A Lecture in Baltimore at the National Shrine of the Basilica of the Assumption
Dorothy Day, Vatican II and the Universal Call to Holiness
I want to thank the organizers of this event, most especially Father Brendan Fitzgerald, for inviting me to speak to all of you today on a topic near and dear to my heart. Namely, Vatican II, the Universal Call to Holiness, and the charism of Dorothy Day as it relates to that. I am honored to be here today and I hope my words can shed some light on our current situation, which is in many ways a situation of crisis, both in the Church and in the broader culture of the West. I pray that the Holy Spirit will guide my reflections today and keep me from being a blooming idiot which, if left to my own devices I most surely would be. My reflections today will cover Dorothy Day, Vatican II, the universal call to holiness, modern culture and an analysis of where Day fits into all of that. Can I cover all of that in 45 minutes? No. So hold on this is going to be a wild ride…
Let me begin then by saying that I am not here today to give an informercial on Dorothy Day in order to impart to you the basic facts of her life and what she stood for. I am not here to “sell you” on Dorothy Day like a huckster on TV trying to sell you an air fryer or a chicken rotisserie machine. I am here rather to alarm you and to embed my discussion of Dorothy Day within that alarm. It is not good enough to just lay out the facts of her life and her message in a purely academic manner, feigning some kind of scholarly objectivity that is above the fray. It is not good enough because it can leave you with the impression that her message is something we can take or leave as simply one point of view among many. I am not here in other words to describe “The Dorothy Day Option”. I am here to discuss the Dorothy Day mandate.
In order to adequately describe her ongoing significance for our times I need to begin by establishing the nature of the crisis we face. Because only when we diagnose the disease can we prescribe the proper cure. In a nutshell, the crisis we face is the crisis presented to us by modernity and the Church’s flawed response to modernity, both on the Right and on the Left. The term “modernity” is of course a very plastic term that can mean many different things. I am using it here today to denote the culture that arose in the West in the Enlightenment, which was then followed by the scientific and industrial revolutions and the rise of modern political Liberalism. This has led to a culture which lives entirely on the horizontal axis of existence and which defines reality in purely mundane and horizontalist terms. It is a culture, to use the term of Charles Taylor, that lives entirely within the “immanent frame” with no explicit linkages to Transcendence as a point of social reference as something publicly real and significant. Popes John Paul and Benedict have named this reality as well and refer to the “eclipse of God” in our culture. And by the eclipse of God they do not mean a simple rise in the number of atheists and agnostics, since all cultures of all times have always had their fair share of those. Rather, what they meant is something far deeper, far more aboriginal and more cataclysmic. What they meant was what I call the “nullification” of the very question of God as a meaningful public reality. The nullification of the legitimacy of Transcendence as a conceptual category at all followed then by its reduction to a mere epiphenomenal eruption of conflicting emotional states rooted in the psychology of our evolutionary past. In other words, Transcendence as a category that is not pointing to something real and salutary, but to something neurotic and grounded in our simian desire to mark our territory and our reptilian desire to stay warm in the cold.
This is modernity and it is this reality that Hans Urs von Balthasar referred to, simply, as “The System”. He viewed it as a hegemonic and latently totalitarian attempt to circumscribe what counts as the “really real” within the strict boundaries of an intra mundane prison of material relations. Dorothy Day understood it this way as well and her entire apolitical politics was grounded in this analysis. To cite several paradigmatic examples of this, we see for starters that her anarchism was not an antinomian rejection of the moral law but a rejection instead of the true antinomianism that is the Leviathan of the modern nation State with its claim to a monopoly on all of the means of social coercion and its claim to metaphysical neutrality, which is, of course, utter nonsense.
Her pacificism was a rejection of the inherent violence and militarism that is absolutely necessary for these antinomian States to survive since absent a link to Transcendence as the ground of the Good there remains only relations of power, conceived of in terms of pure force. We speak a lot of human and civil rights, and the Liberal order is putatively grounded in such an affirmation, but these rights are not linked to a notion of the Good but are purely stipulative and somewhat arbitrary, and change quickly as the cultural mood changes. And since such rights are not grounded in any deep-seated rationale once they are stipulated they must be policed and imposed by force. This then is the final move toward violence since, as the late Italian philosopher Augusto del Noce points out, the essence of all totalitarianisms resides in the subjugation of culture to politics, which requires periodic war making in order to bleed the lines of the excess pressure that has built up within the social matrix caused by the resolution of cultural fractiousness via the path of coercive power. War making in modernity is State making.
Her voluntary poverty and work for the poor was, along with an embracing of the Dominical commandments to feed the poor, a rejection of the cult of bourgeois, Capitalist, well-being. Here she followed Berdyaev, among others, and today finds a resonance in folks like Eugene McCarraher whose magisterial tome “The Enchantments of Mammon” deftly scopes out the almost mystical character of modern wealth creation as the greatest Totem in the modern pantheon of the strong gods of blood and soil. Her voluntary poverty was thus not a white-knuckled asceticism ordered to a denial of the goods of this earth, but a prophetic critique of the modern worship of Mammon which is itself linked to Moloch. John Paul referred to this as the culture of death and he was not speaking vaguely or metaphorically. Thus, her voluntary poverty, far from being a world hating asceticism, was a life affirming practice intended to break the chains of our Mammon/Moloch idolatry.
