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Interregnum: The Church Then, Now and Tomorrow

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Mar 01, 2013

We are now between popes, and that is certainly an occasion to reflect deeply on who we are and where we are going. This is also an appropriate Lenten task for all of us, and the present circumstances suggest that we ought to consider how faithfully we have responded to the Petrine ministry in the past, and what we need to make that ministry more effective in the future. For “he who hears you hears me” and “he who rejects you rejects me, and he who rejects me rejects him who sent me” (Lk 10:16). Though Christ said this of all the disciples, it applies preeminently to Peter and his successors, for whom Our Lord prayed, that they might confirm their brethren in the faith (Lk 22:32).

Some of us might be further moved to reflect on where the Church has been recently, where it is now, and where it is likely to go under the direction of the successors of Peter in the immediate future. That is what I intend to do here, but with two important caveats. First, if my analysis resonates with you, please do not treat it as a news story. Analysis and opinion are not news. Hopefully they assist in understanding, but they do not constitute any sort of an inside story. Personal resonance proves nothing. Even if I appear to justify a reader’s very best prejudices (prejudgments), I have proved nothing. Second, I could be wrong about the future. Why should I be different from everybody else?

Where We’ve Been

Most of the struggles in the Church today are the result of the battle between what we might call authentic renewal and mere change. In some form, the Church faces the same sort of struggle in every time and place. In the “good old days”, when the Church was a highly influential social institution and her bishops held a high social and political position, saints and reformers had to struggle against the constant temptation of the Church’s leadership to live by political control instead of through spiritual growth. There was the constant temptation to identify the health of the Church with conformity to social norms

In the age immediately preceding our own (say the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries), the Church had just been through a long and painful diminishment of her social and political authority. Her “control” had largely shrunk to her own internal affairs, where she still made and enforced the rules. She was a tight ship of sanity holding her own against a very turbulent sea. During this period, as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has mentioned several times, there grew a marked tendency for Catholics to live the Christian life “prescriptively”—to follow the rules that made Catholics immediately distinguishable from non-Catholics: To attend Mass every Sunday, to wear ashes, to fast and abstain on the appointed days, to recite the catechism, to obey the laws of the Church, and to say: “Just tell me what I need to do to make it to purgatory.”

For theologians, this prescriptivism meant keeping in line with the largely scholastic theological “manuals”, and repudiating as a liberal threat the call for revivifying theology through a return to the sources of Christianity (such as Scripture and the Fathers)—a call made by such theological luminaries, held in suspicion early on, as de Lubac, Congar, von Balthasar, and Ratzinger.

All of these prescriptive habits were, of course, originally intended to be both signs of and inducements to a deep relationship with Christ and a spiritual bonding with our neighbors in the Body of Christ. Undoubtedly they worked that way for many. But it is difficult to deny that for huge numbers—even for huge numbers of priests and religious—even for huge numbers of bishops—these things were only skin deep. They were a structure built on sand. “The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell; and great was the fall of it” (Mt 7:27). This was the state of many in the Church in the mid-20th century.

Now there were two broad Catholic responses to this “prescriptive” approach to the Catholic life from the beginning of the 20th century. One of these responses was Modernism. Modernism became the theological haven of those who understood the Faith prescriptively but in fact did not like the rules. This was not born of a deep relationship with Christ but a deep desire to be able to live as the world lived. So the theological key was to find a justification for changing the rules. That key was the theory that Revelation is always culture bound. Some sense of the presence of God is always trying to break through to us, and all we can do is interpret that Presence in terms of our own cultural categories. Hence the norms of Christian faith and morals change from age to age, but always possess the same validity.

Now this is such a transparent attempt to justify the morals of the dominant culture that it is a wonder that so many people have been fooled by it. Yet it is not so much a wonder as a testimony to the blinders we all wear when it comes to temptation, especially sexual temptation and the temptation to be fashionable. In any case, Modernism spread like wildfire in theological faculties and seminaries in the first half of the 20th century, playing a huge role in the formation of priests and bishops by mid-century. Ecclesiastical authority was strong enough to keep it underground until the cultural shift of the 1960s. It was then that the entire Western world suddenly cast off the last vestiges of a Christian moral consensus. Now Modernism could ally itself with the powerful secularism which it theologically justified, and a revolution was born.

