"The Storm on the Sea of Galilee" (1633) by Rembrandt
Martin R. Tripole, S.J., is professor emeritus of theology, Saint
Joseph's University, Philadelphia who earned an S.T.D. from the
Institut Catholique in Paris, France. He is the author of Church
in Crisis: The Enlightenment and Its Impact upon Today's Church
(CUA, 2012), and has published numerous essays and book reviews on
theology, spirituality, and education. He recently corresponded with
Carl E. Olson, editor of Catholic World Report, about his book
and some of its major points, including the roots and nature of the
crisis in the Church, the key characteristics of the crisis, the
political aspects of the crisis, and the pontificate of Francis.
Your thesis is that the crisis in the Church in America is not
years or decades old, but “has been going on for centuries”. How
would you summarize that crisis? And what is the point of origin?
Martin R. Tripole: The crisis in the Church in America today is a
consequence of major movements that have been going on in the Western
world for centuries. One must first look at the crisis in the modern
world of which the Church in America is a part to understand the
crisis occurring in the Church. I would summarize that larger crisis
as a loss of meaning and purpose in life.
the origin of the crisis, one needs to go back at least to the time
of William of Ockham in the fourteenth century, with his philosophy
of voluntarism. Using what is called “Ockham’s razor,” Ockham
excised anything he considered superfluous for an understanding of
reality. He is generally understood to have argued that 1) essences
do not exist, and 2) rational proofs for the existence of God are
The first principle destroyed the intrinsic value of things, since
intrinsic values are rooted in essences. If the human being does not
have an essencewhich Aristotle defined as “rational animal”he
does not have intrinsic value but only extrinsically imposed value.
For Ockham, that value was given to the human being by God willing
it. Since there were no essences for Ockham, there were no
universals. There was no universal category of human beings which we
have traditionally called man, but only individual human beings who
resemble each other. But without universals, there is no intrinsic
foundation for principles of morality or for natural law. The
consequence of all of this is that morality is either imposed by God,
or, if not, becomes a matter of personal choice or collective rule,
in which case might makes right.
For Ockham, knowledge is based on direct experience, and since I
cannot have direct experience of God, I cannot prove God’s
existence. Ockham made conviction regarding God’s existence a
matter of faith: I can believe in the existence of God, but
such faith becomes a matter of personal or collective conviction, and
not something that could be argued in the public square. The
consequence of that kind of thinking is that the notion of God
imposing value on human life is ruled out of public discourse, from
which eventually follows the marginalization of religion and the
separation of Church and State.
of this eventually comes to have an effect upon the life of the
modern Church. How that happens is the focus of my study. But if I
have to say at this point in a nutshell what the crisis in the modern
Church is, I would say it is a crisis of abandonment of fidelity to
Christ’s Church and its teachings, for all of the reasons we will
There are a number of avenues by which the crisis was brought on
by the Enlightenment mentality. What are some of those avenues?
Tripole: The eighteenth-century movement called the Enlightenment
generally gave primacy to individual over community, and to reason
over faith. In the first case, the rights of the individual were
stressed over the welfare of the community; in the latter case, the
conclusions of rational investigation predominated over faith
convictions, which, as we argued above, were ruled out of public
discourse. That meant the loss of a scientific basis for the study
of theology and faith. Since God had been made a conviction of
personal experience, it was impossible to give theology social
Strictly speaking, theology cannot be a
science with this kind of thinking; it can at best be metaphysical
speculation, which makes it useless in public discourse. As a
result, as the rationalistic spirit of the Enlightenment increasingly
took hold, it was only a matter of time before religion was placed on
the margins of public life.
Catholics are not fatalists, of course, and thus don’t see history
as a downward spiral. Yet it surely appears, in the West, that
Catholicism has been pulled into a downward spiral for quite some
time. What are some of the evidences of that trajectory? What signs
of hope do you see?
Tripole: I think strong evidence of that trajectory may be seen
in different areas:
in the disorientation of Catholic thought. This can be found, for
example, in the rationalistic mentality of the Enlightenment that has
inevitably crept into the world of theology, so that the ordinary
primacy that should be given to faith in theological discourse is
given to reason. A theologian will often argue to the validity of
his position based on what he considers to be the weightier
conclusions resulting from his own argumentation; he will not argue
on the basis of the collective wisdom of the faith experience of the
Church. The problem with that mentality, of course, is that what one
theologian finds rationally convincing is not necessarily so for
another; in other words, a theology that is not grounded in truths
that are known in faith is just “my” theological argument versus
“yours”, and then, once again, might makes right.
in what Benedict XVI has called “the dictatorship of relativism”.
