassed as we have moved into the “adulthood” of science and secular atheism.  From Feuerbach and Auguste Comte through Freud and on up to Noam Chomsky this narrative of “progression” from our infancy in myth to our adulthood in reductionistic nihilism is the coin of our secular, atheistic realm.  

And to think that that cultural tide hasn’t also swamped the Church in the storm surge of the modern hurricane is sociologically naïve in the extreme. Karl Barth once observed that Vatican II opened the windows of the Church to let in fresh air, and a hurricane blew in instead.  I am a big defender of Vatican II, as my next blog post will make clear, but if the Council can be faulted for anything it is precisely, ironically, in its false reading of the signs of the times.  And in its overly simplistic – – indeed amateurish – – sociological analysis of our times it seemed oblivious to the fact that if the Church could “go out” to the world then the world could, in its turn, come into the Church, and not in a good way.  The Council overestimated the vitality of the Church’s faith life – – an overestimation that is proven by the fact that that same Church came unraveled immediately after the Council – – and underestimated the toxic nature of modernity for any kind of genuine faith. And the tragedy is that it isn’t as if it did not have fair warning, as many of its deepest thinkers, from Claudel, to Guardini, to Bernanos made it clear that all was not as good as it seemed exteriorly.

Nevertheless, there are, of course, still pockets of holiness and true belief in the Church.  In my analysis here I am speaking in obvious generalities and am attempting to delineate broad trends and widespread attitudes.  I am attempting to engage in a performative reduction wherein I submit the current malaise in the Church to a concrete analysis of what the internal logic of that malaise implies.  And from where I sit it implies a deep crisis of faith.  And I am not talking here of a general lukewarmness such as the Church has historically, from time to time, fallen into.  In this regard I am echoing the analysis of Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict who has also identified a deep crisis of faith as the chief cause of the sexual abuse problem.  

Viewed in this light, the sexual abuse problem in general, and the “McCarrick affair” in particular, cannot be dealt with in isolation from all of the other symptoms of this crisis of faith that afflicts the Church in the West.  To take one example – – an example that bears directly on the abuse crisis – – the practice of mandatory celibacy in the Western Church has become profoundly problematic, as one might expect in a Church besotted with a secularizing unbelief.  We are all of us sexual beings, and our natural instinct is to seek an overt expression of that reality through physical, sexual intercourse.  This instinct is a powerful one, instilled in us by the Creator, but also radically distorted by sin.  Thus, any decision in favor of celibacy, particularly among the young, is going to present enormous challenges (especially in our pornified culture) and will be possible only to the extent that there is a deep faith present which is open to the movement of Christ’s transformative and elevating grace.  And any attempt to live this life without faith, grace, and a deep prayer life, will eventuate in a white-knuckled repression that breeds frustrated resentment and the seeking out of surrogate material pleasures such as booze, food, trips, and vapid entertainments at best, and pornography and sexual relationships at worst.  Furthermore, without faith, celibacy just creates a clerical class of professional bachelors often locked in a depressive and lonely isolation devoid of any form of chaste intimacy.  And if you add into that witch’s brew of factors the sad fact that a certain statistically significant subset of men are drawn to the seminary precisely because they are emotionally immature and psychosexually dysfunctional, then you have the seeds of a crisis on your hands. What you end up with are priests who are desperately seeking intimacy and who do so with minors who are just vulnerable enough to be pliant.  Or you hire a dominatrix and make a porno movie on your Church’s altar.

