Hijacking Vatican II: Can Catholicism Survive Subversion from Within?

In the United States, as apparently, in most other Western countries, the governing word for post-conciliar Catholicism is “confusion.” The Second Vatican Council came as a surprise to almost everyone, and for some years most Catholics had difficulty making out what it was supposed to mean. The easiest way of explaining it — and the way chosen by the mass media on which even most Catholics relied for information — was that Vatican II represented the Church’s tacit admission of past errors and its new determination to adapt itself to modern culture. The governing theme was “freedom,” understood not in any distinctively Christian way but simply as the systematic loosening of all moral and institutional constraints on individual behavior.

Surely it ought to have been crucial to the Church’s spiritual health to counteract this impression as forcefully as possible, but surprisingly little was done to that end. Not only did many in the media purvey this false idea of renewal, it was soon propagated within the Church itself — from the pulpit; in seminaries, schools, and universities; in the Catholic press. Countless speakers and seminar leaders pounded the idea home, while those whose duty was to oversee implementation of the Council — bishops and religious superiors — remained strangely passive as the Council was effectively hijacked by those who cared little what the conciliar fathers may have actually intended.

As everyone recognizes, Humanae Vitae in 1968 was the crucial moment when not only many laypeople rejected a distinctive Catholic teaching, many clergy did as well; passive rejection escalated into open and systematic resistance. The fatal flaw of the encyclical was its timing — for five years Catholics had been led to expect that the Church would “reform” this doctrine as it had allegedly reformed others, and when Paul VI finally spoke authoritatively, many people thought he had betrayed the Council, since in the meantime they had been taught a wholly fallacious notion of what renewal was really about.

In the United States, as apparently in most other countries, the bishops chose not to defend Humanae Vitae vigorously, presumably in the hope that, once the storm had passed, other teachings deemed more fundamental would be left still protected. As was obvious at the time, however, a successful assault on the doctrine of birth control was merely preliminary to a systematic attack on practically every other official teaching, an assault largely engineered and implemented by clergy.

The term “dissent” soon became a misnomer, insofar as it implied that people on the margins of the Church were raising lonely voices on behalf of unpopular ideas. Not long after 1968, dissent moved to the center of American Catholicism. It is purveyed not merely through secular organs or by lonely defiant voices but through the official Catholic press, officially sponsored lectures and conferences, the pulpit, and the Catholic school system from kindergarten through graduate school. American Catholic dissent, centered as it is primarily on matters of sex, offers people of all statuses within the Church a kind of bribe to reject official teaching — married couples can practice birth control and get divorced, women inconveniently pregnant can have abortions, vowed religious can engage in sexual relations and possibly marry, both homosexuals and unmarried heterosexuals can engage in untrammeled sexual activity without guilt.

During the 1970s, the official papal representative it fin the United States, Archbishop Jean Jadot, was seen by many observers to be nominating bishops prepared to be at least tolerant of this massive dissent. If these “Jadot bishops” were not personally sympathetic to heterodoxy, they seemed at least to follow the strategy of giving dissenters more than sufficient rope, even though there were very few signs of any self-hangings.

At the time of Humanae Vitae, someone in the Nixon administration coined the useful term “the silent majority,” which Jerry Falwell later parlayed into the Moral Majority. Until perhaps the mid-1970s those terms were still reasonably accurate, and nowhere more than in the Catholic Church. For perhaps a decade after the Council, Catholics continued to watch with some bewilderment the liturgical changes, changes in the priesthood and religious life, and the “new truths” being taught their children in the Catholic schools. When the assault on Humanae Vitae began, common sense would have seemed to dictate a strategy whereby the Church identified its firmest and most dedicated members and formed them into a solid nucleus. From that base the shepherds could then have gone forth seeking the lost sheep, secure in the knowledge that the majority were protected from wolves. Instead the shepherds began to make the straying sheep practically their only concern, not however in order to bring them back to the flock but in order to see what interesting new territory the strays might have discovered.

