The Rebellious Heart: The Unraveling of the Church Since Vatican II (Part II)

Dissent is often treated as though it were an occasional and even marginal thing—here and there one or another teaching of the Church arouses misgivings in a few thoughtful people, who feel compelled to express them. Such an account overlooks the way in which dissent has become pervasive in the Church, both in the sense that it is widely practiced by people in all areas of Church life and in that there is now literally no Catholic doctrine which is not contested.

Dissenters bristle at the charge that they do not love the Church. Yet it is a strange kind of love which insists, with increasing vehemence, that practically everything which that church teaches and practices is somehow erroneous, some of it perniciously so. In fact, the root of dissent is the profound disillusionment brought about by the fact of change itself. Since so many things which Church authority taught in the past are now “inoperative,” so the reasoning runs, it is safer to assume that on almost every question the truth is likely to be close to the opposite of what is officially held. Few religious radicals have liberated themselves from the Church psychologically. They continue to use it as a negative point of reference, compulsively negating virtually everything which it has stood for over many centuries.

It is ironic that most religious radicals, professing to be future-oriented, are obsessed with the past. Much of religious feminism, for example, dwells compulsively on past slights, past injustices, past oppressions. Active religious, and many who have abandoned their calling, seem to spend an inordinate amount of time recalling bitter episodes even out of the distant past—a rigid novice-master, an unfeeling superior, an arbitrary bishop. To the extent that they have a program for the future, it claims authority in terms of the continued condemnation of that past.

What is most frightening about the phenomenon of religious radicalism is the inability of so many of its adherents to consider the issues with even a semblance of rationality. To read the letters in the National Catholic Reporter, for example, is to endure, week after week, a cacophonous chorus of outrage, envy, vindictiveness, and even hatred directed at the Church of the ages, and at anyone alive today, especially those in authority, who dares to affirm the truth of that Church.

A sociologist, surveying the Catholic scene in 1960, might have predicted that, if the Church were on the verge of disintegrating, the destruction would begin at the edges, as concentric circles of marginal or purely customary Catholics fell away. Instead, the process of destruction began close to the center, with priests and religious. Furthermore, it began, often enough, with priests and religious who were exceptionally devout and dedicated, who had often been considered exemplary. So too the bitterest lay people are often those who could be called professional laymen, either because they are actually employed by the Church in sensitive positions like teachers or because they have personal histories of deep involvement with Catholic activity of all kinds. To some extent the most intrepidly orthodox are those who were not considered activists before the era of turmoil, because they merely took their faith for granted.

Some of the most deeply discontented lay people are those who also have a long history of spiritual searching. At one time in their lives they may have aspired to the religious life. They were daily communicants, regular retreatants, avid readers of religious literature, reliable volunteers for every kind of Church activity. Many of them have tried the Cursillo movement, the charismatic movement, and other kinds of “renewal” movements too numerous even to catalogue. Endlessly, and frustratedly, they pursue the lost religious certitude of their youth.

Undergirding all this is a sense of guilt, a reality which can also not even be admitted, much less discussed. Religious radicals proclaim that their “liberation” from past, authority is fully justified, is in fact entered upon in obedience to God’s will. A barrage of justifications—theological, psychological, political—is offered for acts of defiance against things the Church has declared to be from God. Yet even a purely secular psychology has to recognize that no one throws off the moral beliefs of many years, imbibed from early childhood and endorsed with the full authority of the family as well as of the Church, without trauma.

In part, then, the compulsive repudiation of the past, the often dehumanizing repudiation of hierarchical authority, is necessary in order to keep reassuring oneself that there is indeed no guilt over repeated acts of infidelity. The blame which the transgressor feels directed at himself is compulsively turned back on the authorities, those who serve as living reminders of that infidelity. On a personal level, most Catholic radicals find it easier to tolerate even avowed atheists and enemies of Christianity than the “conservatives” in their own Church, precisely because the latter are a standing reminder of what the radical is supposed to be. (This does not necessarily imply the moral superiority of the orthodox, merely that they are symbols of authentic doctrine.)

