Rome Under Siege
November 1996By Dale Vree
Over the last half-dozen years, the New Oxford Review has undergone some changes in emphasis. We've paid less attention to political and economic issues, and more attention to moral and cultural issues, and the divisions in the Catholic Church. Why? Because the issues that confront us have changed dramatically.
For example: Because of the end of the cold war, the possibility of worldwide nuclear war has diminished precipitously, and the issue of the morality of nuclear weapons has faded.
Also: It has been a characteristic of Catholic social thought in this century to explore the possibilities of some "third way" beyond liberal capitalism and Marxism. As long as a second way existed (Marxism), it seemed plausible that there could be a third. But with the collapse of the second way, the search for some third way has become quixotic and quite academic. This is not to say liberal capitalism is beyond question. If you think it is, you haven't heeded the papal social encyclicals. But the grand debate about economic "systems" is over, at least for the foreseeable future. The only question left is whether a market economy should be more or less regulated, a question which can quickly become quite technical.
While many political and economic issues have become less engrossing, other issues have become more so. In the mid-1960s a cultural revolution was launched, and, 30 years later, it has emerged triumphant. That revolution is about sex, drugs, abortion, and more, but at bottom it's about the sovereign Self: "I'm going to do and think what I want, and no family or tradition or church is going to stop me." It's radical individualism, folks.
If there's one form of Christianity that is not individualistic, it's Catholicism, which is communitarian, hierarchical, and authoritative. Amazingly, individualism has invaded the Church in a big way. Its name is "Dissent." When you peel away all its sophistries and euphemisms, and look beyond its front men, you see that what it wants is a green light for abortion, homosexual activity, priestesses, divorce, contraception, shacking-up, active euthanasia, heterodox interpretations of doctrine, New Age spins on spirituality, etc. It doesn't want to hear about authoritative teaching or salvation from sin and Hell. Rather, it wants to warble about human potential and self-actualization.
Currently, the forces of dissent are waging a fierce assault on Rome. Why now? Because they sense that the pontificate of John Paul II will soon end, and are positioning themselves to influence the next conclave and set the papacy on a much different course. Their target is John Paul and the kind of bold, politically incorrect papacy he represents. Why? Because such a papacy is the linchpin of resolute resistance to individualism in the Church. Pull out the pin, and Catholics will be able to "do their own thing" in good conscience, much as Anglicans are able to do.
Conversely, it often seems as if the only thing holding back the neo-Modernist tide in the Church is Peter himself, specifically the still strong papacy of John Paul. Thus, Peter is the "bull's eye" of the dissenters' attacks, whether the attacks be frontal or oblique.
In last month's editorial ("The Shot Heard 'Round the World"), we discussed the flagrant dissent of Call to Action and the We Are Church petition campaign. But public criticisms of the muscular papacy of John Paul and/or Catholic teaching are also coming from shockingly high levels in the hierarchy. While those criticisms are usually rather "nuanced," their point is clear and they are, considering their sources, ominous. For example, in March, after the Holy See not only declared the question of women's ordination closed, but pronounced the Catholic position on the subject infallible, Carlo Cardinal Martini, the dissenters' first choice to be the next pope, declared that a third Vatican Council could, and presumably should, "rethink the whole question."
Then in June there was Archbishop John Quinn's speech at Oxford, plus his interview with himself which he released to the press to accompany the speech. Quinn, obviously trying, like Martini, to maneuver an end run around the Pope and his Curia, called for a third Vatican Council in order to "find a way to respond to issues" such as the ordination of women, contraception, the reception of the Sacraments by those who are divorced and remarried outside the Church, freedom for dissenting theologians, and the diminution of papal power and authority. Well, excuse me, but the Church already has responded to those "issues," and has very clear positions on them. Curiously, as historian James Hitchcock noted, Quinn's "vision of the Church seems close to that of Anglicanism."
Why does Quinn want these settled issues opened up? Because, he claims, there's now a "new situation" in the world, characterized by such things as feminism and cultural diversity, which is "comparable to the situation which confronted the primitive church when it abandoned the requirements of the Mosaic law . Quinn's analogy doesn't hold water, for Catholic doctrine and practice are not equivalent to Mosaic law. Nonetheless, what Quinn is apparently doing is searching for a way to make it possible for the Zeitgeist (the temper of the times) to function as a new source of revelation enabling Catholics to "abandon" certain requirements of Catholic doctrine and practice. And this from an Archbishop of the Catholic Church, no less!
