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The transmigration of theological nonsense

Both polar extremes in the Church today seem locked into the same meta-narrative of Catholicism and modernity, in which the paramount question is, “How much should the Church concede to modern culture?”

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During the Long Lent of 2002, Sister Betsy Conway, who lived in the Bostonian epicenter of the clerical sexual abuse crisis, spoke for many self-identified progressive Catholics when she told syndicated columnist Michael Kelly, “This is our Church, all of us, and we need to take it back.” Mr. Kelly, a thoughtful liberal columnist who died tragically in Iraq a year later, agreed. But they were both mistaken.

The Church is not “ours;” the Church is Christ’s. As I wrote at the time, the Church “was not created by us, or by our Christian ancestors, or by the donors to the diocesan annual fund – a point the Lord made abundantly clear himself in the gospels: ‘You did not choose me, but I chose you’” [John 15:16]. As a friend put it at the time, “the Church is not ours to take back because it never belonged to us, and the instant we make it ‘our own’ we are damned. No merely human institution, no matter how perfectly pure and gutsy and dutiful to its members, can take away even a venial sin. That’s the point St. Paul takes sixteen chapters to get across to the Romans.”

In a fine example of the maxim that what goes around comes around, this familiar progressive trope of a Church that “we” must “take back” has now migrated to the opposite extreme of the ecclesiastical spectrum, as exemplified in a Remnant TV video, “Catholics Rising” announcing a “Catholic Identity Conference” to be held in late October in Pittsburgh.  The call-to-arms is identical to that which the Catholic left was broadcasting in 2002: “Many Catholics have had enough. They want their Church back…. Join us and let’s take our Church back.”

The strange symmetry at the opposite poles of the twenty-first century Church is neatly demonstrated by the messaging tactics of this brief video. The woolier parts of today’s Catholic Left insist, in a false and exaggerated way, that the reform of the liturgy has been hijacked by reactionaries; the Remnant TV video, in a similarly false and exaggerated way, suggests that sacrilegious, goofball liturgy is the norm wherever the Novus Ordo Mass is celebrated. The Catholic left is nostalgic for the days when Catholic Lite ruled the roost, and somehow imagines that the 1970s can be recreated; those who made the Remnant TV video manifest a deep nostalgia for the Catholic 1950s, which they, too, seem to imagine can be recreated, and not just in bunkers and catacombs. The Catholic left has long indulged in the conspiracy-theorizing encoded in secular progressivism’s DNA; the unstated but unmistakable subtheme of “Catholics Rising” is that malign and clandestine conspirators have hijacked “our Church.”

Moreover, both polar extremes in the Church today seem locked into the same meta-narrative of Catholicism and modernity, in which the paramount question is, “How much should the Church concede to modern culture?” The farther reaches of the Catholic left are willing to surrender a lot, to the point where Catholicism fades into the dull incoherence of liberal Protestantism; the farther reaches of the Catholic right aren’t willing to surrender an inch. Neither side seems much interested in the real question, which is, “How does the Church convert the modern world and the post-modern world – like it converted the world of classical antiquity, similarly beset by the collapse of ancient truths and venerable institutions?”

The Pittsburgh “Catholic Identity Conference” promises that “two bishops and priests from every major traditionalist fraternity in the world” will address the question, “Where do we go from here?” Were I asked (which I won’t be), I’d suggest that “where we go from here” is back to the fifteenth chapter of John’s gospel and Paul’s letter to the Romans. No authentic renewal of Catholic life, and no effective response to the untruths that bedevil Catholicism today, will begin from the premise that “this is our Church and we must take it back.” It is Christ’s Church, and if any of us proceeds from any other premise, we are part of the problem, not the solution.

I hope someone among those “two bishops and priests from every major traditionalist fraternity in the world” makes that point in Pittsburgh – and then links it to the imperative of missionary discipleship in the Church of the New Evangelization.

About George Weigel 133 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999) and The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010). Mr. Weigel received a B.A. from St. Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore and an M.A. from the University of St. Michael’s College, Toronto. He is the recipient of eighteen honorary doctorates in fields including divinity, philosophy, law, and social science.

12 Comments

  1. Maybe so.

    But the usual columnists’ trick of equal blame grossly minimizes the predominance and “achievements” of the “progressive” side.

