The Numbing Down of the Church: Part Two. The Pod People Catholicism of the Left and the Right

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By Larry Chapp

Blog Master’s Note: My original plan was to follow my first post in this series, which focused on Catholic liberals, with a post on the surging numbers of the so-called “rad trads”. However, after several emails I realized that I had not adequately spelled out in the first post what I meant by the numbing down of the Church. I do that here. Furthermore, I wanted to apply this analysis to a further explanation of what I find lacking in liberal Catholicism, which I develop in this post. I also wanted to make it clear that I am not simplistically blaming all of the Church’s ills on liberal Catholics. And so I also include in this post a criticism of the neo-con Catholic movement in the United States as being equally problematic. This has mde this post a long one, but I wanted the symmetry of the two critiques and so I decided not break it down into chunks but to include it all here. I beg my reader’s patience. I will return to my discussion of traditiionalism in part three of this series.

“The bigger the unit you deal with, the hollower, the more brutal, the more mendacious is the life displayed.  So I am … against all big successes and big results; and in favor of the eternal forces of truth which always work in the individual in an immediately unsuccessful way, underdogs always, till history comes, after they are long dead, and puts them on the top.”

William James (The Letters of William James, vol. 2, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1920, p. 90)

I am calling this four part series of blog posts “The Numbing Down of the Church.”  I want to redress an omission in the first post, caused by my creeping senescence, which did not adequately spell out what my ultimate point is by using the term “numbing.”  Specifically, my main point is that the Church has gradually lost its “eschatological edge” and forgotten that Christianity is a religion of conversion, a religion of repentance, and ultimately, therefore, a religion of sanctification, with Christ and Christ alone as the model.  The redemption wrought by Christ is real and if one reads the New Testament carefully, as well as the Fathers and the scholastics, it becomes clear that this redemption is meant to have a transformative effect.  Sadly, the modern Church has apparently become numb to the presence of sin and corruption and has despaired that such transformations are possible.  It is as if after 2000 years of the faith, and 2000 years of various corruptions in the Church, we have just decided to throw in the towel and to roll our eyes with each new “scandal” and proclaim: “same as it ever was.” We have become so numb to the presence of sin that we have lost the capacity for outrage and, therefore, for real change in the Church in the direction of repentance, penance, and sanctification. 

One could be tempted to see in this kind of jaded indifference to the horrors of sin a kind of crypto Lutheranism in the Church wherein the dysfunctional and disordered aspects of human nature are viewed, on a “practical” level, as impermeable to grace and which remain unchanged within us even after we are “saved.”  However, this would be wholly wrong (which I think should matter) and grossly unfair to Luther, who at least believed in salvation, however forensically conceived.  More likely, what has taken hold, as I have said over and over in these posts, is the despair and existential boredom of unbelief, of the crushing indifference of a de facto atheism that no longer believes in the realness of the supernatural as a true agent of regeneration within the natural. 

This is precisely what I mean then when I speak of a “de facto atheism” in the Church. It does not mean that people no longer claim to “believe” in God, because they do demonstrably make this claim.  But even Satan “believes” in God and so the essence of true faith must be sought elsewhere, beyond the mere confines of an intellectual assent to the proposition that “God exists.” It must be sought rather in the palpable “realness” of the God of Jesus Christ in particular (we are Christians after all, aren’t we?) and the extent to which we allow that God to frame and form our “plausibility structures” as a believing community.  My claim is that, despite the outward appearance of faith in the edifice of the Church, that these appearances are deceiving and mask the fact that the true belief structure of most Western Catholics is decidedly secular, naturalistic, and utterly bourgeois in its prioritizing of worldly happiness over eschatological beatitude. 

And I am not pointing fingers here at others.  I feel this deeply in myself and am ashamed to admit that I value bourbon and my leisure time pursuits over the path of sanctification – – a path that would require of me certain sacrifices that I find it almost impossible to make.  I am a man of my time and the “dogma” of bourgeois well-being lives loudly within me. But I hate it, which is why my writing is often so acerbic and seemingly “personal.” I see and feel and know from within this crushing acedia of indifference and so when I rail against it in the Church it is because I need that Church to be better than it is. I need that Church to be a bastion of faith and a beacon of hope.  I need that Church to at least preach the necessity of conversion rather than to bless my concupiscence and call it a virtue.  In short, ours is not an age of faith and most of us are de facto atheists now and I write what I write as a confessional act of raw and brutal honesty in order to guard against succumbing to the spirit of the age.  Sadly, the Church is of little help these days in that endeavor. 

I said above that ours is not an age of faith.  But in a sociological sense it is, as all cultures must be, since all cultures have a “credo” even if it is in the form of Liberalism’s deceptive anti-credo, credo. The late Italian philosopher Augusto del Noce has written that reductionistic scientism is the religion of modernity, and I agree with him.   Sadly, the Church has bowed down before its various altars (capitalism, militarism, bureaucratic technocracy, bourgeois “well-being,” and the “value neutral” public square of Liberal democracy) and offered up incense to the Caesar of naturalism which accounts for our collective loss of a sense of sin and of our need for repentance.  We no longer believe in the need for repentance anymore, let alone salvation, as our consciences have been trained to see all of our vices as merely “natural” aspects of human nature, the inheritance of our simian origins, which can only be improved upon through the bureaucratic and technocratic control of the Leviathan of the modern State. “Better living through chemicals.”

