The Holy Spirit and Catholic Truth
Now and Forever---One and Unambiguous
(The Remnant, April 15, 2013)
“In many places, [the Council Fathers] had to find compromise formulas, in which, often, the positions of the majority are located immediately next to those of the minority, designed to delimit them. Thus, the conciliar texts themselves have a huge potential for conflict, and open the door to a selective reception in either direction.” (Cardinal Walter Kasper, L’Osservatore Romano, April 12, 2013)
By this point in time, some weeks after the L’Osservatore Romano article cited above, traditionalists have gleefully noted and widely commented upon the irony arising from Cardinal Kasper’s words. Here, in black and white, from out of the mouth of a fervent supporter of Second Vatican Council, has come confirmation of a central thesis of one of its most eloquent critics, the late Michael Davies. Both supporter and critic stand united in the argument that there were “time bombs” in the conciliar texts themselves, allowing for their “selective reception in either direction”. And this, given the nature of that “selective reception”, has meant that Vatican Council could be used either in an orthodox fashion, in line with the Church’s whole Tradition, or in an heterodox and suicidal manner.
Rather than belabor the palpable similarity in these two very different men’s judgments, what I would like to do now is to meditate for a moment on a related question of absolutely crucial importance. This regards a differenceof viewpoint: that distinguishing the judgment of Second Vatican Council offered by conservative as opposed to traditionalist Catholics. For conservatives somehow miss the problems that Cardinal Kasper and Michael Davies both recognized. They claim that the collapse of the Church after Vatican Two was due to misinterpretation of its unambiguous and solid teaching.
What, precisely, set a traditionalist like Michael Davies apart from such conservatives, allowing him to see the truth about the Council, and to “select” a “reception” diametrically opposed to that favored by Cardinal Kasper? Although a full answer to this query might involve a much longer article, it seems to me that Davies’ distinction can be readily summarized under two headings: his profound realization of the significance of “historical context” on the one hand, and his possession of a truly Catholic “sense of humor” on the other.
Readers may understandably be inclined to smile when a professional historian touts the necessity of his own discipline, but I cannot, for the life of me, grasp how anyone can dismiss the central importance of history and historical context for dealing with a religion founded firmly upon two historical events: the Incarnation of the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity as Jesus Christ, the God Man, during the reign of the Emperor Octavian Augustus, and His crucifixion under Pontius Pilate during that of Augustus’ successor, Tiberius. Treat history as a whole flippantly and you might as well laugh away the question of whether these two events happened when and as they did as equally irrelevant to the truth.
Obviously, theology and philosophy are central to explaining the Catholic Faith. Nevertheless, it is only by looking closely and critically at the historical record that believers can really see whether the very words “Catholic Faith” are being used properly, and whether or not the men and women who have those words on their lips are living up to its teachings or merely using them to serve other purposes.
Unfortunately, examination of that historical record quickly reveals just how common it is for councils to leave theological “time bombs” for the future, and just how often individuals, groups, and political forces seek to set these land mines off for their own nefarious advantage. It shows how frequently such particular interests have attempted to foist fraudulent, self-serving, and ultimately suicidal policies upon Catholic Christendom, appealing to the Holy Spirit and to Church authority as justifications for their action. It uncovers just how long and painfully difficult it has repeatedly been for supporters of the orthodox position to crawl their way back to control of the daily affairs of the Mystical Body of Christ. Anyone who doubts this ought to read---to take but two major examples from many---Ludwig von Pastor’s History of the Papacy and Hubert Jedin’s masterful History of the Council of Trent for correction of their mistake.
Coming back to judgments on Second Vatican Council, it simply boggles the mind that a Catholic could imagine that plucking sentences from its mountain of verbiage could constitute definitive proof of its solidity, cohesiveness, and praiseworthy character, thereby freeing it from all blame for the disaster that ensued in the years following its close. If such a procedure were possible, one could just as easily pull phrases from the Deist Maximilian Robespierre to demonstrate his deep concern for God and pious fulfillment of His wishes; from the Stalin Constitution to indicate its fervent commitment to human rights; and from a Nikita Khruschev who loved making reference to the Bible to show his firm rooting in Holy Writ.