With the loss of the existence of essences, intrinsic value, and
natural law based on the existence of essences, what possibility is
there for grounding truth? None, unless edicts from God are imposed
as the final arbiter. But since God has been ruled out of the public
forum, no final grounding of truth is available. One is left with
nothing more than one’s own subjective evaluation and common
agreement. Thus all truth becomes relative, based on how I/we see
things. The inevitable outcome is moral and intellectual
degeneration, which we are experiencing in our society today, since
no one can say what really should be.
in the loss of faith. One sees this especially among young people,
whose abandonment of the faith is a major consequence of the
rationalism of the Enlightenment. Older generations are still
largely guided by the tenets of the Christian faith. But once truth
and value are relegated to the subjective, what possibility can there
be for faith conviction? Conviction about what? If faith is nothing
but a product of what a community feels, why bother with it?
How has the influence of the Enlightenment shaped the dominant
views of truth and objective goodness? What must the Church do to
combat relativism and subjectivism?
Tripole: Truth and goodness are now no longer seen by even many
of the wisest of people as anything but subjective viewpoints,
“impressions,” expressions of one’s “feelings”. Objective
reality does not generally enter into people’s consciousness today,
except in relation to the hard sciences and mathematics.
sees sad evidence of this kind of thinking among many Christian
believers: in a Scripture study group, the discussion often
immediately focuses not on what the text says, or what Scripture
scholars conclude from their critical analysis of the text, but on
“what it means to me”. That’s all that really matters.
of the clearest evidence of the influence of the Enlightenment today
is found in recent Supreme Court decisions. The greatest legal blow
to all concepts of object truth and morality is found in these June
29, 1992, statements of Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy in
Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Robert P.
Casey: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s
own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the
mystery of human life. Beliefs about these matters could not define
the attributes of personhood were they formed under compulsion of the
State”. But what about under the compulsion of Truth? That a
practicing Catholic on the highest bench in the nation could make
statements like these shows how far the reductive Enlightenment
mentality has taken over our understanding of reality and the
objectivity of the Christian revelation.
to what the Church must do to combat relativism and subjectivism, I
see no alternative but to restore an understanding of philosophical
Truth and the Christian Revelation as objective. This is necessary
so that the existence of God may once again not only be rationally
justified but also reinforced by the Christian Revelation, and that
Christian tenets may no longer be understood merely as principles of
personal belief, but as insights into what really is. In other
words, faith leads to Truth beyond the reach of reason, and not
merely to personal conviction. Jesus Christ is not simply the Savior
of Christians who feel He is; He is the Savior of the world because
that is in fact what His death and resurrection made Him (Acts 4:12).
How should we distinguish between “modernism” and
“postmodernism”? Why are the differences significant?
Tripole: I think, for our purposes here, one could simply equate
modernism with scientism, and postmodernism with contextualism. For
the modernist, truth is found only in the hard sciences and in
mathematics. Thus the supernatural is unreal. Postmodernists go
even further: there is no truth at all for them, only subjective
feelings and impressions. Everything is contextualized: We are all
in our own worlds, and everything is an expression of what we
perceive within the context of those worlds. There is no reality
independent of these worlds by which we could determine truth.
my view, the ultimate consequence of the rationalistic Enlightenment
mentality is a postmodernism that eventually terminates in Solipsism
and Nihilismthe annihilation of real meaning, value, and purpose
to existence. The movement of history inevitably leads to Nihilism,
once essences and the existence of God are no longer objectively
You taught theology in a university setting for many years. How
would you assess the current state of Catholic higher education in
the U.S.? What are the main challenges to reviving a robust and
unapologetic Catholic education?
Tripole: The rationalistic Enlightenment mentality has had a
deleterious effect upon Catholic education in the United States.
There has been a quiet dethronement of the principles of objective
truth that I have discussed above which give content and meaning and
purpose to life.
Catholicism is also losing awareness of the primacy of the
supernatural in what it means to be a Catholic. That loss was
triggered first of all by the cultural revolution of the 60s and 70s,
which emphasized the purely pragmatic, and especially by the
introduction of liberation theology in Catholic thinking. Liberation
theology tended to downplay the reality of the spiritual and to
emphasize the social dimensions of the Christian experience,
specifically, concern for the economically poor and the socially
Statistical data presented in my book
strikingly indicate that, when asked what it means to be a good
Catholic, Catholics have increasingly moved from stressing the
importance of entering into the sacramental life of the Church to
being socially concerned. The basic theology course required of all
students now on the campus where I reside is not a study of the
Scriptures or of the teachings of the Church, but of “Faith,
Justice, and the Catholic Tradition”, where the emphasis is on the
development of the Church’s teaching on social justice. This
social-justice movement has had a major impact upon the thinking of
young Catholics today, who are now more eager to serve the poor as a
witness to being a good Catholic than to go to Mass. Emphasis is now
placed upon participating in social justice activities as an integral
part of Catholic education rather than on participating in the
sacramental life of the Church. Mass attendance has dwindled
considerably, and fidelity to the teaching of the Church is largely
optional. In my opinion, it is only a matter of time before theology
courses become obsolete in what is left of Catholic education.
challenge in Catholic education is to return to a study of the
fundamentals of the Catholic faith, and to inculcate a renewed
awareness of the elements of the Christian revelation. Practicing
social justice is vital to Catholic living, to be sure, but, unless
it is integrated into fidelity to Christ in the life of His Church,
it has little meaning for a Catholic.
whether it is possible in Catholic education today to return to a
solid grounding in the teachings of the Church is questionable
because of the modernist and postmodernist mentality that now
dominates our culture. We have to return to an understanding of the
Christian revelation as objectively grounded, and to a personal
relationship to the Christ Who has objectively redeemed humanity, and
to the need for these truths to be known, accepted, and lived by
Catholics as they evangelize the world.
