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In Defense of Vatican II

Blog Master’s note: what follows is a guest blog from Apolonio Latar III.  His biographical information can be found at the end of the post.  This is a long blog but well worth the read as he takes up the much needed defense of Vatican II.  Please feel free to make comments.

Larry Chapp

By Apolonio Latar III

Frankly, I find the whole debate on Vatican II a bit boring. A lot of the arguments that one finds on YouTube or websites or even from some within the clergy are pretty much the same old arguments presented by the SSPX or authors like Michael Davies. Most people who repeat these arguments seem to have never read the early Church Fathers, are ignorant of history, or have misinterpreted Aquinas. I was just never impressed with them. Reading their arguments is like reading Jesus mythicists. Almost every claim needs to be refuted and if one were to thoroughly refute the book, one would have to write more than a thousand pages to do so. And if one refuses to write that many pages, the response would be, “You have not refuted the 700-page argument that I have made.” He somehow thinks that a non-response to absurdity is somehow a win for absurdity. This is very similar to rad-trad claims. They will choose a controlling narrative, say, the modernist or freemason infiltration of Vatican II, and read every word of the documents within that light and then claim that the problems that one finds in the Church today come from the Council. Just like any conspiracy theory, they try to link ideas or events to each other in such a way that it makes you frustrated and you don’t know where to begin. It is not that one cannot respond to such arguments. It is that human reasoning sometimes just should not tolerate foolish imagination. It is one thing to say that there may be some freemasons or even modernists in the Council. It is another thing that the modernist takeover is the controlling narrative of how one should read this event. That is simply insane.

What I would rather like to do is give a little better understanding of Vatican II in light of what the Church is facing today, following the path and ideas that Larry Chapp has been providing. This is difficult because a Christian sees history not simply as events that happened in the past, but is required to see history within eyes of faith. This means that everything that happens in history is within the mysterious and loving will of God. The covenant between God and Israel and the Incarnation reveals that God acts within history. God does not illuminate the human mind of His covenantal plan through some kind of a priori abstract reasoning, but by acting gloriously in the world. Contemplation is perceiving the depth of God’s creation and His glorious action in history.

It is important, then, that when one thinks about the Church, one does not think about her as simply an institution just like any other political institution in the world. True, the very definition of the Church is that it is where the divine dwells within the human, which includes all the mess and rottenness that one can identify with humanity. Yet, the indwelling of the divine in humanity is what gives a Christian the understanding that one cannot reduce the Church to her messiness. And this experience of the divine in the Church, the experience of God’s tenderness to humanity (even in its rottenness), is what allows a Christian to see the divine in everything in the world. The experience of being in the Church, living life with God, provides the Christian to reaffirm the goodness of creation and history. This is not thoughtless optimism, but the joyful hope that one has when one has received a great love. A Christian has the freedom of not being enslaved by a reductionist analysis of history because he sees that the logic of God is not the logic of the world.

So what is the Church facing today? One can of course point to the secularization of the world, the gratuitous acceptance of immoral practices, the lack of reverence in the Liturgy, the failure of catechesis and evangelization, the sinful members in the hierarchy, and the relativism that infects so many minds. There are questions, however, that all of us in the Church must face and they should not be taken so lightly. They are these: do we still have something to say to the world? In light of the evil apparent in the Church and the scientific and technological progress in the world, what do we still have to say? What is it that the Church can still propose to a world that simply does not find anything attractive and relevant about the Church? Why isn’t Christianity convincing anymore? In order to answer these questions, we cannot presume the answer but ask the question that Hans Urs von Balthasar asked: What is Christian about Christianity? We are before the dramatic question: what is Christianity? Looking for answers in policies, change of structures, tools of evangelization, and so on, presuppose that one has sufficiently answered these questions. What is needed is to look at the whole. This, I submit, is the best way to also understand what Vatican II was grappling with. Vatican II was concerned with answering the questions: what is Christianity? What is it that we are proposing to the world?

Of course the Church always had her eyes on the question of the whole. Every declaration she has made had her eyes fixed on the essence of Christianity. Vatican II, however, had a different way of conceiving the problem from other councils. I think we can summarize, and maybe oversimplify a little, the problems that the Church had to face in three phases throughout history.

The first millennium more or less had to face the question: Who is Christ? Or what is the relationship between God and Christ? The event of the death and resurrection of Jesus gave faith to the early Christians, allowing them to confess, “Jesus is Lord.” This ontological statement coincided with affirmation of the event that God raised Jesus from the dead: “If your lips confess that Jesus is Lord and if you believe in your heart hat God has raised him from the dead, then you will be saved” (Rom. 10:9-10). This confession should only be understood within the context of the practice of the worship of Jesus. The practice of devotion to Jesus and the acclamation that he is Lord necessarily entailed that they had to grapple with monotheistic Judaism.

How does the Lordship of Jesus fit into the doctrine that that there is only one God? It wasn’t easy to answer this question and it took almost a millennium to fully answer it. One reason is that the New Testament usually uses the word “God” with a definite article, ho theos, to refer to the Father and rarely refers to Jesus as ho theos (Thomas’ confession in the Gospel of John is one of those rare examples, “Ho kyrios mou kai ho theos mou”). The word “God” is usually reserved for the Father while “Lord” is usually reserved for Jesus: “For there is one God…and one Lord, Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 8:6). This is why Arius found it reasonable to say that Jesus was simply a creature, a lesser god, while the Father is the only one true God. What the early Christians had to confront was whether we can speak of Jesus as ho theos. Is Jesus, God’s Messiah that He raised, a lesser god or is he one substance with the Father? Of course some responded to this question in such a way that affirming the Son as identical with the Father made them diminish His humanity. Some, because they wanted to affirm Christ’s humanity, had trouble affirming his divinity.

But what allowed the Church to respond properly to these difficult questions was not just some theoretical and linguistic game that she can use to affirm both the divinity and humanity of Jesus, but the faithfulness to her liturgical practices, such as the worship of Jesus and baptism, and her concern for the salvation of the world from sin and death. That is to say, can we really say that we are no longer in our sins? If Jesus is God and not man, then we are still in our sins. And if Jesus is man and not God, then we are still in our sins. It is only when the Church can affirm the full divinity (one substance with the Father) and the full humanity of Jesus that we can truly say that we are no longer enslaved to sin.

In the second millennium (again, oversimplifying), the Church had to face the questions: what is the relationship between Christ and the Church? How does the Incarnation continue in the world? Obviously, having a political order that is Christian helped the Church become more present in the lives of people. Christendom, with all of its glories and failures, gave the Western world a culture permeated with the logic of the Christian faith. Everything that was done was done for Christ and his kingdom, even if some of those behaviors were wrong. The creation of universities was done for Christ, and so were the Crusades and the Inquisitions. To belong to Christ was to belong to the Church and to make the world become more like the Church.

Two unfortunate events, the great schism between the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox and the Protestant Reformation, allowed the Church to develop a sacramental theology and ecclesiology, focused on the necessity of the Church for the salvation of the human person. The question of how we can know and experience Christ was always answered with: “in the Church.” The Councils, especially the Council of Trent, wanted to show the objective presence of Christ in the world through His Church. It was right and just that the Church did this. Showing the objectivity of the presence of Christ was a necessary step for giving the faithful a better certainty that God is truly faithful. How do we know Christ is present? Because the Pope and the bishops are all signs of His presence, giving us a link all the way back to the Apostles, inheriting a Tradition that can give us a proper understanding of Scripture. Because by our baptism and participation in the Eucharist, we are a new creation. Because in the Liturgy, we can hear the Gospel anew. And so on.

The doctrine of the Papacy, justification, Scripture and Tradition, the sacraments, etc., were all a way for the Church to say: yes, Christ is truly present in the Church and that is why you need the Church. By focusing on the objectivity of the presence of Christ, independent of what one feels or thinks, the Church gave the faithful the certainty of a home they can always return to in order to find Christ. Outside this Church, there is no certainty that Christ is present, which is to say, there is no salvation. The doctrines and theology developed in the second millennium gave the faithful the certainty that Christ is truly visible in the world. Hence, the Church is the continuation of the Incarnation.

