Apologetics and Evangelization Part One: Vatican II and Why Radical Traditionalism is a Dead End
I am still working on my blog essay on apologetics which was delayed by my trip to Rome. I know, I know, I keep promising that blog essay but it never appears. But before I finish that (done by Sunday) I had some thoughts on radical traditionalism I wanted to share based on some airplane musings I wrote down on my way home. And what I say here is a good preamble to what I will be saying in the blog essay on apologetics and so I have decided to call this essay part one of a two part installment. There will be a stream of consciousness element in what follows as I am simply cobbling together various thoughts that came to me during my nine hour flight from Rome. Nevertheless, there is an overarching point which I will reach at the end. Also, I am sure I will be accused of being vague and “attacking a straw man” since I will not name names and get specific in that way. But I assure you that I have names in mind and big ones that most of you would recognize. I just see no need to name them and I have no desire to publicly shame anyone or get into personal online debates. I will simply rely on my readers who are conversant with the tradosphere to recognize the patterns and arguments to which I refer. So here we go….
"[The Church] is no longer, as she once was, a Church composed of pagans who have become Christians, but a Church of pagans, who still call themselves Christians, but actually have become pagans. Paganism resides today in the Church herself, and precisely that is the characteristic of the Church of our day, and that of the new paganism, so that it is a matter of a paganism in the Church, and of a Church in whose heart paganism is living."
Joseph Ratzinger in 1958. “The New Pagans and the Church”
I am back from Rome and the funeral of Pope Benedict XVI and I am still processing everything. I also picked up the usual head and chest cold I normally get after such travels which is not surprising given how many thousands of people I was around. I doubt it is Covid (I don’t know why, I just do) but if it is Covid then I blame the Wuhan lab or some random Chinese Pangolins and not my own wanton disregard for every sane protocol for staying healthy in crowds. My hotel did have a sign on the elevator that said you were not allowed to use it unless you wore a mask. “Nessuna ecceszione!!” (No exceptions!!) it insisted in Italian as if two exclamation points could overcome the famous Roman antinomianism toward such things. But of course, this is Rome so nobody gave it a second thought and we happily rode that conveyance with crazy, maskless abandon, laughing our way to the third floor bar like adolescent immortals. There was one nice consequence of getting sick and that was the dry cough I had throughout my nine hour flight on Swiss Air which gave me a direct experience of what it must have been like to be a first century Judean leper. I fully expected at any moment to be handed a parachute and asked to pull a D.B. Cooper and exit the plane forthwith. A mere three years ago if you had a cough on an airplane folks might be mildly annoyed at you but would engage in a studied indifference so as to avoid appearing insensitive and judgmental. Now? They call the Hague.
But I am home now and ensconced in my urban hermitage in Scranton surrounded by my books, my dogs, and my unpacked bags. When I return home from a trip my bags usually stay unpacked for days as I apply my own version of Ockham’s razor to such endeavors; no unnecessary chores shall be tolerated and the path with the least amount of effort is clearly the best one. I apply that same law to making the bed in the morning, as in, why make the bed at all when you are just going to mess it up again that night? Bed making has always seemed foolish to me – an irrational habit born of a bourgeois fear that “guests” might show up at any moment and demand to see your bedroom. This fear is foolish since any social embarrassment over an unmade bed spied upon by a boorish neighbor can easily be dispelled with a simple comment: “Pardon the mess, but the kids were clamoring for me to read them more Hildegard of Bingen this morning.”
You know what else seems foolish to me? Radical Traditionalism. How is that for a segue to my main topic? But the issues are related on a deep metaphysical level since the impulse to make one’s bed in the morning with military precision and to immediately unpack one’s suitcases after a trip, is directly correlated on a constitutive level to the same kind of mental furniture that motivates the tradosphere. And that furniture is the spiritual equivalent of Ikea furnishings with their black-white-beige color schemes, sharp and clean lines, and their euro-inspired convenience of fitting into cramped spaces. Oh … and they need to be assembled by you since in no known universe is such furniture ever in a pre-assembled stand-alone state of existence. Which is similar to tradism which believes in a Tradition that never really existed in itself as imagined, but which stands only as a constructed reality hastily cobbled together with glue, dowels, and a few screws that don’t often work in the pre-drilled holes, but do sort of work if you force them.