In other words, Dorothy Day was no mere “do-gooder” or just a radical philanthropist with Jesus sprinkles on top of the ice cream of her social work. She was a prophet and a pain. She was the irritant in the Oyster that creates the pearl, which in this case is the pearl of great price, which is the holiness that living the Gospel brings. And she shares with Balthasar as well this Christocentrism of the crucified Lord, the Lamb who was slain from all eternity, and who stands in opposition to this “System” which is really, at the end of the day, what the book of Revelation is all about. All apocalyptic is the response to all immanent frames since it smashes the categories of a strict immanence with the message of the inbreaking of the crucified Lamb who now exists beyond the perfidies and pretentions of the world, and stands athwart them in judgment. Ours therefore, according to Dorothy Day, is an era of crisis in the strict sense: a turning point, a decisional moment that Balthasar called the “Ernstfall” which means that point in time when we are forced to choose for or against Christ. It denotes a choice that cannot be avoided since not to choose is in fact a choice in favor of the status quo of the System. The metric of all truth is the Lamb who was slain and this metric, though hidden under the varnished layers of violence in human history, must be the cruciform pattern of our own existence.
Put another way, what I am claiming is that Dorothy Day’s significance can only be understood against the backdrop of the Ernstfall crisis of choice that she believed was upon all of us. Constantinian Catholicism is dead. Cultural Catholicism is dead. We are now returned to the pagan realm of the morally indifferent strong gods of Blut und Erde. And therefore she understood that only a return to a radical form of Christian existence can save us. All attempts at compromise with the bourgeois cult of well-being and its technocratic, Capitalist engine will fail and have failed, which is why the Church, having attempted just such a compromise, has become a safe space of non-triggering velvet saints whose icons ooze the oil of Laodicaea. We have lost the Constantinian Church but have never really lost our desire to retrieve it, and thus fret over our relevance in puerile ways, like an adolescent seeking affirmation from his or her peers, and thus tut-tut at those like Dorothy and Balthasar for being rigoristic utopians out of touch with “reality”. But the reality so defined is the reality of bourgeois well-being which militates against the universal call to holiness, which many in the Church today consider a subspecies of fanaticism.
And right she was about this condition we are in. “Wohin is Gott?” (where is God?” Nietszche asked, “Ich will es euch sagen. Gott is Todt. Und Gott bleibt Todt. Und wir sind Seine Morder ihr und Ich. Aber ist dieses tun nicht so gross fur uns? Nein!” The later thinkers in the Enlightenment tradition understood, like Nietzsche, that the Enlightenment as such was still too tame, too domesticated within the boundaries of classical culture, morality, and reason. And thus do we get the modern masters of hermeneutical suspicion in Marx, Freud, Nietzsche, among others, who held that all love is veiled lust, all reason veiled power, and all justice veiled revenge. Therefore, modern Titanism must deconstruct such social illusions as the mere recrudescence of mystification and superstition. Thus is modernity characterized, as noted by del Noce, by the mantra now become dogma, “today it is no longer possible to think the following…”. All that was before modernity is thus erased in order for the binding address that was Transcendence to be eliminated. Modern political Liberalism, with its de facto atheistic core, has as its chief goal the elimination of all such binding addresses other than that of the State, or, put another way, other than that of the “System”.
C.S. Lewis once famously used the analogy of an egg to describe the necessity today of making the choice for or against Christ. He said that spiritually speaking we are all eggs and like eggs we must either hatch or go bad. There is no stasis. There is no standing still. To choose that is to choose spoilage and death. I get emails all the time from former students of mine who are now parents and who are suffering through the fact that very few of their children remain believers. They ask me, “what can we do to stop this?” And the statistics today about young people in the Catholic Church are sobering and bear this out as a general trend. Millions of young people are simply walking away from the faith. But why is this? It is because the Church has kicked the can of decisional crisis down the road, refused to take a strong counter-cultural stand in defiance to the System, and has put its head in the sand and opted for status quo, don’t rock the boat lest the envelopes dry up, thinking. After all, somebody has to pay for all of those beige Catholic schools which churn out future lapsed Catholics by the thousands. The Church has opted to make the parish safe for the culture of the cul-de-sac and has thus neutered its eschatological essence at its roots, rendering the Church so dull and lackluster that it is in no way any longer compelling. And we wonder why our children see nothing of value in it? Why it all just seems so inauthentic and boiler plate to them? Much of the Church in the West has become the sock puppet of modern culture. But the problem with sock puppets is that they all look the same.
The Church should be a hatchery for holiness, which was the point Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin made over and over, but has instead become a place for warehousing the spoiled eggs of our mediocrity. We have told folks that they can have their cake and eat it too. They can take on the coloration and values of our culture and still be good Catholics. And I suppose we can in some sense. But for how long? The bourgeois center does not hold. Only the christological center holds when Catholic culture is lost and all that is left is that decisional choice. You say I am being hyperbolic and alarmist in an overly harsh and hortatory tone? I have a priest friend who is a pastor in New Hampshire. When he started as a priest in 1985 there were 185 active priests in his diocese. Today there are around 50. The number of baptisms and marriages has imploded, let alone confirmations. Think of your own families. How many of you who are old enough to have grown children as well as nephews and nieces can honestly say that most of them are still Catholic? I know in my own family that this question cannot be answered in the affirmative.