But I said that there were two broad Catholic responses, and the other was authentic Catholic renewal. In theology, that renewal was led by those I have already mentioned and their allies. In liturgy, there was a well-known and highly-prized movement for liturgical renewal in Europe in the first half of the 20th century (for those who may wonder, this movement did not produce the liturgy established in the Novus Ordo; some of its ideas were incorporated, and many others left out—the preceding movement was treated very selectively, just like Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy). There were analogues in other aspects of Catholic life during this period, such as Catholic Action.

But the 800-pound gorilla of Catholic renewal was the Second Vatican Council. It was the Council which took great pains to move beyond mere prescription and to articulate, for the universal Church, the deeper meaning of the Church and the Christian life, especially its inner connection to Christ and the Divine plan for all men. The Council thus sought to open the Church to herself and, in so doing, open the Church to the legitimate aspirations of all mankind. Through the Council, the Church in effect said this:

Every human person has an innate dignity and an aspiration for happiness and fulfillment. This is part of God’s plan. And the Church has something vital to say about this. Christianity is not a collection of negations; it is not even primarily a set of rules. Rather, the Church holds the key to this happiness and fulfillment, for the Church is the very extension in time of Christ, the Creator and Lord of all. The Church is the embodiment of God’s love as history unfolds. So let the Church be renewed by a deeper understanding of what it means to be Catholic, and let the world be renewed through the leaven of the Church.

Where We Are

There can be scarcely any surprise, therefore, that the first lifetime of years following the Council was characterized by a titanic clash between these two broad Catholic responses. On the one hand, we had at the exact moment of the Council a rapid cultural shift which led the Modernists to be lionized by the larger secular culture, enabled them openly to seize the reins of power in many sectors of the Church, and enabled them to confuse nearly everyone by arguing that their program was exactly what the authentic renewal called for by the Council required them to do. Thus, to the enduring applause of the world, churches morphed from butterflies into worms, charity and health care officials ignored moral principles, Catholic educational institutions vied with each other to see which could attain broader cultural approval and endorsement first, religious orders abandoned their charisms in favor of whatever causes the larger secular world thought important, and the rights of the faithful—catechetically, liturgically, and even sexually—were abused through a new sort of clericalism, a clericalism serving the interests of a culture which was running, as fast as it could, away from Christ.

An important component of this cultural shift—and so an important component of what Modernism sought to justify—was sexual license, including promiscuity, contraception, abortion, and homosexuality. This is a story that everybody now knows. The shift was reflected in the textbooks used in religious education, the rebellion against Humanae vitae’s condemnation of contraception, a commonly vague and seriously deficient manner of preaching, the rise of annulment as a form of Catholic divorce, growing acceptance by “liberal” Catholics of abortion, and an attitude that varied between acceptance and encouragement for homosexual behavior. Everybody knows about this because the secular media loves to catch the Church in hypocrisy, even when it approves the outcomes for everybody else. But it was not just sexual; it was all of a piece.

On the other hand, this vast cultural movement was opposed by all those who sought to implement the authentic renewal called for by the Council. While Pope Paul VI admitted his inability even to begin to deal with this upheaval, and John Paul I lasted only a few days in office, Pope John Paul II clearly saw it as his mission to recover the meaning of the Council from the Modernist/secularist juggernaut, a point he began to make increasingly clear and specific beginning around 1985. John Paul II, of course, did much to strengthen confidence among fundamentally sound Catholics around the world, enabling them to identify with the successor of Peter. And he incessantly sought by teaching, example, and appointments to encourage bishops to be good bishops. His appointments got better and better as his pontificate went on, and he fostered a whole new generation of what are now called “JPII priests”.

His successor, Benedict XVI, now emeritus, had been a patient and tireless assistant in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, seeking always to clarify the issues raised by wayward theologians while pointing them toward deeper truths. Even before he was elected Pope, Cardinal Ratzinger gradually took on a greater role in ecclesiastical discipline, most notably by winning control for his Congregation over cases of sexual abuse so that swifter and more decisive action could be taken. But John Paul II was either not prone to lead through discipline or did not find himself in circumstances where a major disciplinary assault could yet bear fruit. Once Benedict was elected, even though he was by nature and long habit a scholar, discipline picked up a notch, episcopal appointments improved still more, some very scandalous bishops were removed from office, and many more were pressed to resign or, if older, had their required nominal resignations accepted with alacrity.