After a while those sheep who remained with the flock began to feel foolish, and to wonder whether the shepherds had not in fact abandoned them. Pleas to the shepherds to give their attention to the main part of the flock were often met with a counter-invitation to follow the strays. More and more the shepherds seemed even to communicate with the flock through strays sent as their emissaries, and more and more some of those strays began to look like wolves. For all practical purposes, however, the shepherds had abandoned thoughts of wolves — the flock was constantly urged to lay aside its fears, to become more “open” and “flexible.” Straying sheep seemed increasingly to be rewarded by the shepherds, even as the loyal sheep came to be defined as troublesome.

Orthodox Catholics are sinners like everyone else, and the criticisms often made of them — that they are rigid, unloving, quarrelsome, self-righteous, and narrow — are true of some, or true of many some of the time. Yet a pastoral response to such people would have dictated that from the beginning they be given sympathetic guidance by doctrinally sound priests specially assigned to serve as links to the bishop and to remind the bishop of the legitimate concerns of this once large but steadily dwindling part of the flock. Instead, most bishops chose to ignore the orthodox (dubbed as “conservatives”) as a matter of policy, often the one part of their flock whom they allowed themselves to treat rudely and punitively; perhaps the bishops were relieved that there was at least one group to whom they did not have to reach out in sympathy.

The cold anger which some bishops show towards outspokenly orthodox Catholics is perhaps a sign of uneasy conscience — if the bishop admits that such people have legitimate complaints (about religious education, for example), he also admits that he has been less than vigilant in protecting the faith entrusted to him, an admission few bishops are prepared to make. The accuracy of many of these complaints remains undeniable, however. Massive volumes could be filled documenting how Catholic teaching has been undermined through organs directly under episcopal control.

Almost a quarter-of-a-century after Humanae Vitae, the “nuclear flock” of American Catholicism is indeed becoming a remnant. To some extent this is merely the workings of age, as more and more simply die. But many once-firm Catholics have themselves slipped gradually and unobtrusively into the comfortable habits of “cafeteria Catholicism,” simply because they have had no strong guidance throughout the entire post-conciliar period.


Deforming Public Opinion

One of the most important yet unnoticed ways in which liberalism distorts contemporary events is in distorting the way in which “public opinion” is formed. Opinion polls, for example, rest on the unspoken assumption that individuals simply commune with themselves until they reach a judgment on a particular question, then at some point add their atomized judgment to those of the millions of their fellow citizens. In reality, the image of sheep is nowhere more exact than with respect to popular opinion, where people are constantly looking over their shoulders to see what their neighbors think. The most effective way of changing public opinion is simply to present certain views as self-evidently true and others as patently absurd.

In particular, public opinion depends on strong “opinion leaders.” Ronald Reagan’s success stemmed almost entirely from the fact that he continued with dogged amiability to assert positions which “right-thinking” people had long ago dismissed, and in the end he brought a good part of the nation with him. There has been no similar figure in American Catholicism. For almost a quarter-of-a-century most American bishops have given the impression that they regard official Church teachings as embarrassing anachronisms which, if backed into a corner, they will defend halfheartedly, but which they will not under any circumstances “impose” on their people.

Under such conditions the meaning of orthodoxy becomes fatally blurred. How can knots of lay people, often with no clerical support whatsoever, claim to be expressing authentic Catholic doctrine when diocesan officials regard such people as little better than cranks? The orthodox can cite papal statements endlessly, but the retort, stated or implied, remains the same, “The Holy Father appointed the bishop to govern this diocese, not you.” In an odd way, many dissenting Catholics now regard themselves as loyal and orthodox, in full harmony with the official structure of the Church as they experience it at the parish and diocesan levels and at the level of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. Institutional loyalty has replaced dogma as the measure of orthodoxy, and those who insist that there is something seriously wrong in American Catholicism are themselves viewed as heterodox.

