Dissenting Catholics’ Modernity Problem

Judging from the hundreds of thousands of Germans who attended and watched Pope Benedict XVI’s September trip to his homeland (not to mention the tsunami of commentaries sparked by his Bundestag address), the pope’s visit was — once again — a success. And, once again, it was also an occasion for self-identified dissenting Catholics to inform the rest of us what the Church must do if it wants to remain “relevant.” To no-one’s surprise, their bottom-line remains the same. The Church is “out of touch.” Why? Because it’s insufficiently “modern.”

By “modernizing,” progressivist Catholic activists (who, incidentally, are increasingly hard to find below the age of 60 these days) aren’t normally proposing better ways to evangelize. Instead, they usually mean changing Catholic doctrines in ways that directly contradict what the Church has always taught so that the Church becomes more, well, modern.

It would be all too easy to focus on some of the less-than-noble motivations underlying many such propositions. In many instances, it’s frankly a case of wanting the Church to affirm choices that it has always regarded as intrinsically evil. In other areas, it reveals a view of the sacraments as instruments of power rather than as what the Catechism calls “efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church.”

At another level, however, the “we-must-be-more-modern” argument reflects the workings of a logic that privileges whatever is considered “contemporary” (an ever-moving target) over the knowledge imparted by Christ to His Church from its very beginning.

Such reasoning often runs along the following lines. In modernity, X is considered not good; ergo, the Church must accept X is not good. Or, modern people regard X as good or licit; ergo, the Church should teach X is good or licit.

You don’t need to be a professional philosopher to recognize that these are what logicians call non sequiturs: arguments in which the conclusions don’t follow from the premises. The fact that something is considered modern tells us nothing about its goodness or evil, let alone whether it conforms to the truth found in Divine Revelation. It also produces very strange arguments such as the claim made in 1968 (of course) by the ex-Jesuit theologian John Giles Milhaven, that “modern people” (whoever they are) by virtue of their “modernity of spirit” (whatever that means) enjoyed a type of “standing dispensation” from God to pursue what they “feel” to be good.

Such talk could be easily dismissed as reflective of the heady days of the 1960s and 1970s. There is, however, an even deeper, specifically theological problem driving these non sequiturs: the substitution of Catholic faith with what might be called a “feeling faith.”

After Vatican II, many Catholic theologians began attaching enormous significance to people’s experiences or intuitions as part of the intellectual apparatus they deployed to explain why they now believed the Church’s settled teaching on any number of issues required “updating” (i.e., overturning).

Whatever their precise formulation, beneath the surface of such rationales we can detect post-Enlightenment tendencies to (1) locate the ultimate basis for one’s views on some combination of experience, intuition, and whatever one feels to be true; and (2) distrust reason’s ability to know more-than-empirical truth.

Experience, feelings and intuition are not unimportant. They can often incline us toward the good and against error. But they don’t provide us with reasons for believing and doing A rather than B. Nor does reference to feelings help us to resolve disagreement rationally. Instead, we’re left with my feelings, your intuitions, and everyone else’s experiences.

It’s not difficult to see the problems with reconciling such positions with the Catholic understanding of Christian faith. For one thing, they marginalize the conviction that the fullness of Christian truth is to be found in the reasonable faith entrusted to and proclaimed by the Church. And the faith of that Church goes beyond the particular views held by us today to embrace the right belief (orthosdoxa) of the whole communio of believers, the living and the dead, from the apostles onward — the truth of which is confirmed by the consensus of the Church Fathers, the lives of the saints, the witness of the martyrs, and the teaching authority of the successors of Peter and the other apostles.


This message was core to one of Benedict’s key addresses in Germany, in which he quietly highlighted the distinctly provincial understanding of Catholicism articulated by dissenting groups such as the “We Are Church” movement in Germany and Austria. To truly speak of the Church, Benedict insisted,

requires us always to look beyond the particular, limited “we” towards the great “we” that is the Church of all times and places: it requires that we do not make ourselves the sole criterion. When we say: “We are Church” — well, it is true: that is what we are…. But the “we” is more extensive than the group that asserts those words. The “we” is the whole community of believers, today and in all times and places. And so I always say: within the community of believers, yes, there is as it were the voice of the valid majority, but there can never be a majority against the apostles or against the saints: that would be a false majority.