I can hear some moaning already, “why have I chosen to pick-on the poor Tradicals again?” “Why don’t you just leave them be since they are on the side of the angels even if they are theologically obtuse in spots?” For starters, and just in general, because their influence in the Church continues to be outsized in comparison with their real numbers. In other words, they are not harmless and I question the premise that they are somehow “on our side” simply because they seem, on the surface at least, to adhere to tradition. Because their adherence to tradition is on their terms, which is to say, it is no adherence to tradition, properly conceived as such, at all. And the need to combat the current resurgence of progressive theological lunacy in the Church is hobbled by the fact that one tends to be lumped in with the Tradicals every time a legitimate theological criticism is mounted of the progressives from any angle. This poisons the wells of genuine theological discourse making it impossible for the ressourcement voice to be heard over the din of armies clashing in the death match between progressives and trads.
And this is my primary concern here. Namely, the complete eclipsing of the ressourcement theological vision in the current ecclesial landscape. And the traditionalists are front and center as agents of this traducing of the ressourcement project – a project that included the likes of Popes John Paul and Benedict. This was a common theme in my many conversations in Rome with the theological allies of Benedict I encountered there. In the history of the Church one can point to several eras where there was a great flourishing of theology. The patristic era and the medievals come to mind immediately. But my claim, and the claim of many others, is that the middle part of the 20th century represented yet another era of great theological achievement. And this achievement goes by the name “ressourcement” and was the primary catalyst for the Council. But with the passing of Benedict we have witnessed the death of the last great exponent of that theological school. And the great ressourcement project is in danger of being utterly forgotten. And to the extent that the traditionalists are agents of this forgetfulness then I am opposed to them root and branch. In other words, not only are the traditionalists enemies of ressourcement theology, and not only are they, and for that precise reason, not harmless, they are actually doing great harm to the Church by popularizing the notion that what ails the Church is that we got away from the form and theology of Tridentine Catholicism.
But more proximately, my criticisms are the result of me perusing the tradosphere following the death of Benedict as well as the comments on my Facebook postings and the com boxes of my various publications on the same. And in doing so I noticed several trends which just confirmed in my mind what a dead end this kind of traditionalism really is. And it is a dead-end because it engenders ignorance concerning some truly great theological thinkers who they summarily dismiss as “modernists” (more on that in a bit) even as they counsel suspicion toward any ecclesiastical authority who may show a proclivity in the direction of such theologies. And they do so all in the name of a moribund ecclesial ideology of their own imaginative making that they mistakenly hold to be the sole barometer of theological orthodoxy. And, quite frankly, many of them are vicious, which is dangerous, since when you combine ignorance with viciousness you often get calumnies of the worst sort directed at some very good people. People who are friends and allies of mine.
That is a mouthful I know and a sweeping charge. But I stand by it and I am tired of tap-dancing around the issue and evading the obvious out of a certain fondness in my heart for anyone who sees value in the Tradition. I also no longer put much stock in the oft repeated trope from certain well known trads that I am cherry picking the worst examples of tradism and thus setting up a straw man. When one routinely encounters in social media and in trad blogs the same talking points about ressourcement theology, Vatican II, the liturgy, hell and damnation, and so on, one begins to see a pattern emerge that cannot be denied. They often try to deny that they think in these superficial categories and that social media postings are not representative of the movement. However, after many years now of patient observation of traditionalism and many attempts at dialogue I have reached the firm conclusion that the social media traditionalism I have encountered is very much representative of the whole movement. And my email box, which is filled with testimonials from former members of trad communities, argues for the same.
A caveat is in order here. I am not saying that every person who loves the TLM is the kind of traditionalist I am critiquing here. My suspicion is that the majority of people who attend the TLM do so because they love the liturgy and love the community surrounded around that liturgy. But they would not self-describe as “radical traditionalists” and view themselves as simple Catholics in search of something good and true and beautiful, especially for their kids. I myself attend an Anglican Ordinariate parish and for those very reasons. And so to my many friends who attend TLM parishes just be aware that my words today are not directed at you.
But I also know from conversations with these same friends that they too worry about many of the things I am going to discuss in this post. Because there are many in the trad movement who do indeed think in these retrograde ways, and their vocal leaders most certainly speak in this way, and fortunately they often forget that there are some of us who are outside of their trad echo chamber who really do read their words and remember them.