Like all viable communities, the Church traditionally depended on the almost instinctual sense of its members as to what was or was not genuinely Catholic. Formal education reinforced and deepened almost inchoate notions imbibed from family and neighbors and regular worship, so that even Catholics who could not explain their reason could nonetheless respond to particular situations in authentically Catholic ways.

For reasons partly beyond the control of Church authorities, this communal sense has all but evaporated. However, the process need not have been as swift or as thorough as it has been. In particular, parents struggling to raise their children as Catholics have repeatedly found that they receive little support from “the official Church,” especially the Catholic schools, and in many cases face outright opposition. Father Andrew Greeley’s “communal Catholics” — those with a certain loyalty to the institution but little commitment to its teachings — have been created in part by the pressures of a secular culture but in part also by official Church agencies.

Any objective student of historical Catholicism recognizes that, among all the religions of the world, perhaps none has stressed doctrinal orthodoxy quite as much. But now, by a breathtaking act of willful amnesia, Catholics on all levels pretend as though doctrine is of no importance. Even relatively conservative bishops, assessing the states of their dioceses, are not likely to boast, “Orthodox teaching is tirelessly imparted.” The term “fundamentalist” is routinely used to discredit those Catholics who think doctrine is important.

Father Greeley and others have expended much effort explaining the measurable decline of Catholic practice on all levels — attendance at church, patronage of Catholic schools, support of the Catholic press, monetary contributions. There are rival liberal and conservative explanations of these facts — the Church has changed too fast or not fast enough — both of which overlook the more basic and obvious reality: Catholics are not loyal to the Church to the degree that they once were simply because they no longer consider it important. The “communal Catholic” regards the Church as a club in which one maintains formal membership but uses the facilities only when convenient. Its significance is not such as to summon either personal or financial sacrifices.

Once again, this state of mind has not simply been created by a secular culture. It is the logical inference from actual Catholic teaching since the Council, which has de-emphasized almost to the vanishing point the belief that anyone’s eternal salvation is at stake and depends upon religious belief and practice, and that God’s own will is manifest through his church. The principal ecumenical achievement of post-conciliar American Catholics has been to develop the same attitude towards their church which liberal Protestants have had towards theirs for decades.

Abortion is almost the only controversial issue on which the American bishops, with very few exceptions, have sustained a strong and unified voice. Yet opinion polls show that Catholic views of abortion are not appreciably different from those of Protestants. What the bishops do not seem to realize is how, to the “communal Catholic,” the official teaching on abortion seems arbitrary — they have been taught that morality, especially sexual morality, is a matter of personal decision, not of religious authority, and they cannot understand why abortion should be an exception.

The failure of the liberal program of “social justice” is traceable to the same cause. Bishops and other Catholic leaders have issued countless numbers of statements on all kinds of social problems, with very little effect. The two celebrated episcopal letters of recent years — on war and peace and on the economy — are by now all but forgotten. Liberals gambled on their ability to undermine “the old morality” focused on personal sanctity, and substitute a new morality supposedly focused on social justice. Instead they merely succeeded in undermining all religiously-based morality of whatever kind. “Communal Catholics” see the Church’s stand on moral issues as interference with their personal lives.

The policies of the American bishops over 25 years, either active or passive, have resulted in orthodoxy’s becoming a mere party or sect within the Church rather than a unifying truth, in the same way that liturgy was allowed to become a bone of contention rather than a bond of unity. Those who think orthodoxy is important, however flawed their own notions of it may be, are now dismissed as “conservatives,” one set of contending voices among many, as bishops carefully tread a narrow line between orthodoxy and explicit heresy.

In the beginning, many bishops (possibly Paul VI himself) perhaps thought that the storm of dissent would in time blow itself out. Instead it became a hurricane, and has now settled down to a steadily blowing wind so ubiquitous as to be unnoticeable to many people. In the beginning many bishops seem to have judged that they had to tolerate things which they knew were wrong until such time as they could take effective action. But people of integrity find it impossible to tolerate wrong for a long time, when they possess the power to address it, and little by little many bishops, unwilling to use their power, simply persuaded themselves that what they originally recognized as wrong was actually right. Conservative Catholics are thus the messengers who bring the bad news and who are rewarded accordingly.


