Catechesis, the French Bishops, and Cardinal Ratzinger

The turmoils, conflicts and internal quarrels of the Church of France are not new in the twentieth century, nor the independence claimed historically by the French hierarchy, in which they were backed by the rulers, from Philip the Fair to Louis XIV to Napoleon. Gallicanism has been an historical force, and so has been Ultramontanism, the two in a kind of tension-filled equilibrium. If this equilibrium seems to be broken these days, this is not a matter between Paris and Rome as seats of power, but between the Marxist-progressive quasi-domination over the French intelligentsia, on the one hand, and a weakened papacy, on the other. Marxist-progressive ideology has penetrated the Church of France via the Seminaries, the workers’ movement, the blandishments of the Communist Party, Teilhardism and neo-Modernism, until now it has reached the upper echelons. An illustration is the inclusion of a commemorative paragraph about no other than Karl Marx in the new Sunday missal, to be remembered on March 14, death of the “German economist and philosopher,” as the text so tactfully and incompletely puts it. Then the paragraph admits that some people may be “astonished” that this chief spokesman of modern atheism is included, but, the text continues, Marxism has become such a wide and vast phenomenon that it is impossible to be silent about it. While Marxism has been condemned by several popes, the paragraph goes on, its socio-economic analysis has been interpreted in various ways. Thus, as we see, the text says more by its silences than by its seemingly innocuous statements.

But it was not the experimentation with the Mass, the Marxist language, the communist collaboration of many priests, etc. which have provoked Rome’s reaction; it was the manipulation of the catechism, subsequent to Vatican II. Suddenly the various modern ideologies found their way into the endless reformulations, and each was founded on what are described as the new psychological understanding of the child, his receptiveness, his love of science and technology, the necessity to detach him from the false notions he imbibes from the home environment. In other words, a certain kind of jargon appeared both in the catechetic texts and in the studies that explained and motivated them. The texts were prepared by so-called experts, approved by the bishops — and any questioning of them was smoothly stifled in the name of up-to-date psycho-social analysis.

It is to be noted that similar trends, although not in the Church, are noticeable in the utopian literature over the centuries. Mistrust of parents and the home milieu is a permanent theme, in fact from Plato on, but also in Rousseau, Sebastien Mercier, and the important nineteenth-century figures. Some of them extend their worried attention to the domestics whose fairy tales and “superstitions” are supposed to obstruct the child’s insertion in scientific society. The authors of the French catechisms could not very well attack parental care, but they made it clear that through catechetic studies the child should enter the field of contemporary understanding of faith and the commandments.

At this point, however, the adverse forces which had been prostrate for a decade and a half, and hardly reacted to “modernization” and its experiments, began to wake up. They could see themselves in the role of a persecuted minority (majority?), but were unwilling to have their children victimized at the hands of the new class of specialists. Classes were organized using the traditional texts, and delegations were sent to Rome protesting what they described as the brainwashing of their sons and daughters. Rome was summoned to action, and at the beginning of this year Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger came to France to deliver two major conferences, appropriately one in the Notre Dame de Paris, the other in Lyons, where the Primate of Gaul, successor of St. Iranaeus, resides.

A parenthesis here. I met the then Fr. Ratzinger at an Austro-German congress in Salzburg, in 1976. The theme of the week-long debate was “utopia,” and the lecturers, with very few exceptions (one being Adam Schaff, the Polish Marxist), were heavily critical of the concept. My personal contribution was a paper on the “alchemy of utopian thinking,” and in the ensuing debate Ratzinger too underlined the falsely mystical roots of the seemingly “political” theory of utopianism. I understood then that we agreed on the essentials, and indeed his own paper was an excellent historical disquisition about the fact that utopia is not something gone wrong at the hands of imperfect men, but that it is wrong at the roots. When I remarked on the immorality of utopianism, Ratzinger did not object.