Therefore, individuals in local communities of moral and spiritual discourse are not trusted in the regime of naturalism since the solutions they propose to the existential problems of life are viewed as reactionary attempts to revalorize the concept of sin which threatens to undermine the entire ordo of technocratic control.  And this is now as true in the Church as it is in the broader culture as can be seen in the fact that chancery bureaucracies treat with deep suspicion any new lay movement that dares to create intentional communities devoted to holiness that bypass the soul killing banality of most parishes.  Centralization is the key dynamic of our time with the concentration of power increasingly in the hands of a few self-appointed elites reducing society and the Church to a simple binary of the controllers and the controlled.  Bureaucratic anonymity and impenetrability are key elements in this control as individuals gradually come to see that they have no power over the process and quickly retreat into a world of techno-gadget bread and circuses. 

These observations are not a digression from my main theme since what they describe is the very spirit of the age that the Church has imbibed with vigor.  In such a regime the sacraments are hollowed-out and are reduced to mere “celebrations” of who we “are” leaving us in our sins which are now transformed into “virtues,’ which are the sacrosanct markers of our kaleidoscopic “identities.”  In other words, what used to be called the temptations of concupiscence are now viewed as the very warp and woof of our deepest and truest selves which are now defined, not by Christ and the redemptive transformation he calls forth, but rather by a naturalistic and psychologized understanding of our nature that is better dealt with on the therapist’s couch or in Oprah’s kitchen rather than in the confessional. This is why I now bristle whenever I hear in a homily or read in a theology text that our sins are “addictions.”  No they aren’t – – at least not in the psychologized sense in which they are presented – – but are instead deeply ingrained moral habits (vices) that are the result of my antecedent moral choices over time.

And all of this explains why the Church in the West is hemorrhaging members, and will continue to do so, as it doubles down on its “spirituality” of therapeutic naturalism. Because people are not stupid and they have better things to do on a Sunday morning than “celebrate” who they are with people they barely know and don’t want to know.  It is much more fulfilling to celebrate who I am on the golf course or at the Mall with friends, sharing happy moments with people I actually know and care about rather than trek into an ugly Church to suffer through a ritual that very few actually believe in for what it is meant to be and which has become an empty exercise in “religion” for “the sake of the kids.” Which is ironic since the data tell us that those kids, once grown into young adulthood, are leaving the Church in droves. What is now abundantly clear, or at least it should be, is that the Church of therapeutic naturalism, the Church of suburban “nice,” the Church that now routinely preaches that you don’t “need” the Church in order to be a “good person,” is as compelling, at best, as tofu hotdogs, and as repulsive as Kale at worst. 

A further marker of the ethos of naturalistic modernity that animates modern Catholicism in both its liberal and neo-con iterations is the love for bureaucracy and for bureaucratic solutions to what are, in essence, spiritual problems. The Germans love bureaucracy, especially theirs, which shows that the spirit of tribal triumphalism dies hard in some cultures, despite historical lessons that should have been learned.  If we can just tweak the “structures” of the Church and make it more “synodal” (i.e. secular liberal) and if we can just have married priests, and women priests, and drastic changes in moral theology that openly contradict past teachings (which shows they think such moral teachings are merely bureaucratic “rules” that can be changed at will), and if we can just change our eucharistic discipline for who can receive communion, then all will be well.  Very few people actually go to Church in Germany anymore, but it is a Church flush with cash from Caesar and is the second largest employer in Germany, so its bureaucratic clout continues to give the entire rotted edifice an outsized influence on the broader Church. For example, they were, for some strange reason, the leading players at the synod on the Amazon with its Pachamama mascot and curiously Eurocentric sets of concerns, demonstrating that the entire affair wasn’t really about the Amazon at all, but rather was a bureaucratic ruse larded with the glop of word salad liberalism.  Unlike many, I do not think that Pachamama was set up as an idol at the Synod. It was instead merely an exercise in some ham-handed kitschy optics which meant to convey an artificially contrived notion of “enculturation” designed by some bureaucratic episcopal subcommittee on “getting with the curve of history.”

The fundament of my first post was, therefore, that liberal Catholicism is in fact an anti-gospel of unbelief masquerading as belief.  The various prelates I criticized are not “dung beetles” simply because they are morally corrupt, but more to the point, because they are men of unbelief who continue to use certain phrases inherent to the faith in order to create a simulacrum of that faith that has been emptied of its traditional orientations and replaced with the gospel of naturalistic modernity. In the 1956 sci-fi movie “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” extraterrestrial aliens took over human bodies which they grew in plant “pods” and then

emerged with the appearance of being human when in fact they were inwardly nothing of the sort.  Such people were called “pod people” who acted like alien zombies in human drag.  My claim is that the contemporary Church lives a kind of “pod people” Catholicism where certain outward aspects of the Church remain, but where the inner faith of those structures has been replaced with the alien gospel of atheistic, therapeutic, naturalism.