The Bureaucratic Revolution

The silent revolution in post-conciliar American Catholicism has not been the “emergence of the laity” so beloved of liberals but the emergence of the professional bureaucrats. After the Council most bishops in effect acknowledged that they themselves did not fully understand its principles and began the habit of deferring to specialists on almost every subject. Most tellingly, they abandoned almost all sense of authority over religious education, which became entirely the preserve of specialists.

Rather than doctrinal orthodoxy being the ultimate criterion by which Catholic activities education, worship, spiritual formation — are judged, the criterion is now professional respectability. Each area of Catholic life is controlled by organized groups of professionals who simply present the bishops with standards of correctness which most bishops passively accept. While the charge that a particular priest contradicts the teachings of the Holy Father has little effect, the charge that a priest is not in harmony with approved professional wisdom can be very damaging.

The liberalization of the Catholic bureaucracies has been a self-perpetuating process. Religious educators, for example, have to be extraordinarily principled or extraordinarily foolish to espouse orthodox positions forth-rightly, when this will severely diminish their chances of employment or advancement.

Even when a particular bishop is not personally sympathetic to dissenting positions, he rarely takes strong public stands. Every large diocese has its resident dissenters — sometimes priests or religious — who have almost unlimited access to the media. Seldom does a bishop, if he deems it necessary to tolerate dissent, attempt publicly and forcefully to counteract it. The “debate” in the Church over issues of sexual morality or the role of women is completely one-sided. Many lay people, hearing only one voice, conclude that dissent itself is in effect simply the voice of the emerging orthodoxy, since even the appointed defender of orthodoxy (the bishop) does not seem able to refute it. Many more become simply passive and estranged from vital Catholic life — battles are raging around them in which they do not wish to get involved and which they assume will sooner or later be decided in some fashion.


The Great Divide

For a few years after the Council the liberal-conservative division in the Church was to some extent a division between intellectuals and ordinary people, the former committed to a new, almost utopian vision of the Church, the latter tenaciously holding to what they already knew. Some bishops opposed change on the grounds that it would upset simple people, a claim which reformers rightly rejected as condescending and as showing less than adequate concern for the demands of truth.

Now, however, a large number of orthodox Catholics are intellectuals of a sort. Even if they lack advanced degrees, they are people who take ideas seriously, have at least some ability to deal with abstract theological concepts, and read religious publications. Strongly committed converts are also likely to be intellectuals, often people who were attracted to the Church by books — the writings of John Henry Newman, for example — and who are then plunged into a bath of cold water when they encounter the actual institutions which exist on the local level.

Ironically, bishops who started out with a mass of ordinary Catholics as the nucleus of their flocks, and thus had numbers on their side if not always intellectual quality, have allowed that mass base to be eroded badly, so that orthodox bishops now sometimes find that intellectuals, in the sense used here, are almost the only people who are reliably orthodox. In the future, authentic Catholicism in the United States is likely to be rather top heavy, exactly the opposite of what it was 30 years ago.

Beginning with Karl Marx, radical reformers have found the myth of historical inevitability to be their most serviceable weapon in persuading those in power to support change. The standard liberal view of the post-conciliar Church is that changes were mandated by a changing culture and the Church had no choice but to keep pace. Many bishops console themselves that the patent secularism of their flocks is due to the pressures of an evolving culture over which the bishops have no control.

But history also shows that cultural changes can be delayed, moderated, redirected, even in some cases prevented altogether, by leaders who possess the will to do so. For example, the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod and the Southern Baptist Convention show, for better or for worse, that church leaders can halt the liberalization of their denominations if they are willing to pay the price.

