A Traditional Yet Innovative Way Forward for the Church

There must be a way forward for the Church that both restores and innovates; that is not defensive, yet is rooted in Tradition.

On April 20, 2022, an article appeared in Crisis discussing the so-called “Truce of ’68,” the unofficial arrangement that has governed the unstable peace of the Church since 1968. As the author, Darrick Taylor, correctly describes, under the Truce, the ecclesial establishment uncritically accepts the reforms that followed the Second Vatican Council and also praises and defends Humanae Vitae (HV) as a courageous stand against the immoral demands of the modern world. At the same time, the establishment has long accepted a level of “dissent” from HV and a myriad of other social/sexual moral teachings. Praised in some circles and frowned upon in others, the dissenters, nonetheless, form a wing of the ecclesial “coalition government” that has ruled since the close of the Council. 

The “conservative” side of the ecclesial divide has generally lauded the Truce, at least insofar as it believes that the pontificate of John Paul II succeeded in righting the wrongs of the immediate post-Council period. In this view, the solution to the post-Council chaos was firm opposition to the Sexual Revolution, with HV as the foundational document that prevented the Church from destruction. While the world went off the rails with “free love,” the Church would stand firm! Church teaching doesn’t change! Birth control, premarital sex, and all the rest would be condemned by Catholics while everyone else gave up. 

The attraction of this approach for the conservative post-Council generation is obvious, and it made sense in its time. It allowed this group to embrace the official position of the Church regarding the necessity and greatness of the Conciliar age while at the same time permitting the conservatives to hail a form of Tradition and to associate themselves with the papacy. They promoted papal teachings of every variety as the ultimate arbiter of Tradition and Truth.

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With the passage of time, however, the fundamental flaw in this approach has become apparent. Under the Truce, the conservatives implicitly posit that even the most central and ancient aspects of the Christian life can, even must, change. The Traditional Mass was a clumsy relic that was necessarily replaced by the Novus Ordo. The age-old lectionary, the untouchable Canon, may be discarded, along with innumerable pious customs, practices, and outward signs of Catholic identity. Yesterday, you were on the way to Hell for eating meat on Friday. Today, who cares??!! No problem!!!

But birth control? No, sorry, we cannot change that teaching. The Church doesn’t change! We can’t alter these moral teachings! How dare you dissent!! That is Catholic Lite!!! Do you want to be Protestants?  

It is, in essence, an incoherent, even bizarre position, and it has proven to be a poor foundation for the long-desired “renewal” of the Church. While not a total failure—the Truce did bring a measure of stability to the chaos of Paul VI’s papacy—the fact is, the world has marched on in its ways, continually pushing the Church toward irrelevancy. Outside of a small minority of the Catholic world that seems to dwell exceedingly upon the defense of HV, moral qualms about the use of artificial birth control are fairly estimated at zero. Even questions about homosexuality have been eclipsed by the onslaught of gender ideology and people proclaiming themselves this-or-that-sexual.  

As Mr. Taylor suggests in his article, it seems that there is a growing desire on all sides to discard the Truce. The progressives of the Francis era hope to complete the transformation of the Church into something else—as far as is discernible, into some sort of organization that promotes political causes and ideologies in line with the failed Western ruling classes’ obsessions. The conservatives oppose these radicals and seem to propose a return to the John Paul II settlement. Traditionalists, a party that was virtually nonexistent during the heyday of the Truce, propose a wholesale reexamination of the Council and its aftermath, with the goal of restoring the Traditional Mass and its attendant liturgical piety as the cornerstone upon which the Church can finally rebuild itself after decades of decay. 

In my view, the way forward lies down the Traditionalist path, but this path cannot (and will not) merely lead the Church back to a mythical pre-Conciliar mirage where every question is settled and everyone assents to the commands of the pope or the Curia.  

Consider the following scenario: What if, following the close of the Council, Pope Paul VI had announced an initiative to reinvigorate the liturgical life of the Church? What if he called for limits on the use of the Low Mass and exhorted dioceses to instruct and assist parishes to form choirs and to learn to sing the ancient chants of the Mass, with the High Mass given pride of place on Sundays? 

What if instead of encouraging the zest to tear out altar rails and strip down sanctuaries, Rome turned that zeal toward the encouragement of the singing of Sunday Vespers? What if it became fashionable to follow the customs of the Ember Days and to observe the vigils? What if Paul VI had added more holy days to the general observance—Epiphany, Candlemas, Annunciation, All Souls Day—insisting that the religious calendar interrupt the humdrum, secular work week?

What if Rome had praised traditional religious life and led a rediscovery of charisms that entailed a renewed attachment to the saintly ways of the founders of the many orders where teaching, nursing, and direct care for the poor were extolled as the finest flower of the Christian vocation?

What if the Church had replaced legalistic morality manuals with a new way of teaching that shows sin in its effects, like a disease that destroys the soul just as cancer ravages the body? What if, in the context of sexual morality, the Church had preached that addiction to lust and sensuality will eliminate the spiritual life and lead to shame, loneliness, ruined marriages, and general unhappiness, even if outwardly masked in a life of ease and fun, like that of Dorian Gray?

In other words, what if the Church had done the reverse of what it did? The consideration of this hypothetical, I think, points the way beyond the Truce. There must be a way that both restores and innovates; that is not defensive, yet is rooted in Tradition. This way cannot rely upon hyper-papalism and the desire to proclaim every matter settled and every dissent from the Catechism an outrage. Indeed, nothing is more traditional than controversy in the life of the Church. Omit dissents and controversies from any history and the book would be hardly a page. The Church cannot remain afraid that any possible development means the collapse of the entire moral teaching authority. That is a position born in fear, weakness, and panic. 

The Church must have confidence in herself, and in her perennial practices, knowing that there has never been, and never will be, any substitute for the Gospel and the Sacraments. 

The miracle of the post-Council Church is that there is a post-Council Church. It falls upon a new generation to consider what to do with what has been left to us by God—to go beyond a stale Truce and to rebuild the Temple again, just as our forefathers rebuilt it after every previous crisis during which it seemed the Church would not endure. 

[Photo Credit: Unsplash]

  • Christian Browne

    Christian Browne is a practicing attorney in New York state. A board member of the Nassau County Catholic Lawyers Guild, he earned his J.D. from Fordham University in 2004.

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