By way of example we can see this dynamic at work in the currently fashionable idea that the Church must be a Church that reaches out to those on the “margins.”  Now, it is indeed true that the Church is in the business of mercy, forgiveness, compassion, and an endless forbearance for human weakness.  We are indeed to reach out to those “on the margins.”  But all of that is in the service of repentance and sanctification.  The counterfeit therapeutic Church of liberal Catholicism wants instead to baptize the margins and to declare them holy and to replace the Church of conversion with the Church of “inclusion” which is merely code for sexual license as evidenced by the fact that their “inclusion” does not extend to those of traditional belief and focuses instead on the sufferings of sexual minorities, whatever that vague term denotes.  Jesus did indeed dine with tax collectors and prostitutes, and was willing to forgive the woman “caught in adultery.”  But what he did not do was bless sin and call it good and he used his merciful embrace of those on the margins as a call to conversion to a higher way of life in the new regime of transformative grace that he was ushering into existence.

The Church is, as Pope Francis has rightly pointed out, a “field hospital” that must, in its missionary zeal, seek out the sick, as Christ did before us.  But the last time I checked hospitals are for healing the sick and restoring them to integrity rather than absurd places where the healthy are mocked and diseases are blessed as signs of good health. The rhetoric of the “field hospital” is, in reality, not at all about healing sin and calling people to repentance, but is instead an Orwellian exercise in double speak meant to numb us to the reality of sin, its true destructiveness, and to transform those sins, through an act of linguistic legerdemain, into badges of virtuous victimhood.  The Church must indeed reach out to the “margins” in order to bring the message of redemption to those who are suffering and who have been stigmatized, like lepers, by society.  A resurgence of finger-wagging judgmentalness is not my point here.  The point is that the Church must reach out to the margins, but not to become the margins itself.  Such a notion is as silly as an oncologist who, instead of trying to cure his patient’s cancer, gives himself cancer in order to better “accompany” the afflicted person.  A field hospital is after all an extension of a real hospital system that has a deep functional integrity which, therefore, has the capacity to extend its services to those who, for whatever reason, cannot find their way immediately to the main hospital. But it can’t be field hospitals “all the way down” lest the entire endeavor descend into mere triage without any hope of a truly reparative cure.

But lest people think my concern is only with the Catholic Left I think it also true of wide swaths of the American Catholic Right.  In post-war America Catholics had finally emerged from their immigrant ethnic ghettoes and were mainstreaming into American culture. They were eager to prove their bona fides as “true Americans” and to finally shed their image as papist interlopers and constitutive outsiders whose allegiance to America was questioned. A grand project was launched, led by the theologian John Courtney Murray, to show that Catholics were very much at home within the American project since the very founding principles of America were grounded in Thomistic natural law theories by way of post-medieval English common law which was viewed as grounded in the same.   Thus, America was portrayed by Murray and his followers as a crypto-Catholic country and the entire project of political Liberalism in its American iteration was embraced and baptized. The net effect of all of this for the life of the Church in America was the concomitant baptism of “the American way of life” in all of its bourgeois, cul-de-sac splendor and cold war militarism.

And that last point – – America’s cold war, nuclear militarism – – is illustrative of the pod people Catholicism I am talking about.  A hydrogen bomb is a weapon of indiscriminate mass slaughter and is capable of completely obliterating entire large cities and of killing tens of millions of people in the blink of an eye.  And the military strategy known as mutually assured nuclear destruction as a deterrent to the Soviets involved the clear intent to use such weapons should we come under attack.  This was no mere “bluff” and was instead a very real and viable intent to use.  As such, such a policy is clearly immoral and cannot be justified by any sane construal of the precepts of Just War theory which explicitly disallow the targeting of civilian populations with weapons of indiscriminate slaughter.  But except for one tepid and toothless document put out by the American bishops in the 1980’s the American Catholic hierarchy embraced this nuclear policy through its damning silence.  The Catholic Right frets over whether or not a Catholic politician who supports legalized pre-natal homicide can receive communion, all the while turning two blind eyes and two deaf ears to whether or not a Catholic in the military can serve in a nuclear missile silo while holding one of two keys needed to incinerate millions. I oppose legal abortion. But I also oppose the pod people Catholicism that leaves such a soldier in good conscience to turn that key.

Less awful, but still deeply troubling, was the emergence in the American Catholic Right of a political movement that sought to accommodate Catholicism to American style capitalism, foreign policy, and constitutionalism. Following in the wake of the “Reagan revolution” numerous theological texts emerged that claimed that Reagan’s call for “less government” was deeply Catholic, given its resonances with subsidiarity theory in Catholic social thought.  It ignored, however, his mistaken belief that if we can make rich people richer then poor people will be better off too.  Absent was any criticism of his clear American exceptionalism and his massive increases to the military industrial complex.  Indeed, many on the Catholic Right cheered his expansion of the military and doubled-down on his “Red scare” rhetoric which was seen as thoroughly justified given the evils of communism. The papacy of John Paul loomed large here as well and a theological amalgam of cracker-barrel, cherry picked, Catholic social teaching and the papal geo-politics of John Paul emerged as a powerful American Catholic political ideology. Never mind the fact that John Paul was also deeply critical of unbridled crony capitalism and the consumeristic culture of the West. There was a cold war to be won and America was its white knight. 