With some exceptions, most religious orders have departed so far from classical Catholic religious life as to be beyond recall. Yet that need not have happened. Especially in the crucial first five years after the Council, there were divisions of opinion in religious communities which could have resulted in the selection of different superiors, with different agendas, from those actually chosen. All that was needed was firm hierarchical intervention — by bishops and by the Holy See itself — which would, among other things, have encouraged conservative and moderate members of those communities and undercut the influence of the radicals. (Inadequate though the terms “liberal,” “radical,” and “conservative” are as applied to the Church, they seem unavoidable as brief ways of designating those who favor endless change versus those who wish to preserve the heritage of the past.) Almost nowhere was this intervention forthcoming, however, and before long anyone in a religious order with any reservations about the prevailing liberal direction was doomed to a marginal and often unpleasant existence.


The Entrenched Establishment

It would have been similarly possible, had the commitment to do so existed, for a vigilant hierarchy to intervene in religious education, seminaries, marriage tribunals, and other sensitive areas of church life, and to stop, or at least redirect, what has seemed a headlong rush away from traditional belief and practice.

The liberal claim that John Paul II has begun a counter-reformation in the United States is based mainly on the appointment of a relatively few well-publicized conservative bishops in major Eastern sees. In most places, however, conservative Catholics realize that little has changed, and in some places conditions have actually gotten worse.

The process of selecting bishops remains mysterious. The results, however, force the conclusion that, with some exceptions, priests chosen as bishops now are required to be personally orthodox but also cautious. If a strategy exists for coping with dissent, it appears to be the vague hope that somehow bishops can use persuasion and example to win over the dissenters, the use of discipline being implicitly ruled out.

Conservative priests now appointed to episcopal office generally find a liberal establishment both at the local and the national levels — their own diocesan bureaucracies and clergy on the one hand, the National Conference of Bishops on the other. Unless a bishop is prepared to endure a good deal of personal pressure, and to be dismissed publicly as a dangerous reactionary, he is usually inclined to make his peace with both establishments, to live with them to the best of his ability.

The scope for maneuver is extremely narrow, however, because the various liberal establishments are obsessed with power, and understand it very well. Almost unnoticed throughout the post-conciliar period, liberal Catholics have manifested a hypocrisy about power exactly like the hypocrisy of certain clergy who profess a celibate life and in practice violate it.

Around the time of the Council, to be critical of ecclesiastical power was one of the marks of a liberal. Bishops and other superiors were said to have a love of domination which was contrary to the Gospel. In the newly emergent democratic church, those in authority would allegedly act as servants rather than masters. This criticism continues, selectively applied to conservative bishops. But the rhetoric about a “servant church” scarcely masks the fact that those who employ it are often entrenched in religious orders, or in diocesan or national bureaucracies, so firmly that it appears they could never be dislodged. They do not even recognize that their critics have legitimate concerns, much less that those concerns should be accommodated in any way. Liberals in the Church are quick to resent exercises of authority by the Holy See because they lust to hold all ecclesiastical power in their own hands.

Complaints about a current “reign of terror” emanating from the Vatican are disingenuous, since most reasonably informed Catholic liberals know that their own power is not as yet seriously threatened. Action has been taken against a few individuals (Charles Curran, for example) with some decisiveness, and against others (Matthew Fox, say) in ways which leave the final outcome in doubt.

The standard liberal explanation as to why liberals remain powerful is that the tide of history is overwhelmingly on their side and the Holy See cannot command the waves to be still. But the reality is more mundane and, given all the rhetoric about a democratic church, more than a little ironic — liberals simply have a tight grip on the levers of power in many parts of the Church, and they see that the Holy See appears to lack the will to pry loose their unyielding grasp.

Indeed, liberals often possess a fanatical energy which far exceeds that of the protectors of orthodoxy, an energy like the power of a vacuum to suck things into itself. Religious liberalism thrives on negation, its agenda chiefly that of “liberating” believers from the various demands of their faith, and it is this systematic denial which creates the almost irresistible force of the spiritual vacuum.