A similar argument was at the core of Thomas More’s explanation of why he could not, in good conscience, accept Henry VIII’s separation of the Church in England from Rome.

More broadly, Benedict’s point illustrates that embracing the Catholic faith in its fullness means acknowledging the limits of the knowledge attainable by making the contemporary our primary reference point. Indeed, to assume that the “we” of today somehow enjoy insights that nullify what the Church has always believed on matters of faith and morals is to go some way toward denying that God ever revealed anything definitive to the Catholic Church at all. More honest dissenters have long recognized this as the logical trajectory of their position.

Of course, Catholicism doesn’t have an in-principle opposition to the post-Enlightenment world per se, any more than it allegedly locates everything that is good and true in the 13th century. Any effort to associate the fullness of Catholic faith with any one historical period risks relativizing those truths knowable by faith and reason that transcend time and bind Catholics across the ages.

Perhaps such a relativizing is what many dissenting Catholic activists want. If so, they should concede that this would mean making the Church in their own image rather than that of Christ the Logos. And there is no surer way of making the Church truly irrelevant in a modern world that desperately needs more reason and light than emotivism and darkness.

Samuel Gregg


Samuel Gregg is Research Director at the Acton Institute. He has authored many books including, most recently, For God and Profit: How Banking and Finance Can Serve the Common Good (2016).

  • Bill Foley

    Actually, the dissenting Catholics do not want the Church to become modern; they want her to return to old-fashioned paganism.

    • sarto

      Actually, the dissenting Catholics just want to Church to be faithful to Vatican II. But we had Pope John Paul, praising the Council while undermining it, and Pope Benedict, just undermining it for all of these years, Appointing bishops in their image and likeness.

      Since the old guard is mostly gone, then what happens next is on the “orthodox.” We will see how well our faith flourishes under their watch.

      If things happen the way they usually do, one generation from now, after the current crop of JOhn Paul Catholics are reaching their sixties, a new generation will be asking: What the heck did you do to Vatican II?

      • Richard M

        We’ve already seen how the faith has flourished on the watch of the “old guard”: http://olrl.org/misc/jones_stats.shtml

        What all Catholics should want is a Church faithful to the will of Christ, as revealed in her perennial teachings down through the centuries. Teachings embodied in Scripture, Papal teachings, and ecumenical Church Councils, of which Vatican II was only one among twenty one.

        • Sarto

          Pope John Paul began to reverse Vatican II almost as soon as he was named. Within twenty years, he had named all the bishops. So, the Church we see now was created at least thirty years ago. It has never really been the Vatican II Church, but the skeleton that was left over after two popes cut its heart out.

      • Micha Elyi

        “Actually, the dissenting Catholics just want to Church to be faithful to Vatican II.”

        Yeah sure. Which of the Vatican II documents do your “dissenting Catholics” claim the Church is not “faithful to”?

        • Sarto

          The document coming quickes to mind is the document on the bishops, which snatched the Church from the near heresy created by Vatican I, in which the bishops gave all their power away to the pope, thus becoming for all intents the managers of his branch offices.

          The Church is a communion of local Churches (or dioceses headed by a bishop) with the Bishop of Rome having the primacy. As Pope John Paul said in Veritatis Splendor, the bishops are no the vicars of the pope.

          The Second Vatican Council tried to return the bishops to the role they had for almost two thousand years, before Vatican I. Both Pope John Paul and Pope Benedict squashed this completely. They were/are especially against bishops working together, preferring to have an individual bishop face to face with the Vatican with no other bishop to stand beside him.

          One of the ironies here was Pope John Paul’s heart’s desire: The return of the Orthodox to the Roman Church. But their principle reason for splitting away was the power grab by the papacy. And Pope John Paul, by making the Vatican more centralized than ever, made things even harder.

