The Monumental Showdown Draws Ever Nearer
November 2003By Dale Vree
Two interesting books, one by a liberal Catholic and one by a traditional Catholic, appeared this past summer. In A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America, liberal Catholic Peter Steinfels, a former Editor of Commonweal, addresses the dramatic decline, both quantitatively and qualitatively, in the U.S. Catholic Church. But Steinfels just cannot face up to the fact that the decline occurred when people such as himself have pretty much been running the American Church. Steinfels, in spite of himself, essentially wants to keep going down the same old slippery slope. He seems to be saying that if only the Church can get in sync with the feminist/sexual revolution thats overtaken Western culture, everything will work out fine. Of course, those Protestant Churches that have already done so are in steeper decline than even the Catholic Church.
Before getting to the book by the traditional Catholic, lets consider the response to Steinfels by a moderate Catholic. Writing in Our Sunday Visitor (Aug. 24), Russell Shaw notes that Steinfels is a great fan of the late Cardinal Bernardins Common Ground Initiative (CGI), which, according to Steinfels, is an invitation to restore constructive discussion between conservative and liberal factions. (You notice how Steinfels sees those standing with the Magisterium as constituting only a faction.) While Shaw allows that the CGI has faced opposition, he says the following about the CGIs desire to bring conservative and liberal Catholics into dialogue: Who could possibly be against that? We would remind Shaw that dialogue between the orthodox and the dissenters only legitimizes the illegitimate. All the dissenters want (for now) is to place already settled matters up for free-for-all discussion, thereby undermining the Magisterium and further disorienting the faithful.
While Shaw accepts the premises of the CGI, he says that Catholics need more than discussion . Coexistence and dialogue arent enough (italics added). (Of course, coexistence between Catholics and dissenters who are really Protestants is impossible, as the Anglican experience has amply demonstrated.) So what more do we need according to Shaw? We need a Church in which ecclesiological realities like the mystical body of Christ, the people of God, and communio are taken seriously; in which every Catholics personal role in continuing Christs work is recognized and valued especially by him or her. Of course, this is just gobbledygook its typical Anglican bafflegab that can mean anything you want it to.
Finishing his prescription, Shaw says, We need a Church in which much of the institutional baggage burdening Peters bark gets thrown overboard. What does he mean? Shaw wrote an article in Crisis magazine (May 2002) saying that he favors substantially strengthening the bishops hand, meaning even more episcopal collegiality at the expense of papal authority. In a letter, John A. McFarland wrote to complain (Crisis, Jul.-Aug. 2002) that Shaw is implicitly serving notice on those of us who are still resisting [the liberals] that the war is over and lost and that wed better get used to a decentralized, democratic, pluralistic, latitudinarian Church . In the same issue of Crisis, Shaw replied dismissively, and did not deny that what McFarland said was Shaws intent was indeed his intent. Now you understand why one wag has said that a moderate is just a liberal in slow motion.
Now lets discuss the second book: Vicars of Christ: A History of the Popes by Charles A. Coulombe (Citadel Press; 800-221-2647). The book is dedicated to Pope John Paul II and two others. The last chapter is on John Paul, and it's sobering. (As we write this, late news has come from the Cardinal of Vienna that John Paul is dying and is approaching the last days and months of his life. But John Paul has outlived previous such predictions, and so we don't feel it's time to write a eulogy.) Coulombe notes that occasionally, such figures as Fathers Charles Curran or Hans Kueng were lightly disciplined. Coulombe speaks of the strange duality that would dominate John Pauls pontificate: On the one hand, he would insist on traditional moral teaching . At the same time, he refused to discipline even bishops and cardinals who openly dissented from Church teaching. (We know of only one bishop in the 25 years of John Pauls pontificate who was clearly disciplined, Jacques Gaillot of Evreaux, France. A darling of the French media, he went out of his way to promote contraception, the abortion pill, priestesses, and homosexual marriage, and he even blessed a union between two homosexuals. The great majority of dissenting bishops are not that reckless. Theyd rather sabotage Catholic teaching than attack it head-on. Still, it took 10 years for the Vatican to get around to sacking Gaillot.)
The result of this strange duality, says Coulombe, has been that for all practical purposes, John Paul has precisely the amount of authority over a given diocese that the local bishop chooses to give him, and no more. The generality of prelates in the developed countries are titularists, giving the pope a primacy of honor, but nothing more. This anomalous situation has subsisted for several decades .
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