For example, last week I got into a social media conversation with a very well-known traditionalist author who was making all of the usual accusations against Vatican II as the cause of the post-conciliar collapse that ensued shortly after the Council’s closing. I told him that the causes of the collapse were multi-focal and were largely owing to the sea change in Western culture and therefore blaming Vatican II for all the ills that followed was sociologically superficial. He responded: “I never said Vatican II caused the collapse that came after. I said its ambiguities and naivete were the occasion for the collapse.” What a clever and slippery deflection. And it works so long as one does not bother to define the distinction between “cause” and “occasion”. Fortunately, this particular trad has hundreds of pages of written public documentation that argues otherwise as Vatican II is clearly his whipping-boy for everything awful that came after. And the conciliar “ambiguities” he cites are not ambiguities at all (e.g. religious freedom) but rather are simply developments of doctrine with which he is in disagreement.
But such evasions and obfuscations are necessary for any trad who wishes to avoid being labeled a closeted SSPX member. And that avoidance is important to them. Therefore, one has to be able to play the game of saying that you “accept” Vatican II all the while demonstrating that you do not. It is a nice act and a sweet gig if you can pull it off, but it does require a massive deconstruction, ironically, of traditional Catholic doctrines concerning the authority of the magisterium. They will claim that modern “hyper-papalism” (their new preferred term over “ultramontanism”) has been the cause of a dangerous distortion of the proper relationship between tradition and magisterium. And they go on to define tradition in largely liturgical categories with magisterial doctrines, moral norms, and other ecclesial disciplines flowing from the Church’s liturgical core giving flesh and bones to the doctrine of “lex orandi lex credendi”. This then accounts for their open disdain for the Novus Ordo, which was imposed from above by papal fiat, and which they therefore view as a horrific dislocation of the proper balance between tradition and magisterium. And it is why they largely reject the “innovations” of Vatican II which they, along with the progressives, view as a rupture with the Church’s past tradition and therefore yet one more example of the modern dislocation in the Church of where real authority resides.
There is actually much in this traditionalist critique that has merit which is why I have been willing to converse with many of the leading trads. We both agree that the progressive wing of the Church is a train wreck for Catholicism and so under the rubric of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” I have engaged in constructive dialogue with many of them. Nevertheless, dialogue has its limits and at some point principled disagreement has to take priority over irenic gestures of prudential compromise. Because even though there is a lot of truth in the traditionalist critique of modern papalism and the manner in which the liturgical reform was carried out, there are also grave dangers in the position they seem to be scoping out for themselves. Because they are sawing off the branch on which they are sitting. You cannot appeal to the normativity of a more ancient magisterium and weaponize it against the modern. And they very often do and will quote anathemas from the Councils of Florence, Constance, Trent and so on, and papal bulls and encyclicals from 1200-1900, in order to establish how “deviant” from the tradition the modern magisterium is, and Vatican II in particular.
But this is theologically self-contradictory and no appeal to the essentially liturgical nature of tradition will suffice to erase it since it is simply not a Catholic move to reduce the tradition to liturgy, the writings of the saints and the doctors of the Church, and other similar “grassroots” elements of the lived faith, since at some point the hierarchical magisterium, like it or not, has a heuristic role to play in sifting through all of this and making various authoritative adjudications. Following Balthasar I would agree that the Marian principle of christologically grounded holiness is the core or the “flesh” of the Church, and that the hierarchical magisterium is the Petrine, “skeletal-juridical” structure, but you must have both and both are necessary. Trads affirm this in theory but in practice they usually pit the former against the latter, especially when it comes to the modern magisterium.
Furthermore, there is a grave danger in the traditionalist movement of replacing this authoritative, hierarchical magisterium with their own magisterium of liturgical theologians in particular. You see this all over the tradosphere where suddenly every social media thread becomes a referendum on alleged modern heresies, and not just by theologians, but by Vatican II and various popes. I saw one trad on Facebook last week admonishing one and all, “Do not watch ‘The Chosen’ since it is riddled with Marian heresies!” Ugh. Index of forbidden movies I guess. I am no fan of Pope Francis (understatement) but it is now almost boilerplate for trads to accuse the Holy Father of being a heretic. And for the record I reject the accusation that Pope Francis is a heretic. And they go on to cite many putative heresies in the writings of Benedict/Ratzinger and accuse JPII of the heresy of syncretism and relativism (Assisi!!), Vatican II of any number of heresies, and even view Pius XII as a bit “squishy” since it was he who began the liturgical reform in earnest no matter in how small a way. Where does this all end?? How many layers of that onion do we peel back until we reach some alleged core of pure Catholicism? Am I also a hyper-papalist if I view all of this as a kind of crypto-Protestantism? Who made Taylor Marshall the head of the CDF? Vigano? There is a whole “shadow Church” quality to much of this that is rooted in many cases in a cult of personality around various internet provocateurs which is, once again, quite Protestant.