Pope Benedict also gave extremely important names to the most important problems of the secular world and the Church. For the secular world, he coined the phrase “dictatorship of relativism” to crystallize a profoundly necessary counter-cultural position for the Church, along with all men and women of good will, against the dominant culture of the secular West. For the Church, he explained that what was going on was a battle for the authentic implementation of the Second Vatican Council, which could only be won if good Catholics proceeded with a true “hermeneutic of continuity” against a false “hermeneutic of rupture.” These names were illuminating; they became popular; they have become more influential each day simply by making certain fundamental realities easier for everyone to grasp.

Gradually, under the patient and increasingly aggressive tutelage of two great popes, the episcopate has revived. Toward the end of Benedict’s pontificate, a public and pointed renewal of Catholic social and health services was set in motion. Since John Paul II’s Ex corde ecclesiae, many colleges and universities have undergone significant renewal, though many others are so far refusing to budge. Quite a number of religious communities have grown in fidelity, with a renewed emphasis on their founding charisms, though as a body, religious orders are not as far along yet as dioceses. And women religious, particularly in the United States, still face enormous problems. But the situation varies with each order, as it does with each diocese.

Sound doctrine is more often heard from the pulpit, in the confessional, and from teachers and textbooks in Catholic schools. Again, mileage varies from place to place, but the publication of the monumental Catechism of the Catholic Church has gradually borne important fruit in the progressive revision of catechetical texts, and the sheer ease by which all—priests and laity alike—can find a clear, up-to-date and spiritually rich presentation of what the Church teaches. It is hard to use the “then” and “now” argument, so popular with Modernists, in the face of a major official reference published in the 1990s and publicly enjoined upon the Church.

At the same time, several things have become very clear in the relationship between the Church and the larger culture as a whole. First, the idea that making the Church more worldly would strengthen it in the midst of the larger culture has been shown to be the opposite of the truth. Second, the notion that the Church could strengthen its position by unceasingly advocating for popular social concerns while neglecting doctrine has led to nothing but a greater willingness of the secular world to demand that the Church relinquish her doctrinal and moral teachings altogether, as well as surrendering a good deal of her wealth. Third, a world that desperately wants the Church to admit the goodness of sexual promiscuity and same-sex attraction still draws the line at the sexual abuse of children by adults, and especially by hypocrites in the Church. The world may not draw that line much longer, but this is one instance in which secular pressure (even if it is often ill-motivated) is pushing the Church in the right direction.

That direction is counter-cultural, on all points. And that is where we are today, immediately following the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI. We are in the midst of a Church just beginning to strengthen itself once again in the only way possible, by the exercise of its ecclesiastical muscles against forces which do not effortlessly go along, but which resist. This is the nature of exercise. Despite the strange cultural boost (or kick) the Church has gotten from the scandal, our most intractable problems now are those where the dominant secular culture strenuously applauds and supports what is wrong within the Church. Catholic universities are a telling example. But the Church really is exercising now, and she is getting stronger by the day.

Where We’re Going

It seems to me that we Catholics are on the verge of a greatness which those of my generation did not hope to see in our lifetimes, though some of us worked toward it just the same. At age sixty-five, I have lived through a long period in which, on the surface, the Church rarely seemed to be herself. In every Catholic discussion we have had to probe more deeply, verbally scraping away a rotting modern wardrobe to reassure people that the true Church of Christ is still there, “yesterday, today and forever” (Heb 13:8), a Church which, as the Body and Bride of Christ, really can “make all things new” (Rev 21:5). While the Church is always clothed too much by the sins of her members, her inner reality is easier to see now, in most places around the world, than it was forty or fifty years ago.

