Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, May 23, 2024

The Anarchic Character of Modern Catholicism

The confluence of several different news stories related to American Catholicism struck me as underlining how the Church has changed since Vatican II. 

One was the commencement address that launched a thousand hot takes, given by Kansas City Chiefs kicker Harrison Butker at Benedictine College. The wider world went into a tizzy because the football player, who is also a traditionalist Catholic, said that many of the women in attendance might find themselves treasuring their vocations as wives and mothers more than their careers. But in Catholic circles, the speech drew anger from some because it mentioned in passing various opinions about the Church: that NFP was "Catholic birth control" and should probably not be used, that people should not be too close with their parish priests, that the bishops were  misleading their flocks, particularly about Covid, etc.

Another was the AP feature story about Catholicism in America (which despite coming out ten days before the commencement happened to pick on Benedictine College, among other places, as an example of American Catholicism taking "a step back in time".)

And a third was a twitter post from Amy Welborn, which talked about how for a time in the '70s and '80s, basic devotions such as the Rosary and Eucharistic adoration were so much seen as part of the past which should be abandoned after the Council, that Bishop Barron talked about how he took up Eucharistic adoration from the seminarians he taught at Mundelein, because it simply hadn't been a part of his own formation.

Throw all these together, and what strikes me is the extent to which Catholicism in the post Vatican II age, at least in the US, has become increasingly anarchic even as it has become more orthodox and conservative.

In the era directly after the Council, there was a sort of implosion. An institution which has long been famous for certainly suddenly gave the impression that all was up for grabs. In Frank Sheed's 1974 book The Church and I he writes: 

"The Church itself has been turned from a teacher into a question mark. These last dozen years there seems to be no assertion or denial that Catholics in good standing do not hold themselves free to make: so that one is left wondering what is the point or even the meaning of membership of the Church." (p305)

And later, on the very last page, this bleak uncertainty:

"What lies ahead of the Church? This book is about the Church as I have experienced it and I have not experienced the future.

"Glance at today's questions. Will celibacy become options for priests? A priest friend of mine has not desire to be married but is convinced that marriage is his priestly duty, indeed that in future only married men will be ordained. Will that happen? Will there be women priests, they too married? Will there be part-time priests, all working at another profession? Will there be less centralization and on what lines? Will the laity be given more to do? Will there be a return to unity between us and the Orthodox and what changes will that make necessary? How far will Ecumenism take us with Protestants?

"All these may roughly be called structural questions. The Church will re-shape itself, more or less ideally.  It always has. I do not know what the new shape will be. I don't even know what I want it to be." (p384)

So many things which had seemed age-long had changed, that even one of the great Catholic apologists of the 20th century, a man who had got his start with the Catholic Evidence Guild, standing on free speech spots and answering questions about the faith from all comers, did not feel he could say anymore what was changeable and what was not.

In the Catholic parish life of the 1980s and early 1990s, as I was growing up, it wasn't just that you needed to educate yourself about the faith if you wanted to have any understanding of it.  It was that priests, catechists, and diocesan publications were often providing active disinformation.

But sorting correct information from false information was hard because there was controversy about what was even a good source of faithful Catholic teaching. Any source written before the Council could be waved away with "oh, but the Council changed all that" and among recent books or articles, there was not a clear measuring stick of orthodoxy.  Should you believe Fr. John Harden's catechism or Fr. Richard McBrien's books and articles?

That measuring stick became available with the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church in 1994.

Side note: I was fascinated, when looking up its dates, to see that John Paul II had ordered the development of a universal catechism as a result of the synod of bishops he called in 1985 to assess the results of Vatican II twenty years after the closing of the council. Maybe it's because I remember 1985, but somehow the years between 1965 and 1985 seem like a lot more time than the years between 2004 and 2024.

Even so, for quite some time it tended to be the case in many parts of the country that if you were a well educated and faithful Catholic, it was because you'd researched everything from doctrine to Church music and art yourself.

The result is that for the post-Vatican II generations of orthodox Catholics, many have learned to trust their own reading over what they received from the local Church institutions. This has allowed a number of good and vibrant ministries to spring up with the purpose of providing good Catholic information.  But it has also allowed a whole spectrum of hucksters and kooks to take root as well.

