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S. M. Hutchens on Disappointing Catholic Revisionists
I have now lived through five papal elections, those of John XXIII (which I remember as a young boy) through Benedict XVI. In each of them we heard from a “progressive” element in the Catholic Church that was very interested in a pope who would bring it up to date. From early days I found this confusing.
Just what was it about the Catholic Church that could be “brought up to date,” at least that would have enough significance to justify the fuss certain Catholics were making about its old-fashionedness? (My Catholic playmates would have suggested the retirement of Sister Ursula and her yardstick as a useful update, but nobody asked them.)
Might the papal tiara be replaced by a ceremonial homburg, those red slippers with Earth Shoes? The Ave Maria performed in rock-and-roll mode? How could guitar Masses or even the sprouting of all those ugly church buildings change what was essentially Catholic? I had been brought up to understand that the differences between us and the Catholics were doctrinal. What, really, could a pope do to update the doctrine of his church? Could he make Leviathan believe anything different than it did? Any change by way of making the Catholic Church more “relevant,” as the liberalizing Protestants were so intent to effect among us, must be a change in its very constitution.
Change doctrine, and it wouldn’t be the Catholic Church anymore, at least as we conservative Protestants understood it. Anything less would be merely a stylistic adjustment, and surely not worth all the agitation we were hearing from Catholic progressives. Just what did they want of each new pope, anyway? An ex cathedra pronouncement that “mistakes have been made”? Would the pope who made it be Catholic?
The progressives clearly didn’t find Vatican II (much less Pope Paul VI) as helpful as they had hoped, but seized upon its “spirit” (fairly well disembodied from its letter, I later discovered) to question traditional church teachings—not to deny them outright, but to establish themselves in a persistent interrogatory state that escaped obedience while not directly renouncing it.
I experienced this first-hand while taking classes at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. There was constant questioning of the “opinions” of the pope, then John Paul II, and outright contempt for his odious henchman Cardinal Ratzinger. When the title “Holy Father” was used, one could expect the slight smile and ironic inflection that made it mean “that old fool in Rome.” The Catholics seemed to expect this, but comparing notes with the other Protestants, I found that they were, with me, deeply disturbed. Why on earth, we kept asking ourselves, were these people Catholics?
That, indeed, was the question. At every papal election the ante seemed to up, and the progressives sounded more like radicals who wanted to make the Catholic Church not only different than it had been, but very much like what we knew as liberal Protestantism, and therefore not only not-Catholic, but not-Christian. These progressive Catholics were singing a tune we had heard before.
They were not asking for changes in manner, but were after much more. The litany by now has become familiar: birth control, married priests, and priestesses at least, and from some, more openness to homosexuality and euthanasia. They wished for the Catholic Church to adopt these things and remain not only Catholic, but “the Church.”
There is, in my view, a major miscalculation in all of this. These people seem to think that in their media-supported campaign to change the Catholic Church they are dealing only with the Catholic Church—that their quarrels with Catholic traditionalism are essentially an internal matter to be settled among Catholic factions, success being marked by the election of progressive popes who will work with the enlightened to make the church over in their own image. Once this is done, it will be much more open, more reasonable, and more acceptable to the people who count, to the kind of people who believe that the church must change with the times to relate to people who are formed by the times.
This, however, will not happen. The changes Catholic revisionists are proposing for their own church are not simply of the sort that offend conservative Catholics, but all Christians. At the base of the progressive mind as it is revealing itself in the Catholic Church is a will to make it not a different kind of Catholic Church, but no church at all. This is recognized by orthodox Christians outside the Roman communion, who have dealt with this mind, and emphatically rejected it, in their own.
In the event that Rome elects a weak or a progressive pope, those traditionalist Catholics who are marginalized and oppressed in the resulting regime will be sustained and supported by other Christians who are just as strongly opposed to modernist designs on the Church, and who, because of that, view conservative popes as allies in the war against the mind of Antichrist. Those who are disappointed by the latest papal election would be advised to take note of the cheering one hears among conservative Protestants and Orthodox, for whom Benedict XVI stands not for reactionary Catholicism, but is already known and respected as a firm and trusty defender of the Christian faith.
These non-Roman Christians have, of course, their traditional disagreements with Rome, but in the face of the common opposition they understand that an educated and catholic sense of proportion requires they not only may, but—if they have come to the conclusion that traditional Catholics are to be honored with the name of Christian—must subordinate these perennial concerns to resistance on the common front. They must not allow their disagreements to weaken their support for each other.
Within the context of a progressive papacy, traditional Roman Catholicism—Catholicism not only in the form that is obnoxious to Catholic revisionists, but disagreeable in some respects to its Protestant and Orthodox allies as well—is not only likely to survive, but to survive in strength. This is because, whatever its faults, much of Orthodoxy and conservative Protestantism view it as Christian while regarding the revisionist program, whatever attractions it may hold for non-Roman believers (relaxation of the pastoral discipline on the marriage of priests, for example), as emphatically not. Despite their disagreements, they will support traditionalist Roman Catholics against the parasites at their own table.
The war conducted by revisionist Catholics, they understand full well, is not simply against reactionary old men in the Vatican, but Baptists in Virginia, Anglicans in Nigeria, Pentecostals in Brazil, and against the heart of Orthodox doctrinal and moral teaching. It is not only against the beliefs of old-fashioned Catholics, but has been unmistakably revealed in the last generation, as revisionism marches steadily from the controversial to the abominable, to be against all Christians, everywhere, and at all times.
A revisionist victory in a papal election would not be a small thing, but neither would it be as large as many of the liberal Catholics and their friends in the secular media seem to think it would. The Church—and by this I mean the Church as C. S. Lewis’s spirits could see it, spread down through the ages, as terrible as an army with banners—will survive it, and become stronger and more unified with the disciplines it imposes.
S. M. Hutchens works as a reference librarian in Kenosha, Wisconsin. He holds a doctorate in theology. He is a senior editor of Touchstone.