Catholic Culture Liturgical Living
Catholic Culture Liturgical Living

Theology by Happenstance

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | May 13, 2010

I’m sitting here staring at a new book, The American Catholic Revolution: How the Sixties Changed the Church Forever by Mark S. Massa, SJ. It is an “uncorrected advance reading copy”, as the book has not yet been released, and this is at least a temporary mercy. The author apparently fancies himself the Alexander Pope of the twenty-first century. His thesis is “Whatever is, is right.” Of course, for the great neo-classical poet this was an affirmation of the fundamental order of the universe as created by God; for Fr. Massa it is an affirmation of the necessary rightness of each successive human worldview, as created by an ever-shifting historical consciousness.

I’m not concerned about this particular book, which is utterly devoid of originality, but I remain concerned about its old ideas. Fr. Massa argues that the widespread change among Catholics in sexual morality, doctrine, liturgy, and attitudes toward ecclesiastical authority over the past fifty years is rooted in the incontrovertible reality that different worldviews make sense to people in different historical periods. Not only should the Church change her message to reflect these shifting world views—this shifting historical consciousness—but in fact she must do so to survive, for history is ultimately written not from above but from below. The Church has “changed forever” and will continue to do so. Historical consciousness and reality are identical.

Here is Massa’s complete account of recent Catholic history: (1) Pope St. Pius X’s condemnation of Modernism was an effort to freeze the Church in a moment of time already slipping away; (2) The resulting fear of scholars for the next fifty years caused pressure for change to build, bottled up as it was through a denial of history, until Vatican II triggered an explosion in the 1960’s; (3) This explosion was an inevitable cataclysmic shift which created a new Church, a Church which could both represent and communicate with people of a new era, a new consciousness, a new Faith.

Conclusions First

Though Fr. Massa offers universal conclusions, his examples are drawn from the history of the Church in the United States. Those long involved in the battles over Church renewal will recognize the pattern. The book focuses on liturgical changes (orchestrated largely by Fr. Frederick McManus), the widespread rejection of the Church’s teaching against contraception in Humanae Vitae and the succeeding battle with Fr. Charles Curran of Catholic University, the controversy over the direction of the Immaculate Heart of Mary sisters in Los Angeles, the Berrigan brothers and the Catonsville Nine, and Avery Dulles’ models of the Church. But it really doesn’t matter what examples Fr. Massa cites; these are merely famous cases to illustrate a general trend, and it is something else entirely to proclaim the trend good. Here everything is used to justify a belief which Fr. Massa has actually adopted a priori—not only that changing historical consciousness is inevitable but that whatever attitudes, beliefs and behaviors emerge from it must therefore be right.

Any schoolboy could spot the fallacy in a heartbeat, but Fr. Massa apparently feels duty-bound to offer three lessons: First, “it seems highly unlikely that historical consciousness—the awareness that everything, including the Church, changes as history unfolds—can ever be effectively explained away again” (158). Second, “the widespread acceptance of the seemingly self-evident truth that things change will make it increasingly difficult to propound or defend Church teaching and practice by appealing to timeless, static categories of propositional truth” (159). Third, the categories of “liberal” and “conservative” that have plagued the post-conciliar Church are not helpful because they interfere with getting on with the job of accepting the validity of the historical-consciousness paradigm, which is this: From the first, “disruption, discontinuity, and evolution [were] part of the very fiber of the Catholic tradition. Change was not foreign to Catholic tradition; it defined it” (162).

I have offered the author’s conclusions first because it is clear that they constitute a belief-system independent of analysis. For an author so in awe of changing historical consciousness, the reader is surprised to find that nothing at all has changed in Fr. Massa’s mind since about 1965. All Fr. Massa has done is to give a contemporary voice to the theory of Modernism, which holds that doctrines of faith and morals ultimately flow not from Revelation but from the religious consciousness of each epoch. In the Modernist view, there is no reason to suppose that Catholics of one era will come up with the same answers to life’s pressing questions as those in another era. We may, if we like, give a nod to Modernism for understanding what it takes no special wit to understand—that what happens happens. But it takes a huge leap of faith to assert that what happens is always lock, stock and barrel what God wants.

The more significant questions are whether something should have happened, whether it happened without moral fault, whether it pleased God that it happened, whether what happened is salutary, whether it calls for celebration or conversion, and whether, in the last analysis, we are to form our judgments based on how a new culture interprets God’s will, or rather on a direct Revelation from God which somehow transcends culture. It is the answer to these questions that ought to determine our response to change. Unfortunately, Modernism’s revelation is historical consciousness. It may aptly be described as theology by happenstance. It is the very antithesis of Christianity, for Christianity provides man with the ability he craves to transcend the limitations of his historical environment.