What does all of this have to do with Dorothy Day and Vatican II? In a word… everything. What I am trying to establish is that the status quo of the modus vivendi we have worked out with bourgeois culture is finally unraveling and is being exposed for the shell game that it was. And in its place we are being offered several flawed alternatives. We have the toxic romanticism of radical traditionalism – a traditionalism often tainted with misogyny and anti-Semitism by the way --, which is also a traditionalism bound to a “most people are going to Hell” approach to salvation and a narrow reading of the necessity of the Church for salvation, which is why they hate Vatican II and Balthasar, and Barron, not to mention Day. There is the neo-con fantasy camp of a crypto-Catholic America just waiting for the Catholic moment to emerge as the spiritual prop for American exceptionalism and militarism, in some fever dream of a Natural Law reading of the Constitution that exchanges ecclesial patristics with the patristics of America’s blessed founding. There is the increasingly influential and resurgent Catholic progressivism that is little more than a Catholic theological front group for blessing the sexual revolution. At one time the Catholic Left was interesting and engaging. Anti- war, anti-poverty, anti-State. Now all it cares about are proper pronouns. The face of the Catholic Left in America was once a towering figure like Fr. Daniel Berrigan. Now it is Fr. James Martin and Massimo Faggioli.
And so we are presented with several ecclesial alternatives, all of which are dead ends. We are at a series of dead ends. All of which engage in ideologically motivated mystifications that occlude the cruciform nature of our true existence. Dorothy Day understood this which is why she railed against the clericalization of holiness and the relegation of the Sermon on the Mount to the status of counsels of perfection which you need not follow. Day understood that Jesus too was considered a “rigorist” in his day as can be seen in his disciples disbelief that the rich young ruler was sent away by Jesus because he would not give up his wealth, -- Mammon being then, as now, a marker of divine blessing – and openly asked Jesus “Who then can be saved?” Dorothy Day was not deterred by accusations of rigorism since she saw - - I mean she really just “saw” with profound, prophetic clarity – that we must either hatch or go bad. She saw that a radicalization had to happen. She saw we had to either ascend or we would descend. And so she insisted that the only thing that can save us is what she called a “revolution of the heart” where the small band of Catholics that will remain are truly intentional and evangelical in their faith.
And this realization was not unique to Dorothy Day. No less a light than Joseph Ratzinger stated already in 1967 that the Church must accept the fact that she is going to become much, much smaller in the near future since few there are who will make that decisional choice and will choose instead to float downstream with the culture. And he thus concluded, as Dorothy concluded, that the only Catholicism that will remain is the Catholicism of those who consciously choose it in the face of all cultural obstacles. Thus, Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin were not joking around or being cheeky when they said that today the living out of the Sermon on the Mount was no longer an option for the elite few, but must be the choice of all. We must be radical or we won’t be at all.
It is against this backdrop that I would like now to discuss the true significance of Vatican II and how this buttresses the claim made by Dorothy and Peter that holiness is no longer an option but a mandate for spiritual survival. The Council had strengths but it also had weaknesses, but in the end, it too represents a watershed moment that must be embraced critically but lovingly in the option it presents: a more evangelical Church, christocentric in nature, that is the engine of holiness for everyone. So before we place Dorothy in the context of this Council we need to unpack it.
Vatican II was a missionary Council. It was not a “modernizing” or “liberalizing” Council as the popular media, both then and now, would have us believe. Hans Kung had that wonderful hair, a fancy red sports car, and was the darling, Swiss, wunderkind ever-ready to pronounce to a breathless and complicit media that the Catholic Church was, in essence, dissolving itself. But his was not the voice of the Council as such. Nor, in the other direction, was the Council inclined to engage in a pro forma reiteration of the categories of neo-scholastic “fortress Catholicism” with its security blanket syllogisms and woefully inadequate caricatures of modern philosophy. Many in the Curia thought that the Council would last three months and be over by the end of the summer. All the schemata had been drawn up and the hope was the bishops would give it all a thumbs up and then dash off to Piazza della Rotonda for dinner and wine. But this too was not the will of the Council.
The Council’s vision was sweeping and broad. Its goal was to re-evangelize the world through a missionary effort that would take the Church’s vast spiritual riches and place them in the modern public square as genuine interlocutors with a world made weary by the genocidal wars of recent memory and the emerging threat of nuclear apocalypse. But in order to do this the Council fathers knew that a purely clerical effort would not do and that the time was now for a lay revolution in the Church. Very often in the history of the Church great spiritual leaders arose to reform their religious orders which often ended in them breaking away from the main body in order to found a more rigorous, “discalced” movement of radical Catholicism. Therefore, I like to say that in its universal call to holiness the Council was calling for a discalced laity shorn of the purely contractual Catholicism so prevalent in the pre-conciliar Church. They sought a more evangelical laity who would rise to the challenge of modernity and bring the Gospel into the world in a radical way, but also in a way appropriate to the laity who must after all, live in the world and provide for their families.
