On putting the genie back in the bottle

20 08 2009


The Holy Office presides over the entire church and curbs everyone with its interventions: this supreme, inflexible Gestapo whose decisions cannot be questioned.

-Yves Cardinal Congar

This was written in the personal journal of the wayward theologian before the great awakening and “new Pentecost” known as Vatican II. He also said regarding his superiors “not getting” him: “I am not a man of the tragic, but it is painful to be the victim of stupidity.” A professor in seminary, also a Frenchman, once read me a line from Congar’s memoires about how the Dominican saw it fit to express his displeasure at the Holy Office by relieving himself on the side of its building in Rome. A great start for the “New Evangelization”, I must say.

He was far from being the only one who was in trouble with the law in those days. Hans Urs von Balthasar used to get through his classes in seminary by putting wax in his ears, sitting in the back of the class, and reading St. Augustine instead of listening to the lectures. Dom Beauduin had one of his monasteries suppressed for playing too much ecumenical footsy with some questionable people. Chenu was removed from his school of hip theology, Le Salchoir, and so on. And we need not say much about even our present Pontiff and his youthful, theological indiscretions.

The problem with revolutionaries is that they make notoriously bad governors, as students of Third World history can no doubt tell you. For Papa Roncalli, at one time accused of having questionable affinities to some bad books, waltzed into the Holy Office soon after his election and wrote large on his file, “I am not a heretic”. Indeed, la tradizione sono io. But what is to stop all of those “progressive Catholics”, those who believe that artificial contraception is okay, that women should be elevated to the rank of priest, and so on, from aspiring to do the exact same thing as Congar, and get a new, shiny red hat out of it? Indeed, even the “conservatives” of the Church are children of revolution, sticking their finger in the crack that they themselves pounded into the dyke. If Congar, von Balthasar, Chenu, and Co. didn’t give a hoot about ecclesiastical authority prior to the Council, why should “enlightened” Catholic theologians give a hoot about it now? Revolutionary snowballs are very difficult to stop. As I cited on one of the first on-line essays I ever posted:

In articles about Pope Benedict XVI, much has been made of his experience of student unrest at the University of Tübingen in 1968. Many see that experience as the best explanation of the apparent intellectual about-face that turned the young progressive theologian of the Second Vatican Council into the poster-child of conservative reaction in theology and in church politics. There is something to this, and Joseph Ratzinger was not the only European intellectual to have been deeply affected by the excesses of the fascists of the left at the time. (We all know the definition of a neoconservative: a liberal who’s been mugged.)

Scramble as they may, but these intellectuals, having bought into the revolutionary paradigms of development and progress, will not be able to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. They have let the genie out of the bottle, and I doubt their ability to put it back in.



10 responses

15 02 2012
A Catholic response to Driscoll-phobia « A Christian Thing

[…] sound just like the neo-Thomistic rationalism that Hans Urs von Balthasar hated so much that he put wax in his ears while listening to lectures in his Jesuit […]

22 08 2009
Arturo Vasquez

Please spare us all the “x theological position = y amount of sanctity” talk. I have known the most selfless Catholics in the world, working with the lowest of the low, who only interrupted their work to attend a Call to Action conference. The holiest priest I know, venerated by the poor populace of a suburb of Buenos Aires, is the smartest and most articulate theologian that the Lefebvrists have in South America. These people have taught me that love is not a theory, and it doesn’t necessarily go hand in hand with truth. So that type of browbeating may work with others, but I have been around the block a few times, so it doesn’t work with me.

Of course, your last statement was so chocked full of non sequiturs, broad generalizations, and facile slogans that, again, I have no idea where to begin. You write quite a bit of culture, but don’t really specify what it is. You write of religion being “spiritualistic” and “lacking a common life of faith”. Again, where are you getting this from? I really don’t know if you would recognize real culture if it came up to you and hit you on the head. I was particularly confounded by these sentences:

“Only when we can criticize, when we can get into the depth of a culture, can we understand its worth. And that is what happened with ressourcement theologians as well as Vatican 2. It was not that the Church allowed dissent to definitive teachings. It was that the Church, and she still does, allows criticism.”

I think it is pretty clear that what many of the resourcement theologians and their followers were doing was throwing cultures out the window in the name of their own pet theories. I have shown this in essays such as this one, but you can search the archives of this blog to find many more examples. Over and over again, especially in Latin America, “specialists” in ecclesiastical matters sought to overturn and recreate according to their chic theories, not build upon and criticize in a constructive manner.