And it seems to me that we are in the early stages of a trend—the mere beginnings of the renewal prompted by the Holy Spirit and called for by the Second Vatican Council—which will result in a more bountiful harvest for some time to come. It is not yet clear whether this harvest will be made under the duress of persecution (as is already beginning in the West) or through popular conversion and the slow transformation of culture (as is already beginning elsewhere). But though we always live by the supernatural virtue of hope, at the human level there now seems to be what we (perhaps foolishly) call “legitimate hope”, hope that the new springtime foreseen by Pope John Paul II is about to blossom, even in our own days.

To understand the future, we have to understand the past and present, which is why I have spent considerable time articulating where we have been and where we are now, as a Church. In Pope John Paul II, we had a young, vigorous, and magnetic shepherd who, over a remarkably long pontificate, brought hope everywhere he went and refocused the whole Church on the successor of Peter, enabling people to see beyond corruption at lower levels. He was also a brilliant philosopher who was able to reframe the Church’s understanding of sexuality in a way that substitutes for prescriptivism a deeper understanding of the nature and ends of the human person. His “theology of the body” promises to be a key to renewal in what is perhaps the most problematic region of personal behavior, which Modernists and secularists have distorted almost beyond recognition, and which clearly lies at the heart of the rebellion of culture against Faith. His intellectual stature was sufficient at least to begin a conversion process in that bastion of Modernism, the Catholic university.

Then, in Pope Benedict XVI, we had perhaps the greatest theologian of our age, and one who surely ranks with the great theologian saints throughout the Church’s long history. Through Benedict’s constant homilies and addresses, impromptu responses to questions, interviews, encyclicals and even books, he articulated a vision of Christ, the Church and the theological virtues which, nourished indeed by a return to the sources, shed a bright and immensely clarifying light on not only a series of specific Catholic issues but the very process of Catholic thought itself. And again, his intellectual brilliance made it difficult for Modernists and secularists to play the role of possessing superior education and understanding, as they tried early on against that poor benighted man from Poland.

These two popes immensely strengthened bishops, priests, and scholars, both religious and lay, in ways which laid the groundwork for a deepening and quickening renewal, though there is clearly much more work to be done. Moreover, between John Paul II’s constant exhortations to the bishops to serve as true vicars of Christ in their own dioceses (a much better model than merely obeying papal authority), and Benedict XVI’s increased pruning of the episcopate as better men emerged from newly flourishing ranks, authentic renewal is proceeding, even if only by fits and starts, very nearly everywhere. It is becoming increasingly palpable through catechetical and liturgical improvement, better preaching, the gradual breakup of Modernist alter-administrations in parishes and dioceses, the rise of such practices as Eucharistic adoration, and a slow but steady increase in local discipline.

There is a great deal of work still to be done in the valleys, of course, just as there are new summits still to climb. One thinks particularly of the immense labors still to be performed in certain universities and religious communities. But there can be no question that an immensely important spiritual and intellectual foundation has been laid.

So in light of the occasion which has prompted these reflections, what is next? That is, what is the next pontificate likely to bring? I think we must answer that question in three ways.

The first way is to acknowledge that these promising signs of renewal could be nipped in the bud. It is possible that the faithful will have far more to suffer spiritually, one way or another, in the immediate future than even in the immediate past. I think such increased spiritual suffering unlikely, however. If the Church continues on her current trajectory, I suspect increased physical and material suffering is far more likely, and we absolutely must acknowledge that this is the lesser of the two evils. We ought always to prefer natural evils to the perversion and betrayal of grace within the Church.

The second way is to acknowledge that the Holy Spirit is far more in charge than we are, and even the Holy Spirit can be resisted, though each form of resistance is fully accounted for by Divine Providence, so that in the end good will be brought out of every evil. As prescient, as perfect, as powerful as any of our prognostications may be, the Holy Spirit may well see a priority all of us miss. He is more than capable of surprise, including the surprise of producing great fruit in what the rest of us may view as a barren field.

And the third way is to look at this from an authentically Catholic but necessarily human perspective, and ask ourselves what is still missing. And of all that is still missing, we can try to identify those elements for which the time is now ripe. And finally, assuming our Catholic concept of authentic renewal really does mirror the promptings of the Holy Spirit, we may ask what sort of man will that same Spirit likely to want to be our next pope.