The real-world consequences of this amalgam was the tacit blessing of the politics of the Republican party which was allegedly the pro-life party and the party of “less government.” This tacit alliance with the Republican party could only happen in a Church that had been domesticated and neutered and which had lost its evangelical sensibilities.  This is my central complaint and why I think that even this version of conservative Catholicism is an example of pod people deception. In fact, it might be more dangerous than liberal pod people Catholicism since it gives off the outward appearance of fidelity to the magisterium when in fact it is only faithful to that magisterium on issues relating to human sexuality, all the while supporting the very economic system and bourgeois culture that produced the modern sense of the atomized, autonomous, consumeristic, therapeutic self in the first place. 

The entire project was underwritten by a bastardized version of Thomistic natural law theory which was ripped out of its theological context and presented as a kind of “faith neutral” form of discourse that was designed to meet the requirements of America’s naked constitutional square.  I support natural law theory since it alone preserves the notion that the God-given structure of the natural teleologies of things must be respected as the only viable norm for Christian moral discourse.  But it is a theory wholly wedded to a theological vision of creation as the expression of God’s logos and wedded as well, therefore, to the idea that the natural teleology of things is morally normative, grounded as it is in a divinely willed ordo.  The confusion arises owing to the fact that classic natural law theory says that human reason can discern the divine plan without having recourse to Revelation.  But even Aquinas noted that Revelation, though not strictly needed per se, was critical still to moral reasoning since our sinful human nature clouds the mind and distorts judgment.  Furthermore, the fact remains that even if such moral norms are discernible in theory absent Revelation, that their normativity resides in a theological affirmation that God exists and that his plan for creation actually matters even in a political sense.  In other words, without faith in God, why must we affirm that such teleologies are normative? 

Therefore, the neo-con belief that a faith-neutral form of natural law theory could speak to the de facto atheism of our culture and, indeed of our Church, was and is a pure fantasy.  Absent faith in God, utilitarian pragmatism rules the day, in and out of the Church.  Natural law theory might be true, but the neo-con desire to use it in an Americanist form had more to do with a decision to remain within the confines of political Liberalism and its form of public rationality than it did with any real allegiance to its effectiveness.  And given the complete collapse of the neo-con Catholic political project over the past 12 years one hopes that some of those neo-con eyes have been opened.

The result of this neo-con appeasement of American political Liberalism was the neutering of a robust and evangelical theological message of sin and repentance.  The notion that you cannot preach the Gospel directly to our political culture is in fact a waving of the white flag in the face of Liberalism’s truncated categories of proper and allowable discourse.  Liberalism is an anti-Gospel and it is constitutively grounded historically in a reaction against Catholicism. Therefore, any attempt to tailor the Catholic evangel to its benighted categories represents a selling out of the faith in order to remain respectable within the American intellectual milieu (which of course is silly since that milieu hates us and does so with extreme prejudice.)

Thus, both the liberal and neo-con approaches contribute to the “numbing down” of the Church insofar as they both eschew the language of sin, repentance and sanctification. The former do so because they don’t believe in them. The latter do so because they are embarrassed by them, which amounts to the same thing. The answer, in my view, is to reject both approaches and to see them for what they are: the hollowing out of the Gospel and its replacement with a foreign ideology alien to the faith. Liberals do this out of disbelief. The neo-cons do it out of an allegiance to political Liberalism, which, once again, amounts to the same thing.

What this means is that the path forward can only be the path of a revivified and reinvigorated Catholic traditionalism that is committed to a full-throated preaching of the Gospel and the living out of its call to conversion and transformation.  It is the path of sanctification which means it is the path of the saints, of the martyrs, of the sacraments and of the commandments. It is a path that requires a Church of real believers who will boldly proclaim in public that Christ alone is the path to human salvation.  Christ commanded us to not hide our light under a bushel basket.  But we have done so and have hidden that light under the baskets of various ideologies. The Church, as Ratzinger famously noted long ago, will become smaller, more intentional, and holier. This is not “elitism” or a view of the Church as a home for the perfect.  It is much simpler than that.  Namely, it is the simple affirmation that the Church of Christ should be made up of people who actually believe in Christ.  Imagine that. 

Therefore, what emerges clearly into view is that the real debate over how to confront the current crisis in the Church is a debate between differing forms of traditionalism.  That debate is currently ongoing and is getting more heated by the day.  And much of that debate centers on differing analyses and assessments of whether or not Vatican II has any ongoing significance and/or whether or not it was all a big mistake in the first place.  It is a debate too over the ressourcement theology that animated the Council and guided the pontificates of JPII and Benedict.  And it is to that debate that my next blog post in this series will turn.

