Catholics and the Present Confusion

The faithful are told that they are too “rigid”. The divorced and the homosexuals are, rightly or wrongly, convinced that the Church has changed its doctrine at least implicitly, if not explicitly.

All through the modern era, the primary accusation against Catholicism was its clarity, its being too sure of what reason and revelation meant. It was arrogant. Imagine her claiming that she had a handle on essential truths! What angered people was not the fact that the Church did not know what she was talking about, but the fact that she did and claimed that she did. People were comfortable with doubt. Doubt makes you free, not truth! Doubt leaves a lot of leeway. People claimed to be scandalized by certitude. To bring the Church into the modern world meant enticing, cajoling, or forcing her or her members to accept the supposed dubiousness of her own positions. 

All religions, including Catholicism, are considered to be pretty much mythic. This origin of religion in fable is the majority opinion, especially among the elite. Religion is helpful only insofar as it does not interfere with more important things or claim that its truth was intended for everyone, that it had something to do with the way we should live. Religion was useful to keep the masses occupied. Catholicism is merely the extreme delusion of the religious mind. It brashly affirms that some connection with the divine can be established. Some divine intervention is thought actually to have happened in this world at a given time and place.

Let us add to this mix the multiculturalism and historicism that have governed academia and governments in recent decades. These positions affirm that “truth” varies from time to time and place to place. It changes according to current needs. The best religion, as it turns out, is a strange variant of negative theology, the idea that we know what God is not, not what He is. Only now we are reasonably assured that God is not. Taken together, all ideas of God reveal a mass of confusion and self-interest. They confuse people. They prevent the “progress” of humanity to a better world. We have found no god in outer space. The Big Bang just happened in an orderly way by accident.

Except for certain strands of recent evangelical Christianity, most Protestant sects accepted the terms of the modern world. The essentials of the sexual revolution have their religious approval. Civil law is supreme over any natural or divine law that might limit the individual or state. Ecology, itself mostly a blind faith masking itself as science, has reduced man to the terms of what are, erroneously, held to be “sustainable” limits  of growth. Eschatology has become this-worldly. Transcendence has morphed into a futurology in which what man is becomes an object of his own science, not something given by nature and God, something discovered and understood by the use of his own reason.

Vatican II presented itself as a massive effort to retain tradition but also to reconcile the Church with the modern world in such a way that they harmonized with each other. It was not noticed at the time, as Tracey Rowland pointed out in her Culture and the Thomist Tradition, that the word “culture” was not neutral. Modern “culture” already contained some good things, but it also had with in it principles and techniques that could eliminate both faith and even the structure of man as we had known him. In many ways, “to conform oneself to the culture” was a form of religious and intellectual suicide. 

In this mix, the thought of both John Paul II and Benedict XVI stood as a corrective. They carefully sorted out the subtle principles and tendencies motivating the modern mind. They identified where these ideas and customs were leading. Under their guidance, it was clear that the mind of Catholicism knew what it was about. Neither of these two popes had many intellectual peers. Those who were their peers usually recognized their genius. Catholicism understood where it came from in history and tradition. It clarified what it meant in relation to basic modern ideas, ideas that the two popes often defined more clearly than their advocates. 

This papal teaching was profound and incisive. Not a few, however, came to think it was over the heads of most people, even most bishops. There is a kind of clericalism, as Fr. Mark Pilon has pointed out, that assumes that the laity cannot think. The request for clarification, which is their due, is often taken for disobedience. We needed a return to the original Gospels, it is said, to the simple life of faith.

Catholicism did not have to present itself before the world as understanding it. It is better to leave things more open, undefined. In this light, however, with Pope Francis’ more recent emphasis on mercy and the poor, his many off-handed remarks, his hesitancy about explaining doctrine, the Church now, to many, seems confused, unsure of itself. It no longer seems to be a “rock” on which we can build.

The faithful are told that they are too “rigid”. The divorced and the homosexuals are, rightly or wrongly, convinced that the Church has changed its doctrine at least implicitly, if not explicitly. Divine positive law does not seem to hold against what people “do” do. Everything must be discerned. Every act seems an exception, which in a way it is. But there can be no “law” of only exceptions. 

Many recent converts begin to wonder whether the Church is not reverting to positions that they thought, in the name of truth, that they had left. It is difficult to see why anyone should convert or even be preached to. To many, the Church seems to present itself as a kind of modern humanism in culture and socialism in political preference.

In the meantime, some three thousand mosques, with much Saudi money, have been built in the United States, probably more in Europe. They are mostly closed enclaves. The decline of population of European citizens has been often noted. Traditional European  national populations are being replaced by a more fertile group of Muslims who, for the most part, do not assimilate or convert, either culturally or religiously. Some predict that Sweden will be Europe’s first Muslim country; others think it will be England. And if there is a first, there will be a second. 

Islamic thinkers themselves shrewdly seem to opt both for terrorist and for democratic means to expand into Europe and America. The martyrdom and expulsion of so many Christians from the Mideast have gone largely unaccounted for. They appear more as an embarrassment than as objects of justice. Their specific witness seems almost lost. 

It is a rare commentator or politician who notes the connection between Humanae Vitae, the decline of population, and the rise of Islam in Europe and America. “Refugees” fleeing into Europe can probably more accurately be described as “invaders” than immigrants, however sad their tale.

We are now experiencing something new, an incipient reaction. With Pierre Manent and Joshua Mitchell, we see that the nation-state and the family are the heart of true civilization. Globalism and world-state notions constantly reveal totalitarian tendencies. Emphasis on the poor has neglected the old Aristotelian notion of the middle-class, by far the majority in any decent society.

What are we to conclude from these considerations? The title of these opinions, and opinions they are, concerned “confused Catholics”. The conclusion is that the confusion of Catholics about the unity and consistency of their faith has dimmed or even taken out of the public order a firm voice that has connected in our civilization the present and the past, time and eternity.

Few seem certain about where the Church stands on many core issues that once were thought to be settled. Practice does not really replace thought. It merely produces another kind of practice that seeks justification in a different line of thought. Practice, overtly or covertly, depends on thought. The origin of all deviant practice is deviant thought. The knowing why it is deviant is a function of mind based on a standard of reason. It is the steady “knowing why” that, before anything else, we are missing.

About James V. Schall, S.J. 157 Articles
James V. Schall, S.J. taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until recently retiring. He is the author of numerous books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. His most recent book is Reasonable Pleasures: The Strange Coherences of Catholicism (Ignatius Press). Visit his site, "Another Sort of Learning", for more about his writings and work.