Quodlibets: A Second Spring?

From time to time, it is useful to wonder what the Church in the United States would look like if the secular press — and such enigmas as the NCR — did not give disproportionate attention to the dissidents in our midst.

I have been asked by journalists to explain the discrepancy between the enormous affection shown for the Holy Father wherever he goes and the incessant sniping at him from theologians. Perhaps even the media have come to suspect that the people of God are heeding the Magisterium rather than the soothing voices of dissidents assuring them their lives need be little different from worldly non-believers.

Most priests are more than faithful to their calling in these difficult times, there are holy religious whose prayers and sacrifices may explain why the times are not more difficult, and there is a vast army of the faithful, undeterred by the dissident effort to, as they say, marginalize them, who go on doing great things for the Church.

Those of us who teach at the University of Notre Dame are often asked what in the world is going on at this supposedly Catholic University. The questioners hear the predictable nab-saying from our theology department whenever Rome speaks. Strange appointments and stranger invitations are issued. They fear that our campus has become an official bastion for anti-Roman and anti-papal dissent. They wonder if things are really as bad as they seem.

The short answer is that they are not. Notre Dame is a Catholic university whose official policy is to cherish, interpret and further our cultural, theological and spiritual heritage. Things have happened at Notre Dame I think are unfortunate. The leadership of our Theology Department is incompatible with the university’s professed Catholicism.

But what is needed, I think, is not the hurling of anathemas but some phasing out of administrators and a more careful judgment in choosing their replacements. Our present plight came about, ironically, because of a sincere desire to strengthen the teaching of Catholic doctrine on the undergraduate level. What we need is a wiser and more effective way of achieving that goal.

I mention this simply because Notre Dame provides a useful analogue to the Church in this country. Another journalist asked me to comment on Archbishop Stanford’s determination that the Magisterium be taught whole and entire in his see. Of course this is something all bishops intend and desire. True, some prelates sometimes say injudicious things about Magisterial teaching. But no bishop imagines bishops have any authority in separation from the Supreme Pontiff.

In every diocese, in every religious order, in every Catholic university and college, in every parish, there is much to be cheerful about. This is a time of heroes in the Church and anyone could reel off a list of them. At Notre Dame, but also because of my work with Crisis and traveling around, I know of a growing number of intelligent, zealous young lay people, converts and — a class of great significance — reconverts, casualties of the false “spirit of Vatican II” who have found their way home. These people want to do things for the Church and in dozens of ways they are. Unfortunately, they are not always welcomed by pastors and bishops and presidents who have succumbed to the siren call of favorable publicity from the camp of the enemy. When will we recognize that a good press is bad news for the Church?

The happy facts I call attention to do not register as news in the secular or secularized religious press. That is why, when kindred souls meet, they are at first surprised, then strengthened by the realization that they are not alone. Eventually they come to see they are still the majority.

The coming visit of the Holy Father provides an opportunity to restore clarity to the Church in the United States. The last time the Pope was here he gave our bishops a powerful demonstration of leadership. Somehow that faded under the concerted assault by dissident theologians. Now there is a second chance. Call it a Second Spring, Newman’s phrase for the time when the hierarchy was reestablished in England. The first need is for the bishops to deprive those who regularly undermine the Magisterium of status as Catholic spokesmen. And the place to start is with the faculties of their seminaries.

But again the need is less for anathemas than for acknowledging the growing band of faithful Catholics. The best antidote to the petulant heterodoxy that flourishes in rarefied settings is the confident orthodoxy of the people of God — here and around the globe. Securus iudicat orbis terrarum.


Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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