Dorothy Day, pray for us.

28 comments

  1. This is a vigourous and trenchant analysis of where we’re at as a church. At the risk of waxing superficially in the face of such a far-seeing analysis what I hope for is a rapprochement between traditionalists and “John Paul II conservatives”. The novus ordo liturgy needs a major overhaul and the extraordinary form needs to be around as a prototype to how that overhaul might look like. The two forms will, I believe, more closely resemble each other 60 to 70 years from now. The Canadian Father Jonathan Robinson of the Toronto Oratory has written well on this topic and the relation between prayer and the mass. On the moral theology front, as Benedict said in a greeting address to the International Theological Commission in 2019, a consensus on moral theology needs to continute to be the goal. He mentions the Dominican Servais Pinckaers’s approach as reasonable and convincing. The church’s spiritual tradition needs to excavated with its holistic link between virtue and prayer. Liturgy is the linchpin, prayer a close and very clearly related second.

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  2. This was a great post, Dr. Chapp, lots to chew on here. Bear with me as I try (and fail) to keep my thoughts to a reasonable length.

    I am interested in how you will tie the points raised here back to a defense of Vatican II. It seems clear that the serious failings of the modern Church which you have so expressively articulated apply in equal measure to the Council itself. It’s all well and good to point out that St. John XXIII and the Council Fathers rightly disliked the “fortress” mentality of the pre-conciliar Church. They perceived Catholics as retreating from the world and not engaging non-believers the way we should. The Council Fathers wanted the Church to engage the world more, naively hoping that dialoguing with non-believers and modernists, on their terms and using their language, would help bring them to Christ. I think there is merit in the view that this was a costly prudential error that contributed enormously to the numbing down you have trenchantly described. The truth of Christianity is eternal, always new and fresh. It didn’t need to speak the language of modern humanism to reach people, it just needed to speak the language of Christianity.

    Granted, the experiences and language prevalent inside the Church of the mid-century had gotten stiff and stale and musty and dusty and broken down and repressive and so on and so forth. That kind of language would not appeal to people in the 20th century or any other century, so change was needed. However, it wasn’t a modernization of the Christian message that was needed, but a re-Christianization of the Christian message. The Council Fathers went in exactly the opposite direction from what was needed. Instead of moving back toward Christ and life, they adopted the view of liberal, humanistic man in an attempt to corrupt modern man’s language and concepts with traditional Catholic concepts. It was an ill-conceived attempt to beat them by joining them that actually accelerated the reverse.

    Vatican II was perhaps intended by some of the Council Fathers as a call for a phenomenological crusade against modernism using weapons of charity: get to the lost where they sleep, eat, live, breathe, and politic every day, to cross the cultural sea rather than the geographic one. I think this is our reigning Pope’s view, it is also a view evident in the actions of his two immediate predecessors. But at the end of the day it is one thing to eat with the prostitutes and another thing entirely to sleep with them.

    Stale mid-century Church aside, some Trad talking points are valid. On one side of the 1960’s you have bracing clear-headed encyclicals confronting modernism, condemning error, and expounding upon positively revealed dogma; and on the other side the words are so tortured and deliberately ambiguous as to make any attempt to read them maddening. This might be most evident today in the encyclicals of our reigning Holy Father but the actual documents of Vatican II are like that too. As just one example, Dignitatis humanae takes the always-and-everywhere teaching against forced conversion and re-articulates it as a “right to religious freedom” in an attempt to co-opt what liberals mean by “religious freedom.” Yet what everyone hears is, “Extra ecclesiam nulla salus has been revoked, modernism has won.”

    The effects go far beyond the hallowing out of Christian teaching. In adopting the language and concepts of the secular world, the post-conciliar Church secular-humanized itself. One expression of this has been an inordinate focus on rights-issues (e.g. human rights, immigrant rights, physical well being, economic equality, etc.) in place of Christian doctrine and liturgy. When Roe v. Wade happened in 1973 the Church in the US rightly made it Her priority to loudly and publicly oppose this monstrous decision. But Catholics then, as now, chose by and large to oppose this evil on human rights grounds: where our ancestors might have said, “Thou shalt not kill” we modern humanists say, “Right to life.” In other words, having liberalized / humanized / secularized ourselves, we Catholics in the US made a choice to focus on opposing that which could easily be translated into the language and concepts of liberal rights-speak, while failing utterly to oppose the general culture of which abortion was an inevitable expression. Because the Church had thrown away so much of its spiritual core, we failed to oppose the modern culture as a whole, which was anti-spiritual life. We were therefore only equipped to oppose the grossest, most monstrous expression of that culture, not the culture itself.

    The attempt to suspend Christian witness on the edge of a cliff of ambiguity can’t last forever though. Where it will lead is anyone’s guess. What we can and should do about it is far more important. Perhaps it is a test of our faith to live in such times.

