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The Cautionary End of the Spirit of Vatican II

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles ) | Jan 17, 2008

A priest of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, Fr. Paul Stanosz, has written a fascinating article for Commonweal on clerical morale, but it is fascinating only because it reveals far more than the author intends (see The Other Health Crisis: Why Priests Are Coping Poorly, 11/23/2007). As Commonweal was one of the first magazines to join the counter-magisterium of Catholic intellectuals in the 1960’s, I haven’t paid much attention to it for a very long time. But this article unintentionally demonstrates an extremely important spiritual point.

“The Other Health Crisis” begins by documenting the problems afflicting the author’s own archdiocese, along with the impact of these problems on priestly morale, emotional stability and physical health. The assumption is that these problems are universal, but the article ignores the special character of the Milwaukee archdiocese which, during the long critical period leading up to the present crisis, was shaped and staffed by the most prominent of episcopal dissenters, Rembert Weakland, a bishop who was also reportedly an active homosexual who misused diocesan funds in a vain attempt to permanently conceal his extra-curricular activities. It is therefore no surprise that Milwaukee is laboring under the impact of a severe decline in vocations, a confused spirituality, and monumental sex abuse damages; one is tempted to believe the church in Milwaukee has reaped what it has sown. But though extreme, Milwaukee is hardly alone in its problems, and I don’t want to be too quick to dismiss the article’s thesis. That thesis is clear and simple: There is far more responsible for the decline of Catholicism in America than poor doctrinal, moral and spiritual leadership on the part of bishops and priests.

Unstoppable Trends

The argument runs like this: Catholicism has been adversely affected by the larger social trends characteristic of the vast cultural shift in America beginning in the 1960’s. There has been a general trend toward secularization, a declining interest in religion, reduced rates of Church attendance, and a failure to learn the basis of traditional beliefs and values—all large cultural factors which the Church cannot be said to have caused, but with which her ministers must daily attempt to cope. The author is surely correct to note this larger cultural aspect of our religious problems, and he is also correct to observe that, starting in the 1960’s, Catholics took advantage of their rapidly expanding opportunities to enter the mainstream, often at the cost of their spiritual identity.

But by “Catholics” in this context, the article seems to mean only the laity, and entirely on their own. In fact bishops and priests, who should have known better, also often rushed into the mainstream at the cost of their Catholic identity, shepherding many others to do the same. And what is curious about Fr. Stanosz’ analysis is not its identification of these large cultural factors, but its failure to envision any possible alternative response on the part of the Church. For Stanosz both implicitly and explicitly assumes that there is nothing the Church could have done to deal more effectively with the cultural crisis, and that there is nothing the Church can possibly do now to make things any better. Thus he rapidly dismisses the “alleged dilution of Catholicism” during this same period (note the term alleged), and he carelessly exhorts us to “stop blaming Vatican II or the bumbling bishops who shielded pedophiles and failed to protect children” (note the assumption that most critics blame Vatican II rather than those who distorted it; note also how the subject of episcopal bumbling is neatly exhausted by the shielding of pedophiles). Finally, he insists “we should avoid blithely scapegoating ‘the culture of death’ and the evil of the secular world” (I love the use of the words blithely and scapegoating).

My point is not to damn the author’s outrageous prose with faint praise. Rather, I wish to note his deep conviction that there is quite simply nothing to be done. After all, he has already written off the following: an undiluted presentation of the Faith, a proper implementation of the vision of the Second Vatican Council, insistence on strong and competent bishops, and any sort of deep opposition to secularization in general and the culture of death in particular. So what is left? Failure is the only remaining possibility, and the article is explicit on this point. There are “large social, cultural, and economic forces” at work in the decline of Catholicism, and “that decline is not about to reverse itself”. Priests can never be happy and whole again until they recognize this inescapable fact and so cut themselves some slack. “I’m not advocating apathy,” says Fr. Stanosz, “I’m merely recognizing that the decline began before me and will continue after me.” And so on to the inevitable conclusion: “To restore health to our pastoral function, we priests first need to admit our own pain and disorientation in a foundering church.”

Wisdom and Foolishness

Don’t get me wrong. Being a priest must certainly intensify the struggle and frequent disappointment of being a Christian. But a proper spirituality includes the important understanding that the economy of salvation is more complex than we ourselves can ever imagine. Sometimes one person sows—and sows very well indeed—but it is still another who reaps. On the human level, this is disappointing. If Fr. Stanosz were offering advice to younger priests and seminarians in a faithful journal such as Homiletic and Pastoral Review, we might consider him wise indeed to restrain the impetuosity of the young by reminding them that they will neither always see the fruits of their labors nor always understand how and when the graces they merit are applied. But even so, they must remain confident that through conformity with Christ their lives will bear great fruit. What ultimately matters is not measurable results but conformity with Christ.

