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Style and Substance: A Confusion of Targets

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | May 28, 2007

It seems to me that many people confuse the substance of the Faith with the style in which the Faith is presented to others. I had an unfortunate exchange last week with someone who claimed that by drawing attention to Benedict XVI’s emphasis on dialogue with Muslims, I was in effect collaborating with Benedict’s departure from the true Faith and embracing a new religion. A less rational conclusion is hard to imagine.

Condemning Benedict XVI, John Paul II, and . . .

It goes without saying that the rapid secularization of Western culture since the middle of the last century has had a profound impact even on the Church. There is widespread confusion about the content of the Faith among laity and priests alike, there is a general lack of order, and there has been a great tendency even among bishops to attempt to retain positions of respect in an increasingly wayward culture by adopting a sort of doctrinal and disciplinary minimalism. All this is most unfortunate, and while it seems to be gradually getting better, there is little excuse for the extreme duration of the process.

During the same period, however, the chair of Peter has been occupied by unquestionably intelligent and courageous men who, despite their general unwillingness to discipline, have consistently and clearly articulated and explained the truths of the Catholic Faith with a breadth and power previously unequaled. Note that I say “articulated and explained”. In some periods popes have been more prone simply to assert the Faith in the strongest possible terms, rather than to explain it and argue it, and some Catholics seem to think this made them greater teachers. For those who think this way, the carefully reasoned and persuasive rhetoric of Benedict XVI and John Paul II (as well as the fathers of Vatican II) is a sign of weakness—just one more symptom of a failure to hold their ground.

But They Haven’t Thundered!

I can understand that some people crave the simplicity and directness of bishops and popes who positively thunder. Give them Boniface VIII every time. It was important for the Catholic world to be reminded in 1302 that subjection to the Roman Pontiff is necessary to the salvation of every person, the King of France not excepted. A few hundred years later, the anathemas of the Council of Trent provided to a still overwhelmingly Catholic Europe a clear summary of Protestant ideas to avoid. And it was remarkably clarifying in 1864 for the Catholic faithful to read the Syllabus of Errors of Pius IX, which condemned so many falsities of modern thought, or to read Pius X’s condemnation of Modernism in 1907, Lamentabili Sane.

I have no quarrel with such documents; they serve a most useful purpose. They are particularly valuable when a pope can address large groups of faithful Catholics who may not quite know what to make of the debates, controversies and subtle ideological trends of their times. Such documents, like Pius IX’s decision never to leave the Vatican, can be bracing for devout souls. But despite W. G. Ward’s famous 19th century assertion that he liked nothing better than an encyclical with breakfast, mere proclamations of the Faith and condemnations of error from the citadel don’t do much for Catholics who are culturally-conditioned to reject authority, and they do even less for those who aren’t Catholic to begin with.

Rules of Engagement

As a general rule, one can’t persuade people of anything they don’t already believe simply by making pronouncements. Instead, one must make a genuine effort to understand the others’ point of view and to appreciate (rather than dismiss) their ideas and concerns. One must find some common ground as a starting point, as well as a common conceptual language, so one’s arguments and explanations can be understood. Only then can one effectively engage another. And it is only after making that essential initial engagement that it becomes possible to patiently present the Christian vision and build the case for accepting its truth.

It seems to me that the documents of the Second Vatican Council do this pretty well, articulating a universal vision which leads ever more deeply into the heart of Catholicism. Pope John Paul II, as a personalist philosopher with a rock-solid classical background, was able to speak and write this way to a remarkable degree. The professorial Benedict XVI has the same gift; he is able to present the deepest concepts with disarming clarity in a language understandable by badly-trained Catholics and non-Catholics alike. It is not too much to say that the papal genius of the last generation has been to articulate the ancient Faith in a manner which shows how it perfects every natural insight, so that any serious enquirer can begin to glimpse the great riches of Catholicism.

The Nature of Dialogue

Dialogue was a very dirty word in orthodox Catholic circles back in the 1960’s and 1970’s, and with good reason. It seemed that every hare-brained theologian, most women religious, too many priests, and a depressingly large number of lay “intelligentsia” were all too eager to advance the necessity of “dialogue” as a reason to redefine the Faith, and as the means to discover how it should be redefined. This, of course, is nonsense. It is a kind of intellectual vacuity, lacking any resemblance to what John Paul II and Benedict XVI have meant by dialogue, as both have emphasized in discussing ecumenical relations. If you have any doubts, read Pope John Paul II’s Ut Unum Sint (That They May All Be One).

When Benedict meets with Islamic leaders and continuously calls for dialogue with Muslims, this has nothing to do with altering the Catholic Faith, but everything to do with opening the Muslim mind, through a common core of reason and humanity, to the saving work of Christ. It is important to note that all peoples possess natural and even spiritual goods which are worthy of respect, and the fact that Catholicism is the font of all spiritual goods does not mean that the cherished traditions and values of others are worthy of contempt. The Church’s thundering against Islam during periods of active warfare can easily be justified by the circumstances, but that approach never has brought Muslims to Christ. Recall that in the midst of all the thundering, St. Francis made his way to the Sultan’s tent to talk about the Faith. The style (indeed, the triumphalism) of past official statements, which often served a far more militant strategy, was not necessarily the most effective style for getting the job done.

Shooting the Messenger

The degree to which recent popes have been condemned in some quarters for what are essentially matters of style and strategy is nothing short of astonishing. Of course we all tend to be guilty of this in everyday life, often assuming that people are unorthodox because of the way in which they approach particular problems, how they conduct discussions, or which points they emphasize. At times these snap judgments prove justified, but often they don't. In any case, we can all perhaps understand the combination of shell-shock, zeal, and impatience which leads us to shoot first and ask questions later.

But we shouldn’t shoot first, and that’s the point. Those who condemn recent popes for abandoning the ancient Faith need to slow down and read the documents issued by these great men. They need to make a serious effort to understand the new and wonderful depth of human insight and explanation which has been placed at the service of the truths of the Faith over the past fifty years.

If those who are discontented prefer greater discipline, fine, I’m on board. If they yearn for an occasional example to be made of a wayward bishop or pastor, I can only say I agree that clear, swift consequences send a salutary message. But I part company with those who condemn the entire direction of the pontificates of the last fifty years as a betrayal of the one true Faith. Such people suffer an overwhelming confusion of style and substance, and they are aiming at the wrong targets. They must stop their endless cycle of shooting and reloading. They must learn to see beyond the narrow confines of a rifle scope.

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