Monday, 16 July 2012

Weigel on finding a new narrative: revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries, or just warring factions?

A reader sent me a link to a piece by George Weigel this week which draws attention to the thinness of the [good] liberals vs [evil] conservatives narrative so often employed by journalists and, of course in reverse, by others including myself! 

But while I think Weigel is basically right to suggest that the dichotomy is really true/false rather than liberal/conservative, I'm not sure that his line of argument actually advances things any; rather it simply exposes the inherent contradictions of the 'conservative' position.

It is one of those pieces, I have to say, that reminds me that traditionalists (or neo-trads, or other variants thereof) really do have a fundamentally different perspective to so-called conservatives (and the terminology is indeed problematic since it seems to me traditionalists are the genuine conservatives; those often so-called are actually the advocates of a radically new 1970s model of the Church developed under Popes Paul VI and John Paul II).  

True vs false is the real narrative?

Weigel's line is that the progressive position, regularly trotted out to report things like the Vatican's attempts to correct assorted US nuns, or lay catechists and teachers to avoid oaths to teach what the Church teaches, namely that everything in the faith is potentially changeable, is clearly false.  Well yes.  Traditionalists and conservatives alike can certainly agree that there are certain things that the Church believes are immutable and has no authority to change, and journalists should understand that and reflect it in their reporting.

The problem is this: why should journalists take any notice of this view when so many in authority positions in the Church actively dispute this and get their message out so easily using the authority of their positions?

Weigel claims that the liberals are dying out, and becoming increasingly irrelevant.  But is that really true?

While the Gaudium et Spes generation are certainly dying out in the West, their legacy continues to poison the waters in East and West alike.  There are, for example, virtually no TLMs happening in India (nor many anywhere else in Asia), and the quality of the liturgy in those countries generally reflects that, more often quasi-charismatic/'inculturated' than actually Catholic.

Then take a look at Australia's semi-official website Cath News' weekend edition (truly a shocker) for example: while it does contain an obituary for one of that generation's radical nuns, it also reflects the continuing legacy of dissent in yet another defence of US women religious' rejection of tradition in favour of being shaped by 'the world' (brought to you via America Magazine) and a promotion of some new age spirituality featuring Islam apologist ex-nun Karen Armstrong and a Buddhist amongst others.

The paradigm of choice, aggorniamento and the liturgy

I'm reading (the new edition of) Australian historian Geoffrey Hull's The Banished Heart at the moment, and while I'm not (yet) totally convinced of his arguments (but maybe I will be once I've gotten further in!), I do tend to think there is something to his basic thesis that the so-called 'conservative' analysis rings hollow.
Hull notes in his introduction, that:

"Most Catholics today - ordinary believers as well as the theologically literate - have adopted a 'self-service' approach to the beliefs and practices of their Church, accepting some and rejecting others on the basis of private judgment.  It is an approach that is quintessentially Protestant..."

He goes on to note that conservatives like Weigel have long deplored this disobedience to popes and rejection of immutable teachings, viewing it as anarchy and rebellion. 

Hull, on the other hand, sees the liberal position as deeply embedded in the new culture created by the novus ordo liturgy and the reshaping of Catholic practice of the last five decades; a culture that conditions reactions in perfectly predictable ways.  He argues that conservatives are deluded in thinking that it is possible to "...embrace the forms and modalities of secularism without at the same time accepting those ideas and standards of behaviour within it that are in conflict with Christianity."

Hull points to what he sees as the inherent contradictions in the conservative position:

"How could a new religious culture based on 'options' in worship and discipline legitimately exclude in the long run options on the doctrinal and moral planes? How could faithful Catholics, told that they needed to develop a more 'mature', 'adult', 'modern spirituality, be expected to continue in a childlike acceptance of the age-old teachings of the Magisterium?  How could practitioners of the new democratic religion of options be blamed for refusing to give a blind obedience to the directives of pope and prelate?  And how could a new man-centred, 'ascending' theology not ultimately succumb to the anti-Christian influences of secular humanism?"

The blame for the effective protestantism of most who call themselves Catholic, Hull argues, is not failure to correctly implement the Council, deviant clergy, an uppity laity, or prudential failures on the part of certain recent popes, but rather the whole concept of updating the Church itself.

**I'm further in and while so e of his argumetns are useful, I think Hull's is quite a dangerous book, and not one I'd recommend reading!