The Grain of Truth

Modernists lament certain features of the Church in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and this lament has just enough truth in it to make Modernist theory appear plausible to the uninitiated. The problem is that the Church was often intellectually reactionary during this period. One can well understand why, for she had been battered unceasingly by an increasingly secular European ethos for the past hundred years or so, and her leaders were habituated to their own splendid system of thought, a system based largely on the Thomist synthesis which had been so effectively expounded in official Catholic circles since the counter-reformation. There was still a very strong sense that Europe was fundamentally Christian and that lost ground could be recovered by pushing back. The Church therefore had a marked tendency to defend those who defended her and condemn those who attacked her. She allied herself too often with what we may term the “old order”, and was too little open to what could be said in favor of new approaches. This was true politically, socially and theologically.

Just as ecclesiastical authority had a marked tendency to favor the aristocracy over the working classes, so too it had a marked tendency to condemn theological work which moved outside the scholastic box. Pope Leo XIII began to shift the social outlook of the Church decisively in his encyclical Rerum Novarum, but it took longer for the Holy Office to take a more even-handed approach to the more creative thinkers of the Catholic world, those who tried to emphasize neglected areas of study or deploy modern insights to explore Revelation in new ways. Just as Newman had been distrusted in Rome for some time in the 19th century, though he was ultimately vindicated before he died, so too did remarkable theologians such as Yves Congar and Henri de Lubac occasion suspicion in Rome because of their interest in revivifying Catholic thought by returning to the sources, instead of always arguing within the highly formalistic scholastic framework. There was a lot of Modernism going around in the late 19th and early 20th century, and it was justly and repeatedly condemned. But not everybody who thought outside the box was a Modernist.

It is also true that the suppression of Modernism was often more formal than substantive. The issues raised by Modernists—such as the role of historical consciousness in shaping the expression of religious beliefs in different periods—were not effectively engaged, and many a scholar chose to keep a low profile in Catholic universities and seminaries around the world while becoming increasingly enamored of secular ideas. When the Church herself called for an authentic Catholic renewal at the Second Vatican Council, including a return to the sources, the seed sown by the Holy Spirit too often landed in intellectual environments that had already secretly rejected substantial portions of Catholic teaching, or had at least adopted principles that would cause what we might now call a “renewal stampede”: overwhelming, irresistible, fast, and straight toward the cliff.

Of course Fr. Massa has his own answer for all this, “the law of unintended consequences” (159). It is useless now, he says, to reexamine the documents of Vatican II through a hermeneutic of continuity (Benedict XVI’s term) because once any renewal is launched, it develops a life of its own which must be taken as normative. Why? Because that’s what it means to be historically conscious. We could point out how provincial this view has become, since it has produced the results Fr. Massa so ardently desires only in the West. Africa has obviously not yet loomed on his Old World horizon. For the moment, at least, in the insular Modernist world, Alexander Pope’s great one-liner continues to serve.

The Great Fallacy

We can grant, I think, that among some perfectly legitimate Catholic scholars, the myopia of Church leaders has sometimes rankled. I doubt any committed Catholic nowadays would have trouble understanding that this might be so. But Modernism has always gone beyond the legitimate grievances of faithful scholars to do exactly what Church authority said it would do all along: throw the baby out with the bathwater. In one section of The American Catholic Revolution, Fr. Massa offers two observations which, taken together, capture the essential fallacy of Modernism.



Whatever the strengths of that older classicist worldview…it can no longer provide plausible explanations for Church teaching. Such a function is crucial for teaching doctrine and ethical practice, as the Catholic theological tradition has always argued that Church leaders have the obligation to explain why they offer specific teaching in terms that are both accessible and convincing to the faithful. (160)

And second:


Moral theologians such as Charles Curran who attempted to show how and why Catholic theology “was put in an impossible situation when the best modern thought was perceived as a challenge to established doctrinal positions” were dealt with as disloyal, or even heterodox.

What this means, especially in the overall context of the book, is not that the Church ought always to try to explain her teachings in as convincing a manner as possible, but that if she cannot explain them in a manner convincing to the Faithful, she has failed in an essential obligation. Further, this failure invalidates her doctrine, and removes any corresponding obligation on the part of the Faithful to follow it. For as Fr. Mark Massa knows full well, Charles Curran did not get in trouble for arguing that the Church ought to work hard to come up with better arguments against contraception. He got into trouble because he refused to agree with the Magisterial judgment that, on God’s own authority, contraception is immoral. In this the Church imitates Our Lord, for Jesus Christ did not insist that we understand everything the Father has revealed. In fact, He never seemed overly concerned that scholars often struggled intellectually with what He had to say. But He did expect them to recognize the signs of His authority, and so to receive everything He taught as a liberating truth.

Ultimately for the Modernist there is nothing transcendent about Christianity, nothing timeless, nothing true always and everywhere, nothing eternal, nothing you can take to the bank in the economy of salvation. The sole criterion for orthodoxy is always orthopraxis. What is true is simply how people live. Revelation cannot serve as a guide to human history from the transcendent Author of history. No, Revelation is only whatever we discern as good in our own time and place. Once again let me state the obvious. Modernism is theology by happenstance. And this makes it the ultimate theology of convenience for the decadent West. If you wish to identify with the cultural mainstream, there is no better tactic than to make the cultural mainstream your source of Revelation.