Thus, I have often said that the heart and soul of the Council can be seen in two things. First, it was a radically christocentric Council and sought the reformulation of all theology along christocentric lines. And in so reorienting theology the Council hoped to create a more evangelical Catholicism shorn of contractual and forensic notions of faith. Second, it sought to take this message and, among other things, apply it to the universal call to holiness, which it sought to declericalize and to emphasize that it truly is a universal call, meant for all. This was not a new doctrine in the Church, but it had been muddied over with the sludge of a moribund clericalism and an infantilized laity. And this is no caricature. Something has to explain why the entire bottom fell out of the Church’s culture immediately after the Council and that explanation is easy to find. A Church characterized by a rule-based clericalism and a contractual faith within the laity went wild after the Council lifted the lid off of the ecclesiastical libido in the form of a softening of the rules in favor of a faith of intentional choosing. In a Church defined by the boundaries of mere rules, when those rules are at least perceived as being removed or softened, then the boundaries go away as well. And that is what we saw happen.
The Council was therefore right in its theology, but was guilty of a double pastoral naivete. The first naivete was that it overestimated the strength of the internal faith life of the Church up to that point. And the second naivete is that it underestimated the toxicity of modern culture to that same faith and which was in great measure why the Church had already been slowly rotting from within. As early as 1958 a young Joseph Ratzinger penned a famous article that hit like a bombshell, called “The New Heathenism in the Church”. And in that article Ratzinger made the same observation I am making here. Namely, that despite outward signs of strength to the contrary, the reality was that the Church had been hollowed out from within and had largely imbibed the pagan values of modernity. It had become, in his words, a Church of heathens who thought they were Christians. Others had noted this as well and much earlier. You see it in literary figures like Bernanos whose Diary of a Country Priest was a literary exploration of the theme of the lonely holiness of a single priest within an ocean of Catholic boredom and disbelief. You saw it in historians like Christopher Dawson who saw the bourgeois Catholicism of his day as a moribund institution in an advanced stage of decay. Guardini saw it. So did Gilson and Pieper and a host of others. My point here is that this thesis of a rotted pre-conciliar Church is not some idiosyncratic theory of my own making. Therefore, the modern traditionalist belief that in order to overcome the post conciliar turmoil we simply need to go back to what things were like before the Council scarcely rises to the level of nonsense. If Catholics were so happy and content with that form of Catholicism and its Latin liturgy, why did they so gladly, and in an almost Dionysian orgy of cathartic, libidinous release, toss it all aside in an instant without blinking twice or looking back once.
The problem therefore is that the Council understood that the Church needed holiness, but in its double naivete failed to spell-out the exact kind of holiness that is needed today and chose instead to speak in the vague platitudes of various theological bromides drawn from the past. And in so doing it failed to identify what kind of saints we need today with any specificity tailored to the challenge of modern culture. In short, the Council, though radical in many ways, was still trying to square the circle of material continuity in doctrine and practice and therefore had a tendency to articulate its message in “Church speak” in order to smooth over the various micro ruptures it was indeed introducing. Sure, the Council got the theology right, but as Ratzinger noted years later, perhaps they were too focused on getting the theology right and not focused enough on what the concrete pastoral fall-out would be. But in the Council’s defense it was caught in a bind. On the one hand she wanted to reject the defensive, insular, “Fortress Catholicism” mentality of the pre-conciliar era. She wanted to combat the errors of modernity but knew that she could not do so with the old neo-scholasticism and a syllabus of errors. On the other hand she needed to counteract the errors of modernity, but wanted to do so positively by putting forward a better anthropology, a better humanism than that offered by modern culture. It wanted to build on what was good in modernity without for all that offering up a pinch of incense to its polyamorous idolatries.
Sadly, the Catholics of today have long since stopped obsessing over where our pinches of incense are directed, which is one of the chief points Balthasar is making in The Moment of Christian Witness. The Church, in both its clerical and lay domains, made its peace with modern bourgeois mediocrity and its spiritually myopic materialism, and settled into a long winter’s nap of somnambulistic lassitude, content to sublate the monogamy of our devotion to Christ underneath a host of other more penultimate desires (e.g. ethnicism, nationalism, consumerism, Americanism), treating Christ like an ancient palimpsest where the original image can only be recovered with great skill and effort.
And so the bourgeois tail ends up wagging the Christian dog, which culminates in a thinly disguised rejection of sanctity, as I said before, as a subspecies of fanaticism. The “universal call to holiness” championed by Vatican II, and presciently called for by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin thirty years earlier, is corrupted, inverted, and falsified by rendering the quest for holiness in ordinary life into its opposite. The statement that “We can find holiness even in ordinary things” becomes instead, “It is holy to be ordinary”. And “ordinary” is then defined, strictly, according to the structures of plausibility constructed by bourgeois modernity.
The claim of Dorothy and Peter Maurin therefore was that the attempt to domesticate our transformation in Christ through a thousand compromises with “ordinary life” is a form of idolatry. It is the idolatry of the “everydayness” that imposes itself upon us and insists upon our assent to “real life” as opposed to the fanaticism of those who seek a Kingdom “not of this world”. And it is an idolatry which in a previous form is as old as the Christian faith itself. The Romans accused the first Christians of being “anti-social” and “anti- human” because the Church insisted that our spiritual center of gravity resides outside of the nexus of everyday social commerce and within the nexus of a regime of grace that explodes the old wineskins of the “normal”.
