Many, many Catholics are discontent and think something should be done. Being bred to obedience they do not rebel; they will not speak harshly of authority. They are not people given to complaint, nor are they parts of any grand conspiracy. They are among the people who are faithful in their use of the sacraments, and to whom one goes for the support of every good cause that bears the name Catholic.
Among these the unsatisfactory condition of the Roman Catholic Church is apprehended in different, puzzling ways. To one it is represented by the diocesan newspaper, in which there are only one or two crumbs of Catholicism and much political hand-wringing. To another the local church would be on the road to glory if only the personnel in the chancery, who seem to resent the stubborn refusal of Catholic piety to die, could be transferred. To very many the shabby, sentimental liturgy, offered to the glory of God only ambiguously but to the convenience of man and the engagement of his emotions most obviously, is the cause of decay, and fixing the liturgy by restoring the old Latin would put the Church on the right road.
These conditions, however real though they be, are merely symptoms, for the fact is that the Catholic Church again contains two religions, and each of the commonly heard complaints—the newspaper, the liturgy, and the chancery personnel—are the signs of the existence within the Church of that other religion.
That this should be so is not unprecedented; indeed it has too often been characteristic. In the second century the Church contained (even as it combated) Gnosticism, the strange new-age-ish spiritual heresy, of which St. Irenaeus complained that it was like an imitation jewel, worthless itself but casting doubt on the real thing. Then in the fourth century the Church was surprised to find that it contained Arianism, the doctrine that Jesus was the highest creature, not God of God, Light of Light. In the seventh and eighth centuries the Catholic Church in the east suffered from an inability to throw off iconoclasm. And the list could be expanded.
As then, so now; the situation was marked by a certain blindness, an inability, perhaps an unwillingness, to recognize or to admit that within the Catholic Church two religions contend for dominance, and that the secondary religion now often seems in the way of winning out. Like all heresies, the new heresy contains some elements of truth borrowed from the Catholic faith, otherwise it would pose no danger at all, and it is often sponsored by winning personalities. Its danger lies in its ability to present itself as the Faith when it is really a virus destructive of every kind of belief in God. Many bishops thought Arianism harmless, nothing to be so very upset about, and Arius’ opponent, St. Athanasius, was often considered a great troublemaker by complacent authorities.
Our new secondary religion does not argue, does not deny; it simply assumes and displaces or shuts out. Newman, prescient as always, saw this in 1878, and wrote that there was never a device of the enemy so cleverly framed, cleverly framed because it supplants the best things with undoubted goods: holiness with education, charity with benevolence, self denial with ordered self interest. It calls the Christian account not false but tasteless or primitive, at best merely one view.
Naming the secondary religion that now besets Catholicism is not easy. In the late second century, St. Irenaeus struggled to give the heresy we now call Gnosticism a name, calling it the religion of invisible redemption and its adherents knowers, or the intelligent ones, but it took later scholarship to give it the name Gnosticism. Some give the modern secondary version of Catholicism the name Modernism. Identifying it as the religion of Alfred Firmin Loisy, George Tyrell, and R. J. Campbell, that called forth the condemnations of St. Pius x in Lamentabili sane exitu and Pascendi dominici gregis and provoked the publication of the “five points of fundamentalism” by Protestants. Among these there is a tendency to call the new religion secularism, defining it by the obvious symptoms of moral decay: unbelief, sexual license, and resentment of the presence of God in the public arena.
Such attempts to name the thing illuminate. The new religion is modernism in the sense that its root was at least partly an apologetic defense of the modern age, the reworking of the faith to the shape of what modern man was supposedly willing to believe. Leo xiii caught a glimpse of it when in 1899 he warned American bishops in Testem benevolentiae against preferring social action to prayer and contemplation and against suppressing the hard aspects of Catholicism in an apologetic way. The bishops of course agreed with His Holiness most explicitly but begged to reply that such lamentable shortcomings were if not completely absent from the American scene, at least no danger. In fact the new religion ferreted its way along from 1900 to 1960, usually unremarked and unnamed.
But before our new shadow religion can be named, it must be understood and, indeed, analyzed. Consider this analysis: Christianity presents itself to God’s human family on three levels. One of these is psychological in the classical sense of that word, concerned with the good of the soul, with the use of the sacraments. Another is moral, for although Christianity is not a moralism, it does present moral teachings from the Beatitudes to the encyclicals of Leo xiii and Paul vi’s Humanae vitae. But both of these levels, if they are to have power and effect, depend on a third kind of engagement, the insistence of the Church that it tells a true historical story that begins with the fact of creation, and proceeds through the Fall, covenants, Incarnation, New Covenant, and Seconds Advent, judgment, and New Creation. To everyman this historical account has always been appropriated as a moral adventure that matters, ending either in the presence of God or in the punishing darkness and despair of hell, and it is within this story that the culture of the Mediterranean has lived.