The third millennium, of which we are a part, has to face the dramatic question: what is the relationship between the Church and the modern world? This was the question that Vatican II wanted to confront. It is not as if Vatican II was the only time the Church had to face this question, but it seems that it was the appropriate time to give answers when the world was reaching the full flowering of secularization. One can read the works of Del Noce, MacIntyre, Brague, Taylor, etc if one wants to see how the Cartesian turn to the subject, the Baconian revolution of science, the French and the Industrial Revoution, etc. have made the Western world into a place where a human person is filled with the delusion that power and efficiency are the primary values with which to judge everything, and that at the end of everything, life and the world are ultimately meaningless.

I think that the biggest problem today, the problem which the difficult moral questions (such as gender ideology, end of life issues, bioethics, etc.) are based upon, is the problem of boredom. Boredom is the perception that reality is dull, that the world is not inherently meaningful, and that one must create the meaning of one’s life and the world. The main problems today are ontological, not moral. But they are ontological because of historical events in the past that carried a worldview that is against how the Church sees the world. The question of the relationship between the Church and the modern word, therefore, must understand the two words “modern” and “world” in an appropriate way. She must understand once again what it means to say that the world was created. And she must not forget the historical factors that led her to the present day and the ontology that modern people carry.

Here we get back to the question that we started in the beginning. Do we still have something to say to the world? There are two things that a Catholic needs to balance. The first is the affirmation that the Logos is in every human person as the Logos spermatikos, especially in his or her use of reason. Every person who follows the truth already follows God in some way. No matter how corrupt the world may be, it cannot be so corrupt that there is no hope for the human person. That is to say, not only do we have hope in God that He can attract and persuade each and every person to Himself, but that there is something in the human person that will allow himself to welcome the love of God in his heart.

The second factor to consider is the affirmation that the world is corrupt and sin has weakened our reason and faith. This means that there is no room for false optimism in the world. Not only is the Church facing a world that comes from a totally different worldview, but she is also facing a world that would like to manipulate and destroy the truth and the Church. The Church’s pastoral activity must balance these while she is proclaiming Christ. The modern person is corrupted by the ontology of technology, the perception that reality is boring, while, at the same time, he will always know and love God implicitly in whatever he knows and loves, as Aquinas said. To put it in a different way, the person is a mess and the Church, like her Savior, must work through that mess while obeying the Father.

The imbalance between these two ideas can be seen by the factions that exist in the Church. There is the liberal view that has compassion on the modern world, trying to affirm the person as he is. They see a lot of greatness in the success of modern science and modern values of equality and social justice without seeing that the modern world simply does not want to need Christ in anything. They become so enamored with the world and frustrated with their fellow conservative Catholics that their fate will be like that of King Solomon. The radtrads, on the other hand, see the world so corrupt that they think that forming a bubble, a spiritual ghetto filled with devotions to Marian apparitions and eschatological warnings, and a formalistic way of worshipping God will show the world that they are the true remnant of God. So much for mission.

Both fail in proposing Christ to the world. Why should the modern world accept Christ the way liberal Catholics do when there are so many similarities between them that one would be better off to simply reject Christ? One can help the poor, be compassionate, help the sick, and any other works of corporal works mercy even without faith in Christ. In other words, why does one need Christ anyway? What does he bring to the daily life of a person that makes it much more beautiful?

The rad-trad view is little better, if at all. They simply view the whole world going to hell, so the response is to hold fast to an individualistic understanding of Christianity, saving himself because he somehow knows within the deepest depths of his heart that most people go to hell anyway. That or they presume that the best way to evangelize is to tell others that they are going to hell if they don’t fully belong to the Church. They have a scrupulous attention (and we all know there are people who suffer scrupulosity especially from this group) to the rules and doctrines of the Church that does not reveal a love for Christ, and is a reminder that legalism really takes away any joy in being a Christian. They are the remnant while everyone else is the enemy. Every bishop or priest that does not conform to their way of thinking is infected with modernism. It is as if they think that fixing the Liturgy will automatically make you a better father, mother, friend, or worker. How does Christ affect the rest of the day? Doesn’t Christ’s goodness permeate in everything that is given to him? Especially people? The fact that the SSPX has a pre-Vatican II understanding of life and the world and yet have their problems and abuses show that a simple rejection of Vatican II does not solve the big problems the Church is facing today.

We are living in a moment in history where we have separated God from Christ, Christ from the Church, and the Church from the world. In other words, if God exists, He doesn’t matter. A lot of young people simply do not find being part of the Church as a fascinating way of living. They don’t care about ecclesiastical politics the way Catholic social media users do and they simply don’t think about theology the way that people who watch EWTN do. They are upset about the world and feel hypocrisy and betrayed. They think that digital presence is actually how common life is lived and being angry is at something is the way they can feel something, even feel a bit alive.

It is no wonder why extremists, like rad-trads, are attractive to them and this is why the separation of God from Christ, Christ from the Church, and the Church from the world are so dangerous. It provides a way for individuals to become more fragmented and live in their own made up world, in their own bubble, and in loneliness. What the Church must propose today is a life of communion grounded in the Person of Christ. Communion literally means living together in the truth, not just some digital presence where one can click on a Catholic article one likes and hate what one does not like and then go to a good Mass. It is knowing a person in the flesh, with the person’s beauty, goodness, limits, and weaknesses. God became flesh: this means that it is through the flesh that we can come to know Him. And not just to know as in memorizing a bunch of doctrines and scriptural passages that support those doctrines (which is a good thing, by the way), but to know Him in the biblical sense, that is to say, to have an intimacy with Him, to be one with Him. To be one with Him, though, means being one with the Church, with concrete people, concrete faces, and therefore one with Christ. And when one is with Christ, one is with God.

This, in short, is why Vatican II was so prophetic. It insisted on proposing Christianity to a world that was forgetting God while diagnosing the problems of the modern world. It is best to see Vatican II, then, as a deepening and enriching of the faith. Pre-Vatican II magisterial teachings against Modernism were necessary, but it was insufficient to combat against it. It was necessary to condemn the reduction of faith to religious experience or dogmas to simply cultural expressions of particular historical circumstances or reading Scripture with methods that run contrary to the Catholic faith. Even if one reads Pius’ Pascendi and says “Amen” to every single statement there (after, of course, reading it carefully since with it is filled with ambiguous language, and anyone who says that it condemns Blondel simply doesn’t know what he is talking about), what exactly was the proposal? In condemning (rightly) false conceptions of experience, history, revelation, development of dogma, interpretation of Scripture, etc., it nowhere provides a true understanding how experience relates to faith, how dogma rightly develops, and how one can understand history.

Should we really think that experience plays no role in faith or knowledge of God? Should we really think that everyone who applies historical methods of interpreting Scripture separates faith and history? Should we really think that understanding the particular historical and cultural expressions of dogma would necessarily reduce it to a contingent truth? The answers are implicitly in the questions. No matter how much one can affirm Pascendi, one is left with wondering how its remedy, neo-scholastic philosophy, is sufficient to give a good understanding of the themes that were important to Modernists, such as the importance of human experience, exegesis, and history. Of course there is some good in neo-scholastic theologians and philosophers, but their (though not all) tendency to write manuals and their neglect of the primacy of Scripture and the centrality of Christ, the inability to effectively deal with secularism, atheism, technology, and interact with the Eastern Orthodox and Protestants made it difficult to make an impact upon the faithful. Thankfully, something new and beautiful, faithful to the Tradition of the Church, was being born in other places in the Church.

A group of theologians in France saw that a return to the Fathers was one of the best ways to respond to the lack of unity between thought and life. Theology had to return to the unity between dogma, exegesis, history, and the spiritual life in order to respond to the modern concerns of the human person. It is not that conceptualization is not necessary in theology, but a theology that does not address human experiences would be a cold rationalism that would make dogmas irrelevant to human life. What these theologians found in the Early Church Fathers was a theology relevant to the existential questions of the human person.