What Max Scheler called ressentiment—a half-concealed resentment towards anything which claims to be in some sense superior to the self—is probably endemic to all genuine religion, which is why only genuine religions (as distinct from attenuated modern liberal versions of religion) have the capacity to spawn bitter apostates. (There are no embittered ex-Unitarians.) The great Christian spiritual teachers, Catholic and Protestant, ceaselessly warn against rebelliousness of heart, which is present in even the most devout and which can subvert even acts of apparently heroic virtue. (For further discussion of this, see my “The Roots of Religious Rebellion,” Center Journal, Summer, 1985.)

Traditional Catholicism had many strategies for coping with this rebelliousness, which is often scarcely even recognized at the conscious level, just as it had many strategies for supporting difficult commitments, such as the commitment to celibacy. After the Council, however, Catholicism seemed to move into what Philip Rieff calls the “remissive mode,” its chief message being apparently that everything once forbidden was now permitted. Institutionalized barriers to sin, such as rules about the behavior of vowed celibates or formal acts of humility, were dispensed with as no longer necessary.

Already affected by confusion as to precisely what the Council intended, many Catholics found that the lowering of barriers, allegedly made possible because Catholics were now possessed of a “new maturity,” in fact encouraged precisely the kind of behavior which the barriers had been intended to prevent. Violations of chastity have been the most obvious and dramatic. But more important are the lowering of barriers against pride. Whereas pre-conciliar Catholic asceticism had been based on self-discipline and self-denial, the post-conciliar variety sometimes offers a literal reversal—now self-assertion and self-satisfaction are proposed as the highest goods, self-denial as unhealthy and damaging. The kind of ressentiment which had been effectively suppressed is now let loose, and devout people are not only permitted but actively encouraged to vent all the frustrations they have ever harbored against religious authority.

At first such resentment was channeled mainly towards immediate authorities, such as religious superiors. Soon, however, it ascended to the Pope and finally to God Himself. The frontier of revolt at present is against God the Father. In the end even the “feminization” of God will not satisfy, since it is authority itself which is resented. The feminization of God is designed to show that God is nothing more than the creation of the human imagination and hence has no authority. Only when this has been accomplished will the rebels at last find rest, through sheer exhaustion.

Before the Council the most devout were usually those who had most carefully controlled their natural human tendencies to rebellion. But when, in the name of religion itself, they were suddenly told that such rebellion was healthy, they pursued it with literal vengeance, and made it finally the driving force of the new religiosity. Catholics whose devotional life was proportionately often less intense under the old dispensation are less inclined to be rebellious and bitter under the new.

Common forms of Catholic behavior over the past two decades manifest the classic signs of deep psychic trauma, leading to irrationalities whose ultimate function is evasion of the trauma itself. The most dramatic of those irrationalities is precisely that obsessively angry rebellion against the certitudes which are regarded as having failed, along with an equally obsessive embrace of the very disorders which are the result of the original trauma (change for its own sake). But there are other, subtler manifestations.

The very intellectual confusion of the immediate post-conciliar years was the first sign of this. Reasonably intelligent people, reasonably well instructed in their faith (many of them, once again, priests or religious), suddenly seemed to find it impossible to pay close and scrupulous attention to the actual texts of the Council, or to be able to relate those texts to the whole Catholic tradition. Torn by emotions of anxiety and yearning, they became intellectually frozen, buffeted by whatever winds of change were blowing hardest at the moment. “Renewal” became in practice mostly a matter of coping with chaotic feelings, all intellectual content evacuated.

By now perhaps a majority of American Catholics have settled into a seemingly permanent stance of studied inattention to the great doctrinal questions which lie near the heart of the faith. As to who Jesus Christ is, whether he rose from the dead, whether he offers the path to salvation, whether heaven and hell exist—on these and many other questions they have no firm opinion and act as though the questions themselves were unimportant.

The foundation of the Church’s present crisis is doctrinal, in that skewed understandings of doctrine make it impossible to correct errors of practice. (Thus if someone is told that his sex life is sinful, he may retort with some garbled notion of the “sensus fidelium” which allegedly justifies what he is doing.) Most Catholics today do not have a positive attraction to heresy, nor are they necessarily affected by the spirit of rebellion. But for many the teachings of the faith, even its core teachings, have been rendered so problematical that they have drawn a veil over them.