But despite all of this, the attempt to shadow ban Vatican II by appealing to critiques of hyper-papalism has now become the common tactic among Tradicals wherein they feign acceptance of the Council but then go on and on about its “ambiguities” which they portray as Trojan horse operations deliberately planted there by a cabal of modernist theologians who then exploited those ambiguities later on. This move gives the saner trads a fig leaf covering where they can claim that they are not alleging that the Council officially taught “heresy”, but that it did open the door to heresy. This is exactly how they can claim that the Council did not directly “cause” the chaos that came after but that it merely “occasioned” it. But this is a distinction without a difference and the reality is that they do blame the Council for causing the post-conciliar chaos by giving a wink and a nod to heresy through its many putative loopholes and ambiguities.
But as I said above, what exactly are these so-called ambiguities? Religious freedom? The need for liturgical reform? Ecumenical dialogue? Interreligious dialogue? The possibility of salvation outside of the visible Church in a more expansive way than previously imagined? Collegiality grounded in the three munera of episcopal authority (sanctification, governance, and teaching) coming to a bishop by Divine right and not as a mere allocation from the Pope? The Church viewed as a mystery and sacrament in a way that is theologically prior to her juridical constitution as a hierarchical society? Revelation grounded in a single source (Christ) which is then explicated in the mutually conditioning modes of scripture and tradition, with scripture having primacy? The Council did not exhaust the full range of theological possibilities opened up by these teachings. It did not dot every “i” and cross every “t” and it left open many avenues of discourse within the theological schools of orthodox thought. And some of its documents were of lesser theological quality than others. But it was not ambiguous on these matters. There is a clear development of doctrine going on here for those with eyes to see and the main lines of that development – lines which involve micro ruptures with some elements of the tradition in order to affirm deeper, lost elements – are also not hard to follow. There are now many fine books out that are exhaustive in their treatment of the Council and the evolution of the various schemata. The Council was not held in someone’s basement. It was quite public and only those who harbor ill-will towards it can claim that is riddled with ambiguities. Compromises? Yes. Some deficiencies of expression here and there? Yes. But it is not fatally compromised by theological nebulosity. And then let us not forget that we also had three Popes of the Council who gave us decades worth of hermeneutical keys for retrieving the Council in a magisterially authoritative way. Ambiguous? I think not.
Nor is it true that the chaos that followed the Council was caused mainly by flaws in the Council. The Council of Nicaea produced all kinds of post-conciliar trauma and required several more councils to sort it all out. The use of the Greek term “homoousios” was very controversial and contained within itself not a little metaphysical “ambiguity” given that the term was not scriptural and did not mean the same thing in all places and certainly had different connotations in the West than in the East. The same could be said of the term “hypostasis”. Just ask Athanasius what he thought of the post-Nicene conciliar chaos or even later what Maximus the Confessor made of the turgid ecclesial waters of his day. They both paid dearly for their theology within the post-conciliar chaos of their own time. What a shallow and deceptive metric the traditionalists use when they look at our current chaos and then in classic post hoc ergo propter hoc fashion blame it all on the Council and then proceed to declare the Council a failure that we just need to abandon. It is a lazy and cheap way of thinking that exacts from its proponents no great intellectual effort of any kind. The Church before the Council, they say, was just fine, but then came the Council, and then the Church went to the dogs. Case closed. They claim this is just “common sense”. No it is not. Not, anyway, to anyone who has the slightest modicum of knowledge of Church history.
But I make a counter claim. And that claim is that had there been no Council the collapse of Catholicism in the West would have been even worse than it is now. All religions have suffered a serious decline over the past century as the acid of secularization and materialistic, bourgeois technocracy has corroded the foundations of all spiritual systems. There is no doubt about this and it is by now a well-established fact that such is the case: Modernity=spiritual corrosion. Are we to believe then that somehow the Tridentine form of Catholicism with its index of forbidden books, silencings of non-Thomistic theologies, Massa Damnata triumphalism, syllabi of errors, and its sloppy and perfunctory Latin liturgies would have been immune to that acid?? That the dour message of mortal sins everywhere – especially sexual ones – and the ever-present danger of eternal damnation for most of us was going to somehow light a fire of conversion in millions of people rather than the reverse?? I am deeply convinced that had this vision won the day we would be in even deeper Kim Chi than we are now.