You speak of criticizing “Romanism”, as if tradition were a burden, and as if it were possible that we could construct another religious culture out of thin air. Would you have us build another spiritual, liturgical, and devotional language, a sort of Catholic “Esperanto”, freed from the horrible oppression of rules and regulations? (Not that you have ever explained what they are.) A sort of Catholic Age of Aquarius, perhaps? I would contend that our religiosity is flawed because we are flawed. And sometimes, the most we can muster of religious sentiment is to carry a small holy card of St. Peter to protect us from armed robbers assaulting us on the bus. If you want religious culture, that is real religious culture. That and small babies getting cured of the evil eye, drunken processions, scowling nuns whacking kids on the knuckles with rulers, and so on and so forth. You may not like it. You may dream of some Communion and Liberation utopia where we march in holy Catholic lockstep and have a “vibrant, active, and committed faith.” Just count me out of such a utopia. I prefer a Church of many sinners, a few saints, and the rest of us slobs in between. I know I belong in a hospital, not an army.

If you are going to put your money where your mouth is, a little advice from one who has been there. Bishop Williamson once wrote me a rather curt note when I was about to leave college to go to seminary. He told me that I should spend a year doing some really hard labor to get all the unreality of higher learning out of my head. I did not heed his advice at first, but ended up doing that year of toil anyway, and let me tell you brother, it worked wonders. Maybe if you do the same so you can wash the academic slush out your head that would drive you to write such tragedies of prose as this one: “Only when we can criticize, when we can get into the depth of a culture, can we understand its worth.” (????????) Maybe then you will be able to accept humanity for what it is, and not criticize it like some C & L wet blanket.

21 08 2009

Catholicism wasn’t simply a moral code for theologians back then, but also for the people. It was highly spiritualistic and lacked the common life of faith. Furthermore, one cannot tell me that America, for example, is not very moralistic when culture is reduced to simply fighting for marriage and pro-life causes. Granted, they are necessary to fight for, but there is no ground in which a Christian culture can be created.

Also, why was it that Giussani saw the need to go back to teaching high school students? It was not that the kids were not catechized well, but that they lost the original attitude and experience of the Church. And this grew into a fascinated movement.

My remark on Roman culture is well founded. Anyone who knows Italian culture can see how the Church being simply Roman will not help the cause of Christ. There are many defects of the culture.

And here is where I get to the point of so called ‘dissent’. What is needed is a criticism of tradition, that is, getting into the depth of traditions. One can think of Roman culture, Mexican culture, African, etc. Only when we can criticize, when we can get into the depth of a culture, can we understand its worth. And that is what happened with ressourcement theologians as well as Vatican 2. It was not that the Church allowed dissent to definitive teachings. It was that the Church, and she still does, allows criticism. Certainly there are boundaries, but a tradition must be lived and criticized (cf. MacIntyre, Giussani). The problem with the theologians in Rome before Vatican 2 was that their worldviews were very limited. Hell, one can see how they barely read literature.

As for the religion of luv thing, you should know that anything I write is not separated from my life. If you think that leaving everything behind to become a missionary is not true love, that I simply do not know what that is, you’re living in a delusional world. And it is not that I want to be the next Catholic Buber, but simply following the experience of great priests of the Fraternity and the Church. Nothing I have said is different from a priest in Paraguay who picks up dead people on the streets or a priest from Siberia driving 2 or 3 hours just to hear a confession or the archbishop of Moscow for that matter.

21 08 2009

Do you suppose the doctrinal discussion that Bp. Fellay is going to have with the CDF will ultimately result in some new thinking about how to put the genie back into the bottle?

21 08 2009
Arturo Vasquez

Save for the rather ignorant remarks of our good friend Apolonio, no one has come right out and endorsed Congar’s pissing on the Holy Office. And somehow, people are reading past the real point of the post. I am quite used to this by now, since I realize that my arguments are often too multifaceted for one to follow unless they are steeped in more than one discipline, which most readers are not. However, the point of this post was quite clear: at least for some seminal decades in the 20th century, Rome awarded dissent. It thought dissent necessary for the “renewal of the Spirit”. Many of our current orthodoxies and questionable liturgical practices are based on such dissent, where Catholicism became unhinged to what was traditional to become attached to what is purely permissible. I think that was pretty darn straightforward. How people go off on their own tangents on this one is beyond me.

Of course, I do see how indirectly some of the comments try to articulate how whatever came out of these theological enfants terribles was perfectly legitimate because it did not violate the magic principle of going against the “infallible magisterium”. Because we all know that when Christ said that none shall be saved lest he be born again in water and the Spirit, He had His divine fingers crossed, or when that nasty Pope wrote Unam Sanctam, he was way more ignorant than we are, and besides, he had bad indigestion that day, and can’t be faulted for his actions (just like all of those poor souls who enter into marriage without knowing what they’re doing and have to get a Catholic divorce… errr, annulment). Of course, the dissent of the theological revolutionaries who turned the Catholic Church into a veritable banana republic was perfectly justified, but the dissent of those who want to “finish the revolution”, those Trotskyites of the Catholic left, is to be derided and put down by any means necessary, not to mention good ol’ White Counter-Revolutionaries like yours truly who are just trying to call a spade a spade.