What the early Church, by contrast, dared its followers to do was to imagine that what seems to be most “real” (everyday, commonsense, compromised living) is in fact an illusion. And it called us to dream differently and more radically. It is the inability to dream differently and to assert instead that this world, and its logic of compromise, is an end unto itself, that I define, following Berdyaev and Peter Maurin, as the “bourgeois spirit.” This spirit has always been with us, but, as Berdyaev points out, beginning in the 19th century it has been elevated into a strict and all-encompassing governing principle for our culture, religion, economics, and politics.
But Dorothy and Peter persisted in the face of accusations of sectarian rigorism. And to the charge that they were utopian “purists” and “rigorists”, they calmly pointed to the prophets, to Christ, and to the saints. And what they pointed to was the “yes” or “no” spiritual choice that true sanctity always insists upon. What Dorothy and Peter bring, therefore, is what the Gospel always brings: prophetic clarity as to what the truly “real” is. The Constantinian era is dead. We must now return to that fervor of those first Christians who refused to accede to Caesar’s occupation of every space. For them, the acclamation “Jesus is Lord” was more than a doxological prayer. It was also a dangerous and potentially lethal affirmation that Caesar is not Lord.
On both the “Right” and the “Left”, the Church in America and Europe is defaced with the graffiti of our vulgar preoccupations and seems no longer to have the spiritual resources to even desire something more Christ-centered. In earlier eras reform was possible, despite corruption and spiritual laxity, because people still knew where and what the “center” was: the Christ presented in the gospels. Today, even in the Church, there are those who doubt the legitimacy of even having a center, viewing the very notion of a center as lacking in “inclusion”, which of course is merely code for “we want our bourgeois comforts and conceits.” And so we see that we are not so opposed to “centers” after all. Mammon suffers no rivals.
Some people might react to these words and call them harsh and judgmental, perhaps even self-righteous. They might say I am describing, at best, only the worst-case examples, and, at worst, a total strawman caricature. But this is just laying down smoke in order to create a fog that allows us to evade the obvious. This is the typical response every prophet like Dorothy and Peter receives when they call-out their culture. The very word “Jeremiad” means a form of denunciatory rhetoric that is often “over the top” and is, in reality, an insult to the prophet Jeremiah. Now… I am not claiming to be a prophet. But I am claiming that Dorothy and Peter were. And all I am pointing out is that the observations they made about the Church of their time applies in equal measure to the Church of today, if not more so. There is a time and a place for critical and blunt observations. Sometimes you have to “cut through the nonsense.” And this is one of those times.
Thus, we are confronted with a choice and choose we must. A purely “contractual” Catholicism will not suffice since it does not possess the spiritual depths needed to hold off the relentless degradation of our sense of God in the cult of well-being. We might think that we can have our cake and eat it too, that we can be a kind of “halfway” Catholic while keeping both feet firmly planted in the worldview of modernity, that we can pass on the faith to our children by simply taking them to Church once in a while, but we will be fooling ourselves. The “beige Catholicism” that Bishop Robert Barron describes as the boilerplate default position of the average suburban parish is not compelling, is not beautiful, and is viewed by many as a boring and drab affair that simply cannot compete with the more exciting allurements of the modern world. It simply does not grip, it does not bite, it does not gain traction, and it does not challenge us to the kind of sanctified heroism which alone can excite the soul.
Youth is a time for idealism, for just such heroism, and yet we generally do not tap into this deep reservoir of desire for meaning and purpose among the young, and opt instead for a Church of “Monte Carlo Night” fundraisers and basket raffles to build community. Homilies are atrociously dull and anodyne, filled with the kind of obvious moralisms that do not require the faith to affirm. “It is nice to be nice to the nice” is the theme of most of them even if lip-service is paid to the deeper demands of the Gospel in cursory ways that are left so vague and open-ended as to mean absolutely nothing. Homilies that advance a vision of moral existence that is scarcely more than what I learned from my second grade teacher about lunch line etiquette. Homilies that are boring, drab, soul killing, and quite frankly, utterly jejune and nugatory.
What we need -- and when I say “need” I mean need in a way that absolutely necessary and non-negotiable -- are parishes that confront the culture and attempt to flip the script of modernity’s narrative, all the while making it clear that fence-sitting, bet-hedging, Catholicism is no Catholicism at all. “The Choice”, the Ernstfall moment as Balthasar called it, needs to be spelled out clearly and presented as an attractive counter-cultural option that compels through the sheer beauty of its truth and goodness. But “The Choice” is rarely presented and instead we have settled into a kind of quiet resignation to the banality of it all. We hold diocesan “synods” with fancy titles like “renewing the faith in the Spirit!” when in reality all they usually turn out to be are discussions of how many and which parishes to close and consolidate. We retreat and “consolidate” and call it “renewal,” but we all know it for what it is: defeat.
And in the midst of that fading is nothing but a debilitating indifference to the things of God.
Ratzinger’s blunt analysis of the situation already in 1958 caused him to conclude, in a manner radically similar to that of Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day, that the only path forward is the path of demolition, followed by a reconstruction that will be a revolution of the heart in the path of holiness. He states: “In the long run the church cannot escape having to dismantle bit by bit its semblance of worldliness, to become again what she is: a community of believers.” This is not a call to sectarian withdrawal into some imagined pristine community of the pure. We are not talking here of becoming like modern day Catholic Essenes, squirreled away somewhere in a Catholic Compound complete with a buried school bus stockpiled with catechisms, the blessed sacramentals of guns and grenades embossed with an image of St. Michael wielding an Uzi, and skirts for the ladies that go below the knees. It is rather a call to a radical conversion as the only possible path forward since the only credibility that the Church possesses is her holiness. And this radical conversion and the credibility that will follow in its wake is in the service of the Church’s engagement with, and missionary outreach to, the world. Therefore Ratzinger concludes that, “Only when it ceases to be an easy matter of course, only when it begins to present itself again as what it is, will it be able to get its message across to the new heathens, who at present indulge the illusion that they are not heathens at all.”