It is not a coincidence, then, that theologians like Jean Danielou and Hans Urs von Balthasar saw an ally in St. Gregory of Nyssa. The first volume of Sources Chretiennes that was published was Gregory’s The Life of Moses and both of these great theologians themselves also wrote books on this great Church Father. But why would they choose Gregory of Nyssa as one of the figures to learn from? Because, along with Augustine, what one can find in this great Cappadocian Father is a theological anthropology that can respond adequately to the “modern turn to the subject”. In Gregory, one finds how human experience of God and theology meet, how the spiritual life is rooted in dogma, and where there is an intermingling of history and ontology. Speculative theology and mystical theology were not different from each other. It simply does not make sense, for the early Church Fathers, especially Gregory of Nyssa, to have dogmatic theology detached from mystical or spiritual theology. And since Scripture is the soul of theology, biblical exegesis and the spiritual life were not separated either; the literal meaning of Scripture is the radiation of its spiritual sense. The experiential side of faith (fides qua) is intrinsically linked to the mysteries of faith (fides quae). Here we see why the style of theology of the Fathers is relevant: there is simply no separation between dogmatic and pastoral theology. Pastoral theology is simply communicating the mysteries of the faith so that the person can contemplate and act within the glorious communion of the Holy Trinity, the God that Jesus Christ revealed to the cosmos.

Thankfully, this style of theology was influential at Vatican II, thanks to theological advisors like de Lubac, Danielou, and Ratzinger. It was this style of theology that Vatican II retrieved, a Trinitarian Christocentric theology that gives light to the truth of the human person and the world. It rejected the original schemas because they were simply reiterations of condemnations of Modernism, which, again, were necessary, but insufficient to correct its errors. A lot of the Council Fathers saw that the Church needed to propose (not presuppose!) Christianity in a way that would meet the existential needs of the modern world. This is what it really means to say that Vatican II was a pastoral council.

If one reads the debates in the Council, what one finds is that they all saw the intrinsic link between doctrine and the pastoral. What one “feeds” to the sheep is doctrine, as a great Filipino Council Father said. The difference was, as John O’Malley said, that of style. This did not make some of the Council Fathers and their theological advisors Modernists. This style was a retrieval of communicating the faith the way the Church Fathers did. Choosing the “medicine of mercy” does not mean that truth is not presented, but truth is presented in a way that reflects its beauty. It is beauty, anyway, that provokes one to delight in the truth. But this already means that one must understand the depth of the truth of God, Christ, and the Church (ecclesia ad intra) before one can communicate it to the faithful and to the world (ecclesia ad extra).

There is simply no justification, then, in thinking that one can reject this Council because it is simply a “pastoral” one or that it never taught anything new (which is not true, anyway, especially since the Council’s new doctrine on the sacramentality of the episcopate must be accepted). For example, one of the influential texts being shared around the Council Fathers was the Danielou/Garrone text which influenced the draft of which was to become Dei Verbum. The text presents the truths Christ gave the world: the triune life of God and the truth of the human person. Primacy is given to God and His gratuitous love for humanity, a gratuitous love definitive in Jesus Christ. God reveals Himself in stages, in the cosmos’ witness to Him, in His covenant with Israel, and finally in His Only Son. Then the text presents the intrinsic connection between the word and action of God in history. This is a better understanding of what revelation is according to Scripture, rather than some post-Tridentine understanding of revelation as some kind bag of propositions that Jesus gave to the Apostles.

In fact, events themselves are called words (debarim) in Scripture. God spoke of light and the creation of light came about. God spoke to Moses and he delivered His people from Egypt. He says that He wants Jeremiah to be a prophet, and no matter how clueless or afraid Jeremiah was, it came to be. What God says happens, and what happens contains a call and a promise. And word and event coincide especially when, in the appointed time, the Word of God became flesh (event) and tabernacled among us (Jn. 1:14). So it is true: “But I the Lord will speak the word which I will speak, and it will be performed” (Ez. 12:25). Finally, Danielou articulated the Holy Spirit’s role in converting the hearts of people to Christ and to deepen their understanding of what has been revealed. What is important in the Danielou/Garrone text is its Trinitarian Christocentrism, grounded in Scripture, and that is faithful to the human person as a historical being. Ontology, Scripture, history, and experience come together in this beautiful text that influenced the Council.

Finally, there is also an issue that was not part of the original schemas. While the original schemas focused on Modernism, there were others, like Congar and Ratzinger, who saw a problem that the Church will face for many years: the problem of technology. No matter how much one can criticize Gaudium et spes for being overly optimistic, one should see that it was very perceptive in seeing many problems of the modern world, one of which was technology. This is something that the Church today still needs to face. We are living in a technological world where we are distracted, where the ontology of technology impedes us from falling in love. We do not know what it means to be in love, to be rooted forever in the beautiful goodness and beautiful truth of things. We are sentimental creatures that lack bonds of affection. The response isn’t just changing behavior, which is what policies and laws are about. Any response that is just about changing structure, changing behavior, although necessary, is insufficient. Simply repeating pre-Vatican II rituals and having neo-scholastic manuals in one’s head simply will not propose to the world that Christ is the meaning of life. It is about proposing a way of thinking, feeling, and living that is grounded in the beauty, goodness, and truth of things. That is the challenging part and that is where we really need to know what makes Christ worth everything we have.

Apolonio Latar III has an M.Ed. from Marymount University in Administration and Supervision. He has degrees in Philosophy (Rutgers University) and Theology (Lateran University). He is currently the Theology Department Chair at a high school in Virginia. 

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The Valor of the Unshielded Heart: A Lenten Meditation

by Larry Chapp

“But … the situation in which this truth emerges is now that of suffering … which lays man bare in his vulnerability, forcibly exposing and humiliating him.  Only a great and majestic human being is equal to this; he alone can bear such a burden, and only from him, when he is finally and necessarily broken apart, can there arise, like a fragrance, the pure essence of human kind, indeed, of being as such.  What is unprecedented here is that the suffering is neither denied (declared to be only apparent and philosophically reduced), nor is it shunned for the sake of an unattainable eudaimonia, but rather the way of man to god and the revelation of the deep truth of existence passes directly through the most extreme form of suffering.  That is the valor of the unshielded heart, which philosophy will lack, and which stands in a direct relation to Christ.”

(Hans Urs von Balthasar. The Glory of the Lord IV, p. 103)

In the quote above Balthasar is tracing the metaphysics of classical antiquity and in a penetrating analysis notes that the Greek tragedians, unlike their philosophical contemporaries, viewed man’s dignity as mysteriously related to the “glory” that emanates from the realm of the gods.  Balthasar puts it as follows: “In tragedy, man acts against the background of the god and man only reveals himself, emerging into the light of his own truth, because of the appearance of the god, even in wrath and concealment.” (pp. 102-103). In tragedy the existence of the gods is taken seriously and it is the final victory and glorification of the gods that forms the backdrop for the dramatic action that unfolds.  Man’s true dignity, therefore, resides in accepting “fate,” even if it ultimately means suffering and death, for it is only in such acceptance that man too can participate in the glory of the divine realm and achieve a measure of calm serenity, even joy, as our sufferings are lifted up and bathed in the glory of the victory of the gods.  Therein lies as well a kind of liberation as the valor of an unshielded heart approaches the gods with no bargaining or preconditions and allows itself to be broken open, revealing the soul’s true inner dignity as a liturgy of transformed suffering that also acts as the medium for the god’s epiphany. 

What the Greeks lacked, of course, is the Revelation of the glory of Christ.  The Sacred Heart of Jesus is the most unshielded heart possible, and therefore after Him no tragedy in a high register is any longer possible.  Greek tragic figures such as Oedipus and Antigone really were guilty of something and thus their sufferings are ultimately the result of divine justice but without any hope of reparation or restoration.  Their unshielded hearts, therefore, had valor as they accepted their fate with a dignified moral resolve, but in the end their fate, though epiphanic, is a tragic one.  And the inherent inscrutability of the world of the gods means that the question of man’s tragic fate is left hanging – – i.e. is human tragedy a merely penultimate reality awaiting a future resolution or is it our ultimate destiny?  Is this wound which bleeds into us without ceasing ever to end or are we destined to suffer the futility of an endlessly repeating nightmare forever? Is the machinery of divine justice like a set of automatic gears in which we will all be ground-up and pulverized or will there be some sort of heuristic dénouement to the whole affair that speaks of mercy? The tragedians do not say, but the fact that the human characters show up at all speaks to the importance of their free choices in the unfolding drama – –  a moral dimension – – that transcends mere fate.

