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Digging Himself in Deeper

It’s amusing when people try to explain what they really meant and only make it worse for themselves. George Sim Johnston produced a piece of Soviet-style propaganda about the glories of Vatican II in Crisis magazine (“Open Windows: Why Vatican II Was Necessary,” March), which many orthodox Catholics readily saw through. He got raked over the coals in the letters section of Crisis (May). And in the NOR he was critiqued in a New Oxford Note and in an article by Alice von Hildebrand.

Johnston tries to explain himself in “After the Council: Living Vatican II” (Crisis, Jul.-Aug.), but only digs himself in deeper. Says he: Vatican II “was a call to Catholics to break from their harness of legalism and externalism. To stop compartmentalizing their religion and risk a transformation in grace.” Apparently, the grace of Confession and the Eucharist are insufficiently transforming; that probably explains why almost nobody goes to Confession and why Mass attendance is way down since Vatican II.

Says Johnston: Vatican II “suggested that the more fruitful line of questioning is not, What is prohibited? or, What is required? but rather, What sort of person am I to be? And it proposed the Person of Christ as the answer. Only after absorbing this truth can we fully comprehend why it is we follow His commandments, which otherwise can be a joyless burden.” What exactly this means is obscure. But Johnston obviously doesn’t realize that people need prohibitions and requirements. However, he probably does realize that people are all too happy to be rid of them. Are Christ’s commandments, and His Church’s commandments, a “joyless burden”? Sure, sometimes. Do all devout Catholics go joyfully to every Holy Day of Obligation; do they joyfully crucify their worldly spirit all the time? The Catholic life is much more than fun and games; it requires discipline, sometimes with gritted teeth. Jesus said, “And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me” (Mt. 10:38). Why do so many Catholics think He was kidding? If you saw The Passion of the Christ, you would certainly understand that Christ’s cross was a “joyless burden,” to put it mildly. Is Catholicism now to be fun, fun, fun? That’s what many Catholics expect nowadays. Maybe that explains why we have so many happy-clappy, funny-money parishes.

Johnston says: “The Second Vatican Council was a call to full spiritual maturity. It was a time to take off the training wheels…. The pre-Vatican II Church…wasn’t spiritually creative. The [Second Vatican] council…focused on the human person, rather than on dogmatic truths about the divine order….” Ah, yes, Catholicism isn’t really about God, it’s about me, me, me.

Says Johnston: “Sts. Paul and Augustine taught that the fruit of Christian conversion is a new freedom wherein the rules (important as they are) hardly matter. This is the only possible meaning of Augustine’s ‘Love God and do what you will.’ But this was not the message of Tridentine Catholicism, and…[in the post-Vatican II Church] not since Augustine has there been so much emphasis in sound Catholic theology on personal freedom…. Complaints about the Church are mainly about its moral teachings, which are perceived as putting a lid on everyone’s freedom. This problem isn’t going to be solved by a further insistence on the rules, but rather by a call to holiness and a positive vision of the human person and the uses of his freedom.” Well, how wonderfully in step with the Spirit of the Times! “No rules” is the cry of postmodern man. It’s so, so easy to “love God and do what you will.”

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