I support mandatory celibacy and do not make these remarks in order to argue for its elimination.  A married clergy does not alleviate all of these issues, as all of the pertinent evidence makes clear, and brings as well a new set of different, but related problems.  And there is just as big of a crisis in marriage in the Church as there is among the celibate clergy.  It should be noted in this regard that there is more sexual abuse of minors at school at the hands of married teachers, and in households at the hands of married relatives and even parents, than among priests in a rectory.  This crisis in marriage, evident to any priest who hears confessions, is yet another symptom of the crisis of faith as couples enter into the Sacrament with a purely secular notion of marriage as nothing more than a civil, contractual arrangement that can be broken at will when the relational bargain the contract enacts is deemed to be “unfulfilled”.  The explosion of annulments in the United States is not, therefore, an abuse of the process where a wink and a nod are given to divorce and remarriage by another name, but a real acknowledgment of precisely the crisis I am talking about.  Finally, despite the ham-handed manner in which it has been carried forward, I think the Pope’s “concessions” in Amoris Laetitia on issues relating to divorce and remarriage are, at the very least, yet another indication that we have a problem and that the Pope knows it. And so we really need to stop the polemics with regard to Amoris because no less a light than Pope Benedict also noted that the Church is faced with a huge crisis here – – a crisis of faith among those seeking marriage in the Church – – and that the Church had to do a better job of recognizing this fact.

And so as I read the summaries of the McCarrick report and skim through its many pages my overall reaction is a mixture of anger (as I said at the beginning, everyone knew.  EVERYONE), sadness (for McCarrick’s victims, some of whom were my friends, and for the Church) and disappointment that the deeper issue that what really afflicts the Church is a deep, deep loss of faith was never addressed.  I get that the report was not meant to delve into such deeper issues, and yet … damn it, it should have since without it the entire report just becomes a cataloging of failures without a point.  This is, after all, a document of the Church and not the cold analysis of a corporation inquiring after why its market share has gone down.

And don’t tell me that the reason why it ignores deeper spiritual causes is that it is just trying to ascertain facts in order to better develop policies to avoid such things in the future.  Because that is the whole dadgum point I am making:  we will most definitely not avoid such things in the future if our focus is purely forensic, mechanical, and clinical.  There is no “policy” change that will make the sins caused by unbelief go away.  Personnel is policy and in this case we are talking about sins committed by faithless men, who were aided and protected by other faithless men, in a Church (in this case the American Catholic Church) grown cold in the faith owing to its flaccid bargain with bourgeois modernity.

Furthermore, even on the level of a purely forensic analysis of the facts, the report is open to the charge that it is trying to paint the problem as something that was done in the past, with Pope Francis exonerated of any wrong doing, and so we should just all move along now since “there is nothing to see here.”  It is like an automobile accident that has been cleared from the street, with the cops telling us we can stop our rubbernecking now as we slow down to stare at the bits of glass remaining on the road.  I just find it interesting that the main culprits identified in this report are either dead or very old. The report contains a wealth of detail and does shed light on how this all came about. Nevertheless, it really does read like an attempt to just move us along and to put the matter behind us. There just doesn’t seem to be any seriousness in the report on the level of a real theological and spiritual analysis of how the powers that be in the Church came to enable child rapists. And the very lack of such an analysis screams out that the Church still doesn’t get it and is further evidence of my thesis.  Because only a Church that doesn’t really believe anything anymore would treat the spiritual causes of the crisis as a triviality not worth discussing and as something that would be “distracting” from our “real, empirical analysis of causes.”

Raping children is a sin. Enabling and covering up for people who rape children is also a sin.  And they are sins of such magnitude that one is safe in assuming that no one who possesses a genuine faith would commit them.  These are the actions, the sins, of faithless men.  So the deeper, unaddressed question is: how did the Church come to be dominated by such men? And until that is answered no amount of policy changes will suffice. One reader of this blog, John Miner, has pointed out succinctly and with great insight the following, which is a wonderful summary of where we need to go. Therefore I will give him the last word:

“It is clear that Garrigou-Lagrange’s (and many before him incl. Aquinas) opinion that a man should be in the illuminative way prior to being ordained a priest, and in the unitive way prior to being a bishop has been either cast aside or ignored in the first place. How is it possible for any man to confront the challenges of the priesthood without first striving for spiritual perfection?”