But in Christ there is no such ambiguity, no tragic “fate” that is the result of his sins, and certainly no hint of a divine justice that is without mercy or reparative grace.  Christ’s human soul is uniquely “unshielded” insofar as it is an utterly open soul to both his Father’s will (mission) and to those who have been entrusted to him (all of humanity).  His entire existence can be defined as “pro nobis,” a “man for others,” and whose mission is precisely to be completely broken open in order to bear the sins of the world through a mysterious “exchange” wherein he takes into his unshielded soul the full existential weight and consequences for our sins.  What can this mean?  Who can fathom its mysterious depths?  St. Paul says that Christ “became” sin for our sakes which underscores the substitutionary nature of this exchange and, therefore, its reparative atonement.

But how does it atone? Is it because Christ has taken on the punishments due to sin in order to appease an “offended” God who will not forgive his wayward creatures until he gets his pound of flesh? How could Christ’s tortured and murderous death “please” God? Sin does indeed require some form of retributive punishment, but all too often our take on the atonement is vulgar and involves a monstrous portrayal of God as a “sky sadist.” It can also be anti-Semitic since all too often in such schemes the God of the Old Testament is described as a God of law, judgment, and wrath (the Father) whose avenging justice is satiated by the brutal death, at the hands of Jews, of His Son – – a death that ushers in a now “changed” God of love.  Or, as in the case of the Gnostic Marcion, a different God altogether, which really amounts to the same thing as the “changed” God.  And then, in the name of this “love” we decided to persecute the Jews for their alleged deicide, burn heretics at the stake, and to turn the engine of the State into an instrument of an often brutal coercion. There is an inner logic to all of that since a view of God the Father as a vengeful sadist has a nasty habit of legitimating our own violence in His name.  And ultimately, Christ too is transformed from a pantocrator who is, for all eternity, the lamb who was slain, into a kick-ass pantocrator who, when he comes back a second time, will be pissed. 

A better view of the atonement is rooted in the unchanging and unconditional love of the God of the Covenant.  There is no single view of the atonement that can adequately “pin down” in some kind of totalizing scheme the full depths of its mystery – – a mystery that is ultimately unknowable by us since the atonement is an act of the Trinity ad intra before it is ad extra, and even in the Revelation of God in Christ the mystery that is God in His divine essence remains.  Nevertheless, what is revealed as the central motif of all of Scripture is that God is love.  Love can and must also involve justice of course, otherwise it would not be a true love, but most certainly at the very least such a view of God precludes the sky sadist described above.  Therefore, a full and proper view of the atonement must be rooted in that theological fact. And so it is more in line with this fact to view the atonement as an exchange wherein Christ takes into his unshielded heart the full toxicity and poison that is sin in a mysterious mystical act and suffers it through to the end. And if the ultimate consequence of all sin is to make us “distant” from God, what it is that Christ suffers is the experience of that distance, of that “dereliction,” and of that crushing alienation in the “dark night” of the experience of the “absence” of God. And yet, despite it all, Christ continues to love even from the depths of darkness and offers to the Father on our behalf a perfect act of contrition. In other words, our “no” to God which our sins both represent and instantiate, is transformed into a definitive “yes.” We too must appropriate that “yes” and make it our own – – our salvation being anything but automatic – – but we are now relieved of the anxiety that our faith can never be “good enough” to “merit” the Father’s forgiveness. 

Furthermore, the entire dynamic of this event is a corporate one wherein the entirety of the human race is implicated within its action, which also means that salvation is a corporate event. Within the depths of the unshielded Sacred Heart the full eschatological horizon of humanity opens up. Heaven and Hell are, therefore, Christological states of being, both of which reside within the “decision” contained within that substitutionary exchange. But they are not symmetrical since Christ’s corporate action “pro nobis” directly implies the priority of the regime of grace and salvation over that of perdition. This is the basis of Balthasar’s claim that we can at least hope that all will be saved.  Perhaps it is a false hope, but Balthasar is not speaking here of a psychological state but of a Christological reality. 

The corporate nature of salvation also contains a gut-punch for our understanding of what it means to “be saved” and, therefore, what it means to be a Christian.  Evangelicals are fond of asking “are you saved?” But what does it mean to be “saved?”  Salvation cannot be viewed as an atomized and individualistic endeavor where my conversion is viewed as a possession of mine that I have “acquired” like some object that I purchase and now “own.”  Baptism is our entry into the Church but it isn’t a “get out of jail free” card or a free ticket on the express tram to heaven.  Nor does being saved mean that I believe in the proper doctrines or even that I believe Jesus is the Son of God. As St. Paul observes, faith is useless without charity. Indeed, he implies that such a faith is just an empty “noise” devoid of meaning. And as such faith without charity can actually be a dangerous illusion that fosters the notion that salvation is something that I possess simply in virtue of some magical action on my part. Thus, central to our salvation are the spiritual and corporal works of mercy, identified as the very heart of the Gospel by Dorothy Day. As St. Augustine noted, there are only two “cities” – – the City of God which is comprised of all those whose lives are oriented to the love of God and neighbor, and the City of Man which is characterized by the libido dominandi.  And many there are who, though “in the Church,” are actually citizens of the City of Man.

Being saved means something far deeper and far more existentially gripping than the magical view of salvation that so many seem to assume.  Those who are saved are now called to enter into Christ’s body which means that we are putting on the “new man.”  But what does that mean?  What is this “new man?”  It is the pattern of Christ’s own humanity, including his atoning death.  Christians therefore are called to emulate his existence “pro nobis” and to transform our own souls into unshielded hearts, allowing ourselves to be broken open in order to also suffer for the sins of the world.  Ours is a substitutionary vocation where our entire life becomes a liturgy of intercession for the “others.” How often do we hear Catholics say of their sufferings that they are “offering them up” as an act of charity wherein whatever “merits” our suffering may have gained for ourselves are transferred to someone else?  This implies that salvation is corporate and I am implicated in the lives of every other human being who has ever lived or who will live.  Such intercession, far from being a pietistical puddle of saccharine syrup, is in reality the very warp and woof of our vocation as priests. A priest is an intermediary who prays and intercedes on behalf of the people.  And the priesthood of all of the baptized means that we are a “people set apart” for the express purpose of interceding for others.  Therefore, this pattern of substitutionary intercession is not an ancillary element of our salvation but rather is its very essence.  There is a reason why St. Therese of Lisieux, a cloistered nun, is the patron saint of missionaries.  Her quiet life of intercession, her “little way,” is nothing short of the very meaning of the Gospel.  Which is why she is also a doctor of the Church.  Furthermore, the deepest purpose behind “converting those others” is so that they too can become part of this corporate body of intercessors, thus elevating their own suffering, which may have seemed existentially meaningless to them before their conversion, into the “glory” of Christ’s paschal action.

But as I said above, this is a gut-punch because it means unshielding our hearts in a raw and radical conversion to a form of spiritual empathy that requires us to rid ourselves of any notion of entitlement with the endless “demands” for our own “rights” that entitlement brings.  We are to be divested people, poured out, and profligate in our forgiveness.  And this is especially true when we ourselves endure sufferings caused by injustices committed against us.  The commandment to love and mercy found in the Sermon on the Mount is not so much a prescription for an earthly social order as it is an eschatological summons to lessen the full range of sin’s regime. For when we forgive those who harm us, we lessen the effect of those sins thus reducing the offender’s guilt, which means that forgiveness is much more than a psychological movement of emotions but is also a demand of charity.  There can be no true Christian existence without it and we cannot be “saved” if we are parsimonious in its application.  Thus does Christ respond to Peter, who had asked Jesus how many times we are required to forgive, by telling the parable of the ungrateful servant who, though his own debts had been forgiven (and he thus was saved in his eyes!), he then turned around and refused to forgive others. (Matthew, 18:21-35). Christ is not just giving a pithy little sermon here on the importance of forgiveness.  He is laying down the very law of the Gospel and makes it clear that no “disciple” of his can be “saved” unless that salvation is a shared one.

There is a wonderful scene in the Russian movie “The Island” ( a great movie which can be found for free on YouTube here) where the main character of the story, a saintly monk, is shown at prayer. The scene begins with the monastery’s abbot and another monk praying in their respective cells the “Jesus prayer” (“Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me a sinner”).  In other words, they are praying for themselves.  The scene then shifts to the prayer of the saintly monk who is standing outside looking over the sea coast and who prays “Lord Jesus Christ I pray for all the dead that they may be forgiven their sins.”  Of course, both sets of prayers are perfectly legitimate and holy in their own way (I too pray the Jesus prayer as does the saintly monk early in the action), but the movie wants to highlight that the saintly monk’s sanctity goes further than the Jesus prayer and is precisely constituted by his unshielded heart, broken open for the sake of the world. 