You have a chapter on the separation of Church and State. What
common misunderstandings exist about this much touted “separation”?
Why do so many Catholics apparently think that their beliefs must be
kept private and out of the public square?
Tripole: The most common misunderstanding about the notion of
separation of Church and State is that it is mandated by the First
Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. Nothing could be
further from the truth, but this sentiment has been promoted by the
Supreme Court’s erroneous understanding of that amendment since the
1940s, and by secularists in our society who have latched on to that
misunderstanding as a basis for driving religion out of society.
Unfortunately, many Catholics have unwittingly accepted this notion,
and feel it is the law of the land.
First Amendment in fact mandates only that Congress not establish a
national religion nor restrict anyone’s freedom to practice
religion. That’s all.
into the mentality of the Founding Fathers indicates that nothing was
more important to them than the promotion of religious practice in
society as a means of ensuring a stable moral foundation to civic
life. The reason why the founders wanted to ensure that there be no
governmentally sanctioned religion was so that all religious faiths
might freely operate in society. As a result of a modern bifurcation
of religion and civic life, God is being taken more and more out of
our culture and increasingly replaced by immoral and evil practices.
of this I see as a natural consequence of the rationalistic
Enlightenment mentality that eradicated the presence of God and
intrinsic values from society. This eradication explains why
Catholics have increasingly come to believe that their faith and its
teachings should be kept private. The fact is, if God is purely
subjective and faith is purely personal, the secularists are right,
and God should be banned from the public square. But if God is real,
and is really involved in personal lives and in the processes of
history, as the Bible manifestly indicates He is, to exclude God from
public discourse is to create false parameters of reality leading to
injudicious decision-making and eventual chaos.
You wrote your book shortly before Benedict XVI stepped down and
Francis was elected. What is your impression of Francis’
Tripole: I would say that the verdict is still out. There is no
doubt that Francis is pastorally a bombshell! I have yet to meet a
layperson who has any reservations about him. Everyone likes him!
As to his long-range effect, I think that remains unclear. We have
to see how strong he stands on the major moral issues besetting the
modern world. Some argue that in these areas his stance has up to
now been ambiguous, and whether that assessment of his views could
later be overcome with greater clarity in his teaching remains to be
Laetitia does not seem to have brought that clarity. The
document seems to say whatever one wants it to say. It seems
designed to please both sides of the equation: the moral teachings
of the Church remain firm and orthodox, but in the internal forum and
with individual conscience, the door seems open to wide parameters of
application. How do you maintain lofty principles with wide
latitude of praxis? The ultimate consequence is that it is difficult
to keep the teaching resolute. I fear a growing situation in the
Church where the teaching would remain firm but be widely ignored.
We have the example of the Protestant churches to show us that
mitigated teaching becomes no teaching, and faith loses its ecclesial
dimension. Why do we not learn from them?
In your final chapter you reflect at length on the restoration
of unity. Do you think Francis has created more opportunities for
such unity? Or do you think the various fractures that revealed
themselves at Vatican II have been reemphasized?
Tripole: It is hard to say, because on the level of pastoral
influence, Francis seems to have brought people together. Many
people think more favorably of the Church today as a result of his
open and friendly demeanor.
on the level of doctrine and Church discipline, I’m inclined to
think that the divisions in the Church are so great that it will take
years to overcome them. Francis calls for compassion, but compassion
alone has limited sway. The life and thinking of Catholics have
probably never been more divided than they are today. The fractures
that were created after Vatican II festered until 1978 when John Paul
II became pope. I think that since his death, those fractures have
intensified, and the sharp new moral divisions in American culture,
where the teachings of the Church are so strongly under attack, have
only exacerbated the situation, since American Catholics are deeply
influenced by what secularists say.
me, nothing is more important for the future of the Church than to
restore unity to Christianity. Jesus stated clearly in John 17:20-26
that maintaining a unity in love was essential to the success of His
mission, and unless we see the importance of reestablishing that
unity, we remain fractured and jeopardize the success of that
mission. All good Christians should want to do anything possible to
correct the situation. The point of my book was to drive home the
importance of reestablishing unity in love, and I hope that reading
the book will lead Christians, and especially Catholics, to do
whatever they can to restore that unity.