This is wisdom indeed, but Fr. Stanosz is instead writing for a bastion of dissidence called Commonweal, and he in fact concludes that there is nothing to be done. I said at the outset that this article was fascinating precisely because it reveals more than it intends. In exploring its thesis, I have already hinted at what is being revealed, partly through my parenthetical comments on some of the alternative ideas the author so “blithely” discounts or rejects. What is really going on here is the working out to its inevitable conclusion of a bankrupt but widespread mindset which we might justly call the Milwaukee mindset, because it is so well symbolized by the story of the church in Milwaukee. But this is really just another name for the false spirit of Vatican II. What I mean will become clear as we examine an important thread that runs throughout “The Other Health Crisis”.

The beginning of the thread is the author’s observation, in describing the current failure of priestly morale, that there is a growing polarization between recently-ordained and long-time priests, “what some call JPII priests and Vatican II priests, respectively.” Now every active Catholic who has lived above ground for the past generation knows that these two terms are codes. John Paul II waged a long and uphill battle to reclaim the true meaning of the Second Vatican Council from those who used the so-called “spirit of Vatican II” as an excuse for deliberately fostering within the Church precisely what Fr. Stanosz describes as an insurmountable external cultural and social trend: The dilution of the spirit of Catholicism to accommodate the spirit of the times.

Speaking in Code

Thus, for a “Vatican II” priest like Fr. Stanosz, the term “JP II priest” is code for a priest who is a throwback to the pre-conciliar age, a cultural misfit who rejects the “spirit” of Vatican II which must necessarily guide our lives, and a deeply flawed man who cannot possibly relate positively to anybody. But the real decoded difference between a “Vatican II” priest and a “John Paul II” priest is actually the difference between those who have never taken the letter of Vatican II to heart and those who have. Instead of mining the Council documents for the serious spiritual challenge they proposed, the so-called Vatican II priest too often served the spirit of the age under the Council’s name. This provided an exhilarating opportunity to profess Christ without being flushed out of the mainstream and to put faith in programs and processes instead of spiritual growth and holiness, or, putting it more simply, to attempt to have one’s cake and eat it too. In contrast, the so-called John Paul II priest has followed the vicar of Christ in seeking to implement what the Council actually said, which was centered not on the transformation of Christ to suit the self and the world, but on the transformation of both the self and the world to suit Christ.

For a generation and more, “Vatican II” bishops and “Vatican II” priests called for ever more accommodation with the mainstream, ever increasing bureaucratic programs, and ever less prayer, devotion, and sacrifice. Whenever anyone called for what we might call good old Catholic muscle (traditional understandings of sin and grace restated and developed to face contemporary challenges), their suggestions were rejected and ridiculed as products of a bygone age. It is this vision of a sophisticated, secularized and thoroughly “up-to-date” Church and priesthood that is symbolized by Milwaukee, and which constitutes the unfortunate Milwaukee mindset that permeates the entire article.

Do you think I am too quick to judge? Consider how consistent the “coded” language is throughout. The author begins with the same psychological canards (also code phrases) which have been used frequently during the post-Conciliar period to force men of traditional Catholic spirituality out of our seminaries. Noting the recent influx of “JP II” priests, he immediately asserts that simply ordaining more priests will not solve the problem. Here’s why:

Bishops in recent years have been too quick to fill seminaries with fervent men who may or may not have genuine vocations. As a result, our seminaries now house a new breed of unsuitable candidates, men with poor relational and leadership skills. Ordained into a U.S. church that is losing its vitality, these men often seek to turn back the clock by embracing disciplines and devotional practices that flourished in the middle of the last century.

A strong vertical spirituality is a confirmed horizontalist's nightmare, and so it is invariably dismissed in Modernist psycho-babble as indicating “poor relational and leadership skills.”

Caricatures and False Opposites

Next the author cites his own sociological work (another academic discipline which, in the wrong hands, has been used to redefine the Faith to suit common patterns established by the lukewarm). He recalls as a sort of overwhelming statistical trend the many priestly candidates he has interviewed “who see the priesthood as a refuge” where “their personal limitations and modest abilities are no obstacle”. These men are too often “filled with a sense of their own sacred status, and are prone to conflict with the laity and fellow priests.” His research suggests that such men are likely to become unhappy and disgruntled. This too is code. For example, the phrase “prone to conflict with” most often really means “prone to challenge”.

We may all readily grant that some few candidates lack spiritual depth and wish to “escape” into the priesthood because they can’t make it anywhere else, or that a few others have an unhealthy (i.e., purely artistic or sentimental) attachment to older forms of spirituality. May we not assume, however, that the author is very likely objecting to such relics of devotional practice as Benediction, Eucharistic adoration, the Stations of the Cross, the Rosary, prayers to the saints, or even older liturgical forms, all of which are still supposed to be a vibrant part of the life of the Church? Indeed, Fr. Stanosz wields a very broad brush. Is it necessarily (or even probably) true that a seminarian with a strong sense of the sacred character of the priesthood must have a false sense of his own self-worth? Is it not possible that he understands that his very identity will be changed by ordination, that he will be empowered through his priestly identification with Christ to bring great grace to others without expecting better treatment than his Master?