But this view of salvation has deep connotations for the Church as a whole as well.  Can we say that a Church bureaucracy larded with lawyers on retainer and liability insurance is a Church with an unshielded heart?  A Church grown fat with Mammon and comfortable with Moloch is certainly not the Church of substitutionary intercession, but is rather a Church of possessors and owners, overly concerned with protecting its unfettered “right” to maintain its fortress of sacramental solitude vis-à-vis a dominant culture portrayed as the enemy at the gates.  The Church does indeed have enemies, but I highly doubt the most dangerous ones are outside of her gates.  I would start with the quislings at the USCCB and work out from there.  I say this fully aware that some may view that last statement as overheated rhetoric.  But I say it and mean it quite literally.  Our bishops are, with some noteworthy exceptions, cowards and dullards, wolves in wolf’s clothing, not even bothering to hide their managerial class predation on any Catholic, priest or lay, who actually believes, has a pulse, and dares to rise above the Church’s Vape shop mediocrity.  These are not men characterized by the valor of the unshielded heart, not men of mission or zeal, not men of faith, not men of intercession, and the only substitutionary endeavor they usually engage in is when they upgrade to First Class from Business Class on their flight to Rome.  Not without reason did Jesus warn us that you cannot serve both God and Mammon.  Because you cannot offer your unshielded heart up as a sacrifice for the cankerous wound that afflicts the world all the while clinging, like the old lady in Hell in Dostoevsky’s parable, to the rotted onion of our holographic charity.

Ours is a Church concerned with saving the appearances. It is a childish Church of fantasy make-believe that talks to its invisible friend called “healthy parish life” as if such a thing is real.  If salvation is corporate and if our central role is to be priestly intercessors for the pain of the world and our chief “actions” are the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, then this mentality should predominate the landscape of our parishes.  Does it? You tell me.  I get emails every day from distraught Catholics from all over the country and they ALL ask variations of the same questions:  where can I find a parish that isn’t beige? Where can I find a parish that embodies the valor of the unshielded heart? Where can I find a parish that embodies a faith worth dying for?? That views salvation as an intercessory task for the sake of others rather than as a tired Totem of magical pieties?  A parish that refuses to play CYO sports on Sunday mornings (what is wrong with you malcontents?!… there is a vigil Mass you know… the Sabbath is for suckers…).  Enough illusions! Enough accommodationism! Basta! 

Sincere Catholics who want to serve the Lord in His Church are currently undergoing a deep crisis of demoralization.  Catholics I have known for decades have suddenly stopped going to Church, and not because they have “lost the faith” but rather because the Church has.  People of faith, who seek to meet the world with unshielded hearts, find in the bourgeois Church of today nothing but shields. Thick ones. They are tired of being called “fundamentalists” and “fanatics” just because they can no longer stomach the moldering stench of the rot of it all.  And many of them have retreated into a domestic preservation of the faith, like the Japanese Catholics during their time of oppression, until such time as the Church comes to its senses again.  I am not condoning this, merely describing it, and sympathizing with its reasons.

In a famous lecture given at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, with the Archbishop in attendance, the philosopher Giorgio Agamben, an agnostic, excoriated the Church for turning the meaning of Christ’s messianic action into a reduced and domesticated story fit for instilling “civic virtues” in the citizenry, but not much else.  He noted that in the early years of the Church Christians viewed themselves as “sojourners” in this life who lived within the eschatological horizon of “messianic time.”  They payed attention to their civic duties since they understood that the “ultimate things” come to us through penultimate things.  But that doesn’t change the fact that the penultimate must remain so and therefore the true Christian understood that his or her true home is elsewhere.   But all of that changed, said Agamben, with the revolution in the Church wrought by Constantine.  Suddenly, Christians went from being sojourners to citizens and the focus shifted from the ultimate to the penultimate with an attenuation of the eschatological dimension of messianic time as the result. 

A Church now overly fixated on penultimate things becomes, through an inexorable spiritual logic, a Church of worldly compromises.  Because the penultimate, when it becomes a substitute for the ultimate, inevitably devolves into a drab and suffocating ordo of utilitarian casuistries.  As the Gaelic language would put it, there were now shields “galore.” And a Church of shields, both figural and literal, is not a Church in spiritual and pastoral solidarity with the primary Christological act of substitutionary atonement. 

Today is the beginning of Lent for us Latin Catholics.  And it really does seem as if the contemporary Church is undergoing a long delayed pruning in the midst of the gravest crisis the Church has faced since the Reformation.  And I don’t just mean the sex abuse crisis, but the whole, damn, crisis of faithlessness in the Church that is demoralizing and alienating her base. And the answer to which I am pointing in this post is not in the direction of some program of reform, some “scheme,” or some kind of moral revolution in the Church.  It is rather a simple call to recover what is most basic about being a Christian.  To recover what it truly means “to be saved,” which would require us to remove the shields from our hearts for the sake of the world.  To love our enemies and to pray for them.  To suffer for them.  To die for them.  As did our Master before us.

Dorothy Day, pray for us.

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Let’s Try Again: Anger and Church Reform.

Blog Master’s Note: The following is the first in what I hope will be a series of guest blogs. Today’s post is by Teresa Messineo. Her biographical information is at the end of the post. This post is her wonderful commentary on my post last week on the Constantinian “heathenism” (paganism) of the Church. I think it is excellent. I hope you all do as well. The picture I chose for the top of the post is of a book by my journalist friend Christopher Altieri which is a collection of his reporting on the crisis in the Church. I include it here because if anyone is moved by Teresa’s post to learn more of the crisis in the Church this is a great place to start.

Larry Chapp

by Teresa Messineo

            So many essays are penned today about Church reform and so many of them are angry.  And I get it.  I was raised in an angry church. 

            As a kid, I attended outdoor mass where armed guards walked the perimeter, their German Shepherds tugging at their leads.  I knelt down to receive communion in rented ballrooms, in Holiday Inns, in picnic pavilions where pistols were sold out of car trunks for cash after the closing hymn.  For years, my parents ran bootleg Latin masses out of our basement boiler room, the furnace kicking in at inopportune times, drowning out the elderly priest as he shakily proclaimed the Word of God.

            I do not judge my parents’ generation, or the form of civil disobedience their faith life took.  People were – and continue to be – betrayed by those in positions of power within the church.  While their bishops lived like modern day royalty – a sort of flabby, old white man jet set – hardworking families went without braces for their kids and much-needed car repairs in order to keep their parishes open, only to have their school and church doors locked anyway, their donations greedily pocketed.  For those schools that remained open (like my own high school), children were raped by trusted priests and then gaslighted to keep silent, with devastating and far-reaching effect (see my essays on this here and here).  In the post-conciliar church, sanctuaries were ransacked; statues of Mary and baby Jesus ended up on the curb; my dad once saved a whole monastic library that was piled up outside in the grass, waiting to be burned (I don’t know that we actually read many of these books, but it was the principle of the thing).  For those who enjoy reading childhood accounts like mine, as a kind of nostalgic Catholic-Americana, perhaps no one does it better than Veronica Chater in her full-length memoir, Waiting for the Apocalypse (I also link an early piece I did on this, for the New Oxford Review). 

            But neither anger nor nostalgia for an earlier time will help us now.  If we are serious about church reform – and not just intent on venting our rage – we will have to try something else.   Dr. Larry Chapp, in his essay, The Constantinian Heathenism of the Church: Ratzinger and the Crisis of our Time, makes the argument that the church’s ‘hyper-magisterialism, born out of an idolatrous ecclesial ideology that makes the Church an end onto itself rather than a mere medium to Christ’ is coming dangerously close to the mark here.  While my formative years left me very well catechized (I have won money naming the Six Precepts of the Church), it was not there that I learned of the Nature and Person of Christ.  I learned doctrine.  But, at best, that is a beginning, not an end.  ‘And unto whomsoever much is given, of him much shall be required’ (Luke 12:48), and much, much more is required of us.  Following Christ demands morality, but morality is far more than error-avoidance.  As Chapp aptly puts it, ‘The proper uses of the magisterium devolved into a hyper-magisterialism that turned the doctrine of apostolic succession into a weaponized ideology of control. Theological orthodoxy and holding to all the right doctrines became a central focus of the Church’s concept of salvation as such, elevating doctrines and creeds beyond their status as second and third level reflections on the sources of Revelation, and into the realm of Revelation as such.’  I could not have said this better.  I have seen grown men cry, not out of repentance, but out of sheer terror, paralyzed into inaction (when action was morally necessary) by their fear of sinning, of breaking a rule, of making a mistake.