It is precisely because such a procedure is not possible that councils in the past were wary of offering the faithful anything other than brief, precise canons distinguishing unambiguous dogmatic truth from heretical error. When they did find themselves obliged to offer some explanation of these brief canons---as, for example, at Trent---Council fathers and the theologians of subsequent centuries made it clear that the explanatory text could not possibly be treated as being on the same dogmatic level as the anathemas marking off black from white. It was important for them to do so because such explanatory texts were very frequently “compromises” allowing for the “selective reception” of which Cardinal Kasper speaks. Those of Trent demanded much future clarification, because they permitted all sorts of differences on crucial issues concerning grace and freedom, the role of bishops and popes, and the relationship of Church and State, causing terrible fights in Catholic ranks from 1563 down to First Vatican Council and beyond.
But conservative Catholics generally dismiss study of the historical context as irrelevant. When they act in this a-historical manner---whatever their philosophical affiliation---they end up espousing a kind of extreme Realism, placing their faith in sentences floating around in the Seventh Heaven lacking all tie with flesh and blood realities. Drag up a reference to something that relates to Catholic teaching, be it as simple as the words “God”, “natural law”, and “morality” and their swooning begins, regardless of how these are defined by the real “powers that be” outside of their debating lounges. Operating in this way, they can make the lion lie down with the lamb; the Founding Fathers with the Church Fathers; Thomas Jefferson with Thomas Aquinas.
And this is what conservatives regularly do with Second Vatican Council. They praise it because they see the lamb-like orthodox passages that are indeed present within its mountain of pages. Meanwhile, they ignore the lion-like time bombs placed there consciously by real, willful, historical forces that manipulated the human elements at work in any and all Councils in the name of a Holy Spirit whom they expressly forbade to make necessary canonical distinctions. Alas, the lions then gobble up the believing sheep and spit them from their mouths as out-of-date bits of tainted meat disdained by a Holy Spirit whose tastes have changed. Nothing---not the possible misuse of human freedom and sin or anything else---is allowed to interfere with and spoil the beauty of the “words” flying splendidly through the Seventh Heaven that the “selective reception” of the victorious faction make meaningless. Oh flesh and blood reality, where is thy sting? Oh Aristotle, where is thy victory!
Michael Davies did not suffer from this blindness to historical context. His full Catholic spirit made him see that you needed knowledge of everything to understand what had led to the disaster that was obvious around him from the 1960’s onwards. Yes, of course this meant that he needed to know the Church’s teaching. But he needed to know the real teaching, and not the “selective reception” of that teaching foisted by self-interested individuals and groups popping contradictory “surprises” of the Holy Spirit on believers like so many Stalinist party line flip-flops. For that “selected reception” has a discordant bass line thunderously marking step after relentless step to the abandonment of Catholic Faith and practice that no humming of the melodic phrases from the “song” of Vatican Two can do anything to halt.
It was Michael’s history-conscious “incarnational spirit” that made him look back to the flesh and blood of the conciliar texts. This enabled him to see that there were indeed “time bombs” in them, and time bombs of a much more profound character than any to be found in previous Church History. It enabled him to see that nothing in the Catholic Tradition could turn these “time bombs” into infallible dogmatic statements backed by the authority of the Holy Spirit. Concern for just where such truly unique time bombs could possibly have come from forced him to examine the historical context that allowed such enhanced ambiguity to rule the roost. And this opened him to the reality of the influence of modernists and crypto-protestants and personalists and pluralists and all of the surrounding powers of the Press and manipulated public opinion on a supposedly “purely pastoral council” that a Machiavellian “holy spirit” would metamorphosize, by surprise, into the only dogmatic council in the history of the Church---interpreted according to the “selective reception” of the victors. Once again, I defy anyone to read Pastor on the history of the late Middle Ages, or Jedin on the Council of Trent or, for that matter, anyone on anything regarding the human realities involved in running a divine institution and still claim that such things have not happened in the past---though with less nefarious effects than today.