  2. Weigel’s question is not convoluted triangulation, an assessment I read on First Things. He has a clear direction in his thought on whether the Church belongs to Christ or “us”. In arguing it belongs to Christ he quotes Jn 15 the Vine and Branches and the Christocentric faith as opposed to obeisance to the Law of Paul in Romans. An interesting aside is when does anyone recall The Apostles scathing condemnation of Homosexuality in Rm 1 in the Liturgy. It was erased. The point Paul makes is the turning of the Gentile Romans from normal sexual relations to deviate behavior because of their refusal to accept the evidence of God’s existence in Nature. Paul continues to argue that self referenced belief destroys the faith in Christ required for salvation. The analogy for our day is the turn to lesser lights. Both progressives and hard shell Catholics [my invented terminology] make the Church their’s and not Christ’s. Hard shell Catholics insist on the Law. Therein is the impasse Weigel doesn’t address. “I hope someone among those “two bishops and priests from every major traditionalist fraternity in the world” makes that point in Pittsburgh” is a return to polarity stemming from a sense of ownership for traditionalist and progressive. An unresolved transmigration of ownership. The Church also belongs to “us”, and implied “all” of us. The Mystical Body of Christ where two or three gather with Christ’s promised Presence is the Church. Resolution is found in acknowledgment that we, both sides of the polarity are called to be bonded in Christ’s love based on His commandments. Only then in humility and charity can we assume the spiritual requisites for conciliation.

  3. Here is some really serious theological nonsense:

    1. A famous Cardinal of the Catholic Church (Kasper) explicitly teaches generations of young Catholic college students and seminarians (for 40+ years) to disbelief in the miracle accounts ascribed to Jesus in the New Testament (his book “Jesus the Christ,” pp. 90-91, published 1976 and reissued 2011).
    2. The same Cdl. Kasper explicitly rejects the perfection and dominion of God, which is asserted by the apostles (James1:17) and the great Council of Nicea: “The God who sits enthroned over the world and history as a changeless being is an offense to man.” (Kasper, “God in History,” 1967).
    3. This men was made a Cardinal after he published these works.
    4. Pope Francis now promotes this theology of disbelief in the Gospel, the Apostles and the Council of Nicea.

    The beliefs rejected are bed-rock Catholic beliefs.

    Why should any Catholic who has bet their life on Jesus and his Church take seriously any of the men above who have promoted these attacks on the faith?

  4. This article is very disappointing, both from a conceptual standpoint, and from an historical standpoint. Although Weigel is correct that the people cannot “take back the Church”, he is mute on the reasons why: the Church is hierarchical, it is a top-down institution not a democracy or mob. Also, the Church is Apostolic. But the historical problem is this: His criticism of the Remnant crowd is hardly informative, since, as an organization, the Remnant types know in the final analysis that they are not a popular movement, and that the Church cannot be a popular movement. Their talk of “taking back the Church” follows from the unique pontificate of Francis, which is governed by Leftists. But even more mistaken is Wiegel’s is this, that the Left has ALWAYS seen the Church as a ‘popular’ movement, and our current Pope is quite taken by the idea himself. Francis talks about the ‘mystique’ of the “pueblo” and Francis is fascinated with writings of Rodolfo Kusch. Sandro Magister has a very good article on this last Sept 18.

  5. It is Christ’s church. Totally true. But whose Christ? If you listen to people from both camps, you get two totally different views of Jesus Christ and what he wants in his church. In the words of an old TV show, “Will the real Jesus, please stand up?”

  6. It is some sort of nonsense that the polarization and rhetoric now all around us are due to Latin Mass enthusiasists or social activists, and not the strange and ambiguous overtures of our Pope. Weigel writing an entire column and not mentioning Francis, especially this week when laymen finally release their admonitory statement, underscores our longstanding problem. We are trusting in princes of the Church, instead of Truth and Tradition. Meanwhile the credibility of those princes sinks lower and lower, and we prattle on about New Evangelization while Cardinal Schonborn and James Martin tell us to loosen up. Weigel is wrong: the problem right now is not in the laity, it is in the leadership.

  7. ” in a similarly false and exaggerated way, suggests that sacrilegious, goofball liturgy is the norm wherever the Novus Ordo Mass is celebrated.”

    It may be somewhat false and exaggerated, but the odds are considerably higher than with the Novus Ordo.

  8. Impoverished liturgy is the norm in the Novus Ordo implementation.

    I believe Mr. Wiegel’s parish offers “a more traditional setting” for the Novus Ordo Mass (aka the Bugnini Mass). Meaning there are celebrations using (perhaps) the Roman Csnon, sometimes with Latin, and there may even be chant.

    I am sure that the diocese makes sure this format is delivered in whatever parish Mr. Wiegel resides – as a form of insurance.

    Breaking News – most Catholic people get the impoverished “Cupich” format: Roman Canon forbidden, EP2 always – further shortened for even less content); priest joking at the altar; electric guitar contemporary mass option every Sunday; Chant forbidden; eternal condemnation to banal 1970s Haugen and Schutte music.

  9. Does George Weigel ignore the fact that Trads are, among Catholics, the most dedicated to belief that The Church is Christs’s, not ours, to score cheap points on Trads’ use of a manner of speaking typical of liberals so that the Trads can counter the liberals on their own turf? Why would Catholic World Report print such drek?

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