The great untold story of the post-conciliar Church is the numerous acts of oppression directed at orthodox Catholics, especially priests and religious, by powerful liberals. It is a story which remains untold mainly because it does not interest the media, which prefer tales of conservative prelates oppressing courageous liberals. But in certain parts of the Church, the phenomenon of “political correctness” was operative long before it was discovered working in the secular universities.

The liberals’ own seemingly unbreakable grip on power inevitably makes them even more contemptuous of those in authority above them. A usually unspoken assumption on the question of the ordination of women, for example, is that those who reiterate the official teaching do not believe it because, if they did, they would take whatever action possible to defeat those who openly attack the teaching. Liberal rage is fired by a sense that the highest church officials will in time accede to their demands and are simply taking an unconscionably long time to do so.


Ecclesiastical Surrender

Largely unnoticed is the way in which conservative impulses, divorced from doctrinal content, now serve the liberal program. Episcopal solidarity makes the agenda of the United States Catholic Conference almost beyond criticism, at least in public; much less do bishops publicly correct each other’s failures. Dioceses are structured in hierarchies, in which bishops almost always defend the actions of those beneath them. Priests and religious are almost always protected from the criticisms of the laity. The Church’s agenda — feminism, sexual morality, “social justice” — is almost entirely set by professionals, usually clerics, and is simply given to the rest of the Church for its reaction. If clericalism, meaning a complacent sense of group identity divorced from the transcendent purposes of the priesthood, once served to maintain orthodoxy, it now often serves to maintain dissent, the new practical orthodoxy. Outspokenly orthodox clergy are treated as eccentrics or fanatics who are somehow institutionally anti-social.

The myth of historical inevitability has served very successfully to obscure the degree to which the character of parishes and dioceses, religious orders, and schools at all levels, are largely determined by the character of their leadership. A liberal bishop, or even a permissive conservative, unleashes forces in his diocese which thrive on dissent, confusion, and destruction, to the point where only the strongest people maintain a principled commitment to what was once taken for granted.

With some exceptions, those bishops appointed since the Jadot era do not seem inclined to mount systematic attacks on entrenched dissent, and quite possibly they have been chosen by the Holy See precisely for that “moderation.” Part of this is probably the diplomatic mentality, which always hopes that great things can be achieved through finesse and skillful maneuvering, so that the losers in the exchange do not even realize they have lost until it is too late. While this classic diplomatic approach sometimes succeeds, it never works at times of deep and passionate divisions.

For example, the “extraordinary synod” of 1988 required all the ingenuity of the commentators, whether liberal or conservative, to discover any significance. A gathering widely predicted to be some kind of ultimate resolution of the crises of the Church proved to be not even an anti-climax, and is now largely forgotten.

The investigations ordered by the Holy See into the state of American seminaries and American religious orders were similarly anticipated as preliminary to decisive Vatican action. Instead the seminary investigation yielded almost no visible results, and the inquiry into religious orders actually ended in an official statement praising the “health” of palpably dying communities.

In the spring of 1989 the American archbishops returned from Rome after a meeting with the Holy Father which had also been proclaimed as a kind of “show-down.” Instead certain prelates announced publicly that they had “spoken up” in defense of American Catholicism, and events soon confirmed that they had won an apparent victory for a semi-independent “American Church”: Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen was fully restored to authority in Seattle, a process by which openly pro-abortion nuns were to be disciplined was quietly abandoned, the authority of the radical Leadership Conference of Women Religious was reaffirmed, a strong statement on the nature of Catholic higher education was scrapped in favor of a much weaker one, and a controversial sex education book was approved.

On various liturgical practices — communion in the hand, communion under both species, the promiscuous use of “extraordinary” ministers of the Eucharist, altar girls — American practice has consistently been simply to disregard official directives of the Holy See and hope eventually to force the Holy See to approve those practices.

In  retrospect John Paul II’s 1981-83 confrontation with the Society of Jesus was the paradigm for what followed. At the time it seemed as though he had made a decisive intervention which was the beginning of a counter-reformation in religious life. Instead practically nothing changed in the Society, and the papal intervention is now simply dismissed as a misunderstanding. The Holy Father suffered, in this case as in others, the obloquy of being called reactionary and authoritarian but gained none of the benefits that would have accrued from actually enforcing discipline and orthodoxy.

