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Is New Oxford Review Becoming a Protestant Publication?

by George A. Kendall

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  • Description:
    In recent years, the orthodox Catholic publication, New Oxford Review, has become more and more strident and outspoken in its attacks on the many abominations plaguing the post-Vatican II Church, something Wanderer types can certainly approve of, up to a point. However, it is starting to become evident that, among traditional Catholic publications, NOR is beginning to be a bit of a loose cannon. In this article George A. Kendall questions the Catholicity of the former Episcopalian publication as he cites many examples, which make him suspect that NOR's editor, Dale Vree, is falling back to some of his Calvinist beliefs.
  • Larger Work:
    The Wanderer
  • Pages: 4 & 9
  • Publisher & Date:
    Wanderer Printing Co., St. Paul, MN, August 24, 2006

Most of us (at least those who read publications like The Wanderer) are pretty familiar with Satan's skillfulness when it comes to using the ideas, or ideologies, of the Enlightenment, still very much alive in the 21st century, to separate Catholics from their faith. What is a little harder to fully appreciate is his ability to use orthodoxy to accomplish the same result. Yet we have seen it again and again — Catholic traditionalists who become so obsessed with their own, often drastically narrowed, brand of orthodoxy that they come to reject the very Church which nourished them in orthodoxy in the first place — people like the Lefebvrites and their many offshoots, for instance.

We used to call it the "more Catholic than the Pope" syndrome, but perhaps "more Catholic than the Church" would be an even better characterization.

Sadly, one orthodox Catholic publication which for a long time was a favorite of Wanderer readers seems to be falling into that temptation. I refer to the New Oxford Review, edited for many years now by Dale Vree. NOR got its start in the 1980s as a magazine put out by theologically (not necessarily politically) conservative Episcopalians alarmed by the trends in their church toward things like the ordination of women, approval of homosexuality, and so on. In the course of the next decade or so, their editors, one by one, converted to Catholicism, making it a traditional Catholic publication.

In recent years, NOR has become more and more strident and outspoken in its attacks on the many abominations plaguing the post-Vatican II Church, something Wanderer types can certainly approve of, up to a point. However, it is starting to become evident that, among traditional Catholic publications, NOR is beginning to be a bit of a loose cannon.

This has been especially evident in NOR's attitude toward Pope Benedict XVI. At the time of Pope Benedict's election, NOR seemed quite delighted, expressing the hope that now, at last, there would be some tough and firm governance of the Church, a welcome change from the laissez-faire attitude that often seemed to characterize the reign of Pope John Paul. One got the feeling that NOR was hoping that maybe the Inquisition would now make a comeback (yes, I admit I fantasize about that too, occasionally). Within a short time, however, all that changed. Suddenly there was attack after attack on Pope Benedict in the pages of NOR.

The burden of much of the criticism seems to be that the new Pope did not, within minutes of his accession, begin mass excommunications of liberal bishops, especially American ones.

In addition, NOR was quite upset by Pope Benedict's document on homosexuals in the priesthood, a document which, while clearly stating the principle that homosexuals were not to be admitted to Holy Orders, left some wiggle room by suggesting that there was room for discretion in cases of persons who had perhaps had some involvement with homosexual activity in adolescence but did not have deep-seated homosexual proclivities.

NOR was especially irked by the appointment of Archbishop William Levada (now a cardinal) to head the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, given his tendency to kowtow to pressure from the homosexual lobbies. At one point NOR implied that Levada was pro-homosexual when he urged homosexual priests to keep their homosexuality secret.

NOR got very upset when the Pope had a meeting with Hans Kung, apparently a fairly cordial one.

Most recently, NOR has managed to come up with an interpretation of Pope Benedict's encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, according to which it is the opening move in a campaign for Church acceptance of homosexuality.

Let us look at these points one at a time. NOR's impatience with the slow pace of reform is something most of us can understand. We have been wandering in the desert for so long now, and there seems no end in sight. We are looking for someone to lead us out, and the sooner the better. At age 64, I cannot help dreaming that maybe there will be a visible restoration of the Church before I shuffle off this mortal coil, if only so that, upon my demise, I might have a real requiem Mass, Dies Irae and all, not some vapid celebration of my life.

However, we need to at least consider the possibility that there is some prudence in the Pope's low-key approach. Were he to begin removing liberal bishops from office and otherwise throwing his weight around with the ecclesiastical establishment, he would embroil himself in some brutal and very nasty politics, quite possibly with little effect on the direction of the Church.