Quinn's effort was reinforced on August 12 by Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, who (with the endorsement of seven other bishops, including Archbishop Rembert Weakland, and several priests and laymen, including the Editor of Commonweal) announced the formation of the Catholic Common Ground Project. Our careful reading of the Project's statement of purpose indicates that the purpose of the Project is to place Catholic teaching and dissent from that teaching on the "common ground" of "dialogue," and make certain non-negotiable truths of Catholicism negotiable, a reading shared by numerous other observers. Bernard Cardinal Law, in his critique of the Project's statement, hit the nail on the head when he said that "The Church already has common ground.' It is found in Sacred Scripture and Tradition, and it is mediated to us through the authoritative and binding teaching of the Magisterium," adding that "truth and dissent from truth are not equal ." To be sure, invitations to "dialogue" always sound sweet and reasonable, but, as Cardinal Law incisively noted, "Dialogue as a pastoral effort to assist in a fuller appropriation of the truth is laudable [but] dialogue as a way to mediate between truth and dissent is deception."
The maneuvers of Quinn and the Common Ground Project are quite similar to the machinations of some 40 American bishops, led by Weakland, of about a year ago. The "Gang of 40," as they came to be known, were whining for an emasculated papacy and an opening up of settled issues. The NOR -- not in the habit of commenting on such ecclesiastical infighting -- presented an editorial in its September 1995 issue entitled "Down the Old Schism Trail," critiquing the manifesto of the Gang of 40 for being "basically Anglican in tone, not Roman Catholic." And, boy, did we learn something from the response to our editorial!
The reaction was unprecedented. Some reactions were of course negative (e.g., Weakland told us about his hurt feelings), but the vast majority were positive -- even passionately and spectacularly so. We received far more letters than we could possibly print, donations poured in, and to this day we are still receiving thanks and commendations for "Down the Old Schism Trail." Vox populi!
Obviously we touched, albeit rather inadvertently, a raw nerve. Lots of good loyal Catholics are hugely worried that the Church is coming unglued, that there are those in the hierarchy who want to take the Church in the direction of modern Anglicanism, and plan to do so just as soon as John Paul is dead. And the worrying only becomes more intense as we come closer and closer to the end of John Paul's magnificent pontificate. After John Paul, who? what?
No one knows. But orthodox Catholics seem acutely aware that because the Church now seems to be in a state of open civil war, and because the voices of disgruntlement and dissent are becoming more and more brazen and are coming from the higher echelons of the hierarchy, the next pope, whoever he is, will have to deal with a mammoth crisis. If we are blessed with another John Paul II, or with someone like him who is an even tougher disciplinarian, the dissenters will be beside themselves with rage, and their resistance will become even more fierce. On the other hand, if we get a pope who is pleasing to the dissenters, non-negotiable teachings will be up for grabs, the dissenters will go unchecked and run wild, and the orthodox will be pushed and shoved over to the margins.
Either way, as we discussed in last month's editorial, the stage is set for a great showdown. We said in the editorial that "The future of the Catholic Church hangs in the balance," adding that "We who have faith in the Lord's promise that the Gates of Hell will not prevail against the Church -- that the Church can never de-Catholicize herself -- have confidence in the ultimate outcome. But we also know that we are -- or can be -- instruments of the Lord. We must co-operate with His purposes. If we don't, if we just sit on our hands, things can get much, much worse, and many, many more souls -- even those of our children and grandchildren -- can be put in jeopardy." Consequently, we said that the NOR "would like to magnify its witness to orthodoxy at this critical juncture in Church history," and we promised to tell you in this month's editorial how we'd like to do that.
So here's how: by increasing the number of pages in the NOR. Ever since our first issue (Feb. 1977) we've printed 32 pages per issue, 10 times per year, and without deviation. That's not bad, but if you compare the NOR to many other Catholic magazines (which, unlike the NOR, are lavishly endowed), you understand why a complaint we've consistently received is, "But there isn't enough of you, you're so thin!" -- i.e., we have so few pages for a magazine published only 10 times a year. Not that we aspire to be obese, but when you consider that we have to reject about 19 out of 20 article manuscripts sent to us, and many of those 19 are worthy but just didn't "make the cut" because of space limitations, you will realize that you, the reader, are missing out on lots of good informative reading.
But the trick would be to expand without increasing our subscription rates, for increasing prices always drives away subscribers. The last time we raised our rates (in 1985), we lost 30.2 percent of our subscribers. We don't want to do that again! Moreover, raising rates can be financially counter-productive, for the dollars gained "per capita" can be lost -- and then some! -- if the drop in "volume" is too precipitous.