In all these instances, American Catholics who have supported Vatican policy in the face of often fierce sentiment to the contrary have ended by looking foolish — zealous monarchists whose king has proven to be flexible in dealing with revolutionaries.

Few popes in all of history have possessed a greater ability to inspire people, including non-Catholics, than John Paul II. At least his first wave of travels around the world constituted a brilliantly successful strategy, in which he was able to assess each “local church” for himself and in effect appeal to people over the heads of both their religious and secular leaders. Few popes have also possessed John Paul’s theological and philosophical acumen, and none has expressed the faith in more powerful and inspiring ways.

There remains, however, a widening gulf between the pope’s words and the actual life of the Church. In its simplest form, Catholics who genuinely try to live their faith as the Holy Father expounds it soon find themselves in collision with clergy, including some bishops, who obviously do not share that same vision, and even abominate it. Catholics who seek to be orthodox are simultaneously told to heed official Church teaching and to be obedient to their ecclesiastical superiors, exhortations which are often contradictory and which give rise to immense frustration.

The Holy Father’s direct appeal to the people of the world has been especially brilliant because the single most potent weapon which Catholic dissenters have is the almost unlimited sympathy of the mass media in the West, which know no other way of reporting on matters of religion except by pitting “enlightened” liberals against “oppressive” reactionaries. (Thus in the same week that Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee was lionized not only in the New Yorker but in the Wall Street Journal and the Milwaukee Magazine, Bishop John J. Myers of Peoria was, predictably, being snidely treated by Newsweek.)

Bishops who attempt to implement official Church teaching have to expect much bad publicity, which is no longer the last but now often the first weapon which dissidents use. No one enjoys such treatment, and it is not healthy for the Church for its leaders to be always at the center of embittered controversy. The conservatism of the Church manifests itself partly in a sometimes extreme aversion to bad publicity, to the point where some bishops seem to formulate policy almost solely on the basis of how the media are likely to react.

The Holy See itself understandably shares this same aversion, especially to the public impression that the Church is deeply divided, perhaps even at the level of its leaders. Thus official policy, except rarely, has been to deny or minimize such divisions, and to tolerate a remarkable amount of dissent rather than make strong action.

But, as with diplomacy, the avoidance of bad publicity is ineffective when the issues are too deep or too passionate, both of which are the case at present. Then the avoidance of confrontation requires an ever higher and higher price, which eventually becomes ruinous.

Liberals argue that a counter-reformation cannot succeed because orthodox clergy find themselves out of touch with their flocks, an assertion which is true to some extent, given the way in which for almost a quarter-of-a-century American Catholics have in effect been taught to adopt the attitude of “communal Catholics.” Popular priests and bishops now are likely to be those whose message is endlessly permissive and “supportive” or, in other words, devoid of any talk of personal sin.

A reversal of that condition will certainly not be easy, as the Counter-Reformation of the sixteenth century was not easy. (The great reforming bishop St. Charles Borromeo, for example, barely escaped an attempt on his life by an assassin hired by disgruntled members of a monastery.) Yet the longer the situation is allowed to continue, the worse it will become.


Mistaken Strategies

By inference the Holy See can be seen as practicing what can be called the “positive strategy,” refraining from systematic action against dissent while encouraging vitally orthodox new movement — religious orders, lay groups, publications, and educational institutions — looking to the day when good seeds will sprout everywhere.

But the fallacy of this strategy lies in the fact that it is impossible to build anew while there is still falling debris, and above all unless people are taught the difference between debris and sound construction. In addition, given the power which liberals wield, positive movements are sometimes thwarted and even destroyed before they can begin to have much impact at the local level.

