Thursday, April 21, 2005

The enemy of many influential fashions

G.K. Chesterton I've been thinking about some of the negative reaction to the new Pope, B16. Not about what people who are not Catholic and know almost nothing about the church, but about those who are within the church and are feeling frustrated. I'm not sure what particular thing has set off Sinister Thoughts' Greg, who is not only a Catholic but a friendly left leaning reader of mine. I probably don't have a lot of those, so I'll try and reach a bit here. It's not really pleasant to hear about this kind of distress. It doesn't fill me with the urge to yell, Homer Simpson like, "in yer face!" In response to Greg's post, I understand that Hans Kung was taken down a peg, probably by Ratzinger (albeit perhaps at a distance), for teaching what was deemed to be too far beyond the pale of what is considered acceptable for a Catholic theologian. Kung is still a Catholic, however. He wasn't excommunicated. Under John Paul's "authoritarian" reign only one person was excommunicated, and it was not for being too creative. It was not for being too far left. It was Micheal Lefebvre, who founded the very, very traditionalist Society of Saint Pious X. Lefebvre was excommunicated for consecrating Bishops without the consent of Rome. The Society disputes it, but, in any case, one can see that if it was true, it is a very serious charge. Ratzinger, being close to JPII, was probably not too far off in his thinking on cases like these. Kung was perilously close, IMHO, to crossing the line. What Kung disputed was the authority of the Papacy itself. No small potatoes, that. If JPII and B16 really were as reactionary as people like Kung claim, why did SSPX get the boot while he (and others) did not? SSPX would be precisely the kind of order that a reactionary would love to have at his side. I suggest that in both cases the issue was respect for the Papacy and, more importantly, what it is there to protect. SSPX went further than Kung did, and actually did a very untraditional thing. Kung can still take communion and can still teach. He is still a Catholic priest. Why would a reactionary allow that? [Better question: why is Kung still so annoyed about it? He got off very lightly) What the Vatican is, and the Papacy in particular is, is a protector of the deposit of faith. By its very nature, it exists to keep a lid on certain kinds of "liberty." I use the scare quotes because as the church sees it, the things it protects against have nothing whatever to do with liberty. There is room for discussion and experimentation, but that room is not infinite. The church - and JPII and B16 - are not trying to drag us back to some forgotten age, like a reactionary would. They simply assert the existence of the deposit of faith, and attempt to carry it forward for the benefit of future generations. One of my favourite authors, G.K. Chesterton, puts it like this in short essay he wrote called "Why I am a Catholic":
in the modern world, the Catholic Church is in fact the enemy of many influential fashions; most of which still claim to be new, though many of them are beginning to be a little stale. In other words, in so far as he [a critic] meant that the Church often attacks what the world at any given moment supports, he was perfectly right. The Church does often set herself against the fashion of this world that passes away; and she has experience enough to know how very rapidly it does pass away. But to understand exactly what is involved, it is necessary to take a rather larger view and consider the ultimate nature of the ideas in question, to consider, so to speak, the idea of the idea. Nine out of ten of what we call new ideas are simply old mistakes. The Catholic Church has for one of her chief duties that of preventing people from making those old mistakes; from making them over and over again forever, as people always do if they are left to themselves. The truth about the Catholic attitude towards heresy, or as some would say, towards liberty, can best be expressed perhaps by the metaphor of a map. The Catholic Church carries a sort of map of the mind which looks like the map of a maze, but which is in fact a guide to the maze. It has been compiled from knowledge which, even considered as human knowledge, is quite without any human parallel. There is no other case of one continuous intelligent institution that has been thinking about thinking for two thousand years. Its experience naturally covers nearly all experiences; and especially nearly all errors. The result is a map in which all the blind alleys and bad roads are clearly marked, all the ways that have been shown to be worthless by the best of all evidence: the evidence of those who have gone down them. On this map of the mind the errors are marked as exceptions. The greater part of it consists of playgrounds and happy hunting-fields, where the mind may have as much liberty as it likes; not to mention any number of intellectual battle-fields in which the battle is indefinitely open and undecided. But it does definitely take the responsibility of marking certain roads as leading nowhere or leading to destruction, to a blank wall, or a sheer precipice. By this means, it does prevent men from wasting their time or losing their lives upon paths that have been found futile or disastrous again and again in the past, but which might otherwise entrap travelers again and again in the future. The Church does make herself responsible for warning her people against these; and upon these the real issue of the case depends. She does dogmatically defend humanity from its worst foes, those hoary and horrible and devouring monsters of the old mistakes. Now all these false issues have a way of looking quite fresh, especially to a fresh generation.
I expect B16 will deal with weak teaching somewhat more forcefully than JPII. That isn't saying a lot, necessarily. JPII excommunicated one person / group in what? Twenty six years? B16 will want to make sure that the next generation gets the straight goods better than you or I got them. He'll want to continue to clarify Vatican II. He is one of the few remaining people who had a lot of input into that. He will want to heal the misunderstandings that still linger over that - interesting details here. In writing all this I don't want to appear as a wise and saintly know it all. That would be pretty far off the mark. I find some things difficult as well, but I have managed to reach a point where I'm prepared to say that when I clash with this 2,000 year old map, I would not be surprised to find out that I am the one who is wrong. I would say that even if I thought Apostolic succession was a bunch of baloney. If I felt there was something to it (and anyone who wants to be boldly Catholic in their heart probably should), I would know I was in the wrong. The only way that could not be, would be if Jesus Christ told me something he neglected to tell the Pope. I hope there might be something helpful in all of that. I know sin and heresy can be really convincing and attractive, but to make sense of this institution one has to look way downfield. Way, way downfield. And it isn't easy- it really isn't.

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