A Suggestion

The answer, I suspect, is not news to you. Phil Lawler has already pointed out that there does not seem to be another intellectual giant waiting in the wings, as Cardinal Ratzinger was when John Paul II died (The next Pope won't be another Benedict XVI...or John Paul II). Let us assume that holiness is an important characteristic. But beyond that, if not a great philosopher or theologian, then what?

Cardinal Pell of Sydney recently suggested that the next pope ought to pay close attention to Church governance in Rome (the Curia), a sentiment that was echoed by Archbishop Joseph Tobin of Indianapolis. This takes up a theme sounded by many, including veteran papal observer George Weigel. It is not a new idea, but it is an important one. But note that this emphasis on the Curia is really only the germ of an idea which extends far beyond Rome.

There are, in fact, some persons who are very talented in the area of administration—people who somehow figure out ways to get the results they want by making strategic use of the tools they have, and who are also able to create impressively effective new tools out of those they already possess.

What if there are already ways, if only a sharp administrator can wield them, to make more rapid headway not only in the reform of the Curia but in the reform of universities, religious orders, Catholic health and social services, and chanceries around the world? It does not seem outlandish to believe that sufficient groundwork has been laid, and that we could now benefit immensely from a really able administrator, a pope whose chief qualification may simply be the ability to get things done.

Neither Pope John Paul II nor Pope Benedict XVI had noteworthy administrative strengths, though John Paul II achieved much through the sheer magnetism of his personality, and Benedict XVI was far more than the quiet and retiring professor he had hoped to be! But we have not had a superbly capable administrator in the See of Peter since the mid-twentieth century—that is, not since the Modernist revolution. It is possible it has been longer. I have not studied the administrative abilities of the popes in the first half of the century, but whatever their strengths, they were able to condemn Modernism but not ultimately to protect the Church against it. Part of this could have been administrative. I’m not sure. But there are clearly possibilities here.

So if I were the Holy Spirit (and remember the opening of this essay, when I cautioned against equating personal resonance with proof), I would inspire the conclave to choose a holy man who is also a crackerjack administrator. It seems to me that, for the next pope, the time is definitely ripe. Might a highly competent papal administration be the wave of the immediate future? I defer to the Holy Spirit, but I pray that it might.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: John J Plick - Mar. 17, 2013 9:19 PM ET USA

    "Thus, to the enduring applause of the world, churches morphed from butterflies into worms, charity and health care officials ignored moral principles...," If Vatican II is to be seen as the antidote at least for some of these fruits of modernism it should have come earlier. If an individual can resist the Holy Spirit, cannot an entire Institution? Let us be honest with ourselves..., the "prescriptive" approach can tend not to produce heros, but minimalists.

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Mar. 04, 2013 3:16 PM ET USA

    Respectfully, I would disagree. Administrative abilities are definitely necessary, but for "that" being the primary element beyond holiness, I do not think so. Rather, I would say the man (God have mercy on him!) would have to be the qiuntessential "people person..." willing to be "among the people" to the point of cruxifiction. Jesus by His own admission identified Himself as such, contrasting the popular negative perception of Himself as a "drunkard" and "glutton" with John's ascetisism.

  • Posted by: William F. Folger - Mar. 02, 2013 9:44 PM ET USA

    An insightful review for this New Era! It caused me to relive the serious problems inside Fr. Charles E. Curran’s hometown where we had job-relocated after Vatican II & before Humanae Vitae. I will never understand how so many Catholics could be fooled. “Ratzinger” became our educator. And as brave friend Joe Murray who survived Iwo Jima would say: “they make themselves the source of truth”. Methinks God remains the Great Tester as in Eden. Thank God for Benedict XVI and for our next Pope!

  • Posted by: koinonia - Mar. 01, 2013 11:14 PM ET USA

    There has been no institution more effective in teaching the individual to "know himself" than the Roman Catholic Church. Each life is a miracle; the baptized are heirs to heaven and have fundamental rights to God's love. This love which elevates us to participation in his very divine life is found particularly in the sacraments instituted by Christ himself. If the next pope insists that prelates face this transcendent reality and own it, then "there are clearly possibilities..." for all of us.