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    1. Great post! I love the line about sleeping with prostitutes. Ha. I actually agree with everything you just wrote here, even if might be put it a little differently here and there. For example, I have no problem with the language of religious freedom in Vatican II and believe that the Council rightly decided that it was time to make it clear that the Church embraced the Christologically groundede concept that the faith can not only never be “forced” on someone, but also that the State should never try to coerce people into the faith. That is to give the State a soteriological and ministerial function that is outside of its competence, and sets the dangerous precedence that the State can decide theological matters. But more deeply, I think the Church is making a distinction here between the proper pedagogy of civil laws that uphold the moral law and the improper coercion of the State in matters of faith. I think this is grounded in the very nature of Christ and the salvation he brings. Nevertheless…. I agree completely with what you wrote that what people heard was a message of religious indifferentism and relativism. I think that the Council was for more precise than you allow in matters of doctrine, but was indeed overly naive toward modernity, overly wedded to the categories of political Liberalism, overly optimistic about the inner strength of the Church to carry this revolution forward, and overly naive to think that it could use the weapons of the enemy against the enemy. I think the problem is that the Council simply did not view modern Liberalism as the enemy, which is a bad thing indeed. Which is why it just adopted the humanitarian rhetoric of “rights” without much qualification as to how the Church’s views of “rights” might differ from that of modernity. The Council had flaws was a pastoral endeavor. Deep flaws. And so when I defend Vatican II I am defending its stance against the hegemony of a dry and dead scholasticism, its christologicentrism (Gaudium et Spes 22!) rooted in a truly profound ressourcement theology that retrieves the Fathers and makes better use of Scripture, and its overall desire to better engage in the modern world. But you are correct about it being a pastoral disaster. Even Pope Benedict now admits as much. Here is where Bishop Barron and I part company. He is far too irenic toward this pastoral disaster.

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      1. Thanks Larry,

        The aphorism that Venerable József Cardinal Mindszenty deployed against the Communists succinctly sums up my reservations about the Second Vatican Council: “If you use their words, you will end up thinking their thoughts.”

        Indeed, the State’s lack of authority in matters of religious coercion is an important doctrinal point. But this point had been taught as early as the Counter-Reformation: “[The state may punish crimes only] in so far as those crimes are contrary to political ends, public peace, and human justice; but coercion with respect to those deeds which are opposed to religion and to the salvation of the soul is essentially a function of spiritual power,” (Francisco Suárez, Defensio Fidei Catholicae, commissioned by Pope Paul V and published with his approval in 1613). Furthermore, this doctrine had recently and famously been expounded upon by Pope Leo XIII a mere eighty years before Dignitatis humanae in his landmark Immortale Dei. The decision of the Council Fathers to repackage this doctrine in terms of Man’s “rights” was, in my view, imprudent. Framing morality and political relations in terms of “rights” in general is a bad idea, because the liberal tradition from which the concepts are borrowed rarely uses them unequivocally – so even when “rights” are used in a document with precise intent the interpretation of that document is as likely to be erroneous as it is to be correct. And in the case of Dignitatis humanae nearly everyone in fact interpreted the document to mean that secularism and religious indifferentism have the Catholic Church’s seal of approval.

        I look forward to your upcoming post on the Second Vatican Council, what it got right and what it got wrong. After the papacies of both St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI it is clear that we are stuck with the Council; both men stood astride 2,000 years of Catholic history and considered it necessary to view Vatican II as authentic but in need of careful articulation. This isn’t surprising, if either pope had given any ground on this point he might have found himself in need of becoming Protestant, or at the very least, Lefebvrist. And today we have a very different Pope whose agenda, in keeping with the Council, is to keep the Catholic Church’s voice out of politics and the culture war while aiming to preach to people the Church may historically have neglected. Perhaps the Holy Ghost is trying to tell us something through all of this. Or perhaps not. At the end of the day Christ did not say that Peter would always be smart and do the right thing; he just said that Peter’s decisions would be held bound on earth as in heaven. Human authority is not and cannot be expected to be perfect.

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  3. Without a notion of the sacramentals the liturgy is just words to make people feel good. The liturgy should lead the way by expounding the notion of a sacramental life centred on Christ and especially the Eucharist. The people must be made fully aware that the Eucharist is the summit of the Mass. The liturgy of the word followed by the liturgy of the Eucharist. People need to be fully aware that it is truly the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Our Lord. To receive Him unworthily is to ones damnation. Confession, Morality and expectations on the laity should be yelled out from the pulpit. People need to be made feel uncomfortable in their sin but before this can happen they have to accept that what they are doing is sinful and this can only come from good catechesis and teaching on Hell and salvation.

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  4. This is a very fine analysis.

    I suspect that there will be a long and arduous road ahead for traditionalists to find common ground, because our antisocial media culture is fueled by identity politics, and the fetish with curating an exaggerated sense of the uniqueness of one’s own position, and the unassailable value of being incommensurate in one’s beliefs with every other person. Shared vision is feared as an avenue toward a false irenicism, or at least an assault on the demands of the curated ego.