          • Sarto

            Oh, and here is my best recent example of the destruction of the role of bishops. According to Council, it is the role of the bishops representing the different language groups to decide the best translation of the liturgy, with Rome giving its final approval. But the latinized wonder we will follow in three or so weeks is being jammed down our throats by Rome. After the weak kneed bishops agreed to a “translation,” anonymous worker bees in the Vatican made 10,000 more changes. And so, despite the Vatican document on collegiality, Rome rules by fiat from the top.

  • waiting on a friend

    Simplistic….John Paul II several times overturned that which was ancient and traditional….the death penalty circuitously and wifely obedience which is not in the catechism due to his odd take on it in #89 of TOB and in MULIERIS DIGNITATEM” VI/24 whereby he wanted mutual subjection to be constantly observed…but not when you were obeying him….just when wives were obeying husbands. Hence the CDF left it out of the catechism because they knew he was incorrect but they couldn’t tell him.

    • Sarto

      And you learned all this where?

  • MinneCatholic

    As mentioned in the above article, most of these “progressive” Catholics are over the age of 60. I dont think they want a modern Church, I think they want a 1960s church. Not sure whats so modern about that! In many ways, the baby boomer generation is a self absorbed and selfish. Its not a modern Church they want, its a Church that affirms whatever selfish behavior or “lifestyle” they choose.

  • Alcuin

    Just because the Church has taught the same doctrines from the beginning to the present doesn’t make those doctrines true. Uniformity and consistency are just that and not necessarily anything more than that.

    Catholics ultimately think for themselves and always have. They won’t substitute an institution’s version of the truth for their own comprehension of it. Only those who either never thought or stopped thinking for themselves will surrender their search for the truth–all knowledge– to others.

    The idea of bishops and popes alone possessing the guidance of the Holy Spirit is poppycock no educated Catholic can ever accept.

    • Cord Hamrick


      Whoa, whoa, whoa. You sound as if you’re going off half-cocked, there, friend.

      You say:

      Just because the Church has taught the same doctrines from the beginning to the present doesn’t make those doctrines true. Uniformity and consistency are just that and not necessarily anything more than that.

      Waitasecond, there. If those doctrines were on matters intrinsic to the faith and morals of Christians and were taught that way from the beginning including by the Apostles (which is what “from the beginning,” taken literally, would mean), then, yes, it does mean that they are true. A person who would claim otherwise is not holding an “apostolic faith” and is thus not teaching the Catholic faith.

      Now, there are plenty of true things which were not being taught from the beginning; e.g. the mature formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity, the two natures of Christ. These become part of the Faith through doctrinal development. But doctrinal development, while it will expand upon or refine what was taught before, will never contradict what was taught before. The organism matures from small seed to giant tree that all the birds can nest in; but it doesn’t suddenly start growing tentacles half-way through.

      Or to borrow an example from C.S.Lewis: “You already like your vegetables moderately fresh from the store; why not grow your own garden and have them perfectly fresh?” is a development: Anyone who saw the sense of the first half of the sentence would recognize that the second half was a development in the same direction, not a reversal. But it would not be a true development to say: “Toss out those vegetables and try eating sticks and scorpions instead.”

      Now, you are perfectly correct to say that “Catholics ultimately think for themselves and always have.” True enough: And some of them thereby became heretics and some of them thereby became apostate; while others did not.

      The question, then, is not whether a person thinks for himself. Of course he does.

      He is even thinking for himself when he says, “I’m not sure the truth about XYZ, but I know that the Church is God’s designated terrestrial authority on XYZ, so I’ll accept what they teach about XYZ, and if bits of what they teach seem puzzling, I’ll try to have a teachable spirit and plumb those depths in the hopes of one day understanding them better.” That is a perfectly rational approach, for any man who is willing to accept his own fallibility.

      You also add,

      The idea of bishops and popes alone possessing the guidance of the Holy Spirit is poppycock no educated Catholic can ever accept.

      True enough. A person who took that view could not, in fact, be Catholic: For of course every Catholic by his baptismal graces receives the Holy Spirit and, provided he does not reject the graces of the Spirit by some unrepentant mortal sin, will be led and graced by the Spirit throughout his life, and in various ways. That is the Catholic faith. That is not in dispute.