In Defense of Vatican II: Beauty Will Save the World.

Dr. Larry Chapp

James Matthew Wilson and Bishop Robert Barron. Two Champions of Beauty

One of the things I have long pondered is why it is that people fall away from the faith.  Obviously, they do so for a variety of reasons so I will not attempt a “one size fits all” answer to that complex question.  My addled and dissipated brain isn’t capable of such global thinking anyway, as age and too many bowls of Frosted Mini Wheats have taken their toll on my synaptical integrity.  And the Covid-quarantine Rice Krispie Treats aren’t helping either.  We have also recently discovered that there is a rat living in our crawl space, which to me, a lifelong rodentophobe, is a major theodicy problem.  And if God does not exist then there is no need to answer the above question since it is already answered by the malevolent presence of that rat:  Existence of a rat in our crawl space = no God.  QED.  Somewhere Richard Dawkins is smiling, which galls me, since he is such a blazing, intellectual guttersnipe.  

Still, all joking aside, the small point I would like to make in this brief post is that, in my view, the answer to why people leave the faith is hiding in plain sight:  for whatever reason, they just no longer believe the Christian narrative anymore.  It really is that simple because if you really did believe the Christian truth claim you would put up with any number of ecclesiastical micro aggressions in order to stay the course, despite the rocky terrain.  You would say to yourself in the midst of your existential dyspepsia over the Church’s endless foibles and absurd “stratagems”: “Lord to whom shall we go? You have the words of everlasting life.”  I know this is certainly true in my own life since I would have long ago left the Church over its modern descent into mediocrity and banality were it not for the fact that I actually still believe in both the Christian narrative and the Church that bears it forward.  That really is the bottom line because, quite frankly, the post liturgy donuts have grown stale as sacramentals of forced conviviality and I can get better “fellowship” at a Star Trek convention.

This is what puzzles me then when I hear people engage in grandiloquent “exit narratives” that focus on this or that egregious assault on their fragile sensibilities as the chief reason for departure.  You know the boilerplate formula as well I do, I am sure:  some priest farted in the confessional once, or because they couldn’t get an annulment for their fifth marriage, or because the music minister dropped the Saint Louis Jesuits as the main playbill for Mass, or the pastor said something in a homily that “offended” you, or some old, caterwauling, Church lady chided you for eating Jujyfruits at Mass.  Oh the humanity! 

Very often, when confronted with such narratives I will just bypass the whole bowl of sentimental pottage and cut to the chase and ask:  Do you still believe in the Creed and the Sacraments?  And most often the answer is a qualified hemming and hawing, with all kinds of linguistic legerdemain they learned at a workshop run by a Jesuit-Buddhist-Zen master-massage therapist, before they finally just give up and admit that “well no, I don’t accept most of those ‘rules’ anymore.”  Nor is there usually any reverse “road to Damascus moment” where the faith is lost in a single dramatic traffic stop gone bad.  The truth of the situation is usually far more boring, with faith gradually ebbing away in the acedia-inducing wort of our fermenting culture.  

I have a very good priest friend, an old seminary chum of mine, who is a man of very high intellect and even higher wisdom, who often laments to me on the phone that “nobody believes anything anymore.”  And by that he means what the priest at the beginning of Bernanos’s “Diary of a Country Priest” means when he says: “My parish is bored.”  In other words, underneath the outward façade of sacramental participation, “Monte Carlo night” fundraisers, CYO sports, and pet blessings, there lurks the noonday devil of quiet disbelief.  My priest friend further opines that since this is true, the pastoral strategy the Church has adopted over the past sixty years – – the strategy of turning the faith into the spiritual equivalent of rice cakes – – is doomed to failure, as the current implosion bears out.  Nobody dies for something they think is not true.  Nobody sacrifices for something they think is not true.  Nobody long endures suffering for something they think is not true.  And the bottom line is that if one is deeply bored by something, chances are it is because in the grand scheme of things you judge it to not be true, or, at the very least, even if true, of little importance.  