Specific variations on the “positive strategy” are the “Third World” strategy and the “Eastern Europe” strategy — hoping that renewal will come from those areas of the Church which have remained relatively unaffected by the spiritual diseases of the West. But there are reasons for believing that the Western decay has already begun to affect Eastern Europe and the Third World and that their relative immunity until now has simply been the result of their relative isolation.

Beyond the fear of bad publicity and public dissension lies the even greater fear of schism, a fear which may be the ultimate explanation of what appears to be the Holy See’s retreat from the strong stands which it was prepared to take during most of the 1980s. Schism is indeed one of the gravest evils which can affect the Church; it is a terrible thing, dividing parts of the Church against one another and often producing permanent and irrevocable antagonisms. But the interior poison of false doctrines is in the long run even more lethal. Roman Catholicism has always regarded schism as less catastrophic than heresy, and has usually been ready to accept the former as the price of avoiding the latter.

Anglicanism, by contrast, has historically shown itself instinctively averse to schism, to the point of being willing to tolerate all manner of heresies for the sake of apparent unity. The ultimate results of that policy are now apparent — not only catastrophic loss of membership but a complete inability even to begin enunciating what the Church believes and teaches lest any such statement alienate substantial groups of members. Anglicanism has simply sacrificed its spiritual vitality, as well as its intellectual vigor, for the sake of institutional unity. It is the home of the quintessential “communal Catholic”— loyal to the institution, at least up to a point, but very uncertain as to what the institution represents.

Conservative Catholics sometimes claim that in effect there is schism in the United States, two churches which are practically independent of one another. This is, however, misleading in a dangerous way, because it actually underestimates the seriousness of the situation.

Aside from a few small and insignificant groups, like the Lefebvrists and the followers of “Bishop” George Stallings, there is no schism in the United States, in the sense of violations of the Church’s formal structure. All bishops, no matter how liberal, are still appointed by the Holy See, and there is no known case of a bishops refusing to resign when ordered to do so, or publicly appealing to his people to sever their obedience to Rome.

Instead there are two (or more) churches in the United States in the sense that there are differences of belief, differences which began over practical questions like birth control and now extend to Christology, ecclesiology, and the doctrine of God. The “American Church” suffers from heresy, not schism.

If schism must come, it should come sooner rather than later, because delays increase the number of Catholics ultimately willing to follow schismatic leadership. Twenty years ago, had there been a schism over Humanae Vitae, only a small number of people would have participated. But among the revolutionary developments in American Catholicism in the meantime has been the extent to which ordinary Catholics have been taught to view the pope as a kind of usurper who illegitimately “meddles” in American affairs.

Ordinary people are by definition followers rather than leaders. They once remained orthodox as many of their leaders embraced dissent, and they are now likely to remain mired in an inchoate dissent even if the leaders begin a return to orthodoxy. A genuine counter-reformation will be, as it was in the sixteenth century, in part a missionary work.

Some bishops perhaps think their own authority is increased when they minimize the authority of the Holy See within their dioceses. This, however, is very short-sighted. The most determined liberals in the Church do not seek merely a modified papal authority, nor even episcopal autonomy. Instead, as in secular society, they seek to promote the dominance of those who are thought to hold the most enlightened views. The liberal church of the future would not be a democracy but a super-bureaucracy in which all policy would be dictated by certified professionals in various fields. In this future church the local bishop, if he survived at all, would be at best a figurehead.

The greatest tragedy of the present situation is that so much effort is expended, and so much destruction tolerated, in order to placate groups which are dying — a quarter-century from now, most of the religious orders now existing will have almost ceased to exist, barring some almost miraculous recovery. The Church itself will survive whatever hell sends against it. But in the meantime numerous souls are placed in peril by the thrashing death agonies of once-vibrant communities dedicated to a great and terminal “non serviam.”


  • James Hitchcock

    James Hitchcock is Professor of History at St. Louis University. He is the author of many books including The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life (Princeton) and, most recently, The History of the Catholic Church: From the Apostolic Age to the Third Millennium (Ignatius, 2012).

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