The Challenge of Modernity

In a late 2012 public address strongly reminiscent of the interview with the Jesuit Cardinal Carlo Mario Martini published immediately after his death on August 31, 2012, Abbot Martin Werlen, OSB, of Einsiedeln Abbey in Switzerland deplored the lack of courage, vision, and creativity in the Church. Pleading for closer attention to the “signs of the times,” Abbot Werlen proposed making laypeople cardinals, and adoption of the Eastern Church’s discipline with regard to the ordination of married men, and the re-admission of divorced and remarried people to Communion.

George Weigel rejects all such proposals. The Gospel, he reminds us, is always “a sign of contradiction.” Progressive Catholicism, of which the statements of Cardinal Martini and Abbot Werlen are the most recent examples, lacks the missionary dynamism needed for the new Pentecost called for by Blessed John XXIII and the Popes who succeeded him, including Benedict XVI.

Weigel is no less critical, however, of traditionalist Catholics who want to roll back modernity and restore the Church’s pre-Vatican II “Golden Age.” Modernity cannot be rolled back, Weigel writes; and the Church’s supposed “Golden Age” is pure fantasy. In the average pre-Vatican II parish “the liturgy was most often poorly celebrated, its Latin ill-pronounced, and its music more saccharine than Gregorian.” Weigel is right. Believers in a Golden Age are either too young ever to have experienced the pre-Vatican II Church; or they have not just short memor­ies, but no memories at all.

What actually existed before Vatican II was Counter-Reformation Catholicism, which sought to preserve and spread the faith through simple, straightforward, catechetical instruction and devotional piety. It produced saints and fueled the Church’s missionary expansion after the French Revolution. As early as the late 19th century, however, John Henry Newman in England and Pope Leo XIII in Rome, whom Weigel credits throughout with initiating the breakthrough that culminated in Vatican II, realized that the challenge of modernity required something more of Catholics than (to cite American reference points) memorizing the Baltimore Catechism and wearing the Miraculous Medal.

This something more is Evangelical Catholicism.

Evangelical Catholicism starts with radical conversion, a life-changing and lifelong process. It requires serious pursuit of perfection, nourished by daily encounter with Scripture and frequent reception of the sacraments. It is characterized by joy, for the French Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin “the infallible sign of the presence of God.”

And Evangelical Catholics, aware that we cannot keep God’s gifts unless we give them away, are unapologetically missionary: at least by their lives, and, when necessary and appropriate, by the spoken and written word as well. They are also active in charitable works. Contrast this with the program laid out for me, when I was a Harvard undergraduate in the late 1940s, by Fr. Leonard Feeney, SJ, then a notable representative of catechetical-devotional Counter-Reformation Catholicism. To get into heaven, Feeney told me, all I needed to do was to keep the commandments. For extra credit I could take religious vows.

Most of Weigel’s book discusses how Evangelical Catholicism must be lived out by bishops (including the Bishop of Rome), clergy, laypeople, and members of religious orders.

Catechetical-devotional Cath­olicism’s strength was its emphasis on truth; but, at least from the 19th century onward, it paid little attention to beauty. Evangelical Catholicism recognizes that beauty is one of the transcendentals that point us to God. When still a cardinal, Joseph Ratzinger recognized this in his oft-quoted statement: “In the end of the day there are only two arguments for Catholic Christianity: the saints the Church has produced, and the art which grows in her womb.”

Weigel pleads for more attention to beauty in church buildings and furnishings. This cannot be achieved, however, by exercises in retro-liturgy: returning to use of the maniple and revival of fiddleback chasubles, and men fitted out in yards of lace. “How anyone can imagine that the abundant use of lace in liturgical vestments advances the reform of the priesthood as a manly vocation,” Weigel writes, “is one of the minor mysteries of early 21st-century Catholic life.”

Vocations: growth of vocations in Africa and Asia, especially of nuns, but closing of seminaries in Europe and North America.

Vocations: growth of vocations in Africa and Asia, especially of nuns, but closing of seminaries in Europe and North America.

The liturgy is above all the worship of the One before whom the angels veil their faces. There must be more attention, therefore, to silence in church buildings, and to the periods of silence in the liturgy already mandated by the rubrics, but too little observed.

A return by the celebrant to the ad orientem position (the priest standing in front of, rather than behind the altar) can be helpful, Weigel believes; but only if this is preceded by extensive liturgical catechesis. It was precisely the lack of such explanation of the liturgical changes following Vatican II which produced the liturgical chaos which followed, only now being corrected by the reform of the reform.

This reform must be based, Weigel contends, on the Novus Ordo. The Tridentine rite (the “Old Mass”) is appropriate for the small number to whom this appeals. The Novus Ordo must remain the norm, however, enriched by a revival of hymnody (in which German Catholics, Anglicans and Lutherans are far ahead of us), and of Gregorian plainchant for the common parts of the Mass: Kyrie, Gloria and Creed, Preface, Sanctus and Agnus Dei.