Thus the “good” priest is now one who rarely alludes to matters of doctrine or morals in any very specific way, who is likely to be at least mildly liberal in his social views (this social liberalism having emerged as the leading candidate to form the basis for a new orthodoxy), who possesses certain kinds of therapeutic skills, and who is regarded by his parishioners as warm, compassionate, and “open.” Acting charitably towards “conservative” Catholics, that is, those who insist on raising inconvenient doctrinal questions, tests his patience more than any other single thing.

He has come to see the Church as merely a community of vaguely like-minded, potentially loving individuals for whom he acts as a kind of “facilitator.” He leaves his community largely free to imagine God in whatever way suits them, and to accept the doctrines and practices of the Church as they find them appealing. He has not exactly lost faith in the Church’s divine claims so much as he has come to push those claims so far to the back of his mind that it requires a conscious and rather painful effort to summon them forth.

Of bishops and other religious superiors it has become common to hear it said, “Personally he’s orthodox, but…?’ If bishops are supposed to be “overseers,” as are superiors of religious communities, oversight in matters of doctrine has almost come to be defined out of existence. Precisely because the crisis of doctrine is the most fundamental, the most pervasive, and the most blatant, it is blandly ignored by many of those who ought to take chief responsibility for its resolution. Thus a bishop or religious superior, told that one or other of those under his authority is openly teaching heresy, may ignore the complaint entirely. Alternatively, he may offer merely an a priori and blanket defense of the alleged culprit. (“He’s a good priest, very dedicated.”) Or he may suggest that the man’s words were “taken out of context.” The strongest admission that there is indeed a problem is likely to be “I don’t agree with everything he says, but….” Most of the time, unless there is a direct complaint (usually from lay people), the superior never manages to notice that there are any doctrinal problems at all.

Although some of this may be attributable to a certain managerial approach to governing the Church, in which problems can be dealt with only in “personnel” terms, never on the level of ideas, much of it also seems to reveal a mentality which would simply find it too traumatic to consider that there are deliberate attempts to undermine the faith on the part of people who are under the superior’s authority. He cannot bring himself to face the enormity of the disasters which have befallen his particular part of the vineyard. Thus long ago he managed to anesthetize himself against those disasters and to learn to live as though, whatever the problems facing the Church, belief itself is not one of them.

To a remarkable degree, this portrait of contemporary American Catholicism is simply the reverse of what it was thirty years ago. Historically, Catholicism has always laid great stress on doctrinal orthodoxy. Now that concept is scarcely even paid lip service. Catholic morality always laid great emphasis on chastity, yet even systematic attacks on chastity are treated as insignificant. American Catholics, for a variety of reasons, once tended to be militantly anti-Communist. Now some of their spiritual leaders are at best ambivalent about Marxist revolution, and principled opposition to Communism is treated as a form of hysteria.

Those (once again including some bishops) who have apparently learned to live comfortably with these new realities sometimes say that they revere the traditions of the Church and consider themselves in fact rather “conservative” in matters of religion. For the most part they are probably sincere. They have simply undergone a convoluted psychological process and now have amnesia about their actual past. They have contrived not to notice things in their present world which, if faced squarely, would prove unbearably traumatic. Concepts like “psychic numbing,” “approach avoidance,” and “cognitive dissonance” seem to explain much of the mentality of contemporary Catholics.

Despite their supposed “coming of age” in American society, Catholics since the Council have in fact sunk back into social and political impotence and passivity, having unlearned the lessons, so painfully and thoroughly learned over so many years of struggle of how to bring their moral values into practice in the midst of a religiously divided society. Another of the many ironies which presently attends the Church in America is the fact that Catholics were more dedicated and effective in the public sphere before their alleged recent emancipation.

Much of the Catholic militancy of the preconciliar period was itself probably traceable to a collective sense of inferiority and the consequent need to defend positions to which much of the larger society was unsympathetic. But the passivity of the post-conciliar period is traceable to the same root—many Catholics at present are uncertain as to what in fact is authentic Catholic doctrine, and, even more uncertain as to whether they have a right to “impose” their values on other people. The Church of their recent experience has been so severely battered, in so many ways, that they seem to feel that a quiet nursing of wounds is now appropriate. They are embarrassed by public shows of Catholic militancy because it seems as though the militancy of the past was subsequently de-authorized by Church leaders themselves. The confused meaning of ecumenism, at the popular level, is often that the Catholic Church should mainly seek to learn from others, not endeavor to teach them, and that any well-defined “Catholic” position will probably turn out in the end to be in error.