As I have said, the great thing about context is that it can justify just about anything. The problem with context is that it can justify just about everything. Just as many would deride the past to glorify the present, so I neglect the disordered present in order to give the past the benefit of the doubt. If y’all want to keep playing some strange game of philosophical Twister to try to square yourselves with the whole idea that black is white if the Pope says so, be my guest. Please pardon me if I bow out of such an exercise. I have my sanity to keep, and a day job to hold down. Not to mention a bunch of folk Catholic prayers to translate.

21 08 2009
Arturo Vasquez

Unfortunately, I have come to expect such puerile antinomian language from you every time you come around my blog. Really, the shtick where you aspire to be the Catholic equivalent of Nietzsche or Martin Buber is getting old. Religion of “luv” over law, freeing yourself from the “tyranny” of “Romanism”… as I posted recently, “mundus vult decipi…”

Catholicism only became a “moral code” for a bunch of tightly wound theologians who thought they were smarter than they really were, and had to recreate the Church in the image and likeness of their own neuroses. In other words, it was the theological perspective of those who lived too much in their head. The problem is, their head also happened to be stuck up their ass. One can thus gather what I think of those who would follow their example.

Word to the wise: don’t quit your day job.

21 08 2009

I’m sorry, but I don’t think a Roman (culture-wise) view of the world is necessarily the best view of the world. Thank God for Vatican 2 and for people getting out of that Roman mentality. The Roman mentality of that time was a limited view. It’s a good thing that young theologians who did not see the persuasiveness of Christianity in manual theology voiced their problems out. Live in Rome for a bit and you’ll know what I’m talking about.

Certainly even Giussani, an Italian, could see that Christianity was not fascinating anymore, in the sense that people reduced Christianity to a bunch of morals.

21 08 2009
Michael Liccione


I agree that Ordinatio Sacerdotalis didn’t bring any arguments “to the party” that Inter Insigniores hadn’t brought already. But by 1993, Wojtyla and Ratzinger had made the judgment, correctly in my opinion, that the issue was too serious to allow time for arguments to persuade the dissidents. The issue had to be settled by a clear exercise of pontifical authority. That’s what they proceeded to do by means of the meta-development I’ve described above.

The idea of a limbus infantium never enjoyed the same doctrinal status as the restriction of ordination to men; that is, it had not been “constantly preserved and applied since the beginning” by the Church. It only became the standard view after Aquinas propounded, in the De Malo, a moderate version of it according to which limbo’s residents enjoy complete and perpetual “natural” happiness. But two points need to be stressed here.

First, Aquinas’ theory is cogent only on the assumption that a state of pure nature is not just hypothetically possible, but possible within the actual, divine economy. Yet such an “extrinsicist” view of the nature-grace relation was never irreformable and lost traction at Vatican II. I believe Wojtyla and Ratzinger have been right to treat the matter as one of opinion while not sharing the extrinsicist opinion; cf CCC §1261. Second, and regarding the “necessity of baptism,” people often forget what even Aquinas admitted: although we are bound by the sacraments, God is not. Thus, those who know of the necessity of baptism are strictly obligated to undergo that sacrament themselves and to present their children, if any, for it; but that hardly rules out the Spirit’s regenerating people who are inculpably ignorant of the full truth of the Gospel.

My previous post at my own blog, written in response to Arturo’s recent series “The Hollow Victory over Jansenism,” touches on some of the wider issues implicated in all this. I also wrote at somewhat greater length on limbo here; scroll down to the pertinent section. Finally, I highly recommend Fr. Al Kimel’s series on limbo.


21 08 2009

Dr. Liccione, I would have to argue (simply from a side-by-side reading of both texts) that Ordinatio Sacerdotalis doesn’t really bring a whole lot of new and exciting stuff to the party that Inter Insigniores didn’t, except for declaring that the discussion’s closed. But that’s another conversation entirely.

For the most part, though, I would tend to agree with what you’re saying here. Rome has painted itself (or at least its credibility) into a corner, and if I may wax a little sophistic here, that could be a part of the Holy Ghost’s plan to guide the Church out of the current crisis in the long run. I’m not being sarcastic about this, either; no matter what I may have said (and continue to say) about the man who currently occupies the See of Peter, I am a full-on believer in the indefectibility of the Church, and sincerely believe that our crisis — merely one of many pebbles in the road that the Church has encountered throughout her long history — will ultimately be swept aside by the weight of that indefectibility.