Now in last winter’s two lectures, Cardinal Ratzinger demonstrated both the depth of his thinking and his sense of diplomacy. The mission was a difficult one. For the French bishops and clergy, Rome is not in odeur de saintete, to say the least. What comes from ultra montes is reactionary, Italianate or Polish, and particularly, irrelevant. For Rome to send a German to give a lesson to Frenchmen, is literally considered an impertinence. To do so in a new, socialist France, is intolerable. Etc. This much to suggest the delicacy of the enterprise. Yet, the voyage went well, the places of the lectures were crowded, and various segments of French Catholics began to breath once again. Was it to be a case of Roma locuta causa finita?

The Cardinal’s lectures form a little masterpiece of philosophical profundity. Let me try here to follow his reasoning, which, in a way, was more credible in the mouth of a German because it is in Germany that phenomenology coupled with Biblical exegesis has bitten more radically into the meat of faith and doctrine. But Ratzinger, I knew that since Salzburg, is a sure-footed and subtle philosopher.

Today, we perceive the world less as an immediate reality, than as events shaped by the media. Thus consciousness and language are removed from the basis of experience; they create their own world, a new world. This is obvious in pedagogy generally, the Cardinal pursued, where modernity proposes a plethora of methods, and neglects the contents of disciplines. In other words, the “new world” of education is also a self-created world, with only a tenuous contact with reality. The same kind of methodology has been applied to the objects of faith, speculation, and historical research. “The documents that we read, through the spectacles of the latest historical method, become detached from the actual events. The exegete no longer is in touch with the Bible and the living organism of the Church, he begins to practice archeology’…. The Bible is no longer the Book, it is regarded as a heterogeneous collection of documents.”

This approach prompts the researcher to excavate further layers of the Bible’s supposedly established archeological past, and in the end the reconstructed past (to be soon superseded by yet another reconstruction) becomes more important than the original, that is the Bible. I should like at this point to add my own observation in class, to which I referred in an earlier issue of this journal. My students love to “justify” Christian dogmatic and doctrinal theses with references to similar pagan myths concerning the virgin birth, resurrection, salvation. Christian dogma is acceptable, or let us say, intriguing for them when it fits a mytheme whose chief participant may be Osiris, Adonis, Persephone or Dionysos. There is no point to calling the students’ attention to the decisive differences between the pagan mythological episode and its apparent Christian equivalent — for example, the latter’s immediate human and moral dimension. Their own appreciation is “beyond good and evil;” what strikes their fancy is the “universal theme” present in man’s consciousness-structure.

The real Jesus, Cardinal Ratzinger continued, is dissolved in today’s reader’s consciousness, because He is no longer attached to an historically concrete context; what becomes important now is the consciousness that his disciples and followers may have had of Him, the “community experience” during His life. In all good faith, the modern believer and his catechetic informant try to understand Christianity through a dialogue between today’s experience of the faith and the word of the Bible. Needless to say, this has always been the Protestant point of view: the unceasing re-reading and re-interpretation of the Bible, with the vain expectation that the past will become thus the present. The intermediary period, the passage of time, the organic link between the then and the now, in other words tradition and its corporate interpretation — have been left out; the criterion of faith is my personal ability to actualize the past.

It is this subjectivity which permeates western philosophy since Descartes, aggravated by Kant and his numerous progeny. Ratzinger knows this flood-like current well; he too used to be tempted by Karl Rahner and by Rahner’s own mentors. Almost everything in contemporary sensibility readies us to recognize our subjective experience alone as valid, and when we deal with history, the validity test is again a kind of vicarious Erlebniss we think we can achieve. In reality, it is an a-historical thinking because it ignores the intervening time which it tries to compress to zero. Against this phenomenological approach, Ratzinger quotes and explains John (2:20), according to which the transmission of faith and knowledge through baptism and sacraments, that is the functions of the Church, is the real link between ourselves and historical reality. And: “the act of faith is always an act through, which we enter the communion of a corporate whole…. (Otherwise) the religious phenomenon succumbs to a total explanation within psychology and sociology alone.”