      However, we must keep in mind that it is also, among sensible people, not in dispute that folks sometimes disagree about a matter of faith and morals, and both parties claim the Holy Spirit, or the Scriptures. or both, as their inspiration in holding these mutually incompatible views.

      Now when this happens, we must either conclude that:

      (a.) There is no such thing as objective truth (and the Catholic faith is false);

      (b.) The Holy Spirit sometimes lies to one or both parties when guiding them (and the Catholic faith is false);

      (c.) The Holy Spirit suffers from Multiple Personality Disorder (and the Catholic faith is false); or,

      (d.) At least one of the two folks holding mutually incompatible views is not, in fact, being taught his view by the Holy Spirit, even if he thinks that he is.

      How are we to know which guy is really hearing the Holy Spirit, if either one is?

      Now Jesus prayed that we might all be one, as He and His Father are one. We know, at minimum, that this indicates an intention that His Church be unified in matters of doctrine. (Because the Father and the Son do not disagree about doctrine.)

      And Jesus instructed that when a Christian brother sins and we cannot convince them alone, or even in company with one or two others, we are to “bring them before the Church,” which will authoritatively decide the matter. In a matter of sin, for the Church to authoritatively decide the matter, it must be able to state that such-and-such is, or is not, sin. For of course one of the most common defenses will always be that the action in question is not even sinful, and if the Church could not rule on that, it could not authoritatively judge such matters at all.

      And of course one of the sins of which one Christian may be accused by another is the sin of heresy. For the Church to adjudicate that, the Church must be able to “bind and loose,” in the 1st-Century Rabbinical sense of the phrase, on such matters.

      And we know that what the bishops bind on earth “shall have already been bound in Heaven” (the Greek tensing is quite tricky on that point).

      And we know that “Heaven” (which is to say, ultimately, “God”) does not bind or loose in error.

      So the point, Alcuin, is not that nobody but bishops and popes ever hears the “still small voice” of God. It is agreed that all Christians speak with God, and that sometimes in varying ways He speaks directly to them.

      But when disputes about faith and morals arise, the very fact that there is a dispute indicates that someone is mistaking their own muddle for the Spirit’s guidance.

      Fortunately we have the Magisterium to resolve (slowly, sometimes belatedly) these issues. We appeal to the bishop, and when even bishops are in dispute, we appeal to Rome. And when Rome has spoken, “causa finita est.”

      My question to you, Alcuin, is: Do you dispute that? Do you believe, for example, that when the Magisterium really has unquestionably ruled “A not B,” sometimes the truth is really B not A?

      I ask because I can see ways that your post could be construed to affirm the authority of the Church in teaching about faith and morals; but I can see more and more obvious ways that you might be denying part of that authority. It isn’t perfectly clear either way. My preference is to think you aren’t denying the authority of the Magisterium…but that is far from clear in your post.

      Would you be so kind as to clarify?

  • Sam Schmitt

    “Just because the Church has taught the same doctrines from the beginning to the present doesn’t make those doctrines true.”

    Who said it did? It’s actually the opposite – the fact that the doctrines are true means that the Church has always taught them.

    “The idea of bishops and popes alone possessing the guidance of the Holy Spirit is poppycock no educated Catholic can ever accept.”

    Really? I think I’ll stand on the side of Augustine, Aquinas, Newman, and other uneducated folk who would beg to differ with you.

    Stringing cliches together about how “educated” Catholics leave their brains at the door and submit to some mindless “institution” is rather tired rhetoric. It doesn’t describe any of the Catholics I know, a few of whom have masters and doctorates in theology but are faithful to the teachings of the Church.

    Plus, I can’t recall a single saint speaking of the Catholics or the Church in the way that you do.

  • Irenaeus
  • Cord Hamrick


    You say:

    Actually, the dissenting Catholics just want to Church to be faithful to Vatican II.

    …and Micha Elyi replies,

    Which of the Vatican II documents do your “dissenting Catholics” claim the Church is not “faithful to”?

    …which I think is a very good question. In what sense is the Church right now not showing, in its official teachings and disciplines, faithfulness to Vatican II?

    Perhaps there are some ways in which the Church is not “faithful to Vatican II”; but I’m unaware of them. Can you list some items, please?

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