The problem of Vatican II
We are all waiting, at the moment, to learn the outcome of negotiations with the SSPX over just how we have to regard Vatican II. 

All the same, I'm not yet convinced by Hull's line that Pope Benedict XVI is just as much a revolutionary as the liberal-progressives.  Hull's view though is that the liberal-conservative divide is really one of 'ecclesial Jacobins and Orleanists' rather than the revolutionaries vs counter-revolutionaries they are often portrayed as.

Hull, I gather, like many others, sees the root causes of our current state of heteropraxis and heterodoxy in some of the forces set up by the Counter-Reformation. Certainly I've seen it argued elsewhere (I suspect derived at least in part from Hull) that the real cause of the current disastrous state of the Church lies in the Jesuit-inspired marginalisation and minimalisation of the liturgy.

Yet while this notion has a certain attraction, the reality is that the world does change, and the Church has in the past changed tactics drastically to deal with that: the shape of the persecuted Church before Constantine was different to that that came after; the Church facing the collapse of late Antiquity changed again; and so forth.  Moreover, the more efficient, bureaucratic structures created by Trent do seem to have been well suited to the needs of the times, and were remarkably successful at clawing back Catholicism's place in many countries in Europe.

Real reform?

In reality I think one could argue, in fact, that the real problem today is not the fact that we have had change, but rather that on the one hand what we have had of it was totally inappropriate to the times, and on the other the things that really did need to change simply haven't.

At a time when the unit of the family came so thoroughly under attack from the effects of contraception and divorce, for example, and the bonds of family support became loosened by mass migration, the religious orders that had traditionally so strongly supported the family through the provision of social services, schools and the example of heroic virginity and more, opted out of the field.

At a time when Catholics desperately needed mutual support to withstand the challenges of secularism, the Catholic infrastructure of guilds and societies, devotions and more was systematically dismantled.

Yet clearly outdated institutions persist: the geographical parish model, for example, makes little sense in an era when people can drive to a Mass that lest offends their sensibilities; and supplement that by listening and watching something rather better sermon and music-wise online.

In the Vatican we have a bureaucracy still operating in nineteenth century mode rather than twenty-first.  Ponderous investigation of orthodoxy that stretch over years, for example, might have worked in another era, but today we need swift decisions to stop books being used as texts that corrupt yet another generation.  The secrecy involved in the appointment and dismissal of bishops might have made sense in an era when all could be hidden from the world, but makes none in an environment of social media.

Grace or the world?

The real debate, it seems to me, is what should be the sources that shape that reform.

And as Pope Benedict XVI has so delicately hinted in the past, Councils are ill-suited to such a task and unlikely to be an effective source of such reform.  Councils have, historically, been effective in deciding what is and isn't the faith.  They've sometimes come up with pastoral approaches that have proved of worth.

But one shouldn't mistake Stockholm Syndrome and brainwashing for the grace of the Holy Spirit!

Progressives and conservatives alike, it seems to me, implicitly or explicitly see the proper source of reform as the 'world': a Council illuminated by the insights gained from secular society, from the study of ('dialogue' with) other religions or cultures, and from the study anew of texts and sources (for example using historico-critical techniques).

By contrast, I would suggest, a traditionalist hermeneutic of reform, should depend instead on the radical, often revolutionary ideas of the great saints that arise at such points in history.  Reforms rarely comes by Committee, but rather from those whose challenge to accepted ways of doing things is often rejected in their lifetimes by those in authority and whose impact is often not felt until long after their deaths.

We need to listen out for those who might turn out to be the true prophets of our era - and personally I don't see many likely prospects in either the progressive or conservative camps!  My starting point therefore, unlike Hull's is that, as Pope Benedict XVI has suggested, we do in fact need a hermeneutic not just of continuity, but also of reform.


hughosb said...

Hi Kate!

Dr Hull's book was given to me back in the 1990s when I was too green to take it in properly. That it has been re-issued (I grabbed the revised edition too!) is good news. Hull's argument may indeed not be entirely correct, but he seems to illuminate so many points at issue that he deserves serious attention from scholars. Alas I am not scholarly enough, so I hope you or someone else will take up the challenge. You have certainly made a great start.


Mary said...

Good point about attending our parish of residence compared with one where we can find real spiritual nourishment and authentic worship.
Fr. Leo Trese described a person who didn't attend their own parish as a "vagabond".
I am sure today he would describe a person who goes out of there way to attend a Mass that doesn't try to de-sacramentalise the Eucharist at every turn as upright.