Many contemporary aberrations were thus rectified by the Cardinal’s words. Perhaps the most important, left by him unmentioned, is this. If “experience” prevails over objective truth as transmitted by the Church’s tradition, then the par excellence experience we must seek is reaching Jesus Christ in a personal contact, that the Abbe Luc Lefevre, publisher of La pensee catholique, described, commenting on Ratzinger’s speeches, as a “face-a-face” with God. This means, however, that no other contact is satisfactory, not, for example, the “contact” established in the course of the Mass. The now fashionable contact is the charismatic, based on emotions, and the one called historical research which attempts to reach across time to Jesus and his logia, in order to experience a new thrill. Church and tradition are by-passed as routine, not to say false, and a new, invisible Church is sought, the ecclesia spiritualis, one authorizing every interpretation, provided it is “inspired.”

If I am permitted another parenthesis, I would like to point out that behind the attribution of the errors mentioned by the Cardinal to phenomenological analysis, there is another source of incorrect thinking, namely paganism. Indeed, what does emphasis on “experience” suggest? It is easy, almost automatic, for the member of pagan creeds to return to the origins, to re-establish contact with the primordial event, as Eliade and others call it. The foundation myth may be performed, accumulated time may be magically abolished, and the participants are back in illo tempore, in sacred time. This, the Christian cannot do, which may be the underlying motive for many Christians’ unconscious nostalgia for a similar outlet. The Christian religion knows no sacred/profane time; Mass at Christmas or Easter does not abolish what had gone before. What their religion does not accomplish for them, namely purification of the community through re-living the founding moment, these Christians attempt to accomplish individually, by re-immersing themselves in “sacred time.” The many Jesus-cults, that by-pass the Church and tradition, sacraments and institution, testify to the growing popularity of the “direct contact.”

On the catechetic level this trend is manifest in France through the “simplifications” imposed on the texts that are supposed to teach the content of the faith. The modern child, the authors of catechisms criticized by Cardinal Ratzinger suggest, should see in Christ a friend whom he understands, and see crucifixion as a scandalous episode, nothing more. Resurrection, unacceptable to our scientific mentality, should be understood less as a real event than as a content of the disciples’ experience. And so on. The long and short of it is that Ratzinger recommended the catechism of Pius V as a model.

For several months after the Cardinal’s visit, the controversy was raging in French Church circles and outside. Many religion editors of progressive papers were indignant that Rome should want to interfere with the management of the Church of France, some accused John Paul II of wishing to re-establish the “authoritarian” manners of Pius XII who in his time had silenced some theologians. In fact, right after the Cardinal’s departure, indications were given that no changes would occur in the area of catechetics, and that the best-known new catechism, “pierres vivantes,” will continue to be compulsory.

Then, quite recently, the winds began to change, ac-cording to all appearances as a result of talks conducted between Rome and the French hierarchy. The latest news has it that “the bishops of France welcome the advice and cooperation offered by the Vatican” and will issue new instructions and revised texts. Those who are acquainted with the French scene have here food for thought. The great public issue is now the survival of l’ecole libre, that is of Catholic education in which roughly 20% of French children participate. The socialist government, under very heavy pressure from the Freemasons (Grand Orient), has put in its program the homogenization of all education in a single “national service.” It is known that the Pope is as preoccupied with this project as with pro-abortion legislation, and that he wants to strengthen the resistance of the bishops in all the coming battles. He has not issued an ultimatum as the Grand Orient has recently done, inviting the regime to put aside all hesitation and delay in the task of secularizing all aspects of public life. The pope, in contrast, wishes to strengthen the fabric of Catholicism in France, and finds no better focal point for it than the area of catechetics. Thus, Cardinal Ratzinger’s mission was not a mere philosophical one; it was a signal of pontifical concern for France, the nation to which he put the dramatic question during his first visit there as pope: “France, have you remained faithful to your baptism?”


  • Thomas Molnar

    Thomas Steven Molnar (1921-2010) was born in Budapest, studied at Columbia University, and was a Catholic philosopher, historian and political theorist.

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