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    1. A bigger issue, I think, is the ongoing ostracization of traditionalists by liberals and conservatives. A case in point is contained in an admittedly very well done video by Bishop Barron entitled “Understanding the Post-Vatican II Church” posted on Youtube on October 7, 2019. It’s a brilliant synopsis, the type of which Bishop Barron is known for. I know it’s easy to criticize something that is necessarily going to be done in a short hand fashion but one thing he said in it struck me. Describing how there was a break into two camps after Vatican II, the communio and concilium camps, he described the traditionalists of having “lost the battle” at Vatican II.

      Now this is true to a point, if he meant a theological defeat of a narrow desiccated thomism. But it’s completely wrong and indeed mostly wrong if that implies, as it does more and more today, that Vatican II turned its back on tradition. And Bishop Barron’s been doubling-down since. John Paul II conservatives like Barron need to forge a common ground with the traditionalists if they want to salvage what’s left of the “hermeneutic of continuity.” They can’t do it alone, try as they might. Perhaps as their world is imploding before their very eyes they’ll reappraise their view of tradition and the traditionalists.

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      1. I found that presentation from Barron somewhat demoralizing, because the margins, for Barron, do not seem to include traditionalist territory. The presentation was less rational persuasion/argumentation than I normally expect from him, and the excessive praise of Pope Francis’ theological positions was either meant as provocation or revealed a tone-deafness vis-a-vis traditionalists.

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      2. I agree with this to a point. But the traditionalists are often their own worst enemy. For example, they were attacking Bishop Barron long before he ever said anything about them. And their attacks on him were vicious, personal, and stupid. Also, many rad trads are very flat-footed theologically and often make shockingly simplistic theological points. I think common cause can and must be made between traditionalists and others, but the traditionalists need to get out of their own way sometimes and lose the scorched earth rhetoric so many of them employ.

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      3. To Clayton’s March 20th comment, I like Barron a lot but his snubbing of the traditionalist position does puzzle me and it is disappointing. I think he’ll eventually show more openness, by following Cardinal Ratzinger/ Pope Benedict XVI’s lead.

        I think of another one of his videos, this one a short 5 minute one from August 2019 where he tees off on the Pew study finding that 75% of Catholics don’t believe in the Real Presence. He’s rightly beside himself about the results, entertainingly so, and talks about a massive failure of catechesis. What he doesn’t mention is our banal, pedestrian liturgies as a possible cause. Isn’t that one sort of staring us in the face? Benedict XVI told the French bishops in 2008 “Liturgical worship is the supreme expression of priestly and episcopal life, just as it is of catechetical teaching.” Repeat: “…just as it is of catechetical teaching.” It’s time we all wake up and smell the coffee.

        Pascal can also teach us a thing or two here about the limits of the intellect. And Father Robinson. In his book “The Mass and Modernity” he says “The Mass is supposed to be an action, but a modern celebration is mostly a talk show with nothing much for the people to see or the priest to do. Ritual movement in a liturgy…would help to restore some of that sense that the Church is the House of God and the Gate of Heaven.”

        Cardinal Ratzinger/Benedict XVI is pointing the way here on the liturgy and playing the long game. As Father Robinson said in his book, published in 2005, “the ‘reform of the reform’ will be a long, hard business.”

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  5. What this means is that the path forward can only be the path of a revivified and reinvigorated Catholic traditionalism that is committed to a full-throated preaching of the Gospel and the living out of its call to conversion and transformation.

    May I ask, what is “a full-throated preaching of the Gospel” during a pandemic? Is it to follow Christ’s “Take and eat; this is my body…Drink from it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant…” despite that God’s reason tells us that if all followed these words with uninterrupted devotion it would lead to the deaths of many? Or is it to follow “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” which aligns reason and mercy and consequently puts the sacrifice of the Mass behind mercy? If it is the second, then most Catholic traditionalists have utterly failed to preach the Gospel. They have slandered all bishops and priests who attempted to apply mercy (i.e., nearly all of them). They constantly stated that mercy was ineffective because ‘people die anyway,’ and invented or propagated false public health arguments (in other words, lies) to back their views. Consider that last fact alone: what is the worth of a defense of the Gospel that relies on lies?

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    1. I agree with your take on the rad trads. My use of the word traditionalism differs from theirs as will become clear in a future post and as I have made clear in previous posts. But I agree with what you write here.

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      1. Well, my full take is that this pandemic is a real chastisement. On all of us. We were meant to ‘do without’ for the sake of our neighbor. We were meant to be poorer. We were meant to suffer without ready access to the sacraments, except as Last Rites. To redouble our prayers, even if in isolation.

        But no, we wanted our luxuries, and our sacraments, and we decided we had no responsibility to the weak and vulnerable among us – that was up to God. A chastisement? Oh no, not on me! What did I do to deserve such a thing?

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      2. Wow. I like this take. I think it is dead-on accurate. Nothing angers me more than reading so many of these reactionary, Trumper-traddie Catholics go on and on about the “fake pandemic” and how it was invented by “the new world order” to “take away our freedoms.” What rot. So I thank you deeply for these comments. I could not agree with them more.