            So what can we do?  Pick up any Catholic publication, and the list of quick-fixes for our church seems endless.  Outlaw the Norvus Ordo.  Get rid of altar girls.  Say this novena (it will make the devil really, really mad).  Put Benedict back on the Chair.  Ban all Praise and Worship hymnals (okay, that last one is tempting).  But is there a secret recipe for getting our church ‘right’ or, at least, setting her on a better course?  I don’t believe in quick fixes.  But if there is anything useful I have learned from my unusual vantage point in the church, I offer it now.

            1) Either you love Jesus Christ, or you don’tThere are a lot of other points I could make, and a lot of other arguments we could have, but all of them are pointless without this.  I think a lot of people – and a lot of people that were and continue to be in positions of power in the church – have fallen out of love with Christ, if they ever cared for Him at all.  You can wring your hands in despair over this; or you can start piling up kindling around the nearest stake; but I feel the purpose of church reform would be better served by everyone concerned being honest about this.  Personally, for me, living without Christ – without a consuming love for Him – would truly be terrible, but it’s not that way for everyone.  If your parish priest, or local bishop, or that nun I had in high school who used to smack every male student within range with her spiral-bound notebook no longer cares for Christ, that needs to be admitted as the first step towards their stepping down from places of authority, and our church beginning to heal.  Even if they are outwardly invested in the trappings of the church – in their high-end real estate, in felt banners, in scarves and mittens that match the colors of the different liturgical seasons – without Christ, it was all a façade, anyway, a shambles that could never stand.  You might argue they are making the wrong decision, giving up Christ, and I would agree with you.  But I have a feeling they gave up on Him a long time ago.  Let these church leaders – who cannot lead us because they do not like the Head of the Church, let alone love Him – remove themselves from the mix.  And, after that, let’s see what we have left to work with.  Chapp quotes Ratzinger’s prophetic 1958 lecture, The New Pagans and the Church: ‘And so it seems certain to me that the Church is facing very hard times. The real crisis has scarcely begun. We will have to count on terrific upheavals.  But I am equally certain about what will remain at the end: not the Church of the political cult … but the Church of faith.  It may well no longer be the dominant social power to the extent that it was until recently; but it will enjoy a fresh blossoming, and be seen as man’s home where he will find life and hope beyond death.’ 

            2)  Neither the Left nor the Right will save you.  Anyone naive enough to believe a political party will save them or their country’s morality is in for a rude awakening.  In my experience, Catholics identifying as liberal have been poorly catechized (just ask them to list the Ten Commandments), can be easily manipulated by politicians who appeal to their emotion, and often define their relationship with God as ‘casual’ – kind of like He’s a cool uncle, rather than a Father.  The more vocal group I knew in my youth – identifying as conversative or traditional Catholics – may have been insanely well-catechized, but my whole life I watched them be taken advantage of by con artists, survivalists, and other charlatans who prey on the distrustful.  I have seen these Catholics override their God-given reason and what they knew to be true, if it did not fall into a neat, doctrinal niche, or could not be easily looked up in a second grade catechism.  Disturbingly, many have also adopted a view of God and Mary (especially in regard to Marian apparitions) that is similar to many domestic violence triangles – the pleading woman interceding for and protecting her children from an ill-tempered male.  Don’t get me wrong.  I have said my rosary every day, and visited Fatima like the best of pilgrims.  But I was put off by what her more ardent devotees seemed to be implying.  Is Mary more merciful than God?  More loving?  More understanding and patient and forgiving?  Or is she these things precisely because God dwells inside her and He is those things in their fullness? 

            So, if neither the Left nor the Right will save us, who will?  See point one, above.  Unfortunately for those who were not really that into Him in the first place, we are left again with Jesus Christ.  He is enough, He is sufficient, He is superabundant.  He draws all things to Himself, and will draw into (and from within) the church everything necessary, not just for its survival, but for its thriving upon the earth.  But no politician can do that.  Only Christ.

            3)  Take your fingers out of your ears.  There are those who (amazingly) feel there is nothing wrong with the Catholic Church, and swear undying allegiance – not just to her doctrine and dogma, not just to the faith or religion, but, unequivocally, to the actual political institution itself, a city-state nestled in the heart of Italy.  No sex abuse scandal, no claims of clergy corruption can seemingly perturb this smiling group, happily content with the status quo, waving their pretty white-and-yellow flags and proclaiming the current incarnation of Christ’s church on earth as ‘pretty darn good.’  I am not one of these Pollyanna’s.  And neither, I believe, is Chapp when he cites the magisterium’s long-standing love affair with ‘worldly perks, its secretive curial intrigue in the tradition of corrupt kingly courts, and its episcopal pleasure palaces.’  The political church hierarchy is imploding in on itself, crushed by its own weight.  Let it.  It was never the right tack to take in the first place, a misdirection, at best.  Christ said to take no money for the journey and have only one cloak.  We crammed as much cash as we could into our pockets, pushed aside our naked neighbor, and struggled along the bumpy road of salvation, tugging behind us an unwieldy suitcase stuffed with a dozen cloaks.  Okay, so we got that wrong.  Let’s try again.  Every place where we took the words of Christ (Matthew 20:25, 1 Peter 5:3, Luke 9:3, etc) and twisted them for our own benefit, we took a wrong turn.  It’s time to turn back.  And turn towards Christ. 

            There is a danger my words – ‘turn towards Christ’ – could be misconstrued, either as mere pleasantry, or as a gross over-simplification, but they are neither.  They are, in fact, a little terrifying.  To turn towards Christ is to admit that He is worth turning towards, in fact, the center and summit of all things.  To even begin to see Him is to see ourselves, and all the lousy ways we’ve injured ourselves and others, and the piffling nature of our contributions to a church of which we are both members and some of her loudest armchair quarterbacks.  But if you can face that day of truth, that awful reckoning, if you can turn towards Christ you begin to see the world as He sees it.  Not as a hopeless mess, not as the dark and despairing chaos the world often sees it as, but as something indescribably beautiful, and precious, and worth saving.  So worthy of salvation, in fact, that He bothered to come and do precisely that.  Christ’s message was never one of despair, but of hope.  He did not draw hundreds, and then thousands, and then millions (billions) of believers to Himself by any means other than His nature, His very Self, which is so irresistible to the human heart that He needs no press, no PR team, and certainly no corrupt, power-hungry hangers-on to make it so.  If you could see the world as God sees it, you would never again raise a hand to your neighbor, except to help him.  You would come to see yourself, too, for the incarnate beauty God sees you as, even if ‘beautiful’ is the last adjective you would ever choose to describe yourself.  And you would laugh at the fear (as Ratzinger put it) of our becoming a smaller church, a less powerful church, a church whose first priority is not avoiding error but encountering Christ and His inescapable love.  There’s nothing scary about that, even if it has not been tried for nearly 1,700 years. 

            Towards the end of his essay, Chapp calls for universal holiness, not as an oversimplification of the problems within the church, but as their only possible solution.  ‘It will be a smaller, chastened Church, that will be cruciform and devoted to the ‘simple ones’ so neglected by the world.  It will be a deeply spiritual Church, shorn of its political trappings and having almost no social standing.’

            Kind of like the Church Christ founded. 

            Sounds just about perfect to me. 

~ Teresa Messineo is a graduate of DeSales University, where she is currently completing her graduate MFA-CW.  She spent seven years researching The Fire by Night (HarperCollins 2017), her historical fiction novel about military nurses of the Second World War, now published in three languages in seven countries.  She is also the mother of four children whom she exclusively home schooled for nearly 20 years.