That brings me to my second point: Davies Catholic sense of humor. Solidly rooted in that Faith that he was, Michael knew that human beings, possessed as they are of limited intelligence and free will, have “comic” foibles, some of them ultimately tragic in character. They are not machine parts who automatically live up to the ideals that they espouse and perform the role that they are supposed to play in life. Catholics, entrusted with the most sublime truths and the most important institution in the history of the world have the most “comic” foibles of all, destined to have the greatest tragic consequences. Thus, it was not a surprise to him that the history of the Church demonstrated that not all Council Fathers---just like not all popes, bishops, priests, and laity---have always acted either with high-minded motives on the one hand, or with full awareness of how they might be manipulated by their fellow prelates on the other. In short, he was aware that not every word that came out of the mouths of fallible men was infallible; that the Church has clearly “defined”, that is to say, limited and marked off, the spheres of the dogmatic from the speculative realm and that of the potentially lunatic. Our faith does not rise and fall on each and every one of the judgments of the sharp and the dull-witted members of Holy Church at every single moment that they utter them. Many of these, quite frankly, are downright absurd.
Sad to say, it is true that there are traditionalists who do not possess a Catholic sense of humor. But those that do---like another great, late, and sorely missed leader of the movement, Dr. William Marra---follow Michael in being extremely charitable as well. They do not excommunicate well-meaning Catholics who do not excommunicate them. They do not excommunicate their well-meaning but humorless traditionalist colleagues nor their well-meaning conservative opponents. They base their disagreements on unambiguous facts and not on vague and changing “spirits” that might pop their “revelations” on people in the midst of a private sermon or a dinner party.
Moreover, they know that life is complicated and confused, that men and women often have different strengths and weaknesses, and that the focus of their attention can make them sharp concerning some matters and sleepy regarding others. That is why a man like Davies insisted year after year that a man like Cardinal Ratzinger was going to confirm the “Mass that Cannot Die”, even when he said things on other topics that might make traditionalists cringe. And that is also why we, today, have to work as hard as we can to make the conservatives who really do not want to destroy the Catholic Tradition recognize that they are acting like those opponents of the Jacobins during the French Revolution who nevertheless could not resist singing the Marseillaise on the way to their own execution.
My advice to the conservative Catholics is to follow the lead of Michael Davies and “lighten up” and “sharpen up”.
“Lighten up” and admit that the Church’s infallible definitions are the limited statements that they are, and that Council Fathers and popes are most of the time just ordinary human beings: certainly worthy of respect as authorities, but just as worthy of criticism today as they were in the days of St. Catherine of Siena and St. Bridget of Sweden. “Lighten up” and admit that, to take but one example, a Dr. Jeffrey Mirus has no apostolic charism permitting him infallibly to judge the orthodoxy of every Catholic journal and organization appearing before his “court”, or to declare a line from an unwritten papal sermon on a Monday morning to be a “surprise” from the Holy Spirit before which every knee must bend. At least show a little charity towards traditionalist “fools” who display the “comic foible” of believing that the Holy Spirit, now and forever, is at one with unchanging Catholic Truth and unambiguous in character; a Holy Spirit that does not leave “time bombs” behind Him to kill or maim the faithful.
“Sharpen up” and bring the Seventh Heaven down to the mixed world of natural and supernatural interaction in which we mortals actually work out our salvation with all of our mental and spiritual shortcomings. “Sharpen up” and look at the historical record in all its fullness. For when you do you see that men of free will are capable of anything, good or evil---and to the greatest possible degree in the greatest of institutions: Holy Church. If you do not “sharpen up”, you can sing as many of the beautiful passages from a non-dogmatic Council that you wish, but the atonal music favored by the “selective reception” of the victors will triumph. And, sad to say, you will eventually sing it along with them, claiming that black is white and A=B.
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