Two Steps Ahead of the Spirit

 

Which pope said the following?

The family is a kind of school of deeper humanity. But if it is to achieve the full flowering of its life and mission, it needs the kindly communion of minds and the joint deliberation of spouses, as well as the painstaking cooperation of parents in the education of their children. The active presence of the father is highly beneficial to their formation. The children, especially the younger among them, need the care of their mother at home. This domestic role of hers must be safely preserved, though the legitimate social progress of women should not be underrated on that account.

Or this, in the context of the atheistic assertion that worshipping God is an offense to human liberty, or that man will achieve happiness only if he rejects his hope in a future life:

In her loyal devotion to God and men, the Church has already repudiated and cannot cease repudiating, sorrowfully but as firmly as possible, those poisonous doctrines and actions which contradict reason and the common experience of humanity, and dethrone man from his native excellence.

Or this:

Since the priestly ministry is the ministry of the Church herself, it can be discharged only by hierarchical communion with the whole body. Therefore pastoral love demands that acting in this communion, priests dedicate their own wills through obedience to the service of God and their brothers. This love requires that they accept and carry out in a spirit of faith whatever is commanded or recommended by the Sovereign Pontiff, their own bishop, or other superiors.

Or this, referring to the media:

Public authority, which properly concerns itself with the health of its citizens, has the duty of seeing to it in a just and vigilant manner that serious danger to public morals and social progress do not result from a perverted use of these instruments. This goal should be achieved by enactment of laws and their energetic enforcement.

It is a trick question. I’ve culled them — without much trouble, because they are typical of what one finds — from The Documents of Vatican II, edited by Rev. Walter M. Abbott, S.J. Those documents, as I read them, seem remarkably consonant with the Christian humanism of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI — indeed, of all of the popes going back at least to Leo XIII.

But they do not always accord with the notes and the other editorial apparatus that surround them in the book. Sacrosanctum Concilium, for example, upholds the dignity of popular devotions, stipulating only that they follow the laws and norms of the Church. These include veneration of the saints, especially the patron saint of a particular parish. But the response to this document, by the theologian Jaroslav Pelikan, is not so generous: “It does seem unfortunate that the Fathers do not speak out more strongly against the abuses connected with these observances and against ‘individual and quasi-private’ celebrations of the Mass.”

The same document extols the pipe organ as adding “a wonderful splendor to the Church’s ceremonies,” a recommendation that passes without note. Not so for a later comment: “The texts included to be sung must always be in conformity with Catholic doctrine; indeed they should be drawn chiefly from holy Scripture and from liturgical sources.” That sentence merits a piece of snideness from the annotator, Rev. C. J. McNaspy, S.J., who inserts a qualification of his own: “There is need for new music, both for the Mass and for devotions; new hymns should be liturgically and scripturally inspired, and not in the sentimental ‘devotional’ manner that has proved the bane of much Catholic hymnody.”

In the document on communications, the Council Fathers clearly remind us that there are limits to the “knowledge” to which the public should be exposed, and moral laws that restrict its manner of presentation: “In the gathering and publication of news the norms of morality and the legitimate rights and dignity of a man must be held sacred. For knowledge is sometimes unprofitable, ‘but charity edifies’ (1 Cor 8:1).” The annotator, Rev. Thomas J. M. Burke, S.J., goes to some lengths to show us that the sentence does not mean what it seems to mean, that journalists should exercise a great degree of prudent self-censorship. “In St. Paul’s context,” he writes, “the word ‘knowledge’ is used ironically. It pertains more closely to what we would call sophistication. The contrast St. Paul is making could be paraphrased as that between the blasé and the genuinely concerned.”

 

After a while, it occurred to me that my disagreement with the comments was not simply a matter of interpretation. Instead, it struck to the heart of what we believe these documents are. If the documents are considered as inspired by the Holy Spirit, in toto, then such changes as were recommended for the Church must be read in light of things that were preserved or reaffirmed, and vice versa. It is then just as significant that the document gives Gregorian chant pride of place in the church’s hymnody as it is that Catholic composers are encouraged to produce new works for the liturgy. But if the documents are instead treated as political bills, primarily the result of compromise among factions, then what they say in toto cedes to what they say that is specifically new. Almost before the ink was dry, people called for additional changes “in the spirit of Vatican II,” a spirit that is defined a priori as suspicious of tradition and “open” to “modern culture,” despite the fact that such a culture had heard its death knell in the cries of the prisoners in the concentration camps and in the explosion over Hiroshima.

In The Trojan Horse in the City of God, Dietrich von Hildebrand accuses the self-styled postconciliar “progressives” of an incorrect view of virtue and truth. They behave, he says, as if one error could be counterbalanced by another, so that laicism is seen as the cure for clericalism, or contempt for tradition could counterbalance an ignorant attachment to it. It is like believing that what the coward needs is a dose of rashness, or what the prude needs is a visit to the brothel. But virtue is not an arithmetic mean between vices, and truth is not an arithmetic mean between errors. Indeed vices and errors that seem opposed to one another often spring from the same bad soil.

The progressive responds by asserting that his deepest allegiance is not to some stated decree regarding virtue or truth now, but to the direction that the decree can be seen to take. As long as democratic machinery seems to run in that direction, then “democracy” is valued above tradition, even above truth: for there are no settled truths. It is fascinating to note how exclusivist and antidemocratic such a position is. For instance, those who studied and deeply appreciated Vatican II’s warnings and bold reaffirmations of Catholic doctrine, are not among the elites who are working “in the Spirit of Vatican II.” Their votes do not count. What G. K. Chesterton called “the democracy of the dead,” not traditionalism but a humble willingness to continue to hear what our forebears have to say to us, is eliminated. Their votes do not count either. A Pope Pius XI, for instance, is honored according to the degree to which he seems to have anticipated the changes we favor, while the rest of his pronouncements can be ignored.

The “progressive,” then, sets his sight on a Christ of the imagination, always fading beyond the horizon ahead, in the land of Would Have: So Jesus, who notably did not choose any women among the twelve, must cede to the Christ Who Would Have, had He been among us now. People of every political stripe can play this game. The Jesus who said, “One cannot serve both God and Mammon,” must cede to the Christ Who Would Have defined our salvation in material terms, whether procured by free enterprise or the socialist leviathan. The Jesus whose clarion call for sexual purity forbids divorce must cede to the Christ Who Would Have smiled upon fornication, which is to set divorce at the very heart of the sexual act. The “progressive” is thus always two steps ahead of the Holy Spirit.

All of which begs the question, again, of truth. For if you are walking down into hell, progress is the last thing you need.

Anthony Esolen

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Anthony Esolen, a contributing editor at Crisis, is a professor and writer-in-residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts. He is the author, most recently, of Sex and the Unreal City (Ignatius Press, 2020).

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