To his credit, Fr. Stanosz is “not convinced” that the current progressive agenda of women’s ordination, married clergy, same-sex unions and permissible abortion will be able to revive the Church, but instead of understanding this as the last tortured gasp of the Milwaukee mindset, he can only contrast it with what he regards as an equally doomed opposite, a “return to preconciliar practices,” as if this is the essence of the John Paul II priest (and as if, even were it so, it is just as bad as abortion and same-sex marriage offered under the Catholic name).

Repentance or Despair?

What are we to make of an article which, in the process of concluding that there is nothing to be done, displays such an animus against precisely those spiritual solutions which have ever been at the heart of a vibrant Catholicism? What does it all mean? That’s the question which makes the article so fascinating, the question to which it is critical to understand the answer. For what it all means is that the Milwaukee mindset is so far gone in its sins that the only way open is despair. The so-called spirit of Vatican II which has wielded such a terrible power for the past forty years was nothing more than a euphoric baptism of secular utopianism. After such a long and continuous demonstration of its bankruptcy, many of its proponents have prudently stopped calling for more of the same. One might now hope for self-understanding, repentance and true renewal. But if our Commonweal article is any guide—and I believe it is—what we are witnessing instead is the only result consistent with a lack of repentance, that is, despair.

I want to pause here to emphasize that what makes Fr. Stanosz' article so important is not that one can completely understand and pigeon-hole the author from a single article, as if authors have no more personal complexity than appears in any one thing they write. Rather, what is important is that the article itself brilliantly illustrates the inevitable unfolding of the false spirit of Vatican II, the completely predictable devolution of that spirit into the only thing ever promised by its ultimate author. This is the reason I have gone on at three times the length of what is normally a brief column. We have here a lesson that every Christian who is still standing must learn if he hopes to escape the same dreadful consequence. Again I say it: this is the lesson of despair.

Fr. Stanosz may be right to see that “an aging presbyterate should not exhaust itself in implementing new programs that are at best only Band-Aids” (indeed, such programs are often based on the substitution of managed processes for spiritual challenges). But that is all he sees. If all the precious vision statements and bureaucratic programs to which he has committed his life are bankrupt, then we are not surprised to find he now has a personal interest in proving every other path to be even worse. If the Milwaukee mindset couldn’t super-charge priests and fill churches, then nothing can. This is the full argument to which we are treated in “The Other Health Crisis”. There is no hope; there can be no hope; any priest who has hope is in denial, and “the greatest threat to a priest’s well-being is denial.” Who is it then who poses the real danger for our author? Unsurprisingly, the target is the same as it always was in the Milwaukee mindset: “We priests know we are in trouble…and the forced optimism of those afraid of appearing insufficiently orthodox—or disloyal to Rome—strikes me as a failure of perception, honesty, and faith.”

After all, what explanation other than fear could there be for fidelity to Rome and the positive spiritual outlook that goes with it? This too is Milwaukee mindset code, this too is the common parlance of the spirit of Vatican II. And for any who still doubt, consider Fr. Stanosz’ final advice to priests as they all wait for a brighter day when the inexorable cultural and social processes will be more favorable:

In the meantime, we must learn to be a different kind of church. We’ve made progress in overcoming our pretensions to being a triumphal, all-knowing, sinless church. But more progress remains to be made; and paradoxically, it begins with acknowledging—and in a certain sense accepting—the decline of U.S. Catholicism.

Hope in Christ

I suppose we have effectively overcome perceptions of a sinless church by sinning, and we ought to do more of the same. But let it go. See how the de-triumphalizing of the Church (which is yet more code) is now a key to a different lock. The abolition of “triumphalism” was originally sold as the key to the Church’s broader appeal and influence; now it is hawked as the key to reducing our aspirations so we can be content with failure. On this reading, all aspirations are triumphal. After all, as Fr. Stanosz points out in a passage more decisive than he knows, not even John Paul II could fill the churches, and “the new evangelization he called for remains to be undertaken.” We have already been told that the “decline is not about to reverse itself”— it “began before me and will continue after me.” The new evangelization cannot even be contemplated until the insurmountable cultural and social forces change, at which time “Catholicism will evolve.”

Paradoxically, this is the most revealing point of all, and it may serve as a fitting conclusion. For the most important difference between the priests of the Milwaukee mindset and the “fervent men” with whom the bishops are now “too quick to fill seminaries” is that the old guard believes successful evangelization must be the product of the cultural shifts and social trends in which they have always put their trust. But priests of Faith calculate the odds differently, for they do not doubt that the one they serve has overcome the world—and all its social trends, and all its empty promises. So when priests of Faith consider this impossible work of evangelization, they hear the Master asking: “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” (Is 6:8) And to this they give an answer which makes dust and ashes of the Milwaukee mindset, an answer so simple, direct and daring that it bypasses argument and cannot be rationalized away, an answer by which they cast themselves into the deep for no other reason than to obey the will of God: Here I am! Send me.

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