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Renewal and Restoration: That nothing may be lost

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Aug 23, 2022

In the August/September issue of First Things, editor R. R. Reno had an interesting take on Pope Francis’ insistence that true Catholic renewal never involves restoration:

I have to wonder what the Holy Father could be thinking. Are we to suppose that the “spirit of Vatican II” opposes the always necessary, always ongoing restoration of the Church? The fall of man imposes a bitter law of entropy on all our endeavors, including our noblest ones. The Church is forever spending down her inheritance, neglecting her spiritual riches, forgetting her theological wisdom. It was not within the power of the Second Vatican Council to repeal this sad law of decay and dissolution. Only someone beholden to a religious ideology, rather than informed by a genuine theology, could look at the last fifty years and imagine that we don’t need a strong dose of “restorationism.”

I might add the reminder that when God was calling the remarkable St. Francis of Assisi to his special mission, the words He spoke were always, “Rebuild my Church!”—so much so that Francis, who could be supremely free when it came to his own sacrifices, began the work literally on a particular church, stone by stone.

The constant debate over the role of restoration in genuine progress is critical to understanding doctrinal development. How often have we heard one variant or another of the opinion that our contemporary understanding of some scientific discipline—say biology or physics or psychology—gives us grounds to change the heretofore constant moral teachings of the Church. A perfect example is found in the publicly-expressed opinions of Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, SJ of Luxembourg, who has been appointed to play an important role in the final meeting of the Synod of Bishops in 2023. Speaking of the Church’s constant teaching on the immorality of homosexual acts, Hollerich parries: “I believe that the sociological-scientific foundation of this teaching is no longer correct.” (See our report here: Key Synod cardinal: Catholic teaching on homosexuality is “false”.)

The modernist fallacy

There seems to be a presumption among our advanced modern thinkers that nobody before the late twentieth-century understood natural law, temptation, sin and rationalization; and that nobody could make distinctions between inclinations and acting on those inclinations. And yet if we read even very ancient literature, we find that, in truth, people had at least as thorough an understanding of these deeply human issues two or three thousand years ago as we have today. People have always known that different persons are attracted to different kinds of sins. Jews and Christians have always known that it is not the temptation which deserves condemnation, but rather the process of giving in to the temptation and, even worse, attempting to justify the sin based on the presence of inclinations which we did not deliberately choose to have.

We all have disordered inclinations, and nobody deliberately chooses the ones which he or she happens to experience. The sexual appetite is particularly prone to distortion from nearly every possible angle, precisely because it is such a powerful appetite. Anybody who thinks that homosexual acts have been judged sinful by Jews and Christians because they were sometimes part of pagan rituals—as Cardinal Hollerich argues—has failed to understand the fundamentals of what it means to be human. Anyone who thinks that actions are not sinful if we have, for any reason, a deep tendency to desire those actions—as Cardinal Hollerich apparently believes—does not understand what it means to be human, or the spiritual drama that being human necessarily entails.

Or the purpose of the Church, her sacramental mystery, and the role of grace in perfecting nature.

Okay, one tires of repeating the obvious. But sometimes, as Reno suggests, we in the Church forget things that the Church has already known and properly valued previously, and while Pope Francis is certainly right that no tradition is ever renewed and strengthened without some corresponding development in understanding, there is in almost every age a preliminary need to recall to mind and confess adherence to those aspects of the Church’s Tradition which are either forgotten or have come under heavy fire. This is essential if we are to increase our understanding of their truth, value, and best form of expression. The alternative is to forget what we already know as a Church, and begin to go off on reckless tangents, making up our truths and customs out of whole cloth, as if the Church herself, over a period of 2,000 years and more, has nothing to say that cannot be denied by popular prejudice under the names of “science” and “superior knowledge”.

Hold fast to the traditions

Then there was today’s first reading (today being August 23rd and the optional memorial of St. Rose of Lima), straight from St. Paul, excerpted below:

We ask you, brothers and sisters…not to be shaken out of your minds suddenly, or to be alarmed either by a “spirit,” or by an oral statement, or by a letter allegedly from us to the effect that the day of the Lord is at hand. Let no one deceive you in any way…. Therefore, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught, either by an oral statement or by a letter of ours. [The entire reading is 2 Thes 2:1-3A, 14-17]

The specific context of this highly-relevant passage was the nonsense being spread about by false prophets “with regard to the coming our Lord Jesus Christ and our assembling with him”. Yet is this not exactly what today’s false prophets do as well, men and women like Cardinal Hollerich, who reject apostolic teaching and instead try to redefine what is demanded for salvation by Christ, and by the Church He established?

Surely Christ’s intention in returning to the Father was that we should be his faithful representatives throughout history, to bring as many as possible into a perfect conformity with Himself. “So we are ambassadors for Christ,” says St. Paul, “God making his appeal through us. We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2 Cor 5:20). When will vain and silly thinkers stop seeking ways to justify their preference for the world over the One who made it?

This redefinition of sin through wordplay is puerile, and we do well to recognize it. Men and women who should know better have become professional adolescents. “Such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as servants of righteousness,” wrote St. Paul to the Corinthians. “And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is not strange if his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds” (2 Cor 11:13-15).

Yes, the Body of Christ grows and develops in various ways down through history. Liturgical forms can change under the authority of Christ in His Church in an effort to communicate the same sacred mysteries more transparently in different times and places. Catholic doctrine can be more thoroughly studied, better understood and more effectively communicated. But there are no guarantees that every change will be an improvement. For this to happen—for us to grow within the Body of Christ rather than apart from the Body of Christ—we must heed the warning of St. Paul against false prophets.

With respect to the substance of the Faith, we must take extraordinary care to “stand firm and hold fast to the traditions” that we were taught. Our Lord Himself bids us to squander nothing in our work of renewal, in our efforts at providing for the legitimate needs of those we serve. In this there is self-evidently a place for restoration: “Gather up the fragments left over,” He cautions, “that nothing may be lost” (Jn 6:12).

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: loumiamo4057 - Aug. 24, 2022 5:16 PM ET USA

    Excellent analysis jalsardl5053, most excellent.

  • Posted by: jalsardl5053 - Aug. 23, 2022 7:21 PM ET USA

    Note that it is not only the Church that is spending down its inheritance, so is the entire Western World. On another note, Pope Francis seems determined to define the rock upon which the Church is built to be Vatican II, nothing but Vatican II and only Vatican II but not the Vatican II of Vatican II but the one envisioned by the regressives.