Returning then to the Council and Dorothy’s relevance to it, another problem was that even though it gave us something like a theology of tradition in its revamping of the theology of Revelation in a christocentric register, it did not give us a proper hermeneutic for adjudicating just how that Christocentrism translated into how it is that doctrines can develop. The Council, as I said before, engaged in certain micro ruptures with what it considered to be distortions of the Tradition and sought to restore balance to certain areas of teaching. Examples would include its affirmation of religious freedom as a fundamental human right, which would include then a further rejection of past Church teaching on the uses of forceful means of coercion in the religious domain, up to and including burning heretics at the stake, a doctrine which comes as a shock to many when they discover that the Church during the Reformation actually condemned the idea that it is wrong to burn heretics. There were changes in the theological concept of the rights of bishops vis-à-vis the papacy, changes in the notion of the possibility of salvation for non-Christians, and changes in the Church’s approach to modern Scripture scholarship and so on. I could continue but you get the point.
But as Msgr. Thomas Guarino points out in his book “The Disputed Teachings of Vatican II” the conciliar reluctance to openly admit to reversals of previous teachings constituted a kind of “masking” of the true state of affairs out of a pastoral concern that the integrity of the magisterium not be called into question by average believers. The bishops at Vatican II were deeply reluctant to challenge explicitly the reigning ecclesial narrative that all developments of doctrine in the history of the Church, including at Vatican II, are organic, smooth, and in material continuity with all else that has come before. However, considering that Vatican II did reverse certain prior teachings and that the Council fathers knew darn well that they were, does this not constitute a kind of deception on their part? In a word, no. Because even though the Council did not explicitly challenge the narrative of total material continuity in all things authoritatively taught, it did not for all that affirm that narrative either. It simply ignored the issue of the hermeneutics of tradition altogether and never explicitly addressed the question of what its various reversals of previous teachings implied with regard to how we are to think about the development of doctrine in the light of those reversals.
Sadly, their failure to develop a proper hermeneutic of how to retrieve the tradition - - even if that failure was motivated by a sincere pastoral concern not to crush the bruised reed - - was the single biggest mistake, theologically and even pastorally speaking, made by the Council. Because it left the door wide open for others in the post-conciliar era to fill that void and to propose a hermeneutic of rupture as the key motif of the Council - - a rupture they viewed as so extreme that everything was now up for reinterpretation. Therefore, the so-called “spirit of Vatican II” so often invoked by the progressive wing of the post conciliar Church finds its theological grounding in both what the Council actually “did” in reversing some previous teachings, but also, and more importantly, in what the Council did NOT say: i.e. “Here is what it all means for our notion of “development” and here is what it does Not mean.” The failure of the Council to achieve its stated aim of a new springtime in the Church can be tied directly to this lacuna in its interpretive apparatus. And it is a lacuna that proved fatal to its entire ressourcement project of renewal since the various reversals of the Council, left hanging and without conceptual contextualization in a broader theology of development, had political consequences in the Church that were of the very kind the Council hoped to avoid by not addressing the topic of the hermeneutics of development at all. Fail.
And that brings me at last to what I call the “hermeneutics of kenosis.” In order to understand what I mean by this term it is first necessary to grasp the essence of what has come to be known as “ressourcement theology.” Literally, the term means a “re-sourcing” as in a return to the seminal resources of the Church’s tradition. But this is all too often misunderstood as a desire to do a kind of “end run” around the medievals and the entire scholastic tradition in order to go back to the patristic era in order to slavishly repeat what they said and to thereby reduce theology to a mere exposition of patristic texts. And if this were true then the ressourcement thinkers would be guilty of the same kind of privileging of one era of Church history over all others, just as they accuse the scholastics of doing with Aquinas. Fortunately, that is not what the ressourcement project was about in either theory or in actual practice. Ressourcement thinkers emphasized the patristic era, not to negate anything that came after, but rather to embed the entirety of the tradition in a broader horizon. In other words, their goal was for the tradition to take deeper breaths in order to gain a more robust understanding of Revelation as such. Therefore, they were not seeking to “repristinate” some golden era in the early Church in order to make it the bell cow of a new movement to reform the Church via a kind of patristic fundamentalism.
That latter point is key. Ressourcement thinkers did not want to repristinate anything since such projects evince a romanticized form of thinking that borders on the antiquarian. Rather, what they sought was something far, far more radical: the re-interrogation of the entire tradition via a re-centering of all doctrine in a christocentric theology of Revelation that could then be used to restore the hierarchy of doctrinal truths in a manner more faithful to the Church’s core identity as the Body and the Bride of Christ. The theologian Marcellino D’Ambrosio, in an older essay on ressourcement theology, puts it thus: “For these thinkers, doing theology meant doing history. Yet the distinctive approach to historical theology which they shared was neither mere detached, scholarly reconstruction nor a futile attempt at … ‘repristination.’ It was rather a creative hermeneutical exercise in which the ‘sources’ of Christian faith were ‘reinterrogated’ with new questions, the burning questions of a century in travail. … These theologians of ressourcement were able to unlock new rooms in the treasure house of tradition and discover there, surprisingly enough, many of the twentieth-century ideas which neo-Scholasticism neglected or even resisted.” (“Ressourcement Theology,” Communio, Winter 1991, pp. 532-533).
