Former Notre Dame president Father Theodore Hesburgh, that venerable fraud, gave an interview to the Wall Street Journal in late September in which he expressed himself on questions of topical import. Addressing the “leadership” issue, Father Hesburgh said:
I have no problem with females or married people as priests, but I realize that the majority of the leadership in the Church would. But what’s important is that people get the sacraments.
Did you notice Father’s act of debonair apostasy? He un-Catholic’d himself by denying that which belongs to the deposit of faith, viz., Church teaching excluding the ordination of women. He was shrewd enough to couple his heresy with the non-doctrinal issue of married priests—blurring the pertinent theological distinctions—and he was careful to employ the me-jargon of junior high: he has “no problem” with women priests, much as your 13- year-old has “no problem” with her gay music teacher.
Of course Hesburgh is such a weighty presence it seems petty to call him an apostate: “Just because he thinks the Church is wrong about the faith business doesn’t mean he’s disloyal,” many will object. “After all, Father Ted always wears the Roman collar.”
Hesburgh is an archetype of his post-war generation of clergy: men who were Catholics in the same way they were Yankees—or Cubs—fans, not because there were objective reasons for their allegiance, but because it was expected of nice guys who grew up in such-and-such a neighborhood. Ordained to the priesthood when they weren’t paying attention, they broadened their horizons to discover that many virtuous, intelligent people supported the Orioles or the Dodgers, and that many virtuous, intelligent people were Lutherans or Methodists or Jews—and this with the same cheerful goodwill they devoted to their own juvenile enthusiasms. Growing up meant putting away childish things, including the creeds and the Church’s Petrine claims.
Not that they forgot where they came from; the Hesburgh Generation came to wear their Catholicism the way they might wear a Cubs ball-cap at a picnic: as a token of affection for the old neighborhood and its folkways. But to insist that the magisterium is uniquely reliable in the matter of doctrine was, for them, as puerile and parochial as the belief that Ron Santo is the greatest third baseman of all time, on the grounds that the Cubs press offi ce said he was.
Yet the members of the Hesburgh Generation are the men who “implemented” the Second Vatican Council for the rest of us. That explains, in part, why we can’t find the tabernacle in our parish church, why our pastor knows more about protease inhibitors than apokatastasis, why the majority of self-identified Catholics would vote for a presidential candidate with a 100 percent approval rating from NARAL.
The Hesburgh Generation gets testy and defensive when we point out their apostasy. They correctly rejoin that they are leaders and benefactors of Catholic institutions; that they often pray, make retreats, occasionally go to Mass. In every worldly endeavor (as witness Hesburgh himself) they have been conspicuously successful—unquestionably more so than orthodox believers.
They insist that, having made no institutional break with the Church, they ought not to be grouped with formal apostates who identify themselves as Protestants, agnostics, or atheists. That the orthodox consider their dissent blameworthy is, in their eyes, as captious as damning, say, the back-up singers on the Johnny Mathis Christmas Album because they don’t believe in the Virgin Birth.
There’s a common type of academic theologian who, when taxed with heterodoxy, replies huffi ly: “I’m not paid to teach catechism; I’m here to show students how to do theology.” In reality, with the rare exception of extraordinary pupils in contact with extraordinary professors, what is transmitted is not the craft of theology but simply a different catechism; most students quickly learn to parrot those answers (anti-dogmatic formulae, it may be) that win the praise of their betters.
By the same token, the clerics of the Hesburgh Generation want us to understand that they left the Catholic ghetto behind; yet the reality is that they still drink in their opinions from the environment—and that as uncritically as they did as second-graders. That environment is no longer St. Polycarp’s parish school in the Bronx or Back of the Yards, but the faculty lounge of liberal upper-middle-class academe: a better class of ghetto, perhaps, but a still a ghetto.
It would be as unthinkable for these chameleons to depart from the received opinion on women priests as it would be for them to countenance segregated lunch counters in Mississippi. Catholics in every respect except religion, they just can’t understand why the rest of us can’t grow beyond belief. Hey, Ted’s got no problem with it.
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