Peter Kwasniewski’s recent essay on the magisterial quandary of Catholics today articulates well the situation of orthodox Catholics in our day and age, when so much of Church teaching seems up for grabs. I think I have a partial explanation of why there is such a magisterial crisis at the moment.
Kwasniewski has written eloquently on the nature of obedience and authority. And in the current crisis, the whole nature of authority has become a hot topic, as those who defend Pope Francis’ papacy have adverted to the same “hyperpapal” stance that many in the reign of John Paul II did over moral questions, only this time on different sides of the dispute. But I think the debate over papal authority is actually a proxy for deeper questions, namely about the nature of the Church itself.
Let me explain what I mean by quoting at length from the late Pope Benedict, from his Christmas address to the curia in 2005. This speech is famous for his explanation of two “hermeneutics” of Vatican II: that of rupture, and that of continuity. The passage concerns the proponents of “rupture,” for whom Vatican II
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is considered as a sort of Constituent Assembly that eliminates an old constitution and creates a new one. However, the Constituent Assembly needs a mandator and then confirmation by the mandator, in other words, the people the constitution must serve. The Fathers had no such mandate and no one had ever given them one; nor could anyone have given them one because the essential constitution of the Church comes from the Lord and was given to us so that we might attain eternal life and, starting from this perspective, be able to illuminate life in time and time itself.
I think Benedict hit upon the key issue. What he is saying here is that the Church has a nature, or form, which is in its essence unchangeable because it is given by a divine sovereign. Dissenters in the reigns of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, turned hyperpapalists under Francis, clearly don’t believe this. They care less about the type of government the Church assumes (monarchical, democratic) than that its “constitution” be understood as alterable. That is why they are consistent when they praise Francis and revile Benedict; for them, Vatican II was the moment when the Church gave up semper eadem and admitted that reality was dynamic rather than static. Benedict told them no, while Francis indulges them in this idea.
This doesn’t mean these dissenters-turned-uberpapalists don’t care about authority, but it means something vastly different for them than for orthodox Catholics. For the orthodox, that authority is meant to preserve what Christ gave to the Apostles and safeguard it. The purpose of authority appears quite otherwise if you don’t believe in unchanging truth or that it is ultimately unknowable. If that is the case, authority’s primary role is to ratify changes, to verify that the Church is up-to-date; reality is dynamic, and we have no choice but to keep up with it.
Where did they get this idea from? I suppose it is a result of the influence of modernism, but there is a reason why they find such ideas plausible in the first place. People respond to what they see in their daily lives, not abstract theological ideas. Modern Westerners have lived for quite a while now in a humanly constructed, technologically driven society that caters nonstop to human desires.
The progressive idea of authority echoes this. Despite all the talk about “the Spirit,” the “Spirit of Vatican II,” the controlling metaphor for their vision of the Church is mechanistic rather than organic or spiritual. The whole notion of “updating” (aggiornamento) is fundamentally a technological one, one that presumes the sort of continuous progress one finds in technology. For these people, the Church needs constant updating as if it were an iPhone—Church 1.0, 2.0, and so forth—to keep up with the demands of “reality,” i.e., of its customers.
Incredulous Catholics rightfully respond with skepticism and indignation when prelates like Cardinal Hollerich proclaim that the Church can contradict itself by ordaining women. To them, this sort of 2+2=5 logic is incomprehensible. But for Hollerich and his supporters, this sort of arbitrariness is no problem because the world they inhabit simply is an arbitrary human construction, as that is what 21st-century society has become. For them, authority is that which enables them to adapt and flourish accordingly. God, and therefore Christ, is to them less a law-giver or Savior than a sort of cosmic Steve Jobs, delivering TEDx Talks to empower them to be their best selves. The Church is simply technology they use to achieve this.
On this view, the Church is an instrument, not the divine community in which they encounter Christ. As absurd as it sounds, this idea is one possible response to the confusion about magisterial authority Peter identified. The Church is so ancient, and has issued so many formal declarations of belief, that it is quite impossible for any one person to keep them straight in their head. (The Church can even “forget” doctrine, as Joseph Shaw once pointed out.) Hyperpapalism saves one from the mental work of trying to determine which ones are authoritative by assuming they are all provisional and treating the papacy like some oracular dictatorship, unbound by logic or consistency.
Naturally, this does not solve the problem. If you believe the basic teachings of the Christian faith are givens, it is possible in principle to discern which ones are definitive and which ones are not, since they do not constantly change. But if you believe formal pronouncements of Church doctrine are merely jumping off points for the next “evolution” of faith, the meaning of what “authority” demands loses all stability. Trying to follow the pronouncements of someone who actually believes this becomes almost impossible—rather like trying to follow the contradictory statements of Pope Francis.
I do not presume that every theologian or prelate who talks likes this actually believes such things, however. Far from it. I have learned from painful experience that it is dangerous to presume every bishop or cardinal actually believes the things they claim publicly about Church teaching. (The sexual abuse scandals should have taught us this, if nothing else.) I recall reading an unnamed cardinal (a liberal one) express admiration for Cardinal Burke around the time Francis removed him from the Roman Rota, because Burke seemed to believe what he was saying.
You know why: several figures who were “conservatives” under his predecessors have toed the line on pretty much everything in the reign of Francis. I had never heard of Cardinal Hollerich before the “Synod on Synodality,” but I imagine the lure of the spotlight for a bishop of Luxembourg, previously of Japan, must be pretty tempting for an otherwise undistinguished prelate in a dying European Church. Unbelief and a desire for advancement is just as good an explanation for people making these incredible statements as actual belief in absurdities.
But there is clearly a core of people who do, and not all of them are intellectual non-entities. The eminent Church historian Francis Oakley has argued for Conciliarism while maintaining that the Church’s dogmatic definitions are by definition changing and therefore cannot bind the faithful in perpetuity. Likewise, Cardinal Kasper wrote, back in the 1960s, that
the God who is enthroned over the world and history as a changeless being is an offence to man. One must deny him for man’s sake, because he claims for himself the dignity and honor that belong by right to man…. We must resist this God, however, not only for man’s sake, but also for God’s sake. He is not the true God at all, but rather a wretched idol. For a God who is only alongside of and above history, who is not himself history, is a finite God. If we call such a being God, then for the sake of the Absolute we must become absolute atheists. Such a God springs from a rigid worldview; he is the guarantor of the status quo and the enemy of the new.
This is not merely an attitude toward authority; it is a conviction about the nature of reality itself.
Which is why, to bring us full circle, Benedict XVI’s depiction of the divisions in the Church as a matter of interpretation don’t capture the radical incompatibility of the visions that fuel them. It is not merely a matter of interpretation but of violently opposed ideas of what the Catholic faith is. Confusion about what the Magisterium requires in terms of assent will not soon abate, until the Church’s leaders recognize that its “constitution” does indeed come from the Lord and is not the protean chimera of their imaginations.