In the past year I met a most remarkable person at a conference who has since become one of my favorite authors.  He is the poet James Matthew Wilson who is involved in a project to reinject high caliber beauty back into the Catholic faith.  The Church is still the repository of Christ, but that image has been effaced in the ugliness and mediocrity of the modern Church.  What is needed is for the Church to be repristinated through Beauty, Goodness, and Truth.  Because these realities, when perfected, are anything but boring and are a real, honest to goodness remedy for acedia and the noonday devil.   The Church must once again become a patron of the arts as it seeks to reclaim a culture of beauty and of excellence.  James Matthew Wilson is involved in the Benedict XVI Institute which is a new venture that seeks to create that culture in the Church once again, in the midst of a world that careens toward the anti-human abyss of technocratic nihilism.  What he, and his allies at the Institute, understand, is that there can be no appeasement or “arrangement” between the Gospel and the ugly, vulgar, world of consumeristic kitsch.  For when the Church seeks to enculturate into an anti-culture (which is what our society enfleshes) it commits suicide as it dissolves and is absorbed into the world of our technocratic Borg masters.  

I mention this new Institute not because I think it will single-handedly bring the needed renewal, but because it is a model of what must once again blossom in the Church in order to reinvigorate the motives for faith and the soil in which that faith can grow.  Because the Gospel cannot flourish in the culture of strip malls and vape shops.  Of course, modern Catholics are “bored.”  We have turned our Churches into grand temples dedicated to the gods of efficiency, bourgeois comfort, and the ugliness spawned by expedience.  Everything is geared toward making the Gospel “safe” and “inoffensive” and the spiritual equivalent of the Boy Scout Oath, if you are lucky. And the whole enterprise – – the lot of it – – is boring.  That is why modern Catholics, like modern people in general, talk endlessly about “sexuality.”  Because all our culture has left is a degraded eroticism masquerading as liberation.  But degraded eroticism is the most pathetic god in our entire pantheon of divinized addictions.  Because the erotic, devoid of love and an orientation to Transcendence, is the ugliest and most boring thing of all.  

Another noteworthy attempt to put beauty back into our quiver of pastoral strategies is the series of videos, podcasts, and other materials created by Bishop Robert Barron and his Word on Fire Ministries.  And because Bishop Barron chooses to foreground the beauty of Catholicism as his chief mode of evangelization, rather than pugilistically swinging at a host of putative enemies as varied as Vigano’s Freemason Dr. Evils, up to and including, Voris’s “homoheresy modernists,” he has been vilified and pilloried by the so-called radical traditionalists for being insufficiently nasty.  In their view, unless there is blood on the floor, you haven’t properly preached the Gospel. Furthermore, their vision of the Gospel is an ugly amalgam of ignorance, reactionary politics, restorationist theology, and a heavy dose of apocalypticism with its “we are the holy remnant” elitism.  They are Catholic Branch Davidians living in a fever swamp of conspiratorial delusions, throwing Molotov Cocktails out of the window in Taylor Marshall’s basement at Bishop Barron and just about anybody else with a lick of sanity.  I will take Barron’s emphasis on beauty over their manifest ugliness and, I suspect, so would most Catholics.  

Vatican II understood this as well.  The Council Fathers knew that “fortress Catholicism” was harming the Church and fostering a culture of drab ugliness owing to the boring nature of its insularity from all things “modern.”  They may not have always gotten the answers right but they were at least willing, finally, to pose the question of modernity to the Church in order for the Church to share the riches of the Gospel with a greatly changed and desperately lonely world.  The tragedy, of course, is that this conciliar initiative to repristinate the Church, to find the hidden lost gems of the Tradition hidden under the palimpsest of neo-scholastic verbiage, was hijacked by a different set of vulgarians intent on replacing the beauty of the Church’s patrimony with a crass, and false, egalitarianism that equated the “tastes” of the popular culture of modernity with “the spirit of the Council.”  Indeed, under the guise of liturgical renewal and increased lay participation, they began to assert that the very insistence on high-end beauty in the Church is a form of reactionary and elitist “triumphalism.”