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The Constantinian Heathenism of the Church: Joseph Ratzinger and the Crisis of our Time

“The appearance of the church in the modern era shows that in a completely new way it has become a church of heathens, and increasingly so: no longer, as it once was, a Church made up of heathens who have become Christians, but a Church of heathens, who will call themselves Christians, but have really become heathens. Heathenism is entrenched today in the church itself. That is the mark of the Church of our time and also of the new heathenism. This heathenism is actually in the church and a church in whose heart heathenism lives”

(Joseph Ratzinger, Hochland, October 1958)

With these incendiary words in an article shocking for its candor during a time when such things were just not said, a young Joseph Ratzinger burst onto the theological scene in Germany.  All was not well with the Church, despite outward appearances, and Ratzinger was convinced that the Church was in a deep crisis of faith requiring an equally deep theological response.  What is instructive in the quote isn’t just the blunt claim that the Church had been infected by “heathenism,” but also that these words were written in 1958 which gives the lie to the currently popular view among some conservatives that the reforms of Vatican II are responsible for the malaise in the Church.  All Vatican II did was to lift the lid off of the ecclesiastical libido and to thereby allow for the first time a full public expression of the unbelief, brewing for centuries, of the laity and the clerics alike.  Only this can explain why the putative “Catholic” culture of the pre conciliar Church collapsed almost overnight.  The vapid lunacy of the post conciliar Church was the product of the hollow and merely forensic “faith” of the pre conciliar Church.  There is only one Church and these shallow distinctions between the pre and post conciliar Church – – distinctions designed in order to assign blame based on your favored ecclesiastical ideology – – are useless as valid diagnostic tools. 

Ratzinger was not alone in ringing the alarm, as many fellow ressourcement theologians, philosophers, Dorothy Day, and Catholic literary figures in the period between 1920-1960 were making similar claims. The signs of rot were there if you only had the eyes to see it. These prophets were largely ignored by Church leaders and were viewed with deep suspicion as crypto-modernists – – the charge of “modernism” being the new twentieth century version of “she’s a witch!” as it was indiscriminately deployed against both real modernists as well as the nouvelle theologie.   Church leaders were mainly focused on maintaining the façade/illusion of “fortress Catholicism” viewed as a rock-solid bulwark of unchanging “orthodoxy” standing firm against the evils of the modern world.  Ratzinger, and like-minded thinkers, knew that the “fortress” was in fact a house of cards as later events would confirm. 

One of the thinkers who also raised the alarm was the French novelist George Bernanos.   I am currently reading a new reprint of an old book by Bernanos called “The Great Cemeteries Under The Moon.” The book is an account of what Bernanos witnessed in the Spanish civil war while living in Majorca.  First published in 1938 it is a scathing indictment of the Church’s alliance with the Franco regime and its turning a blind-eye to the State sponsored terrorism that Franco used in order to stay in power.  And pertinent to Ratzinger’s claim about the new heathenism in the Church, the main alarm Bernanos is raising is the same as in all of his novels. Namely, that the worldly, practical atheism of the Church was causing a numbing-down of her spiritual senses through a process of accommodation to the existential exhaustion of bourgeois European culture. 

I mention the text by Bernanos in particular because it brings out the main point I want to make in this post.  Namely, that the “heathenism” that Ratzinger saw in the Church was of a far deeper kind, and involves a far deeper apostasy, than the heathenism of a moral and religious relativism that Ratzinger was concerned with at that time.  These are real concerns, and I too share them, but they are largely the bourgeois concerns of the leisured academic class (a class of which I am a member).  In other words, Ratzinger was correct, but insufficiently so (as he himself came to see), since the heathenism that Bernanos is pointing out is not just of the kind denounced in the usual jeremiads about the “corrupt worldliness of the Church” but rather an indictment of the Church’s blessing and embracing of worldly “power” as such that amounts to an endorsement, among many other things, of State sponsored murder.  Indeed, the Church has not only quite often blessed modern, worldly power but also, as Bernanos notes, it has sought to import its methods and to imitate them.  The Church has, of course, murdered people herself in the name of “orthodoxy” not so long ago, so her baptism of the bastards should not shock us, despite the happy-face ecclesiastical emoji that her leaders like to project as they use the fig leaf of “development of doctrine” as an excuse to overlook past sins:  “yeah, yeah, we used to do bad stuff, but we don’t now. Our bad. Now, onto our reform of curial dicasteries.” 

Therefore, one can hardly be blamed for understanding the relativism that so concerned Ratzinger as merely a symptom of a much deeper rot. Because nobody is ever really a relativist.  Ever.  Relativism therefore is always a subspecies of some kind of a deeper rejection directed at the existing moral and spiritual ordo of a specific culture.  And the rot of that culture, the Church’s culture included, with its hypocrisies, corruptions, inconsistencies, and manifest injustices, shares deeply in the blame for the emergent “relativism” of those who reject the entire, tired monument of mendacity.  There are of course theoretical, philosophical relativists, but they do not seem to understand that if their thesis is “true” then they should stop writing and retire to the faculty lounge for a spirited discussion of linguistic theory while drinking high-end bourbon out of a crystal glass made in a sweat shop, while sitting on furniture made in a sweat shop, and wearing tweed suits made in a sweat shop.  Nobody takes such idiots seriously.  But what we often call, too superficially, “relativism” in the broader culture is in reality nothing more than the cri de couer of exhausted souls, living in an exhausted culture, and in search of alternative answers. 

The deeper problem, brought out clearly by Bernanos, is the Church’s 1700 year commitment to various iterations of the Constantinian arrangement. I know this is a cliché these days, but even cliches can be true and this one is.  I hasten to add now all of the usual caveats concerning the broad social implications of the Gospel and of the necessity of the Church to be a participant in the full life of a culture, its political culture included. Nevertheless, the Church is never stronger in the political/public sphere than when it is least implicated in the apparatus of the State.  As soon as it becomes an apparatchik for the reigning political powers its ability to preach a Christ who was unjustly murdered by the Roman Imperium is blunted. The Roman State is often treated as a vestige of a “long ago” regime that was apparently a one-off example of the misuse of State power, rather than being held up, as it should be, as a paradigm for just about every “sovereign State” that has come after.  That certainly seems to be one of the main points of the book of Revelation with its “whore of Babylon” sitting astride the nations. However, Christ’s State execution is often glossed over and soteriologized into a purely “spiritual” act seen as having little to do with our efforts throughout history to curry favor with State power.  The Gospel has social implications? You are damn right it does, and first among them is the recognition that Pilate’s question “what is truth?” displays the convenient relativism of “power” employed by all hegemonic States. Therefore, the Church’s proper stance toward all such forms of political power should not be collusion, but distance.  For it is only in distance from such power that the Church is most free even if, and perhaps most especially, that freedom is that of the martyr.  And that is the only “integralism” that matters. The integralism of the cross and its paradoxical victory over the powers of this world. 

The list of authoritarian States the Church has colluded with over the centuries is so long it would take pages upon pages to enumerate.  But far worse than this collusion wherein the Church tacitly baptizes worldly power for the sake of proximate and expedient goals, is the fact that the Church herself has imported patterns of worldly power into her own governing structure.  After Constantine the Church began a centuries long expansion of power that saw the rise of an inflated “papalism” equipped with all of the apparatus of a political power and eventually adorned in princely, if not kingly, renaissance garb.  Bishops began living in palaces and behaving like the landed aristocracy (and many still do), all of which, in practical terms, was an open repudiation of Christ’s warning that you cannot serve both God and mammon.  The political, as opposed to the cultural, concept of “Christendom” was predicated on the notion that the Church had to wield worldly power in order to be free from other worldly powers.  The papacy even developed its own prisons, standing army, and executioners.  And this is to say nothing of the rampant corruptions and debauchery that infected the Church as a result of this mimesis of Caesar’s power. 

Would the great schism between East and West have happened without this political corruption of the Church?  Would the Reformation?  Tetzel may have lit the match, but the kindling was all around, doused with accelerants, and just waiting to explode into an inferno.  And even though these are all events in our distant past, the fact remains that the Church, well into modern times, clung to its Constantinian power, its worldly perks, its secretive, curial intrigue in the tradition of corrupt kingly courts, and its episcopal pleasure palaces, with ferocious tenacity, kicking against the goad as Christendom slowly died one body part at a time. And even as Christendom’s corpse began to give off a stench the Church tossed perfumed talc over the mess and published a syllabus of errors and demanded oaths against modernism.  Errors were indeed afoot, and modernism was real, but the point is that the old methods of coercive power were now as effective as putting a band aid on a melanoma. 