Joined to this is the seemingly permanent sense of resentment of authority already alluded to. The very word “abortion” arouses negative feelings against the Church even in people who claim to be morally opposed to the practice, because the existence of the pro-life movement is a reminder of the Church’s moral authority, a claim which they find instinctively repellent. For many Catholics, including theologians, religious, priests, and politicians, the abortion issue is important chiefly because it provides them with an opportunity to demonstrate their “emancipation” from Church authority.

The Catholic left also has roots in this traditional sense of inferiority. In the 1950s liberal Catholics were deeply embarrassed at what looked like the solidly reactionary character of so much Catholic politics, e.g., Senator Joseph McCarthy. The extent of this reaction was always exaggerated, in that most Catholics (including, probably, most of the clergy) remained New Deal Democrats. However, one of the demands made on Catholics by a hostile secular society was that it prove itself by endlessly repudiating, and apologizing for, its alleged political backwardness. Often half-consciously, American Catholic liberals since the time of John F. Kennedy have been busy offering tokens of their religious emancipation to a society whose arbiters of opinion continually require them.

Nothing more blatantly reveals the inferior status to which the Church has been relegated than the reaction of “enlightened” opinion to the American bishops’ stands on, respectively, war and abortion. When the bishops speak on the former subject, or on the economy or foreign policy, they are praised for their “courage” and their “relevance,” praise often coupled with the smug observation that at last the bishops are getting over their narrow religious preoccupations. When they speak on abortion, however, they are vehemently denounced, by many of the same people, for having “interfered” in the secular political process.

More is involved here than mere partisanship, however. What those contradictory reactions indicate is that Catholic political activity is on sufferance, its terms set by others. Those others decree in effect that Catholics are allowed to give their support to movements (peace, social justice, the environment) whose terms have already been defined by secularists but are not permitted to have an agenda of their own. Such a decree could not now be enforceable without the active, indeed eager, cooperation of many Catholics, including many who claim to be motivated by a pure religious zeal for justice. Looked at from the inside, the same phenomenon once again shows that many Catholics feel secure in their public stance only if it enjoys broad non-Catholic support, and feel deeply insecure when it does not.

It was liberal Protestants who in the 1960s coined the slogan “The world sets the agenda for the Church,” and it was liberal Protestants who began the modern Christian habit of always looking over one’s shoulder at Christianity’s “cultured despisers.” Liberal Protestantism, perhaps even more than Catholicism, can be seen as living in a state of permanent inferiority with respect to the surrounding secular world, its reaction to that inferiority being largely accommodation, the precise opposite of the Catholic response before the Council. Many post-conciliar Catholics now seek to make up for lost time, managing to assimilate the world’s agenda much more speedily than even liberal Protestantism has been able to do. (Liberal Protestants often express wonder and admiration of radical nuns, who have moved so far and so fast in such a brief time.)

Apart from its contents, the modernist religious agenda, both in its theology and its politics, is dubious precisely because it so obviously emanates from secular sources rather than welling up from within the Church. On virtually every contested issue of Catholic life—the place of women, sexual morality, social justice, religious education—modernists obviously feel deeply uncomfortable with their own traditions and often bestow what amounts to a status of infallibility on certain secular authorities. They wait expectantly for the next cause, the next signal as to where they ought to expend their energies.

One of liberal Protestantism’s major responses to its cultured despisers have been to “demythologize” its own teachings, and even its own sources, an enterprise in which many Catholics have belatedly joined. Although the historical-critical method, applied to Church traditions as well as to Scripture, can be seen as a cause of the post-conciliar crisis, it is just as much a symptom. For, although there were scholars before the Council eager to apply the method and constrained from doing so only by fear of ecclesiastical authority, there was no compelling reason why their findings should have gained such wide acceptance so quickly. (At one time the majority of Catholics were reluctant to think even that the details of the Nativity story might be unhistorical. Now many accept without demurrer the thesis that Jesus did not really rise from the dead.)

