What Real Church Reform Looks Like

During my first tentative explorations into Catholicism, some Protestant friends pointed out examples of “bad Catholics” in their attempts to dissuade me from swimming the Tiber. The type is well-represented in literature, of course, including the “here comes everybody” of James Joyce, the Flyte’s of Brideshead Revisited or Crouchback’s of Sword of Honor, and many characters in Walker Percy and Graham Greene. So, too, one finds “bad Catholics” wherever there is cultural Catholicism; a person is Irish (or Italian, or whatever) and thereby Catholic, and in that order.

I never found the objection very persuasive. After all, it’s one of the basic tenets of Catholicism that we are all rather bad, and that the holiness of the Church is due to the merits of Christ. Why should we be surprised to find bad Catholics?—what’s shocking is to discover saints, sinners being a dime a dozen. Further, when Protestants disagree they simply separate and begin a new denomination, while these Catholics stuck together, sometimes unhappily, like the proverbial big, rowdy Catholic family. Even more remarkable, Catholics who no longer believed, or who disregarded Church teachings, were still haunted by Catholicism, still deeply informed and marked by it, like the man who says, “I’m an atheist, but a Catholic atheist.”

So there are bad Catholics, but they are still Catholics. Baptism, the Catechism teaches, is an indelible spiritual mark, and once enacted can never be revoked. I recall talking to an elderly man who was returning to the Church after many years of alienation. Asking him what that entailed, he said it was simple, he would “go to Reconciliation and say, ‘Bless me, Father, for I have sinned; it has been forty years since my last confession.’” And that was that; he hadn’t stopped being Catholic, he would become again what he always was.

We see something similar in the Catholic-haunting of pop culture. Movies, television shows, and novels are replete with scenes of some troubled soul battling his demons in a darkened Church. The aesthetics follow a common pattern: the Church is Gothic or Romanesque, a tabernacle is visible, as are altar rails, with the gloomy darkness (reminiscent of the character’s soul) broken by the flickering of votive candles and a Sanctuary lamp. Sometimes a priest makes an appearance, often as villain although sometimes as an image of conscience, but always in collar and even in cassock. In the haunting of the popular imagination, the Church is presented in its most baroque forms, as if a priest in polo shirt and khakis, or a building stripped and denuded of obvious Catholic forms, just isn’t Catholic enough to convey the necessary spiritual gravitas and energy. (Dan Brown’s feverish slandering could never be set to a score of Marty Haugen’s music.)

Bad Catholics tend to be plagued by the drama and power of the Church’s symbols and sacraments; pop culture also recognizes something transcendent and dynamic in our forms. The bourgeois western world is so mundane, with virtually nothing beautiful or striking enough to catch attention or pull people out of pleasures and small diversions, that even our detractors turn to us to find traces of transcendent beauty and the shocking hint of the divine among temporal things.

The historian Christopher Dawson once noted the difference between the Catholic and bourgeois mind as marking a fundamentally different type of humanity. The bourgeois soul, he suggests, is closed-off to any real desire for perfection but seeks comfort and security, unlike the Catholic, who is a “man of desire” for the ultimately real, completely beautiful, fundamentally good, and utterly holy. In part, this is why our form of worship, including our buildings and liturgies, are crafted to elicit desire, to pull us out of ourselves in yearning for that which is really real and beyond us. Upon entering a medieval cathedral, one feels a palpable pull upwards and forwards, just as our feasts and fasts, disciplines and practices are designed to shatter our complacency as we examine our character in the light of God. Whatever Marx said, religion is less an opiate that dulls and comforts than a jolt to renew and enliven our limp desire for a life abundant with holiness.

Sometimes I think that bad Catholics and a hostile pop culture know this truth even as we seem bent on obscuring and covering it over. Bad Catholics resist a Church that teaches and demands hard things, unpopular things, even “weird” things. Things like transubstantiation, hell, the existence of our soul, Eucharistic miracles, or the prohibition of artificial contraception. They don’t find much objectionable in “dialogue,” social justice, climate change activism, moral therapeutic deism, or a Church that kneels before the powers of the world. Popular imagination finds something to notice in cassocks and rosaries and stations of the cross and chant and monks and Eucharistic processions and rogation days and black vestments and the corpus, but not in the flattened and Protestant-lite architecture and iconoclasm so unfortunately evident in the insipid buildings, art, and music of recent offering.