The Changing Church

To take for a moment the case of contraception (which, as one could so easily predict, lies at the center of Fr. Massa’s thesis), it is certainly true that the arguments initially offered for the Church’s position were not as persuasive as the Church would have liked. It is also true that initial arguments were rooted strongly in the natural law tradition, and that this tradition is increasingly difficult for people in our age to grasp, probably because our society is highly technological and takes the manipulation of nature as the norm. But what the Modernists never tell you is that faithful scholars immediately began exploring the problem more deeply, which is exactly what theologians are supposed to do, because the very essence of theology is faith seeking understanding. Very soon, throughout the very next decade, arguments were developed which were both more convincing and more persuasive.

Understanding the difference between “convince” and “persuade” might also be useful. To convince means, literally, to “conquer strongly”. When we convince someone of something, we offer arguments which overcome intellectual resistance and force the intellect to assent to their truth. But to persuade means to “make sweet to” someone. Here we attempt to explain other attractions of an idea, associating it with the hearer’s own ideas of fittingness, nobility, emotional satisfaction, social well-being, or other desirable attributes. The theologian is primarily concerned with convincing. But the best arguments in the world can be met with a stony heart by those who do not wish to be persuaded of an inconvenient truth. The failure to convince another of a truth does not make the truth false. It remains for God to read the heart, in order to see where the problem really lies.

In any case, the effort to make the Church’s entire teaching on human sexuality less abstract and more personal—more psychological, so to speak, without becoming any less logical—has led to a surprising number of developments, culminating in Pope John Paul II’s remarkable theology of the body, which is undoubtedly expressed through a language and a frame of reference more easily accessible to our contemporaries. Some would suggest these developments exploit the genius of Augustine, which may be more effectively deployed today than the genius of Aquinas. So often there is more than one way to make a point. But the more important issue for this discussion is that this intellectual effort was made by those who believed the Church’s teaching to be true and the conclusions reached by examining the “historical consciousness” of modern man to be false.

This decision of Faith led some to more effectively deploy what is changeable in the Church to transform the world in favor of what is eternal in the Church. So in some respects, of course, the Church does change. Neither Pope St. Pius X nor any other intelligent Catholic ever thought otherwise. To say so is to erect a straw man, the easier to knock it down. Such a straw man signifies only that the Church has not changed in the way a given speaker prefers. But the Church’s mission is constantly to adapt her human elements to new situations in order to more effectively inculcate her Divine elements.

The Church does not deny change; she just happens to recognize that the purpose of change is to enable us to see more clearly different sides of what never changes. She takes each new situation as another opportunity to draw all men closer to a God whose very Being is unchanging Love. She is certainly historically conscious, but she is also eternally conscious. This makes her a veritable powerhouse of change. Indeed, the Church’s argument is not that human cultures should not change at all but that, without the Church, they simply cannot change enough.


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: - Sep. 25, 2010 12:31 PM ET USA

    Excellent!, every last word of it. I sense here the screaming roots (yearning to break ground) of a much needed book on American Catholicism in the last two centuries emphasizing in our present Church with its immense values and gifts as well as its profound challenges and inconsistencies. Go ahead, write it. Its already there. Just write it. My prayers for your success have begun.

  • Posted by: - May. 19, 2010 3:37 PM ET USA

    Another small Jesuit brain unable to imagine itself outside of the contemporary Jesuit world, and particularly outside of the Church in the U.S.

  • Posted by: koinonia - May. 17, 2010 12:58 PM ET USA

    Nonetheless, this change thing is not without its dangers. Where would one direct Pope Pius X to go to find a parish recognizable to him as the Catholic Church with which he was familiar? The cultural concessions have been vast and deep, and they reflect more often the errors condemned by Pascendi than its teachings. Speaking of Pope, modernism was first "endured, then pitied, then embraced" so to speak, by many. It is no accident that Pope Benedict is looking to the past for our future.

  • Posted by: Bernadette - May. 15, 2010 6:30 PM ET USA

    Well, this pretty much explains what happened to the Society of Jesus. Except for a few faithful and reasoning men, most have mistakenly opted for the historical-critical-consciousness methods which eshew timeless truths for the shifting sands of time.

  • Posted by: jbryant_132832 - May. 13, 2010 7:27 PM ET USA

    Jesuit Theologian Fr Bernard Lonergan once had a visit from his Provincial superior who asked him: “Are you orthodox?” he answered: “Yes I am orthodox, but I think a lot!” Here is a good article about him you might enjoy: “The Continuing Significance of Bernard Lonergan” Pope Benedict’s recent addresses to Jesuit audiences have strongly echoed the thinking of twentieth century Catholic philosopher Bernard Lonergan, suggests Gerald Whelan SJ.