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  6. Well, that was kind of demoralizing with respect to “the Church” being a source of sanctity once again. Not that I hadn’t lacked optimism already. But whenever we seek sanctity we stand in the communion of the saints, who were often rejected and sometimes martyred by “the Church”. You’ve been a good friend and your love of God and others inspires me to do better. You and a few others like you is about all I got. It’s sad to say that we live in a culture of men without chests. The warnings went largely unheeded. So it’s a struggle just to be human.

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  7. As a UK-based Catholic and very much an amateur observer, I am interested in how this “numbing down” series develops. From the postings so far in this sequence, I am struck by certain similarities in its analysis to that of James Hunter Davison in his 2010 book “To Change The World”. It had been recommended to me recently by a US-based Catholic friend as an insightful, if somewhat sobering, tour d’horizon of Christianity in contemporary America, of course before undoubted accelerations in trends in this past decade. I wouldn’t know offhand whether many readers of your blog would be familiar with Davison’s work, but here are one or two things I took from it.

    Albeit in the context of a general theory about cultural change, Davison too cites dalliances with contemporary culture by broadly conservative and liberal wings of Christianity, respectively characterising their postures as “defensive from” and “seeking relevance to” and both in his view fatally flawed. Interestingly, he also identifies what he calls the Anabaptist grouping, which seeks “purity from” by effective abdication from cultural contact. Is there going to be an equivalent of that category here in a wholly Catholic context?

    I don’t as yet know how you will characterise your conclusions – and I wait with bated breath – but Davison’s worthy if rather tortured conclusion was of a collective and individual stance he related as “faithful presence”, a post-Constantinian humility of covenental being that is shorn of triumphalist rhetoric and avoids what he calls instrumentalisation of ambition. I am sure I am doing Davison a disservice by condensing it in such a pithy way, but it does come across to me as a somewhat deracinated vision that puts self-effacing apology far above actual apologetics. That said, there is a lot to commend such a “still, small voice of calm” stance amidst the general clamour, as long as it remains of true substance.

    I suppose there’s the rub: will you actually find some true substance in the wreckage you are writing about? Or is the hollowing out of belief so complete there’s nothing left to animate with some real Easter hope?

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  8. Great post – it goes where I have not read many American writers going before, and I imagine you won’t me making many friends with it. The truth shall make you free, but not very popular.
    I think it is particularly hard for American Catholics to come to terms with the fact that the Founding Fathers were, intellectually speaking, Masons and not Christians. By which I don’t mean that they worshiped Satan in sacred rituals but rather that they believed that it is possible to build a paradise here on Earth, and who believed that the fundamental key to this earthly kingdom of God on Earth was a political system, rather than repentance and conversion. They did not believe that this world is ruled by a Prince who is not the King of Kings, and that it will always, to the end of time, be a battleground in which this Prince seems to have the upper hand even though he has already lost the war. So maybe they were Satan worshipers after all, they just didn’t know it.
    American exceptionalism is as incompatible with Christianity as Communism or any other -ism, but who will dare to say that? To be a Christian is always to speak truth to power -the truth of the King of Kings to the power of the Prince of the World- so Christians will never have friends in high places, no matter where in the political spectrum those heights may be located. And if they do have friends there, then it is an indication that they have reached a new ‘arrangement’ with a new Constantine. If you are not being persecuted, you are doing something wrong.

    On the point of naturalism, a comment: If there’s something I think Christians should be doing in the ‘public sphere’ is becoming involved in science – never mind politics, science is the more fundamental battleground. Science has been highjacked by atheists and it is constantly used to undermine faith – but what actually undermines faith is BAD science, never actual science. The early Dominicans engaged the philosophical debates of their time because that was the cutting edge of knowledge then, but our cutting edge is in the natural sciences, and most Christians have been frightened away from them by a scarecrow put together of bits and pieces of bad XIX century science. Evolutionary Theory, Quantum physics, the General Systems Theory, all take you to the threshold of faith, to a point where you have to choose between God or nothing – they don’t make that choice for you, but they never, ever point to nothing of themselves. This is an element often missing in debates of ‘what is wrong with the Church’: the Church has become afraid of science, and the Church can never be afraid of truth – it serves the Truth. If you want your children to grow up into committed Christians, teach them Evolutionary Theory together with their Catechism, and show them how they click together (and they do – and it is beautiful to behold!)

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    1. On a different note, how I wish there was an ‘edit your comment’ button…
      Anyway, of the many typos, I just want to make clear I meant to write ‘worshiped Satan in *secret* rituals’, not ‘sacred rituals’. I wish I could blame that one on the auto-correct but I think it was actually the auto-carelessness.

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    2. The Lumen Christi Institute at University of Chicago has a number of conferences available on You tube dealing with matters of faith and science, physical science as well as the social sciences. There was one last week by a young American Dominican friar, Fr Thomas Davenport, who is presently teaching at the Angelicum in Rome, whose background is in Physics as well Theology, who presented on the theme of what modern day science can say and not say regarding Transubstantiation. Good stuff.

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