What has perhaps not been noticed is the collapse of this third level of Christian truth, which is the foundation of the psychological and moral levels, in teaching and imagination; or perhaps one might say that its collapse has too often been noted and appreciated. The roots of the rejection of this historical account are well known to English language scholarship. Darwin and Lyell provided an alternative account of creation which in England ran head-on into Archbishop Ussher’s insistence that the earth was created in 4004 bc. What Newman called the Bible religion of the English people naturally collapsed amidst the general enervation caused by the new science, a collapse imitated in the United States. Then in the last decade of the nineteenth century, theological scholarship, represented by Albert Schweitzer, covered its embarrassments by determining that Jesus would not return in glory. It could be argued that Jesus the prophet had predicted that he would return before the deaths of some of his hearers. This prophecy, it was argued, proved untrue; history would have no God-appointed end or fulfillment, or at least no resolution such as the Bible envisions.
Attempts were made to reconcile what a man must now believe about the historical story with the Catholic faith, most notably be Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. The attempt failed because the revealed pattern of Scripture is not a tale of the running together of everything in a glorious Christifying of man and nature but of the winnowing out of many things, the separating of the good wheat from the chaff.
But the failure of the Church either to challenge the new doctrine of history or to assimilate it successfully meant that the reality-line–this historical story within which everyman had lived–would be suppressed if not abandoned. Timidity in the face of Darwinism was of course unnecessary. Chastened by the Galileo experience, we might have simply maintained our reserve and waited until another, better doctrine came along. Nor was the lately discovered anxiety that Christ might not return unprecedented. The Second Advent has been an act of faith in the teeth of historical appearances for two thousand years, and doubts have persisted since New Testament days, when advanced thinkers proposed that the resurrection was already past and when the Prince of the Apostles wrote his second surviving letter, warning his readers that a thousand years with the Lord was but a day. That the truth of the Catholic faith, so much imbedded in history, depends upon an event that has not yet occurred is inescapable.
Under the popular pressure of evolutionary triumphalism and the Schweitzer thesis, participants now in the technologically triumphant culture from which pain has been pretty much eliminated, the interest of every kind of Christianity, Catholic and Protestant, shifted away from the historical reality, with its historical embarrassments, and toward the apologetically more manageable psychological and moral levels. History had become a world without end, an eternal process of improvement represented in ways that are not attested by either Scripture or Tradition. The religious attitude that these circumstances encouraged was a kind of religious atheism that subverted every aspect of the Catholic faith while pretending not only to represent it but to save it.
With the reality-line in Christian teaching neglected or suppressed, the result was heresy by exclusion, our new secondary religion. Its theology was developed in part from a superficial version of Abelard’s theory of the atonement (love one another as Christ loved us), to which was appended Walter Rauschenbusch’s social gospel (make the world a better place). The purpose of the Church was not the glory of God and of Christ and the resurrection, but the melioration of the historical process. The great drama of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration faded in the collective imagination. The goal of the new religion was psychological fulfillment, making the world a kinder, gentler place. The projects of the new religion are the spreading of the culture of comfort throughout the world, the elimination of poverty and eradication of suffering and the achievement of eternal and universal peace, pursued under some universal enforcing agency.
Attention is on this world, and the creation in this world of the good life for everyone, a culture not explicitly identified as the New Jerusalem but easy to mistake for it. The new secondary religion is on one hand a kind of postmillennialism, teaching that our goal is the perfecting of the historical process, with or without grace, as the Renew Prayer says when it entreats God to help us to recreate the earth. Being as it is a highly religious atheism but an atheism still, it has only incidental interest in God as the holy, majestic Creator and Judge. Of the fact that almost all of every life is lived after this world there is little notice. In classical Catholicism there is a sense that this world is a place of soul-making, with most of each life lived eternally beyond the limitations of history. In the new secondary religion, this world is what matters most; there is no judgment; heaven is not very desirable and hell is occupied only by Hitler and a few sexist homophobes, who are learning there the lessons taught by the nea, npr, and the aclu, which they so fecklessly ignored when they had opportunity.
Ironically, by abandoning the reality-line in a classic sense and urging that the mission of the Church is worldly and psychological, this world is made a good deal worse. The only thing that has ever really made the world a better place was men and women who knew that it was not the only place, not even the most important place, and who took seriously Our Lord’s command that we be charitable and embrace poverty and do good works lest we wind up in the company of the rich man, the barn builder, and the young ruler.
In fact, one may search the Scriptures for the commandment that poverty should be eliminated or indeed the unequivocal advice that poverty is a great evil, for the advice that peace is to be had in this world, or that we are to be at home here. Christians are told at some length, with the most solemn warnings illustrated by dramatically depicted consequences, that we are to give and lend without stint, that riches are a temptation, and the vow of poverty is a counsel of perfection. But we are never told that the elimination of poverty can be an ultimate goal or good, for indeed the Lord has told us that the poor will always be with us and that they are blessed. The genealogy of the idea that the Church exists not for the glory of God but for the elimination of poverty runs from Judas Iscariot, who believed that glorifying Christ was diversionary in the light of the needs of the poor, through Emperor Joseph ii, who expelled religious orders whose members would not turn from prayer to public service, to those exponents of the new secondary religion who collapse the Christian message into peace and justice.