What these thinkers sought was a form of theology that evinced a creative originality that was not a modern innovation, but which was truly radical as only something deeply traditional can be. What they sought was not so much a scholarly retrieval as it was the pursuit of a form of pastoral revitalization that they thought neo-Scholasticism, with its ahistorical objectivism, had ignored. In short, the problem with neo-Scholasticism in their view was not that it was “too traditional” but rather that it was not nearly traditional enough. And we see this still today in the casual dismissal of Vatican II by so many radical “traditionalists” as a “merely pastoral” Council that offered no new canons, issued no anathemas (oh the horror), and proffered no new dogmas. But in so dismissing the Council they display a profound ignorance of the problematic at hand. Namely, the divorce between theology and sanctity, doctrine and praxis, the pastoral and the dogmatic, that had plagued the Church for centuries and which the very pastoral nature of the Council was seeking to address. In other words… it is my claim that the pastoral nature of the Council’s theology is precisely the theological point of doctrinethat the Council was affirming. Seen in this light, the ressourcement theologians were the most radically traditionalist of all of the conciliar contenders, and the Council itself, far from being a “rupture” with tradition in the deeper and more radical sense of that word, was perhaps the most traditionalist Council in centuries.
Ultimately, this “depth” that is sought is nothing other than Christ himself. The ultimate “Source” in ressourcement is Christ’s paschal mystery as this is communicated in the Church via the Spirit that Christ sends in Pentecost after the Ascension, and which is, therefore, the only true “canon” (regulative rule) in the deepest theological sense, in the Church. And any ecclesial canon which falls short of that Christological canon is a canon of distortion. And any doctrine, no matter how long it has been taught, that falls short of that Christological canon, is a distortion. And any liturgical form or catechetical teaching or papal bull that falls short of that canon is a distortion. Ressourcement thinkers were not seeking a patristic revival as an end in itself. What they sought was a patristic revival that retrieved in some sense the “freshness” of the Christocentrism of the fathers and their closeness therefore to the Spirit that animates both Scripture and all true tradition. And please do not misunderstand this as some new-fangled hermeneutic without precedent. What is tradition if not the communication in time and history of the very Christ who grounds it? The conciliar text Dei Verbum makes this point forcefully. Tradition is not an ideological construct superimposed on Revelation as a kind of template of our own making. It is meant instead as an explication of God’s Revelation in Christ, and it is guaranteed by the Spirit to be “indefectible” in matters pertaining to our salvation. However, in the course of the ages that tradition has allowed in certain distortions and even errors in some doctrines that are not central to our salvation, but which have been taken by some to be so, which has only compounded the problem. But what we have learned from these mistakes is not to allow a “creeping indefectibility” to invade the Church with a triumphalist sense that its every pronouncement has been faithful to the canon that is Christ.
But how do we judge when a doctrine or practice is “christological enough?” First off, we need the Wisdom of the Holy Spirit, gifted to us as a charism related to faith, which creates within us a connatural “sym-pathy” with the Christological form. A deep dive into Scripture is needed, as well as attention to all of the deep elements of the tradition. The saints and the doctors of the Church are critical here, as well as is the liturgy, creeds, and explicit dogmatic teachings. There is no magic bullet of “super clarity” and ambiguities and debates will remain. How could they not? Our minds rise to God asymptotically and the “greater dissimilarity” abides. As St. Augustine said: “Si comprehendis, non est deus.” The goal of dogmas and lesser doctrines is not the elimination of Mystery buts its accentuation. We are blinded, not by darkness, but by an excess of light, and dogmas are only vessels of that light and not the light itself. All the great saints knew this well. The closer we get to God the more we know what it is that we don’t know and the more we “see” the more we are aware of our blindness.
In this whole process of hermeneutical retrieval therefore there is no substitute for prayer and holiness. There is no substitute for the coming together of the Marian and Petrine dimensions of the Church. In the end, only Christ remains as the sole criterion of adjudication and that Christ has a cruciform logic. And that “logic” was expressed by St. Paul when he said that the essence of Christ’s love for us can be seen in his “descent” (Kenosis) into the form of a slave. Kenosis is thus the pattern of his mission as he descends from the Father into our world, and then descends into actually “becoming” one of his creatures in a mysterious union only achievable by God himself, whose inner trinitarian life is characterized by the perichoresis of infinite love which is itself the very logic of “subsistens” as relational divestment. Christ then descends into death and the dank, yawning, crouching, dark of the tomb; into the stench of Satan’s sting he descends in order to conquer death by the irrepressible force of the life-love conjunction that knows no exceptions. He then descends into Hell, a doctrine which can only mean that Hell too is a Christological reality, created at the very intersection of love’s overtures and creaturely resistance that exists within the core of His Sacred Heart. And there too is a descent: the descent into the suffering of love (Regis Martin’s beautiful insight) that awaits the return of the prodigal sons, even as they tarry in gross indifference. Kenosis is the very law of God’s inner life and is the fruit of an infinite superabundance of love and not of any strange, gnostic, Sophiology of Divine limitation. Kenosis, in other words, is paradoxically, the greatest fullness imaginable. And this law of God, this law of love, is for us therefore, our only true canon for discerning the spirit of the tradition. It is the law of theosis through kenosis that must be our guiding star. There is no other path because there is no other God. And there is no other name by which we are saved.