What we need to remember is that the liberal establishment in the Church today consists largely of people who are getting rather long in the tooth. One of these years, the grim reaper is going to render moot the question of what to do about them. Yes, they represent the upper echelons of the Church now, but in not that many years they will be gone. The people who will matter, who will be leading the Church at that point, will be those at the lower levels of the episcopacy today.

And there, the trend is encouraging. We are seeing a pattern of appointment of solidly orthodox new bishops. In Michigan, where I live, we have, in recent years, seen the appointments of Robert Carlson in Saginaw (previously ruled with an iron fist by the ultraliberal Kenneth Untener) and Alexander Sample in Marquette. People like this will soon be running the store, and the present liberal establishment will be irrelevant.

This also defuses, to a great extent, Vree's concerns about the document on homosexuals in the priesthood. I am, of course, in partial agreement with NOR. While it makes sense in principle to leave some room for the use of common sense in cases like this, in the current environment this is the classic loophole that you can drive a truck through, especially if the driver is a liberal American bishop. The Vatican document on this question may well be deficient, yet there is probably no way it could have been so perfectly worded as to guarantee against liberal barhops finding a way about it. People like this, if they can't find loopholes, can make them (or just ignore the document, as often happens. Think of Ex Corde Ecclesiae).

But the fact is, it is the local ordinaries who are the gatekeepers to the priesthood. It is they who determine, ultimately, who gets admitted to the seminaries, and who gets ordained. As we get more and more orthodox bishops at the diocesan level, we will see fewer and fewer homosexuals being ordained. That is far more effective than any Vatican document.

One gets the feeling that Vree's basic idea about the papacy is that the Pope is there to function as Vree's surrogate, to carry out Vree's personal agenda, and that, if he fails to do so, it is incumbent on Vree to reprimand. Vree wants reform on Vree's terms, and he wants it right now. It reminds me of the bumper sticker that says: "Lord, give me patience — NOW!"

Many of us were disappointed over Archbishop Levada's appointment to head the doctrinal congregation, but, given that the appointment was made, it is only prudent to wait and see. Anything else involves the sin of rash judgment. Vree's interpretation of Levada's advice to homosexual priests to avoid going public regarding their homosexuality was certainly an instance of rash judgment. Rather than assume that Levada's advice was part of a continuing cover-up of homosexuality in the priesthood, it seems reasonable to me, at least, to interpret it as meaning: If you are a priest, and homosexual, don't make things worse by going public and thereby giving scandal. But Vree leaps immediately on the interpretation that puts Levada in the worst light. That is what rash judgment is about.

Similar considerations apply to Vree's reaction to the Pope's meeting with Hans Kung. Vree immediately assumes that the Pope is in some way sympathetic with Kung's modernist theology. It doesn't seem to occur to him that Pope Benedict may be trying to open up channels of communication in the hope of winning Kung back to orthodoxy and, most important, perhaps saving his soul.

As regards Deus Caritas Est being a step toward eventually legitimizing homosexuality, I really am left speechless. Perhaps that is just as well, as the assertion is so preposterous as to not merit serious attention.

Beyond these considerations, I suspect that NOR's, and Vree's, attitude toward the Pope may have deeper spiritual roots. A clue to these may be found in a controversy that has been going on for the past several months in the letters section of NOR, one in which I have managed to get myself embroiled. NOR has been harping for some time now on the theme that "God hates sinner," which they have clarified to mean that He hates unrepentant sinners. In my responses, I have tried to tell them that it is inconceivable that God could hate any creature of His, not even the souls in Hell, because if He withdrew His love from any creature, it would instantly cease to exist.

Furthermore, Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, commanded us to love our enemies, because we are called to be like our Father in Heaven, who loves His enemies. His enemies, presumably, would be unrepentant sinners. And St. Paul tells us that Christ died for us when we were yet sinners, adding that ". . . while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son" (Romans 5:8, 10).

Some of Vree's responses to these points were quite interesting. Incredibly, in relation to the reference I made to St. Paul, Vree answers, in contradiction to the clear meaning of the passage, that it was only repentant sinners Christ died for. That is interesting, because in that case no unrepentant sinner could possibly repent and be saved, because once you are an unrepentant sinner, God hates you and will not give you the grace of repentance. More important, Vree appears to be saying that there exists a class of people for whom Christ did not die. This is one of the errors of the Jansenists which the Church explicitly condemned in 1653. That raises some questions about NOR's apparent image of itself as totally orthodox.

Vree rejects the assertion that God loves the souls in Hell, stating that this would be a "sick love," and that if God truly loved these souls He would simply annihilate them. That God loves the souls in Hell is what the nuns taught me many years ago, and I believe it is Catholic teaching. My response to Vree was that being always has primacy for Catholic thought, and that God's love for creatures precludes His taking away being from them. Vree responded that this is "mere philosophy."