But if you read the Council documents themselves the exact opposite of this view is put forward.  How and why those documents came to be ignored and the renewal called for by the Council derailed is a subject for another day.  Suffice it to say for now that anyone who wants to blame the Council for being the chief cause of what came after is guilty of some extremely sloppy thinking devoid of real sociological data.  It is a form of post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacious thinking that reigns supreme these days in traditionalist circles and it needs to be challenged.  Steven Bullivant’s recent book called “Mass Exodus” is a good place to start that challenge since he offers a wealth of real data on the multi-focal causes of the post conciliar disaffiliation from the Church by so many.

Beauty will save the world.  That is to say, Christ will save the world.  So can we please stop doing all within our power to render Christ boring?  Can we please stop turning him into a cipher for suburbia?  Christ Pantocrator has become the Christ of the attached garage. Is it any wonder then that people walk away?


In Defense of Vatican II. Part One: The Cross of Christ and the Politics of Power

Dr. Larry Chapp

In what follows I am laying the groundwork for a series of blog posts devoted to defending Vatican II against the so-called Traditionalists. I began this blog about a month ago now by first examining a few representatives from this amalgam of theological dissenters from the far Catholic Right. I did so in order to give the reader a sense of the tone and content of that movement. Most troubling to me is their open rejection of vast swaths of the teachings of Vatican II, and even, as with Vigano, the claim that the Council, in its entirety, should just be suppressed.

I offer today a revised and amended version of an essay I wrote for my previous blog. It centers on the significance of the cross of Christ for properly understanding the true nature of power. I offer this meditation first, even before I begin a defense of specific documents of the Council, in order to establish the theological matrix in which all of my subsequent reflections will be embedded.

When I was still a university professor, I often asked my students to play an intellectual “what if” game.  I asked them to imagine what our world would be like if Christ had never existed and, therefore, Christianity had never come into being.  I did this to subvert the hostility of so many of them toward the “institutional Church” owing to its centuries of misconduct and deep sinfulness.  The honest, non-ideological students, had to admit that a world in which the values of the barbarians who overran the Roman Empire reigned supreme would have been far, far worse than the civilization formed by the Christian Church.  You can disagree with that assessment, of course, but you would be wrong to do so.  I have noticed too on this topic that those who indulge the puerile intellectual habits of folks like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens never bother to notice that much of the force of their facile critique of Christianity is a moral one, centering on the many, many ways they claim that the Christian Church has been morally bestial without offering any justification for this moral vision from within the ideological logistics of their atheism.  In many ways I think their moral instincts are sound, and their criticisms of the Church, though exaggerated and often ignorant of the real historical record, are at least loosely grounded in the sad reality of the sins of Christians.  Nevertheless, what they fail to notice is that the very moral verities they are invoking, which they imagine to be nothing more than the “common sense” morality provided by secular reason, are in reality Christian in inspiration and origin. 

And if what I write above is true, and it most certainly is, then what remains is the task of identifying what the specific Christian contribution was.  In other words, what was the revolution that Jesus of Nazareth created, why was it so shattering to the dominant power structures of the world, and how did it change our view of who God is?  That Jesus preached the advent of a new “Kingdom of grace” cannot be reasonably doubted.  But what are the rules of citizenship he established for admittance into this Kingdom and how does living in this Kingdom put us at odds with the “ruler of this world”?  These are hard questions to answer because the Gospel authors themselves seem reluctant to domesticate the image of Jesus inside the box of a ready-made “theological system”, realizing, I suspect, that as soon as one cages a Tiger you really no longer have a Tiger.  The temptation has always been to domesticate Jesus, whether it be through a thousand syllogisms or ten thousand Deepak Chopras.  I think our culture today is more prone to the latter than the former, as the coffee shop Christ allows us to both call ourselves “Christians” and to … well… hmmm…. kill people, whether that be in our Imperial wars or in our various “clinics”.  And the Christ of the clinics and the Christ of the drone wars is a result of the domestication of Jesus through a cultural and political reduction.  Thus does the Jesus who was crucified in an act of a self-emptying descent into the depth of the human condition, become, through the alchemy of a Latte and NPR, the Jesus of “death from above” and “dilation and suction.”