How else to explain the sudden collapse of Catholic culture after the Council than the fact that the pre-conciliar Church was already deeply sick? This reality of a deeply ill Church is the point of my epigraphic quote above from a young Joseph Ratzinger. Already in 1958 he was pointing to the deep rot in the Church as undermining it from within and even going so far as to state that the outward metrics of a seemingly robust Church only proves that statistics lie. But traditionalists dispute this and think they know better than Ratzinger or all of the other Catholic intellectuals who were ringing the same alarm. You see the same alarm bell ringing in such trifling figures like Guardini, Bouyer, de Lubac, Mauriac, Bernanos, Pieper, Gilson, Dawson, Balthasar, Danielou, and many others. But how can this be since the Church back then had the old Mass, meatless Fridays, and Garrigou-Lagrange??
Indeed, the problem that trads really have with Vatican II is not that it was ambiguous but precisely that it was not. That the Council understood that the Church needed a reform and it needed reform in some quite unambiguous directions. Their problem is that they do not agree with how the Council developed the Church’s doctrines on these matters, and not that the Council was ambiguous. Therefore, they constantly harp on how the Council was a “merely pastoral” one which is just a cheap way of being able to dissent from everything it teaches of substance on the grounds that nothing is being proposed “authoritatively” in a manner that is “binding”. But the Council does have dogmatic constitutions and even if it proposed no new dogmas it did indeed expound upon and develop several dogmas in original and creative directions, drawing from the Church’s deep sources of Tradition which had been neglected and which had atrophied under the oppressive regime of neo-scholastic hegemony. And those dogmatic constitutions and the developments of dogma they contain are very much binding and authoritative. Which puts the trads on the horns of a dilemma since they are now, as I said above, in the self-contradicting position of needing to reject teachings of the modern magisterium by appealing to the authority of an “older” magisterium. Which is precisely why the crazier trads – crazier since they are more monomaniacal in following the internal logic of their position than less consistent trads – say that the entire modern magisterium is illegitimate with the only real debate being how far back we need to peel that onion to get to the last “real” pope. Which only goes to prove that insanity is sometimes not caused by too little logic, but too much of it when it is employed to further the cause of monumentally bad premises. I think Chesterton made that point as well somewhere in “Orthodoxy”.
Furthermore, the constant reiteration of the so-called “pastoral” nature of the Council is misleading since much of the Council’s pastoral concern takes the form of a call for a deep theological renewal. In other words, the word “pastoral” is not merely a synonym for “practical” or “prudential” and can indeed concern itself with deep theological truths as a necessary component of any ecclesial renewal. We are not talking here about purely practical debates over the shape of communion hosts or the configuration of parish councils or the color scheme of “reconciliation rooms,” or how much booze should be in a Jesuit residence at any given time. The pastoral dimension of the Council was directly linked to a project of theological renewal that opens the door to ressourcement theological explorations of the important categories of historicity and subjectivity. Historicity as the mode of mediation for Revelation and subjectivity as the mode of its reception. And as such this pastoral renewal of theology was grounded in the dogmatic constitutions and their development of doctrine on those topics. Therefore, the burden of proof is on those who insouciantly reject vast elements of the Council as “merely pastoral” as if the theology the Council articulated as its pastoral response to modernity can be cleanly separated with surgical precision from the dogmatic elements of the Council. Once again, the traditionalist line of argumentation here does not represent serious thinking but resembles instead a set of ambiguous obfuscations in order to hide the fact that they simply do not like the very clear theological conclusions that the Council had reached.
