A Challenge

As one whose attitudes were largely formed prior to Vatican II, I share the concern of the editors for the decline of intellectualism within the church. However, in attributing this to Vatican II I think there is a failure to distinguish between causes which uniquely determine something and factors which influence events in a number of diverse ways, many of which were not originally intended. Attempts to square Catholicism with the complex social and political circumstances of the last 20 years have produced some results which are disturbing to Catholic intellectuals, so I see Catholicism in Crisis as a noble attempt to supply some correctives. Let me then first note some respects in which I seem to agree with your editorial policy and finally state some points of apparent disagreement.

What is happening is what I like to call the “Protestantizing” of Catholicism, though some may object to that term. What I mean is that a fuzzy “Love and do what you will” outlook pervades much of recent Catholic thinking. For example, a couple of summers ago I attended a medieval institute at Cornell University. We Catholics in the group were shocked when we attended Mass, and the Newman chaplain (at an institution renowned for scholarship!) talked for 20 minutes without saying anything. Every other word was “love” or “sharing.” The general audience seemed to be eating it up. The following week he talked about resistance to the draft in the same way, implying it was morally right to resist, but there was nothing in his comments vaguely resembling an argument. A few of us contemplated doing something we had never considered before, writing the bishop to inform him that the chaplain was a complete idiot. In another example, we got a new young priest at our local parish. At the “People’s Mass” he substituted for the Nicene Creed one which sounded like, “I believe in trees and flowers and butterflies …,” although I must concede it was somewhat more substantial.

Perhaps Vatican II, in breaking away from the legalistic strictures of the past, has been misinterpreted by those who confuse softheartedness with softheadedness. So I think it is important to reaffirm the basis of our religion in Scripture and tradition, to re-emphasize the propositional interpretation of faith, to note that moral action is not the sole element in Catholicism, and to believe in ritual as a fundamentally human way of expressing the mysteries of religion. It should also be stressed that despite the value in reading Scripture, the Bible is an opaque book requiring scholarly interpretation.

But let me now take exception to some of the points made in the first two issues of your journal. None of the above warrants the inferences some of your contributors are making about the recent behavior of the bishops, i.e., none of the “traditionalist” principles entails that it is not the bishops’ responsibility to speak out on moral issues. For although moral action is not the sole element in our religion, it surely is and always has been an important element. The problem, as formulated in Catholicism in Crisis, concerns how seriously one should take episcopal pronouncements. Granted, we should respect the views of the hierarchy and of any priest, but no intelligent Catholic from Day One of our religion to the present ever regarded these views (except certain very special and rare pronouncements) as infallible. In fact during the Middle Ages the philosophers had a healthy disdain for the hierarchy, who took the law course and hence were regarded as bureaucrats and politicians rather than experts on philosophy and theology. A popular late medieval sophism, i.e., a paradigm case of amphiboly, was the sentence Isti asini sunt episcopi.

However, in castigating the bishops and perhaps “the spirit of Vatican II,” what, I wonder, do people such as Novak expect the hierarchy to do? Vatican II seems to have been a response to overemphasis on traditional religious practices, and I agree that we should decry tendencies to go to the other extreme. But one can make a good case that Vatican II and its consequences were necessary responses to abuses in the old system, one in which many were mainly concerned about things like whether drinking milk shakes violated the Lenten fast. There have always been orthodox reformers, like Erasmus, pointing out that our rule consciousness is Pharisaic. But what is the cash value of our moral conclusions if they don’t square with the fundamental law of love and hence don’t show respect for the dignity of other persons? This point seems to be the thrust of the social philosophy of the “traditional” thinker Jacques Maritain in such works as Man and the State and True Humanism.

What is ambiguous in some of the articles appearing herein so far is whether the writers object to the bishops’ speaking out on moral issues per se or to the quality of the thinking on the issues. If the latter, let us be evenhanded in the treatment of lightweights and also give, e.g., Phyllis Schlafly, her due. If the former, I must disagree wholeheartedly. The two issues that would seem most to require critical moral examination are the possibility of nuclear warfare and the matter of social justice. When the North and Latin American clergy began to address these, my response was, “Why have they waited so long?”

With respect to Novak, who has represented himself as the hawkish cold warrior in two recent articles (Catholicism in Crisis, I, 1; Notre Dame, Feb., 1982), I think my former teacher, J. M. Cameron, has responded more cogently and succinctly than I could. I would just like to add that a sojourn in Europe has tempered my propensity to regard American foreign policy as the sole defense against the Soviet threat. Any imperialistic military power is a threat to world security, and there is much that is objectionable in our military and economic policies. Regarding nuclear warfare, all other moral problems pale by comparison, for without people there would be no problems of abortion, euthanasia, of communism vs. capitalism, nor even the social justice issues of racism, sexism, economic exploitation, etc. I gather that some of your contributors regard atheistic communism as an even greater threat and hence are inclined toward a “we had to destroy this town to save it” mentality. I think it’s most appropriate for the bishops (or the pope, or parish priests, or informed laymen) to formulate declarations on moral goals, and hence I find the pieces by Finn and Weigel the best in your first issue. If the bishops have overreacted to years of indifference toward the key moral issues of our time, if they condemn the American contribution to the problems without equally blaming the other superpower, we can supply correctives via detailed analyses of the problems and suggestions as to practical solutions. Presumably such will be found in future issues of this journal.

What bothers me is that in what I’ve read so far I see a danger in the editorial policy turning into right wing apologetics, albeit of a highly sophisticated sort. Let me then issue a challenge to future contributors: I take as axiomatic two propositions: (1) The Soviets are not such ideological maniacs that we cannot deal with them, and hence for world security we must seek bilateral disarmament. (2) United States military and economic policy has contributed to injustice in Third World countries, enabling the Soviet Union to present apparently attractive alternatives to systems supported by us.

My challenge is for those who can accept these propositions to present practical Christian solutions. So now that Catholicism in Crisis is off the ground we can stop berating those who are at least perceptive enough to recognize the problems, and we can make some positive contributions to the discussions of these critical moral issues.


  • William E. McMahon

    William E. McMahon is a member of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Akron, Ohio.

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