Thus, in order to resist this reduction of Jesus to either a politics (in the narrow sense of that word) or a cultural prop, the Gospels do not obsess over conceptual clarity in the sense of creating a neat system of ideas that read like a Power Point bullet list during a TED talk.  And thank God they don’t since there is nothing so boring and ridiculously pompous as a TED talk. [Side note: I was once asked to give a TED talk but did not know what it was.  I thought, “Who the hell is Ted, and why the hell should I talk to him?”] Nor do the Gospels give us ecclesiological, organizational, flow charts, (which are inherently and irreducibly demonic by the way, the Wormwood bitterness that makes everything German), and what they give us instead are suggestive references to a “Rock” and some kind of “keys” which are to be used in the name of a God renamed in a mysterious tripartite formula lacking in even the most rudimentary theological explanation.  And, while we’re at it, who was that half-naked kid in Mark’s Gospel that ran away when Jesus was arrested?  Who is Theophilus, the person Luke addresses his Gospel to?  And so on.  So many hanging chads…

This is not, however, an argument against the later formulation of doctrines and offices in the Church, since Jesus was most certainly not an antinomian or an anti-institutional preacher of an esoteric Gnosticism, no matter what today’s sophisticated anti-Semites say.  The latent anti-Semitism that lurks beneath this view of Jesus as a kind of anti-Jewish Jew, and as a purveyor of cracker-barrel spiritualism, is as old as Marcion and as fresh as “The View”.  To be sure, as I say above, Jesus cannot be reductively domesticated in neat theological systems.  But that isn’t because he was opposed to theology.  It was because HE WAS the theology.  Jesus doesn’t iconoclastically “burst categories”.  He WAS THE category.  And so no, he wasn’t a first century Oprah Winfrey and he never combined empty, boutique-shop sophistry with free donkey-cart giveaways.  The currently fashionable world of “spirituality”, with its dream catchers and its drug store, fauxBuddhist therapeutics, knows nothing of the real Jesus.  Indeed, these currently fashionable parlor room curiosities are merely the Ivy League version of the prosperity Gospel, complete with promises of body detoxification through the drinking of grotesque green liquids of unknown provenance.  Jesus+Essential oils = A brownstone in Park Slope.

So enough of such nonsense.  When it comes to the Gospels we see instead a Jesus of immense solidity and when we approach him we run up hard against a wall that at first seems impenetrable to our ersatz spirituality and our desiccated rationality. By contrast, the piercing and lacerating image that the Gospels present is precisely that – – an image – – and its logic (its “truth”) is embedded in the dramatic aesthetic of a humiliated, crucified man who descends into the silent solidarity of the dead. And the Gospels make clear that this descent into the dissolute world of decay, into the moldering stench of Satan’s sting, was the very condition for the glory that follows.  The crucifixion and the descent into death were not “mere preliminaries”, or a forensic theological mandate that just had to be endured, stoically, in order to fulfill some bestial bloodlust on God’s part before he then rewarded Jesus with the Golden Ticket.  Such is the view of entire benighted wings of the Christian household who then go on to preach that we don’t have to endure the Cross because Jesus did it for us.  We now just get to kick back, open a bag of pork rinds, and enjoy the endless Disney World of our resurrection life.  This, despite the fact that Jesus himself explicitly tells us that we too will need to take up our cross in order to follow him.  So much for Sola Scriptura.  It is indeed instructive, is it not, that those who chirp the loudest about Sola Scriptura never seem to have read the Scriptura.  They just wave the Bible around in the air, like a Talisman, which goes along with their magical Hogwarts view of the atonement.  