And this emphasis in ressourcement theology on the proper role of historicity and subjectivity in theology is why the traditionalists label them as closeted “modernists” dangerously infected with a Hegelian tendency to sublate the faith to the forces of modernity. This is, of course, a wild exaggeration and reflects a deep misunderstanding of both Hegel, ressourcement theology, and the role of dialectic in Catholic theology. Nevertheless, the charge of Hegelianism hangs in the air still to this day like a foul miasma and has now been reduced in the tradosphere to a silly talking point that its proponents barely understand. Just the other day on my Facebook page, a prominent traditionalist said that one problem he has with Benedict’s theology is that it has a kind of “Hegelian dialectic” in it between the tradition and modernity, and it is not clear in Benedict which one was guiding the other. Say what? I do not have the time, space, or inclination to go into the many layers of wrongness imbedded in such a statement. On its face it displays a complete ignorance of both Hegel and Benedict as it seems to equate any attempt to place Christian Revelation in a creative tension with the questions and existential concerns of today with Hegel’s historical dialectic. And this is, of course, silly. Which I think should matter. But what the heck, Archbishop Vigano made this same claim a year ago and so there you go. But this is what I am talking about. This is theological ignorance on a large scale diminishing the name of a truly great theologian of the ressourcement school in order to further a charge of crypto-modernism in order to further an insinuation of the shaky foundations of the Council. These are not serious arguments by serious people but are instead conclusions in search of a rationale – and apparently any rationale will do so long as it sounds erudite and can bamboozle the untutored with talk of “Hegel” and “dialectic” and what not.
This same trad “expert” also told me last year in an online debate we were having about Balthasar’s views on hell that he did at one time admire Balthasar, but after doing more reading of Balthasar’s theology realized that Balthasar was a subordinationist in his Christology and a modalist in his trinitarian theology. At that moment I suddenly realized I was debating someone who had no idea what he was talking about and had zero understanding of Balthasar. To describe Balthasar in that way is to be so wrong that one hardly knows where to begin. It is the equivalent of describing former President Obama as a white supremacist and grand wizard of the Klan. Balthasar’s high Cyrilian Christology is the opposite of subordinationist and his trinitarian theology, if it flirts with heresy at all (and it doesn’t), would be in the direction of tri-theism and not modalism. Therefore, I can only conclude that the trad “intellectual” who made this claim has either never really read Balthasar closely at all or has read him and simply did not understand him. Either way, it is typical of the genre of trad writing to make these kinds of sweeping and ignorant theological claims and to do so in the apparent expectation that nobody among their trad followers has actually read and/or understood Balthasar or Ratzinger or Barron, or whomever is the “modernist” target du jour.
And these examples are no digression. To describe Benedict’s theology as tainted with Hegelianism and to describe Balthasar as a subordinationist modalist bespeaks a theological ignorance that is deep and most likely intractable. And this person is a leading traditionalist “intellectual” and travels the world giving lectures on the glories of traditional liturgy and traditional everything. Thus, my claim is that this is not an aberration in the traditionalist movement and is not a straw man and is not an unfair caricature. I want to be clear therefore, once again, that I am not talking about the average Latin Mass devotee. I am talking about the garrulous gaggle of fiddleback fussbudgets who are the leading voices in the traditionalist movement and who put themselves forward as theological experts in the manner of little “mini-me” Torquemadas and who label anything outside of the confines of the old neo-scholastic synthesis as “modernists”. And my claim is that these leading voices in the trad movement are untrustworthy theological guides insofar as they pose as experts on ressourcement theology when it is quite clear that they don’t have the faintest idea what in the hell they are talking about. For example, most of them never read de Lubac, but read instead Thomist critics of de Lubac like Feingold. They never read Balthasar but read Ralph Martin on Balthasar. But this is echo chamber, “confirmation bias” reading in the extreme, and bespeaks a fundamental intellectual laziness at best and a tendentious dishonesty at worst.
And what kind of Church would we have should these folks ever get their way? It would be a Church that teaches that most people are likely going to Hell, and that you probably commit a mortal sin twice every day. This is what really sticks out for me in all of the trad agitations. Nothing gets their dander up more than the insinuation that most, or perhaps all (gasp!), will make it to Heaven. They want ever-more Hell cowbell and when you accuse them of that it greatly upsets them and they clutch their pearls all verklempt that you would even suggest such a thing. But then mention the name “Balthasar” and it is as if some primordial Pavlovian urge comes over them and they get very angry and tell you that Balthasar is a heretic and his views on hell encourage laxity since we all know that the moral good will only be done if we are threatened by the God of love with eternally broken legs should we die in sin. This is why they also hate Bishop Barron whose closeness to the dreaded Balthasarian contagion threatens to rob us of our motivation to evangelize except that – oops – Bishop Barron has built the largest evangelizing platform in the modern Church. But he remains their bête noir, their white whale, and this too is what they call in poker a “tell” since they can deny that they have a fixation on a Massa Damnata view of hell all they want in theory, but when it comes to their favored theological targets it is always those who espouse a more expansive view of salvation that they most despise.