That is a rather odd objection for a Catholic to make, given the hugely important role that philosophy has played for many centuries now for Catholics as the handmaid of theology. That reminds me of the way some people, mostly liberals, will dismiss any statement that involves much analytical thinking as "intellectualizing."

As regards the Sermon on the Mount, with its clear implication that God loves His enemies and that we are called to do the same if we are to be like Him, Vree, rather than showing that I have misinterpreted this teaching, simply falls back, in a fundamentalist way, on the many biblical passages in which God is said to hate sinners. I tried to explain that the Bible, especially the Old Testament, does not always use words with the kind of theological precision we would find in the Church's official doctrinal formulations. Here, too, I found I was talking to the wall.

Vree makes much of St. Paul's statement (Romans 1:24) that God has abandoned sinners, but he doesn't seem to understand that this abandonment is itself the work of divine love, that God may leave us to stew in our own juices, to experience the destructiveness and the horror of sin, in order to move us to repentance. It is an understanding that has deep roots in Catholic Tradition. This is certainly a major part of the meaning of the parable of the prodigal son. Vree doesn't respond to this either, but merely dismisses its "preposterous."

A theme that I am beginning to notice here, on Vree's part, is a tendency to shy away from, perhaps even have an allergic reaction to, typically Catholic ways of thinking. Instead, we get statements that you would expect to hear from John Calvin, not Pope Benedict. Vree was, in fact, brought up in the Dutch Reformed Church, which, at least at the time of his childhood, was about the closest thing to a truly hard-core Calvinist Church that you would be likely to find in America.

Certainly, the whole theme of God hating sinners fits in very well with the Calvinist doctrine that some are predestined to be damned, as does his interpretation of divine abandonment as final rejection by God. What is truly revealing, however, is his dismissal of "mere philosophy." A central theme of the Protestant Reformation was the rejection of philosophy as having any legitimate role in the formation of Christian doctrine. Calvin and Luther inveighed continually against the evils of "scholasticism." Protestantism, especially in its Calvinist form, sees fallen human nature as so totally corrupted as to be incapable of knowing truth; hence, philosophy, which presupposes that the human intellect, even its fallen state, can in fact know some truth, has to be rejected. Calvinism denies what the Catholic Church has always taught, namely, hence it tends to reject the natural as such.

Now, Calvinism has to be understood as, in large measure, an example of the kind of religion that comes into being when people recoil from the mystery of the Incarnation and the tremendous and unimaginable divine mercy that mystery embodies, the "too much" that Pope John Paul spoke of. When people find the mystery of divine mercy to be indeed "too much" for them, they tend to fall back on a religion which abolishes or at least minimizes the mystery, a simpler and more comprehensible religion in which there is justice but no mercy, or at least very little. The ultimate expression of that reaction against the Incarnation is Islam, but Calvinism is a close second and in fact resembles Islam in many ways. It is technically Christian, in that it formally acknowledges the Incarnation, but it puts that mystery off on the back burner and marginalizes it.

What you end up with is a religion in which God hates His enemies, and you can, with a good conscience, hate God's enemies too. Conveniently, they have a way of turning out to be your enemies. The June issue of NOR even contained an article attacking the idea that we should hate the sin but love the sinner, saying that this is not really a Catholic teaching, and that sinners, being the authors of their sins, ought to be hated.

And, of course, self-righteousness plays a major role in this kind of religion. Its practitioners play the role of the Pharisee in the Temple, thanking God for making him so much better than his neighbors. People like this get a lot of satisfaction out of believing that God hates people other than themselves, so much so that it never seems to occur to them to consider the possibility that perhaps they are unrepentant sinners whom God hates. The Church, after all, teaches us that no one can be certain that his is in the state of grace, though many Protestants think they can have that kind of certainty and often seek it.

In short, Dale Vree seems to have a quite difficult time thinking with the Church, and I suspect this is so because he is, deep down, still a Calvinist. NOR, as noted above, got started as an Episcopalian publication, then gradually metamorphosed into a Catholic one. Ominously, the June issue has an article entitled, "Is the Catholic Church Going the Way of the Episcopal Church?" That might suggest that Vree is beginning to prepare the ground for still another change of churches. I hope that I am wrong, but I suspect that, sometime in the next few years, we might see NOR becoming a Protestant, fundamentalist periodical, with a strong Calvinist cast.

It would be wonderful if Vree were to do some serious soul-searching and come to realize that somewhere along the line he got on the wrong track. He, and NOR need our prayers.

© George A. Kendall
The Wanderer

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