No, the Cross of Christ is no mere preliminary.  It is no mere juridical act of appeasement followed by judicial exoneration and the lavishing of parting gifts.  It is in truth the Revelation of God’s deepest nature, the expression in human, worldly, time-bound form of the Eternal One.  But what can it possibly mean that God’s very inner life is best exposited in this brutalized way?  

Jesus said “He who sees me sees the Father”.  Well… according to the Gospels to “see” Jesus is to look at the cross.  Not exclusively (since Resurrection is part of this event too), but focally, centrally.  It is to view the Resurrection in and through the crucifixion, which is why the Resurrected Christ is forever the “Lamb who was slain” and whose resurrected body still bears the marks of his grotesque torture.  The Cross reveals to us that God, as love, is nothing more than pure gift.  He is giving as such.  He is descent and self-emptying sacrifice for the sake of the other as such. This is the essence of what the “Trinity” is and is thus also the essence of that divine life within us and of our nature’s truest end.  He doesn’t “possess” these attributes as qualities like you and I possess this or that virtue.  He IS those attributes.  

Christ reveals God.  Christ is God.  And Christ is eternally “marked” by his crucifixion. So too must we be so marked.  This is the criterion for entrance into the Kingdom I mentioned at the start.  This is the essential “difference” of specifically Christian faith as opposed to all others, secular and religious.  We are not, as the Enneagram and Pottery Barn Chalice crowd inform us, “resurrection people.”  If we are to be resurrected it is into THIS Kingdom, the Kingdom of “cross and resurrection”, and not into a Kingdom marked through and through by the sign of bourgeois comfort.  We are not “saved” just because we gave some vague, and nominal assent to a theological proposition, which we then label as “faith”.  If we are to be resurrected at all it will be as crucified and resurrected.  There is no other path.  And it is precisely the counter-mark of the Antichrist to imagine that there is.  Joel Osteen and Paula White have our President’s ear.  But they reject the way of the Cross and embrace the way of Mammon.  They both have perfect teeth.  And they are antichrists.  

This is why I am a Catholic Worker. And it is the only reason for being a Catholic Worker.  To live as closely as we can the Sermon on the Mount, which is, paradoxically, only illuminated by the shadow cast by the Cross.  This was the constant message of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin.  We must not so spiritualize the Sermon on the Mount that its clear mandate for Christians to abandon the path of Mammon, the path of acquisition, the path of violence, is distanced from us by a series of thorned hedgerows, as we tell ourselves that such “perfection” is for the monks alone.  The rest of us, we are told, have to live in the “real world” where none of this idealistic stuff applies.  But we do console ourselves with the soothing balm of a thousand small “crosses” that are more manageable and can fit into our lifestyle.  I am very guilty of this.  Very. Guilty.  But what that means is that they aren’t really crosses at all, but, as I see in my own life, the appalling opposite:  narcissistic play acting at “religion” in a degraded form of Pascal’s wager where I convince myself that if I can at least imitate “sacrifice” in manageable bits, that means I am sacrificing.  Or, at the least, to convince myself that if I keep play acting at being a “man for others” then maybe I will be someday, despite the voluminous evidence to the contrary.  Like Peter Sellers in “Being There”:  I like to watch.  I approach life as a spectator, which is to say I approach God as a spectator, which is to say, I do not approach God at all.