On the theological side it was inevitable that this political corruption of the Church would also bleed into the concept of the Church as “teacher” and “the sole means of salvation.”  The proper uses of the magisterium devolved into a hyper magisterialism that turned the doctrine of apostolic succession into a weaponized ideology of control. Theological orthodoxy and holding to all the right doctrines became a central focus of the Church’s concept of salvation as such, elevating doctrines and creeds beyond their status as second and third level reflections on the sources of Revelation, and into the realm of Revelation as such.  Creeds, as C.S. Lewis notes, are like road maps.  Useful indeed, but they are not a substitute for the reality they depict.  Creeds are necessary.  But the living Christ is a person, and not a creed. Thus did correct adherence to doctrine come to be wedded with coercive power as the Church justified murdering unrepentant heretics on the grounds that it was for their own good since their salvation depended on getting the doctrines correct.  Church sponsored inquisitions have been greatly exaggerated, as many modern historians are now uncovering, but their existence nevertheless cannot be denied, and they did indeed put people to death.  And the fact that the magisterium of the Church did not condemn the very concept of an inquisition is a sure indicator that the doctrines of the Church had been turned into an ideological superstructure for the maintenance of political Christendom. 

Salvation is a gift from God, in the ordo of grace, and not a parlor game for the intellectually gifted.  And well into the modern period this politicized and distorted magisterialism created an ethos of inquisitorial coercion that did nothing to stem the tide of modernism since its chief means of operation was coercive power and not argument, the imitation of Christ, and the exercise of legitimate authority.  As for modernism and the supposed “fortress” of magisterial efforts to combat it Ratzinger writes: 

“Modernism never really came to a head, but was interrupted by the measure taken by Pius X … The crisis of the present is but the long deferred resumption of what began in those days.”

(“Faith and the Future” Franciscan Herald Press; 1971, p. 92)

I am obviously not arguing against the theological necessity of a magisterium, apostolic succession, the papacy, and the witness of the Church in the public square.  I hold to all of those truths.  However, I am arguing against the peculiar political form that these structures have taken on.  The Italian philosopher Augosto del Noce in an important essay reprinted in the Summer, 2015 edition of the journal Communio makes an important distinction between “power” and “authority.” True authority is rooted in a moral and spiritual sphere and exercises its responsibilities to the truth utilizing tools from that same moral and spiritual domain.  As such, it is the exact opposite of the coercive modus operandi of political “power.” Political power must be coercive since it has no attractiveness in and of itself, and even when it appeals to the enlightened self-interest of its citizens does so from purely utilitarian calculations.  As such, it has very little power to “persuade” and quite often must resort to the stick of force when the carrot of self-interest fails.  Furthermore, when political power does manage to “persuade” it is often through populist demagoguery, or war mongering, or flat-out lies. How much more imperative then is it for the authority of the Church, which is after all a theological reality, and moral and spiritual in its very essence, to eschew “power” and to persuade rather than to coerce.  And the only power of persuasion it has is the towering figure of Christ, who coerced no one but drew the world to himself even as he was “lifted up.” The Church therefore will have no authority whatsoever unless it pursues the path of its Lord and imitates His pattern of kenotic “glory.” 

My claim therefore is that the crisis in the Church today  – – a crisis of faithlessness and de facto atheism – – has been caused by a Church that has had, historically, a lot of “power” and, therefore, now has very little “authority”. And what good, after all, is a magisterium in a Church that has no real spiritual authority even as she continues to function in a purely forensic manner? The “infallibility” of the Church may still be technically intact, but the authority behind it is not.  I wonder, for example, if the American bishops understand that they have zero credibility to teach anything? Decades of colluding with the local civil authorities to cover up child rape for the purpose of preserving that outward façade of a “holy” Church may have preserved their “power” for a time, but at the expense of their authority.  And their response to the crisis, which arose only after their lies were exposed, was to tinker with the bureaucratic apparatus of the Church, her “mechanisms,” all the while exempting themselves from their own protocols for “others” thus insuring a degree of immunity for their ongoing “power.”  All they did was double-down on “process” in order to save the appearances.  In short, it was a cynical and mendacious betrayal of the faithful in order to save their own skins showing once again that the only thing that matters to them is the power that comes with respectability.  We have replaced the old political integralism with an integralism of insurance companies and lawyers, an integralism of bourgeois comfort, in order to preserve the current status of the Church as a suburban strip-mall of ersatz spiritualities. 

Hans Urs von Balthasar notes that there are two basic principles that structure the Church.  The Petrine principle forms the institutional, skeletal element without which the Church would just be a formless blob of disconnected tissues lacking a proper foundation. The Marian principle, which is superior to the Petrine, constitutes the Church’s internal holiness, her “guts” if you will.  And Balthasar emphasizes that without this Marian dimension of holiness the Church is just a dead pile of bones.  The Dominical warning about “whited sepulchers” comes to mind and is exactly what Balthasar is alluding to here.  For too long our hyper magisterialism, born out of an idolatrous ecclesial ideology that makes the Church an end onto itself rather than a mere medium to Christ, has fostered an eclipse of that Marian element in the Church, no matter how many apocalyptic visions of Mary are currently popular.  I have no doubt that Mary has appeared, but her message of prayer, penance, and holiness is ignored in favor of the “secrets” and predictions of doom.  In other words, we are awash in “correct doctrines” and superficial pieties that tickle the ears, but where is the true Marian holiness?? 

The pathology is, unfortunately, deep as can be seen in the quality of our current debates.  Is Pope Francis a heretic?  Should we take communion on the hand or on the tongue? Is the Novus Ordo a creation of Freemason conspirators? Should women lector at Mass? Is Vatican II a robber Council? Should Benedict still be wearing a white cassock? Latin or vernacular? Gothic or fiddleback? Should homosexuals be ministered to gently or should we smash them over the head with a catechism as we refuse to bake them cakes? Is Vigano a prophet or a clown? Should the Vatican bank be shut down? How should the curia be reformed? Should some women be made Cardinals? Deacons? Is Bishop Barron a dangerous modernist? Was von Balthasar a heretic? All of these debates signal a Church still locked in the heathenism of power insofar as they are all concerned with “winning” the debate for “their side” of disputes that are essentially concerned with the Petrine element of the Church at the expense of the Marian.  Where are the debates over asceticism, prayer, penance, vocational commitment, evangelization, and so on? Off the radar.  Nobody cares.  My good friend Fr. Michael Kerper calls this sort of thing “team theology.” And lost in the debates, as we take our side with our team members, is the “one thing necessary” (Luke 10:42). In short, we are a Church of Marthas. 

My positive proposal is simple, yet difficult:  holiness.  The Church of concordats and position papers is dead.  “Infallibility” is a completely empty concept when it is rooted in power instead of authority.  And where there is no holiness, there is no authority.  I wouldn’t take a recipe for brownies from Stalin, no matter how perfect they look.  Personnel is policy and a hypertrophy of the Petrine element produces the wrong personnel.  Nor is this Donatism.  I am not questioning the validity of anyone’s office.  I am questioning the existential authenticity of the modern Church and its efficaciousness. 

Joseph Ratzinger also understood that the Church of success, wealth, and power – – the Church of Constantine – – had run its course.  The future would belong, he wrote, to a “remnant” of believers, serious in their pursuit of holiness even as they reached out to their neighbors.  It will be a smaller, chastened Church, that will be cruciform and devoted to the “simple ones” so neglected by the world.  It will be a deeply spiritual Church, shorn of its political trappings and having almost no social standing.  And so I give him the last word even as I gave him the first: 

“And so it seems certain to me that the Church is facing very hard times. The real crisis has scarcely begun. We will have to count on terrific upheavals. But I am equally certain about what will remain at the end: not the Church of the political cult… but the Church of faith.  It may well no longer be the dominant social power to the extent that it was until recently; but it will enjoy a fresh blossoming, and be seen as man’s home where he will find life and hope beyond death.”

(“Faith and the Future”, pp. 105-106)

Dorothy Day, pray for us