Therefore, the only true hermeneutic is the hermeneutic of kenosis, or, as Pope Benedict puts it, the “hermeneutic of the cross.” And it is this hermeneutic of the pattern of the divine love revealed in Christ, that is the only true measuring stick for which doctrines are authoritative in a deep, deep, constitutive way, and which ones are not. Indeed, it is a measuring stick that allows us to admit our ecclesial errors with a confidence born of a true faith that brings humility in the light of truth. Vatican II, in my view was a ressourcement Council. And as such it was a Council that sought to reinterrogate the entirety of the tradition christologically and in line with a hermeneutic of the cross, of kenosis. And it sought to reorient the Church’s hierarchy of truths based on this architectonic concept. And in doing this the Council did create some doctrinal casualties, just as when I seek to reorient my own spiritual life to be more in tune with the cruciform Christ, some things I once held dear are exposed as less than dear, and need to go. Seen in this light, the traditionalists are right about Vatican II. It may have been the most radical Council in the history of the Church. But what the traditionalists get wrong is that it was this very radicality that made Vatican II the most traditionalist Council of all.
This then brings me all the way back to Dorothy Day. In my view God always raises up saints who are the specific antidote to the errors of the times. Therefore, it is entirely appropriate to ask what kind of saints do we need today? We need more than ever lay saints to help inspire a lay revolution, to create a discalced laity, which is what Peter Maurin meant when he said we need to explode the dynamite of the Church. We need a serious living out of the Sermon on the Mount, most especially in its call to love our enemies since ours is an increasingly balkanized culture of ritualized hatreds. We need lay saints who can show us all how to live sanctified lives in the world. And that means saints who imitate the pattern of divine kenosis, of divine descent, of divine charity in their own lives in the form of a radical solidarity with the Hell that so many people live within. But so live that solidarity with Hell as its own descent that is not overcome by that Hell but transforms it from within. And that is precisely the kind of saint Dorothy Day was and is. A saint that is a witness to the holiness of the laity living in today’s sad world of despair.
Tyranny rises in exact proportion to the loss of real community and real culture. The Covid pandemic, the war in Ukraine, the rise of racial tensions here at home, the surge of desperate immigrants fleeing conditions in their own countries that our country helped to create, the rise of poverty and unemployment, and the rise of an even scarier militarism, now extending into space, cry out for the anti-politics, politics of the Lord Jesus Christ and his Kingdom which is not of this world, but is for this world. We should therefore be saints who see that ours is a time of expectant preparation for the inbreaking of that Kingdom in the form of the Divine love displayed in the events of the paschal mystery. There is no “issue” stronger than the tissue of this love. And it is only this Divine love, expressed in endless hospitality and open-ended forgiveness in intentional communities of Christian faith, that can build our communities back again and save us from the noose of techno-capitalist-militarist-tyranny that is around our necks. President Biden proposes that we, “build back better.” All he really means of course is what all presidents ever mean: “give my party more power.” But to really “build back better” we first need to subvert the old order. Therefore, in order for that to happen, in this current season of crisis, let our prayer be: “He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and he has lifted up the lowly.” And that is what Dorothy Day did in her own small way. She resisted and she loved. Nay, her resistance was a form of love.
Only then can the Church regain her credibility in the world. Nothing else will suffice. Not more meetings or stratagems or pastoral plans or synods or position papers from the bishops on topics over which they have no competence. The competence of our pastors is the fostering of holiness. Raw, brutal, extreme, crazy as a mad hatter, holiness. The holiness that causes people to stop short and ask, “what the heck is that”? To be different and sanely insane. The Church of Petrine structure is no longer held to be credible in the world. We need to make it credible by living a hermeneutics of kenosis in our own lives which will provide the Church with her only proper metric rooted in praxis for making doctrinal formulations and for settling doctrinal disputes. Because devotion to Christ is a deeper metric of truth than the debates about orthodoxy vs. heresy.
The fact that the Church may have committed errors in the past bothers me not one wit. I lose no sleep over it and it does not engender in me a crisis of faith. Little children that are tortured and raped and then murdered by some sick sadist causes me far more existential dread than the fact that some Pope once taught some howler of nonsense. And this is what Dorothy Day understood as well which is why she believed that there is nothing so holy as the palm outstretched in the run of generosity. The teaching of Vatican II on religious freedom, as well as some of the other teachings of Vatican II, has caused a deep, existential crisis of faith for many of the radical traditionalists. They are like a person adrift at sea who spies a rock jutting out from the water and as they seek to cling to it they curse the slippery moss that covers it. But it is a rock in the ocean and so of course it has moss on it. Better to find that floating beam of wood, that thin arboreal presence which alone stands between us and the abyss below and upon which our Savior, the only Savior, once hung.
Dorothy Day, pray for us.