The same instinct to do your own research and find sources of information on the faith when your local parish is not providing good formation can, if one lacks the ability to choose well between good sources and bad, lead one far down some very strange rabbit holes.

And this is the tough and weird thing about modern Catholicism.  Of course progressive Catholicism is individualistic, with people wanting to believe that the Church will change to adopt their views on whatever issues.

But because of the three decades of institutional freefall after the Council, orthodox Catholicism too is anarchic in its own way: used to assuming that the hierarchy and institutions of the Church may be wrong, and that you need to instead do your own research to arrive at the truth.  Because, in the chaos after the Council, that was true.  And yet, at some level, the Church which we who are attached to what the Church has historically been yearn for is a Church which in its institutions both teaches the truth and punishes error. We want that, and yet at the same time we have been trained to ignore those very same institutions in order to protect the truth -- from them.  How do we then hand the control back to them, when we're used to the idea that the self-trained laymen is often going to be more faithful than the person who went through the Diocesan-approved masters in theology?

And yet, as the priests and bishops of our own generation move into positions of authority in the Church, and hear the appeals of the laity for better quality in catechesis and in liturgy, the only way they know to achieve greater quality is through institutional enforcement.

For instance, years ago in our parish in Texas, I was the "NFP guy" for the RCIA program, because no one else wanted to have to talk about the Church's teaching on sexuality.  (The other topic they always called me in to talk about was death, judgement, heaven, and hell. It seems so appropriate that the topics I was asked to cover were death and sex.) And then, under a new bishop, the word came down: no one was to give a talk about NFP, sexual ethics, or the theology of the body unless they had gone through the multi-semester diocesan catechetical training.  If you didn't have someone with that certificate, you had to show an anodyne approved video instead.

In one sense, the diocese was doing exactly what orthodox laity kept asking: trying to enforce quality in catechesis.  But what the orthodox laity wanted was not to shut them down in favor the retirees who'd had the time to take diocesan classes, they wanted the bishop to somehow just make unorthodox teaching in parishes not happen.  And unfortunately, bishops don't actually have a good way to do that. What they do have a good way to do is require credentials.

I do not know how all this changes, and ecosystem, once thrown into chaos, heals only through stages. But in the meantime, even (or perhaps especially) among those most attached to the Church as it once was, there is an anarchistic streak which evolved as a means of self preservation, and which now is a deep part of the character.


Bellomy said...

The only surprising part of the speech for me were his comments on birth control. He's not really wrong, but it has to be nuanced properly; artificial birth control is inherently immoral in a way that natural family planning is not, but natural family planning can still be immoral if used, as I have often heard it put, with a "contraceptive mentality".

The logic flows in the same was as Aquinas would argue that lying is inherently immoral but deception is not.

Anonymous said...

I like this description of the anarchy we live in. I'm old enough to remember when it began. But I'm also clear that credentials are a lazy way for the bishops to solve the problem of good teaching. Why couldn't they put out a test for people to take, to demonstrate their knowledge, instead of making them spend years repeating classes in what they'd already learned? And while we are at it, why couldn't someone have come to watch how you taught, and then give you a certificate?
This is really the heart of the matter. If someone is teaching badly the bishop should listen to that person and then tell them not to do that. But somehow that is never the solution. I complained to a bishop long ago about a priest who said, during the Mass, "Pray brethren that our sacrifice Which is Not this Bread and Wine but our broken hearts, may be acceptable to God.... " The bishop responded that the priest meant to insert the word "only". No. He didn't. Anyway, Sorry about the soapbox. Jane MEYERHOFER

Agnes said...

"Pray brethren that our sacrifice Which is Not this Bread and Wine but our broken hearts, may be acceptable to God.... " The bishop responded that the priest meant to insert the word "only"
The bishop shouldn't assume what the priest meant to say (or even what he meant by it). Nor can the community know what the priest meant or did not mean. We can only determine (and form an opinion on - to avoid the word "judge" that I primarily intended) what he said. And what he actually said was wrong.

Moreover, even if he had said "not only this bread and wine" he would be wrong. The liturgical prayer IS about the bread and wine that will become Christ.