In line with the documents of Vatican II, bishops must be primarily witnesses and teachers of the Gospel, not administrators or “mitered referees, discussion-group facilitators whose primary task is to keep the ‘dialogue’ going while keeping everyone reasonably content (and the diocese solvent financially).” One cannot fault Weigel for lack of candor.

Evangelical Catholicism requires new criteria for selecting bishops. More important than managerial ability and the capacity to get along with priests is personal holiness, rooted in deep personal conversion to friendship with Jesus Christ, proven ability to teach and preach, to recruit future priests, and to attract converts to the faith.

Necessary too is the ability to celebrate the liturgy with deep reverence, to make and uphold unpopular decisions out of loyalty to the faith, and to foster talent rather than being threatened by it (an important reason for the promotion of safe but undistinguished candidates in a system in which bishops, in effect, nominate their own successors). The consultation process must be widened to include laypeople; and consideration should be given to priests in academic positions and campus ministry, and to candidates currently excluded from consideration because of their youth.

Turning to the demands of Evangelical Catholicism for the formation of future priests, Weigel stresses the importance of preaching. He cites a comment by Pope Benedict XVI “to colleagues” (not identified) that the divine origins of the Church were evident from the fact that Catholics continue to attend church despite being subjected Sunday after Sunday to dreadful preaching. Seminary teachers of homiletics, trained in the historical-critical method of biblical interpretation, must realize that their task is not to school seminarians in this method (valuable though it is). Rather, they must train future priests in biblical preaching that rediscovers Scripture as an integrated whole, thus empowering the hearers to take the Gospel out into the world and draw people to Christ.

Weigel reserves his heaviest fire for the chapter on “The Evangelical Catholic Reform of Consecrated Life.” Since Vatican II, religious orders, in particular those for women, have experienced tremendous growth in Africa and Asia. In Europe and North America, by contrast, religious communities for both men and women have developed theories of the “evangelical counsels” of poverty, chastity, and obedience radically different from the Church’s traditional understanding of the counsels.

The result has been widespread deconstruction of religious communities, especially those for women, which continue to advertise themselves as the wave of the future, even while visibly dying because of their inability to attract recruits.

Meanwhile the women’s congregations which, because they remain loyal to tradition are experiencing dynamic growth, are treated with open disdain by the champions of “renewal” for not being open to an imaginary “spirit of Vatican II.”

Weigel’s chapter on the laity repeats a frequent but seldom-heeded complaint: too many priests judge their pastoral effectiveness by the number of laypeople they can recruit for “lay ministry” within Church structures.

Praiseworthy as such service is, it will never involve more than a small minority of the laity. Vatican II called all laypeople “to make the Church present and operative in those places and circumstances where only through them it can become the salt of the earth” – i.e. outside Church structures, in the public square (LG 33, emphasis supplied). The task of the clergy is to empower laypeople to do this, not to recruit them as “Father’s helpers.”

Weigel devotes his closing chapter to the Evangelical Catholic reform of the papacy. The next Pope, he reminds us, will be the first truly post-Vatican II pontiff; he may have been only a schoolboy during the Council, possibly not even born. He, and every Pope, must be the Church’s first witness to the Gospel, not the Chief Executive Officer of an international organization. Anyone who desires the office disqualifies himself for lack not of humility but of prudence. He must be capable of being a disciplinarian; but he must also possess “a palpable sympathy for the struggles with belief that many men and women undergo. With rare exceptions, the Church is best served by Popes who have already demonstrated a capacity for evangelically effective pastoral leadership — including experience in meeting the challenges posed by the cultured despisers of religion.” Even this incomplete summary of the qualities Weigel looks for in future Popes reminds us that the perfect candidate for the Petrine office does not exist. All have their flaws and shortcomings — which is why we pray for Peter’s successor in every Mass the world over.

At the heart of all that Weigel writes is recognition of a vital principle in Church life. In two millennia, Church renewal has never come through lowering standards, but always and everywhere through greater sacrifice, and deeper commitment to the demands of the Gospel. Yet a challenge remains, evident in a number of places in this stimulating and important book. How do we maintain high spiritual and pastoral standards without risking transforming a Church which, because it is “catholic,” has always insisted on making room for those who are weak in faith, even people whose faith is hardly distinguishable from superstition, into an exclusive sect of “true believers”?

John Jay Hughes is a priest of the archdiocese of St. Louis (USA) and author of the memoir, No Ordinary Fool: A Testimony to Grace (Tate).

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By |2013-01-01T06:18:01+00:00Jan 1st, 2013|Categories: Culture|Tags: |