The cross is never easy.  It is repulsive and ugly.  A symbol of the worst kind of torture, injustice, and brutality.  And it is the central symbol of our faith.  It is our only path to the resurrection and the Kingdom.  That gate and that path gets narrower for me every day.  Narrower in the sense that I can’t seem to stay on it, or even on some days, find it.  How hard it is to truly die to self, to divest ourselves of all of our caterwauling idolatries, and to stop our pretentious posturing as we seek to manipulate and bend others to suit our needs.  We are like the old lady in Hell in Dostoevsky’s tale, clinging to that rotten onion and preferring it to the glories of Heaven.  We think that the “old man” in us is like snakeskin that we can shed, “and I will someday, just let me get through this….”. But then we discover that we really do prefer the rotten onion.  

It is hard to die.  But that is why the new Kingdom of Christ’s grace begins with the death of God on the cross.  “One of the Trinity has died” – – so an ancient, anti-Nestorian line has it.  It flirts with heresy, but only trivially so.  In reality, the gravamen of its insight should make us all weep for joy.  

But this is also why I am deeply suspicious of the recent upsurge among some in the so-called “Catholic Traditionalist” movement to repristinate some version of a hard, political, integralism.  Motivated by the true insight that Liberalism is a god that has failed us, they long for a return to Christendom and its coercive confessional States, rejecting along the way Vatican II’s endorsement of religious freedom which they view as a lamentable capitulation to modernity’s religious relativism and indifferentism.  They interpret the social Kingship of Christ in shockingly modernist tones as a mandate for the coercive exercise of political power in religious matters ignoring, apparently, the sad historical fact that whenever and wherever the Church became a regulative political force it quickly became “merely” a regulative force, and ceased to be a transformative force.  And it further ignores the sad historical fact that Liberalism arose precisely because Christendom failed owing to its distorting of the social Kingship of Christ in exactly the same manner as the new integralists do.  History teaches us that such a regulative, non-transformative Church breeds anti clericalism and resentment as the Church comes to be viewed as just one, gigantic, buzz kill.  It is no accident then that those countries which had the strongest version of this Catholic integralism, are also now currently the countries most rapidly de-Christianizing.  

And why is it that these same “Traditionalists” never bother to answer the question of why, if the pre Vatican II Church was so strong, vibrant, and faith-filled, that it collapsed almost overnight as soon as the Church lifted the lid off of the ecclesiastical libido after Vatican II? Could it possibly be because everything had already degenerated into a hollow, forensic legalism which is precisely why the Council fathers knew we needed reform?

In light of what I have written above on the centrality of the crucified Lord as the only proper lens through which we are to read the meaning of Christian existence I can only say that both Liberal integralism and Catholic integralism failed because they both share a false, voluntarist understanding of human freedom. And a freedom thus conceived can only be tamed by worldly mechanisms of power.

Therefore, the only “integralism” I endorse is the regime of the crucified and risen Lord, whose social Kingship is characterized by a civilization of kenotic love, a civilization of service to “the least of these”, and not the Kingship of the coercive bludgeon.  This, and this alone, is the “politics” of the Church – – call it, as William Cavanaugh does, a politics of the Eucharist.  In such an integralism the most “political” thing you can do is to worship the crucified and risen Lord at Mass and to love your neighbor to the point of death and beyond.  This is the only “reform” of the Church that has ever been needed, both in the past, and, most especially, now.  

Christendom is dead, and its misbegotten child, Liberalism, is dying.  What will replace it we do not yet know.  Whether by violent revolution or organic evolution a new order will emerge.  But our response as Catholics must not be – –! – – a nostalgic attempt to bring back the Christendom of the weaponized Christ of coercion.  Our contribution, rather, must be to live and to preach nothing other, as with St. Paul, Christ crucified.  To die to our worldly idolatries of power and pretention, and to put on the baptismal garment of Christ’s descent into the nether regions of darkness in order to retrieve it for the Kingdom.

Finally, I offer here a robust defense of the call of Pope Francis for the Church to go out into the “existential peripheries” in order to shine the light of Christ’s love into the abyss of despair that envelops so much of our world today.  Not without reason did he choose the name Francis – – the most powerful saint in the Church’s history precisely because he was the saint, above all others, who was most radically conformed to the crucified Lord of history.