The only question I would have for you about these norms and the Ordinary Magisterium would be this: what about the Limbus Infantium? Though not officially defined by the Church (my reading of history shows that dogmata are usually defined only when they are seriously challenged: the Trinity, Transubstantiation, and Papal Infallibility serve as some examples), it has been consistently taught by the Church, and it is also difficult if not impossible to reconcile the non-existence of Limbo with the necessity of Baptism for salvation.

I think it’s wise that the 2007 document refrained from making such a pronouncement on Limbo (the Holy Ghost again, maybe?), but based on the principles you described, what do you think should be the fate of the Limbus Infantium?

Again, I’m not trying to be sarcastic here. It’s simply an honest question, and an exercise in applying the principles discussed (which, if we were to invoke Ordinatio Sacerdotalis and Inter Insigniores again, would seem to follow the Vincentian Formula: semper, ubique, et ab omnibus).

20 08 2009
Michael Liccione

This is essentially the same point made by Frank Ramirez’s scholarly friends, relying on work such as John Thiel’s 2001 book The Senses of Tradition. Thus “development,” which is now accepted by the Magisterium, cannot rule out future Magisterial negation of doctrines now held to be definitive tenendam or irreformable, such as those on women’s ordination or contraception. Apparently, the fact that the last few popes have said otherwise about those examples is seen as irrelevant. But what’s the argument for seeing it as irrelevant?

The only argument I’ve seen adumbrated runs roughly as follows. As developed and applied by the present and the previous pope, the criteria for identifying what’s been infallibly taught by the ordinary and universal magisterium (ITOUM) are so general that their application to doctrines which become controversial is unclear if not altogether subjective. Unlike the traditional formula anathema sit used by the extraordinary magisterium to define dogmas, the stated criteria for ITOUM do not afford us a mechanical decision procedure for deciding what’s irreformable and what isn’t in the teaching of the OUM. Hence, all we can do is trust the papal magisterium to apply said criteria well; yet given the dramatic reversals that Vatican II effected, trust on that score is not rationally cogent.

Well, thanks to what Wojtyla and Ratzinger did in the 1990s, a rebuttal of that argument is at hand. It is, of course, a development.

Canon 749§3 states: “No doctrine is to be understood as infallibly defined unless it is clearly established as such.” But what counts as clear establishment, short of dogmatic definition? Here’s what Ratzinger said in his Doctrinal Commentary on Ad Tuendam Fidem (1998) :

The Magisterium of the Church, however, teaches a doctrine to be believed as divinely revealed … or to be held definitively … with an act which is either defining or nondefining. In the case of a defining act, a truth is solemnly defined by an ex cathedra pronouncement by the Roman pontiff or by the action of an ecumenical council. In the case of a nondefining act, a doctrine is taught infallibly by the ordinary and universal Magisterium of the bishops dispersed throughout the world who are in communion with the successor of Peter. Such a doctrine can be confirmed or reaffirmed by the Roman pontiff, even without recourse to a solemn definition, by declaring explicitly that it belongs to the teaching of the ordinary and universal Magisterium, as a truth that is divinely revealed … or as a truth of Catholic doctrine…. Consequently, when there has not been a judgment on a doctrine in the solemn form of a definition, but this doctrine, belonging to the inheritance of the depositum fidei, is taught by the ordinary and universal Magisterium, which necessarily includes the pope, such a doctrine is to be understood as having been set forth infallibly. The declaration of confirmation or reaffirmation by the Roman pontiff in this case is not a new dogmatic definition, but a formal attestation of a truth already possessed and infallibly transmitted by the Church.

Several years before Ratzinger made that statement, his boss and he together had already formally applied the above-described criteria to the question of women’s ordination. In terms of canon 749, this means that JP’s teaching in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis must be understood by Catholics as irreformable—not in the manner of a solemn definition, but as one which was already ITOUM. The teaching on contraception will, I believe, eventually undergo the same treatment.

Of course the standard reply to Ratzinger here is that canon law can always be revised, so that Ad Tuendam Fidem itself, as an instance of such a revision, could be abrogated. But as a Catholic, I find no reason to believe that will happen. The meta-development described above goes in one direction only and has painted Rome into a corner. No future pope can reverse it without discrediting the very idea that the OUM is infallible under certain conditions. But the OUM must be infallible under certain conditions; otherwise there was no infallible teaching between the Apostles and Nicaea I. On any Catholic understanding, the question what those conditions are must, themselves and ultimately, be answered by the Magisterium itself. And they are being answered.

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