In an analogous way the purpose of the Church is not peace as the world gives peace, but that charity that loves God best, and from which love of neighbor grows. The Roman rite wisely prays for peace in our time, and does so in the midst of a world of which we have specifically been warned will cry for peace while remaining full of war, and the rumor of war. Not only are we now repeatedly told to pray universal and lasting peace, but also to pray for the utter surcease of violence. Violence is indeed always a last resort, but the just use of violence is an essential element in keeping the peace in our or any other time. And of course if this world is all that will ever exist, environmentalism, not wise dominion, but the veritable worship of nature on the thesis that is can be so managed as to be eternal, naturally follows.
It is as though the Church has become bored with the promise of eternal life, disinterested in the vision of God, and inattentive, if not impatient of the proposition that we will live forever, either in the presence of God or in the company of fallen angels. The collapse of the historical dimension of Christianity also necessarily affects its psychological and moral levels. In the 1960’s the Church began in a small way to tolerate a program not unlike that which Luther unleashed in the 1520’s, when he sent his missionaries throughout the land, to use his words, liberating consciences (and emptying convents). The point was that God wanted Luther and Lutherans to be comfortable. Let there be no guilt. So now there is not much to be guilty about unless perhaps it is lingering racism or environmental insensitivity. The Catholic faith according to the new secondary religion then exists for selfrealization, and the apology for belief does not present the realistic choice between God and the Devil, but the opportunity for psychological fulfillment, called a fuller life.
The Novus Ordo was always a tender lamb staked out at the edge of the jungle of modernity, and it was bound to be eaten, cast as it was into the teeth of a fully formed and virulent popular culture. The liturgy had always been a protected thing. Ancient liturgical languages, Latin, Greek, and Old Slavonic protected it; chancel screens protected it. The oldest principle in the world is the insight that something was better than something else; that everything is not in fact everything else. This insight lies behind the fact of hierarchy. It is the particular work of modernity to deny that this principle exists except in economic terms—we can always identify and revere the rich. Liturgy now often exists to deny the existence of hierarchy by breaking down every barrier. Laypeople in the chancel, priests in the aisle, the Blessed Sacrament dethroned, asymmetry as a liturgical principle. In this cultural setting, a liturgy in the vernacular was too tempting a target. That the popular culture would invade was to be expected. The mise en scene at Mass is now often full of muted references to a rock concert: the priest holding the microphone and soliciting participation by his tones and gestures, readings from Scripture carefully purged of matter offensive to post-modern ears by ellipsis and translated in ways at once officious and banal, an emotional context established by hymns that borrow their melodies and tonalities from the show tunes of the sixties. God is nice. We are nice. God wants us to be happy.
My argument is that the discomfort of the faithful is caused not by the decrees of the Second Vatican Council, not even by the demise of Latin. Not even by misbehavior in the seminaries. Regrettable as these things are, and important as it is that the Liturgy be restored, they are mere symptoms. At the root of it all is a secondary religion, a religious atheism that knows nothing of the holy fear of God and that like Arianism will continue to infect and weaken. Until that secondary religion is identified and repudiated, changing the personnel will not help. Not even changing the liturgy will be decisive, although the Latin liturgy is to be cherished. The saying lex orandi, lex credendi (the rule of prayer is the rule of faith) may express a certain kind of truth, but the liturgy, taken as the rule of prayer can only express our faith. For a cardinal example of the inability of the liturgy to stabilize faith without dogma, one might consider the fate of Anglicans, among whom it was thought that Cranmer’s elegant English would obviate intellectual and moral failure.
But the difficulty lies deeper than the liturgy. Religious atheism must be identified, repented, and abandoned. Probably the place to begin is the seminaries. These institutions are various, but typically the curriculum is overmuch about sensitivity, social melioration, and minority cultures and deference to secular scholarship, all legitimate considerations, but considerations that lie at the edge of the faith and are hardly what candidates need most. Given the instruction available in some places, graduates may be forgiven for thinking St. Augustine a kind of grass and Aquinas a mutual fund. Until seminarians know Scripture not as a problem but as a solution and the Fathers as living voices, things are not likely to improve.
Should one leave the communion of the Catholic Church because highly religious atheism possesses much of the imaginal and moral territory? It has always been easy to be disappointed that the Church is a field with many thorns, disappointed that the truth has often existed in a thicket of confusion, although our Lord specifically warned us of these things: It is easy to be disappointed that the promise of personal holiness (though that has been a gift in recent centuries) was never made to the successors of Peter, only the promise that Peter’s authority is the authority of God. And it is important to remember that we have been here before. The Christian Middle Ages, East and West, sprang to life from the ashes of the end of the Empire. The Catholic Revival was born out of the desiccated religion of the Enlightenment. God is capable of making all things new. And the bark of Peter will not sink, ever.