Furthermore, one of our problems over the years has been that the percentage of our subscribers who renew their subscriptions has been below the average for magazines of our type. Why? One obvious reason is that, while our subscription renewal rates are low, the number of pages in the NOR is also low. From a sheerly economic viewpoint no one would call the NOR a "great buy" or a "bargain." So, we'd like to give people more for their money -- and not just because we're nice -- but because if we do, the percentage of our subscribers who renew should go up, and with it, our circulation.
That's what we mean by "magnifying" the witness of the NOR: more solid discussion of the challenges facing orthodox Catholics by means of more pages, and more readers! And to be able to expand without raising subscription rates, we need donations.
Let's say we increase the size of the NOR. That means our postal bill and printer's bill will increase. But what about manpower? Take a look at our masthead: The Contributing Editors are purely honorary. Our two Assistant Editors proofread each issue of the NOR, a very part-time job. Our Assistant Managing Editor works about two-thirds time: She handles typesetting, layout, updating the mailing list, and a host of other chores. The Associate Editor, who is located hundreds of miles south of here, handles book reviews and unsolicited manuscripts, and on a part-time basis. The Managing Editor handles the tedious "business side" of the magazine, and 101 other tasks.
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Let's assume we add 16 pages to the NOR: To hire a qualified assistant, pay the higher postal and printing bills, and take on the many other related costs, we need to raise at least $57,000 to cover the expenses for a year. And don't worry: The NOR would remain as it is -- no glossy paper, no glitzy graphics, no full-color ads, no eye candy, no feel-good bubblies. Most people think you improve a magazine by jazzing it up cosmetically. We don't. We would remain a no-frills magazine. The only change: more substance.
You may ask: If we need that much money to cover expansion over the course of one year, won't we need that sum again for the following year? We don't think so, and here's why: If we give our subscribers more for their money, the percentage of subscribers who renew should go up, and the money needed in future years should be on hand. No, this is not "voodoo economics." It's old-fashioned investment. Yes, there's risk, but we expect that after the initial investment the additional costs in subsequent years would pay for themselves. And we say this from experience. Over the past two-and-a-half years we've managed to increase the percentage of subscribers who renew by 32 percentage points. The positive impact on our bottom line has gradually become noticeable, so noticeable that we are now in a position to think about expanding the NOR. Heretofore, we couldn't even contemplate it. But the percentage of subscribers who renew still isn't what it could be, and so there's plenty of room for improvement. If we increase the percentage of subscribers who renew by 24 percentage points by the end of the first year of expansion, we should be home free, you'll have a bigger NOR, and the forces of orthodoxy will have a more formidable NOR.
Please be clear that we don't seek expansion for its own sake. It would be a huge undertaking for us, involving much reorganization. The only reason for doing it is to give more oomph to the orthodox cause at this crossroads in Church history.
Curiously, there's a side of us which wouldn't mind if you choose not to take this fund appeal too seriously. (Saying this is not the way to do fundraising, we know!) For if we mount the ramparts in a big way, we're going to have to pay even more attention to not only ecclesiology, theology, apologetics, and Church history, but "ecclesiastical politics," one of the most disedifying things under the sun, we know! Before the NOR became Roman Catholic (in 1983), we were Anglican. We witnessed church politics up close. Charity and humility are often the first victims. Our only consolation is that we are fully aware of the spiritual dangers.
One reason it was such an immense relief to become Roman Catholic was that we were able to leave behind in-the-trenches ecclesiastical politics, and focus on loftier subjects. But the forces of the Zeitgeist that broke down the walls of Canterbury, and quickly overran it, are now firing big cannonballs at the walls of Rome. What we expected to be a safe haven has turned out to be an Eternal City under siege. No doubt this is a major reason why we in particular are so alarmed by those who want Rome to go the way of Canterbury. We've been there, done that -- and we don't want to be there, do that, again. The tale of Canterbury is the tale of the Zeitgeist triumphant.
So we confess that we'd prefer to leave the heavy-duty defense of Rome to others, let others deal with the incoming cannonballs and their destructive effects. But we pray, as you do, "not our will, oh Lord, but thine." Not a soothing prayer! What is the Lord's will for the NOR? Not a question easily answered. So, we look for a sign, one that will either enable or not enable. We look for a kind of sensus fidelium, a verdict from faithful NOR readers. If you want us to go forward with the plan, we'll need to raise at least $57,000 by January 31 (a much larger sum than we've ever raised in one stretch), and you will need to dig down deeper than you ever have before on behalf of the NOR. On the other hand, if we don't raise that sum, we won't go forward, and the moneys raised will go to paying bills and intensifying our search for new subscribers by the tried-and-true methods we've been using for almost 20 years. Either way, the NOR's witness will be strengthened. We will of course let you know in a future issue what your collective verdict is.
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