They seem to understand us better than we understand ourselves. They seem to want us to be ourselves, to teach and proclaim and build and chant and paint and sculpt and pray and sacrifice as only we can. Even in their (sometimes angry) rejection, they seem more inclined to view us as we actually are than we view ourselves. We shuffle in awkward embarrassment and downplay the very symbols and doctrine that they most notice, that most impresses and captures their mind, imagination, and very soul. Why are we doing this?

In The Peasant of the Garonne, Jacques Maritain describes the “frenzied modernism” of his day as too ambivalent to outright deny the dogmas of the faith. Instead of attacking, these Catholics would rather just overlook and neglect many aspects of the faith: “As for hell, why take the trouble to deny it, it is simpler to forget it, and that’s probably what we had also better do with the Incarnation and the Trinity.” Unlike bad Catholics who will not consent to what the Church teaches, these reformers, says Maritain, engage in “a kind of ‘immanent’ apostasy (that is, which intends to remain Christian at all costs).” While attempting to “empty the faith of all content,” they declare themselves “with sincerity, and sometimes in the fever and anguish of a fundamentally religious soul,” to be good Catholics. The transition is momentous: bad Catholics don’t agree with the Church and so leave (despite the permanent gift of baptism which they cannot remove), while immanent apostates work to evacuate the content of faith.

As in Maritain’s time, we appear to live in a moment fraught with breathless invocations of “reform,” with the usual suspect interpretations of what needs “updating” or revising. What is so noticeable, however, is how jaded and hackneyed such “reform” turns out to be. The authentic reforms of Vatican II have occurred (I am not in sympathy with those who deny its validity), and the various misguided attempts to have the ambiguous “spirit of the Council” run wild were checked by the “reform of the reform” which rightfully insisted that Vatican II be read in a “hermeneutic of continuity” with the universal tradition of the Church. This, after all, is how the Catholic Church develops all doctrine, namely, in continuity, for doctrine develops organically, with the new interpreted by the old, the innovative by the established. The “reform of the reform,” however catchy a slogan, meant nothing more than an accurate and right reading of Vatican II as a genuinely Catholic Council in keeping with the doctrinal traditions of the Church.

The “boosters” of a new reform are calling for something quite out of date, namely the tired spirit of the 1960s and ’70s. They are not really advocating for reform, but for one last-ditch effort, one final wheezing gasp of immanent apostasy. The wild speculations about “reforms” are not accurate, for revision is not reform, and the revisionists are giving us the same-old, same-old. The “internal forum,” the “fundamental option,” and moral proportionalism, let alone the grubbing efforts to redefine marriage, open the door to women priests, excuse disordered sexual acts, and make liturgy irreverent and dull—these aren’t new ideas. These are all in the crumbling, dusty playbooks of the mid-1970s. Anything that manifests freshness and vitality comes from full and joyous orthodoxy. (Just ask the young men and women of the Culture Project, or FOCUS, or the pro-life movement, or the Church in Africa what they think of the warmed up leftovers offered by dissenting theologians and German bishops.) The tired out projects lack the vitality of venerable antiquity or the freshness of dynamic evangelical faith. Like disco, one hears the sad refrains from time to time, but it’s hardly a genre poised to conquer the charts.

There is a sad comfort in knowing that immanent apostasy guarantees its own demise. A Church constantly opening windows and doors to let in the fetid breeze of contemporary culture is a Church not worth believing in, and so people simply won’t believe in it. What cannot continue, won’t continue, and apostasy makes no converts, brings no renewal, and will not replenish itself. But I take no joy in that, for until it disappears into the dustbin of history it will continue to wreak havoc on minds and souls.

But don’t let anyone persuade us that we’re observing reform. There was a reform, there was an aberration of that reform—the “spirit of the Council”—and there was a healthy “reform of the reform.” Attempting to walk back the “reform of the reform” is not reform, it’s the stale continuation of a dusty, boring apostasy. It’s not reform, but more like an endless recurrence of the same. It’s so last century, but has no future.

R. J. Snell

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R. J. Snell directs the Center on the University and Intellectual Life at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, New Jersey, and is a senior fellow at the Agora Institute for Civic Virtue and the Common Good. He is the author (with Steve Cone) of Authentic Cosmopolitanism: Love, Sin, and Grace in the Christian University. His latest books are Acedia and Its Discontents: Metaphysical Boredom in an Empire of Desire and The Perspective of Love.

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