This is also why they oppose ecumenism, interreligious dialogue, and religious freedom. Souls are at stake! Indeed they are and with that I am in full agreement. But what do they mean by that? Ralph Martin, in a video commentary on a sermon by Bishop Barron on salvation outside of the visible Church, took Barron to task for not being sufficiently clear on what it is Vatican II supposedly teaches on the topic. According to Martin – who has not been historically associated with the trad movement but who seems lately to have figured out that “hell sells” – Lumen Gentium does indeed teach that non-Catholics can be saved. However, he says that Barron neglected to go on and point out that Lumen Gentium makes it very clear in the criteria it develops for such salvation that it is indeed, very, very difficult for non-Catholics to be saved. And Martin has skin in this game since he has a book and several articles out now where he plays up the fact that it is very hard for non-Catholics to be saved. Add to this the fact that he, and many trads, frequently quote the words of our Lord where Christ tells us that most people are on the wide path to perdition, and they quote this as “evidence” that most people are indeed on the way to Hell and they criticize anyone who would view such language as admonitory and not strictly predictive like some kind of eschatological census, and you cannot escape the conclusion that the trad vision is that most people will be in Hell someday. Their logic seems to be that in order for Hell not to be fulsomely populated, we need to affirm the theological probability that Hell will be fulsomely populated. Or something like that…
No wonder then if you think most non-Catholics are destined for Hell (and not a few “Catholics in name only” as well!) that you would view ecumenical and interreligious dialogue as pointless and dangerous exercises in religious relativism. These are all just “false religions” and “demonic deceptions” and we need to treat them as Boniface treated that pagan tree in Germania. But this is far too simplistic a caricature of the early Church’s response to paganism since we also have the patristic tradition of seeing the logoi spermatikoi scattered throughout the world and therefore evangelization, as we see with St. Paul at the Areopagus, can also proceed more dialogically in order to demonstrate to the unbeliever that Christ is what they have been truly longing for all along. This is not Rahner’s famous “anonymous Christianity” but is rather a simple acknowledgment that the Holy Spirit is not limited by the visible boundaries of the Church. All is not darkness outside of the Church. All is not demonic deception. And the movement of salvific grace may be more present in the world than we think.
There is also the fact that the Church fathers leaned heavily on the various strands of Platonism that were then dominant in the Mediterranean world. The concept of divinity contained within those philosophical constructions were viewed as very close to the Christian view. They stood in need of correction and purgation of error but were nevertheless viewed as some very fruitful spoils of Egypt. And insofar as these strands of Platonic philosophy were in reality expressions of a deep religious vision of it can be said without equivocation that the patristic use of Platonic categories of thought constituted a genuine exercise in inter-religious conversation. No, they did not sit down and “dialogue” with pagan Platonists as we would do in a modern university. Although I am sure that some such similar conversations must have taken place among the intellectual classes. But the fundamental principle of placing the Christian theological landscape in conversation with a non-Christian one in order to pursue potentially fruitful paths of theological explication and development, is the same as Vatican II’s call for the Church to “dialogue” with other religions. And it should be remembered as well that many an intellectual pagan converted to Christianity precisely through the agency of those Church fathers who were engaging in this intellectual endeavor.
Trads fear that this makes Christ and his Church a superfluous redundancy. Which is why we need more Hell cowbell and more Massa damnata ravings. And so I will end this longest blog essay I have ever written by pointing out that the modern task of evangelization is ill-served by a form of apologetics grounded in such triumphalistic construals of the Church as the only REAL place where you will find the “saved” (with a few rare exceptions), and where all non-Catholic religions and philosophies are treated as demonic errors without rights, and where State coercion in confessional States to get people into the Church so that they too may be saved is seen as the best path forward, and where we see a return of an index of forbidden books and movies, and where all Catholic teaching is forced through the narrow funnel of scholasticism. Not all trads think this way explicitly but when pressed most do indeed harbor these or very similar views.
You can accept this model for evangelization if you like. It is a free country. But I would submit to you that it is precisely this form of Catholicism that got us into this mess in the first place – progressive Catholicism in the sixties being merely a reactionary movement against this – and that to double-down on this kind of apologetics and evangelization now would be exponentially more disastrous.
What kind of apologetics and evangelization then do we need? To that topic I will turn in my next blog essay which will be the foundation for a paper I am giving at Ave Maria University in early February. It is a form of apologetics/evangelization that I call an evangelization in an apocalyptic and eucharistic modality.
Dorothy Day, pray for us.