At one time the historical-critical method perhaps did represent a new scholarly honesty, a willingness to look at sacred sources with some dispassion, to ask awkward questions and not to prejudge the answers. Some of its earlier practitioners might even be considered heroic souls who forced themselves to unpalatable conclusions out of a sense of honesty. For the most part, however, the method has been one of the main tools by which religious modernists have “liberated” themselves from the authority of their respective traditions. Their spirit has not been dispassionate but eager. They have not found themselves forced against their inclinations to reach unpalatable conclusions but have reached precisely those conclusions which serve to validate current modernist concerns. (Thus Catholic exegetes “demythologize” papal claims but not the claims of liberation theology.)

The historical-critical method, applied to papal and conciliar decrees and classical dogmatic statements as well as to Scripture, has long been a part of what Lionel Trilling called the “culture of suspicion” which is close to the heart of modernity not only a principled willingness but an almost reflexive habit of subjecting every certitude to hostile questions.

Part of liberal Christians’ sense of inferiority towards the secular world has been the fact that Christianity has not shared in that culture of suspicion, and Christians have been considered literally credulous. In past, therefore, post-conciliar Catholics have rushed to embrace that culture as part of the terms of their emancipation (as well as a justification of that emancipation). But it also appeals to them because it seems to follow from the trauma of change itself—a fairly widespread modernist attitude looks upon the traditions of the Church as almost a giant conspiracy foisted upon gullible people. They are prepared at least to listen respectfully to every negation of past religious certitude, from the efficacy of novenas to the divinity of Christ.

At least in America, many post-conciliar Catholics now manifest an artificial response to their own past. Instead of drawing on their own experiences of that past (experiences which after all must be assumed to have been largely positive and nurturing in order for faith to have flourished at all), they have adopted a view of that past which is almost wholly negative, in which traditional Catholicism is portrayed as an almost unrelieved nightmare. It is a view purveyed in countless books, films, television programs, and plays, such as Christopher Durang’s Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All, a diatribe which has actually been praised by some priests.

In its extreme form this version of the Catholic past is genuine self-hatred, in which the alienated Catholic joins in the laceration of his faith perpetrated by its admitted enemies. In part, however, it is not real self-hatred so much as it is a bid for approval—the “liberated” Catholic hopes to escape the stigma which the secular world places on orthodox believers. What is most significant about this pattern is that modernist Catholics, in order to follow it, have had to negate and falsify their own past, including, often enough, their own parents and teachers.

Questions of religious truth aside, what is most frightening about the phenomenon of religious modernism is the way in which its largely negative energies are being harnessed for what is perhaps the last, most openly nihilistic, phase of modern culture. Although in its earlier incarnations, through the Enlightenment, the modern agenda was consciously hopeful, since the time of the French Revolution part of that agenda is simply the urge to destroy and annihilate.

In subtle and delusive ways, intense religious feeling is usable for nihilistic purposes, and it requires keen discernment to distinguish holy prophecy from mere negation. With respect to the Church itself, there is no doubt that a kind of nihilism is indeed at work—the modernist Catholic soul will not rest until it has finally destroyed every last vestige of doctrinal certitude, moral authority, and disciplinary order. The modern Catholic’s very motivation for remaining in the Church is negative; meaning is found in repeated acts of aggression against everything which claims to be authoritative.

Feelings both raw and refined have for two decades dominated the life of American Catholicism, crying out for some resolution on their own level before a genuine intellectual renewal is possible. Yet for the most part the discovery of feelings by traditional Catholics has served to exacerbate the problem, by granting to those feelings a legitimacy and even authority which they were not granted in traditional spirituality.

For the most part too, Catholic ventures into the realm of therapy have worsened the problem, since, predictably, Catholic therapists have tended to ape their secular counterparts rather than developing their own genuinely Christian and Catholic perspective. (There are some signs that this may be changing, but its affect will take a long time.) Perhaps never in the history of the Church has there been such crying need for the grace of massive and profound conversions of heart.


  • 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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